Crowley had never believed in much of anything, until he met Aziraphale.
He wasn't sure what he believed in now. Whatever it was, it wasn't to be found in a church, read from a book of scripture. But there was something, something, a thread humming through this life they'd made together. Missing pieces, strange echoes, distant shadows.
There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
(He'd never even liked Hamlet, he didn't know why so many pieces of it seemed to have stuck in his memory, even before watching Shakespeare with Aziraphale had become a thing.)
He dreamed strange dreams, and as the years went by, he realised that they were fixed, could be repeated. Like scenes playing over and over again. Not just some collection of images and impressions, but the same events, the same backdrop, the same emotions. He could categorise them: the dream where he played the piano alone and wept, the dream where he played it for Aziraphale and laughed, both lit by candlelight, both in a bookshop that was too new, too sparsely stocked.
Sitting in the evening breeze under the scented, drooping flowers; working the earth with his hands, weary but unwilling to let the garden go untended. Clipping and cutting and coaxing potted plants into new combinations by guttering lamplight; blowing glass into delicate shapes; grinding lenses to exact measurements; looking through the great telescope for the first time and seeing the crescent of Venus like a tiny, far-off moon.
Sometimes Aziraphale was there, and those dreams were always soft with love, left him so filled with longing that all he could do on waking was wrap himself around Aziraphale and breathe him in. But most of them were painted in shades of loneliness, whether the sharp grief of loss or the persistent ache of never finding something he hadn't known he was looking for.
Crowley had the nightmare very, very rarely now, and only ever when Aziraphale was away. He didn't mention it anymore when it happened. He'd seen the way Aziraphale's face had twisted the first time he'd tried to describe it. They were so rarely apart, it was a burden he could suffer alone, even if it made him dread Aziraphale's infrequent absences.
(But oh, the suffocating closeness of it, the heat, the heavy perfumed scent, the horror: it was dark, and he was dying...)
He'd come to accept it, the dreams as well as the nightmares. Come to believe that they were in some way a price that had to be paid for having Aziraphale. It was worth it, in that case. It was worth it.
He wasn't sure what he believed in now, but he had come to accept that even after eleven years there was something about Aziraphale he didn't understand. Perhaps would never understand. Something about the bond between them that for all its ease, for all its everyday fondness, for all its deep and abiding trust, was taut and vulnerable like a bared throat. Something about the silences and the moments when Aziraphale looked so distant, so haunted. Something that made Crowley bite his tongue on certain questions, for fear of shattering the whole world with a careless word.
(Who was it who sent Aziraphale those too-white envelopes that Crowley never quite seemed to see delivered? Aziraphale hid them so swiftly, Crowley had never had a chance to look inside, but he knew they must contain commands, because it was only after receiving them that Aziraphale would suddenly need to travel on 'urgent business'. Crowley had entertained a number of theories over the years, but deep down he knew he hadn't married a spy or a secret agent or a man beholden to the mob. And deep down he was glad he'd never managed to get to one of those envelopes before Aziraphale did.)
He wasn't sure what he believed in now, except that Aziraphale was the core of it, the centre of his orbit, his guiding star. That they had been meant to meet, somehow, whether two halves of a single soul or tangled in red string or whatever stories people liked to tell. That he would do anything, anything to keep them from being parted again.
(Even ignore his own questions.)
So there was a strangeness, but it was like an infrequent haze that burned away under the noon sun, the brief shock of static electricity, a moment of surprise and then gone. It was nothing compared to all the rest of it, the quiet joy and the shared laughter and the slow, certain realisation that everything he felt was reflected back on him a thousandfold, that Aziraphale loved him, that Aziraphale knew him like no-one had ever known him, that Aziraphale had chosen him, and would keep choosing him, no matter what shadows lingered in his eyes.
Crowley could have lived with it forever, he thought, like you learn to live with double vision or a missing limb, could have gladly bent himself around Aziraphale's strangeness like a tree growing past a forgotten stone.
But it didn't last forever.
There was something like fear lurking in Crowley's stomach again these days, a sense of dread, of impending doom. It was the way Aziraphale hardly seemed to sleep, the way he clung to Crowley like he expected to be torn away, the way he stared silently into the distance sometimes until Crowley had called his name twice, three times.
Something was coming, but Aziraphale wouldn't tell him what it was. It was like a sword hanging over them, like a comet drawing closer and closer, ready to descend in a blaze of fire.
(Sometimes he thought: This is madness. One of us should see a doctor. Maybe both of us. It has to be all in my head, all in his head. The world doesn't work like this.)
(And something in him would whisper back: It does for us, I think. And there are no pills or potions for this.)
After Aziraphale left on his errand, Crowley drifted around the flat, restless and on edge. In the end he found himself wandering into the bookshop, thinking he'd play something on the piano. He didn't know why, but his fingers were itching to try the Moonlight Sonata again. He could probably find some sheet music online...
He paused halfway across the shop, frowning as something caught his eye. That odd bookcase, the one that never seemed to quite fit right, the one with all those Danish books Aziraphale never touched (but they never gathered dust, either). It was jutting out from the wall, as if it had been knocked forward somehow. Crowley crossed over to it, intending to shove it back into place. It gave too easily under his hand, swung too smoothly, not like a bookshelf at all.
Like a door.
Startled, Crowley stopped pushing, pulled instead. The shelf swung out - yes, it was hinged, yes there was space behind it—
(Aziraphale had told him not to pry into anything obviously private. So long ago now, he'd almost forgotten. Had assumed there was nothing left in the bookshop for him to find.)
He lost his grip on the door, fingers suddenly numb with shock. He dimly heard it collide with one of the other shelves, heard some of the books topple to the ground, but it was all distant, unreal, as he stared into the room that shouldn't be there.
It was too big, for a start. There shouldn't be space for a room like this. A closet, maybe, but this was a windowless chamber big enough to house shelves, cabinets, a table and chair. There was a cord hanging by the door; Crowley reached for it and yanked it hard. An unshaded lightbulb began to glow dimly above his head. Slowly, remorselessly, it gained in brightness, revealing the contents of the room to Crowley's wide and disbelieving eyes.
(There was an old story he'd heard as a child, on some school trip where they tried to scare each other around the campfire. Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest your heart's blood run cold...)
There were things pinned to the walls, like something out of a detective show, notes and pins and strings and scribbled questions. There were maps, some of them old, marked with strange symbols. The table was covered with papers and journals full of Aziraphale's handwriting. There was a circle painted on the floorboards, set about with runes and intersecting lines, so white it almost glowed.
There was a portrait hung on the wall, an old-fashioned oil painting. Not just old-fashioned but old, like something out of the National Gallery. His own face looked back at him, dressed in clothes from two centuries past, and something was wrong with his eyes. And on the shelf below it...
(You may open any door in the castle, Bluebeard said to his new bride, except the little room at the end of the hall. But she couldn't contain her curiosity, and then she learned what had become of all his other wives...)
They were set out in a row, like a line of bodies awaiting burial. Wisteria first, a cluster of fresh blossoms. (Wisteria, it meant welcome.) The scent of it was familiar, winding around memories of warm nights and soft words.
Next a geranium in a glass pot that made Crowley's heart clench with familiarity. He'd dreamed of shaping that vessel, of tending the plant that grew within it. It was far too dark in this little room for it to thrive, but it was laden with purple flowers, its leaves a rich, deep green, its roots healthy and plump.
After that roses, deep red, in a cut-crystal vase that he recognised with a shock as the twin of the one Aziraphale always used when Crowley brought him flowers. No need to dredge his memory for their meaning: romance, passion.
The next two were bunches of wildflowers, tied carefully with bookbinder's string. Goldenrod, a native of North America; he knew it because he'd dreamed of lying among those flowers, had searched through plant catalogues until he'd found the yellow spears. Be cautious, was their message, be wary. And then asphodel, creeper into cracks, a scattering of stars on a winding stem, the flower of Persephone, of Eurydice: my regrets follow you to the grave.
Poppies, red as blood: oblivion, eternal sleep. Tulips, white as snow: I am worthy of you. And last of all...
Even after eleven years, he remembered every moment he'd spent on that bouquet. The pink carnations, the rosemary. Allium, white heather, daisies. Though I've lost you, I'll never forget you, I cannot forget you, my love, my love, my love...
Eleven years, and it was as perfect as it had been when he'd handed it over to Aziraphale, watched him leave the shop, felt his heart break for the first time without knowing why. Impossible. It was impossible. All these perfect flowers in this dark and secret room, all these signs of desperation, of someone searching for an answer even if it took him to the depths of madness, and that picture...
It was him, but the eyes were wrong. The eyes were as yellow as goldenrods, their pupils slit, a glow in their depths. Panic was rising up in his chest, seizing his throat, shrieking in his ears. He kept looking from the painting, to the bouquet, and back, and back again. The bouquet was too new, too fresh. The painting was too old, too worn. How could Aziraphale have these things? Why were Crowley's eyes painted like that, and why did it send a stab of recognition through him—?
All these flowers. Like a message, like a code. Like a history...
There was a white envelope on the table, one that had been opened and its contents then stuffed carelessly back inside. He reached for it with a shaking hand, fumbled the note out and unfolded it.
Aziraphale, Angel of the Eastern Gate, the letter read, in a looping hand, in ink of gold, and Crowley's vision swam as he stared at the word angel. Some part of his mind thought, a codename? A password? Was Aziraphale a spy after all?
We appreciate your hard work and contributions towards monitoring the Antichrist and maintaining Heaven's advantage in the war to come. However, we must deny your request for further information on the demon—
He hadn't heard the shop door open, hadn't heard Aziraphale's footsteps. He dropped the letter, turned like the world was turning under him, like he could hardly keep his balance. The look on Aziraphale's face was the same as those glimpses he'd caught all those years ago, but now there was no attempt to hide the anguish and the agony and the desperate, clawing guilt.
"What— what is this? Aziraphale, what the hell is all of this?"
Aziraphale stared at him, through him, and Crowley thought he saw him break, the breath going out of him, no spark of hope left in his bleak blue eyes, his body suddenly a shell as fragile as china and about to shatter. That terrible pain, that endless grief, kept at bay for so long now, crashing back in on him, a weight too heavy to bear, he would crumble beneath it, he would fall...
It tore him out of himself, the need to catch Aziraphale, the need to protect him. Everything else could wait. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else had ever mattered. Crowley pushed aside his questions and wrapped his arms around Aziraphale, held him until he felt the life come back into him, only then let himself ask again.
And Aziraphale unfurled his wings.
Angel of the Eastern Gate, the note had called him. Not a codename. Not a password. And Crowley's first thought, on seeing those wings that glowed with divine light, was, Yes, that's right, that's what's been missing. This whole time, I knew there was something missing, and it was this.
That pearly, unearthly light reached into his mind and filled it with certainty. No room for denial or argument, no space for doubt as to what he was seeing. No inclination to explain it away or question whether he was hallucinating or dreaming. Simple, quiet, absolute: he's an angel. He always has been.
It should have changed everything. It did change everything, it upended Crowley's understanding of the world, it raised so, so many questions for which Crowley had long assumed there were no real answers: so wait, does Heaven really exist? Does Hell? Does God? Do I have an immortal soul?
But the one thing it didn't change was Aziraphale. Even with those glowing wings arching behind him, he was as familiar and as achingly beloved as he had been all this time. His face downturned, expression taut, waiting for Crowley's reaction like he was waiting for the axe to fall. Wearing his fussy waistcoat and his ridiculous bow tie and his hair - and feathers, now Crowley looked - all flyaway like an absentminded professor, hands gripped tightly in front of him, almost shaking with a fear that Crowley recognised all too well. Don't go, please. Don't walk away. Don't forsake me because of what I've shown you.
As if he ever would. As if he ever could.
"Are— are they supposed to be like that?" Crowley asked, running his eyes over Aziraphale's ruffled feathers, thinking about the way he looked in the mornings before he'd had a chance to comb his hair.
"Messy? The feathers are all—"
"Messy?" Aziraphale's voice pitched into a familiar outrage, the way he responded when Crowley was teasing him, exactly what Crowley wanted to hear. "I'm showing you my wings and that's the first thing you say?"
Nothing had changed, not where it mattered. Crowley shrugged and found himself fighting a smile. He supposed he should be grateful Aziraphale's wings weren't tartan-patterned.
"I dunno, do you, like, brush them or something? Is there such a thing as a wing comb? I just thought— not that I think about angels on a regular basis, you know— but I would've thought they'd be sort of sleek and shiny—"
"Just because some of us don't spend hours preening—"
He sounded so indignant, and this felt like such an old argument, and Crowley found he was laughing, and then the next thing he knew, Aziraphale was in his arms. It seemed like kissing him was the best way to soothe his fear and his outrage both, so Crowley did that. When he wrapped his arms around Aziraphale, he felt the soft brush of feathers on the backs of his hands.
"Okay," Crowley said, leaning their foreheads together. "I have questions. A lot of questions."
Aziraphale laughed shakily.
"Of course you do," he murmured. "You always do. I'm not sure I have answers. But I'll do my best."
They started with tea (when agitated, Aziraphale was drawn to the kettle like it was his only anchor in a treacherous world) but moved on to Scotch fairly quickly, ignoring the fact that it was barely noon. It helped, a little.
There was just so... much. Aziraphale was trying to be succinct, but it had never been his strong point. Crowley listened, and sipped his whisky, and kept his arm tight around Aziraphale's shoulders, now devoid once more of wings.
(Aziraphale had tried to sit them down opposite each other like some sort of interview or debrief. Crowley had dragged him onto the sofa and made it clear that he was not planning to let up on physical reassurance for even a second.)
But there was a moment when enough of the pieces fell into place that Crowley took a huge, helpless breath of realisation.
"So the— my dreams. They're from— actual past lives."
"I believe so, yes."
"So I— we really did sit downstairs hundreds of years ago, and I played for you?"
"Yes," Aziraphale whispered, turning his head for a moment to press his face against Crowley's shoulder. "But please don't— don't ask me to tell you more about those lives, I can't—"
"I know," Crowley replied softly, holding him closer. "I remember when we first met. You said it never ended well."
"And the flowers—?"
"There were always flowers, every time I found you. I don't know why. I took to keeping them. They were often all I had left of you."
Crowley shivered, a cold creeping through his veins. At the distress in Aziraphale's voice, and at the memory of his nightmare. Oh, he thought, with horror and a strange kind of relief. Oh. I dream of dying because I remember it.
"What about the portrait?"
"It was painted while we were in London together," Aziraphale replied with such an ache of sadness and longing that it made Crowley ache in turn. "After you— after I lost you, that time, I went back to the artist and had him change the eyes."
"Because I'm..." Crowley swallowed. This part was harder to wrap his mind around. He had no dreams to ease the way, no sense of recognition. "I'm... not really human?"
"You are now," Aziraphale said. "But you weren't, once. And I haven't been able to find out why it happened."
Crowley took a long drink of whisky, letting the burn of it ground him.
"Okay," he said, although nothing was really okay, not when everything he'd ever thought he'd known was being torn up and reshuffled in front of his eyes. "What about— the rest of it, the— the maps and the notes— and that letter mentioned the actual Antichrist?"
For the first time, Aziraphale didn't reply. Crowley felt how he drew in on himself, tense and miserable. He turned to look; Aziraphale had tangled his hands in his lap, the fingers so tightly woven together his knuckles were white. His wedding band glinted softly in the light that fell through the sitting room window.
"I'm afraid," Aziraphale said finally, voice sunk so low it was barely a murmur, "I'm rather afraid, my dearest, that we are— we are living in the end times, you see."
"What?" Crowley suddenly didn't want to drink anymore. He shoved his glass onto the side table. "The what?"
"Armageddon is on its way. The real thing. It's all due to come to an end, you know, the way it's told in Revelation. The seas will boil and the kraken will rise—"
"No, wait, stop, Aziraphale." Crowley turned fully towards him and grabbed both his hands. "You're not serious. The end of the world?"
Aziraphale couldn't meet his gaze. He nodded wearily.
"Okay, but I mean— someone's trying to stop it, right?"
"I—" Aziraphale closed his eyes. "No, not especially. The only people who know it's coming want it to happen, you see. Heaven and Hell have been preparing for this second war for six thousand years—"
"And, what, the Earth is just... collateral damage?"
"In their eyes, yes."
"But that's—" A fierce anger roared to life in Crowley's chest, an outrage so enormous it felt like it would swallow the sun. "No, come on, no, there's seven billion people on this planet! And all the, the animals and things as well—"
"Whales," Aziraphale said sadly. "Gorillas. Yes. I know."
"We've spent the last century just barely managing not to blow ourselves up! It's not fair to just— wipe the board clean without even giving us a chance!"
"I've come to believe," Aziraphale whispered, staring at their joined hands, "that fair is not a word the Lord built into the structure of the universe."
He'd never seen Aziraphale so defeated, so hopeless. Crowley tightened his grip, glared until Aziraphale finally raised his head and met his eyes.
"If TV has taught me anything, it's that apocalypses are meant to be stopped," Crowley said, managing a weak grin. "We've got to have a go, haven't we?"
Aziraphale bit his lip.
"I don't think there's anything—"
"We have to try!" Crowley insisted. "How long have we got?"
Aziraphale flinched and looked away.
"About a week," he said.
Crowley stared at him so long that Aziraphale wilted and hung his head.
"A week," Crowley said flatly. "One week. One. That's it?"
"I'm sorry," Aziraphale replied miserably, "I didn't want you to live with it hanging over you—"
"Like you did." Amidst the panic and disbelief, another puzzle piece shifted, fell into place with a heart-wrenching heaviness. "That's— you knew it was coming. You've known all along. That we were running out of time."
Aziraphale nodded, and Crowley saw the glint of tears on his cheeks, and he thought his heart might break on the rocks of Aziraphale's anguish.
"No," he said.
Aziraphale jerked under his hands, trying to pull away, like he thought Crowley was angry with him. Crowley held on tightly. He was angry, all right, but not at Aziraphale, who was so plainly exhausted from so many years of despair.
"No," he said again. "I'm not going to let it happen."
Aziraphale stared at him, stunned, colour rising to cheeks that had been too pale for too long.
"My dearest," he said faintly, "how do you possibly think you can stop—"
"I don't know yet." Crowley scowled at the clock on the wall, its second hand sweeping them onward like an unwelcome current. "But we'll think of something, because we have to. Because I'm not losing you again."
He pulled Aziraphale into his arms and held him as tight as he could. Aziraphale made a soft noise like he'd only just remembered how to breathe, and clung on with equal intensity.
"Tell me everything you've already figured out," Crowley said. "We'll go from there."
The next few days were a blur as Crowley tried to wrap his head around things he'd never believed in and things he wished he'd never known. Aziraphale had been thorough, exhaustive (of course he had), cataloguing every prophecy and reference to the Apocalypse, charting every named location for its key events. Crowley's head swam with it, with myths made real, stories made fact. Behold, a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him...
When the shop bell sounded, Crowley barely registered it, too absorbed in the text he was trying to decipher. It was Aziraphale's reaction that got his attention: the way he bolted upright from where he'd been bent over a map of the Middle East, the colour draining from his face. It was only then that Crowley remembered that the bookshop was closed, the door supposed to be locked.
"Aziraphale!" The voice was strident with outrage. "Aziraphale!"
Aziraphale grabbed Crowley's arm before he could speak, shaking his head frantically.
"Stay in here," he whispered fiercely. "Don't make a sound."
He was out of the secret room in a heartbeat, swinging the shelf back into place so that Crowley was shut inside. Crowley swallowed a prickle of panic at the idea that he might be trapped.
"Gabriel?" Aziraphale was saying, his footsteps hurrying towards the front of the shop. "What on Earth is the matter—"
"What's the matter?" The person Aziraphale addressed as Gabriel sounded like every overbearing office manager Crowley had ever encountered. "What's the matter, Aziraphale, is that Warlock Dowling is not the Antichrist!"
A pause, in which Crowley's mouth dropped open and he imagined that a similar expression of shock was on Aziraphale's face.
"What?" Aziraphale managed weakly. "How—?"
"That's what we'd very much like to ask you," came another voice, a woman's, dark with suspicion. "Since you were supposed to be watching him—"
"But, Uriel, how do you know he's not—"
"Yesterday was his eleventh birthday!" snarled Gabriel. "The day he should come into his powers! He was supposed to receive a hellhound, and Downstairs certainly sent one up here, but it never turned up at the boy's birthday party! So what in Her name is going on?"
There was a thump, as if Gabriel had picked up one of the heavier books and thrown it down in frustration. Crowley's hands curled into fists and he started searching for a catch on the inside of the bookcase door. He wasn't going to stand by while anyone talked to Aziraphale like that—
"You never noticed anything was wrong in all this time?" Uriel demanded, unconcealed menace in the words. "You never noticed he was just an ordinary child? Or did you know all along, did you interfere somehow—?"
"That is quite enough," Aziraphale replied, and his voice was suddenly diamond-hard in a way that Crowley had never heard, that made him catch his breath and freeze where he stood. "Gabriel, if you recall, you told me that Warlock was the Antichrist. You also told me that he wouldn't show any signs of it until he turned eleven."
Gabriel started to sputter an answer, but Aziraphale carried on remorselessly, his voice gaining volume and intensity.
"I've watched him, just as you commanded. I've dedicated a not inconsiderable amount of time and effort to preventing his demon caretakers from running riot around London, which has been far from straightforward."
Aziraphale wasn't shouting. Crowley had never heard him shout, at least, not in anger; he'd only ever heard Aziraphale raise his voice in delight or surprise. He wasn't shouting, but there was a thin current of cold rage behind every word he said, and the two who had come to confront him had stopped even trying to interrupt.
"And now you come in here and accuse me of— of what, exactly, Uriel? What the hell do you think I could possibly have done, with Beelzebub's agents watching over him from birth? When I didn't even know his identity until he was three years old? When I have done everything you asked of me! How dare you come in here and try to pin the blame on me?"
There was a ringing silence. Crowley fought the urge to applaud, even as his heart raced with panic.
"Now, Aziraphale," Gabriel said after a moment, suddenly conciliatory, "no-one is trying to pin any blame on anyone—"
"And how is it that you know so much about what Hell has planned for the boy?" Aziraphale cut in furiously. "You say he has a hellhound? You never mentioned that in any of my briefings—"
"It wasn't relevant," Uriel replied tartly. "Until it failed to show up."
Aziraphale laughed: a sharp, sarcastic sound.
"So what you're saying is— is that Warlock Dowling is just an ordinary human child, and somewhere out there in the world, the real Antichrist has grown up with no supervision whatsoever, and has now received a powerful and vicious beast from Hell, and you don't know where either of them are?"
"Er," said Gabriel, and Crowley grinned viciously at how utterly wrongfooted he sounded with that one syllable. "Now, as I said, Aziraphale, we aren't pointing any fingers here, obviously there's been a— a failing somewhere along the way, but for right now the most important thing is to find the boy—"
"Why don't you ask Hell where he is, since you seem to be so friendly these days—"
"Because they don't know either!" Gabriel almost howled. Uriel let out a hiss of protest, but the words were already out there.
There was a strained silence.
"So you really do have contact with them?" Aziraphale asked finally. That thread of anger was back, but wound about with something else, something like dismay and outrage and vindication all in one. "Six thousand years of they're the enemy, they're unforgivable, and now you're, I don't know, sending each other memos? Having a cozy chat on the telephone?"
"Armageddon is too important to risk messing up through miscommunication—" Gabriel stammered weakly.
"And yet you seem to have messed it up anyway," Aziraphale replied with such soft venom that Crowley sucked in his breath. "Impressive work, Gabriel."
"You're out of line, Aziraphale," Uriel snapped. "You can't talk to us like that."
"Can't I? It seems I just did." Although Crowley couldn't see it, he was absolutely, completely sure that Aziraphale was standing with his hands behind his back and that look on his face Crowley had only ever seen once, twice: that cold-blazing certainty and refusal to be cowed. "Since we've established that I was as in the dark about all this as you apparently were, I suppose you want me to try and find your missing Antichrist, do you?"
"If we can't find him, you won't be able to," Uriel spat. "He's shielded from occult interference until he comes into his full power."
"I wasn't planning on scrying for him, Uriel. Humans have other ways of finding each other. Nothing occult about it. If the child was switched without the knowledge of Heaven or Hell, it must have been humans who managed it. There'll be traces, if one knows where to look."
"Do you really think so?" Gabriel cut in, desperation and hope naked in his voice, a far cry from the way he'd started the conversation. "You might be able to find him?"
"We can hardly rely on humans—" Uriel started.
"Quiet, Uriel," Gabriel snapped. "Aziraphale. Can you find him? The Four Horsemen have already been summoned, we must know where to assemble the Host for the final battle—"
"I'll certainly give it my best shot," Aziraphale replied, almost serenely. "Wouldn't want to be late to the Apocalypse, would we?"
"No," Gabriel said with a gratifying note of mortification, "that would be— that wouldn't look very good."
"Though in that case, I had better get on—"
"Yes, yes, of course, we'll leave you to it." There was a shuffling sound of footsteps heading for the door. "The resources of Heaven are at your disposal, just do whatever you have to, understood?"
"You can't be seriously leaving it to him—" Uriel hissed.
"We have work to do, Uriel," Gabriel replied sharply. "Come on."
The bell jingled as the door was wrenched open.
"Keep us up to date," Gabriel commanded, over the sounds of Uriel muttering her way out of the shop. "The second you find him, you let us know, okay?"
The door slammed shut. There was a long moment of silence, then Azirapahle's hurried footsteps. The shelf swung open so suddenly that Crowley almost fell out of the hidden room into Aziraphale's arms. He clutched at the front of his waistcoat for balance; Aziraphale steadied him with hands on his shoulders.
"Was that— Gabriel, as in the Archangel fucking Gabriel—"
"The very same, more's the pity." There were two bright spots of colour high on Aziraphale's cheeks, a mesmerising fire burning in his gaze. "You heard, yes? You heard what they said—"
"I heard them try to throw you under the bus—"
"It doesn't matter. Crowley! You don't understand." Hope, Crowley realised, it was hope blazing in his eyes, white and hot like the heart of a star. "They got it wrong. They messed it up! The great plan - the six-thousand-year payoff - it was all written down at the Beginning but it's not going the way it's supposed to—"
"So maybe that's not how it's supposed to go," Crowley said, comprehension dawning, his heart picking up its pace. "Maybe they're wrong about all of it."
Aziraphale nodded, shaking now, eyes still star-bright. Crowley had never seen him like this, never known he could burn like this, and he was breathless and bowled over and there was something like deja vu in it, something like the scent of rain and the taste of apples and a question with an unexpected answer...
"We have to find him," Aziraphale went on, taking a shuddering breath and frowning as he considered the challenge. "We have some information. We know he was born - or, well, arrived on the Earth - eleven years ago yesterday. Hell has been watching him all his life, and his mother surely would have noticed a difference if they replaced her son with another during his childhood—"
"Unless it happened right at the start," Crowley finished for him, thinking of soap operas and gothic melodrama. "Switched at birth."
"I need to talk to Warlock's mother. Find out where he was born, if there was anything strange about the circumstances."
Crowley frowned, shook his head.
"You can't just walk in there and start interrogating the woman—"
Aziraphale smiled. It took Crowley's breath away.
"You forget, my dearest, I have all the resources of Heaven at my disposal."
Piece by piece, they uncovered it all, turning stones one at a time until the shape of it began to emerge, until the flow of it bore them away like a river, racing desperately against time, against the looming will of what is written.
"... but of course, it burned down not long after we took Warlock home, such a shame, it was just outside Tadfield if I'm remembering correctly—"
"Wait, what? Tadfield? Our Tadfield?"
"Oh dear Lord. Oh no. Crowley, when is Adam's birthday?"
"This is crazy. Everything's completely normal. You're not seriously telling me that little terrier is a hellhound?"
"I don't know. I just don't know. Maybe— maybe I was wrong—"
"No. You were certain. I saw your face. Don't doubt yourself now."
"I... I'll try, my dearest. What were they saying about the American woman who just arrived?"
"I told Mom it wasn't a metaphor. Here. Read this one."
"And on thee eve of thee storme an angel shall come to thee, Anathema, and bringeth with him knowledge of that which yet eludes thee, so mindeth well that thou hast leaves for steeping and sweet confections to hande on this day— oh. Oh, good heavens."
"You've got to be fucking kidding me—"
"The airbase. It's all going to happen at the airbase, don't you see?"
"Can't we stop it before it gets that far?"
"Not according to Agnes. There's too much momentum. We have to wait until the right moment, the point where it all comes into balance, where it can be pushed one way or another— my dear girl, where are you going?"
"Oh, I have an appointment with a Witchfinder. I'll catch up with you later."
"We can't just sit around and wait—"
"I think we must, dearest. I think we only get one chance at this. He's had no preparation, no tutelage in his true destiny. If we approach him too soon, scare him into using his full power—"
"But it's Adam! He's— he's Adam."
"Yes. And I think... I think perhaps that might save us all, if we don't rush in before our time."
The clouds gathered above the airbase like an army massing for battle. Perhaps that wasn't so far from the truth, Crowley thought with a shudder as he pulled the Bentley up to the gates. His head was stuffed with the impossibilities of the last twenty-four hours: a child he'd known almost a decade who had the power to unmake the world; an honest-to-goodness witch with a book of prophecies that bothered to predict when someone would drop around for tea; an awkward boy who'd turned up out of nowhere and was now crammed into the back seat for reasons Crowley wasn't entirely clear on; and now this, the guard stepping forward with a scowl, and Aziraphale simply snapping his fingers, so that the man vanished and the gate opened.
"That's going to take some getting used to," Crowley said weakly, fumbling the Bentley into gear and rolling them through the gates onto the tarmac beyond.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Aziraphale flinch and shrink in on himself.
"I— prefer not to do that sort of thing— it's only that—"
"You know," Crowley interrupted, reaching out to put a hand on Aziraphale's knee even as he spotted a crowd in the distance and headed towards it. "It's just struck me how staggeringly ironic it is that you spent so damn long trying to get the hang of that trick with the coin when you can do actual magic."
"I enjoy learning sleight of hand—" Aziraphale protested, and then ahead of them, twenty or more soldiers suddenly fell to the ground senseless.
"Did— did you do that?"
"No. He did, I think."
Adam stood with his friends, very small, very ordinary-looking, his little dog at his heels, his eyes clear and calm as he looked towards one of the buildings. It was hard to believe he was what he was. He just looked like he always did, like the boy who'd played a game with Crowley for years now, of whether he could sneak apples from Crowley's trees without being spotted, who only ever made his raids when he knew Crowley and Aziraphale were staying at the cottage, who somehow evaded even Crowley's vigilance at least half of the time.
Except there was a look in his eye as he watched four figures emerge from a door.
"What the hell are they?" Anathema demanded in horror. "Their auras—"
"No-one you want to get to know," Aziraphale replied tightly. "But whatever they've been doing in there, I think it's up to you to undo it."
"Oh. Yes. Come on, Witchfinder Private Pulsifer."
They spilled out of the car. Anathema took her Witchfinder by the hand and dragged him towards their destiny. Crowley looked at Aziraphale. Aziraphale took a breath, and held out his hand, and they walked together towards theirs.
"Adam—" Aziraphale began as they approached.
Adam turned to look at him, and the force of his gaze seemed to strike Aziraphale almost physically, making him stumble and come to a halt.
"'S all right, Mr Fell," Adam said with a small, rueful smile. "I know. We've got this. Right, Pepper?"
Crowley stared open-mouthed and frozen in horror as the red-haired monster in human shape swung a weapon of flame at a defenceless child. He blinked, and the sword was on the ground, and then Pepper was seizing hold of it, brandishing it without fear.
"Good heavens," Aziraphale said faintly, "is that my sword?"
"Your sword?" Crowley croaked. "You had a sword?"
"Well, yes, in the Beginning, but I—"
Crowley didn't hear the rest of it, because that was when Adam looked at him, and his brow furrowed.
"Wait," he said, staring at Crowley, staring into Crowley. "Mr Crowley, what's... what's happened to you?"
Crowley blinked again, even as Pepper dropped the sword and Brian seized it in turn.
"What do you mean?"
"You're all— you shouldn't be like that—"
And it was like being hit by a wall of water, like being bowled over and bruised and broken and baptised, like taking a breath and drawing water deep into his lungs, so much water he could barely hold it within his skin, too many memories, too many lifetimes, flowers and music and fear and loss and Aziraphale, Aziraphale—
"Stop, Adam, please! Whatever you're doing to him, stop!" Aziraphale was crying out, and Crowley dimly realised he was on his knees, a crumpled thing of flesh and bone, a vessel too fragile to hold so much, the breath tearing out of him in desperate sobs.
And then it ebbed, leaving him weak and shaking, Aziraphale's arms tightly around him, cradling him close, and all he could do was lean his head into Aziraphale's chest and draw breath after ragged breath.
"It's not me that did this to him," Adam said, and his voice was quiet, but it was the quiet of the eye of the storm.
Crowley opened his eyes. Three of the four monstrous figures were gone. The sword lay on the ground at Adam's feet. Before him was a cloaked skeleton, all pretence of human disguise cast aside. Adam was staring straight into the star-glow of its bottomless gaze, and for the first time, there was anger gathering in his eyes.
"What did you do?" he demanded of the figure that could be none but Death. "Why did you do it?"
Death looked, for a moment, at Crowley, and he felt the cold of it in his chest, a clutching hand that squeezed his heart, threatened to stop his breath. Aziraphale made a terrified, torn sound, held him tighter, whispered, "No."
Adam took a step sideways, placing himself between Death and Crowley. The invisible, bony fingers released their grip. Crowley gasped and sagged back in Aziraphale's arms as Death met Adam's gaze unflinching.
A LESSON, Death said, the words hollow and heavy and hung with horror. ONE HE IS SLOW TO LEARN.
"This isn't teaching," Adam retorted, "this is torture. For both of them! They're not meant to be like this!"
MEANT TO BE IS NO CONCERN OF MINE. I AM WHAT IS, AND WHAT WILL BE. AND BESIDES—
And there had never been laughter so awful as this, so echoing and so laden with the breath of the tomb, so bleak and devoid of any human warmth.
BESIDES, Death continued with cold amusement, HE COULD HAVE CONCEDED. SO MANY TIMES, HE COULD HAVE ADMITTED THAT HE WAS WRONG. WHEN I TOOK HIS FORSAKEN SOUL FROM THE RUBBLE IN SICILY—
Aziraphale gasped, the air wrenched from him like he'd been gut-punched, and Crowley tried to push himself upright, tried to be the one to offer comfort, even as his head swam.
WHEN I CAME FOR HIM IN COPENHAGEN, it was remorseless, it was cruel, STILL DREAMING OF THINGS HE COULDN'T REMEMBER. WHEN HE DIED ALONE IN LONDON, STILL HOPING AGAINST HOPE FOR A PROMISE TO BE KEPT—
Aziraphale cried out then, curling in on himself, clinging to Crowley.
"That's enough," Adam snapped. He stepped forward suddenly, bent, picked up the sword. At his touch, it burst into flames. Where before the fire had been orange and gold, now it was rimmed in electric blue and plasma green. "This isn't how you make people learn. Let him go. Give him back what you've taken."
YOU CANNOT DESTROY ME, Death said. I AM CREATION'S SHADOW. WITHOUT ME, HOW DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT? WITHOUT ME, HOW DO YOU FIND MEANING IN LIFE?
"I reckon we'll think of something," Adam replied. He raised the sword, and for the first time, Death seemed uncertain, bony feet shuffling under his robes. "I reckon we'll figure out how to get rid of you for good, one day."
Adam took another step forward.
"It can be today, if you like."
There was a pause as if the world had stopped turning. As if the sun had halted in the sky. As if an unstoppable force was racing towards an immovable object.
And Death took one step backwards.
VERY WELL. I RELEASE HIM FROM HIS CHAINS.
If Adam's regard had been a wall of water, this was an avalanche, a landslide, an impossible weight, and Crowley heard his own hoarse voice before he even knew he'd screamed. Buried alive, torn apart, an immensity of existence thrust back inside him, the mortal shape of him stretched and strained beyond breaking point. Aziraphale cradling him again, begging with words Crowley couldn't understand, torn with terror and guilt and grief...
Crowley fell silent. He couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn't think. All he knew was that Aziraphale's arms were around him, that Aziraphale was here, that after so many centuries and so much grief and so many missed chances, he was here...
"Angel," he whispered, heard Aziraphale's choked cry.
And he remembered.
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
- The Sick Rose, William Blake
He should have left months ago. August was no time to be in London even under normal circumstances. Now, with the dead-carts piled high with corpses, the whole city was a miasma of horror and decay. The air was foul; Crowley filled his rooms with lilies that never wilted, the strongest scent he could lay his hands on, and it wasn't enough to mask the stench.
He should have left months ago, but he'd promised Aziraphale he'd wait. He'd promised he'd be here. And so he found himself watching Pestilence at work.
He'd seen her in many guises over the millennia. Scarred and grinning and garbed in red satin as she kissed smallpox across fevered skin. Tall and blue-lipped and draped in ragged grey as she breathed influenza into open mouths. Here she wore her favourite shape: the plague hag, swathed in heavy robes of black, shuffling from house to house with her broom and her rake.
(They said that if she used the rake, some in the place would survive, but if she used the broom, all would perish. Crowley hadn't seen the rake in her hands since the start of the summer.)
There had been a time in the fourteenth century when Crowley had found himself walking through a deserted village in the depths of an empty forest. Every single person who'd once lived there had died in the calamity that would later be known as the Black Death. Most of them had not been buried, the infection spreading too swiftly and mercilessly, claiming all before they could flee. They lay where they'd died, and no-one came to ring the church bell for them. He'd heard her laughter in the silence.
(Three centuries later, that village was long lost to the forest, the bones scattered and gnawed, the bell gripped tight in the roots of a dying tree.)
This visitation of Pestilence upon London couldn't compare in scale. Crowley knew that the hag wouldn't have her way upon the whole country this time, knew that in comparison to the forest fire that had been the Black Death, this was hardly a stray spark on a heath.
But they were dying, all around him, and they were dying horribly, and there was no reason for it, except that Pestilence loved their misery, and God apparently cared nothing for their suffering. The rich had fled, the poor had been left to rot, and as ever, the old and the young were devoured with especial glee by the sickness.
He should have left months ago. But he was here, and every day he watched children die. And he thought about how Aziraphale had been sent away to mind some petty squabble of kingdoms, how the borders of so-called Christendom were of far more importance to Heaven than a few hundred thousand London commoners.
And so he donned the black robes and beaked mask of a plague doctor, and he went to work.
It wasn't the first time he'd healed. He'd done it in Aziraphale's stead, and in truth, he'd done it on his own account, more often than any demon should. He was very good at excusing it, finding justifications that would satisfy Hell: this soul that would have gone to Heaven has been given more time to sin, this child who would have died innocent will now grow into all the temptations of the world.
Hell took no notice of his efforts. Pestilence sneered at him, raised her broom threateningly when she saw him in the street. Crowley stared her down. He wasn't breaking any rules, wasn't opposing her directly. There would always be some who survived, always some who slipped through her grip, whether by chance or by direct intervention. If Aziraphale had been here, he would have been doing the same thing. This was practically just another part of the Arrangement. If it happened to be a demon rather than an angel who brought cool water to cracked lips and clean linen to fevered bodies, well, that was no business of hers.
He should have remembered that of all the Horsemen, Pestilence was the one who lived with constant fear, who watched the humans slowly find better ways to fight her, who knew that one day, she would be conquered. He should have realised that it would make her petty and vengeful and vicious, that even now as she set out to claim a full quarter of London's population, she was raging that her nasty little gifts were not reaching out further, that the world had changed enough to slow the spread of her favourite infection.
And he should have remembered that she had allies.
The child was the youngest daughter of the family who lived on the floor below Crowley's rooms. Her three older siblings had already succumbed. Her father had carried each of them out to the street in their shrouds, and her mother lay delirious with the sickness, still cradling her last living child as if she could protect her with her body.
There was nothing to mark them out from the other humans in the city, except for proximity. Except that Crowley had idly watched those children play in the street, had seen them grow up (and they would grow no further now, cut down like slender stems before they even had a chance to bloom). Except that he heard the man's prayers to God through the floorboards, and knew that there would be no answer.
In the depths of the night, Crowley silently descended the stairs. He didn't bother with the robe and mask. They wouldn't see him anyway. The father was asleep on his knees, exhaustion interrupting his useless prayers. The mother was sweating and shifting in pain, but Crowley thought she would live, if she could survive the heartbreak.
The girl was already marked for death, black and red pinpricks mottling her skin, the blood poisoning spreading through every vein and capillary, devouring her from the inside out. No human medicine yet invented could bring her back from that brink. Even a miracle would be barely enough. In other households, Crowley had conceded defeat for such victims, speeding their passage mercifully when he could, saving his strength to heal those who were not so far gone.
Here, he began to pull the poison from her blood, a slick black liquid that dripped into the bowl he conjured in his free hand. There was so much damage; her body was so frail. He might remove the infection completely and she could still die, her worn-out heart faltering, her ravaged lungs collapsing. He wasn't a healer by nature; he didn't understand all the details of how to repair a human body. For the simpler things, intent was enough. For something so complex...
It must have been hours later that he heard her breathe deeply for the first time, saw the livid mottling of her skin begin to fade. Her fever had broken; the flesh that had been tensed against unbearable pain relaxed. She would live.
YOU HAVE DENIED ME WHAT IS MINE.
Crowley stiffened and turned to face the cowled figure behind him.
"Yeah, well, you can't win 'em all," he said nonchalantly. "And what's one human more or less to you, anyway?"
EVERYTHING, Death replied, the rattle of chains and the echo of the tomb in the words. THIS ONE WAS MARKED FOR ME. THIS ONE WAS MINE.
A cold sweat started on the back of Crowley's neck. He heard a sound from the door; when he looked, he saw Pestilence's haggard face smirking at the threshold.
"You've taken enough from this family," he snapped, with a defiance that was shaky at its core. "You're getting greedy. There's plenty more out there you can lay your bony fingers on, don't let me keep you—"
GREEDY? Death laughed, a cold and harrowing sound. IT IS YOU, I THINK, DEMON, WHO GRASPS FOR MORE THAN YOUR SHARE. TO LIVE IS TO DIE. THERE MUST BE BALANCE.
"Balance? You call this balance?" Crowley realised he was still holding the bowl of vile black fluid; he sent it into oblivion with a flick of his wrist. "There's nothing balancing the deaths of these children. There's just you and your girlfriend there glutting yourselves on suffering."
It was beyond foolish to goad Azrael himself, but Death's fleshless face was, if anything, amused. His eyes flared like twin novas, blue-white and calculating.
THEIR DEATHS ARE BALANCED BY THEIR LIVES. THIS IS ALWAYS THE WAY. THEIR SPAN ON EARTH IS ALL THE SWEETER FOR ITS BREVITY.
"Fuck that," Crowley snarled. "They could live long and happy lives and it would be just as ssssweet. I've seen them do it. All that shit about appreciating life more because of death is just propaganda to keep them in line. There's no reason they couldn't be as immortal as we are. No reason except sssspite."
CAN YOU BE SO SURE OF SOMETHING YOU HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED?
"I've died. More than once. No human can say the same."
YOUR DISCORPORATIONS ARE NOT COMPARABLE. YOU KNOW WHAT WILL COME AFTER. YOU KNOW YOU WILL RETURN. IT IS A MINOR INCONVENIENCE AT WORST.
"There's nothing minor about getting stabbed with a damn polearm—"
YOU HAVE NEVER DIED, SERPENT. YOU HAVE NEVER TRULY KNOWN MY TOUCH. YOU ARGUE FROM A PLACE OF IGNORANCE, AND SO YOUR ARGUMENT HAS NO WEIGHT.
"No weight? You think I've watched them live and die for five and a half thousand years and I don't know what I'm talking about—"
CORRECT. Death took a step forward. The shadows in the room grew darker. STEP ASIDE NOW. I WILL TAKE THE CHILD.
THERE MUST BE BALANCE. IF YOU DENY ME HER LIFE, I MUST TAKE ANOTHER. HER FATHER? HER MOTHER? ONE OF THE OTHERS IN THIS CITY? WHY SHOULD SHE LIVE WHILST THEY DIE?
"You and I both know it doesn't work like that," Crowley retorted. "It's never been that finely measured. You can let her go just as easily as you can take her. There's no need for all this... trading nonsense. One human life is practically a rounding error in your ledger."
I DECIDE THE NEED. AND I DECIDE THE PRICE.
From the shadows at Crowley's feet, black chains sprang like snakes to bind his ankles, wrists and throat. They pulled him to his knees before he could even shout, and when he tried to miracle himself free, nothing happened. Frustration and rage welled up in his chest, made him bare his teeth and lengthen them into fangs.
"You're not proving anything, you know. You're just bullying your way into getting what you want."
And Death laughed.
YOU MISUNDERSTAND, he replied, stepping forward, reaching out to lay one bony finger on Crowley's forehead. Crowley tried to flinch back, but found he couldn't move at all now, his body frozen like a statue. I HAVE DECIDED TO AMEND YOUR IGNORANCE. THE GIRL WILL LIVE. AND YOU... YOU WILL LEARN. EVENTUALLY.
It was like all the warmth draining out of him. His head was seized with pain like a vice, and Crowley cried out, squeezing his eyes shut against it. His heart beat suddenly loud and hard, his lungs insisting on air in a way they never had before. That finger pressed to his forehead was like a nail driving into the centre of his brain, and when it finally pulled back, it took something with it, like floss drawn out from a spindle.
Crowley sagged, shaking. The chains vanished, and he sprawled on the hard floor. When he managed to lift his aching head, Death was gone.
Pestilence, however, remained. She hobbled across the room towards him, reaching with eager, clawed hands to haul him up to his knees. Crowley struggled weakly, but there was no strength in his limbs and no response from his wellspring of infernal power.
"One last little gift for you, dearie," Pestilence rasped with a horrible gap-toothed grin. Before Crowley could react, she crushed her mouth to his in an awful parody of a kiss. Crowley tried to jerk back, but she held him in place with cruel-iron fingers, and he felt her breathe into his lungs, and felt the unnatural heat of fever take root there. "First lesson's free."
He reeled back up the stairs to his apartment, the sickness already burning its way through him. He couldn't seem to use miracles. He had to remember how to open his door the normal way. He staggered through it, made it to the bed.
Crowley had never experienced illness first hand, beyond the sort of self-inflicted unpleasantness one could achieve with alcohol and other intoxicants. It was even worse than it looked from the outside. He lay in something close to delirium for a while, the heavy scent of the lilies all around him, cloying and suffocating now where they had once been sweet.
It was clear enough that he wouldn't survive it, that Pestilence had ensured his discorporation in revenge for his defiance. He wished he could get it over with quickly. Then he thought of Aziraphale and groaned aloud. How long would the paperwork take? Could he get back in time to keep his promise? His thoughts drifted into dreams and hallucinations for who knew how many hours; he tore himself awake, realising that if he went under now, he wouldn't come back up again.
He rolled off the bed and crawled across the room to the writing desk. It seemed to take eons to haul himself wretchedly into the chair, to fumble paper and quill from their places. He spilled ink over the desk, a black tide that reminded him all too vividly of the infection he'd pulled from the girl, the same one that was now devouring his mortal form. He dipped the quill into the puddle and began to scrawl a note to Aziraphale.
Halfway through, he glanced blearily at the small mirror set on the wall, and dropped the quill.
Crowley stared, pressing his shaking hand across them and taking it away again, as if it would somehow change what he saw. Human eyes stared back at him, wide and frightened. Desperate, Crowley reached again for his powers, for some tiny miracle - to clean up the ink, to finish the letter, to cool his burning forehead.
A wave of terror crashed into him like nothing he'd ever known, a force so overwhelming and unbearable that he heard himself cry out, something half a gasp, half a moan. He slumped forward onto the desk, and then found he couldn't sit up straight again. The room was beginning to swim around him. He fumbled for the quill and knocked it onto the floor, and it drifted away on a draft, like a feather falling from an angel's wing.
He tried to reach for it, fell from the chair, lay on the floor in a daze of fear and disbelief. In all his existence, he had never known this terror of the unknown, this fear of simply winking out like a candle, never to be rekindled. And Aziraphale— he'd promised Aziraphale—
It was dark and he was dying, and it wouldn't end, but even though all he wanted was release, he kept fighting to take another breath, to keep from slipping away, because he'd promised, he'd promised...
The lilies thronged around him like silent watchers at a funeral. His own faltering breaths were the tolling of the church bell. His last thoughts were of flowers, and Aziraphale.
"Angel," he said again, hands like claws in Aziraphale's shirt, hanging on like a drowning man. "I—"
Aziraphale was pulling him around, up, a shaking hand on his face.
"Crowley," he begged, "open your eyes— please— look at me—"
It hurt, but Crowley obeyed, struggling to focus on the blur of pink and white that he knew had to be Aziraphale. Aziraphale gasped, and then his breath fled back out of him in something that could have been a sob or a nearly-hysterical laugh.
"It's you." Suddenly his arms were crushingly tight around Crowley, his shoulders shaking. "It's you, Crowley."
"Dunno who else you were expecting," Crowley muttered thickly, letting his head rest on Aziraphale's shoulder as the world swam around him. "I— I'm—" Whatever he'd meant to say, it twisted in his mouth into simple honesty. "I'm very confused."
Aziraphale made a muffled noise that wasn't any sort of answer, and Crowley gave up for the moment on any of it making sense, as memories seesawed in and out of his head like reflected light from the surface of water.
"Angel," he managed after a few more moments, remembering the heavy scent of lilies, the spilling of ink like black blood, Pestilence's laughter, "I think I fucked up."
Another garbled noise from Aziraphale, and then, as if from a very long way away, a door slamming, excited voices. Crowley managed to raise his head and peer blearily at the figures approaching. Anathema, he remembered, that was the girl's name, and the boy was... Frog, or something, wasn't he? They were important. Because. Armageddon? Yes, Armageddon. Had to be Armageddon, there was the Antichrist and everything.
Adam was standing with War's sword still in his hand, facing a patch of empty air. He lowered the blade as the other two approached.
"You stopped it, didn't you?" he said. His friends formed a silent semi-circle at his back, waiting for his lead. "You broke the machines."
"Technically, he upgraded them," Anathema said cheerfully, hooking her arm through the boy's. "But they probably won't ever work again now, no."
Adam turned to look at Crowley then, and Crowley shivered under his gaze, as Adam seemed to look into him and see more than any human ever should.
"That's better," Adam said. "Might take you a bit to feel like yourself, Mr Crowley, but it should all be back where it's s'posed to be now—"
Lightning struck the ground, far too close for comfort. The tarmac shook and splintered. Aziraphale finally lifted his head, loosening his hold on Crowley enough to look towards the commotion.
"Gabriel," he said, his voice almost toneless. "Of course, he won't like the idea of calling things off, will he?"
"Oh shit, that's Beelzebub," Crowley muttered in response, still trying to pull together a thousand pieces of himself, but absolutely sure that the Prince of Hell was not someone he wanted to face at this moment. "They can't just decide to do it anyway, can they?"
"I don't know," Aziraphale replied, and there was life in him now, a rising fury that had Crowley staring at him speechless. Aziraphale took hold of his elbows, urging him to stand. "But I shall have something to say about it if they try."
They reached Adam at the same time as the two new arrivals, Aziraphale's arm tight around Crowley's back, Crowley staggering as if his legs had forgotten they had knees (or as if six thousand years of memories were trying to settle back into a mind accustomed to human limitations).
"Aziraphale." Gabriel's face was an unappealing puce colour. "What are you playing at—?"
"Crowley," Beelzebub growled, cutting him off, her eyes glowing red with fury. "Three hundred yearszzz, Crowley. Did you think you would get away with it?"
"Er," said Crowley.
"Playing truant like you thought we wouldn't notice, hiding yourszzzelf from Heaven and Hell—"
"I didn't do it on purpose—"
"What do you mean," Aziraphale cut in sharply, "Heaven and Hell?"
He locked gazes with Gabriel, and for the first time that Crowley could ever remember, the Archangel flinched.
"Another thing you've been having cozy chats about?" Aziraphale went on with deadly sweetness.
"Not my department," Gabriel said hurriedly, "Michael was looking into it."
"Come here, Crowley," Beelzebub snarled, reaching out as if to grab him by the collar and immediately drag him beneath the Earth. "We have such planszzz for you—"
"No." Aziraphale pulled him back a step, steel in his voice. "I won't let you take him."
Gabriel's mouth dropped open. Beelzebub's eyebrows furrowed as she stared in furious disbelief.
Adam said, "You're going to leave both of them alone."
Everyone's attention swung to the boy standing in the eye of the storm. He was still holding the sword, Crowley saw, and that fact sent a prickle of unease through his body, although the blade was no longer aflame.
"You!" Gabriel drew himself up, forcing an insincere smile onto his stunned face. "Antichrist boy! Just the person we wanted to have a word with, in fact. Now, about Armageddon—"
"It's not happening," Adam replied. "Not now. Maybe not ever. You can all go home and forget about it."
"Forget—" Gabriel sputtered. "You don't understand, kid, this is the whole point of it! Of everything! Of all of Creation—"
Adam's eyes narrowed.
"You think all the Earth and all the people on it are just there for you to smash up like a smaller kid's sandcastle?"
He raised the sword.
"Adam," Crowley said. "No."
Adam shot him a glance full of so much that Crowley almost swayed under it. The unfettered outrage of childhood, faced with something so thoughtlessly unfair. The pure and blinding fury of it, the recognition of adult hypocrisy, the desire to simply strike out and make them do as they were told, force them to obey in the way children were so often forced to obey...
"Not like this," Crowley said. "This isn't how you make people learn. Right?"
Adam's face slowly cleared. The point of the sword dropped, hit the tarmac as it dangled loosely from his hand.
"Yeah," he said. "You're right."
He turned back to Gabriel and Beelzebub.
"I reckon," he said, "that if you want to find out which side is best, you should be learning from each other, not fighting."
"But the Great Plan—" Gabriel managed in a strangled voice.
"The Great Plan seems to have gone rather off-script already," Aziraphale put in, chin up and eyes ice-bright. "It's almost as though what was written can be crossed out. Or written differently somewhere else."
"Almost like it's all a bit... ineffable," Crowley added, and felt Aziraphale twitch against him.
He saw it, the moment when doubt dimmed Gabriel's violet eyes, when dismay damped Beelzebub's seething rage. They looked at each other. There was some gesticulating, and then they stormed off for a bout of furious whispering.
"You never liked that word," Aziraphale said very quietly.
"Turns out it has its moments."
Aziraphale shivered and tightened his grip on Crowley. Gabriel and Beelzebub finished their hurried conference and turned back with such outraged defeat on both their faces that Crowley had to bite back a grin.
"You," Gabriel snarled at Adam, who looked right back at him, unmoved. "You had one job, kid—"
"When your father hearszzz about this—"
"One more thing," Adam interrupted. He jerked his head towards Crowley and Aziraphale. "I meant it. You leave them alone."
"You think Hell can overlook a demon fraterniszzzing with an angel?" Beelzebub demanded. "You think we're going to let one of ourszzz run off and do what he likes for centurieszzz without repercussionszzz—"
"He's not one of yours anymore." Adam glared at her, then at Gabriel. "Neither of them are. They're ours now. And you're going to leave them alone."
And as if there could be no further word on the matter (and perhaps, in this moment held in the palm of Adam's power, there couldn't) the Archangel and the Prince of Hell vanished without argument.
There was, for the space of several breaths, a settling peace and a sense of swelling triumph, before the ground started to shake, and a rush of infernal power struck Crowley between the eyes. He almost plunged right back to his knees, would have if Aziraphale hadn't held him up.
"Fuck," he managed through gritted teeth. "They told his father."
"I see," Aziraphale replied, far too calmly. Then, "Adam, would you mind giving me that back?"
He held out his hand. Adam looked at the sword still dangling from his fingers. He hefted it for a second, and then tossed it away to clatter across the tarmac.
"Nah," he said, the beginnings of his ever-mischievous grin playing around his mouth even as the ground bucked and trembled like an earthquake. "When you're in trouble with your dad you've gotta own up to it."
"I'm not sure that's such a—"
"'Course," Adam went on, turning to look at the gates of the airbase. "When I'm in trouble with my dad, it's my real dad I'm in trouble with."
The tremors seemed to falter.
"And I'm always in trouble with my dad," Adam went on with the resigned, put-upon sigh of an eleven-year-old boy with far too much imagination. "'S not anything special, being in trouble with my dad."
The sense of swelling infernal power popped like a soap bubble. The ground stilled. There was the sound of a car pulling up to the gate, an older engine that had been carefully maintained by the sort of man who read the manual every Sunday.
"He's gotta catch me first, though," Adam said, and suddenly he and the rest of Them were in motion, a gaggle of flailing limbs on bicycles, an excited dog racing to keep up. Adam's voice drifted back as the four children sped away. "Keep an eye on your apples, Mr Crowley!"
There were loose ends after that, an incensed Arthur Young to placate, a platoon of American soldiers to get out of the way of before they woke up and started asking awkward questions. Crowley leaned into Aziraphale and let it wash over his head. Every time he closed his eyes he saw memories that felt like his and didn't at the same time, an overlapping mess of impressions, emotions, desires.
Aziraphale guided him gently back to the car and, without even asking, settled him into the passenger side. Crowley lolled his head sideways, caught a glimpse of himself in the wing mirror. His own sulphur-yellow eyes were almost a shock to him after so long.
"What about the other two," he mumbled, "don't they need a lift?"
"Mr Young is taking them back." Aziraphale slid into the driver's seat and extended his hand for the keys. Crowley passed them over without protest. "I think... I think we should just go home now."
Crowley slumped down in the seat, resting his head on the smooth leather, as Aziraphale started the engine and performed a too-careful U-turn. Oh, the smell of the Bentley, so familiar, he'd spent so many years in this car, made so many sacrifices to keep hold of it in a life that had been full of hard grind and few luxuries...
His eyes snapped open. He stared at the glossy paintwork visible through the windscreen, then looked at the walnut veneer, visibly aged but in otherwise almost perfect condition, ran his hand over the smooth leather of the seats. He remembered the cracks he hadn't been able to repair, the rips, the stains, and the day the engine had finally died and he hadn't had the money to get it restored.
"You—" And more recent and familiar memories rushing in, Aziraphale telling him how he'd learned to drive so the Bentley wouldn't sit unused in some garage, Aziraphale so insistent that Crowley should take the wheel, so eager to relinquish the car to him. "Oh, angel. Thank you."
Aziraphale's little intake of breath was far too fragile, far too fraught.
"What— whatever for?"
"Where do I start?" Crowley murmured. He closed his eyes again, reached out to cover Aziraphale's hand on the gearstick. "For keeping the Bentley. For restoring it. For giving it back to me."
"I couldn't do anything else," Aziraphale whispered. "I... Crowley..."
"Home," Crowley said, feeling Aziraphale's hand tremble, giving it a reassuring squeeze before letting go. "Let's get home first. Then we can talk."
By the time they got back to the cottage it was almost dark. The walk from the car to the front door seemed insurmountable, but Crowley managed it without support, mostly because Aziraphale had been looking increasingly like a strong wind could knock him over, and Crowley didn't want to add any more weight to his shoulders.
He keeled over on the sofa and lay there while Aziraphale turned on the lights, closed the curtains, hung up his coat, all the little domesticities of coming home. Home. The cottage wasn't where they lived most of the time, but he had so many good memories of it...
"We got married," Crowley blurted out, staring at wide-eyed at the ceiling.
Another little hitch of breath from Aziraphale.
"Yes," he said quietly. "Yes, my dear, we did."
Crowley heard him sit down in his favourite armchair, turned his head. Aziraphale wasn't looking at him; he was staring at his own hands, fingers tightly laced together.
"Would— would you like some tea?" he went on. "Or—"
"Wine," Crowley said with some feeling. "Lots of it."
"Of course, I'll go and—"
"No, don't. Stay there."
Crowley swung himself upright, took a breath, and snapped his fingers. It felt shaky and uncertain; the bottle from their wine rack back in London wasn't quite the vintage he'd been thinking of, but it would do. One of the wineglasses fell over sideways, but it didn't crack. Crowley felt himself smile in a way that was far too open, far too relieved.
"Still got it."
Then he looked at Aziraphale, whose eyes were fixed on him, wide as the ocean, and as overflowing.
Aziraphale curled forward, burying his face in his hands with a wretched sob, and Crowley was off the sofa and across the gap so fast he might as well have teleported, falling on his knees at Aziraphale's feet, reaching out automatically to comfort him.
"Sweetheart," he said, shock rippling through him at how easily the endearment came, "Aziraphale, it's all right—"
He pulled him into his arms, pulled him right out of the chair and into his lap, muscle memory too insistent to falter. Aziraphale folded into him, shaking with tears, and Crowley wrapped his arms around him and breathed in the scent of him and quivered in between warring memories like a butterfly caught in a hurricane...
(... because it was Aziraphale, whom he'd known for so many thousands of years, whom he'd loved hopelessly and desperately for almost as long, whom he'd never thought he'd even get to touch for more than an instant...)
(... because it was Aziraphale, whom he'd known and loved for eleven human years, whom he'd shared a mortal life with, whom he'd married...)
(... because there were other memories, other lives, there was love and grief and loss and regret and he couldn't deal with it right now, he had to shove them away to be picked over later...)
... but it was Aziraphale, and he was sobbing, and Crowley had never heard or seen him come apart so completely, never known him so utterly lose control. He whispered nonsense things into his hair, cradled the back of his neck, cradled him. Pressed light, thoughtless kisses to his ear and cheek and jaw, tasted salt, felt his own eyes grow damp and then spill over as Aziraphale's grief washed over him like the pull of the tide.
"It's all right," Crowley murmured, trying to hold him impossibly closer, trying to stem the flow of it somehow. "It's all right, it'll be all right." And then, helplessly, "I love you."
"Do you?" Aziraphale whispered back, his doubt as devastating as his anguish. "Or is it just— you've been living as a human, my dear, you've been thinking like they do—"
"Aziraphale. Angel." Crowley leaned back enough to take Aziraphale's face in his hands, to drink in every tear-stained, red-splotched inch of it. "I love you. I married you, didn't I?"
"That's a human thing," Aziraphale protested, stubborn in his misery, "it would never have happened if—"
"You wouldn't have married me if I hadn't been human?"
"You wouldn't have asked me if you hadn't been human!"
"Sure about that, are you?" Crowley murmured, and kissed him, and kept kissing him until Aziraphale made a helpless noise and broke away to bury his face in Crowley's shoulder.
"I've loved you for centuries," Crowley ploughed on, and it was terrifying, and it was exhilarating, like flying, like falling, like taking hold of a borrowed courage, a very human freedom. "For millennia, Aziraphale. I've always wanted what the humans have. The way they stand up and say— say I choose you. I'd have married you in Rome if I'd thought we could get away with it, if I'd thought you'd say yes."
"That long?" Aziraphale mumbled weakly into Crowley's shirt.
"Longer, probably, just... took me a while to admit it."
"It took me a while too," Aziraphale replied. He took a shuddering breath and Crowley felt the tension in him start to ease. "Oh, dearest, I've missed you."
Crowley closed his eyes tightly against more tears and pressed a fierce, possessive kiss to Aziraphale's temple.
"I've missed you too," he managed. "I didn't even know I did until I saw your wings... God, Aziraphale—" He caught himself with a start. "I mean— Satan— I mean— fuck."
Aziraphale's shoulders started to shake, and for a bad moment Crowley thought he was sobbing again, but then he heard the hitching laughter muffled against his shoulder. He didn't try to stop his own smile, his own sigh of relief.
"Can I see them?" Crowley found himself asking, surprised by his own longing. "Can I see you properly?"
Aziraphale lifted his head, pressed the backs of trembling fingers against his cheeks in a futile effort to dry them. Crowley miracled him a handkerchief. Aziraphale's lip wobbled, but he managed to turn it into a shaky smile.
"Are you going to tease me about my feathers again?"
"Depends. Will it make you laugh?"
Aziraphale did laugh, breathy and helpless, and then his wings unfolded behind him, soft feathers brushing the backs of Crowley's hands like they had in the bookshop, barely a week ago, before he'd remembered being sheltered from the first rain, remembered that first kindness offered unthinkingly, like it was something he had a right to.
"Your eyes," Aziraphale said softly, gazing into them like he couldn't get enough. "I've missed your eyes."
"Always thought they were a bit creepy, myself."
Aziraphale shook his head vehemently. His gaze wandered over Crowley's shoulder.
Crowley nodded, and unfurled his own wings, and oh, there was another puzzle piece slotting into place, an ache he'd never understood, the constrained feeling of a part of him crammed into some ill-fitting drawer. He groaned at the relief of it, rested his forehead against Aziraphale's for a long moment.
"You know," Aziraphale said, his voice so brimming with innocence that Crowley jerked back sharply, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Those aren't looking quite as well-groomed as usual, darling."
"... it's been more than three hundred years, angel, I have an excuse—!"
Aziraphale laughed, but sudden pain shone through in his eyes, in the way he sagged in Crowley's arms.
"Three hundred years," he repeated in a whisper. "More than that. Three hundred and fifty—"
"Three hundred and fifty-four," Crowley corrected after a moment of calculation.
Aziraphale drew in a careful breath.
"Tell me?" he said. "Tell me how this happened? I understand it was Azrael's doing—"
Crowley shuddered. Aziraphale shifted in his arms, reached behind him, and Crowley felt his gentle fingers moving through black feathers, stroking them soothingly back into place. He sighed and leaned into it.
"He wanted me to say I'd been wrong," Crowley said after several long minutes of nothing but soft touches and their breathing settling into a slow and steady rhythm together. "That you need death to appreciate life. And I... wouldn't."
He closed his eyes, a wave of guilt and anger turning his stomach.
"Every time," he whispered thickly. "Every time I died, he came to me again. And I knew that if I just... told him what he wanted to hear... maybe it would stop. Maybe I could come back to you. But I... I couldn't do it, angel. I couldn't. Because he's wrong. Adam had the right of it. One day they'll figure it out, figure out how to put a stop to it forever, and I—"
He choked, and Aziraphale kissed his eyelids, murmured his name.
"I'll fucking cheer," Crowley finished. He opened his eyes, brought his hands up to run the pads of his thumbs over Aziraphale's cheekbones, felt himself settling into where he was supposed to be, where he'd somehow against all odds found himself, with Aziraphale in his lap, with Aziraphale in his heart. "I'll tell you the rest of it. I will. But I need time to... to work through it. To fit all these memories in."
Aziraphale kissed him and then kissed him again, like he didn't quite know how to stop.
"We have time," Aziraphale said finally when he pulled back for air. "Oh, my dearest, we have time."
"And, perhaps more importantly..." Crowley twisted around, groped for the bottle of wine on the table, which had miraculously avoided being knocked over by his right wing as he turned. "We have access to quite extraordinary amounts of alcohol, and you don't have to pretend not to miracle away the hangover anymore."
"You noticed that?"
"Not at the time. Only in hindsight." Crowley didn't bother with a corkscrew, just glared at the bottle until the cork shot out and made itself scarce. "Explains why drinking without you was never as fun."
"Well," he admitted. "Drinking without you's never been as much fun, to be honest."
Aziraphale took the bottle from him, gestured so that the glasses flew into their hands, poured them each a generous measure. It was awkward, as close as they still were, but neither of them tried to move from the protective circle of their overlapping wings.
"Did we save the world today?" Aziraphale asked lightly as he set the bottle aside.
"I think Adam did most of it by himself," Crowley said, looking at the ring on Aziraphale's left hand, the way it glowed softly against the red of the wine. "Maybe the American girl helped."
"All the same, it does seem as if the world has been saved."
He tilted his glass in invitation. Crowley smiled and brought his own to meet it.
"To the world, then," he said, sealing it with the clink of glass.
"To the world," Aziraphale replied.