Chapter 1: Peonies for Bashfulness
Aaron was an unimposing man. Dressed in the robes of the desert nomads, skin roughened by years in the sun, greying at the temples, one hand raised to shield his eyes from the late morning light.
The wings were impressive. If a person had the eyes to see them.
Aziraphale had sort of heard something was happening. That God had chosen to speak to someone, have a mortal do divine work. He had shown up in the shallows of the Nile, letting the gentle waves carry his boat among the fishermen and ferriers. It seemed prudent to see this new prophet and decide if the rumours were true or if it was just another bag of hot air. He might have expected an angel in disguise.
But those wings… Not the wings of an ordinary angel. Not even an archangel. Not something that should be able to be stuffed into a corporeal body easily and besides he knew all the real higher ups by face. He blinked, trying to get a better view across the way. Burnished gold and red feathers spread wide, then another pair unfurled, and another. The right hand seemed to hold both staff and kopesh at the same time.
A stray undercurrent urged his boat closer for a better look. He squinted against the light. Surely it was no one he knew. Those wings almost looked like…
On the docks that spread out like spiderwebs along the bank Aaron stepped forward, awaiting Pharaoh's passing and from behind him the angel stepped forward.
Aziraphale’s body worked against him in movements, his eyes slowly showing him what he was really seeing, his heartbeat manifesting itself in his ears, his limbs involuntarily hauling him backwards. Fear took him like a smothering flood, choking him.
She could have been any wealthy Egyptian woman, if she folded up her blood-soaked wings and set down her glistening kopesh. Hair curled and styled tightly, tunic so fine and sheer it might have been spider silk, she set one hand on the prophet’s shoulder and reached up on tiptoes to whisper in his ear.
Aziraphale couldn’t think, couldn’t move, two truths settling in him so bone-deep that they didn’t need words to express themselves.
First, he Knew, drifting past a seraph in the act of her duties, that he shouldn’t have come to Egypt.
And second, he Knew that he had to get out of the water.
A miracle, any miracle – a stray tidal wave, a larger boat knocking him to the shore, something, anything to get him moving fast and yet he didn’t dare. Didn’t dare attract attention. A human might think nothing of the miracle but if the seraph noticed him it didn’t bear thinking about.
So Aaron raised his staff and beside him Samael, the Scourge, the Sword, the Executioner, raised her kopesh.
Both weapons came down as one.
And Aziraphale could only sit paralysed as the river around him turned to blood.
Crowley was smarter than himself, he was sure of it.
He had to be nowadays, no choice left. Reporting to hell had never really needed a work ethic, per se, but it’d been something to do. Something to keep the snake inside him entertained, a bit of an outlet for the demonic energy that came with the set of crispy wings and the hole through the chest. What else was he going to do with his Thursdays if he wasn’t bringing down the mobile phone network? He was going to bother an angel, that’s what. It was good to have a project. Kept the mind sharp in retirement. But if it was a project he wanted to come out alright then he was going to have to be so, so much smarter than himself.
That’s what he told himself as he stood in front of the plastic pop-up flower stand just down the street from the bookshop. He hadn’t meant to go there, he’d just parked down the street and was walking past and now his feet were not moving anymore and his eyes were full of pale pink peonies wrapped in garish paper, three pounds a bunch.
Aziraphale would smile. He’d smile like sunshine. That would be their interaction, their exchange – one bunch of flowers for one blinding smile. A smile for that bunch and a brighter smile for the next bunch, the bookshop eventually overflowing with powdery pink peonies kept alive like they had roots, cherished gifts not allowed to die. And in the centre of it his angel demurring prettily.
Go on, the snake inside goaded him. It’s just flowers. He’ll be so lovely for you.
His fingers twitched toward the flowers and he was overcome with the urge to slap his own hand down for misbehaving.
He walked past the flower stand.
You go too fast for me.
Wasn’t the Bentley he’d been talking about. Wasn’t even the… whatever. The smiles and the pet names and books in ruined churches. It was him. Anthony J. Crowley: Too Fast. Of course he was too much, too fast, too everything.
This snake that had always lived in his head, in his gut, that had sent him plummeting in the first place, it was always going to be too much for Aziraphale. The only way he could win this one was to strangle that snake and not let it ruin things for him. He was happy with how things were, he could be that guy that was just levelheaded and happy and not Too Much. He could walk at Aziraphale's speed, it was worth doing.
So he squeezed through the bookshop door empty handed – half jammed shut with books as it was – and slumped down onto a couch in the sun. Nothing to embarrass his angel, to put him on guard. Just a snake in the sun in his bookshop. He reached out for the cup of tea that always spontaneously occurred in this place and took a sip. Chamomile. Not bad.
Aziraphale dropped one corner of his newspaper, the corner of his mouth quirking upwards. Not a favourite smile but he’d take it. “Afternoon, dear.”
Crowley made a general sort of noise in response.
That won him a slightly more endearing smile. “Not up to any mischief then, I take it?”
“Mmph,” Crowley shrugged. “No fun without someone around to thwart me.”
It was hard enough to make any indent on humans sending themselves straight to hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, but with no one even wanting a made-up report about it there was hardly a point.
“Well, let me know your schedule and I’ll make time.”
A grin sprung to Crowley’s face of its own accord, his cheeks hurting from the smile he just couldn’t help. Sod the bunches of peonies. If he could only be as unintentionally, off-handedly funny as his angel he’d never go hungry for his smiles. “I’ll share my google calendar.”
“No need to be smarmy.” The words lacked any bite and Aziraphale was avoiding his eyes. Not in the bad way, in a way that made an egg timer in Crowley’s brain go bing!
Heads up, look alive. The angel wanted something.
“Anything interesting in the paper?” he asked casually.
“As a matter of fact...” Aziraphale paused and Crowley knew this would be good. Something he could really sink his teeth into, put on a big show of reluctance, make the angel all but beg. Make it something he had to ask for all out in the open and then be so pleased and cherished when Crowley indulged him.
“Spit it out,” Crowley said.
“The Sandford village fete. It’s on this weekend.”
“A village fete?” Crowley arched an eyebrow in disdain. “What sort of newspapers are you reading? Aren’t there… wars going on or something?”
“It’s not just a village fete. The gardeners at Sandford village have won national awards four years running in every category. Their peonies are particularly delightful. I should like to see the flower show.”
I knew it . Vindicated, Crowley shrugged. He just had to draw it out a little more. “You should go then.”
The puppy-dog eyes made their appearance and he knew he’d won. “It wouldn’t be as fun alone.”
They could drive up in the Bentley, he’d get them a room for the weekend, they could spend the day shopping for little jams and cakes and second hand books, whatever took the angel’s fancy. And what could be more natural, then, than getting him a souvenir? He’d drive him back to London with arms stuffed full of peonies, beaming and radiant and happy. No snake involved. A pace he’d set all on his own.
“Myeh, church fetes aren’t really my scene, angel.”
Aziraphale pouted so delicately, so pointedly, so sweetly. Heaven had not made angels to be easy to deny. “But I’d like you there with me. I’ll let you choose the movie next week.”
With his most long-suffering sigh Crowley leaned forward. This had to be the angel’s idea, all his idea, he had to insist on it or this was going to spin out of control. “I get to choose the movie and you’re bringing the snacks.”
And there it was. Aziraphale’s whole body relaxed, his beautiful face lighting up, newspaper forgotten in his lap. “Really? You’ll come?”
“Beats another Saturday on the couch. Barely.”
Kiss him , the snake whispered. Don’t you see how he adores you?
He could, he could, in that moment he could. He could stride over there, yank his angel into his arms and kiss him. Tell him that finding him the most perfect peonies in England had been the plan before he’d ever mentioned it and he could have weekends away anywhere he liked and just kiss him senseless.
Instead he took a long, disinterested swig of his chamomile.
One day, if he just played his cards right, Crowley was certain the angel would be comfortable asking for what he wanted, knowing the answer would be yes long before the pouting came into play. One day he’d be alright with the answer being yes.
His imagination presented him with the scene. He’d just show him the article in the paper with a smile and a flourish. Think of the flowers, Crowley. And Crowley would take his hand and kiss his knuckles. I’ll make the arrangements, angel.
“I’ll make the arrangements then, shall I?” He already had his phone in his hand, looking up B&Bs. (He preferred Samsung because they occasionally exploded, which added a little variety to life. Although no phone of Crowley’s would dare to explode.)
“Thank you,” Aziraphale sighed. Still radiant and happy, lips and cheeks pink as flowers.
He did make the arrangements, some half-decent motel outside the village which miraculously had one room left open the day before the now nation-famous floral event. And he did drive Aziraphale there in the Bentley, spring sunshine bathing him in all his corduroy glory. He had briefly considered if it would be funny to dress for the occasion in his own village-wear, but decided it would sail over the angel’s head so probably wasn’t worth the trouble. So he was just in his jeans and a coat and a scarf and Aziraphale was happy. He was relaxed and he was happy.
They pulled up by the church yard and he was relaxed. The grounds had been used for so little religion and so much titting about that the grass provided more of a slight tingle than a consecrated burn. Now the place swarmed with out-of-style pensioners and too-in-style hipsters, a veritable horde of them milling around under the oak trees, weaving through trestle tables and marquees. His angel looked at his feet but he rested a hand at the small of his back and guided him forward. Even if had burned like the heat of the sun he wouldn’t have said anything.
“Oh look, angel,” he teased, indicating the aged crowd. “You’re finally dressed for the occasion.” And oh, he was so happy.
“So are you,” Aziraphale said with a nod toward the twenty-somethings in skinny jeans sporting potted succulents and ironic t-shirts.
Crowley made some mocking noises but if he was being fair that was a good burn. He shoved his hands in his pockets and trailed behind. He wasn’t leading this expedition.
It was all so quaint. Proper, weapons-grade quaint. Wind chimes, home-made jams, old tea sets, vinyl records that Crowley paused to flip through, all under the watchful eye of middle-aged women. You know the sort, the ones that can’t help but make comments on what a turnout they’re having and how they must not be used to this sort of thing in the city and they’re all just dying to clean off their tables so they can go home and have a brandy and a valium. And Aziraphale seemed determined to meet and greet every last one of them.
It might have been the most tedious thing in the world, except for how the angel kept touching him. When he was done with each stall the angel would turn and grasp Crowley by the elbow and give him a little squeeze. It was nothing, just a quick check in, still got you, ready to move on, and then his hand would vanish. He’d pause somewhere and without even looking wrap one manicured hand around Crowley’s wrist. The crowd around them would be too thick and he’d pull him close to one side to not lose him.
It was heaven.
See, you stupid snake? Your way gets us excommunicated for decades. My way gets us thiiiiis close to holding hands.
The snake in his mind smirked and repeated back: Thiiiiis close.
Crowley frowned. Alright, this was a little pathetic, floating along after Aziraphale on the promise of getting another touch on the elbow. Maybe in his future there might even be some explicit hand-holding. Hot. Didn’t stop him from doing it for another half hour.
Aziraphale stopped at a stall of the most ghastly knitted goods and for the first time actually picked something up rather than just teasing the stall owner. He ran one soft hand over the ugliest scarf Crowley had ever seen. It was a hideous yellow-orange and looked like it had been made by a kindergartener, misshapen and too short.
“You wouldn’t,” Crowley scoffed. “Not even you.”
Aziraphale dug into his pocket and fished out a note, handing it to the woman behind the table. She took it with a delighted smile – probably amazed anyone had bought any of her rubbish – and asked, “Would you like a bag?”
“No, thank you.” Aziraphale nodded in her direction, not quite looking at her.
Crowley was about to object very loudly to the idea of the angel wearing that monstrosity around in public but was cut off when it was looped abruptly around his neck and his angel tied it neatly in place.
“It’s the same colour as your eyes,” Aziraphale said, as some kind of explanation.
Crowley’s voice died in his throat.
Kiss him. The angel’s hands rested in the crooks of both his elbows, their bodies close, so proud of himself. Radiant. He was warmth on a cool spring day, an unshapely orange-yellow scarf now twisted between them. He looked so pleased with himself. With them. With this moment in all of time. Kiss him, kiss him, kiss him.
Crowley couldn’t. Wouldn’t. But what he should have done, which was to make some sarcastic comment and pretend he would only wear this to humour his friend, was also out of reach. He was in that short circuit place where what he wanted and what he needed just collided so completely that all he could do was stammer and look away.
Aziraphale didn’t push him. Just took him by the elbow and kept going, stopping at every single stall no matter what it contained. They looked at awful driftwood clocks and even worse knitted beanies and maybe a few potted plants that Crowley didn’t mind so much.
“Mm,” Aziraphale sighed in satisfaction, almost pressed into his shoulder. “I do so love these little towns and all their surprises.”
He’d wanted this. Exactly this. No use denying it now, pretending that he wanted anything but spending 48 whole hours being blinded by Aziraphale’s happiness. But now it was happening. His angel wasn’t pulling away from him and it hurt and it burned and he had wanted it all so badly for so long.
They were coming up on the central marquee where the crowds were thickest. The flower show wasn’t until tomorrow but a lot of the gardeners had their displays up anyway. They all preened for the visiting flower enthusiasts and photographers, a few journalists for sure. They’d be fluffing the judges before the big event, doling out condescending advice, that sort of thing.
Crowley’s little shell-shocked bubble was impenetrable to it all, every thought and feeling he had wrapped up in the hand in the crook of his elbow. Aziraphale was walking arm-in-arm with him. Close to it. They were touching. The little snake in his brain was suggesting to him what it would feel like to slide a hand around the back of his angel’s neck the moment before he kissed him, how soft the skin and how fluffy the curls.
So it came as a surprise to him when a pamphlet was forcibly shoved into his hands and out of nowhere a very grim young woman was in his face.
“Vaccines save lives,” she said with an intensity that made him lean back. “Learn the facts.”
Crowley stared at her. He had no reply for that. She was already off, her and – now he looked around – a pack of friends trying to pamphlet everyone headed for the flowers. He glanced at Aziraphale. “What’s all that about, do you think?”
Aziraphale shrugged. “Humans. Who ever knows?”
He dropped the glossy pamphlet and let it slip his mind. The little barricade of pamphleteers had been their last obstacle before the main marquee and they were now surrounded by flowers and Aziraphale hadn’t let go of his arm.
And in all of this Crowley could be forgiven for noticing that the flowers around them didn’t perk up as an angel walked by them. Nor did they shrink away from a demon. Tables and racks of brightly coloured blooms, the pride of Sandford, and none of them even seemed to notice creator or destroyer in their midst.
All the flowers noticed were the men in hats that pruned them or the women with gardening gloves and plant misters that tried to arrange them just so. For there were no flowers better loved than the ones here today, and none more nervous with expectations. They had been national champions four years in a row after all. It wouldn’t go to be ruining it now.
It's hard to notice that something isn’t there unless a person is already looking for it. If the hand in the crook of his elbow dropped the loss would be devastating. But the lack of the vague environmental sympathy just wasn’t that high on his list at that moment.
It was going to be a little while longer before Crowley and Aziraphale realised something was wrong.
It was something to watch Aziraphale’s eyes dart over each display in turn, breathing little sighs for particularly beautiful blooms. Aziraphale watched the flowers and Crowley watched Aziraphale. It took some plucking up his courage, maybe one or two more displays than it should have, but Crowley took a steadying breath and lay one hand on Aziraphale’s. It was almost like holding hands.
It gave off the right impression, at least. That the little grapple was reciprocal, that they were here together. Deliberately. This is my friend. I’m here with him. I don’t have to hide him away in a bookshop and dust him off when no one else is looking.
Aziraphale glanced up at the gesture, soft eyes and sunlit face. Happy. For fuck’s sake how could this feel so good and so bad? It was like a colony of moths had taken up residence in his ribcage. Particularly anxious moths that had to burst into activity every time the angel looked at him or tightened his hold on his arm.
He’d waited six thousand years, kept it all in check. But this was the slipperiest slope he’d ever set foot on and as soon as he’d indulged in a few discretionary acts of kindness he was falling face first into pining, tumbling into flirting, about to dislocate is knees on the sharp rocks of intimacy.
Was this really it? What he had waited six thousand years for? A stupid flower show? Aziraphale wasn’t pulling away from him. Maybe… maybe this time he wouldn’t? Maybe they’d hold hands again. Maybe tonight with a bottle of merlot in them he’d finally work up the courage and just kiss him and he wouldn’t pull away.
The very moment he’d thought it he spotted the problem at the flower show.
On the stage, among the real prize village gardeners, a woman fussed with her snapdragons and chatted to a gaggle of young professional types with phones held out to catch her words.
Crowley jerked away from Aziraphale on reflex, jumping to put at least a few feet between them.
She had a bright knitted beanie pulled down over her hair, a hand-rolled cigarette in one hand, a flannel shirt that was a size too small for her. Hair the colour of a house-spider. Hands that moved like… well, spiders. A spider. A very human-shaped spider but a spider nonetheless.
He caught his breath, his body rebelling for just that surprised second before he caught himself. It was fine. It was all fine. He looked over to see the hurt flicker across Aziraphale’s face but he didn’t have time for that right now.
Crowley reached out and gave Aziraphale’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze then let it go. He would fix this. This wouldn’t ruin their day. “Be back.”
A lot of demons would want his head mounted on their wall but that was where demons differed from angels, they didn’t all toe the party line. Some were sadists and some were bumbling idiots and some were spiders who occasionally did some field work and were just native enough to be worth knowing. She wasn’t really that much of a demon anyway, more a bookkeeper. A ferryman, that was the term she liked.
He swaggered up to her table, to her pretty snapdragons and she looked up, gossamer black eyes meeting his own before turning back to the young journalists. She offered them a disarming smile. “I give my garden the same care as I give my children. All natural, safe and healthy. No chemical can replace good old fashioned sunshine. That’s why I grow little winners.”
After a few more trite quotes she dispersed the group and turned her attention back to Crowley.
A little moment hung between them. A moment that would mean the difference between flaming swords and tire irons or catching up for a beer later on.
“You definitely don’t have any children,” he said with an overconfident smirk.
She smiled a terrible, fantastically familiar smile. “Crawly.”
“It’s been a while, Mephistopheles.”
Chapter 2: Wolfsbane for Wariness
Aziraphale picked through the streets. Like most people he had a cloth pressed to his face, balled up for some protection against the stench. It lay over the city like a blanket, a real physical object that seemed to seep into the skin. It was so cloying that he and many others had foregone the bare-chested fashion in favour of wrapping a linen shawl around his shoulders, as if they might never get the smell out of their skin again without some protection.
People were putting on a brave face. A brave, confused face, begging Pharaoh for answers, but in the meantime sweeping the piles of rotting frogs from their homes. Slaves carried them by the basketful to join the rotting fish in the Nile. No fresh water for more than a week, no reprieve from the smell. The fish, the frogs, the blood, the unwashed masses. People were getting on with it the best they could.
No one had died yet.
Aziraphale did his best, offering miracle pockets of sweet air to those looking the most downtrodden, particularly exhausted slaves finding their baskets a little lighter to carry. He walked the narrow, crowded streets, doing what he could, when he could. He couldn’t do much. Couldn’t be seen to be interfering with a seraph.
It was when he was on the verge of passing out, his posey pressed so hard against his face he bruised his lips, that he heard the familiar voice.
“ This is actually the worst place I’ve ever been. And I once visited the sixth circle on a dare.” Crawly was striding toward him, in one hand a ceramic jug of beer, a black kilt marking him as royalty, skin shining bronze under the high sun. People around him shrunk away at the sight of his eyes.
“ Crawly,” Aziraphale greeted.
Crawly glanced at a pile of decaying frog meat as he walked past it and gagged. “Oh, lovely. I heard the Nile had turned to blood and thought that’d be a sight to see but I wasn’t expecting all this. One of yours or one of ours?”
Aziraphale tugged at his fingers nervously, trying to find a strong, confident voice to answer with.
“ Ours.” Close. Stronger than he felt. “Ours, I think. Not… not my department.” He winced at hearing Gabriel’s words come out of his mouth. “It’s all very above board. It’s to convince the Egyptians to free their slaves and prove the Almighty’s power on Earth. Very… very righteous work.”
“ Smelly work.” Crawly place a hand on the wall behind him, leaning in a little too close. Probably just to watch him squirm, he assumed and tried to pretend it wasn’t working. He took a long swig of his beer. “Not you, is it? Too flashy for you.”
Aziraphale looked at his sandals and pressed the posey back against his mouth. “No. One of the seraphim.”
“ Sounds about right.” He pushed off the wall and turned to saunter away. “Wonder what kind of rainbow we’ll get this time.”
“ Nobody has died!” Aziraphale called after him.
Crawly raised his jug in the air and slunk off into the crowds and the stench and the rot, one word following him. “Yet.”
Crowley was beautiful, Aziraphale had decided. Beautiful in motion and repose, all the long smooth lines that charcoal artists loved to sketch. Beautiful slouched on his couch in the bookshop with a glass of wine, beautiful wielding a tire iron and facing down Lucifer himself.
Most beautiful by far with eyes blown wide, a hideous yellow scarf wrapped around his neck, mouth twisted into a strange line as it tried to change from disdain to surprise. Aziraphale had wanted to laugh for the joy of it. His lovely serpent struck dumb in a church yard in Sandford, surrounded by pensioners and farmers in front of a knitted goods stall. He had done that. That was his work.
Ever since the Apocalypse hadn’t happened, Crowley had been leading him forward to some unknown destination. It wasn’t the most comfortable trip and reminded him of riding an elephant down a slope – a series of lurches that seemed to drop the ground out from under him, only to immediately be buoyed back to stability. Lurch! Romantic dinners. That was alright, he enjoyed those. Barely different from what they’d done before. Lurch! Keeping company almost every day. Nerve-wracking but Gabriel was done with his surprise visits, it was safe enough. Lurch! A weekend getaway to the countryside. He was still waiting for that one to settle.
After every gut-dropping step he held his breath, expecting to keep falling. His insides trembled and so did his hands but the elephant didn’t toss him clear. Each time he allowed himself to relax again and moved one step closer to Crowley. Each time he relaxed a little quicker. And he refused to think about the bottom of this slope. It was just too big a step and the elephant would throw him clear off.
This flower show really had been such a good idea, though. He’d had to be a little bit stubborn to get his way on this one but it had been worth it. When he’d warmed to the idea Crowley had pursued it quite single-mindedly. It was all so… so… he couldn’t put his finger on what he was feeling. It made him bold enough for the quick one-two lurch of gifting Crowley a scarf and taking his arm to walk beside him.
He clung to that arm and his heart trembled and it wasn’t so terrible to wait for the upswing to buoy him again.
Not that it got a chance before Crowley rested one firm hand over his and all of a sudden they were walking arm-in-arm like lovers. It was a lot to process. It wasn’t that he didn’t like it, or that it didn’t make his chest bloom with light and his stomach do strange flip-flops. It was just that his heart didn’t like to listen to logic.
Logically heaven had been wrong, about their own sanctity and Crowley’s profanity and everything in between. When the archangels had scoffed at his ideas and his plans (and everything else about him) they had all been so terribly wrong and been humbled back into their place by an eleven-year-old on a defunct airbase in Tadfield. Aziraphale’s instincts had been right, down to the last. It should have vindicated him beyond his wildest dreams, he ought to have been a pillar of confidence. Testing the boundaries of this relationship was fun . With Crowley he was safe and accepted . But his heart wasn’t listening to that, instead getting itself tangled in ever-present fear that squeezed it to bursting with each lurch.
Aziraphale kept himself calm for Crowley. This thing, this whatever-it-was that kept him looking over his shoulder, it was wrong. He had been free of heaven for months now and it was time to be better.
It felt good. More than good. That’s all he needed to know.
So he kept his shoulders relaxed and let anxiety lose its battle with happiness. They had come to a beautiful place, full of the prettiest blossoms and the proud smiles of the people who grew them. He smiled for Crowley and walked with him among the flowers.
His heart didn’t have time to settle itself down before Crowley jerked away from him. It was amazing how quickly a demon could move, two long strides suddenly between them before he could blink. The cool spring air stripped his lingering body heat from Aziraphale’s hands before he could even figure out what had startled Crowley.
The cold fear gripped him again, searching for the danger.
Crowley’s eyes were fixed on the makeshift stage where a perfectly ordinary looking woman was talking to some reporters. True, she looked a little shabbier than some of the other gardeners but nothing about her set him on edge. Maybe… maybe Crowley just knew her and didn’t want to be seen so close to a fusty old angel.
Idiot , he scolded himself for letting the anxiety rise again. That wasn’t how it was. Crowley only knew one kind of person.
Crowley met his eye and took his shoulder in one hand. Something dangerous lurked in his expression, something determined. He wasn’t going to let anything hurt them. “Be back.”
And like that he was gone. The twin beasts of happiness and tension warred again but by now, even in this uncertainty Aziraphale knew which would win. He clasped his hands to keep from fidgeting. Nothing was going to happen to them. They’d fought, they’d won. He didn’t need to watch the meeting like a hawk. Maybe he should have let Crowley alone and gone back to browsing flowers but he didn’t. Couldn’t, perhaps.
The demon sauntered up to the woman and there was some animated body language, carefully casual postures, laughter, cocksure smiles. A demon at a flower show. Well, two demons at a flower show. It was hardly more bizarre than the original conceit of an angel and a demon attending together on a quiet weekend away.
And it was fine. It was a bit of swaggering showmanship going on between the two but no danger present. Aziraphale knew Crowley’s posturing in all its infinite variety and this was showing off in front of a classmate, not intimidating an enemy. It was fine.
Aziraphale stood at his spot, twisting his hands together until Crowley left the other demon with a half a wave and made his way back through the crowds.
“You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin,” Crowley said as he approached.
“Yes, well.” Aziraphale nodded in acknowledgement, choosing not to hear the slightly mocking note. “Was that… was she..?”
“Just a friend, nothing to worry about.” Crowley shrugged.
Aziraphale scoffed. “What friend? You don’t have friends.”
Crowley’s mouth formed an outraged ‘O’ and he spluttered before answering. “ I have friends, angel. Loads of friends. Ol’ Friends McGee, that’s what they call me downstairs. And one of those friends was about to get himself treated to lunch before he decided to be rude.”
“I never knew they called you-”
“They don’t .”
“Are you still treating me?” Aziraphale might have quirked his eyebrow just a little too solicitously.
The little smile he won gave him another jolt of pleasure and fear. Playing at frustration but unable to hide amusement was always the loveliest on Crowley’s face. He held out for a moment longer before giving an exaggerated sigh. “Fine, yes. Let’s go. I need to talk to you about… all that.”
“I should hope so.”
Crowley really did seem relaxed about the demon on the dais so Aziraphale didn’t question him further. Talking over lunch sounded nice. Normal.
He could reach out and take his arm again, if he wanted to. The anxiety of doing the thing wasn’t anything compared to the frazzled nervous mess he felt wondering if he was allowed to do it again. He wasn’t ready to test it. Their pace had picked up, the moment had gone and so he folded his hands together behind his back and didn’t touch anymore.
They walked as friends do, out of the church grounds and along the path lined with bright blue wolfsbane swaying in the wind. The flowers grew along the paths and edged the grounds, spreading out along the nature strips of the village like lit paths for pedestrians to follow. This was such a charming place. Aziraphale had sometimes thought of moving out of London to a little village just like this. A pity they had managed to attract a demon among them. Another demon, that is to say.
There were only three options for eating in the town and all close enough that they left the Bentley where it was and followed the wolfsbane trails on foot. Aziraphale searched for something to say other than the ask about the demon. This was usually so easy. This was his best friend of six thousand years, they’d never had an awkward silence between them. Except, apparently, when every time Aziraphale looked at Crowley he could think of nothing but linking their hands together as they walked. He wanted and feared and wanted and small talk just wasn’t on the cards.
They found a little cafe that seemed inviting and Crowley pulled out a chair for him at one of the tables. Before he had a chance to say anything Crowley was at the counter ordering for both of them. He supposed after six thousand years his tastes were getting predictable. There were only so many things he would order at a charming little village cafe.
When he returned to the table Crowley slung himself into the low chair, long slender fingers finding the table to drum at its glass surface. He glanced out of the window and back at Aziraphale.
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow. “So, are you going to tell me who she was or am I supposed to tease it out of you?”
Crowley opened his mouth, apparently considering being cheeky for a long second, but thought better of it. “Her name is Mephistopheles.”
It’s worth noting that heaven and hell are both large places. Before the Fall heaven had been twenty million angels strong. Crowley and Aziraphale hadn’t met in the Before for the same reason two randomly chosen Tokyo residents probably haven’t met – they were lost in the crowd. Unless they worked at the same company or favoured the same coffee shop or were at the same speed dating night the chances of any two people meeting were vanishingly small. Both Aziraphale and Crowley knew Mephistopheles for the same reason those two Tokyo residents would be able to name whichever politician was involved in the latest sex scandal – it’s good to know important people by sight but it’s impossible to avoid them once they’ve screwed up.
Mephistopheles was not a small name in any room, but in a little village cafe it was almost physically pushing them against the walls.
“Right,” Aziraphale said on an exhale. “Right, so… so your friend there is… is a fallen seraph.”
“Yeah. She’s alright though. We’ve worked together a few times. You know, I do the tempting, she draws up the contract.”
“And it doesn’t concern you that someone of such a high station is on Earth at all? That this might be a portent of something larger?”
“Naaaah,” Crowley drew out the word. “Probably just after someone who likes flowers or something.”
“We should do something to protect these people.”
“No.” Crowley transformed in an instant, his tone serious, stabbing one long finger against the table to make his point. “No, angel, we’re not getting involved.”
“ No . She’s fine. If someone has got her attention I guarantee you they’re already one foot downstairs anyway. She’s not a tempter, she just seals the deal. We don’t have an Antichrist to protect us this time and I’m not losing you over whatever prick she has her sights on.”
A waitress broke the moment to set a cup of tea and a plate of fish and chips in front of him, giving him a disinterested smile. She set down another cup in front of Crowley.
Aziraphale tried to thank her but his breath had been stolen from him and it came out as nothing more than a murmur. He didn’t mean to get emotional, it was just difficult to have Crowley treating him this way all at once. It was exactly what he would have ordered, the best a little place like this would offer. His favourite, here at the lunch Crowley was treating him to after he’d driven all this way just so Aziraphale could see this flower show.
I’m not losing you.
As though he didn’t know, didn’t realise who Aziraphale was. The reject not good enough for heaven but whose sins were so clumsy and unintentional he couldn’t even Fall. Crowley spoke as though he knew but cared anyway.
Aziraphale’s eyes stung. “I feel the same way.”
“Good.” Crowley snagged one of his chips, refusing to look directly at him. “Settled then. Let’s just enjoy the flower show.”
Aziraphale squeezed his quarter lemon over his fish and waited for whatever Crowley was holding back. He used the excuse of eating to catch his breath. One bite, then another, Crowley’s hand resting tense on the table, eyes boring into him. It wasn’t bad food. If nothing else the kind of greasy, salty, warm comfort he needed at this moment.
Crowley drummed his fingers again, glancing back and forth at the other diners. Both of them expected their conversation to be incomprehensible to the humans around them and so they picked up no eavesdroppers.
Aziraphale was halfway through his fish when his patience was rewarded.
“So I’m ducking out tonight. Just for a bit.”
“Just...” Crowley still wouldn’t look at him. “Just for a bit.”
“Mmm,” Aziraphale hummed around a mouthful, sounding as innocuous as possible. “Of course, my dear. I have no follow up questions about that at all.”
That earned him a glare, which was substantially softened by the bright yellow scarf Crowley was still wearing. Aziraphale said nothing, continuing his meal, watching Crowley’s thought process work its way through his posture. He slouched a little more determinedly, rolled his neck, shifted his weight. The words were percolating, it wouldn’t be long before he couldn’t keep them in. He had always been an exceptional liar but had the fatal flaw of wanting to show off how clever he had been.
“I’m meeting her for a beer,” Crowley said.
“And I take it you think you’ll be doing this alone.”
“I know I will be.”
“Out of the question.”
“I’m not letting you near her.”
Aziraphale set his fork down with a clink of finality. “And I am not letting you go alone. She could very well be luring you somewhere to hand you over to hell again. We know our respective head offices won’t leave us alone forever. If she thinks she has the upper hand… I can’t believe you’re even considering this.”
Crowley growled. “She’s the prince of the fourth circle of hell, you can’t just invite yourself round to her place.”
“And yet, I have.”
“No, no, angel, look, she’s not like me. You wouldn’t be safe.”
“Neither are you. We decided, remember? You’re not part of her side anymore, just like me. You shouldn’t be socialising at all.”
Crowley looked away, eyes flitting to his coffee, to the window, to the waitress. “She can help us.”
The food sat abandoned between them. “Help us? With what?”
Crowley glanced meaningfully at the ground, then the ceiling. “They’re not going to leave us alone forever. Unless we do something about it.”
Aziraphale had seen enough public fits of hysteria to not want any part of them. He breathed through his nose, knowing if he opened his mouth no matter what he said it would come out like the shrill wail of a teakettle. Of all the absurd, dangerous, foolhardy things. Crowley couldn’t possibly be thinking of making a deal with the proverbial devil.
I’m not losing you.
There was no point in shrieking his concerns to the cafe at large. A calm, measured discussion of the risks and benefits would be appropriate. Clear and open communication was the key to peace and harmony in any relationship.
“Demon, that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard,” Aziraphale trilled, sounding only slightly like a teakettle. “I will not stand for it!”
Crowley reached over the table and seized his hand in a strong, hot grasp. The shock of it stopped his outrage in its tracks. Crowley took off his sunglasses and placed them on the table in front of him, making eye contact at last. Somehow their hands were moving, fingers intertwining. Aziraphale’s cheeks were on fire, his body overheating at the anchoring physical contact.
The touch felt like more than it was. The cafe seemed to melt away, all his attention turned to the hand in his, skin against skin. Crowley understood. He let the fear and anger bleed away in the intimacy of holding each other this way. He wasn’t reckless in this, he was brilliant, smarter and more imaginative than any other demon, even the princes. This wasn’t a swing in the dark. It was a strategy.
“What if she wants your soul?” Aziraphale asked, voice weak.
“We’re not human, our souls are spoken for. I know how she works, alright?” Crowley’s tone was achingly gentle. He squeezed Aziraphale’s hand. “I can hear what she has to say and if I don’t like it, I can say no. She can’t force me.”
Aziraphale was pinned to his chair. Crowley’s gaze lanced through him, the sweetness in his tone turning his knees to jelly, his thumb rubbed over the back of Aziraphale’s hand. The elephant lurched forward another terrifying step.
“ We can hear what she has to say.”
“I won’t budge on this, I’m sorry, my dear.”
Crowley held his gaze, considering, then eased his hand back. Aziraphale’s stomach fell. Crowley reached into his pocket and withdrew his cellular telephone, making it work with some gesture at the screen.
“What are you doing?” Aziraphale asked.
“Since it’s the 21 st century and I’m not an animal, I’m texting our hostess the change of plans. I can get you one of these, you know. Or will you only use things more than fifty years out of date?”
The elephant buoyed him up again.
“Don’t those things explode?”
“We’re really going for drinks with Mephistopheles tonight?”
“Mel. She’s going by Mel. And yes. All your wildest fantasies at your fingertips for the low, low price of a pound of flesh.”
Aziraphale couldn’t stop the blood rushing to his face when Crowley brought up the notion of wild fantasies. The sort that he was most determinedly not thinking about until he’d settled into the idea of holding hands. He didn’t think Mephistopheles could help him with those. Or could she? Could he wish away his fears as surely as humans wished away the spectres of poverty, of obscurity, of ill health?
Maybe wishing away heaven’s scrutiny was as good as the same thing. After that, surely, the nerves that haunted him would melt and he could just tumble into this, all joy and no fear.
He pulled the rest of his food back toward him, appetite returned. He had practised ignoring heaven’s propaganda about demons. They weren’t all monsters, some of them were just rebellious or offbeat, he had living proof of that sitting across from him. Even one of the princes of hell wasn’t by necessity dangerous, at least not in the context of sharing a drink.
They would have to turn down whatever deal was offered, he was sure of it. Whatever payment she wanted for interfering with both heaven and hell would be severe. But Crowley thought it was worth hearing and he trusted his serpent, so he let his stresses ease a little and kept at his food.
When he’d finished the last bite Crowley nodded to the door. “Let’s get on. They have a travelling sewing machine museum.”
“That sounds ghastly.”
“Doesn’t it?” Crowley stood and extended his hand.
Aziraphale regarded the hand for a moment, preparing himself for the shock, then took it. He let Crowley help him to his feet, twist their hands together and lead him back toward the church grounds.
Chapter 3: Geraniums for Folly
The first death wasn’t from any of the plagues. The same hands that dragged the putrescent animals out of the city also made the food and carried the water. The first death was bloody and disgusting, a flux that left the victim convulsing as their body tried to expel it any way it could. The first of many.
It was on the third plague that his miracles stopped working. He sat in the corner of a somewhat beleaguered senet house, slumped on a cushioned stool against the wall. No one was pretending to be there for the game. They, like Aziraphale, were downing ration after ration of yeasty beer.
Little black specks crawled through the fabric of his kilt, trying to find some purchase on his heavenly skin. At least he was spared this. The air had changed from blood and rot to bile and pus, not a heavy blanket, a sharp slap with every breath in.
“ I am really starting to not like this Moses guy.” Crawly slumped into the seat next to him, a puzzle of long limbs and braided hair to beer-tinged eyes. “And his little miracle-working friend Aaron is also not in my good books.”
He looked so out of place. Everyone had abandoned their shawls again, giving the lice fewer places to hide. Their hair was a mess, their hands constantly moving to scratch their scalps bloody, hair and blood and sweat and constant scratching scratching scratching and here sat Crawly, still like a statue (like a snake), braided hair perfect, skin tanned and unmarked by his fingernails.
“ You have good books?” Aziraphale asked.
“ Figure of speech. I’m headed off tomorrow. Humans are only fun when they’re not scratching or vomiting or shitting themselves to death.”
Aziraphale shrugged in groggy agreement. No point in arguing the truth. He looked miserably at his companion. The humans were leaning into him. What was usually an aura of menace was now… they were scratching less. Not a lot less, but less.
A man in the corner was looking pale. A serving girl was clutching at her gut. Outside the sound of retching. All Aziraphale could do was miracle himself beer after beer. Samael took her orders from only one being and he couldn’t use the Almighty’s powers against Her.
“ Can you..? Could you..?” The half formed questions sat on his lips before he caught up with himself. He swallowed it down and cast his eyes up, as if Gabriel would be hovering there, question in his eyes: Were you about to ask a demon to thwart God’s work?
Amber eyes were on him, intense. The demon leaned closer, slipped into a different posture, refocused all his attention on Aziraphale. The angel shivered as the demon dragged his eyes up and down his form, then back, straight into his eyes, as if he could see right through him, as if he knew what was about to be said.
Crawly considered him for one long moment, silent and intense. Then shook his head. “No.”
The story of Troy was a lot more interesting than the city of Troy. It had a promising start but every fifty years or so it would be taken apart by fire or earthquakes and each time it would be rebuilt a bit less impressive. Eventually what had been planned as a monument to the gods ended up as a shanty town and people just drifted away. It ended with a whimper, not a bang.
But the story! Oh, the story was a different matter entirely. Passed down for two and a half thousand years, the earliest surviving example of western literature and it was a cracker. Love, betrayal, excessive amounts of violence, everything a listener could want, really. Helen of Troy and Achilles in his tent were household names millennia after they rudely did not actually exist.
There’s a part in the story where a priest of Troy warns the city not to bring in the wooden horse the Greeks have left on the beach. It wouldn’t be much of a story if they had listened to him but far from just being ignored the priest is strangled to death by two snakes that come from the sea, silencing his objections. There’s a rather excellent sculpture of the moment called Laocoön and His Sons (who were also strangled for good measure) which depicts the three of them desperately trying to keep the snakes from closing in to crush them.
That was how Crowley felt as he led Aziraphale toward the address Mephistopheles had given him.
He strained against the fucking relentless snake that just wouldn’t let him concentrate on the archdemon he was trying to finesse and instead insisted on presenting him with all the interesting possibilities of the weekend.
A little voice in his ear was already congratulating him on negotiating with the demon prince who was definitely going to give them everything they wanted for a very tolerable sacrifice and the angel who was sure to fall into his arms the moment they were in their motel room.
Hot hand-holding action had been enjoyed on and off through the afternoon, angel had successfully been kept calm and led around a boring pop up museum, and he had a solution to their long-term problems. It would be easy to let this series of events embolden him to move too fast.
He’s always so grateful when you save him. Remember Paris? Remember how he looked at you? Remember the blitz?
He strangled that bastard snake right back, wrestling it down until he could meet Aziraphale’s anxious eyes with a reassuring smirk rather than a trumpeting hoot of his own cleverness and victory.
Mephistopheles’ house was very much keeping with her ‘I have my own meth lab out the back’ vibe, a sort of packaged thing that looked like it had been put together on a budget in the late 80s, front yard bursting with unkempt geraniums. A grey pitbull was chained to a tree in the front, intelligent eyes watching as it gnawed on an old bone.
“Is that a…?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley opened the low wooden gate and gestured him through. “Just a dog.”
The dog perked up, forgetting about the bone, but it stayed where it was as they made their way down the cement path to the door. Crowley ignored it. He had to keep focused, keep his wits about him. He’d never felt sorry for one of Mel’s marks but he’d always felt a little put out at just how good she was at her job. The used car salesman of damnation. She wasn’t letting you walk out of this lot without at least a test drive.
“She’s not like me,” he warned.
“Honestly, dear. You’re the one who thought this was a good idea.”
He should have come alone. This was going to be too much, too fast. The very definition.
Crowley raised his hand to knock on the door, its green paint flaking onto a well-worn doormat. Home Sweet Home.
Be fun. He had to be fun. She remembered him from the height of his disco obsession, when cocaine had been his preferred method of dealing with Aziraphale’s rejection. Hard to be her coke-obsessed party buddy while protecting the angel at all costs. A balancing act. His speciality if he thought about it.
She had been a lot of fun on cocaine.
The door creaked open and he was greeted with Mephistopheles, smiling in that benign, judgey way that only middle aged women could accomplish. Her beanie was discarded leaving frizzy brown hair exposed to the fluorescent light of her living room.
“My lord,” Crowley oozed, bowing slightly. “May I introduce the Principality Aziraphale, Guardian of the Eastern Gate.”
Crowley threw out his arms as if presenting his friend, his hands hovering close, waiting for the angel’s courage to fail in the face of an archdemon. Aziraphale held firm, chin jutted out, polite smile fixed on his face. He looked more comfortable with Mephistopheles than with Gabriel which was a bit of a worry.
Mel raked her eyes up and down the angel, smirking. She spoke in a mid-western American accent that was just the right side of grating. “Nice guarding.”
“Ah,” Aziraphale said with his patented bastard smile that Mel would mistake for bashfulness. “What is it the humans say? ‘Win some, lose some’?”
She snorted out a laugh and stepped aside to let them enter.
Her living room and kitchen were open plan and looked like they had been outfitted by a charity shop, everything twenty years out of fashion but not in Aziraphale’s vintage way, in the get-this-flea-riddled-monstrosity-out-of-my-house way. It was all spattered with crocheted rugs and pottery pieces and avant-garde paintings that might have been produced at the local high school. Whatever she was doing here she was leaning into it.
She ushered them to a green settee covered in magazines and detritus. Crowley moved the stack of papers to the coffee table, catching a glimpse of clip art syringes and more of the big, sloganny pamphlets that had been floating around the fete. Humans trying to do medicine by political rally wasn’t anything particularly new.
The settee was so overstuffed that Crowley lost his balance sinking into it. He and Aziraphale had to wiggle around awkwardly trying to sit like normal people while Mel retrieved an armful of things from the kitchen. The room was tight around them, sounds dampened by cheap carpet and plywood walls that seemed to press in on them.
Crowley caught Aziraphale’s eye as they were mid-wiggle, both trying and failing in their battle against the sofa. A prince of hell was getting them beers. They’d found her at a flower show.
Oh, how ridiculous of God, of luck, of them . The absurdity welled up in his chest, desperate to escape his throat as laughter. He was going into this so unprepared. He’d never been on this side of the coffee table before when Mel collected a soul. She wanted the big souls, the keystone souls that would send hundreds of others toppling after. She was a master craftsman, knew just what vein to touch to bring down the whole archway.
There’s a movie from the 90s that everyone has watched, where the protagonist is a dog or a peewee sports team or a plucky intern. And at the end of that movie, the villain, who is almost certainly a corporate something-or-other gets their comeuppance in the form of being hit in the face with a basketball or a cake or if they’re very unlucky, a taser. Mephistopheles wielded a sliver of the power of God, holding the unique ability to decide which flavour of cake humbled the villain. And when the cake in question was ten million angels and ten million demons coming to put their respective feet up your arse, nuance mattered.
It wouldn't do to curl around the angel, to try to protect their burgeoning whatever from the prying eyes of a creature who saw things. He was broadcasting his weak points, sitting here with his lovely angel on her couch, begging her to take advantage. It could be one hell of a piece of cake she brought down on his head. This was the most important negotiation of his life and here was Crowley spilling his big, messy emotions all over the living room.
The only way out was through and audacity had always been his best feature. If he tried to stop her from seeing how he felt it would be the only thing she would look at.
Crowley grabbed that stupid snake firmly by the neck before it got any ideas about what he was about to do. Then he leaned back and rested one arm on the back of the settee, half an inch from touching Aziraphale's shoulders.
Aziraphale offered him a raised eyebrow, eyes darting to the hand that threatened to brush his shoulder.
Follow my lead , Crowley tried to drill into the angel's head, as if thinking it hard enough would make him telepathic. Aziraphale gave a little nod and in a move that he really wished he'd had time to brace for, brought one hand to rest on Crowley's knee.
The snake won this round. It clobbered him clear across the head with what it thought of the angel's hand on his leg which was just a tiny twitch from being fingertips digging into his thigh .
He was rescued from himself by an archdemon.
She set two bottles of beer down in front of them and then did something so angelic that it pulled Crowley right back out of his own brain and into the living room. She held a plate of biscuits in one hand and as she was putting it on the table she glanced up, looked at Aziraphale, dropped her eyes to his rounded belly and set the biscuits just slightly out of his reach. The whole manoeuvre was over in a split second.
The angel stiffened at his side and Crowley reached out to complete the microaggression, sliding the plate toward Aziraphale before Mel's fingers had even left it. He smirked. “How many eating disorders have you handed out with that little trick?”
Mel smiled brightly as she sat in her own armchair. “Awful, isn't it? I have a friend who does it without even thinking. I sometimes wonder if hell has this whole 'evil' thing on lockdown.”
“Hmm, quite,” Aziraphale said, lifting his beer to his lips. Trying to shake her opening move.
Crowley let his hand fall to the angel's shoulder and squeezed. An answering squeeze to his knee sent a shiver through him.
What an exceptionally good strategy, the snake congratulated him.
“So,” Mel said, looking between them. “Aren't you two just adorable?”
Aziraphale was so pretty at that, even still smarting from her insult he darted a look at Crowley from under his eyelashes. So pleased. 'You two.' She'd bought that they were more confident in this whatever-it-was than they were, which was good. She was comfortable calling a fellow demon adorable, which was not.
“And you're not under orders to bring us in?” Crowley asked, leading her where he needed. “Beelzebub was pretty...”
“I don't take orders from Beelzebub. We are of the same rank,” she said sharply, in the tone of someone who had lost this argument more than once. “But then,” she relaxed back. “That's why you're here. Made a mess of things upstairs and downstairs, haven't you, cuties? Need a bailout like you own a failing bank.”
“Is it possible?” Aziraphale asked. “Can you stay the wrath of heaven and hell? All by yourself? Such a thing seems theologically... improbable.”
“Oh, I can do it. Beelzebub and Gabriel can soften, can see it wasn't your fault, see that you're not a threat to them. You keep out of their way and they won't even remember you exist.” She rolled the bottle between her hands, smiling to herself, black eyes following the glimmer of the brown glass. “Does that sound like what you're looking for?”
The last time they'd worked together was the 1960s. Mel had offered a drug-addled trophy wife her parents' love. They'd see that she was kind, that she was strong, that she was trying her hardest. She'd signed. She'd died of a valium overdose two years later, a smile on her lips.
Crowley had tempted a banker at her funeral, pointed out his schoolboy crush was there, had flicked eyes his way, was still so handsome. Mel had reminded him that it was a hard sort of a world for gay men, even the ones with money. She reminded him they both had wives. But it didn't have to be hard. He'd signed.
And on and on. Souls toppled like dominoes. The proud, the greedy, the desperate.
“Sounds perfect,” Crowley said dryly.
“But what do you want from us?” Aziraphale finished.
The hand on Crowley's knee squeezed. The snake around his neck squeezed. He was a bit too close for comfort to those desperate, greedy people.
Mel looked up from her beer bottle, compound eyes glittering. “Have you told him how it works?”
Crowley shifted, trying to sort out how he could explain the eldritch powers of an archdemon. “She doesn't actually get anything from us it's... it's a shifting around of things. Drop backstage and alter the script but the play has to end the same, you know. See if we can't get a different set of repercussions for the whole Armageddon thing.”
“And what good is that?” The angel asked, frowning in that lovely way of his that just begged to be teased off his face. He was so close, looking at him in this position Crowley could see ever fleck of white in those blue eyes, the little wrinkle between his eyebrows, the soft curls at his hairline.
“Let's find out, shall we?” Mel said. She set her beer on the coffee table with a clink and opened her eyes. All of them. Eight black compound peepers trailed back into hair that was looking more like fur than it had a minute ago. Something in the air dampened and darkened and sucked in around her, a pit in reality. A little seraph, a little demon, a little too close to the surface.
Aziraphale's hands were trembling. The demonic suck of energy wasn't uncomfortable for Crowley but even the sight of Mel's true form would probably singe a few pearly feathers.
“You're just getting off on doing this in front of people,” Crowley accused with a grin. He leaned in and brushed his nose against Aziraphale's temple, disguising the comforting gesture as a lazily affectionate one. “She usually has to do all this from a distance and has no one to admire her.”
The angel released the breath he'd been holding, hand tightening on Crowley's knee.
This is such a good plan , Crowley thought, his nose brushing against the fine hairs at his angel's temple, the scent of his cologne rising from warm skin. Protect him from the big, bad archdemon with a bit of a snuggle.
“Oh, stop it,” Mel chittered with a smug grin, eyes blinking all in sync. “You two are going to give me cavities. Saving the world for each other? Your little face swap? The flowers, Crowley .”
Crowley held tight. Aziraphale's bosses were bastards in their own right, but he wasn't used to the tortures of hell. Sometimes your boss's boss's boss raked through your life and giggled at your hopes and dreams and that's just how it is. It wasn't personal. They'd asked her to do this.
“So let's talk rewrites,” Crowley said, tearing his eyes away.
Mel blew out a breath. “Nothing you'll enjoy.”
“Didn't think we would.”
“But you want to hear it anyway.”
Crowley shrugged and squeezed and refused to think about the half a foot that would pull Aziraphale flush against his side in the name of comfort and protection and by cosy coincidence fulfil about three millennia worth of fantasies. “It's what we came here for.”
She sat back. She watched. She judged. Her eyes flickered. “I could kill one of you?”
“Perfect,” Aziraphale said. “Don't know why we didn't think of it ourselves.”
Crowley smothered a grin behind a swig of beer. Sweet little thing sassing a demon prince. He must have been a sight in a bathtub in hell.
Mel shrugged, apology all over her face. “This is a big one, boys. Most people just want money. You want me messing around with the grey matter of the highest tiers of heaven and hell.”
“So what's the rub of it?” Crowley asked. He inched closer to Aziraphale without meaning to. This was the part where it got creepy. Creepy when it was happening to other people, ghastly, he imagined, when it was happening to him.
Mel's eyes fluttered. She waved a hand over the coffee table in front of them and three pink cups appeared, upside down. They looked like what you might find at a three-year-old's unicorn birthday party. Leaning forward she used her fingertips to rearrange the cups, spinning their order. The pit in the world warped inwards. “Three cups on the table, what you hold dear in life. Your punishment is beneath one of them.
“Cup one.” She lifted one cup to reveal a fresh peony bloom, fluffy and bright. She covered it again. “This is where She put it. Eternity. Time without end, without meaning. You two are facts of this world, not temporary and not transient. This is what you chose to give up when you defied heaven and hell. A bird sharpening its beak on a mountain. The flower stays here and eventually they will come for you. Repossession and all that entails.”
Two fingertips. The cups moved again. Crowley swallowed thickly.
“Cup two.” Pink plastic raised. An empty cup. Fluorescent lights flickered. The cup lowered. “The world. Lovely, clever human people. Gravlax and dill sauce. Frou-frou cocktails with umbrellas in them. Sondheim opening nights. This can be what you chose to give up. The flower goes here and you two go off to the stars. Alpha Centauri. They'll never find you and you will never return. The Earth flourishes or perishes without you.”
The scrape of plastic against varnished wood. Aziraphale's grip on his knee was like iron. Eight eyes stared straight through them.
“Cup three.” Raised. Lowered. Empty. “Each other.”
Crowley wanted to stop her talking but his heart was pounding in his ears and his throat was tight and he couldn't make the words work. He wanted to shout that he knew, he knew that cup and the flower would never be there and please, please don't lay him bare in front of Aziraphale like this.
“Going for picnics. Dining at the Ritz.” Mephistopheles went on without minding his silent plea. “A coin toss you're both rigging and wild, desperate fantasies where you finally, finally win this game and the flowers .” Her voice stuttered as if it was getting sucked into the void she was making. “Your soulmate. This can be what you chose to give up. You can enjoy an eternity of this earth but you will walk it alone. If the flower goes here you will keep your memories, you will keep your arrangement, but you will no longer be in love.”
Mephistopheles gave the cups one more idle twirl then reclaimed her beer and lounged back. The lights returned to their full strength and the world stopped sucking toward the demon prince. She gave a wry smile.
“I told you that you wouldn't like it. But Crawly, we've been friends for so long. I'll let you choose. No charge.”
Crowley came back to himself, to the feeling of an angel plastered to his side, their hands clutched together, heartbeats aligned and it all had nothing to do with fulfilling fantasies. He glanced at Aziraphale. The angel was not happy. From the frown he wore, Crowley was going to be metaphorically sleeping on the couch for a week just for suggesting this.
The two eased away from each other, Crowley keeping his hand clutched on Aziraphale's forearm. A silent promise they'd talk once this was over.
Crowley looked at Mel. “I... W- Ah...”
“We'll have to talk about it, of course,” Aziraphale filled in for him, his voice even.
“Of course,” Mel agreed. She sipped her beer, hesitated for a second, casting glances at both of them. Then reached forward and tapped cup three. The soulmates cup as Crowley thought of it. “This one... I know you're both scared of it, but it wouldn't hurt. It's a philosophical tragedy, but you wouldn't feel a thing. The others... you'll feel it all.”
“I think we need to leave,” Aziraphale said so quickly he almost cut her off.
“Of course, of course, don't let me rush you,” Mel said. “Let's do lunch soon, no business.”
“Yes, quite,” said Aziraphale, rising to his feet and yanking Crowley after him. The demon found himself dragged from the couch, his beer still wobbling on the coffee table from being set down so fast.
Mel rose with them, seeing them to the door.
Aziraphale was out and huffing his way to the Bentley quicker than you could spit and Crowley gave Mel an exasperated look at the door. “You're not the one who has to deal with him after all that.”
She laughed. “You didn't have to bring your pillow princess here.”
“Hmm. Don't call him that.”
Mel raised an eyebrow. A did-you-really-just-give-me-an-order eyebrow. Her good humour melted. “Be careful with him, Crawly.”
“They're not like us.” Her gaze pinned him to the door frame, brought him back here, now. To who she was and what she knew. Her brows drew together, her lips tightened. “You need...” She gestured with one hand, searching for the word. “... blood to love. Not divine mandate.”
Crowley tried to answer. He should have defended Aziraphale right then and there, told her to go stuff herself, his angel loved more and better than anyone in heaven or hell ever could. His angel risked Falling just to be around him, pulled one over on the archangels to be his friend, trusted Crowley so perfectly and completely that it made him trust himself.
But instead he saw behind his eyes a bandstand, a crowded street in Soho. We're not friends. He hadn't meant it. Crowley knew, he knew even as the angel said it that he hadn't meant it. And Mel knew here and now a lifetime away that he had said it because heaven hadn't given him permission to love a demon.
No, they were past that. Weren't they? They were. Weren't they? Aziraphale was letting him touch and... and... and... get lunch together. Go to a flower show. Did Mel know something he didn't? Had she seen something? If she did, did he want to know? No, she was the one who had called it love. Tangible enough to alchemise into immortality, that had to be worth more than an angel's company-issued affections.
She was just messing with him.
“Thanks for the heads up,” he said with a cavalier smile. “But this might be the last time I bring a date to your place.”
He turned from her and headed to where Aziraphale was already standing impatiently by the car. So much for a relaxing weekend away.
Chapter 4: Forsythia for Anticipation
Red-gold wings stretched out in every direction, halos spinning and interlocking like rings within each other.
God’s will. Aziraphale told himself again, again as the kopesh came down. He stood on the city walls, just as he had on the walls of Eden. Stood there and wrung his hands and tried to convince himself he was doing the right thing. Cities had gone through plagues before. It would be a long time before humans would understand hygiene, these wouldn’t be the first or last to die from it.
Samael was a new sun, casting her terrible light. Under her the air writhed, roiled, black masses spreading and growing and billowing.
It always descended on the palace first, where Pharaoh would have to experience it first. But then it spread. The guards on the walls tensed. There was no invading army, before all this they had a peaceful, easy job. The job of men who liked to get home to their families early, who liked to drink beer and play dice. They were the ageing, the bored, soft in the belly and not seeking valour through violence.
The one closest to him started to weep when the black reached them, and looking down at the flies that landed around him on the bricks, Aziraphale wanted to weep as well. The harmless creatures avoided him, letting him keep his dignity while the others swatted and squirmed, tried to protect their faces.
Within days, or maybe hours, every bit of food in the city would be worthless, crawling with maggots.
The Nile ran with water again but few were brave enough to drink the pungent mess. The lice had left their bites. The aftermath of the frogs still lingered. No water, no sleep, no peace and now no food.
It was all part of the plan, he told himself, watching the new red sun. Moses had said that he would show God’s power on Earth. No one would ever disobey Her again, surely. Surely, when the slaves were freed and all were in awe of God this would be worth it. It would. Surely.
The Egyptian guard who had first wept now slumped against the wall, limbs sprawled like a ragdoll, one hand still helplessly clutching his spear. His chest held the pockmarks of some long-gone disease, his fingernails were ragged from the habit of chewing them. The flies swarmed over him and he didn’t swat them. He sobbed like a child.
Aziraphale glanced at Samael who hung impassive above the city, but the sound of the grown man bawling cut through him, even over the sound of the flies. She wasn’t looking, hadn’t seen him yet.
He dove to the man’s side, the aura that kept away the flies enough to protect this single human, and took the man in his arms.
The guard returned the embrace, chest shaking, and buried his face in Aziraphale’s neck. He didn’t seem to know or care who held him. It had been weeks of this now. Soon they would all crumble.
“ My girls,” the guard wept, again and again. “My girls.”
Aziraphale held him back just as tightly.
The Arrangement had always been dangerous. In St James's Park, 1862 Crowley had asked Aziraphale to introduce holy water into the equation, running his blood hot and cold at once, the world an overstimulating blur around them. That Crowley thought a bullet with his own name on it could ever make it all safer was unthinkable. It took him a century to agree. It took him another half century to understand.
The Bentley was overcrowded with Mephistopheles’ shadow as they drove back to the motel – her offer, her words, her promise that separating them wouldn't hurt. Aziraphale ought to be furiously angry. Everything had been so lovely, Crowley had been such a gentleman and he had felt for the first time in six thousand years that he was within reach of breathing easy. Now another time bomb sat between them and the chains around his chest tightened again.
And what she had said. The words that he had held so close, was just working up the courage to open the locks to that box and suddenly it was casually aired. In love. They were in love.
He was in love and the hurt from 1862 welled up like a brand new wound. Too fast, Crowley. Just stay a little, let me get my footing before you plunge ahead. My heart can't take a new war so soon.
Crowley was carefully casual behind the wheel, his mouth set in a thin line, sunglasses revealing nothing. Not pushing, thank heaven, not pushing. It was the posture he'd worn under the bandstand, tense and hurt but getting through. Preparing to be the strong one.
Crowley had, he knew, hurt himself on the jagged rocks of Aziraphale's nerves more times than either of them could count. He had practised his patience and his strength to inhuman proficiency over the millennia in service of being the person Aziraphale needed him to be. As shaken as they both were, Crowley was bracing for a second blow from Aziraphale's temper.
How often Crowley let himself be wounded this way.
Aziraphale swallowed, his lip trembled. He couldn't do this again. If he wanted Crowley to love him like he loved Crowley he couldn't be this image of the angel opposed, the damsel distressed. He couldn't be the angel under heaven's thumb anymore. He had to understand and agree. It couldn't take a century this time.
Crowley pulled them up outside the motel and cut the engine.
A beat passed where neither moved.
Crowley landed the ball of his hand heavy against the steering wheel, the sudden slap making Aziraphale jump. Shoulders set, Crowley sighed, shook his head and opened his mouth to speak.
“Angel, I'm –”
“I miss your long hair,” Aziraphale cut off the apology.
The silence in the small space was too loud. Crowley stared. “What?”
“Your long hair.” Aziraphale fluttered his hands, sketching out the shoulder length hair that had glistened copper in the sun. “Ten years ago. It looked rather fetching.”
Crowley sat watching him for a long moment, sunglasses reflecting Aziraphale's beseeching eyes, then his lips quirked. He fought back the smile but it appeared to be a losing battle and he leaned back to better take on a posture of exaggerated assessment.
“Are you asking me to grow my hair out?”
His peace offering accepted, Aziraphale tried a stronger smile. All his fondness, as much cherishing as he could bear. It was all Crowley's no matter how many times he tried to get himself killed. “No. No, this suits you as well.”
Crowley's mouth twitched, he tried to say something but only a stuttering sound came out and he clamped his mouth shut on a laughing smile. How lovely he could be, how animated and bright even in a pitch dark car. After another aborted attempt to speak he opened the door and stepped out of the car.
Aziraphale collected his thoughts, looking out into the ink black night, then opened his own door. Only to find himself eye level with Crowley's hand, extended to help him out.
He took the proffered hand, fingers twisting together like they'd done this a thousand times, like it didn't send sparks showering under his skin and make all his insides tremble. When he stood between Crowley and the Bentley, their hands linked, he held firm for one mad second. Some deep buried instinct took over, almost saw him tug Crowley forward and live out a well worn fantasy eighty years old, of being pinned to this car and kissed senseless.
A shock of heat struck him in the gut at the thought of that warm body pressed against him, mouths meeting and opening, burning hot, Crowley's hand in his hair. His mind supplied every detail from muscle memory, a thousand idle thoughts played and replayed. Sharp hip under his hand, hopeless breathy sounds, Crowley's insistent mouth, his serpentine tongue.
His eyes flicked to Crowley's mouth of their own accord a split second before he realised how provocative such a thing could be. Crowley hesitated, letting himself be held in place for the space of a heartbeat. His tongue darted out to wet his lips.
“Come on, angel.” Crowley's voice was just this side of uneven. He pulled Aziraphale forward, breaking the spell.
Aziraphale's skin tingled with reminder as he was led forward by the hand. A sudden yearning had taken up residence in his body. How close they were, after so long, to being close. Physically and in all the other ways. They might get to their room, close the door behind and spend the night making a study of each other, like forbidden lovers or randy teenagers as they saw fit. They could just let all the barriers drop.
The thought staggered his breath. The door at the end of the short walk loomed. Because once those barriers came down would his soulmate like what he found? What if he had been short-sold?
The nice comfortable elephant ride Aziraphale had been on these past months had been replaced by an uncertain donkey careening down a steep slope with rocks all around.
Behind that door there was the tantalising possibility of kissing, touching, jackets shed and taboos broken, but also the certain knowledge that Crowley would see his reckless courage, his quick cleverness met with Aziraphale's bone-deep cowardice and fear. There was a safety in distance.
Nonetheless he kept their hands linked, kept following.
Crowley had booked them the last motel room in Sandford. The room had obligingly rearranged itself to be what both of them assumed a motel room looked like, which was to say almost exactly like their usual suite at the Savoy but with uglier art and more embroidered throw pillows. Where there would usually be regal arrangements of lilies or orchids were instead little ceramic jars bursting with yellow forsythia and raggedly-picked ivy.
The door shut behind them.
Aziraphale was walking through treacle, the seconds dripping by with his hand in Crowley's, standing so close to him, locked away from the rest of the world. In love. So in love they could trade it for worlds and aeons. All he could feel was that he had been miscast in this role. He was no Achilles cutting down great warriors for his Patroclus. That daring was all Crowley. No one wrote love poetry about fragile and frightened men.
Crowley tugged him closer, just an inch, inscrutable, then guided him to turn around. Aziraphale let himself be directed and thin fingers settled on his collar. Crowley helped him shrug his coat, knuckles grazing his shoulders and arms, shivers following in their wake.
He heard the rustle of his coat being slipped onto the hook just out of his sight, but Crowley lingered. They stood for treacle-slowed moments, Aziraphale aware of Crowley's breath on his neck, hands feathering his upper arms, his friend helping him contain himself back into his material form. It was grounding, the first suggestion of an embrace to smother his cares.
Crowley leaned down and pressed a kiss to his shoulder. Aziraphale closed his eyes, unsure if he should beg for more or beg to stop.
The decision was made for him, Crowley sweeping away as if they traded kisses all the time. “Relax, will you? I'll get the wine.”
He couldn’t relax. Not just yet. Not with the imprint of Crowley's mouth still lingering on his skin. But he could sit, he decided. He floated to the couch and sat down heavily.
Crowley swept in from wherever he was keeping the wine, a flurry of movement until they both had a glass in hand and the demon was sprawled on the far end of the couch, plenty of space between them. Aziraphale stared at the glass in his hand. He would love the wine, he knew he would. His soulmate had chosen it for him. They were in love.
“So, yes, you might have been right about this one,” Crowley said. “Waste of an evening. Come on, now, cheer up. You love being right.”
“Am I not cheerful?” Aziraphale asked, a quiver sneaking into his voice. “I suppose I'm not. She was rather more frightening than I expected. Confronting my mortality wasn't quite what I had in mind for the weekend.”
“She's not God, she doesn't know this stuff for sure,” Crowley said. “They still might not come after us.”
Aziraphale looked into the merlot in his glass, the light above reflecting off the surface. “How often does she have it wrong?”
Crowley grimaced. “It's not a numbers game, angel. No one knows the future. Look, we heard what she had to say and we hated it and it's done now. She's not going to hurt us.”
“So you say, and I trust you. But it's not only us I worry for.” Aziraphale fished in his waistcoat pocket and handed over the pamphlet he had taken from the coffee table at Mephistopheles' house. “What do you make of it?”
Crowley gaped. “You stole from her?”
“It's a pamphlet, you're supposed to take one.”
“Not from someone else's house!”
“Just look at it, will you?” He thrust the pamphlet forward again. “She's going after the children.”
Crowley frowned but leaned forward to snag the paper between two fingers. Aziraphale wouldn't have noticed them at the house except for the young woman who had so fiercely drawn their attention to the opposition that morning. Emblazoned on the front of the paper were the words in bright red: Your children, your decision.
He remembered polio. When it ripped through native populations in the seventeenth century right down to the blessedly lucky little children who survived in wheelchairs or on crutches in the 1960s. Pestilence had been fat and full and there hadn't been enough miracles in heaven. It was always a dagger to the heart to see a baby die.
“It's not her,” Crowley said firmly, tossing the pamphlet aside. “It's just humans being humans. You know how they are.”
“But – ”
“Drink your wine, angel, it's a good vintage.” Crowley refilled his wine glass with a glance. “Stop worrying about her. There's no currency in kids, it's next to impossible to send them to hell. Netting a few thousand souls for heaven won't do her any favours.”
“Parents of sick children might be easy prey.”
Crowley sighed. A big, theatrical sigh. Frustrated and not in the sweet, half-laughing way. “She wants kings and presidents, not Facebook mums.”
“What king did you see at the flower show?”
“ Enough , angel.” Crowley set down his glass and slumped forward, giving up the pretence of relaxing. “Please. We can go back to London, if you want. Catch that Greek exhibition at the museum.”
Yes. Yes, back to London. Back to his bookshop and far away from any and all archdemons. Aziraphale hid his sudden want behind a sip of wine. Running like a coward would only breathe life into his fears. Crowley had done this for him, brought him here and courted him like a regency gentleman and to see it all dashed would be too cruel and too selfish.
“No. No, I don't think that's necessary.”
“Good. Alright.” Crowley visibly eased, letting his head drop back onto the cushion he rested on. He surveyed the coffee table from the corner of one eye, then with a snap conjured a plate of macarons within Aziraphale's reach. The nice ones in all the different colours.
“Oh,” Aziraphale swallowed around his tightening throat. “Thank you. Thank you. I... I don't mean to fuss.”
“Don't mean to fuss?” Crowley asked, incredulous, the first hint of his smile creeping back. “When have you ever not fussed? You and fussing are inseparable companions all these years.”
“I would never. I go decades at a time without fussing.”
“Stop being funny, it's not funny.”
Aziraphale pressed his lips together to contain the smile that threatened. He stared at his companion, unashamed, taking in the long lines of him, that arch glare that never carried any venom and brought his face to life. His demon who had faced off with Satan by his side. What a beauty. What a gift.
“Crowley...” he began, voice a little on the breathless side. “Do you...”
Do you love me? Did you save the world for me? Do you still want to run away to the stars?
“Don't.” Before he could begin to formulate the question Crowley had shifted, gracefully darting forward and picking up a pink macaron. He held it up like an offering, urging Aziraphale to eat. “We're going to do this in our own time. I couldn't care less what she said tonight.”
Aziraphale couldn't contain himself this time, gratefulness radiating out from his heart and coming out in affectionate smiles. He took the biscuit and nibbled at it, letting out a little huff of satisfaction at the crisp and chewy and creamy texture. Perfect. Just the ones he liked.
“Are you trying to get on my good side now that you know you're stuck with me?” Aziraphale needled. He took another bite.
Crowley snorted. “When was I ever not stuck with you?”
“Oh, now, I rather thought it was the other way around most of the time.”
“We could still...Uh...” Crowley paused, his mouth getting away from him as it sometimes did. “The stars are still there, if you want them.”
Aziraphale's stomach twisted, his eyes drifted closed of their own accord. In heaven, in the Before, angels who had paired off could often be found draped across each other, lost in their perfect beauty and oblivious to all else around them. Would it be like that if they ran? No more books or symphonies or food, just Crowley's beloved face and the stars he had hung. Not heavenly beauty but he felt he could lose himself in it all for a good long time.
“Oh, my dear,” he murmured. He turned on the couch, pulling his legs up and catching Crowley's hand so they sat knee to knee, facing each other, touching in that way that was becoming comfortable to him. “I know.”
He didn't really, the spectre of being left alone on the eve of Armageddon hung thick between his ribs but he knew Crowley was trying. They would never have been anything if they hadn't tried. It wasn't likely anything would send him running again.
And it was so worth trying. He had seen his serpent's disaffected airs in all their splendour but it was something else entirely to watch him lean into this intimacy, uncoiling after so many years. Rather than flinching away with a scoff and an exaggerated posture he shifted to bring their knees to touching, leaning forward like they shared a secret and of course they shared many.
Aziraphale offered up his wine-glass, silently asking Crowley to hold it for him. The demon took it wordlessly and with both his hands thus captured, Aziraphale reached up and removed his sunglasses.
Crowley let him, blinking against the light.
“You have such lovely eyes,” Aziraphale said.
The lovely eyes in question blew wide, pupils dilated until they were almost black, accompanied by a bright red flush creeping up the serpent's cheeks. Crowley looked away. “I'm a big, scary demon, I do not have lovely eyes.”
Aziraphale inched closer. He reclaimed his wine glass and took another mouthful, starting to feel a little flushed himself. He didn't argue. Didn't want to argue, not even for sport. He wanted to feel good now, with some good red in his system and Crowley's thumb stroking the back of his hand. He wanted to forget what had happened in that little house and be here and now.
“Do you remember Sicily?” 1713, they had lain out in the vineyards and watched the stars. Crowley had pointed out the ones he made, given them names, talked of the others who had made the ones around. And they had of course become uproariously drunk. That was what they should do now, what he wanted.
Crowley's eyes sparked with laughter and he started talking about the stars again, with all the fascination and authority of a proud craftsman. He could be so beautiful when he talked with passion, the pointed looks to make sure Aziraphale paid proper attention, the wild hand gestures as he drank more and more.
He would drink more, Aziraphale made sure of it, trading the wine bottle, the glasses, macarons in every colour while he listened, never once letting his right hand drop from Crowley's. Time blurred a little with wine and laughter and sweet buttercream. They had ended up sitting face to face, legs crossed and wine cradled between them like teenagers on a futon. Aziraphale's skin felt warmer and warmer and they gravitated closer and closer.
The two of them had been known to polish off whole cases of wine in single nights, but an hour and a single bottle later Aziraphale felt wine-drunk and clumsy. And happy. So, so happy. He had been drawn so far forward that he might have buried his nose in Crowley's neck with little effort. Accidental brushes of hands and knees and arms were impossible to avoid as they drunkenly talked over each other, gesturing and shifting. Crowley's hand in his would shift and twist, here intertwining their fingers, here holding him loose, here rubbing and stroking, like young lovers trying every sexual position they could think of just to see what they all felt like.
They were halfway through their second bottle when Aziraphale couldn't bear it any longer and reached out to touch Crowley's hair, to brush it out of his face.
Crowley caught his hand, held his eyes. Aziraphale's mind played out how it could go. Crowley could lean into the touch, let him cradle his face, press kisses against his wrist. They were so close that Aziraphale could use this moment with both Crowley's hands occupied just as he had with the sunglasses, he could close that last fragile space and kiss him.
Yellow eyes searched his face, their words fallen away. The possibilities hung in the air between them, as firm and as real as each other. Crowley shook himself free with a tipsy laugh.
“Temptress,” he growled and raised Aziraphale's hand to press a kiss against his knuckles. A weak, thready sound escaped Aziraphale's lips. Crowley squeezed his hands for a sweet moment then disentangled himself. “I'm going to bed before I radically change the tone of this weekend.”
You could, Aziraphale thought about saying. We could change it together.
But no. Warm and happy as he was he knew he would face the morning soon enough. Merlot induced confidence was no substitute for being really ready. It would be perilous to trade these few hours of exquisite pleasure for a panic attack in the morning.
So he let Crowley stand and picked up his wine again. He would have another glass and read one of the books he had packed, they would continue as they had in the morning.
Crowley stretched out as he stood, sleepy and sloppy and so, so beautiful.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale couldn't stop himself from speaking, his voice small. “Did you really save the world for me?”
The demon towered over him, considering him, one hip cocked. His gaze darkened, intense, all fogginess gone from his expression.
“Still thinking about her?”
Aziraphale nodded meekly. “How could I forget what she said?”
Crowley leaned down, wine-flushed skin and apple-red hair. Aziraphale found himself leaning back, pushed into the back of the couch and pinned there, less than a foot between them. Crowley rested one hand over his shoulder, caging him in.
“The world, the stars,” he ran a hand through his hair and dragged it down, the locks following his hands to sit around his shoulders as it had done ten years ago. Then the hand was in Aziraphale's hair, sliding through his curls to cradle his head and guide him. “Whatever you want, angel. I'll get it for you.”
Aziraphale barely had time for a breathless squeak before Crowley closed the distance. He took a deep breath, surrounded by expensive cologne and fresh pollen and something so human, and closed his eyes as Crowley's lips found the corner of his mouth. The demon placed a lingering kiss there.
He swayed forward as Crowley moved away, trying to chase the kiss he hadn't won.
Instead he found cool night air, the rustle of fabric and opened bleary eyes to see his demon sauntering toward the bedroom.
“Night, angel,” Crowley called.
Aziraphale lay back on the couch, five degrees too warm, heart hammering in his chest and the imprint of Crowley's lips burned into his skin.
Chapter 5: Begonias for Danger
He fled Tanis and hid like a coward in Goshen, where the Israelites lived. The plagues had touched them but the wounds weren’t as deep. Their cows stayed standing, their children weren’t starving.
He should just leave. He should go. This was the work of Heaven’s most feared and venerated angel. Seraphim were barely connected to reality, no more human than the stars or the law of gravity. Someone like him who walked among them, who was meant to feel their pain and their delight shouldn’t expect to be able to watch this.
It was all part of the plan.
It was so hard to watch animals suffer. The humans could at least understand what was happening to them, know if their pain would continue or stop, have some idea of how to soothe themselves. But the cattle and the goats, the sheep, the donkeys, horses and camels, they didn’t understand anything. The panicked look in their eyes as they cried out and fell, the hopeless kicks of their legs, it was all too much.
It would take a generation before the Egyptians recovered from this. With all their bread fly-blown, maggots in their flour, how many would starve? Why wouldn’t Pharaoh relent? Soon he’d have nothing to feed the slaves even if he could keep them.
And when a cow had looked at him with those big, soft eyes right before it died, Aziraphale had fled.
But there was no peace here either. He wasn’t the only one who had noticed that there were still living herds in the country. The Egyptians hovered at the edges of the settlements. Their eyes were dark, the first lean hints of true hunger in their bodies and faces, hovering around puckered mouths. They moved in packs of three or four men, out to hunt the only game left to them. They carried clubs and battered kopesh.
Aziraphale had seen a few goats spirited off to feed starving families, the Israelite slaves were too busy tending their sick to be attentive shepherds. It was only a few goats.
Until it wasn’t, until one of the owners didn’t agree and then it just all happened so fast. The Israelite rushing to confront three grown men, wielding his staff like a club. The Egyptians’ desperate hunger pitted against the shepherd trying to protect his dwindling flock. Filthy, scared, hunted men on both sides.
Aziraphale had tried to use his miracles again, again, again, but the sickness lingered, the water stayed foul. He reached out a hand by instinct, praying for the shepherd to appear larger, angrier, to strike fear into hearts before he was struck down himself.
A strangled sound escaped his lips as the charging men faltered. They held their spears defensively, glancing at each other, feet searching backwards for solid ground while they didn’t take their eyes off their opponent. They looked between themselves, the shepherd, the goats that might be salvation. And they turned and fled. The shepherd would live another day.
“ Oh, thank you,” Aziraphale breathed aloud, voice watery and pathetic. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Just one life. Whatever Samael was doing could spare this one life, it was more than just a body count.
Oh, God, thank you.
Crowley was a mad genius. He was on fire and he absolutely could not stop now. He had been sure that business with Mel had finished him, that they would be packed up and headed back to Soho for a week of radio silence by this point. And then reassurances and wine and macarons and whatever hairstyle the angel preferred and they were back . More than back, better than before.
He sat poised in the little breakfast nook, sipping black coffee, watching Aziraphale. The angel was reading, legs tucked up under him on the couch, still lost in the book that had kept him entertained while Crowley slept. Morning light shot through his hair to mimic his natural halo and sometimes he would hold the pink tip of his tongue between his teeth as he turned the page, the little coquette.
Crowley was going to kiss him tonight. It was decided. He was going to get to touch that hair again, was going to pin his angel to the wall and kiss him breathless.
He took another sip of his coffee, leaned forward further, carded through those curls with his eyes.
Remember how he looked at you last night, the snake in him suggested, bringing back the picture of forget-me-not eyes, the angel stunned into silence, lips parted. It could fuel him for another millennium if it needed to. It wouldn't need to.
Aziraphale darted a glance at him, pretty blue eyes meeting his for a moment before flicking back down to his book. A dusting of pink rose on pale cheeks.
So lovely. For once Crowley and his impulses were in complete agreement. So lovely, pale skin and pink cheeks and white eyelashes catching the light just so. Happy and easy and his. They hadn't... not yet but Aziraphale was his and if anyone tried to deny it they'd regret it. By the end of the day it would be out in the open. They'd as good as decided. Aziraphale had chosen him over eternity. That was it. Done deal.
Maybe they hadn't talked about it. Maybe Crowley had done his best to avoid talking about it, but it was only because he already knew what the angel would say. No point in insulting them both by doubting their decision.
Aziraphale turned a page, holding the tip of his tongue between his teeth. He glanced up again. “Did you want to get moving then, dear?”
“Finish your book, angel,” Crowley murmured, pressing just the tiniest bit of temptation into the words. “There's no rush.”
No rush to get him out of his muse's pose, the tension from the evening bled to nothingness, so very close to how he looked right before he had reached up to touch Crowley's face. Curled in the same place they had traded little touches, held hands and shared biscuits.
Same place you would have kissed him properly if you weren't a coward.
Didn't matter. No rush. Six thousand years and they were finally here. They didn't have to do everything all at once, run roughshod through millennia of fantasies instead of savouring them. He could just sit here and watch. He could devour this meal by pieces, take in everything in the pale morning light. The pursed lips he would soon be kissing, the platinum curls he would soon be twisting between his fingers, the neatly manicured hands that would be fisted in his shirt. Eve had looked at the apple from all angles before she'd taken the best bite of her life.
It had been hard to walk away the night before but he was so close to finally, finally winning this game, all he had to do was not fuck it all up by scaring the angel. So he had walked away. He had slept. He had taken a shower like a human so he could have a furious wank. Now he was calm and composed and drinking his coffee. The reward for good behaviour was permission to bask.
I saved the world for you, angel, now let me drink my fill.
His pillow princess. That's what Mel had called him and bless him if it hadn't left a mark. The spectre of those words walked in step with Aziraphale reclined on the couch, his breathy little sounds as he munched on macarons and that obscene expression when Crowley leaned over him with promises on his lips. Everything about him just begged to be cared for.
While it was fun to stand back and let him stew until he got himself locked in a foreign prison in a mad gambit for attention, things were different this time. This time Crowley just needed him to know he was loved, with or without the theatrics.
Heaven had put too much on him for too long. Asking him to protect the humans who loved to go careening into disaster, if heaven themselves didn't kill the poor bastards first. Setting him up to fail and then making him feel a failure. As if his pretty, funny, clever angel could ever be bad at something. Crowley knew he didn't understand, not properly, but this was his treat to the both of them – getting Aziraphale the hell away from those angels and ask him to do nothing but be happy. Let him sit on a couch and read a book, he did it perfectly.
Let him lie back on the motel's big bed with a hundred pillows and prove how good he was at being soft and sweet and breathless.
Aziraphale looked up at him again. An amused smile played on his lips. “Really, my dear. Are you going to watch me read all morning?”
“M'allowed,” Crowley said, then took a pointed sip of his coffee without breaking eye contact.
Aziraphale set his bookmark between the pages and firmly closed the book. “It's not a very good book.”
“So you might let a customer buy this one?”
“Don't be absurd.”
A flash of disappointment ran through Crowley when the angel rose to his feet. His little show was over, then. Probably for the best, really, he couldn't pretend to need two showers before lunchtime. He had plans for the day, as well. Nothing he needed to rush about, but still.
“Ready to go, then?” Crowley downed the rest of his coffee and set about locating the angel's overcoat for him.
Aziraphale set his book down and straightened his bow tie. Shouldn't have been as cute as it was. “We don't get out of the city often, I shouldn't spend the time reading.”
“We spent two thousand years in a desert while humans figured out how to put water on plants, we can do whatever we like now.”
Aziraphale chuckled. “They were adorably helpless, weren't they? And yet they made all this.”
Crowley held out the coat and Aziraphale let him help him on with it. Another caress of knuckles against arms, another protective embrace where he refused to let his hands clamp around Aziraphale's arms and hold him in place. He could hold him there, drag in the scent of his hair. But he didn't. Because he was a gentleman. For this weekend.
Aziraphale turned in his arms, lips pursed in laughter, eyes bright and blue and pretty.
I'm going to kiss you tonight.
“Let's get on then, if you're in such a hurry,” Crowley said.
Aziraphale tugged the sleeves of his coat straight. “Would you rather we stayed here all day?”
“Yes, by far.”
“I never knew you had such a passion for motel rooms. Should we travel on a budget more often?”
Crowley made some sarcastic noises at him even as he took his hand as they walked out the door. The angel thought he was so cute. Bless him for being right.
They bundled into the Bentley, ready for another day of industrial strength quaintness in the village. Crowley had a daring plan which was definitely going to end the day in kissing and maybe a few bunches of flowers. Mel was now no more than a shadow between them, with the right sort of day he was sure he could banish her completely. In a hundred years when Aziraphale reminisced this would be '2020 when we saw the flower show' not 'that time your old archdemon friend predicted our deaths.'
Or maybe, he considered as they pulled up to the church yard, they might be thinking of it as 'that time we got caught in a protest rally in a silly little village'. The picket line had most definitely not been there yesterday. It wasn't really a line yet, but it was picking up steam. Lots of sandwich boards and hand-made signs. The girl who had so aggressively shoved pamphlets at them the day before was arguing with a copper on the nature strip, face lit with youthful, politically dissident passion. A group of middle-aged women had taken over one of the outer entrances with their own pamphlets. Filthy looks were being thrown. People were being unfriended on Facebook as they spoke. Crowley raised an appreciative eyebrow. This wasn't perfect for his purposes today but it looked like a ripping way to spend a Sunday.
“Say, angel,” Crowley said as he turned off the car, remembering all of a sudden that Aziraphale was and always would be Aziraphale . “This article you read in the paper, the one that told you about this show. What was it actually about?”
“Hmm? Oh, some local mother's group that was fielding a political candidate, I think. I try not to pay too much attention to politics. Hard on the nerves.”
Crowley was transported two centuries back to Aziraphale sitting in a prison cell, about to be beheaded in his loveliest clothes because you just can't get decent crepes outside Paris. This. This was the person he loved. This was who he had followed around like a lost puppy for six millennia. They were smack in the middle of the humans working themselves into a lather and that was probably not the worst of it. Crowley had denied Mel's involvement in this, and it still didn't sound like her sort of thing, but it was hard not to put two with two and make four. From now on he was vetting everywhere the angel went, he'd hire a team of... hackers or private eyes or something. This just had to stop happening, Crowley's heart couldn't take it.
Though he supposed he could consider it progress that this time Aziraphale had dragged him along so that when he inevitably needed rescue there wasn't a commute.
Don't play coy, the snake teased. You like the rescuing as much as he does. Couldn't have asked for a better opportunity.
When he looked back in years to come, this was the exact moment he should have known better. Aziraphale was already in the car, the puzzle pieces were all in place. He could have foreseen the danger, started up the Bentley and driven back to Soho. There were flowers aplenty in London.
But the angel had blushed so sweetly at his attention and his plans for the day were sure to win him smiles, blushes and kind words, as much as he could stand. Six thousand years and things were turning out how he wanted them, chasing away that fragile, haunted look that Aziraphale affected. So Crowley did not start the car, he did not drive back to Soho.
Instead he got out, he escorted his angel through the gate. He happily took a pamphlet, folded it into a paper plane and sailed it into the opposing group, nailing one of them in the back of the head.
“Entertain yourself for half an hour, angel?”
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow. “You're leaving?”
“Got demon things to do,” Crowley lied, flicking a glance at the protesters to sell it. It was a better cover story than he could have hoped for, especially given the shouting match that had broken out over the paper plane. “Won't be long.”
“You're not seeing Mephistopheles again, are you?” A shadow of fear passed over the angel's face.
Crowley raised their joined hands and kissed Aziraphale's knuckles. “Wouldn't dream of it. I'll find you when I'm done.”
That seemed to satisfy him well enough, giving Crowley permission to steal off into the market. He had a sort of sense of where Aziraphale was, just the prick of divine presence at the edge of his mind, a warning that danger was nearby the same way you sort of know there's a spider on the ceiling before you look up. He'd been so focused on Aziraphale the day before that neither of them had noticed Mel's presence but walking alone he could feel the interference in the air, something big and looming like the church on the far side of the yard.
First things first, Crowley bought a basket. From a basket weaver like they were still in Mesopotamia. Because apparently people who lived in villages had too much time on their hands. Whatever, it worked in his favour.
Then he set about filling it. He found homegrown strawberries (good) and local wine (probably bad) and a baker who had mini profiteroles (excellent). He held a block of lavender chocolate in his hands and stared at it intently, trying to divine if it was the kind of chocolate that would make the angel go mm-ah or the kind that would make him go hmm-n . The stall-holders all gave him a look that suggested they found him to be a middle-aged man in skinny jeans who had little business putting together a picnic. He soaked up the judgement, his bad deed for the day, and lingered harder in the places where the humans thought he might be gay and didn't care for it. He made mental notes of their locations so he could walk by later with a flamboyant man on his arm. He also found sausage rolls.
As a finishing touch he swung by a gardener's stall and found a bunch of brightly coloured begonias, tossing them on top of his hoard like a garnish.
Satisfied, he looked around for Aziraphale. He was somewhere near the big marquee that was bursting with flowers. Probably studiously avoiding Mel at her stall, or maybe he was clinically incapable of refusing to say a polite hello and he was currently being regaled with stories of the fourth circle and its gluttonous inhabitants. Crowley cringed. This weekend was more of a balancing act than he'd counted on.
Thankfully he found Aziraphale talking not with a demon but with a man who had to be a hundred years old and wearing an outfit somehow even more stuffy than the angel's. The man was selling second hand books. He didn't even notice Crowley's approach he was so absorbed.
“Alright, then?” Crowley asked, stepping into place beside him.
“Crowley!” Aziraphale cried as if he hadn't been expecting him, as if they hadn't come together. “Look at this collection, will you? This gentleman was just telling me –”
He cut himself off when his eyes found the basket on Crowley's arm. Blue eyes, suddenly glassy, darted to Crowley's face. Aziraphale's lip trembled. His hand clutched compulsively at the book he was still holding.
“It's not a collection,” Crowley said. “You're allowed to buy them.”
Aziraphale didn't say anything, didn't move or take his eyes off Crowley even as Crowley fished in his pocket for whatever amount of money the old man was expecting and handed it over with a word of thanks. Aziraphale's hand tightened on the book again, it seemed to be the only part of him he was able to move.
“Lunch?” Crowley prompted, a little worried that his angel was about to burst into tears.
Aziraphale nodded wordlessly, pressing his lips together. He took Crowley's arm in a trance and let himself be led away, not so much as glancing at the old man.
Yes, yes, yes, yes!
Crowley had been expecting a different expression, the half-lidded enchantment of a tempted man but this one was its own kind of reward. Aziraphale was stricken, mouth quirking downwards, threatening to spill over at any second as he was led away from the crowds to a perfectly kempt lawn. Miraculously a picnic blanket had been abandoned under an oak tree, just waiting for two supernatural leisure-makers.
He guided the angel down like a sleepwalker. The blue-eyed gaze and parted lips were all too much. He had a plan, and making out on a picnic blanket wasn't part of it but he was certain the angel was waiting for him. He could kiss him right this second and there'd be no objections. Probably quite a bit of encouragement, even.
“Demon things?” Aziraphale breathed.
Crowley flopped to the ground beside him and started unpacking the basket. “It's all stolen.”
Aziraphale gave a frail laugh. Hell, he really was too easy to spoil. It niggled at something deep down inside Crowley, this was information to take on board, it needed attention paid. The flattery was getting to be too much for the angel, it had started worrying at the hidden wounds, the big stuff that would take centuries to uncurl and untangle. If he hadn't hated heaven six thousand years ago he would have started in this moment.
But raging against the heavens had never won him any favours so he lightly tossed the bunch of begonias into Aziraphale's lap and stretched out on the blanket, propping himself up on his elbows. “Hand us the wine?”
This broke the angel's trance a little, enough for him to search through the spread around him and hand over the bottle. Crowley hadn't bothered trying to track down cups and so untwisted the top and swigged straight from the bottle. It was average wine but the sun was nice, the breeze carried the scent of flowers from the marquee and Aziraphale had begun to pick through the food to find what he liked. Which was, of course, all of it.
“Thank you for this,” Aziraphale said, that frail quality still chasing his voice. “I mean it, not just the picnic, this weekend is... has been...”
“Shut up,” Crowley drawled. “Tell me what lavender chocolate tastes like.”
Aziraphale unwrapped the block, brown paper between the soft pads of his fingers and broke off a piece. He pressed it into his mouth and closed his eyes. A minute of letting it melt on his tongue and he breathed out .
“ Hmm-n . Rather like soap, I'm afraid,” the angel laughed.
Crowley held out his hand, balancing on one elbow and received his own piece. He stuck it in his mouth and snorted with laughter. The lavender scent of it overpowered any chocolate it might have contained and it was more like eating an old woman's hand cream. He washed it down with a swig of wine and passed the bottle to Aziraphale, still laughing.
“Isn't it something?” Aziraphale said, a soft smile settling on his face to replace his teary spell. “All these years and we can still find something new.”
Crowley hummed in agreement, settling in to listen to Aziraphale's enjoyment of the little feast. Most of the food was good enough, he might win a few breathy moans usually reserved for Michelin starred chefs. He made little half-formed comments as he ate, transported, the flaky pastry, the tart fruit, sweet and bright and smooth . His smile was as warm and serene as the sunshine.
Give Crowley a month, a year, a decade and he was going to chase those words across Aziraphale's skin with his mouth, finding every sweet, bright, smooth corner of him. That was the endgame, all the shadows chased away, the haunting exorcised and Aziraphale naked and beautiful and happy. Knowing he was free to love with blood, not divine writ. This was such a good start.
The profiteroles sat untouched, being saved for last. A favourite treat, Crowley had watched his angel savour profiteroles in Versailles, in Greek vineyards, in Spanish bakeries, pass his lips at every restaurant that served them, taken apart bite by bite. There was a french restaurant by the Thames where the choux had been stuffed with vanilla icecream and a snooty waiter poured darkest chocolate sauce over the top. Memorable, of course, for the squeak Aziraphale made on his first bite and the TED talk he'd given on the matter at least twenty times since.
An impatient shudder slid down Crowley's spine. He wanted his profiterole moan.
He eyed the little treats, watching each time Aziraphale ignored them for something else. Pears had been the mistake. A favourite but not so much that he would ignore them to the end. When Aziraphale finished the last bite of the fruit and tossed the core onto the grass Crowley sat up.
“Here, angel,” he murmured, scooting closer and taking one of the pastries in hand. “Try this next.”
Really, honestly, he'd meant to hand it to the angel. Just offer it up like an apple in a garden. The problem was that he misjudged the distance, scooted too close and so he was not offering it to Aziraphale's hands but waving it under his nose instead.
He was caught by Aziraphale's surprised eyes, held in place in the sun under the oak tree. Heat rose in his face, this whole manoeuvre having gone somewhere he hadn't meant to go. Oh, he was so very close, could feel hot breath against the tender spot inside his wrist.
Do it, moron! The snake berated him. Don't whiff this or I'm going to kick your arse!
Only way out was through. He hid his own surprise as best he could and pressed the treat against Aziraphale's lips. The angel closed his eyes and took a bite.
The utterly, unforgivably filthy moan had to have been on purpose. No one made that sound by accident. Aziraphale couldn't have made that sound without knowing what it would do to Crowley, that it would make his whole body too hot and make him suddenly and urgently need to go hide in the shower again.
Aziraphale seized his wrist and guided the profiterole back to his mouth, single-minded and too innocent. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Crowley should have known better than to introduce custard to the mix because he could not help the noise that left him when his angel licked it off his fingers. The tiniest brush of that soft, soft, soft tongue and he was done, pitching forward, diving in. He couldn't bear to remain unkissed for one more second, one more heartbeat, this was torture.
A thousand things cascaded behind his eyes, the breathy moans, the soft curls, the feels of hips meeting hips and hands that searched and he was jerked out of it all in an instant.
A gunshot rang out, echoing in the sprawling churchyard.
Crowley whipped around, they were disentangled in a heartbeat. A fucking gun? People were screaming, yelling, running. The police who had been hanging about on the footpath were cleaving a line toward the marquee.
He looked at Aziraphale, shared a thought with him. Mel. It had to be Mel.
“I have to go, I might be able to...” Aziraphale climbed to his feet and dusted himself off with his hands.
“I'll be along,” Crowley said. Fuck, fuck, fuck. “Don't pick a fight with her.”
He pulled out his phone. This was ridiculous. He needed to know what they'd landed in. Usually it didn't matter, whatever mess they were in could be miracled away, but Mel was a wildcard. She could hurt them, could hurt the world. He plugged a few phrases into Google and found this mummy-group-cum-political-party easily enough. Natural Woman, they called themselves. Vegetarians, homeschoolers and anti-vaxxers among many other things. A dozen news articles on them.
Crowley tapped the most recent one and found an image of two women smiling up at him. Time seemed to stop around him, the chaos at the marquee faded into a dull buzz, all he could hear was his own blood rushing in his ears.
Mel he had expected. That was the entire point. Not her usual thing but he wasn't in any place to criticise. It was the other woman, a face he hadn't seen for thousands of years, a face that no sane person would willingly seek out. Mephistopheles the Prince of Hell and Samael the Executioner smiled up at him, sitting shoulder to shoulder.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
This wasn't Mel at all. They'd walked into one of Samael's plagues.
Chapter 6: Marigolds for Cruelty
His hands. If he couldn’t heal through miracle he still had his hands.
Hiding in Goshen with the slaves meant nothing. To witness meant nothing. He had to heal. And he could sweat, and bleed as well as any human, and be revolted by the pus and ichor oozing from the boils that covered the people. And he could cover those boils with wine-soaked rags, dress the wounds, murmur kind words. It took the pain away as best he could.
The terrible red sun beat down on the monuments and mastabas, her crown of stars bleeding into reality and weaving through her halos, her wings now so drenched in blood the gold barely shone through. It was a mercy the humans couldn’t see her. Could Moses? Could Aaron? Did they know she whispered in their ears or did they think it was their own hands that wrought this?
Death hung heavy over every patient. Some still struggled, scratching and crying, others just lay limp. They were hungry, thirsty, tormented. The boils wouldn’t kill them on their own. The infection weakened them, letting the flux take another wave of victims. The malnutrition and dehydration claimed their fair share. Some just collapsed from exhaustion, never comfortable enough to truly sleep.
People grieved, people cried and people grovelled. Pharaoh was the only one in the city, it seemed, who still believed this was a war to be won and not a massacre to be endured.
Aziraphale knelt beside a young woman in the bazaar strewn with sickly bodies. He didn’t bother trying to miracle the sores away. He pressed another rag into the bowl of wine at his side, soaking it through. The boils had impacted themselves in her armpits, under her breasts, sores upon sores that would never properly heal, no matter the outcome.
She looked at him through half-lidded, glassy eyes, breathing heavily, saying nothing. No pleas, no prayers.
So he prayed for her. His knees ached from kneeling, his hands sore from handling the heavy clay bowl, his clothes and hands reeked of infection. But he prayed for her and dressed the wounds. It was the only relief he had to offer.
There was still some hope. He’d seen a couple of people whose boils had somehow healed themselves, their lice bites and sickly suffering relenting. Not many, but they were there. They were healed. Maybe the Almighty or Samael or both had decided to spare a few. Maybe it was a glimpse of the other side of this.
“ There’s no point,” the man who knelt over his daughter shook his head. “The prince is the only one who can heal the disease.”
Aziraphale patted the soaked rags against the skin. “I know. The Pharaoh will relent though, he must.”
“ Not the Pharaoh. The foreign prince, with the red hair. He’s the only one who can heal it.”
Aziraphale looked up at him, something churning in his chest, unsure if it was hope or nausea. God hadn’t shown mercy. But Crawly had.
People were running. Flower stalls were overturned, the marquee carpeted with spilled blossoms in every colour, trampled underfoot. Aziraphale could smell blood and gunsmoke, hear the wail of a single injured voice above the shouting.
He had come to the scene too late, panicked people had done their damage, police were manhandling the howling woman into handcuffs and ushering another aside. The dozens of reporters were snapping photos from the sidelines, holding up their telephones to take footage.
He couldn't... Something had happened and he didn't understand. It was one of the protesters in handcuffs, so young she could barely have been out of school, one of her hands bloodied. She gasped for breath and yelled out her rage. But it didn't matter. She was an afterthought, the police, the bystanders, the reporters all focused on the other woman.
Everyone knows this woman. She’s the head of the local PTA and she wants to speak to the manager. Her immaculate haircut wasn’t in style in her youth and hasn’t improved with age, unlike her handbag which is always on trend, slung in the crook of her arm while her hand is busy with a latte. She gives off the terrifying aura that her name might be Debbie.
Her name isn't Debbie.
An anxious smile bloomed over Aziraphale's face, his body reflexively straightening into acceptable posture, hands clasping themselves in front of him. If he'd noticed himself doing it he might have stopped, it was ridiculous to think he could present himself as a proper angel at this point. Even when he had been in line with heaven's mandates he would have been terrified to be assessed by a seraph. He didn't think any of that. He stood and he waited, hands clenched like vices, thoughts looping in on themselves.
Samael hadn't noticed him, she was engaged with the police, shoulders squared, showing her best side to the multitude of photographers as the beleaguered officers tried to keep them back. She ignored the howling, bleeding girl, ignored the flowers bloodstained and crushed underfoot. She preened for the cameras, spoke loudly and confidently. She checked her phone while the officers wrote something down and Aziraphale was four thousand years in the past, watching her check her fingernails as she went door to door, checking for lamb's blood.
A snort of laughter came from beside him and he jumped.
“Look at her with that Fisher Price phone,” Mephistopheles said, artfully rearranging a bouquet of marigolds in her hands, rolled cigarette hanging from one side of her mouth. “She doesn't even know how to use it, she just knows that humans have phones and check them sometimes.”
“What happened here?” he asked, his voice coming out all wrong.
“Assassination attempt. By some miracle the gun backfired.”
The girl was led past them, sobbing with pain. Aziraphale watched her, rage smouldering in her eyes. She was so young.
“I don't suppose this was her own decision?” he asked. Mel just snorted again. Of course. Samael didn't care much for humans interfering with her duties. She wouldn't leave it to chance.
Aziraphale raised his hand to perform his own miracle, give the girl his blessings that surgeons might at least save her hand. He'd already formed the shape and texture of it, ready to pull it from the ether when he became aware of how close he stood to the two seraphim. Samael hadn't noticed him yet. She hadn't... Could he? Would she notice? Care? Was this punishment for some sin the girl had committed? Would Mephistopheles tell Samael what he had done?
The girl was gone, the miracle left to fizzle in the air. “You two are... are working together, then?”
Mel shrugged. “Lots of desperate people around this sort of thing. Seems a shame to let them go to waste.”
“But you're an archdemon and a seraph, surely this isn't allowed!”
“Oh, I just know you're not lecturing me on collusion, Tinkerbell.”
God couldn't be allowing this. Not Her own Justice, not children, not in his country with the aid of a demon prince. It went against the natural order of things. He had known there was corruption but this... this...
“Why?” he asked, as if lacking answers from God the best place to get them was an archdemon who had threatened to take away the love of his life.
Mel offered him the bunch of marigolds and he took them without thinking. She puffed on her cigarette. “We've got a lot in common, Sam and I. Both in the business of punishment, you know. It's my bread and butter, the case of the righteous cause getting lost along the way, people thinking of the ends or the means but never both. These human women spent their whole history getting told what to do with their children – bleed the fever out, give them heroin for a toothache, give the odd ones back to the faeries. And if you local doctor just happens to pump them full of radiation or thalidomide or syphilis then you should bow to their greater wisdom.”
“They fought back,” Aziraphale argued, he had been there, watched those fierce, strong women fight to protect their children. Fight to keep and protect them.
“They did,” Mel agreed peaceably. “They're still fighting. But you know how it is. Freedom fighters become a violent mob long before they reach the city gates. They're not fighting for their kids anymore, they're just fighting. Let's see who's smart, who knows best, which of us has the most feminine wisdom . And who cares about the body count?” She sighed happily, blowing out a plume of acrid smoke. “Pride tastes so sticky sweet I can hardly stand it. Sam and I... well we both know how to engineer a fall for the proud.”
The smoke swirled in the air, mixed with the saccharine scent of the marigolds, would take a decade to get out of his coat. The flowers spilled over his hand, the orange like a beacon. His demon should be with him by now, should have found him. But he wasn't going to, Aziraphale expected. No one was going to find him.
Samael looked over to them. Something passed over her face, a shock that found her eyebrows, the corner of her mouth, the tightness of her hands and then shot straight through Aziraphale as a chill down his spine. Recognition dawned and with it a smile like a knife, a shark circling while he haemorrhaged in the water. He'd never made her acquaintance before, but Samael knew who he was. The defiant angel, a contradiction, a broken thing. Everyone must know his name by now, every tier of heaven and hell.
Mephistopheles had been beautiful in heaven in the Before – silvered horns and emerald eyes and stardust trailing in her wake. Aziraphale's sight blurred imagining a time six thousand years from now when a pair of anonymous angels and demons would sit in a village coffee shop, one of them mentioning his name and the other shivering. Remembering what he looked like in heaven.
Mel smiled, eyes fluttering. She spoke softly. “Lost in the crowd, I would think. Have you given my offer any more thought?”
A watery laugh tickled the back of his throat but he didn't let it pass his lips. It wasn't funny, but it was hysterical. “Is she going to kill us?”
“I don't know. But I wouldn't try your little double act on her, she won't think it's cute like I do.”
“No, of course, of course.” The tight smile wouldn't leave his face. He was already condemned, couldn't he find courage even here?
Samael had turned her attention back to the police and reporters. It had only been a flash, one second amongst centuries of time. Aziraphale was going to be sick. His body betrayed him, trembling and fluttering and roiling. Which of them would she prefer as he first prize: the traitor angel who had escaped the pyre or the hapless demon who strayed too close to her work?
“Did you..?” His throat tightened painfully. “Did you tell her how we survived our executions?”
He shouldn't have let a demon go fishing around inside his head, inside his heart. If Mel and Samael were even cordial with each other outside of this work she would certainly have shared their secrets.
“No,” Mel said. The cloying scent of crushed flowers rose up, the smoke, the blood, the gunpowder. Samael's silver eyes flicked to him again. The taste of Crowley's skin lingered in his mouth. Mel circled behind him, coming to his other shoulder. “I can save you from her. You and Crawly both.”
“Crowley,” he corrected, eyes never leaving the seraph. “He's been Crowley for some time now.”
“He'll always be Crawly to me.”
“Would you be so kind,” he breathed, “as to let him find me, please?”
“What makes you think I'm stopping him? Have you talked about my offer?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said. He couldn't tear his eyes away from Samael. The spider on his shoulder could ruin him, was more his enemy than Crowley had ever been, but he just kept looking at Samael. He had to force words from his throat, breathing out heavily and letting them be carried on the force of it because he couldn't speak in measured sentences. “We... we.... we won't be... be taking you up on that, I'm afraid.”
Mel's expression was lost on him. He couldn't look away. “I'm sorry to hear that. I have a bit of a soft spot for him. But then, you understand where I'm coming from, don't you, Tinkerbell?”
“Aziraphale.” Crowley's blessed voice snapped him from his trance. The demon strode toward him through the upturned tables and scattered flowers. He didn't reach for him, didn't dare. The demon's face was grim and certain. “Let's go.”
Aziraphale followed. Afterwards he couldn't have said how he went from the marquee to the street, couldn't have said if Crowley and Mel exchanged words or if Samael noticed him leave. It was a blur of green, of the grey sky moving around him, he knew his feet were moving, time was passing, Crowley's footfalls kept him company. He stared at the orange flowers still clasped in his hands.
Crowley was silent, just a furious stride on the footpath beside him, hands stuffed in his pockets. He glanced over his shoulder, again, again. As if there was anything they could do if they were being followed.
He was on the footpath, on the stones, beside a pond. The presence of still water helped him slow down, think straight.
Crowley took him by the shoulders, hands clenched tight.
“Did she hurt you?”
Which of them? What will you do if I say 'yes'?
“It's done, angel. You're out of there.”
Aziraphale let out a humourless laugh. Done. They should be so lucky. “Two seraphim in one little village. It's a wonder it hasn't exploded.”
“You couldn't have known. Sit down before you fall down.”
There was a park bench, not so different from the one they had frequented these long centuries. A counterfeit. The ducks here didn't recognise them. But the park had never been the point, had it? Just an excuse to sit next to Crowley. A hundred temptations done by angelic hands, or blessings handed into infernal ones. For nothing, not really. He didn't mind going to Edinburgh, it was better than growing roots. The whole point had always been what it still was, the two of them side by side, close enough to share his body heat with his reptilian friend, close enough to touch, if they wanted to.
He sat heavily. Crowley sprawled. It was their way.
“What do we do?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley scoffed. “What do you think? We go back to London.”
“Oh, no. No, no, no. Don't even think about it. I'm not having a repeat of Egypt.”
“It'ssss fucking Sssamael!” Crowley snapped his sunglasses off, looking at Aziraphale through wide, wild eyes. “You know, God's Justice .” He managed to make the title sound like a mockery. “Her very own sword on Earth. If she's making a plague then it means the boss wants a plague and you, angel, can still Fall. You're scared of heaven now? Well don't be because it can get so, so much worse.”
Aziraphale slumped back on the bench, staring at the flowers in his hands. Samael had wrought plagues before, but it wasn't like this. She did it with her stunning sword to strike fear of God into mortal hearts, she didn't run for parliament to lead a misinformation campaign. And she certainly didn't do it to let hell sweep up the souls when it was all said and done.
“Please, Crowley, you must believe me. Something is wrong with this. It isn't what it seems.”
“It doesn't matter,” Crowley said. But oh, it did matter. Aziraphale could see it written all over his face. He'd always loved children. “They're going to keep taking swipes at the humans, it's what we've done since the beginning. If we want to live to see next Thursday we have to pick our battles and this one isn't it.”
“You don't get to make that decision alone,” Aziraphale said.
“I bloody well do. How can you be such a coward and still want to pick this fight?”
The air stilled between them.
Well, there it was. He could hardly treat Crowley like a kamikaze and never expect to be thought of as the opposite. In some ways it was a relief to hear it spoken out loud. At least the spectre no longer hung between them. In other ways it was not a relief but a blow to the chest, stunning and disorienting him. This must be what nausea felt like.
Crowley was looking at him, paralysed. The air of a person who, lacking any ability to turn back time had opted to stay perfectly still in the hopes that at least time would continue no further until they had collected themselves. This technique had not worked for anyone before this moment and would not work now.
Aziraphale took a short breathe, training his eyes on the ground. “If that's how you feel about it -”
“I don't. I didn't mean it.”
“No, no. In this case I think you're right.”
Crowley reached out a hand to his face. “I'm not, I'm an idiot.”
Aziraphale shook his head, freeing himself from the tender touch that threatened. Deliberately not seeing his serpent's wounded expression. “When your charming friend made her offer I thought to myself 'No, old chap, no. What a disservice to think that you would give up Crowley or the humans in the name of self-preservation.'” He shook his head again, eyes stinging, a little laugh escaping his mouth at his own ridiculous nature. “And then I saw Samael and all I could think was to survive it. To save my own skin.”
“She's dangerous, of course you did. That's not cowardice, it's just having a working brain.”
“I let that girl be injured and arrested. I did nothing. I don't want to be this anymore and you're right not to want it either.” He let out an unsteady breath. “Is it possible to be sure about something and still scared of it?”
“Of course it is.”
“Courage is to be scared but still act because you're sure. I haven't quite got the hang of it yet. Why bother defying them at all if I'm still, at heart, heaven's creature?”
Crowley let his head drop backward for a moment, huffing out a long sigh. Then he stood up, snatching the bunch of marigolds still clutched convulsively in Aziraphale's hands.
“Fuck that. You are not heaven's creature.” He pitched them into the pond with a full-bodied throw. The bouquet skittered across the surface before starting to sink in stages like a flooded boat, orange fading to muddy brown. He circled back, arms spread wide in defiance. “You're my creature. And these are our humans.”
Aziraphale softened, something inside him uncoiling. “Oh, my dear.”
“I'm glad you're not one of those gits who has a flaming sword instead of a brain. If you saw this happening and just wanted to charge in without stopping to look you wouldn't be...be... wouldn't be you . You're brave. I know you're brave.”
Aziraphale smiled fondly. “And you wouldn't be you if your mouth didn't move quicker than your brain on occasion.”
Crowley paced, a frantic step one way then two the other, the gears of his mind driving the movements. “A compromise, then? We stay another night, see if we can figure out something that's not going to get us killed. Do we have a deal? One more day?”
“One more day,” Aziraphale agreed. It was bordering on hubris to think they could hinder Samael and at all and Crowley would be taking the bulk of the risk. If they couldn't find a solution in one day he would learn to let it go. Heaven was not in his control. “We could surely weaken their community support without a direct assault.”
“That's my clever angel. Right, right, right. We've got this. I've got this.” Crowley vibrated with a manic energy, the kind that had been simmering under his skin all weekend, the intensity that shone behind his eyes as he stole Aziraphale's breath away again and again. It was unsustainable, that much was obvious, but it might drive them through to the end of this if he didn't burn himself out.
It was hard to tell what was good for Crowley at these times. He wanted kind words and gentle touches, Aziraphale's admiration expressed in as much detail as he could. But such a thing often just drove him higher, made him more volatile.
But, oh, Crowley had just agreed, for the second time in a lifetime, to defy Samael for him. What could he do but melt with gratitude? What could he feel but sublimely cherished? What could occupy his mind but the desperate need to be worthy of such devotion? He reached out with both hands. “My darling.”
Crowley closed his eyes for a long moment, then looked from the offered hands to the ground and back again, as if deciding between his aggressive energy and the offer to wind down. Aziraphale looked up at him through his eyelashes, his gentlest pleading.
“Play fair, angel,” Crowley growled, reaching out one hand for Aziraphale to clasp. “Turn down the high beams.”
He slumped onto the bench, holding both Aziraphale's hands with his one, all clutched together tightly. He affected his disinterested air, staring out across the pond even as his hand squeezed Aziraphale's, holding him close.
How wrong it was, all out of step. Samael's silver eyes still lingered alongside Mephistopheles' black. But there was a certain stillness to the air, the sunshine almost tangible, the quacking ducks their company, the scent of wildflowers strong.
Crowley leaned closer and for one breathless moment Aziraphale thought he might seal their pact with a kiss. And he did, but where he had been expecting (hoping?) (fearing?) the sudden crush of that beloved mouth against his own, instead he found another searing kiss dropped to his shoulder. This time Crowley let it linger, his forehead resting lightly against Aziraphale's shoulder, another faint brush of lips, warm breath seeping into the fabric of his coat. Aziraphale squeezed the hand in his, running his fingertips across the fragile webbing between Crowley's fingers.
With a fortifying breath Crowley pulled back and extracted his hand. A flash of disappointment ran through Aziraphale before Crowley's arms came down around him, resting just behind his back on the top of the bench, the pads of his finger's pressed into Aziraphale's ribcage, holding him every so lightly. Crowley snapped his fingers and a book appeared in his hand. He extended it to Aziraphale.
“Read me some book, we'll brainstorm over dinner.”
Aziraphale, face bright pink, he was sure of it, took the offered book. Sense and Sensibility vol.2 , the 1911 print. He had left it abandoned on the picnic blanket. Of course Crowley would never forget his books.
“It's the second volume. You won't understand the story.”
“Then I hope your reading is compelling. Do some funny voices or something.”
And with that Crowley was relaxed back, soaking in the sun and Aziraphale could think of nothing to do but exactly what had been requested. He eased the book open, careful of the aged spine, and began to read, mind never straying far from the hand that lingered on his side.
Chapter 7: Viscaria for Dancing
He looked for Crawly in every shadow, always expecting to see a fleeting figure in a black kilt out of the corner of his eye, but it didn’t happen that way.
When the hail became heavy enough to bruise he was forcibly ushering a pair of scared slave men under shelter, insisting they ignore their master’s orders to stay in the field. Instead it was him who was bodily forced into the sheltered camel-pen.
He didn’t have time to realise where the blow had come from before he was whipped around again, a pair of strong hands slamming him back against a post hard enough to crack his head, making him bite his tongue. Copper filled his mouth and copper filled his vision.
“ What are you doing!” Crawly had to shout over the hail and his face was alive with anger. In the space of heartbeats the hail started tearing up the field around them, the dirt exploding with blows that would surely kill anyone caught by them. Crawly cracked his head against the post again and he saw stars. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing!”
“ Had to… to save...” The words didn't come easy, his head spinning from the earlier impact. He should have fought Crawly’s grip but the anger and the violence robbed him of his words. Crawly didn’t have any reason to be angry at him.
“ You could have been killed! What were you going to say to them? What were you going to say!” Crawly bared sharp teeth. “’Oh, I was just trying to undo a seraph’s work. I got killed trying to save people from God’s judgement!’ Is that it?”
The hail was so loud, chunks of ice cracking against the ground, smashing wooden fences to splinters. It would have been his skull, it would have been the slaves who now cowered in the corner. The roof creaked and he wondered if it might still be.
Crawly was right. Angry and lovely and so right.
“ Don’t...” Aziraphale gasped. The hail drowned him out. Don’t. Don’t say it, don’t point it out.
“ I was turned into a bloody snake for asking questions, what do you think they’ll do to you if you fuck with Samael? You know who gives her orders!”
Aziraphale choked back a sob. He knew. He knew. But the agony of watching sat so heavy behind his ribs and eyes and in his hands, he couldn’t bear it. The slaves cowered, their wretched lives extended one more day.
“ You could –” Aziraphale was cut off by a hand over his mouth, clamped there firmly. Panicked yellow eyes studied his face.
The hail pelted down around them, a cacophony of shattering ice and wood, the sky itself falling. Crawly kept him so still, the lid of Pandora's box kept shut with one hand. They held each other’s eyes, fear and doubt and pain unspoken between them. The exhausted muscles that kept all this inside took their moment’s rest, setting down the burden they’d held for two thousand years. Just this once, just for these few seconds it was Crawly holding it at bay, stopping the doubts from spilling out of him. A long exhale escaped him, in gratitude and relief.
“ Leave Egypt, angel,” Crawly said, his anger spent and bled away. “You can’t do any good here.”
One final press of his hand against Aziraphale’s mouth and he was gone, the hail refusing to touch him as he strode out into the storm.
The problem, when they came down to it, was that an angel and a demon had very similar powers to a very powerful angel and a very powerful demon. They could throw as many miracles around as they liked but Mel and Sam would just cancel them out with a bigger, more majestic miracle. Aziraphale was taking great pains to convince him that it wasn't the size of the miracle but how he intended to use it.
Hence the brainstorming. Aziraphale had a pair of chopsticks hanging from one hand, sushi miracled in from Soho so that they could plan as they preferred – bottle of wine, loud ranting, lots of hand gestures. Crowley stood and leaned, Aziraphale lounged and ate.
“We could make all her followers forget meeting her,” Aziraphale suggested.
“A bit obvious. They'll figure that out and undo it before you can blink. Also, not how Facebook works.”
Crowley didn't enjoy this. Well, he enjoyed some of it. He didn't enjoy mentally flinging themselves at the walls of Jericho to test for weaknesses. He did enjoy the little crease between the angel's eyebrows and the way his eyes and hands and mouth became animated in passion. He very, very enjoyed the coat and waistcoat abandoned to the coat rack, the angel scantily clad in his button down shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbow. Soon enough they'd come to the inevitable conclusion – that Mel and Sam couldn't be outmaneuvered – and he could see about finding something else to arouse Aziraphale's interest. Maybe tiramisu?
“We could vaccinate the children ourselves.”
“A miracle for every kid? When we don't even know who all of them are?”
So their schedule had been set back. So what? Crowley had planned The Kiss for tonight but it could be put off. Don't go too fast, don't be too much, what was another week on eternity? He could hold Aziraphale's hand while he came to terms with this plague and be back to knuckle kisses and my darling by Tuesday afternoon at the latest.
Aziraphale frowned. “The very nature of it means it might work. Even if she figured it out Samael would have to track down each child to reverse our work.”
“And then a whole generation of these pioneering women would believe their kids had grown up healthy as horses without vaccinations. You might as well do her recruiting for her.” Crowley poured himself another riesling and perched on the side of the couch so Aziraphale's pretty little head was almost resting on his thigh.
His angel pouted up at him, trying to look properly cross. “You're not even trying to come up with something.”
Crowley returned the pout mockingly. “More wine, angel?”
Aziraphale looked away scowling. A defiant pause, then he held out his glass, eyes fixed away from Crowley. “You ought to take this more seriously.”
“I'm deadly serious. You're the clever one, I'm helping you think.” Crowley leaned down and plucked the chopsticks from where they'd been abandoned on the coffee table. He picked up one of the intricate little sushi rolls, dipped it in soy sauce and brought it to the angel's pursed lips. Aziraphale shot him another trying-very-hard-to-be-annoyed glance, undermining it again by accepting the sushi and grumpily munching on it.
“This isn't a fair trial,” Aziraphale said, mouth half full. “How are we supposed to outwit a seraph?”
“I hate to be the one to tell you this but we aren't. Declaring yourself independent of heaven doesn't let you just do this sort of thing. In fact, I distinctly remember Azrael scaring us into needing a change of pants about two minutes before we made our big stand.”
The corner of Aziraphale's mouth quirked. “ I am creation's shadow ,” he mock-boomed.
“Exactly. We weren't very heroic when he was up to fight. Let the antichrist handle that mess.”
“It just doesn't make any sense,” Aziraphale said. “None of it.”
The angel was right. Crowley didn't really know what he was talking about but he just had that I'm going to be saying I told you so for a century air about him. Aziraphale's instincts were usually on the money, even if he had a tendency to ignore them and do whatever Gabriel said instead.
“Yeah, well, the thing is, I don't care if it makes any sense.”
“Stop being a menace and start thinking.”
“How can I with you looking like that?” Crowley let his eyes meander down the vee of skin where Aziraphale's top button was undone, his bow tie brazenly draped open. A fine dusting of white hair peeked out under the expensive cotton.
“Well we can't have you distracted now, can we?” Aziraphale snapped his fingers and the shirt jumped closed, the bow tie retied itself and his sleeves were now neatly buttoned at the wrist. An outraged sort of a half-cry-half-whine escaped Crowley's mouth. That was his collarbone, he'd been enjoying that.
“Playing dirty, are we?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale looked up at him, the act of it smushing his face against Crowley's thigh. “Every time you say something unhelpful I'm putting on more clothes.”
The image flashed in his mind of a scowling Aziraphale wrapping a twentieth scarf around his neck and Crowley had to spit his mouthful of wine back into the glass before it came out his nose. It took him a moment to regain his composure, a grin etched so firmly on his face he couldn't shift it. He loved this angel, always ready to be a bastard, happy to use whatever weapon Crowley offered him. Crowley threaded his fingers affectionately through Aziraphale's lovely curls, tugging just a little at the sensitive spot behind his ear just to watch him try to suppress a shiver.
Aziraphale let out a breath, composed himself, then looked up and raised his fingers, threatening another snap. Crowley grabbed his hand. “I didn't say anything!”
“Are you being helpful?”
Crowley scowled. He stood up, letting the angel's head drop to the armrest and took out his phone. Fine. He'd help. It'd just get them to their inevitable conclusion more quickly. He navigated his way to the Facebook page that had started all this nonsense, reading through the flood of wellwishers after the 'assassination' 'attempt'. He didn't like to go around complimenting heaven's work but it was a little bit genius. Made the opposition look unhinged, drew attention, and detractors had to give a grace period while it was still a shocking tragedy. By the time the humans had stopped debating civility in politics, Samael's plague would be in full swing.
There was nothing for it, the mummy group had as much good will as they ever would, making their move now was strategically ridiculous. “Angel, we'll have to fight our way through a crowd of devotees to even see them at this point. It's all campaign stuff.” He scrolled down. “Charity breakfast.” He scrolled down. “Telly interview. Flower thing.”
“What was that?” Aziraphale perked up.
“They do a lot of flower things.”
“The telly thing. They're doing an interview?”
Catch Sam Wells and the gang LIVE tomorrow night on Sky News talking about Natural Woman, politics and political violence. Sounded awful. Who would even watch that?
“Tomorrow. Living room thing, you know.”
“They do an interview from the field or whatever, send out a reporter to get some sound bites.”
Aziraphale was looking at him strangely. Like he was saying something profound and hadn't figured it out yet. This was a bad thing, she'd have all sorts of eyes on her. She wasn't some quirky underdog candidate anymore, she'd gone mainstream.
“It would be terrible if something embarrassed her cause during the interview,” Aziraphale prompted.
Oh. Maybe. “You have something in mind?”
“Not yet, but I'd say the opportunity has presented itself.”
Clever angel. Clever, pretty angel. It shouldn't be allowed to be so clever and also be so pretty. Crowley needed to feed him more sushi. “We'll have a look at it. No promises. If this is too dangerous we're going home.”
Crowley tossed his phone on the coffee table and plunked himself down beside Aziraphale on the couch. The blasted bow tie was still tied all perky at the angel's neck, cuffs crisp, not a single wrinkle to besmirch his modesty. Crowley just had to mouth off, didn't he? It wasn't like he could now ask the angel to undress again as a reward for good behaviour.
He picked up the chopsticks, offering up another roll as sacrifice. This one was accepted happily, a little mmph of pleasure chasing it down. Crowley could run his fingers idly over those lips, feel how they quirked and pursed as Aziraphale chewed. Maybe slip a fingertip against that much-adored tongue again.
I've been good. That was helpful. Give me a break, angel.
No, he wasn't that stupid. Tuesday afternoon. Maybe Wednesday. They'd hold hands again when Aziraphale wasn't thinking about Samael. If they got a good enough hit in and got away cleanly he could work with that. Aziraphale's miracles wouldn't work against Samael so Crowley would be able to play the hero and pour the rush of victory into a grateful angel's kiss. The thought had appeal. He'd waited six thousand years to make his move, the aftermath of a victory over The Scourge herself seemed momentous enough for the occasion.
He could just... not look at Aziraphale too closely until the moment was on them. Not notice how pink his mouth was or how creamy his skin was or even think about sinking his hands into the curve of one plush, shapely arse. Definitely not. Crowley crossed his legs.
The angel reclaimed his chopsticks, fingers brushing Crowley's, his attention turned entirely to his sushi. His lips pressed against the rim of the wine glass, tongue darting out to catch a drop that lingered of those lips.
“I need a shower,” Crowley announced, jumping up from the couch.
“Again?” Aziraphale asked.
“Yeah.” He was already halfway out of the room but Aziraphale was half standing up, like he had something urgent to say.
“Will you sleep afterwards?”
Yes, oh, please, I can't do anything stupid asleep. Crowley shrugged. “Yeah, prob'ly.”
“Only I... Oh, blast it, I left them in the car, I... It's not a miracle, I promise, while you were off this morning I...” Aziraphale tugged at his sleeves, such a blushing mess that there was no way this wasn't going to be good. Crowley paused in the doorway, waiting to see where this was headed. Aziraphale looked everywhere but at him, eyes darting from floor to chair to sushi, even as he brought a hand up and pulled a miracle out of the air. A bunch of flowers appeared in his hands, pink and purple viscaria so delicate they wouldn't survive a stiff breeze.
He held them out towards Crowley, cheeks stained pink.
Aziraphale had bought him flowers. While he was off buying bad chocolate and cursed profiteroles and thinking of nothing but making his angel happy, his angel had been thinking of him, too.
He took the room in three long strides and took Aziraphale's face in his hands. He couldn’t, he couldn’t do this for one second longer. The little glances, the sunshine smiles, every word and whisper and breath a tiny defiance of heaven. It was death by a thousand cuts and he needed the final blow.
He kissed Aziraphale and felt his angel's surprised gasp turned into a desperate moan. He grasped Aziraphale's curls, slid one hand to the nape of his neck to angle his head back, part his lips, taste him. He didn't take it slow, couldn't. Fuck, fuck, fuck his tongue was so soft .
Aziraphale scrabbled at his ribs, his back, blunt nails digging into the fabric of his shirt and holding them close, flowers forgotten on the floor. The angel pressed forward, moaned, opened his mouth to Crowley's attentions, and Crowley was going to die from it. He walked the angel backwards, finding a good solid bit of wall to press him against, get their hips pressed together, choke out a cry of relief that fucking hell they were finally touching.
He couldn't... he didn't have enough hands, couldn't figure out where to touch. Pull at the hair, tug his bow tie open, oh, fuck, touch his face again, run a thumb over his jaw to feel it working, hold him just so, pull at the buttons. Kiss him kiss him kiss him . Aziraphale tasted so good, burning hot, soft, sweet, riesling and sunshine. Crowley bucked forward, seeking pressure.
He should ask permission, ask what his angel wanted, he thought dimly even as he pulled Aziraphale's head back, exposing his throat. He chased his desires down the milky skin, seeking out the pulse point with his lips and tongue.
“Let me,” he begged.
“Yes, yes, please ,” Aziraphale whimpered. Crowley yanked the first button open, then the second, hands clumsy.
Aziraphale twisted a hand into Crowley's hair, the sharp sensation shooting straight down to Crowley's cock, his hips jerking forward again. The shirt yielded under his hands, letting him expose one flawless porcelain shoulder. He didn't need to breathe, so why couldn't he get enough air? Why was he so frantically gasping between the kisses dropped against that perfect shoulder? Aziraphale moaned. Crowley pressed forward.
He couldn't get close enough. The clothes between them seemed impenetrable. It was a rabid instinct to get them off, as panicked and frantic as an animal caught in a trap. He needed to get closer.
Crowley pulled back, one hand fisted convulsively in Aziraphale's shirt, one planted firmly on the wall, holding himself back long enough to look at his lover. Fuck, he was so beautiful, eyes half-lidded, hair mussed, peony pink rising in his cheeks, his lips, spilling down his chest. Crowley took for himself another devouring kiss.
“I'm going to take you to the bedroom now,” he panted. He was too weak to make it a question. If Aziraphale said no he was going to die, his body would ignite.
Aziraphale surged forward, closing the space again and flinging his arms around Crowley's shoulders. Crowley caught him with a grunt, desperately tasting him again as they stumbled across the room, grasping at the couch and tables and walls to guide them as neither was willing to break the kiss to look.
As they staggered through the door, flinging it open hard enough to crack against the wall and shudder in aftershock, it occurred to him that he hadn't thought this far ahead. Spending all his time obsessing about his angel's fingertips and blushing face had left him woefully underprepared for the same creature letting himself be crowded onto a plush bed, scooting backwards to lie among the dozens of decorative pillows. Crowley pressed forward anyway, crawling over Aziraphale and hunting down the shirt buttons that kept him from his prize. He fell on the skin of Aziraphale's chest and belly, pressing open mouthed kisses against it just to feel the muscles underneath tense, to hear the obscene moans that spilled from his angel's mouth. Aziraphale's hands clenched in his hair, punctuating each lewd moan with a spine-tingling tug. It was everything he'd dreamed, skin softer than silk and smoother too.
Crowley breathed wounded noises into that sacred skin, trying to satisfy the wild animal in him desperate for contact, trying to ignore the burning, aching, stabbing pain of relief after six millennia. It lodged itself between his ribs, forcing those keening sounds from his mouth, stealing all his breath.
He kissed the collarbones that had peaked out from his tunic at the gates of Eden, kissed the fine white hair he had covered with ruffs and cravats, kissed the shoulder he had covered in furs and brocades, a thousand, thousand designs, disguises, armours, all stripped away and gone. Now it was Crowley’s to see and worship, to feel the softness, the heat of him, watch pink flowers blossom on milk-white skin wherever his mouth touched.
With one hand he fumbled with Aziraphale's belt. He had to get these clothes off, he was going to go mad. The angel pulled at his hair, dragging him back for another kiss and he was helpless to deny it. He pulled the belt buckle open, working his hand between them to open the fly on Aziraphale's trousers. The angel claimed his mouth, kissing him like some romantic hero, like the climax of a love story, like a treasured thing even as Crowley slipped a hand into his pants and found his cock.
Aziraphale gave a frantic cry, bucked up into the touch and suddenly they were both naked.
Crowley hissed, the abrupt skin-to-skin contact shocking him. His chest tightened. His aching cock was nestled in the crease of Aziraphale's hip, their legs tangled together and thank Whoever that he'd jerked off that morning or it would have finished him then and there.
“You're beautiful,” he whispered, “fuck, angel, you're so...”
Crowley couldn't stop his hips rocking against Aziraphale, taking what friction he could get and returning it to his stricken angel. It was so good, better than he'd known a thing could be, some new level of stimulation – as intense as pain, making him scramble and babble and cry out like he was being tortured. He couldn't get close enough. He wanted to be absorbed by his angel, crawl into his skin.
Aziraphale threw his head back, arching off the bed, exposing his neck and shoulders to more exploration. His groans and whimpers twisted through the air, urging Crowley on, begging for more. He hadn't even started.
He knew what to do, what his body demanded, what would finally bring them close enough. But this wasn't some human, this was Aziraphale, his mountaintop, the only real thing in the world. It had to be good, had to make him moan and tremble and come. Had to be better than any human.
“I'll make it good,” he mumbled into Aziraphale's mouth. “Make you feel good.”
“Darling, darling...” Aziraphale breathed, pushing up against his hand again.
Fuck, he needed to see his angel come. The sounds he would make. God, fuck, Aziraphale was naked, pressed against him, he wanted this. He wanted him.
Crowley dropped to the bed beside Aziraphale and curled around him, urging him with a hand on one hip to roll onto his side. Crowley settled his cock against Aziraphale's arse. It was happening, he was going to fuck his best friend.
Crowley rolled away to open the bedside drawer with one hand, retrieving the bottle of lube he'd assumed into existence. He squeezed it out onto one shaking hand as he slid back into place. Aziraphale gasped as Crowley manhandled him, spreading him open and keeping him there with one thigh between his legs, allowing him to slip one finger in his tight little arse.
Aziraphale cried out, a strangled, shocked sound and Crowley wrapped his free arm around his angel, crushing him against his chest. He worked his slick finger in further, fucking him slowly. Fuck, he was so tight. Crowley had never been so hard in his life, his angel was a fucking mess in his arms and it was unspeakable. This was what he had been made for. Aziraphale let out pained whimpers while his hips twitched and jerked.
“Alright, angel?” Crowley whispered, dropping kisses to the nape of his neck. “Do you want me to stop?”
The angel shook his head frantically, but covered his face with one hand, whole body shaking with overstimulation. Muffled sounds behind his hand rose in pitch as Crowley kept pushing in, gentle but relentless, closing his eyes against his cock's insistence that he needed to be fucking the angel now . When Aziraphale started pushing back against his hand he added another finger, fucking into him deeper, every choking cry sending a shock of need through him. He fingerfucked the angel harder, faster, ripping those cries from him, using his knee to spread his legs further. Crowley was torn, frantic to sink his cock into this burning heat but intoxicated by the sounds he was pulling from Aziraphale.
His punch-drunk brain managed to figure out that the angel would also make these sounds while getting fucked properly. He eased his fingers out, kissing Aziraphale's shoulders, letting him go even as he whimpered at the loss. Crowley took his cock in hand, dragged the head down to snag in Aziraphale's hole. They let out their breath as one, a groan of agony and ecstasy and the promise of an endless journey finally ended.
Crowley pushed the head of his cock inside, matching Aziraphale's cry with his own. He wrapped his arms around his angel, pulled him back close, held him tight, naked and fire-hot in his arms as he pressed inside.
“I've got you,” he gasped. “I've got you, I'm here.”
Crowley held his angel, moved slow, closed his eyes and held his breath and refused to come like a virgin before he had even fully seated himself. He pressed a hand to Aziraphale's forehead, not letting him curl away, holding him close as his body adjusted. Oh, beautiful angel, so fucking sweet, blushing and whimpering like a perfect innocent, giving over his sacrosanct body to Crowley's care, trusting, open.
Their hips came flush together, their legs entangled and Aziraphale let out a sob.
“Darling, my darling, oh, it feels... it feels...”
“Oh, please.” Crowley's hips jerked of their own accord, it was too good, fire burning under his skin. “Please, please...”
He didn't know what he was begging for, what else in the universe he could possibly ask for when his angel was in his arms, whimpering and trembling. His hips wouldn't stop twitching, desperate to start moving, each flinch pulling an unsteady cry from Aziraphale. Crowley pressed his forehead to Aziraphale's back and forced himself to breathe slowly, settling his overexcited body. Aziraphale's sobbing breaths evened out slowly, his body relaxed and Crowley started to move.
He was careful at first, shallow, soft strokes. He let his hand fall from the angel's forehead and instead started stroking his cock, helping him feel good. It had to feel good. They'd come so far since he'd first been filled with visions of pink peonies, of prostrating and exposing himself on the off chance of a smile. He had to give the angel everything he wanted, make him so happy and so comfortable that he could never leave again. Fuck , it felt good.
“Please, please...” He couldn't stop saying it, his forehead pressed to Aziraphale's sweat-slick back, eyes squeezed shut, worshipping that holy ground between his angel's wings. Please, please. He picked up the pace, body moving on its own, his needs too strong to ignore now. Please, please.
Please don't take him from me. Too late he realised who he was talking to. Please, I love him. Please don't leave me alone. Please, please...
Aziraphale rocked back into him. “Yes... I'm yours... take me, darling, have me.”
Crowley gave him what he wanted, driving up into him harder, faster. He could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. Scrambling for leverage, he released his wings in a burst of black shadows, one coming over them to cradle the angel closer while he used the other for balance. Aziraphale tangled his hands in the huge wing, finally free to grab hold of something besides the abused pillows. It shouldn't have felt this good, every time he was sure he'd come it all just climbed higher instead. He pulled the angel down onto his cock harder, clever hands working faster.
He dragged his thumb over the head of Aziraphale's cock and the angel wailed, clinging to the black wing, body tightening. Oh, yes. The obscene sound of flesh hitting flesh mingled with their moans, filling the air. Crowley's body drew taut, heart thundering, he dug his toes into the blankets, trying to get deeper, fuck his angel better, push himself higher. He couldn't take this, it was too much and not enough and he still wasn't close enough . He squeezed the cock in his hand tighter, jerking his angel off harder.
“Yes,” Crowley growled. “Yes, yes, fuck yes– I love you, angel, my angel, fuck, I...”
One more drive into that pretty white arse and he was lost. In the same moment Aziraphale tensed, choked, and then they were curling around each other, delirious. The stabs of pleasure hit Crowley, sharp enough to make him see spots. He came with a shout, spilled into his whimpering, trembling angel. He rode it out with eyes shut, lost in the clenching, tightening, wailing euphoria of Aziraphale's orgasm, sunk deep enough into his body to experience it with him. It wrung him dry.
The tension seeped from his body, bit by agonising bit, but the shaking stayed. He couldn't move, couldn't let Aziraphale go, couldn't stop himself from trembling in every limb. He clung to his angel like a life raft. Tears stung his eyes.
It was Aziraphale who eased away, rolling over to meet him. The demon found himself enveloped in Aziraphale's arms, his face buried in his lover’s chest, cradled in white wings as well as black. Aziraphale stroked his back with one strong hand. “Shh, I've got you, dear. I've got you.”
It helped. It was humiliating to need it but it helped. He didn't know what was wrong with him, this wasn't his style. He was supposed to be the one in control, the comforter not the comfortee, and he was sure he could give his angel the proper aftercare if he could just stop shaking .
“I've got you,” Aziraphale whispered into his hair. “I've–” The angel cut himself off with a gasp.
“What? What's it...?” Crowley struggled to sit up, to see what Aziraphale had seen through their wings. His angel helped him, dropping his wings and easing them both up onto the pillows to look around the room.
On every surface and covering every inch of the floor, each tied into a pretty bouquet, wrapped in neon paper and standing proudly in a mismatched vase, were bunches upon bunches of pink peonies.
Chapter 8: Larkspur for Fickleness
He didn’t leave Egypt. It festered like a boil, what he had done. Letting all his guilt and fear lock around Crawly’s shoulders like a yoke, the kind that tied the oxen to the mill. If Aziraphale couldn’t doubt, couldn’t speak, couldn’t intervene then Crawly could. Here, take my duty of care and perform it for me, take my damnation and wear it for me, so I might be pristine where you are filthy.
Samael could strike him down. God could still find new ways to punish him.
But like the boils that festered, he had learned to ignore it in the face of greater problems. People clambered to the walls of the city, hobbling and limping, hands pressed against weeping sores, steps listing from exhaustion. Aziraphale walked among them, helping them, lending his hand where he could to keep people upright. Everyone had to see.
It was a sight he wouldn’t see again if there was any mercy in the world, and strangely beautiful.
The land seethed. A living black blanket cast itself over every hill and field. It rolled and moved in waves, taking with it every leaf of green it touched. The locusts left a wasteland in their wake, the once green hills stripped to brown. Everything the hail hadn’t taken was being taken now.
No one cried aloud. Aziraphale watched the people’s faces, they didn’t weep or moan or even frown. They just watched.
The distinction between Egyptian and Israelite didn’t matter anymore. They were all watching, all impassive, all felt judged the same. Slaves weren’t the workers anymore, anyone strong enough to walk and lift and carry had to do their bit to survive. They all huddled together on the walls and watched as the last of their food was devoured by Samael.
Aziraphale felt a hand slip into his and looked at the woman next to him. She didn’t look at him, eyes still on the roiling horizon. Around them others did the same, fingers threaded into each other, into cuffs and skirts, arms wrapped tighter around children.
Was Crawly out there? What could a demon do against this?
He squeezed the hand in his, pretending that he was giving her comfort and not the other way around. He wanted a different hand, a different comfort. Forgiveness.
To ask Crawly to stand against Samael, to even imply it was heresy. And worse than heresy, it was so dangerous to the demon’s life. Samael could kill him, not just discorporate but kill. It was like sending a housecat against a tiger.
Maybe he’d misunderstood, maybe this was the point of it all, the lot of them standing here together as one. These people had held slaves for centuries, maybe it was the only way to break their pride. He’d asked a demon to defy heaven to gentle this lesson. He questioned the Almighty’s wisdom in doing this.
The lands around them seethed black.
It had taken six thousand years to get here and it would take six seconds to fall apart.
But not yet. For the moment it was fine.
Everything was fine. It was fine.
Aziraphale was keeping calm and it was fine.
It was just sex. It wasn't just sex.
It was breaking new ground and somehow treading old ground. Their bodies just catching up to where their hearts had been for so long now, meeting each other finally and something deep inside saying oh, I know you . A consummation devoutly to be wished.
Nothing had changed except to discover the bright, sweet pleasure of joining their human bodies as one. They weren't, couldn't be more devoted to each other, that had been decided and confirmed at the Tadfield Airbase, as solemn as any wedding ceremony.
So what did it matter if they had sex last night or a month from now or a thousand years into the future? It didn't. God would always see them. He would have Fallen already if that was going to happen.
Crowley needed him now, not at some uncertain future date. Agreeing to this weekend away had cracked something open in his darling serpent that didn't want to be stuffed back inside. After so long he deserved to be himself and have Aziraphale's understanding.
And, well... it had been rather marvellous, all things considered.
Aziraphale sighed and shifted another vase of peonies off the bench of the kitchenette. He pulled a peony-painted teacup out of the cupboard and set about brewing himself some tea, although the only flavour they appeared to have was peony. He did hope only their room had been affected.
Everything could settle once this dreadful plague business was done with. Aziraphale could confront his demons in the peace and privacy of his bookshop with no concern that Crowley would see his hesitation. Even as he thought it a wave of guilt swelled inside him. Hesitation? For his soulmate? Ridiculous. Mephistopheles had looked into the nature of reality and seen that they belonged together. And even if she hadn't, they'd chosen to be together for nearly two thousand years now. Why was he acting like he still had – or wanted – a choice?
It had been so good to be with Crowley in that way. No doubts or fears, just black feathers clutched in his hands, infernal sounds moaned into his ear, body working on its own trying to get ever more, harder, closer. Aziraphale closed his eyes and took a calming breath, the memory of the night before sending joyful shivers down his spine.
So that was that. It was settled, they were together, he was ready. It was fine.
He took a sip of peony tea.
The bedroom door creaked open and Crowley stumbled out, a rumpled mess in pyjama pants, hair sticking up at all angles. Aziraphale smothered a smile into his teacup. The demon walked, half asleep through the pathway Aziraphale had cleared to the kitchen, stacking flowers on flowers. He ignored the coffee machine, the fridge, the path to the bathroom and Aziraphale found himself with a demon draped over his back, arms cuddling and nose nuzzling.
“Good afternoon, dear,” Aziraphale said.
“Mmmnnphlllmm,” Crowley replied, then pressed a warm kiss into Aziraphale's neck.
A giggle escaped Aziraphale, his face warming. There were certain advantages to pressing forward, he had to admit.
“Would you care for some peony tea?” he offered. “Peony scones with peony jam?”
“Your miracle was very thorough.”
“Not me,” Crowley protested, pushing forward to firmly trap Aziraphale against the bench, mouthing at his neck with a bit more intention. “S'all you.”
Aziraphale had to set his teacup down before the blooming waves of arousal made him clumsy. Crowley had him about the waist, arms beautifully strong, mouth hot and attentive. It would be all too easy to drag him back to bed. If they weren't on a schedule.
“I think you'll find it wasn't.” Aziraphale turned in Crowley's arms, resting his hands in the small of the demon's back. The sleepy kisses found their way from his neck to his mouth, pressed against his lips, lazy and inelegant and so very warm.
Crowley flicked a hand, only half paying attention, and gazed around blearily when the flowers failed to disappear. Oh, good, neither of them could get rid of their very convenient conjuration. They'd turned all the soap scents and changed the embroidery on the throw cushions and pink flowers now adorned the labels of every wine bottle which Aziraphale would not be tasting. Crowley appeared to consider this for a moment before shrugging and leaning in for more kisses.
“Got you flowers,” he mumbled into Aziraphale's mouth. “You like flowers.”
Aziraphale smiled into the kisses, leaning into Crowley, letting himself forget their schedule and the imminent terrors. After all, he'd spent so very long without having a gorgeous serpent wrapped around him in the blush of love. It was only sensible at this point to do something to earn the impending consequences.
His mind offered him the image of Gabriel, pale and aghast at the idea of their little morning after. It brought a chuckle to his throat, widened the smile Crowley was trying to kiss away, helped the joy settle and solidify.
No , some other voice reminded him. That's not how it would go. Gabriel wouldn't be flabbergasted, choking on his words. He'd be drawing his sword and advancing on them.
Aziraphale jerked back with a gasp, like he'd touched a hot stove.
“Angel?” Crowley asked, pulling back just enough to bring a hand to Aziraphale's face. “What's – ”
The closeness was suddenly stifling. Aziraphale pulled away, knocking Crowley back and almost tripping on an area of floor he hadn't cleared, sending vases of puffy flowers toppling over one another. He regained his balance, bracing himself against the bench and looking up to watch confusion slowly morphing to hurt on Crowley's face.
Oh, God, how silly of him. Crowley was sublime, rumpled and vulnerable, overflowing with affection. And he was hurting him.
He pressed a hand to his chest, trying to slow his absurd heart which was only supposed to be there for decoration anyway. “Oh. Oh, I'm sorry.” He scrambled for an explanation, not wanting to lie but not wanting the blunt edge of the truth to bruise. “Just... getting used to the idea.”
Oh, idiot, that wasn't any good. Crowley's luminescent happiness dimmed further, bordering on wariness.
“...right.” Crowley nodded, straightening a touch. “Whatever you need, angel. If last night wasn't...”
“It was,” Aziraphale cut him off. “Oh, my darling, it was.” He stepped back into his demon's space and leaned up to kiss him, easing him back into his sleepy, relaxed posture even if the mood couldn't be entirely salvaged. There was no Gabriel here, no Metatron, no Samael. Just them and whatever they wanted to make of this.
It was fine.
Crowley curled around him again, the fog of sleep lifted, letting something more careworn take its place. The kisses pressed to his mouth were firm and quick, proving a point rather than aiming to please.
“Whatever you need,” Crowley repeated, this time into his hair, the words recited by rote. They were untrue, Aziraphale knew that. Not through any malice, they had just spent a few thousand years at least dancing on a knife's edge. They needed peace and rest and time to explore each other's boundaries, not more heroics. Aziraphale was looking forward to Crowley stretched out on the couch in the bookshop, asleep in his favourite patch of sunlight. He wanted to live out his well-used fantasy of waking him with kisses, watch a smile grace his mouth before he had opened his eyes.
Aziraphale eased back before they could sink any further into their ill-formed intimacy. He gave Crowley a fond smile. “You overslept.”
“Nearly three. We have a few hours before the interview.”
Crowley whined, dropping his forehead to Aziraphale's shoulder. “Do you have a plan?”
“It's not so hard to send signs of favour or disfavour. A bird flying into something is traditional.”
“You wanted last night, right?” Crowley asked. “I wasn't just being pushy?”
Aziraphale took a moment to himself, tamping down things that needed tamping, boarding up windows before a hurricane even if his only tool was masking tape. They needed to focus. This wasn't quite going against Lucifer with a sword and a tire iron, but it wasn't anything to be flippant about, either. He might have put some distance between them and forced Crowley back to the matter at hand, if his poor darling hadn’t been so fragile. They just needed to buck up a little, enough to get them through the afternoon, then they could take some breathing space.
Fumbling for what Crowley needed at this moment, he brushed Crowley's tangled hair behind his ear, letting a hand linger to cradle his face. Crowley needed to be loved. It was his only balm at times like these. And no matter how clumsy, Aziraphale had an infinite well of love for Crowley, so he stuck with safe truths. “I've dreamt about last night for centuries. I've been heartsick for you.”
And because Gabriel wasn't there and Samael hadn't noticed them and it was fine, he relaxed into a true kiss, something to soothe his own trembling nerves. Crowley's arms around him, his lovely bare chest against him, his mouth warm and inviting, it was going to be worth whatever it brought down on their heads.
Crowley's shoulders relaxed, Aziraphale had guessed correctly.
Now he just had to escape this situation before he could mess it up again. “Let's get some coffee,” he suggested between lazy kisses. “Scout the location beforehand.”
“Since when do you drink coffee?”
Combined with the kisses the argument was very persuasive. But left to his own devices he'd have Crowley defensive and hurt again in no time, better to cut his losses. He eased away, careful this time. “Come along, dear. We'll get triple... dipple caramel mocha frappucinos or something, I know how you enjoy ordering those. Unless you'd like to take a shower first?”
He couldn't quite figure out why Crowley had taken to showering like a human, a confusion only compounded by Crowley's shark-like grin at the suggestion. “I don't think I'll be needing a shower for quite a while, angel.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“Come on, then. Frappucinos as requested.” With a gesture he was dressed and coiffed, hand outstretched in invitation.
Aziraphale took the offered hand, finally back in safe territory where a misstep wouldn't send him plunging either to ecstasy or agony. Just a warm hand and amused glances as they navigated the peony fields, the promise of chocolate flavoured coffee and Crowley being far too happy to annoy a hapless barista who wouldn't realise until ten minutes later that their tip jar was full to bursting.
Together they picked through the mismatched vases, on occasion sending them toppling like dominoes. Crowley looked lighter, happier than he had been. Aziraphale squeezed his hand as they strolled down the corridor, ambled down the stairs, leaned into kisses pressed to his cheeks, kept checking in, still here, still got you, still yours. He needed these few heartbeats between romantic gestures to convince Crowley he loved even the quiet parts of him. They weren't performing anymore, Aziraphale wasn't just a new audience to judge and reward him. A hand on the thigh in the Bentley. Still yours, still got you.
There was no Costa in the village but Crowley found a cafe that had bottles of flavoured syrup displayed behind the counter and left Aziraphale alone in favour of bothering the teenager making the coffee. It was all too ordinary for the day they were having.
Maybe this seraphim business was a horrible idea. He watched Crowley at the counter, taking the young woman's pencil out of her hand and writing down a long string of words, mouth set in a grim line, going over every word with her to make sure she understood the gravity, the intensity of his coffee order. The barista was staring at the paper in alarm, nodding along. How could he risk losing this?
Mephistopheles had promised that they would one day be separated. Could be separated, if they didn't choose to change it. Their decision to do nothing wasn't nothing at all. It was the decision to face the sword. Gabriel dropping in on them in the middle of the night with a divine edict. But what other choice? Lose their ability to intervene, let the seraphim and lords of hell and archangels of heaven run roughshod over humans, spread plagues among their children? Lose each other? The sword, the children, Crowley. Spinning choices under paper cups that aren't really choices at all. Mephistopheles so magnanimously letting him decide his fate.
Crowley gave the young woman a final, pointed stare over the rim of his sunglasses and joined Aziraphale waiting by a high counter.
“What do you think we'll get?” Aziraphale asked.
“Honestly? No idea. Something caffeinated, I hope.”
“Can't fight The Executioner without our morning coffee,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley scoffed. “Yeah, that'll be the deciding factor.”
It had all looked so distant sitting in a badly appointed lounge room with a beer in his hand and Crowley's arm around his shoulder. A flower under paper cups, a demon who made it her business to bring the mighty low.
Now the plague was spreading, the little ones who ran about in their Sunday best in the church yard would soon sicken, weaken, start coughing or vomiting. Samael would draw her sword – did she still carry a kopesh? Heaven's armoury was her plaything – and she would strike them down.
“We won't know what to do with ourselves once we're back in London,” Aziraphale said to fill the air. “After all this excitement.”
“We've filled up the last few thousand years well enough.”
“What will you be doing? With no tempting on your plate?”
“Who said I wouldn't be tempting?”
A chill shot through Aziraphale. “You're... you'll be leaving then?”
Crowley blinked at him. He spoke slowly, like Aziraphale was being particularly daft. “Of course I won't be leaving. It was a joke, since I hope I'll be tempting you.”
There was something there, underneath the flippancy. Fear. Aziraphale's own fear reflected back at him, uncertainty in tomorrow, terrified of a foggy afternoon under a bandstand.
“Oh... of course, of course. Very funny, my dear. Very funny.” A thready chuckle escaped him.
Crowley turned his full attention back to Aziraphale. “I'm not going anywhere, angel. No more running. I love you.”
Heaven strike him down how did everything he said only escalate the situation further? He had imagined he would tell Crowley he loved him in the bookshop, take his hands and speak until the words blended into poetry, tell him of the stars and the gardens, wild red hair, a comforting presence when he had been frightened, a challenging presence when he had been stuck in his ways. Maybe not the bookshop, maybe a villa in Tuscany or the observatory in Rome. Heavens, even last night in the throes of passion was preferable to a coffee shop on main street at three on a Monday.
“Coffee for Cowwley?” The barista saved him.
Or it might be more accurate to say that she attempted to save him. The moment was broken, the simple, forthright answer Crowley expected had been staved off. It would be easy, cruel and easy, to pretend that there hadn't been a pause between Crowley's declaration and the barista's question. It would be easy and cruel and incredibly stupid to pretend he didn't interpret the shift in Crowley's expression during that pause.
Before he had time to be properly guilty about it, a tall takeaway cup was pressed into his hand. Whatever his order had been, the young lady had given him a cup of chocolate, caramel and whipped cream.
“Let's walk?” Crowley said, not looking at him. “Mel loves the Bentley, she'll spot it a mile off.”
We're in love . Just say it. Don't leave him alone in this.
Aziraphale wanted to kick himself. It didn't matter if it was the right moment, how he dreamed it. Crowley had been so patient with him. Every time Gabriel had frightened and humiliated him he'd always had somewhere to turn, his demon had always understood without him saying a word. Now he was the one who needed to put his own needs aside and he was failing. He needed to be the one who was strong and smooth and carefree and all he could see was Gabriel advancing with his sword.
Crowley took his hand again and he bit back a sigh of gratitude. Maybe it hadn't been as monumental as he thought. Maybe he had a little more time to find the right moment, and it would just spill off his tongue like Shakespeare or Wilde.
It could be normal again for just a little while, walking hand in hand, bad coffee and spring sunshine. He could ignore the pressures of love, the plague, the sword. Paper cups filled with caramel and cream instead of dread promises. But the silence between them was heavy with things unsaid and with the passing of time, the minutes between this moment and the one where they would defy Samael stuck around like toffee in their teeth.
It wasn't a long walk, there was no such thing in a village this size. Long enough for Aziraphale to debate if he should be less nervous because Crowley wasn't letting go of his hand, or maybe more nervous because they were going to do something reckless and dangerous.
Spin the cups one more time. He couldn't be comfortable with everything. Had to take a loss somewhere.
Mel's house wasn't much different in the sunlight, maybe a little shabbier with its peeling paint. There were people, mostly adult women who looked alarmingly like Samael with their over-groomed eyebrows. Likely the vanguard of the mothers taken in by the plague, a few had children around them. The pitbull chained in the front yard was tolerating several small children hanging off it, casting worried glances about as chubby fingers poked at its ears and paws. A man with a clipboard was organising people around the gardenbeds full of larkspur, a photogenic backdrop for live cameras.
Crowley claimed their position across the street, sitting on a low brick fence and tugging Aziraphale down beside him. He sipped his coffee, studying the scene through dark glasses.
“Do you see either of them?” he asked.
Aziraphale shook his head, wishing he could look as serious as he felt while also sipping on his caramel drink. “No.”
“Think they're going to spring up behind us?”
“That dog really is a good sport.”
“Hmm.” Aziraphale couldn't find the bottom of his coffee cup. Just like Crowley to think feeding him an endless supply of caramel would keep him calm. It helped a bit. It was something to do with his hands, keep sipping, hiding his immovable frown. “I was hoping for a bolt of inspiration once we got here. Something more dramatic than a bird flying into a window.”
“You're supposed to be the clever one.”
“You only call me that when you want something from me.”
“Because it works. Every time.”
“I don't have anything.” Aziraphale wanted to tease back. He wanted more than anything to get that I'm-trying-to-be-angry-but-that-was-funny grimace out of Crowley, but he couldn't strike the right notes, his patter was all wrong. Everything came out so serious.
Crowley frowned, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye. “I'm joking, angel.”
“I know.” Wonderful, more reassurances, more pity. His stupid voice sounding all thready and weak. His stupid words not good enough. “I just, I don't have anything.”
Crowley's hand flinched towards him before reconsidering. Thinking the better of touching him. Backing off. He cleared his throat. “I've got it, anyway. The kids over there, they're trying to show how healthy they are on the news, right? One of them has a coughing fit and the clip will go viral in five minutes, guaranteed.”
“It's a good thing. What we want.”
It was a good plan. If she hadn't thought to miracle these children into good health for the occasion, Samael might even pass it off as a natural occurrence. And if she had, well then it would be too late to do anything about it, so long as they took her by surprise. And then it would be time to run before they found out if she was in the business of killing angels or demons these days.
He didn't want to know. He didn't want to find out. This was God, wasn't it? He shouldn't be defying Her. It was defying Her, even if Crowley was the one performing the miracle. Wasn't it? Aziraphale's stomach hurt. Samael's work was sacred, the gravest of miracles, the largest responsibility and the most terrible burden. How could she, could God, could anyone let a demon prince play a hand in it? None of it made sense and now his life and Crowley's were on the line for something he didn't even understand. At his own insistence and no one else's.
He could see in his head, as bright as the sunlight, the judgemental stares of the archangels. They'd been wrong about the Apocalypse but this wasn't the first time he'd gotten urgent, foolish ideas into his head. Now, rather than Michael's patience, Uriel's concise questioning, Gabriel's firm hand, his only check was Crowley, who was bending over backwards to do anything that might make him happy. Who trusted him completely whether he earned that trust or not.
It might have been easier if he had made the effort to talk, to distract himself, but he watched them prepare for the interview like watching a film in slow motion. Mephistopheles, prince of the fourth circle of hell, made the cameraman a cup of tea. Samael the Executioner tapped one manicured nail on the aide's clipboard, pointing out something or other with a condescending smile. It all looked like a rather lovely afternoon for the smiling, unsuspecting humans and their compelling captors.
He watched the reporter arrive, the camera tests, the polite exchanges.
Are you sure this is a good idea? asked a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Gabriel. You don't even know what's really happening here. You're sending Crowley against a seraph when you know he can't win, not really. The plague is going to happen.
He watched Samael get fitted for a mic, test the sound out, laugh with the sound man over something he couldn't hear.
You think too much. You drag him along on these stupid misadventures to feel like the hero. But you're not, you just can't leave well enough alone.
“Just about show time,” Crowley said. He stretched out his hands and gave a lopsided grin. There was something off about it, unsure. “Kiss for good luck?”
Aziraphale leaned in and kissed him, tried to think of it as natural, not something they had been doing for less than a day. He tried to think about the softness and warmth of Crowley's mouth, tried to think about all the times he had wanted to do this.
He wouldn't be so anxious to please if you'd stop jerking him around. You made love for the first time last night and now you can barely stand to kiss him. What does he have to do to make you happy?
Aziraphale's throat tightened. This was wrong, he needed to call it off. He'd chosen the wrong cup, the wrong consequence.
The mothers and children were herded and posed in front of the larkspur. Samael straightened and brightened. The reporter brandished his microphone. Mel grinned off-camera.
Crowley raised his hand.
You're just going to let him do it?
The snap was quiet, nothing to echo through the air, nothing to draw attention. The pitbull looked their way, cocked its head. The children stayed where they were, vibrating with the excitement of being on camera but otherwise quiet.
A flicker of doubt passed over Crowley's face. He snapped his fingers again.
Samael looked at them. She kept her posture, didn't break the rhythm of whatever she was saying, but her eyes locked with the demon's and her smile turned wicked.
Of course she knew you were here. What did you expect?
Crowley's miracles weren't working. It made no sense, an angel couldn't counteract a seraph but a demon could. They'd done it before.
Something was wrong. Terribly, horribly wrong.
“That's it,” Crowley said. His hand closed around Aziraphale's and the angel found himself yanked to his feet, his neverending coffee cup slipping from his hand to run torrents along the footpath. He let himself be dragged along, mind reeling.
They knew their enemies, they'd planned, they'd played to their advantage and yet they had failed. Samael had been expecting them, had known they were there the whole time. Those children were going to die.
God help him, was he grateful? If the miracle had worked and she had been humiliated on television, she would have known who to blame. Not him, he could have lived with that, but Crowley.
Would Mel's deal hold if it was just one of them? If Crowley died, would Aziraphale live on, his divine punishment served by the loss of his soulmate?
Crowley dragged him, pushed him, forced him forward, putting all the distance they could between themselves and the seraph. “It's done, okay? We had a deal, we tried, we failed, now we're going home.”
“Why didn't it work?” Aziraphale asked, voice weak but still there.
“I don't care.”
“I know!” Crowley dragged him forward. “I know it should have worked. It didn't. We had a deal.”
“Crowley, the children.” Aziraphale tried to swallow down the lump in his throat. The only reason a demon's miracles wouldn't work against Samael was if it wasn't Samael at all. This was a plague masquerading as heaven's work. It wasn't God's will.
You're just going to keep at it until you get him killed, aren't you?
“I don't care !” Crowley stopped pulling him along and rounded on him instead, tearing his sunglasses off to make eye contact. “I don't care, angel, I just don't. You and I, we've always done what we could and it hasn't always been a lot. We can't keep all the humans safe, not from something like this. But I can keep you safe. I chose you. I love you.”
Time stopped. There was no barista to save him. It was now, in the middle of the street in Sandford, the terrors of heaven and hell at their heels, or it was never.
You just nearly got him killed and he still thinks you're worth it.
A second ticked by, Aziraphale's tongue was too dry to speak. He tried to swallow. Tears pricked at the corner of his eyes.
He trusts you so blindly, he's going to die for it.
Another second. He just needed to say something. Anything, he couldn't let the air hang empty.
He hasn't figured it out yet. Hasn't figured out that you're weak and broken and just fumbling around in the dark, trying to figure out what's going on.
The silence was a living creature between them, smothering, suffocating. Crowley's throat bobbed as he swallowed, his anger starting to morph into pain.
Aziraphale stared at him, desperate to figure out the way forward. Crowley didn't know, couldn't know, he was doing all of this to win a heart that would only be a burden to him. A white elephant that would take him down this disastrous path again and again.
Even now Aziraphale didn't know what had gone wrong. Something could be following them, the consequences could still be coming for them.
The seconds ticked past.
It was too late. Aziraphale's heart trembled in his chest, his mind and his mouth refusing to form the words that would weigh Crowley down like a yoke around his neck.
Crowley looked like he had been punched. He stared, unblinking at Aziraphale, lips parted, a mortal wound writ large across his face.
Six fatal seconds passed.
“Right,” Crowley breathed. He stood in place, frozen for an infinity. Then he blinked. Looked around him like he didn't know where he was. Shook himself. “Right.”
Aziraphale was buffered from the world by a thick fog, watching Crowley turn and walk away like it was happening to someone in a film. His whole body trembled, he clasped his hands to stop them shaking. His eyes burned, his throat and his heart burned as well, his stupid mouth tried to say something, to call Crowley back, to fix and mend like angels were supposed to do.
Instead he stood, frozen in place on a Sandford footpath as Crowley sauntered into the distance.
Crowley felt like a murder victim, bleeding all over the streets of this quiet little village. He was stuck full of knives. In his heart, in his back, in his gut. He shoved his hair out of his face, hair he had grown out for Aziraphale. Another knife, straight to his neck.
His feet led him where he needed to go. He wouldn't think, couldn't think or it would twist all those knives deeper. Couldn't think about Aziraphale's smile. Couldn't think about about the picnic under the oak tree. Couldn't think about falling asleep wrapped naked around his angel, exhausted and happier than he'd ever been in six thousand miserable years.
Snakes couldn't cry. Pity he wasn't all snake. His breath was shaky and his eyes stung but he managed to keep it in, for the most part.
He walked. To nowhere, at first, just away from Aziraphale. Some time alone, some perspective, bleeding out and silently begging his angel to come after him, find him, tell him it was all a terrible mistake and he felt the same way. It was pathetic but he would have taken it, accepted any pitiful scrap.
The knives only worked their way deeper. The tears were harder to hold back.
He was a demon, a snake, had been sent to Earth to make people betray themselves. There was always something of self-protection in what he did. He never got in too deep, never got attached. There was always some part of him looking after himself.
He'd bared everything, left himself vulnerable. But something in his mind was always looking after him. His feet knew where to take him.
Aziraphale, Aziraphale, Aziraphale .
His angel. After all these years he'd been stupid enough to think Aziraphale was finally his. Why? Because they'd had sex? What an idiot. He was going to bleed to death without ever spilling a drop of blood.
The interview was wrapping up when he arrived back at Mel's house. People were talking, congratulating each other, flush with the excitement of attention. They didn't notice him. Samael didn't even look. Compared to them he was a dark shadow, a slip of nothing. He didn't need to breathe so he didn't, it was easier to keep the tears inside.
Mel noticed him. She turned around, concern already written on her face, like some sixth sense told her to expect him, told her he'd need triage before he bled out in her garden. She met him at the fence, reached out to him, caught his hands.
“Crawly?” Her eyes searched his face, searched the rest of him, looking for the injury.
He hid behind his sunglasses, steadied himself.
“You said...” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat and forced himself to speak normally. “You said it won't hurt?”
Chapter 9: Daffodils for Unrequited Love
It was the darkness that broke him, like so many others.
“ We’re going to die here.” He heard the words again and again, more and more until they were etched into his skin. It wasn’t going to end, not until every one of them was dead.
He couldn’t die, not like this, but the humans’ fear was infectious and when the sun darkened many fell where they stood, crumpling into piles. Some died, finally giving into whatever sickness they suffered under but most of those that fell still breathed. They just waited for death.
It wasn’t pitch dark to Aziraphale. He could see the second sun in her place above the city. Seraphim were beautiful in their own way and every day she looked less like her corporation and more like herself. Wheels of fire spun, awesome eyes watching her destruction. Her mane, her horns, her many mouths and burnished wings all shifted and swirled, trying to make sense to his eyes in this reality. Her terrible light struck everything red.
He was alone in a deserted alleyway, slumped to the ground, his back against a wall. He closed his eyes against the red light. A fragile feeling overcame him, as if his body might start shaking and simply refuse to stop. He hadn’t eaten in weeks or had a sip of water, he refused to take anything from these people. The imprint of a hundred dying hands were burnt into his palm. What could he do for them except be there?
A sob rose up in his chest but he pushed it down. If he started he wouldn’t stop.
He was going to die here.
He couldn’t, could he? He could, he could, dead under the swing of a kopesh. It had been glorious and mesmerising in heaven, watching Azrael and Samael come to blows with their terrible siblings. A fight that shattered reality, broke him inside just from the watching, left its fractures in the earth and in heaven and the spots of light that shone from far away. They repainted the stars in their blood.
This was so far from there. The smell of death and shit in the air, the only sound the muffled sobs of children from inside boarded-up homes. The sun itself had gone away now. They were all going to die here.
Footsteps echoed down the alleyway but Aziraphale didn’t open his eyes. No one had the energy for crime, he was safe from all but his own people.
The footfalls came to a stop next to him and he heard the slide of another body down the wall to rest near him. He found the energy to crack open an eye.
Crawly was all long limbs, looking skinnier than he had before, nothing short of demonic under the red light. He didn’t look at Aziraphale but held out a jug of beer, the same kind he’d been toting around when he first appeared in Tanis.
“ Shouldn’t…” Aziraphale said through cracked lips. “People need it.”
“ Pity there are demons around to steal things, then.”
Aziraphale’s mouth quirked painfully, fighting back another sob as he took the offered drink. “I couldn’t leave.”
“ I know, angel.” The demon could have demanded answers, demanded to know how he could support this, why he didn’t question. He didn’t say anything and Aziraphale curled in on himself at his guilt and gratefulness.
He took a swig of the beer.
It didn't hurt.
It should have been agonising. It was the opposite, really, feeling the shape, the texture, the inimitable flavours of each perfect pleasure as he lost it, like a spoonful of honey on the tongue, overwhelming, then dissolving, then gone. The skip of his heart as a wing protected him from the rain, the first kindness since his Fall, now gone. The warmth and amusement at a dinner invitation in Rome, an acknowledgement of him as an equal, now gone. The flutter in his stomach when the angel approached as a co-conspirator for the first time, trust that begat honesty, gone.
God, Aziraphale was beautiful. Maybe not the way humans saw it, but he was. A cherished sight, nothing Crowley would rather see. The smile he'd give after decades apart, sunlight on a cloudy day, piercing, brightening, beaming, totally unable to hide it. The little wiggle, the dance of shifting weight, turn away, turn back, anxious in the best way. Forget-me-not eyes flashing through snowbell lashes, irresistible, radiant. Gone.
It all bled out, pulled through and around and into spidery hands under fluorescent lights. Smiles, laughter, favours, temptations, words of conspiracy murmured late at night, the fight for hope, for joy, bodies warm and open, sunshine and peonies and Aziraphale .
Crowley groaned with the sweetness of it, steeping and stewing in it.
Part of him thought this should feel like Falling, love ripped from him forever, but there was no void where Aziraphale's love went. Only relief. The setting of the sun when he was burnt to a crisp.
For the first time in six thousand years, there was no pain.
He breathed it all out, let Mephistopheles take and take, pulling the pain and the fear and doubt out of him like she was weeding her garden. It was heady, dizzying.
When he was swaying on his feet, silly grin on his lips, he breathed out the last of it. Mel took it all in hand, wrapping it up like candy floss, twisting, pulling, burning it all down into a perfect, pale pink light in her hands.
A trapped firefly, glowing through her fingers.
Crowley slumped, so light he could float away.
He blinked, looked around Mel's living room. It had all hurt so much just a few seconds ago, he could still see his hands grasping at Mel's shoulders, feel the tears burning his eyes. Now it was all just... light.
It took his dippy brain a few seconds to come back online, remember where he was and why.
Oh, he'd been angry at Aziraphale. He'd thought the angel didn't love him but now he couldn't quite remember why. Obviously Aziraphale loved him. He'd gone from the worst case of Stockholm Syndrome Crowley had ever seen to openly defying Samael and fucking in a motel room in the space of about two days. Not surprising he'd flagged at the end there.
Crowley blinked against the light, trying to figure out what had been going on in his head. Had he really been so manic that he'd tried to push Aziraphale from zero to married over the course of a long weekend?
Yeah. Yeah, he had been.
He was a bit dense, that wasn't in question, but getting so obsessed with getting what he wanted? And so quickly? With the angel plainly getting more and more anxious? What could possibly have possessed him to..?
Crowley raised his head.
Mel was staring at her clasped hands, victorious grin splitting her face.
“You played me,” Crowley said.
“Like a violin,” Mel grinned. She raised an eyebrow and offered out her hands. “Want it back?”
“Get that thing away from me,” Crowley laughed as he clambered backwards on the couch. Mel let out a peal of laughter and opened her hands, holding the tiny sun before her. It was bright, casting the whole room in a weird rosy glow until she folded it into her palms and it disappeared into the ether.
His love was a physical thing and it was stuffed into Mel's metaphysical back pocket. Weird.
He just kept sort of... breathing. Big, puffy breaths in and out, laughter chasing them. No tightness in his chest, no pain in his ribs, no tense jaw. Just big, puffy, fluffy, easy breaths.
He had sat here, in this very seat two nights ago and thought it would be the end of the world to choose this. Life wouldn't be worth living, everything he held dear would vanish. And now he just couldn't think why. All his pain was gone and he had eternity with the earth and his humans. Valentino and Lady Gaga and whoever was running the Laphroaig distillery nowadays.
Aziraphale wouldn't be thrilled by this turn of events but he wasn't exactly happy with what had been happening before. And Crowley had bought him back his immortality, that was something, wasn't it?
A cold beer bottle found its way into his hands and Mel folded herself into her armchair. She was downright glowing, all eight eyes aflutter, spindly legs working themselves free of the hair she wore. Any moment he was going to be flattened by eight cobwebbed wings if she didn't get her body under control.
“You got me,” he confessed.
“Of course I did. You always lean too hard on people. You have to give them room to breathe, let them do the hard work for you.”
He had known. He had warned Aziraphale that she wasn't like him. But he could know and forget at the same time. He was talented like that.
“I bow to your greater wisdom. What do you want that for, anyway?” Crowley asked.
“A demon's love? For an angel? An unprecedented commodity which stopped Armageddon?” Mel raised a condescending eyebrow. “It's a gift.”
“For Lucifer? Beelzebub?” He only asked the questions to see the little flashfire of anger cracking her victory flush. He didn't hold her little game against her, his own fault for losing, but he could still needle her. She didn't just have to consort with lower orders of angels, she worked for former archangels. The indignity. Samael would never have to answer to something so far below her.
Crowley grinned into his beer while Mel glowered. “Think you're cute, do you?”
“I know it.”
“What are you going to tell Tinkerbell?”
The beer wasn't great but in this moment anything would have tasted like divine nectar. He was relaxing directly into the couch. It wasn't overstuffed anymore, it was luxuriant in its fluffiness. He sighed in content. “He doesn't need to know.”
Mel's smile dimmed just a shade. “Sorry?”
“Doesn't need to know.” Crowley shrugged. “He'll just work himself up.”
She blinked at him, beer halfway to her mouth, searching for words. At least he still had the ability to surprise her.
“You're going to just... keep on with... all that? You don't love him anymore.”
He shrugged again. “Loads of people do stuff with people they don't love. Get dinner, go to theatres, shag, get married, have five kids. All that. I'm not spending eternity alone.”
Mel stared at him, lips parted, eyes unblinking. Stunned. He had stunned a demon prince into silence. That was some kind of feeling, to see that she wasn't as all-knowing as she wanted him to think. What had she expected? That he'd go off and mope in a corner when she won? Not likely.
She started to say something, leaning forward, then paused, took a sip of her beer, seemed to reconsider, huffed out half a laugh. “That's ice cold, Crawly.”
“It's in the job description.”
That got a genuine laugh. “Theirs, maybe.”
“You really believe that? That we can love but they can't?”
Something bitter passed over Mel's face. “We have free will and they don't, that's the whole point. If I wasn't right, you wouldn't be here.”
“Come oooon,” he drawled. “You know the angel loves me.”
“They can't,” she said with an air of finality.
Sore spot. Crowley raised an eyebrow but let it pass. He wasn't the only one with mummy issues, for sure. And they couldn't even lounge around on some chaise longue with an overpaid therapist complaining about passive-aggressive parenting – no, they had been separated into favourites and unfavourites in a very aggressive-aggressive way. Mel had some impressive siblings she wasn't living up to anymore.
Crowley wasn't going to stick around to help his former boss untangle whatever personal issues she had going on right here. She'd fucked him over, fair and square, now it was time to make the best of it.
“Well, thanks for the beer, the liberation ,” he said, climbing off the couch. “But the old ball and chain is going to be worked up enough as it is.”
Eight black eyes crinkled in laughter. “Have fun with that.” The dumbass was implied.
He kissed Mel on the cheek as he left. Head office was always putting him under her care, trying to get him to learn but he always left knowing it wasn't in him. There were demons and then there were demons . He never stood a chance and he didn't care. None of her victims tended to care, no one felt threatened by getting what they wanted.
The night air was bracing, new, fresh and clean. It felt fucking good to lose.
Crowley stuffed his hands in his pockets and took his time walking down the street, scuffing his boots along the footpath, counting the daffodils that sprouted like weeds along the less kempt nature strips. This was a pretty place and he was in no rush. The longer he could drag it out the less Aziraphale would question his return.
This was going to be the tricky part. He had the advantage of the angel being a nervous wreck but there was still a bit of artistry to it. A big, tearful reunion, a heartfelt confession of his wrongdoing, gallantly return to the angel's comfort zone of a few degrees of separation, live a blissful million years as a sexless married couple who keep different houses or whatever. He'd figure out the details.
There was no way he could let Aziraphale go now. Eternity on his own would be hell, regardless of where he spent it.
He mosied his way back to the Bentley on the main street, ran a hand along her sleek hood with new appreciation. A demon in a flash car in the nighttime. This was how it was supposed to be. It was nice out. No light pollution so stars for days. Stars and daffodils and no pain at all. Whole systems of muscles and veins and nerves that were suddenly unblocked.
He hadn't thought it was this bad. Sure, he'd wanted to shag the angel for at least a thousand years. The idea of some supernatural company had appealed for a good long while before that. But whatever Mel had taken out of him, he couldn't remember a time when he didn't have it. Eden, when he was discussing the merits of apples with Eve, maybe. A time he looked back on himself as half-formed and chaotic.
He parked his lovely car in front of the motel.
It was so funny, now, how he knew how it would all play out. An hour ago he'd been so wrapped up in his own fear that he thought Aziraphale didn't love him. Now he wasn't worried. There was no chance Aziraphale would be angry with him, none at all. He'd be blaming himself, pacing, anxious, hurt and afraid that he'd driven Crowley off forever. Crowley had never been so welcome in a room as he was about to be.
He breezed up the stairs, down the hallway, warm light spilled from under their doorway.
Aziraphale looked up as the door opened. Crowley schooled his face to something in the tired-but-contrite region. Something in the back of his head assured him that he could, so he banished the peony fields with a gesture, bringing their suite back to its normal state.
Aziraphale was a mess, leaning against the counter, just bringing his face up from his hands as Crowley entered. He'd been crying, eyes red, breath coming in hiccups. His hands and shoulders trembled.
It was... weird. Crowley’s heart tried to do something, slam at his chest, but hit a wall instead. His brain formed a thought – Aziraphale crying is... – and couldn't find the word to finish. Aziraphale, Aziraphale, Aziraphale. Everything he cared about. Only now he wasn't. Now he'd been knocked off the podium and replaced by the Bentley maybe, or Lagavulin.
Crowley opened his arms and gestured the angel forward.
Aziraphale raced to him, flung himself into his arms. “Oh, Crowley, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.”
Crowley wrapped him up, making the embrace extra snug to sell it. “Not your fault, angel. Shouldn't have pushed you. Was bein' stupid.”
His words were half-slurred, spoken into Aziraphale's hair. He did have nice hair. Nice hair, nice eyes, funny sort of attitude, lots of personality, outstanding arse. And it all added up to... no idea. Brick wall in front of that thought.
Crowley cradled the angel's head with one hand, letting him cry out the last of his tears into the crook of the demon's neck. He rubbed soothing circles on the angel's back. “It's alright. I'm here, it's alright.”
“It's not,” Aziraphale said. He grabbed Crowley's lapels in strong hands, scrunching up the fabric that had taken so long to sit right. “It's not alright in the least. I love you, and you deserve so much more than my cowardice.”
Wasn't that something? An angel loved him.
“I love you, too,” Crowley lied. “It's okay if you need time. M'sorry I walked off.”
“Please don't apologise. I... Oh, I love you so much, I have for a long time.” He closed his eyes, resting his forehead on Crowley's breastbone. “I own, and grieve, that givers of such gifts as mine are must be counted with the ungenerous.”
Out, alas! I will not soil thy purple with my dust, nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass, nor give thee any love which were unjust.
This? This was uncomfortable. He felt like the greasiest of perverts, an unwelcome voyeur in the intimate moments of a person who deserved his privacy. But it wasn't an invasion! This was his relationship too and they weren't breaking up. He was allowed to be here and Aziraphale's love was his, even if his own was gone.
He'd bought the man's life back from God Herself, for hell's sake.
If he could just get through this one conversation, everything would be easier. He hadn't spent two thousand years learning the angel's ins and outs only fall at the final hurdle. He could work this out. Caring boyfriend routine for a couple of hours at most. What would a caring boyfriend do?
Crowley placed a lingering kiss on Aziraphale's forehead. “None of that,” he murmured. “This was too much.”
“But – ”
“This was too much,” Crowley repeated firmly, arranging his face into something like concern. Aziraphale looked up at him through wide eyes. His heart thumped against the wall. “We haven't taken time to recover from our megalomaniacal bosses breathing down our necks every second of the day and that's not worked out for us, has it? I'm taking you back to London, you're going to take a week in your bookshop, and then I'm going to take you to lunch. Deal?”
A shadow passed over Aziraphale's face. Crowley scrambled to think back through his mental catalogue of Aziraphale's faces.
Hurt. He'd hurt the angel.
“A week?” Aziraphale said.
“A week,” Crowley confirmed. “You need to breathe, angel.”
The angel frowned, puffy eyes threatening to tear up again. “I've ruined it, haven't I?”
Fuck. This was not as easy as he'd imagined it would be. He hugged the angel in tighter, trying not to mentally compare it to manhandling a crash test dummy. Caring boyfriend, caring boyfriend, what was the caring boyfriend move?
“You couldn't, angel. Not if you tried. Just do this for me, yeah? Take some time, get yourself back together. I'll be here if it takes a week or a century.”
Aziraphale's lip trembled, but in the good way. “Oh, thank you,” he breathed. “Thank you, my darling. You're too good to me.”
Before Crowley could really have a say in the matter Aziraphale pushed up on tiptoes and kissed him.
Bugger. No backing out now but this was definitely in greasy pervert territory. Fuck it all, he had to commit or there'd be no recovering. He did his best imitation of the previous night, trying to remember how all the limbs and whatnot went. It can't have been pretty, or particularly pleasing for his partner, but Aziraphale didn't complain. He lingered when they broke, keeping their noses touching, their breath mingling.
Beloved, I love only thee! Let it pass.
He was going to have to make up some excuse about sex. No way. Too creepy. He'd just say that now he'd tried it he'd decided it wasn't for him or something. Aziraphale wouldn't like it but it wouldn't be a deal breaker.
“Come on,” he said, trying to affect some huskiness. “Grab your books and let's get you home.”
Aziraphale released him and went to retrieve the couple of books he'd brought or acquired. They managed to get packed into the Bentley without further incident and were London-bound within minutes.
The interior of the car felt cavernous between them. Aziraphale seemed so small in his seat, his few books sitting on the backseat, his hands folded in his lap.
So Crowley might have underestimated how difficult this would be. Hardly the first time and all the other times had worked out in his favour, after a fashion. Once he'd put the angel back where he belonged, given him some time to calm down, things would be easier. They could have some of the harder conversations over the phone so there wouldn't be any kissing. And if there had to be kissing there could be, right? It was only pressing one body's mouth to some other mouth, it wasn't like they were getting married.
And if Aziraphale wanted to get married? When he left Mel's he thought that would be okay. Now he was feeling like one of the proper demon demons who did horrible things to unsuspecting people for a laugh. Worse than that, pretending to care when you didn't give a shit was borderline angelic. He'd turned himself into the living embodiment of one of Gabriel's shithead fake smiles.
Trees rushed past them in the night. He didn't need headlights to see. Starlight lit their way, the dead of the countryside bringing out even more stars and the blue and green spray they lay against. More than he could have made, more than he could have counted. Starlight, hadn't he compared the angel's hair to it yesterday? He couldn't remember. White hair. Weird. White hair was weird.
There used to be something in those blue eyes. There used to be something there. Crowley had been obsessed with it. What was it? Those blue eyes that darted from the pitch black, to Crowley's hands on the steering wheel, to his own hands in his lap. Anxious. Suspicious. Recognising that something was wrong?
Crowley dropped one hand to Aziraphale's knee, using the other to steer them at a hundred miles an hour down the winding road. The angel's shoulders sagged.
“Crowley you can't go that fast,” he said softly.
“Oh.” Right. Concerned boyfriend. Aziraphale hated him speeding. He dialled it down. “Sorry.”
The speed limit was probably eighty, he decided, and made sure the road signs didn't disagree. Just get the angel back to his bookshop. Then he'd have a whole week to let things settle. It was going to be fine. Better than fine, it was going to be good. Time was on his side now. Even if the angel found out and freaked out how long could he stay mad before coming to the same conclusion as Crowley? Let him take a thousand years to sulk about it, eventually he wouldn't want to be alone either.
But it wouldn't come to that. He was going to get this to work. Exactly how it was before with maybe some hand holding and kissing when he couldn't avoid it. Aziraphale was too far gone to be making demands. Crowley remembered what it felt like to be alone on the street in Sandford, his heart bleeding out, he would have debased himself in any way for the tiniest scrap of the angel's affection right then. Aziraphale wouldn't throw him over because he put some distance between them, he wasn't capable of it.
The car was silent for the longest time. Crowley searched his brain for something to say, but kept circling back on the same thoughts. Was this awkward silence? Maybe.
It wasn't until they'd reached the outer suburbs that Aziraphale spoke up. “I can't stop thinking about the plague.”
“Please tell me you're not –”
“No, no,” the angel said. “No, I know we can't do anything about it. But we're to face heaven and hell again eventually, I'd like to make sense of Samael's plan.”
“What's to make sense of? Kill a bunch of people, it's what she does.”
“She does. There are just usually fewer... pamphlets.”
He wasn't wrong. Samael's plagues tended to be a bit flashier than all that. More carnage, fewer emojis.
But then, what did they expect, his mind supplied, when it wasn't Samael's plague? Mel was the one who did dirty deals, let the humans become their own downfall. It was Mel's miracle that Crowley hadn't been able to undo.
Crowley was so, so glad he'd gotten rid of that pink, glowy ball of stupid that had been clogging up his brain. It all clicked into place now that it wasn’t smothered under a fog of infatuated silliness.
It's a gift, Mel had said. What do you get the seraph who has everything?
Because when you're fucking stupid over someone and you'll twist yourself into knots just for the chance to give them a bunch of flowers, what else can you do but whatever you think they'll like? Big, elaborate stunts so when heaven and hell come calling you can pretend the bunch of peonies is just part of the scenery.
“I don't think she's changed tactics,” Crowley said. “I don't think it's about the kids at all, angel. I think it's about the flowers.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Trust me on this. We don't have to worry about it.”
“Don't have to worry about it?”
Crowley growled in the back of his throat. This fucking angel. It wasn't enough that his ridiculous quest to thwart a seraph had made their relationship fall apart, he was still gnawing on this bone. How much more did they have to lose? “Yes! After everything that's happened today can't you just bloody well give me this one?”
Aziraphale was silent, chastened. He kept his eyes fixed forward. He twisted his fingers together, frown set deeply on his face. There wasn't much traffic on the road at this time of night, even in London, but Crowley miracled himself around what was there. He pressed the accelerator down, he had to get out of this car ride.
The angel wasn't talking. He was always talking, he hadn't been able to shut up for more than three seconds since the crucifixion no matter how Crowley snapped and growled.
In record time he was screeching to a stop in front of the bookshop. Aziraphale's eyes were glassy, his lower lip trembling. Great, Crowley had screwed up again.
“It's going to look better in the morning,” Crowley said, trying to keep his voice gentle. “Chin up.”
On cue Aziraphale looked up at him. He clutched the hem of his waistcoat like a life raft. “Won't you come in?”
Not for the world. “Not today.”
The angel paused, fixed his eyes on his knees. “I think I rather need you to.”
Fuck fuck fuck this was not going to plan. “Angel, you need some space, not –”
“What happened?” Aziraphale interrupted him, eyes suddenly bright and fierce and pinning him to his seat. “Something's gone wrong. Not just Samael or some silly argument. I know I hurt you but please, Crowley, don't shut me out like this.”
“I'm not shutting you out.”
“You slowed down the car, my darling. For the first time since you started driving.”
Fuck, shit, blessit. “I didn't.”
“I love you. Please believe me.”
“I believe you.”
“Do you need me to fight Samael to prove it to you? I will. I'll do whatever you need.”
Oh, balls. Those big eyes. Pleading. Friday afternoon he had been beyond enchanted, helpless. Would have done anything the angel asked him, didn't matter what it was, what it cost. Now the angel across from him was just a grown man making puppy eyes at him. It was... embarrassing.
He couldn't do this.
“I saw Mel,” he blurted.
Aziraphale stared at him. If possible he lost another shade of colour, his creamy skin going an ashy grey. He didn't say anything for an interminable moment, just staring, paling, not breathing.
“I see,” the angel breathed, voice barely more audible than the breath that carried it.
“I... you're safe. You are!” Crowley's stupid mouth tried to carry itself when his brain wouldn't supply any words. Made his excuses. “It was just the one of us who had to make the deal. You... y'get to keep it all. Nothing changed for you. I...”
“You don't love me anymore.” Aziraphale was going to faint. Crowley didn't really want to have to carry him into the bookshop. Also, he didn't love taking the blame for this. This wasn't the deal, Aziraphale wasn't supposed to be able to make him feel bad about himself anymore.
“It doesn't have to... we can still...” Crowley scrambled to recover himself. “I still like you.”
The angel looked like he'd been slapped. “You gave away our love.”
“Just mine. She's really convincing.”
“I suppose she must be.” Aziraphale wouldn't meet his eye, staring into the middle distance. This was much less delicate than he'd imagined it. He also felt like more of a dickhead than he'd imagined.
“Don't call me that.” There was an edge to his voice that made Crowley lean away. Sore spot. Everyone had their issues today. The angel shrunk into his seat, squeezed his eyes closed. “Don't call me that .”
“Alright, alright, no nicknames.”
“ Nickname? ”
Wrong thing to say. “Look, Aziraphale...”
There was no point in continuing that sentence. Aziraphale climbed out of the car without collecting his books. He moved like a sleepwalker, crossed the street without looking, disappeared into his shop.
Crowley winced. It was probably better this way. No pretty lies for him to keep track of, no niggling doubts. No turning himself into that creep that he used to think he was.
The angel would come around. Another month, year, century, millennium. Didn't really matter, eventually Crowley would be back in company. The hurt would fade. No one wanted to be alone forever.
Aziraphale hurried down the dark streets. The red sun was gone, replaced with a full moon casting the city silver. He held a bowl at his hip, trying to keep the contents from spilling as he hurried out of the slums.
Samael stalked the streets on her human feet. She walked slowly, twisting her hair with one hand, wielding her kopesh with the other, pausing to examine her nails. She checked the doors for lambs blood. She silently moved inside those unmarked doors.
The best he could do was a fast shuffle without spilling any of his precious cargo. As soon as he was far enough away from her, certain she’d taken the streets over a few blocks he stopped at an unmarked door. Heart hammering in his throat Aziraphale dipped his hand into the bowl of lambs blood.
If he did this he couldn’t say who would know. This was against God’s direct orders. But not to him, that had to count for something. She had ordered Samael, not him. He had been ordered to… well she’d never said exactly. Protecting them, even from seraphim wasn’t so far off the mark, was it?
He reached out to touch the doorframe.
A hand closed around his wrist so hard it hurt and in that moment an ice cold terror took him. Before his mind could even process it into words, he feared turning to see Samael wearing the eyes of God, Gabriel come to drag him before a tribunal for his crimes, the Lord Herself here to demand answers.
The hand on him twisted and his knees buckled, landing him hard against the ground. Pain shot up through his knees and the bowl of blood shattered, painting his kilt red. He cried out, momentarily blinded by the pain and came to with his nose all but buried in a black kilt.
Crawly let his hand go but his eyes burned. “You’ll Fall. Nothing anyone could do to stop it.”
Aziraphale knelt before him, clutching his injured wrist to his chest. Tears stung his eyes, from the pain and the despair. He looked up anyway. “The children, Crawly. She’s taking the children.”
“ You’re an angel. This is your side.” The words stung, spat at him like acid. “You’re supposed to believe in Her omniscience, if you didn’t you’d already be down with me.”
The cry he’d been fighting for so many days escaped his lips. He fought for the words. He did believe, he had faith, he knew the Plan was what was for the best. He just couldn’t watch it like this, he wasn’t built for this. Wasn’t strong enough.
Finally, all he could say, again, was: “The children, Crawly.”
A dangerous look flashed over his face, the fury and helplessness of a lost soul. He glanced down the way, where the distant figure of Samael walked the streets. He looked between them, the kneeling angel and the stalking one.
A gesture and the bowl of blood was intact under Crowley’s arm. He used his free hand and grabbed Aziraphale under the arm, hauling him to his feet.
“ Go,” he said.
Crawly shoved him away. “I’ll get as many as I can. Go.”
Something burst inside him, fear and hope and confusion expanding to fill his chest until he couldn’t breath.
“ Go!” Crawly hissed and then he was running, out of the street, out of Tanis, out of Egypt.
It was about the flowers.
Aziraphale knew that he could be absent-minded. He didn't think on his feet, that wasn't his style. But that wasn't the same thing as being stupid. He'd been given all the pieces – the seraphim, the plagues, the flowers – and it had taken him a few days to put it together, link it all up with his darling serpent's cryptic assertion: it's about the flowers.
He sat beside a lovely grey pitbull, scratching its ears. There were bite marks on those ears, along its throat. A rescued fighting dog, Aziraphale supposed. A sweet boy only interested in love and affection. What a kind thing to do, adopting what was no doubt once a vicious beast and giving it the love and care it needed to become so trusting. It would take quite a nice person to do something like that.
“I wasn't a very good guard, either,” Aziraphale confessed to the dog, who hadn't so much as growled at the stranger entering his yard.
It had taken him a few days.The first day had been mainly crying. It had taken almost the full 24 hours to stem the flow of tears, to force his body to breathe again. He hadn't thought much of anything, then, except that he was sure his ribcage had collapsed, he needed to hold himself together or his body would fall apart. His heart didn’t feel so much broken as rotting, poison spreading through him, everything falling apart inside. Much of it had been spent in bed, curled in on himself.
He had thought, huddled into his own pain, that maybe he ought to accept this. He still loved Crowley and Crowley still wanted to be part of his life. Wasn't love supposed to be unconditional? Wouldn't it be angelic of him to cherish someone who couldn't return the feeling? The thought had reduced him to painful, hacking sobs.
The second day was more productive. He had dragged himself to a chair downstairs, wrapped under a blanket to hold him all together, and he had thought. He had read and he had pondered. Books on flowers, biblical translations and Goethe. He read the language of flowers and thought on how Mephistopheles had arranged them. He read Samael's patterns, her benedictions, her glorification.
It had to stew a little while before it came together. His problems so often came from thinking of heaven and hell when he should have been thinking of himself and Crowley, Beelzebub and Gabriel. The plague wasn't sanctioned, it wasn't the moving of divine forces. It was Mel and Sam, growing the loveliest flowers in England, getting their picture taken together, spending their nights devising strategy. He really should have seen it from the start.
The third day was the hardest, even harder than the first.
Crowley hadn't called, had made no attempt at contact. And he wouldn't. This time, for perhaps the first time, there was no chance of someone else solving his problem. If he stayed here, wrapped in his tartan blanket, safe in his bookshop, he would lose Crowley forever.
It should have been the forever part that worried him but it wasn't. He couldn’t have borne this for a single hour, a single minute. Somewhere in the world Crowley was going about his day as normal, totally unaffected by Aziraphale’s torment. If he had been standing right in front of him he still wouldn’t have cared. He pictured, again and again, the expression he had worn as Aziraphale left the car - like a schoolboy answering a teacher’s question wrong. He hadn’t cared, not really.
But as hurt and as angry as Aziraphale was, he couldn't deny his own hand in this. The more he catalogued the events of the past week the more he saw himself feeding Crowley's worst instincts in some vain attempt to prove himself rather than just sitting down and talking to his beloved.
He spent that third day coming to terms with what he had to do. He couldn't pretend this was someone else's problem. He couldn't speculate and plan and encourage and wait for Crowley to fix it. He had to act, and he knew what course of action to take and if he misjudged in the slightest, he would be killed.
There were far worse things to die for than love.
The dog whined and cocked its head. He scratched its ears again.
“I really should buck up,” he told the dog. “It's traditional to face these sorts of things with dignity.”
Together they watched the scene unfolding indoors. It was surprising and yet somehow profoundly not. After all, this was the point of it, a reason for an archdemon to try to mimic the powers of a seraph on high, a reason good enough to engineer a plague that would kill thousands.
Light spilled out from the window into the night, Mel's living room illuminated against the blackness. Samael sat on the ground in front of the settee, giggling into a glass of white wine, face flushed. She was laughing at Mephistopheles in the kitchen, the demon singing along to an old pop song on the radio, treating a wooden spoon as a microphone.
The prince of the fourth circle swept across the kitchen, belting out a particular high note like she was on stage at a concert, reducing God's Justice to a fit of red-faced laughter, holding her wine glass to her face as she tried not to spit out her mouthful.
The room was bursting with flowers, bunches covered the coffee table and end tables and kitchen bench, marigolds and forsythia, larkspur and viscaria, bright red begonias and the softest pink peonies. Because that was the point, wasn't it? There were deals to be made, souls to be reaped, plagues to unleash but all of that was incidental.
It was about the flowers.
It must have been dreadfully difficult for them. They might have loved each other since Before, but they had no such luxury of spending their aeons getting lunch and feeding ducks together. Their work was too important, too immediate. It would take something big, something grand to allow them to operate in the same place at the same time.
Aziraphale might have pitied them, had the circumstances been different.
He gave the dog a last pat and rose to his feet. He swallowed the lump in his throat, let his trembling hands hang loose. His knees threatened to buckle on the first step. Goodness, these bodies had their reactions to fear.
What's the worst that could happen? Crowley would say, if he were here, if he were himself. Samael will rip your body limb from limb and eat it. Nothing to worry about.
Should he knock? Crowley wouldn't knock, he'd just barge in, instantly control the room's attention. A flash bastard with a flash car and some flash sunglasses. It would be a performance, an avante garde routine, choreographed on the spot. They'd be so bamboozled they wouldn't know what hit them until... until...
Aziraphale knocked. If his magic act proved anything it was that he wasn't a showman. And that Crowley was so patient, so loving, so indulgent and... His throat closed up again, tears springing to his eyes. He swallowed them down.
There was some shuffling behind the door before Mel opened it with a curious expression, clearly not expecting guests. Her polite smile tightened a little on seeing him.
“Tinkerbell,” she said. “I thought you might drop by. Crawly's little act fell apart, then?”
“Yes, it rather did,” he said, impressing himself with how even his voice came out. “Apologies for not calling ahead, I never took your number. I'm actually here to speak to Samael.”
Mel raised an eyebrow but stepped back to allow him in. “I told him that wasn't going to go well, just so you know. That was all him.”
“Well I'd say I appreciate it but I'd rather not be dishonest.” He walked past her, trying to make it all natural, trying not to shake too much. Just casually walk to the side, out of her arms reach, a good ten feet from Samael. Samael was there, surprised, not pleased. God above, she was right there. He had just... walked up to her. Mel was at the right range. He just had to hold position, not let them change how they were all laid out.
“The infamous Aziraphale,” Sam said. He didn't know what he'd expected her voice to sound like, but this felt right. A husk, a whisper, low and smooth with just a hint of a hiss.
She had seen more battle than Mel, had made her place on battlefields, not in boardrooms. She thought to check his hands. Her eyes fell to the plant mister he carried. His heart skipped a beat.
“You can't hurt me with that, little cherub,” she said.
Crunch time , Crowley would say. Do or die, angel.
Aziraphale raised the plant mister and pointed it at Mel. “I'm afraid I can.”
And wasn't it something to see what that did to the Scourge? The first thing to flash through her eyes was realisation. Then fear. No, not fear,terror. Followed in a split second by a carefully neutral expression. Then more relaxed and moreso. It only took her the space of a heartbeat to have schooled herself to where she wanted to be, but even if she hadn't given herself away he would have called her bluff.
Mel had frozen in place, hands by her side, shocked. She was looking at Sam, knew her life depended on how Sam handled this.
And Samael, seraph of heaven, did exactly what he knew a seraph of heaven would do. She relaxed. Let her shoulders drop back against the settee. Took a long, casual drink of her wine. The idiot . The stubborn, proud, delusional idiot.
“If you try to bluff me,” Aziraphale said, ignoring the quaver in his voice, “I will kill her. I am quite sick of playing games, my dear girl. Let us be frank with one another.”
It was strange how her face didn't move, yet somehow what had been feigned relaxation became the coldest rage. “What do you want?”
Mel was trembling. Had she ever felt real fear in six thousand years?
“You've let your demon run wild. It's understandable, they can be a handful.”
“You came here to lecture me about the plague?” Sam took another drink, rolled her eyes. “Grow up, cherub.”
“ Don't ,” the word burst out of him, fury not for himself but for the shivering archdemon with her eight deep black eyes. “Don't pretend her life is nothing to you. How dare you? Right in front of her, you pretend like this?”
“She knows I'm not going to let you hurt her. She knows I'll rip you apart and then follow you to heaven to do it again.”
“She doesn't know,” Aziraphale said. His hand shook, his voice shook. Samael was angry. The only thing keeping his head on his shoulders was the sliver of doubt that she could get to him before he fired. A thin trickle of water dribbled down his fingers. “Do you think she'd be doing all this if she knew? She doesn't think you love her, Samael. She thinks she has to do this for you.”
Sam's eyes flicked to Mel and a flicker of uncertainty lit her face. “You don't know us.”
“I know you. You don't want to admit it but I do. I know you haven't admitted how much you wanted to come here and shower her with flowers. You're still telling yourself the reason you came was to oversee the plague even though you know it's not your job. And you and I know it's a lie but I'm sorry to tell you that she doesn't. She's going to keep acting out, killing humans and antagonising others, because she doesn't know how else to get your attention. She doesn't know how else to give you flowers.”
Sam hadn't moved, hand locked around her wine glass, eyes bright with anger, but the world had begun to distort around her as her power radiated out. She could just crumble the house around them, blow everything apart. But she might not be quick enough, Aziraphale might get off his shot. He had never been so imperilled and never so safe. As long as the plant mister was pointed at Mephistopheles he was safe.
Sam looked at Mel. “It's going to be alright.”
“I know,” Mel said with a watery smile. “He's wrong. I know.”
Sam took a breath and set her wineglass down on the coffee table. She held her hands out to her side, moving slowly, and with eyes fixed on the spray nozzle she inched herself up onto the settee. Aziraphale let her move, hoping against hope that it meant she was taking this seriously. She leaned forward and clasped her hands together. “Let's talk terms, then.”
Surprising and also not. He knew angels, knew angels in love, knew her in a way he wished he didn't. Still, it was surreal to have this play out so closely to the script he had in his head. He had terms.
“I want safe passage from Sandford for myself and Crowley.”
“Your demon isn't here.”
“Your word, please.”
“Fine. If you don't hurt her, I won't hurt either of you. If you do hurt her, I'll rip your demon's eyes and tongue out before I come for you.”
How graphic. An attempt to frighten him. A rather successful one, if he was honest. “I want you to cease your campaign and any work to prevent human children being vaccinated. The damage is largely done, I know, but you won't exacerbate it further.”
A pause. A little quirk of annoyance on her mouth. “Fine. Take the plague. Like you said it's already rolling.”
Aziraphale swallowed thickly. He knew Sam would give him anything he asked for but the air around her was warping inwards in her anger, the light seemed to catch on her halos despite them being still tucked away. “I want Crowley's love back.”
Perhaps this was wrong, he thought. Crowley had given it away freely, had made his decision. Was it enough that he had made that decision on the false pretence that he was unloved? If he really meant it now, in retrospect, Mel might remake the deal with him. Or she might not. He could be making the biggest mistake of his life.
Sam shrugged. “Fine.”
“No!” Mel gasped out the word, choking on her own breath, shaking more with every passing second. “No, it's yours, I got it for you. He can't take it.”
Sam stared at her. “Babe, he's got you at gunpoint. Holy water won't help your complexion.”
“I got it for you,” Mel insisted.
Samael shot him an alarmed glance. She was stubborn and self righteous, but not stupid. Her alarm melted into devastation, her face crumpling into inelegant distress. “What are you talking about? I'm not letting you get killed over a pretty bauble. I don't care where you got it.”
“No, Sam, please,” Mel begged.
Sam paused to looked to Aziraphale. As angry as she had been, now she was angry and hurt . She understood, or at least she was starting to. “Perhaps you have a point. It seems I need to have a private conversation with my better half. So I will give you what you want and then I want you gone. I don't ever want to see you again.”
“You have my word,” Aziraphale said.
Samael stood up, the void in the world starting to collapse in on her. She closed her eyes, raised her hand, and pulled something downwards. The miracle was enormous, more than Aziraphale could have accomplished in a week. Reality bent, space shifted, blood and shadows bled into the world.
Crowley stood in front of them, a tabloid magazine in one hand and a coffee cup in the other. He promptly dropped both. His eyes went wide, staring between the seraph who was letting herself bleed into the real world, Aziraphale with his plant mister and a distraught Mel held at spray-point.
“Um, hi, guys,” he stammered, taking it all in.
Sam ignored him, continuing her work. She let her crown of stars burst forth, lighting up the room like a planetarium. Stars in white and blue and red, and one, right in the centre of her forehead, in palest pink.
She plucked it between two fingers.
Crowley stumbled back. “What are you - ”
Samael grabbed Crowley by the collar with her free hand before he could get away. Aziraphale's heart froze in his chest. She slammed the pink star into the demon's chest, and when she drew her hand back it was gone.
She tossed Crowley towards Aziraphale, sending him staggering.
Aziraphale moved before he could think about it, lurching forward to catch Crowley, stopping him from striking his head against the coffee table.
Samael moved at the same instant and if she'd been less true to her word, Aziraphale would realise in retrospect, they both would have been dead. With the spray bottle lowered she lunged for Mephistopheles, wrapping her in her arms and burying her nose in fuzzy hair and spiders' legs.
Aziraphale managed to cling onto Crowley's bicep and the collar of his jacket, just barely keeping him upright. Together they stood, a tangle of arms and legs, dangerously off-balance and vulnerable if the two women in the room had any interest in them.
The sound of gasping filled the small, ply-board lined room. Sam and Mel as they held each other, their relief and their fear. Crowley, seizing with the power of whatever Sam had just pushed into him. To his distress, Aziraphale could feel his own ragged breathing, the weight of the bottle in his hand, his trembling hands unequal to the task of keeping Crowley close to him.
Samael met his eyes over Mel's shoulder, hugging her close, silver eyes glassy. She looked at him with such foul hatred, if she had given him that expression a day ago he would have fallen to his knees in penance.
“Get out,” she said.
Aziraphale didn't need further invitation. He grabbed Crowley and ran.
Crowley let out a little noise of protect, stumbling and staggering as Aziraphale dragged him out the door. Now was not the time to regain their dignity. He grabbed Crowley's wrist and pulled.
They made it out into the night air, the dog watched them scramble out of the yard.
If there was some courtesy to extend to his beloved, whom he had forcibly reinstated with his natural feelings, Aziraphale didn't know it. He just ran. The asphalt was rough under his feet, the night air cold, the stars barely enough to guide their way.
Oh, God, it had worked. He had threatened an archdemon with a plant mister, held a seraph hostage, stood up to Samael the Executioner and it had worked. He was running, but running free.
And Crowley. Crowley burst away from him, staggered on the road surface. His face was impossible to read, lanky limbs ascatter, breathing still coming in hard-won gasps. He looked like Aziraphale felt, too shocked for anything solid, too frightened for anything profound. He wheeled around on the tarmac, turned to face Aziraphale.
Aziraphale stopped in his tracks, keeping a distance from Crowley. He might have done the wrong thing. He might have risked everything, his life, his love, and Crowley might not want it at all. It was a gamble.
They didn't look at each other as lovers spurned, as people who didn't know how to deal with each other. It was more reminiscent of humans who had survived a bus crash together. Aziraphale pressed a hand to his forehead, breathed deep. Crowley circled, gasping, long hair wild.
Aziraphale just breathed. There was nothing left for him to say. He could have played the jilted lover, the self-righteous angel, castigated Crowley for his choices, but oh he couldn't stop thinking about Mephistopheles. She had been so hurt, so desperate, dancing such a complex dance and feeling like her love amounted to nothing.
Crowley doubled over, his hands on his knees and Aziraphale wondered what Sam was saying to Mel at this moment. She'd berate the demon for thinking herself unloved, for not noticing the thousand acts of love done in her name. She'd be furious and rightly so.
Crowley looked up at him, mouth downturned to an almost comical effect.
The battle was only half done. He had faced down Samael and it would mean nothing if now he couldn't prove he loved Crowley on purpose, with faith and devotion, not as some unfortunate accident he was trying to minimise.
“Is there any chance,” Crowley begged, “that you could get that the fuck away from me?”
“Oh.” Oh. Aziraphale looked at the plant mister in his hand. He had forgotten it was there. He let out a little chuckle. “It's only water.”
Crowley's lips parted in an astonished 'O', his glassy eyes widening, and he started wheezing. Some terrible choking sound escaped his lips, somewhere between laughter and sobbing. He bent over, supporting himself with his hands on his knees, shaking.
“You bastard,” Crowley choked out. He hacked and coughed himself toward laughter but didn't make it there. “You bastard.”
Aziraphale let the plant mister drop to the ground, the thin plastic clatter on asphalt breaking the stillness of the night.
He wished he had practised some eloquent speech, or at least chosen an appropriate sonnet. He hadn't wanted to think this far ahead, hadn't wanted to promise himself he'd survive Samael. So he watched, dumb and stupid and powerless as Crowley tried to weep and laugh at once. His agony was so large in him, circling, body exhausted to collapse, his breath coming in keening gasps.
“Why did you do this, angel?” Crowley managed. “After what I did?”
“I'm so sorry, my love.” Aziraphale's voice wouldn't come to him, he could only manage a bare whisper, hardly more than textured air.
Crowley lunged for him, startling him. The demon grabbed him by the lapels of his coat, holding him in place and, it seemed, holding himself upright. “Don't you apologise to me. How could you apologise to me?”
“Because I love you.”
“Give it to Mel, it's not doing you any favours!”
Aziraphale looked down at Crowley's hands, clenched in camelhair. He reached up and plucked the demon's sunglasses from his face. Crowley made a wounded noise, his mouth trembling, but couldn't defend himself without dropping Aziraphale.
“I'm sorry,” Aziraphale whispered. “I'm sorry that I let you think you were in this alone. I'm sorry I let you be unsure of me.”
“Don't, don't,” Crowley begged.
“And I love you when you're loving and I love you when you're stupid.” He cupped Crowley's beloved face in his free hand. “I think I might love you especially when you're stupid.”
Crowley dropped his collar and wrapped his arms around him in a crushing embrace. He buried his face in the angel's neck and Aziraphale held him close, supporting his shaking body just as he had done after they'd made love. He broke with a sob, sagging into the angel. “ I'm sorry. ”
“I know, I'm here.”
“I... it felt so bad, I couldn't love you.”
Aziraphale pressed kisses into his hair, rubbed his back, helped him. “Hush, it's over.”
“No, I... I'm not... I'm so sorry.”
Aziraphale closed his eyes, breathed in the scent of Crowley's hair, focused on the sharp points where Crowley's fingers dug into his ribs and back. There was no speech or sonnet that would fix this. He had to do better than that this time, they both did. “Tell me what you need, darling.”
“I need...” Crowley raised his head, letting Aziraphale see how wretched he was. He searched the night air, as if the answers lay somewhere in the quiet streets. “It doesn't matter what I need, not after I did this to you.”
“None of that.” Aziraphale threaded his fingers more firmly into Crowley's hair. “We can't live like this, one of us always on the outs. Please talk to me.”
It took Crowley a few aborted attempts before he managed to speak, frail and lost. “I need to make it better. I need to make you forget I said those things and feel good again.”
“I see.” Oh, his darling serpent. Always putting him first. “I should like that very much, I think.”
“But how -?”
“One step at a time, don't you think?” Aziraphale leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss against Crowley's mouth. The demon darted forward into it, kissed him back with urgency and tenderness and all the bright, sharp energy that Aziraphale had come to love. He didn't let it linger too much, pulling back just enough to speak again. “Let's find our way home and take it from there.”
Crowley squeezed his eyes shut and nodded.
The streets of the little village were dark as Aziraphale took Crowley's hand and tugged him toward main street. Another bus stop under another flickering streetlight, waiting for another bus that would somehow end up in London.
Crowley sniffed, squeezed his hand, then pulled him in closer to his side as they walked. Aziraphale's lip trembled, the shock of the night wearing off, the stabbing, ripping, otherworldly pain of the last few days reasserting itself. But it was alright this time. He wasn't curled up in bed alone, Crowley wasn't stuck behind a glass wall of his own creation, neither of them were facing down an eternity without the other. They had been bruised and battered not just by the last week but by a lifetime of uncertainty and healing wasn't going to be simple.
But there was a panacea to uncertainty, and it was the certainty that they were loved, and no matter how stupid they could be they would be stupid together.
One month later
Aziraphale didn't look up at the sound of the bell on the bookshop door. It was past five on a Sunday, he must have forgotten to lock up because even someone wanting to sell their books wouldn't be open at this hour.
“I'm afraid we're closed,” he called out.
“That suggests you're occasionally open,” Crowley said.
Aziraphale looked up with a smile, watching Crowley navigate his way through the stacks, bottle of wine in one hand, a bunch of peonies in the other. He glanced at the flowers and raised an eyebrow. “Oh, we're trying this again, are we?”
Crowley pressed a kiss to his cheek as he manoeuvred past him to the back room. “Ethically sourced from the bloke down the road, not a demon in sight. Well, one demon. And a '98 Prieure Roch.”
“I wasn't expecting you this evening.”
“And yet you have me. Is that alright?”
Old steps and new steps. Wine and company, familiar ground, but also flowers, and this catalogue of questions they had learned to ask, statements they had learned to make. After six thousand years of silence they had to remember how to speak. What would you like? What do you need? Questions turned into clandestine pleasures, speech free and honest and kind.
“More than alright. I would have called if you hadn't come,” Aziraphale said.
With a gesture the bunch of flowers lost the neon yellow paper around them and found a vase beside Aziraphale at his desk. The angel paused to smell the flowers, papery and sweet, before joining Crowley in the back room.
He bent to sit next to Crowley but the demon grabbed him by his belt-loop and with a tug landed him in his lap. Aziraphale couldn't help a little squeak of surprise. He found a glass of wine pressed into his hand and an arm firm around his waist.
“Alright?” Crowley murmured.
Aziraphale allowed himself a moment. He was allowed moments, now. He settled back, letting himself relax, letting himself reimagine of himself as someone permitted to cuddle. “Perfectly. Is there some occasion I'm forgetting?”
“I wanted to see my boyfriend. Find out what book he's been reading. Get him drunk and take advantage of him.”
Aziraphale laughed. It felt good in ways it hadn't before. Healing took time, even with the best of care. But they were getting there, day by day. And he'd tell Crowley about the book he was reading and Crowley would make fun of it, insist that the author had been a drunk and a lecher. And they'd snuggle on the couch, or the bed, and drink good wine and laugh. And when they made love it would take them hours, Aziraphale whispering litanies into Crowley's skin, Crowley taking the time to know and memorise every inch of Aziraphale.
They had won their freedom and now it was time to use it.
Wow, thanks to everyone so much for reading this. What a ride. What a response!
Dotty and Seekwill were my amazing betas and I hope only good things come to them in life, they've been so lovely.
Thanks to everyone who commented and kudosed but special thanks to ARealPip for my literal life I've never looked forward to comments so much.
For anyone wondering the poem Az quotes in chapter 9 is Poem IX by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the song Mel is singing this chapter is Morning Train by Sheena Easton. And the full meaning of peonies is bashfulness, a happy life and a happy marriage.