Chapter 1: The Accident
“-lane closures and major delays on the A40 Westbound due to a serious accident-”
“-Reports say that a lorry crashed into the central barrier, overturned, with debris and fuel being spilled. Emergency services are currently on scene, please be advised-”
The smooth voice cut out and silence filled the interior of the Bentley, growing heavy with expectation. Crowley ignored it, drumming the pad of his thumb against the steering wheel – white light, white light goin’ messin’ up my mind / white light, and don’t you know it’s gonna make me go blind - his gaze sliding over the bumper of a 2014 Vauxhall Corsa in front of them. Red, active model, three-door hatchback.
Aziraphale pressed on. “Someone could be injured.”
“That’s why they’ve got emergency services, angel. They can take care of themselves.”
Crowley didn’t need to look at his friend to know he was pursing his lips together, the way he did when he disapproved of something. Usually it was something Crowley was doing. Or not doing. Or saying. Or not saying. There was a long list. “Not always. We should take a look.”
He sighed, canting his head to the side to look at Aziraphale. Crowley suppressed a physical wince in response to that beseeching gaze and felt his resolve wobble – just a touch – which only made him irritable. He always got irritable right before he gave in. “I’m not leaving the Bentley,” not gridlocked in the middle of the bloody A40. Crowley glowered over his sunglasses at the fat drops of water landing on his windshield.
“I understand,” Aziraphale replied, unbuckling his seatbeat, “I’ll be back in a tick.”
He pushed open the car door and Crowley leaned over, protesting. “Aziraphale-” He tried to ignore the goddamned water dribbling down the interior of the passenger’s side window when his friend hesitated.
“Crowley, I’m not going to sit here and argue with you about this,” Aziraphale interrupted him, apologetic but firm, and he stepped out of the car, pushed the car door shut, no umbrella. Crowley watched him stride through lanes of bumper to bumper traffic towards the accident – which neither of them could see from the vantage point of the Bentley – his beige trousers spotting with water. He was wearing a velvet waistcoat vest beneath his frock coat, dry-clean only. The police were never gonna let him anywhere near the accident, he’d be standing there in the rain like an idiot.
Crowley swore to himself and loosened his grip on the steering wheel. He breathed out through flared nostrils, peeled off his cropped Balenciaga jacket, tossed it in the backseat and shifted form. Groping around the floorboard for her umbrella and pocketing her keys, Crowley promised the Bentley she’d be right back and got out of the car. Instead of her black-on-black ensemble, she wore a white shirt and trousers, tie and jacket, bowler hat with the black and white diced band. It wasn’t her first time impersonating a police inspector. Ignoring the shouts of disgruntled drivers who’d rolled down their windows in the hopes of getting some information about the delay, Crowley caught up to Aziraphale and opened the umbrella between two sedans, maneuvering it sideways to avoid scraping the cars before holding it over her friend, over the both of them.
Aziraphale smiled at her briefly, strained with worry. “Thank you, dear.”
Crowley ignored the gratitude, yellow eyes narrowing on the scene before them. Twenty yards out, she could see the result of the crash a bit better now, flashing blue lights glowing in the rain. “What a fucking mess,” she muttered. A car had been overturned, the lorry must have smashed into the side of it, and the road was slick with the glossy iridescence of fuel, boxes of rubbish scattered on the road. All four lanes were closed while the police worked to clear a path. She followed Aziraphale’s gaze to the stretcher being rushed over to the lorry, to collect the driver who was trapped in the cab of his vehicle. One ambulance pulled away from the scene, and Crowley spotted a young male paramedic in the passenger’s seat, blond and nondescript, before the vehicle sped off down the empty highway. A crowd had gathered on the perimeter – people getting out of their cars, even in the rain, to stare and talk among themselves. Two constables were tasked with keeping them at a respectable distance.
Aziraphale walked past them and into the thick of it – stirring protests which Crowley took care of. “He’s family, Constable...” she glanced down to his uniform, “Brown, is it? Let him through.” Good instincts, he had, not to argue with someone two ranks above him. Aziraphale had sense enough to go to the ambulance, not try to do his magic trick out here in front of everyone. Crowley escorted him into the back of the vehicle and climbed in after him. As soon as the doors swung shut, she shifted form again, this time into the blond man from the first ambulance, an approximate transformation. He hadn’t seen the whole body so it wasn’t as exact as it could’ve been, but close enough in these shapeless green scrubs. He wasn’t planning a career change, he was keeping Aziraphale out of trouble.
So when the doors to the ambulance swung open, Crowley helped move the man from the stretcher to the back of the vehicle – told both paramedics he’d stayed behind, insisted he had it under control, and yes, the bowtie was family. The doors swung shut again and Crowley peered out the window of the ambulance, “I’ll stall them,” the road was almost clear and he was not getting his arse dragged to the hospital. He hated hospitals. Aziraphale said nothing, knelt next to the body. Crowley shifted back into the inspector, and let herself out of the ambulance.
Aziraphale had this habit of glowing when he was doing his thing which was why he couldn’t do it in public. And why Crowley had to piss off two paramedics to keep them from getting in their truck, driving off with Aziraphale or looking in the back. Not that she minded pissing people off but they were on a tight schedule. The Bentley was waiting for them. They had dinner plans.
A minute, two, was all he needed and Crowley backed away from the ambulance when she saw the door swing open. The paramedics climbed into the vehicle just as Aziraphale staggered out, and Crowley caught him leaning up against the back of the ambulance. He looked pale and miserable, and as the engine rumbled to life, Crowley slid an arm around his waist and helped him away from the vehicle. He could barely walk and she bore most of his weight. She led him through the scene, waving off the concerned sounds of Constable Brown who asked if they needed to call another one – no, no, he just needed to get back to his car.
Crowley led Aziraphale to the Bentley, cognizant of the staring (people were not subtle). She opened the passenger’s side door and helped him to sit down, one hand pressed to damp curls to keep him from banging his head. Where was the damn umbrella? Crowley realized she had left it behind. Ah, well, she thought, shrugging it off, there were no identifying marks on it. No one would trace it back to her. She walked around the car, examining the Bentley in the process (no harm, no one had moved an inch in the time it had taken them to do all that) before getting into the driver’s seat. She pulled off her hat and let it dissolve into her fingers, but did not shift back just yet. Too many people had seen her. Instead she smoothed her fingers through damp red hair, frowning at her reflection in the mirror.
Aziraphale still hadn’t said a word. A sidelong glance to her friend only served to aggravate her. A thin sheen of sweat – sweat, not rain – covered his face, still so pale, eyes closed, lids twitching, chest rising and falling too rapidly. “Well?” Crowley prompted impatiently. Stay awake, angel.
“The lorry driver will be fine,” he replied without opening his eyes, voice soft and breathy, “There was a great deal of internal bleeding, but it’s all… it’s healed now.” Crowley frowned. The only reason he’d be so exhausted was if the bloke was bad off, mortally wounded. It took a lot out of him to heal which was why Crowley hated it so much. One time Aziraphale had spent three days in a coma. Worst three days of her life. She couldn’t even take him to the hospital. They’d take one look at his bloodwork and know he wasn’t human. They’d lock him up, leech his powers, experiment on him. She’d heard the stories of what they did to mutants in America. Britain wasn’t much better.
Neither of them had been to a hospital since, hell, before their powers manifested which was two hundred years ago. Not all mutants were as long-lived. In fact, most of them had very human lifespans (and less impressive powers). As a shapeshifter with few limitations, Crowley could regenerate her cells ad infinitum. She couldn’t get sick or poisoned, she only aged as much as she wanted to, and she could sober up with a snap of her fingers. Aziraphale, for his part, could heal any ailment, might even be capable of resurrection but Crowley would never allow it. The more Aziraphale read of diseases, genetic anomalies and human anatomy, the more he was capable of. A never-ending learning curve much to his delight. And as they had both discovered in the 1860s, he didn’t age either. He’d found an age he liked and simply stopped. They were, barring any unforeseen circumstances that obliterated their material bodies, immortal.
Finally the traffic started to move and there was a chorus of ignition keys being turned, brake lights flashing, all of them inching past the accident. “You’ve got to stop doing that,” she said flatly, “There were too many bloody witnesses – with smartphones,” not only the stranded motorists but the police, the paramedics, might even have a helicopter circling, taking aerial pictures. “And you look like hell.” Aziraphale hummed wordlessly in acknowledgment, but not as if he was inclined to change his ways. The surrounding cars were suitably distracted that Crowley felt comfortable shifting back to the form he’d started the day out in – which reminded him that his Balenciaga jacket was still in the back seat.
“We saved that man’s life today,” Aziraphale murmured, “He had a daughter, and another child on the way. We did a very good thing, Crowley.”
“You did it,” he snapped. He didn’t do good things for people. “Why am I not surprised you got that bloke’s life story in two minutes?” That was all it took for Aziraphale. People liked to tell him things, seek him out, smile at him. Crowley was happy to report that he was immune to it.
“He was very grateful.”
“Yeah, they’re all grateful,” until they’re not. “This is not your job. You don’t owe these people anything.”
“It’s not about keeping score, dear,” also not true, Crowley thought, but whatever. This was all stuff he’d heard before. “It’s a calling, I think.”
“It’s not.” Doctors had a calling, paramedics, not mutants. Being born a mutant wasn’t a calling anymore than having red hair or double-jointed fingers was, “You won the genetic lotto, that doesn’t make you a hero.”
“I never said I was a hero,” Aziraphale replied, “But I have a gift, Crowley. My powers are meant to be used for good.”
Crowley scoffed but he didn’t have a decent rebuttal because the truth was that Aziraphale was good. He’d always been good for as long as they'd known each other. The shapeshifter put on The Best of Queen and let Freddie’s voice accompany them back to the bookshop. Aziraphale had recovered enough that he could get out of the car on his own and, with Crowley’s hand on his back, make it to the door. He pulled out his keys but his dexterity was shite so Crowley did it for him. Locked the door behind them and directed Aziraphale upstairs to the small flat he owned above his shop.
“Bed,” the shapeshifter said simply. He should thank somebody for small miracles when Aziraphale didn’t argue with him, sitting on the edge of his bed and looking like he hadn’t slept in two days. It wasn’t the worst his friend had ever looked but it wasn’t great either. Crowley pulled off his sunglasses and left them on the dresser, caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and ignored it. He used to hate his eyes. He could change them if he wanted to, and he did in his youth. It was the only part of him that was very obviously not-human. That and the tongue, he supposed. Oh, and the teeth (but no one was ever looking at the teeth). Aziraphale was the one who’d convinced him not to hide them, who said that they were beautiful. So he stopped. No more cosmetic changes unless it was necessary for, say, impersonating a police inspector and a paramedic in one afternoon. Otherwise, Crowley wore sunglasses and didn’t smile (he smirked and only when he was doing something bad).
Aziraphale thought that it was self-love that had encouraged Crowley to go out in public as himself, that he making strides towards a healthier appreciation for what he was – but it had nothing to do with that. He still thought he looked like a freak. But he didn’t mind the way Aziraphale looked at him. Crowley knelt between his legs and unlaced his wet Oxfords, pulled them off by the heel, unrolled his damp argyle socks beneath his trousers and stuffed them into the shoes. He didn’t let his hands linger on the soft blond hair dusting his shins or the softness of his calves, and he definitely didn’t go for the feet.
“Mm?” The shapeshifter peered up at his friend, who was looking down at him with the softest expression on his face – the sort of expression that made his chest tight and his head swim, and he knew that Aziraphale liked to help people, that he had always liked to help people, but at what fucking cost? Maybe it wouldn’t kill him but Crowley hated to see him drain himself like this. For strangers. He made himself sick for people who’d run for the hills if they knew what he was (or worse). Crowley hated that he wasn’t enough, that he’d never be enough. Can’t compete with the rest of the fucking world, and that’s what Aziraphale was really enamored with. People. Regular people.
“Thank you for helping me today.”
“Don’t.” Crowley also hated being thanked, especially for things he didn’t even want to do. It always felt like rubbing salt in the wound, reminding him that he was so pathetic for Aziraphale and had been for years. “I only did it to save my own skin. Can’t have you broadcasting you’re a mutant to God and country,” which was exactly what would’ve happened if he hadn’t had someone watching his back, smoothing things over with the humans. “I’m your only friend. If you got found out, it wouldn’t take long for them to find me...”
Aziraphale smiled at him. “No one would ever catch you, dear.”
“Well, yeah,” that was true. He was the best at what he did, could replicate voices when he heard them, mimic every detail down to the freckles on their chest, the DNA, the fingerprints, if he touched someone. It was a little less precise when he was only looking at them, but he was still damn good. Good enough to fool any human. And he was very good at animals, though he had a proclivity for snakes. Maybe it had to do with the eyes. “It’d still be a pain in the arse to have to save you, though. I have a lot of other things to do.”
“Other people to fraternize with?”
“Yeah.” Sure. His life didn’t revolve about Aziraphale. He had plenty of hobbies when he wasn’t hanging around the bookshop, or leaving the bookshop, or going to the bookshop. He could impersonate the Queen if he wanted to. He could knight his Bentley, pull a Caligula but instead of horse, it’d be his car. He could steal the crown jewels. He could turn into a dolphin, go for a quick swim in the Channel. Not that he’d recommend that to anybody – full of pollution, bloody disgusting. The point was that he didn’t need to sit here on his knees, watching Aziraphale unfasten the buttons of his coat, and the brown waistcoat beneath it, his brown and tan tartan bowtie, his blue button-up, spread collar dress shirt. He didn’t need to get up and offer to hang up the coat either. Or make tea.
By the time he got back to the bedroom with the tea, Aziraphale had managed to change out of his clothes and into soft striped pajamas, white and blue. He was sitting in bed, not under the sheets, but resting. His face lit up with one of those brilliant smiles that made Crowley squirm, and distracted him too much to protest when Aziraphale thanked him, fingertips brushing briefly as he took the cup. It was a little past six and their dinner plans were shot to hell, but Crowley offered to get take-away (anything to keep from sitting on the bed next to him, hovering and yearning and silently cursing lorry drivers who got to go home to loving families tonight because Aziraphale had fixed them up). After he'd picked up dinner from that Greek restaurant they both liked, things were almost back to normal.
Chapter 2: It Starts With A Book
Aziraphale and Crowley receive an unexpected visit from Anathema Device. An argument ensues.
Aziraphale did not make a profit off of his bookshop which suited him just fine – but it did require him to supplement his income through consultations, repairs, and literary translation. He was, forgive the immodesty, a rather prolific translator under the pen name A.Z. Fell and he had recently been offered a commission to re-translate Petrarch’s Canzioniere into English for Penguin Books. This was a treat because he rarely received contracts for non-contemporary works and he adored the petrarchan sonnet. So he closed the shop early and spent his afternoon in the back room, working on his translations to the sound of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” on the gramophone. Hours passed with Aziraphale at his desk, consulting previously published translations, scholarly editions and other extratextual sources.
It was by chance – the end of the record, gramophone quietly humming – that he heard the faint rap of knuckles against the door before it opened. “Ah, Crowley,” he brightened, “Come in.”
The shapeshifter inclined his head with a smirk and pushed off from the doorframe. “Don’t tell me you forgot about tonight.”
Aziraphale blinked over the rim of his reading glasses. What was today? Monday, the 16th. Ah yes. “Don Giovanni? I would never,” it had been nearly a year since they’d gone to the opera together. “Seven o’clock, was it?” He pulled out his pocketwatch and glanced at it. 5:02.
“I thought you’d want to get dinner first,” Crowley offered by way of explanation, fingertips gliding over the back of Aziraphale’s chair. He sauntered over to the wine rack to investigate the selection.
“Oh,” he hadn’t even had lunch today, he had been so enraptured by Petrarch – and now that Crowley had mentioned it, he was famished. “Yes, that sounds wonderful. Let me just- my coat’s upstairs.” Crowley offered to get it for him but Aziraphale waved off the gesture, getting out of his chair with a self-indulgent stretch of his arms. It would do him good to walk around a bit and he was thinking of sprucing up, putting on his cologne, changing his bowtie to something less everyday.
Crowley raised an eyebrow in amusement and wagered, listening to Aziraphale ascending the stairs, that he had more than enough time for a drink. He selected a Cabernet Sauvignon, not that he bothered to savor it. Crowley drained the first glass and started on the second, just as the record re-set and the first bars of Vivaldi’s “Spring” flowed from the gramophone. Crowley decided to leave it on, moving through the room to the desk. He was a very tactile person – on his own terms, of course – and if Aziraphale hadn’t wanted him to touch the papers on his desk, he would’ve put them away. The shapeshifter tilted his head to read the faded binding of the largest book – Canzoniere – and he slid his hand over the loose-leafed pages, each of which bore in Aziraphale’s precise handwriting, a number of verses. He was translating again. Big project. Lots of sonnets.
I vidi in terra angelici costumi.
I beheld on earth celestial graces.
I saw angelic virtue on earth.
Here upon earth I once glimpsed those heavenly charms.
Crowley’s fingertips traced the dried ink, the many different translations, the notes and abbreviations Aziraphale had made. A work-in-progress. Crowley set down his glass of wine and reached for the pen, circling the second translation: I saw angelic virtue on earth. More contemporary, he wrote in the margins, underlining angelic virtue with an arrow – better translation.
The phone rang, a rattling brrrring cutting through the upbeat melody of violins. Crowley capped the pen, turned off the gramophone and picked up the receiver. “Yeah?”
“Mr. Crowley?” A woman’s voice, young, American.
He stiffened. “Crowley,” he repeated the correct pronunciation by habit, shifting where he stood, “Who’s asking?”
“My name is Anathema Device. I’m calling from the Tadfield Institute-”
Crowley hung up the phone. Scowled at the thing, worthless antique that it was, no caller ID, the last landline left in Soho. It shuddered but not from fear of his displeasure- it was ringing. Again.
He picked it up mid-ring. “What?”
“Mr. Crowley, I don’t think you understand-”
“I know who you are-”
“-what’s at stake here-”
“-and what you do-”
“-really need to speak with-”
“We’re not interested.”
He hung up again.
She called again.
“You can’t take a hint, can you?”
“It’s the end of the world!”
Crowley jerked the phone away from his ear. “Whooo-ee, reel in the melodrama,” the irony of him suggesting someone else be less dramatic was not lost on him, but he ignored it as he did all things that he didn’t care to examine about himself. “Look, I’m sure education’s a real battlefield-”
“I am not being hyperbolic, Mr. Crowley,” she got the pronunciation right this time, probably sensitive to it considering Anathema, “This is about Apocalypse. En Sabah Nur. The First One, Genesis.”
“Oh.” That Apocalypse.
“I have Seen it,” Crowley could tell by the tone of her voice that it was Seen with a capital ‘S’, “He has Awakened.” More of the capitalizing. “He is calling the Horsemen to him as we speak. It doesn’t give us a lot of time to act-”
“We need your help to stop him.”
Crowley shook his head. “No, you don’t.”
“But I have Seen-”
“Don’t care.” Crowley could humor a clairvoyant if he was in the mood (admittedly, that whole bit about Apocalypse rising was interesting) but most of them couldn’t interpret their way out of a paper bag – even if they did have a gift. Crowley knew Anathema Device was the real deal because he kept tabs on mutants of interest, especially wealthy American mutants who bring their insufferable can-do attitudes overseas and decide to open up a mutant school in Oxfordshire. Terrible investment, if you asked him. He believed that Anathama Device had visions. He didn’t believe they were accurate. And he didn’t believe that he – or Aziraphale – owed anything to some girl on the phone.
“No offenssse,” well, maybe some offense because he was getting annoyed, “But I don’t like psychics,” and he hated telepaths but to be fair he didn’t know of anyone who particularly liked telepaths, except other telepaths - invasive bastards, “And I really don’t like doomsday predictions on a Monday night,” bloody rude, “You’re wrong about us. So, and I do mean this from the bottom of my heart, sod off.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then- “You really don’t care?”
“I really don’t care.”
“Fine.” The line went dead. Crowley pulled it away from his ear in surprise – she had hung up on him. Playing hard to get, eh? She didn’t strike him as the sort of person to give up so easily, but if she did that only seemed to confirm the fact that whatever this was, it wasn’t the end of the world. It was some other scam and he wasn’t dragging Aziraphale into it. She might call back, though. Crowley put down the receiver and groped for the cord behind the telephone, followed it to the wall where it was plugged in, and pulled it out. There. Aziraphale wouldn’t notice. He didn’t like to use the phone anyway (let alone answer it when it rang), and now Anathema Device couldn’t call back to harass him.
“Yeah?” The shapeshifter reached for his wine and finished it by the time Aziraphale came down the stairs. He left the empty glass on the desk and strolled out of the back room to meet his friend. He smelled good. He had changed into a crisp white shirt and camel vest beneath his frock coat.
“Was someone on the phone?”
Crowley shrugged. “Telemarketer.” It wasn’t even a lie. She was selling something.
“Oh.” Aziraphale made a face. “Awfully persistent, aren’t they?”
“Awfully.” Crowley pulled the door to the backroom shut and gestured towards the front of the store, “Shall we?”
There was a charming Indian restaurant at 48 Floral Street, quite literally around the corner from the opera house. Aziraphale appreciated the choice as it meant he would not need to rush dinner. He ordered a Maharashtrian Thali which showcased so beautifully on the round platter: rice, flatbread, stuffed brinjal, spicy tur lentil, a corainder cutlet, salad, yoghurt, two bowls of curry (chickpea, black eyed beans), two bowls of gravy (chicken and mutton), and rice pudding. It was scrumptious.
Over dinner, he and Crowley discussed the Canzioniere, debated the merits of re-translating classical texts, and reminisced about the last opera they’d seen – Agrippina – staged at Covent Garden. Crowley showed Aziraphale his most recent “video log”, or v-log, about a mobile phone which he had uploaded that day. He did want to support his friend in a legitimate business endeavor but he felt very out of his depth. Aziraphale had a strong aversion to technology and had made little effort to understand the language of the modern age. Crowley, of course, shared none of his reservations. He embraced it completely. The shapeshifter - under the pseudonym Toni - was an “influencer” on You Tube and Instant Gram, two prominent social media platforms. Apparently this was a very profitable enterprise.
After dinner, Aziraphale and Crowley went to the opera house. He was looking forward to seeing Don Giovanni staged by Kasper Holten. All of his work was stunning. Crowley had selected front row seats in the Grand Tier balcony and it was perfect. The performances were as top-notch as expected and afterwards, Aziraphale gushed over the costumes and the arias and the set design, comparing notes with Crowley on the performance. The time it took to drive from the opera house to his shop in Soho was no time at all (he only objected to Crowley’s speeding twice) and Aziraphale found he was reluctant to see this evening come to an end.
“Crowley...” he started to ask if his friend wanted to come in for a nightcap, but then he noticed her. “There’s someone outside my shop.”
Crowley turned his head to follow Aziraphale’s gaze. “Damn.”
“Do you know her?”
“Never met her.”
Aziraphale frowned at his friend’s response. There seemed to be some recognition his voice but he couldn’t imagine Crowley would lie to him over something so trivial (and so easily proven wrong). The young woman was sitting on the stoop, but she raised her head to look directly at them. Well, he supposed they weren’t being very subtle. She stood up under the wash of the streetlamp and adjusted a pair of round glasses on her nose, wearing a long brush checked coat that looked very comfortable. Such an interesting color, too.
“I’ll just say ‘hello’ then,” and inform her, if she was not already aware, that the shop was most definitely closed for the night. She could come back tomorrow at an undisclosed time. “Thank you for the lovely evening, dear.”
“Anytime, angel.” Crowley was not looking at him. He was still staring at the young woman.
Aziraphale stepped out of the Bentley and, to his surprise, he heard the driver’s side door open behind him. Really, now, he didn’t think he was in any danger, no need for Crowley to stay (he wouldn’t say he wasn’t glad for it but again, it was unnecessary). “Hello,” he greeted her with a cautious smile, “Are you looking for me?”
“Yes,” she replied, “I was hoping you would be more inclined to listen to me than he was.” Ah, American. Aziraphale shot a bewildered look to Crowley, who said nothing but slouched where he stood, shoving his hands into the pockets of his impossibly tight trousers, “He hung up on me. Twice.”
“You hung up on me the last time.”
“I’m not here to speak to you,” the young woman snapped at Crowley, then addressed Aziraphale, sticking out her hand, “Mr. Fell, is it? My name is Anathema Device.”
“Aziraphale,” he responded with a gentle handshake, “Mr. Fell is my… pen name.” There was a lengthy explanation for his proper name and his absence of a surname but it wasn’t the sort of thing to be discussed with strangers, even if those strangers did happen to have singular names themselves. He recognized ‘Anathema Device’ but – just to be sure – he inquired, “Are you the Headmistress of the Tadfield Institute?”
“I see.” She was a mutant then. Younger than he expected but he did admire the entrepreneurial spirit of this generation, especially when it was used in service to others. No higher purpose than education, in his opinion. “Perhaps we could continue this discussion inside. Crowley?”
Aziraphale took that wordless response as a reluctant concession, and Anathema agreed with a nod. He unlocked the front door and held it open for his guest (and Crowley). He led her through the shop to his back room, “Please have a seat,” he suggested, brushing past her to take off his coat and gingerly hang it up. He noticed the unfinished bottle of Sauvignon and exchanged a look with Crowley, who had decided to sprawl out over the sofa in an excessive display of languor. This forced the American woman – Anathema – to sit in the desk chair which she turned to face them both. He offered her a drink and she declined, so he poured his own glass and retrieved Crowley’s as well.
Aziraphale rounded the sofa to sit down next to his friend, and as he passed a full glass to him he murmured, “I don’t think you’ve been entirely honest with me, dear.”
“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Crowley retorted under his breath.
“He’s lying,” Anathema said flatly, reminding them both that she could hear the exchange, “He knows it’s a big deal. I called him today because I’ve had a vision of the mutant Apocalypse.”
“En Sabah Nur?” Aziraphale had a personal interest in sacred texts, especially as pertained to the origins on mutants on earth.
“What do you know about him?” Anathema asked.
“Only what I’ve read,” Aziraphale set down his wine, “En Sabah Nur is estimated to be six thousand years old, the progenitor of our race,” mutants, that is, “He was said to have met the gods who created life on this planet,” Aziraphale was a monotheist but he believed that En Sabah Nur might’ve encountered entities he believed to be gods. “And, perceiving that the Earth would someday be judged and found wanting, he dedicated himself to perfecting… us. Of course, by perfecting he did intend to wipe a great deal of the population. Hence the name, Apocalypse.” The name was assigned to the mutant centuries after he disappeared - ‘apocalypse,’ originating from the Greek ‘apokalupsis’, the earliest iterations of it (the great battle between good and evil) found in Jewish pseudonymous writings circa 200 B.C.
“That’s right,” she agreed – which, well, dear girl, of course it was right. Aziraphale had a very precise memory where texts were concerned, “He has been in what we call ‘suspended animation’ for millennia. Some people don’t think he’s real.” She gave a withering look to the shapeshifter.
“Never sssaid that,” Crowley retorted around a gulp of wine, his forked tongue getting the best of him.
“Crowley and I are believers,” Aziraphale confirmed with a small smile that did not reach his eyes. “What brings you to my shop, Ms. Device?”
“I’ve had a vision,” she said, “Several, in fact. I’ve seen Apocalypse in Tadfield, I think he is coming for one of my students.” Crowley made an exasperated sound but Aziraphale ignored him, inviting the young woman to go on with an encouraging nod. She took a steadying breath, “And I saw a battlefield. You were there. Students, teachers from my school, and you. Both of you. It's how I tracked you down.”
“Aziraphale, we need to talk,” Crowley was speaking to him, “In private.”
“Right,” the young woman cleared her throat, and stood up, unbuttoning her coat. She unfolded the flap of a bag hanging off her right shoulder and said, “I should be getting back. I wanted to give you this.” She retrieved a small notebook from the bag and handed it to Aziraphale, who stood as well, “It’s a list of everything I’ve Seen, that my family has Seen, which pertains to Apocalypse. I want you to read it, verify it, and bring it back to me by Friday,” she readjusted her glasses, “Don’t be late. You know where I live.”
Aziraphale nodded, visibly overwhelmed but not without his manners. “Let me walk you out.”
“No need,” Anathema insisted, “I know my way around. I’ll see you on Friday.” She sounded very certain of that and without another word, turned on her heel and left. Aziraphale had a vague thought of needing to lock the front door again after she’d left, but this book…
“Aziraphale.” He looked over at Crowley, who was still on the sofa but leaning forward with his elbows braced on his knees.
“Why did you lie to me about the telemarketer?”
Crowley sighed, removed his sunglasses without being asked. “I didn’t think she’d show up here in the middle of the night.”
“That’s not the reason.” The shapeshifter pinched the bridge of his nose with a muffled sound, probably one of his litany of curse words. Aziraphale persisted. “She told all of this to you already, didn’t she? On the phone?”
“Not all of it.”
“Why would you hang up on her?”
“Because,” Crowley liked to gesticulate when he felt strongly about things, “You and I had plans. And I knew that if you found out some clairvoyant was rambling about end-of-the-world prophecies, hell, forget dinner. And the tickets. You’d lock yourself in here for the next three days.”
Aziraphale frowned. “I thought she was quite succinct,” not rambling at all, not the way that Crowley did when he start talking about his whales – not that he didn’t find that charming, but really. “It was very kind of her to leave this notebook for us.” He wondered if she’d let him keep it. A first edition.
Crowley was on his feet in seconds, crossing the room to him. It was such a distracting thing, watching him. He moved his hips and the rest of his body followed in a smooth and uncanny series of steps: brace, extend, drop, straighten and pull, his legs a boneless afterthought, catching up to where he wanted to go, swinging forward and to the side. In the years they’d known each other, Aziraphale had never seen him walk a straight line.
“Let me do us both a favor,” Crowley tugged the notebook out of his hands, speaking over the wordless protest, “And chuck this in the bin. Set it on fire. Mail it back to her in pieces.”
“No.” Aziraphale snatched the notebook back from his friend, indignant and reproachful, “What is the matter with you? We don’t burn books.” His words were hushed, as if afraid the books could, in fact, hear them. He could not believe that Crowley would suggest that, standing in his shop.
“It’s not even a real book.”
“Don’t be classist, Crowley.” Any book could be a ‘real book’, it didn’t need to be published. In fact, original manuscripts were quite valuable on their own merit. Aziraphale was eager to read what Anathema Device had left for them. A contemporary book of prophecy from a living author.
“I have standards,” Aziraphale insisted, “That is not the same as being classist.”
Crowley huffed the most frustrated sound, a heavy sigh that seemed to well up from his soul, and he braced his hands on Aziraphale’s shoulders. “Please get rid of the book,” he said, earnest yellow eyes fixed on his own, “It has nothing to do with us.”
Aziraphale blinked. He was a bit startled by the physical contact, thin hands and long fingers splayed against his vest. “What are you talking about? That girl said that we were in her vision.” He was quite certain that meant this book of prophecies had a lot to do with them.
“Psychics can be wrong. You know that.”
He did know that. One of his hobbies was collecting books of prophecy, all of which were almost entirely untrue. But there was something about Anathema Device... “I don’t think she’s wrong,” he said, “And if what she says is true, and Apocalypse is rising and he’s coming to Tadfield -”
“Then we get the hell out of London!” Aziraphale flinched at the sudden uptick in Crowley’s agitation, and the shapeshifter let go of his shoulders, gesturing wildly at he wasn’t sure what, the general direction of an island paradise perhaps, “Go to fucking Tahiti, eat shrimp on the beach, get a tan-!”
“Are you listening to yourself?”
“Are you listening to me? We need to get out of here.” All the white had disappeared from Crowley’s eyes. They were entirely yellow.
“How can you say that?”
“I dunno, ‘cause I’ve got a shred of ssself-preservation which I know is a foreign concept for you-”
“Actually, it’s not,” Aziraphale believed he had a much stronger sense of self-preservation than Crowley. He didn’t take unnecessary risks and he certainly didn’t abandon his shop and flee to Tahiti with no conceivable plan beyond eating shrimp (which, in another context, sounded like a lovely vacation although he wasn’t sure he could tan). “Be rational, Crowley, if Apocalypse begins, there will be nowhere to go." That was the point. "Our best course of action is to stop him before it all starts,” Tadfield made more sense than Tahiti.
“And how do you propose we do that?”
“She doesn’t care about us. Unless you are hiding some magic Apocalypse-averting sword in your pocket, the only thing you’re good for is getting drained for power and you healing them only delays the inevitable. They’ll all die anyway and the worst part is, we will have pissed him off.”
“Think about it, Aziraphale," he pleaded, his face as open as Aziraphale had ever seen it, "We aren’t in danger from Apocalypse. We’re not human, we regenerate, we’ll live through it. But I can guarantee you that if we get in his way, he’ll kill us both.”
Aziraphale hesitated. The problem with Crowley was that he was most persuasive when he was right. In order to achieve his goal – which was, per the secondary sources Aziraphale had read, some manner of forcibly evolving the human race in order to “make them worthy” - En Sabah Nur would need to expose the planet to extraordinary amounts of radiation. This – unfortunately – was far more accessible in the post-atomic bomb age than they might’ve been in the past. Some humans might manifest latent mutant powers but most would die, as would many mutants.
“If we do nothing,” he said finally, “Billions of people are going to die. This planet will be destroyed,” his bookshop and his favorite restaurants, his gramophone, his records and the ducks at St. James Park. Aziraphale smiled sadly, “You don’t want to live in a world without dolphins, do you?”
Crowley scowled at him. “Not really,” he grudgingly admitted, tension easing out of his shoulders, “Or whales. Brain city, those. And monkeys...”
“Also very clever.”
“But not as clever as you.” Aziraphale would’ve laughed if Crowley didn’t sound so lost, tongue catching on his teeth, “Maybe we don’t both have to go. They can patch themssselves up and you can… go sssomewhere else until it’s all over.”
“Crowley, don’t be ridiculous,” if only one of them had to go, it made more sense for Aziraphale to be the one who, ah, joined the battle as it were, considering what he was capable of, “It’s going to be fine. Anathema said there was a battlefield, she didn’t say there was a battle. We might be able to stop it.” A slim and overly optimistic reading of the context, admittedly, and Crowley appeared unconvinced - but there was no reason to get all maudlin about things that hadn't happened before they’d taken a look at the book and considered all of their options.
“Could be a deus ex machina in that book, I guess.”
Aziraphale brightened. “Precisely,” he reached for one of Crowley’s hands, tucked back into his trousers now that the shouting was finished with, and squeezed it gently. “Now you know we only have three days to cross-reference these prophecies and I could use your help. You could bring your computer over tomorrow.” He had never invited Crowley to conduct research with him before – in fact, he often preferred to work alone but this was an exceptional circumstance. And he supposed he was worried about what his friend would get up to if he was alone.
Crowley shrugged. “Yeah, alright.”
“Wonderful.” It felt as if the very worst of this argument was behind them and courtesy of Anathema’s notebook, they had something to work from. Aziraphale let go of Crowley’s hand, and did not see the clench of his fingers. “I could use another drink,” or two, “What do you think?”
“Well, I did open the Sauvignon,” he admitted, returning to the sofa where he’d left his glass, “Might as well finish it off.”
Aziraphale smiled. It would be a waste not to.
I'm so grateful for the feedback I've received on this story so far - it's so encouraging, and I appreciate every word!
Chapter 3: Interlude: 1835
An account of the first time Aziraphale met Crowley (1835). Unfortunately, it was a botched exorcism.
Hello everyone! I want to extend my most heartfelt thanks for the feedback I've received for this story... and to give a bit of an explanation for this chapter. I reference the events of their first meeting in the next (present-day) chapter and I realized it might be more effective to show you that meeting as well, so I hope you enjoy this brief sojourn into the past. Mutants have such elastic ages that I could've made Aziraphale and Crowley any age (even 6000!), but given Aziraphale's penchant for the Victorian era, I settled on ~200s for this story. :) I also wanted to explore how mutants in the past might have come to grips with their powers (pre-the word mutant being used, or the X-Gene being understood) and this is the result.
Aziraphale was seven when his powers manifested. He had been thrown from a horse – a terrible accident, one neither he nor his tutor could have foreseen – and the physician was certain he had broken his back. His parents brought in a priest for his last rites as he lay in bed. Witnesses claimed that as the priest signed the cross over his body, it began to glow with a warm and heavenly light. Within seconds, the paralysis and delirium faded, he regained color, and his wounds were miraculously healed. The priest declared it a miracle and soon it became evident that God not only saved this boy but bestowed upon him the gift of healing others. His parents, perceiving their son had a higher purpose, surrendered him to the church before his eighth birthday. The church christened him Aziraphale.
He was raised to forget his birth parents and the name they had once given him, the luxuries of his upbringing, in favor of an ascetic and holy life befitting one destined for sainthood. Aziraphale certainly grew out of his birth name and found it most gratifying to serve others through healing hands and prayer. His weakness was gluttony, a longing for the pleasures of food and drink, and perhaps someone to share them with. For all that he was blessed, Aziraphale was lonely.
In 1831, cholera ravaged the city of London.
In 1835, at the age of twenty-one, he met a demon.
Aziraphale resided behind a modest chapel in Soho Square, and in the dead of night he was summoned by one of the curates, his eyes wild and robes askew, who claimed there was a young man possessed – in need of an exorcism, and nothing they had done seemed to help. Aziraphale had never conducted an exorcism nor had he ever encountered evidence of demons, though he had seen his fair share of evil deeds and immoral people. Pulling his rosary from his nightstand, he followed the curate through the stone passages of the chapel and down the steps to the basement where the linens were washed.
There was a terrible thrashing sound coupled with the steady intonation of a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. The young man who’d escorted him to the cellar rushed past him to join the priest, relieving the other curate of the burden of holding the intended victim underwater as he prayed over it.
There was a copper tub in the middle of the room filled with water and… a man. He couldn’t have been much younger than Aziraphale, his fingers curled over the edge of the basin as he fought the press of the curate and the priest, pushing him under the water over and over again. He was struggling, understandably, bucking his hips and his long legs, drenching their robes.
“It’s the only way to control it,” said the priest, as the man’s head burst out of the water and he gasped for breath. Aziraphale gasped at the sight of his eyes, bright yellow and slit-pupiled. The eyes of a serpent. He had never seen a human with eyes like that.
“H-holy w-water,” the curate shouted over the splashing, “It k-keeps the demon from c-changing form!”
“Brother Aziraphale, help us!” The priest urged him closer, begged him to lay healing hands on the afflicted in the hopes of driving out the demon that possessed him. Aziraphale wasn’t sure that he was capable of curing spiritual wounds but he hurried to do as he was bid, wrapping his rosary around his wrist and kneeling next to the priest on the wet stone floor.
“Let him go,” Aziraphale said to the priest and the curate, stretching his own hand out to touch those long fingers wrapped around the edge of the tub. It was the barest brush of skin to skin and it told him what he needed to know. Aziraphale had a sense of people – he wouldn’t say it was a supernatural gift, simply a personal talent curated over the years. He had never met anyone who was truly evil.
The priest conceded, loosening his grip on the man’s black clothes, hands dripping with holy water. The curate kneeling on the floor across from Aziraphale did the same. No one was touching the man and through it all, the steady invocation of St. Michael continued, filling the chamber.
The man in the tub wrenched his hand out from under Aziraphale’s, and Aziraphale let him, watching as he shoved himself up into a sliding, slouched position, back pressed to the edge of the tub. He was breathing hard, nostrils flared, and soaking wet, red hair plastered to his head. He stared at Aziraphale with his yellow eyes for what felt like hours, then seamlessly, he transformed.
His face grew rounder, chin and nose softening, white curls cascading over red hair: perfectly dry. His yellow eyes turned blue, his fingers growing short and stubby, his body thickening, forearms, belly, hips and thighs. Black clothes receded to be replaced by the blue cotton shift Aziraphale had worn to bed. He was, in a breath, staring at his mirror image sprawled in a tub.
“Good Lord,” he breathed.
“Good Lord,” the shapeshifter mimicked in a perfect echo of his own voice. A slow smirk curled his lips and those blue eyes grew hard and cold with rage, and beneath that, was it fear? A moment later, the shapeshifter surged forward with a snarl, parting his lips and letting out a rumbling, threatening hiss. Aziraphale was frozen, startled to see a forked tongue in his mirror’s mouth, and the priest scrambled back in a rather undignified manner. The prayer to St. Michael stuttered to a stop.
“Would you leave us, please?” Aziraphale murmured to the clergymen. Being good men of the cloth, they did protest at the thought of abandoning one of their own but he was quite insistent. “I would like to speak to him alone.” It was a testament to their trust in Aziraphale, and their fear of the shapeshifter, that they agreed. The priest promised they would pray for him just outside the door, that he only needed to call for them. Aziraphale expressed his gratitude for their faith but he did not look away from his mirror image, watching his own eyes – more frightened that he could remember ever being in recent memory – as they flitted from each clergyman. Only when the door closed, leaving Aziraphale alone with the shapeshifter, did those blue eyes settle on him again, lips pursed and tight.
The body in front of him shivered, jaw clenching in an effort to suppress this show of weakness. The water had seeped through Aziraphale’s shift where he’d knelt on the floor, bone cold.
Well, first things first.
“Would you like a towel?” he asked the shapeshifter. Blue eyes narrowed on his own, untrusting, and Aziraphale took this non-response as an opportunity to stand up. He offered an outstretched hand to his doppelganger in the tub but he did not take it. He glared.
Aziraphale dropped his hand, unwound his rosary from his other hand, and looped the beads around his neck. He crossed the room to the clotheslines stretched along the far wall, conscious of the sound of water moving, the certainty that he was being watched. He ignored it, moving slowly and methodically so as not to startle his audience. In the spring and summer, the linens were hung outside to dry but the weather had been dreadful lately. Aziraphale lifted one of the towels and brought it back to the tub. He offered it to the shapeshifter who, after a heartbeat of hesitation, snatched it out of his hand.
Aziraphale stepped back from the tub and watched as the man stood. Water dripped from the blue gown which melted back into his own black clothes. He changed form again, into the yellow-eyed, red-haired man, thin and sharp-edged. The shapeshifter scrubbed his red hair with the towel as he stepped out of the tub, then before Aziraphale’s eyes his clothes disappeared, save for a pair of knickers. The man started to strip out of those too.
“Ah,” he caught the sight of one long stretch of bared skin, chest to navel, and averted his eyes to the floor. The sound of wet fabric slapping stone made him blush. “Would you like to borrow a robe?”
“If you’ve got any,” the shapeshifter replied. His voice was flat, English.
Aziraphale busied himself by the clothesline, selecting a white cotton robe.It was his own and it was the only item of clothing that hadn’t been given to him by the church. It would be inappropriate to lend priestly garb to a suspected demon, and the robe was - admittedly – an indulgence for cold nights. It would be best to give such a garment to someone in need, so Aziraphale was satisfied with the choice.
“Here we- oh.” He turned around to face himself face to, er, chest with the shapeshifter, who had crossed the room so silently that he didn’t hear the sound of his footsteps on the stone. Aziraphale’s gaze darted up to his face, his head canted to the side, lips upturned in amusement. “Your eyes,” he blurted out, surprised. They were no longer yellow, but brown, pupils rounded.
“Better?” the shapeshifter queried.
“Ah, brown.” Aziraphale couldn’t say if it was better or not. Certainly more familiar.
“You have something for me?”
The robe, of course. “Yes. Here you are,” Aziraphale held the pile of fabric out to him and pretended not to notice the disdainful scrunch of the other man’s face. But he took the robe and pulled it over his head without protest, and Aziraphale was ever so grateful that it covered up everything, neck to shin. He offered with outstretched hands to take the damp towel, which he hung over the clothesline.
“So tell me,” said the shapeshifter, speaking to Aziraphale’s back as he spent entirely too much time fussing with the towel, “Is this a new exorcism technique? Giving me sanctified laundry?”
Aziraphale turned around to find that, yes, the shapeshifter was still standing very close to him. And he was quite tall. Taller than he had looked in the tub. “No, it’s not,” he answered seriously.
“There’s another reason you wanted to get me alone?”
Aziraphale ignored the dip in his voice, the soft insinuation in those words that was entirely inappropriate. “I don’t conduct exorcisms,” he explained.
“They didn’t bring you in here for the fun of it.”
“No,” Aziraphale agreed, “I heal people. The priest believed I might be able to heal you of your… malediction,” he hesitated at his own choice of words, and the shapeshifter did not seem to be happy with them either – his eyes narrowing at Aziraphale, “But there is nothing wrong with you.”
Those same eyes widened in what Aziraphale could only assume was surprise. “Nothing wrong with me,” he repeated, “Did you not see the part where I…?” he snapped his fingers and his eyes turned yellow once more, opened his mouth and flicked a two-pronged tongue at Aziraphale.
“I remember quite well, thank you,” considering he had done that in Aziraphale’s own skin, as it were. The shapeshifter seemed disappointed by his reaction (or the lack thereof, perhaps?). Aziraphale ignored this, “There is nothing for me to mend. You are as God intended you to be.”
“You really believe that?”
Aziraphale smiled gently. “I do…?”
“Crowley.” The shapeshifter’s name.
“Crowley,” he repeated the name, “My name is Aziraphale.”
“So I heard.” Brother Aziraphale, “And you’re a priest.”
“A member of the clergy, yes,” he did take his vows but a parish only needed one priest and he didn’t serve a ministerial role per se. “I am a guardian and a healer.” He paused, “Let me show you.”
Crowley leaned back, stiffening. “You said I didn’t need to be healed.”
“Oh, you don’t,” Aziraphale was quick to reassure him, “I will heal myself.” He did not feel comfortable making a spectacle of his gift but he did not think Crowley would be awed. Not in the way that others were when they witnessed what he was capable of. Some of the things they said, in their gratitude, bordered on idolatry. In his most private thoughts, Aziraphale knew he was not good enough to be what they thought he was. He led Crowley to the ironing board where an Argand lamp was lit. With deft fingers, Aziraphale removed the glass chimney and set it aside, gazing down at the steadily burning wick. He hesitated for a moment, bracing himself for the pain to follow, and wrapped his fingers around the flame.
“What are you doing?”
Aziraphale wrenched his hand back with a gasp, stifling a whimper between his teeth. He uncurled his fingers to show Crowley his palm. A soft golden glow smoothed out the burned skin. The pain receded. To his surprise, the shapeshifter took him by the wrist and inspected the hand, smoothing the pad of his thumb across Aziraphale’s palm as if to confirm the truth of what he’d seen.
“You didn’t need to hurt yourself to show me that,” he said, letting go of Aziraphale’s hand. Crowley smiled at him then and it was a lovely sight. “But I’m glad to know you’re like me.”
Aziraphale frowned. “I… don’t think that’s true.”
“It is,” Crowley replied, unruffled by the lack of shared enthusiasm because he was pleased enough for them both, “You’ve got more in common with me than these priests.”
“Have you taken vows?” Aziraphale asked pointedly.
“What vows?” Crowley blinked, scoffed, “To God? Fuck no.”
Aziraphale winced. “Please don’t use that… word.” Cellar or not, this was still a house of the Lord.
Crowley went on as if he hadn’t heard the rebuke, “And what’s more important, you don’t need to take vows either. Your powers, what you just did, doesn’t come from God. You don’t owe Him.”
God forgive you. Aziraphale was not unfamiliar with those of little faith, or those who could not see beyond their own circumstances the ineffability of it all. “We all come from God, Crowley.”
Crowley did not look impressed. He stared at Aziraphale for a moment and sighed. “Unlike God,” he replied, “I’ll actually give you the answers you want.”
Aziraphale gave Crowley a small smile. “How do you know I have questions?”
“People like us always have questions.”
“I’m not like you.” Aziraphale said firmly. He had, in fact, made it a habit not to ask questions. Life was much simpler that way.
“I can tell you the truth about what you are, what we are,” Crowley insisted, “About how many of us exist, and where… and what we’re capable of.” Aziraphale faltered and Crowley, clever and observant creature that he was, pressed his advantage, “I’d wager you’ve had those questions all your life, since the day you discovered you were not like them. And no one has ever given you answers.”
Aziraphale shook his head. “I-”
“A best guess and a verse of Scripture is not an answer.”
No, he supposed it wasn’t. Crowley offered knowledge and it would be a lie to say he wasn’t tempted, but he was unsure of what pursuing that knowledge would entail – and it was all a bit much, an attempted exorcism in his pajamas, a shapeshifter, and the prospect of others in the world like him. Like Crowley? Could they really be so similar? Aziraphale couldn’t see it.
The faint sound of the priest’s voice pressed through the door and Aziraphale accepted it for the divine intervention that it was, saving him from answering Crowley’s unspoken offer. Instead, he drew a deep and steadying breath, assured the priest that he was fine, and gazed up at the shapeshifter.
He lowered his voice. “I think we ought to discuss how you plan to leave this church.”
Crowley raised his eyebrows. “You’re going to help me?”
Aziraphale gave him a look.“We both know you are not a demon,” and this attempted baptism-exorcism would have no positive effect on him, “Although a thought does occur to me.”
“How in the world did you end up here in the first place?”
“Ah,” Crowley made a face, “A slight miscalculation on my part.” Aziraphale would later learn that the priest had thought he was speaking to his curate until the curate himself arrived – to see his mirror image in the church cemetery. Crowley had given himself away first, and the priest had knocked him unconscious out of fear of what he might do if he was loosed onto the world. “For a man of God, your priest is good with a shovel. And when I’m stunned, my eyes are the first thing to go.”
“So they are not naturally brown?”
Crowley shifted where he stood, glancing over at the copper tub. “I don’t like water. Can’t swim.”
Aziraphale blinked in surprise at the unexpected confession, and the barest trace of vulnerability in the shapeshifter’s face moved him to pity – and regret. The blessings and prayer might not have harmed him, but it must have been frightening to be held underwater.
“i’m so sorry,” Aziraphale said softly.
Crowley frowned at him, bottom lip curling. “Don’t,” the shapeshifter was not in search of pity and said tonelessly, “I could have killed them all. If I’d wanted to. I might have… if it wasn’t for you.”
“Oh.” Well, that was unsettling.
“Divine intervention, that.”
Aziraphale shook his head. “I’m not divine.”
Crowley shrugged. “You’re not human either.”
It took a good deal more than that to persuade Aziraphale in the end, but to his surprise he encountered Crowley several more times after aiding the shapeshifter in escaping from the church. Over time they became very good friends (with an occasional falling out here and there, but never for more than a few years) and Crowley considered it a personal triumph when Aziraphale did leave his vows behind in favor of a more secular existence. He opened his bookshop. They went to dinner, and to shows, and spend long nights drinking together and waxing philosophical about life's mysteries. And so it went on for the next two hundred years until Anathema Device rang them up about Apocalypse.
Chapter 4: Tuesday
Aziraphale and Crowley make progress as the threat of Apocalypse grows.
Crowley eyed his glass of wine gloomily, soft lamplight pulling out the red of the Sauvignon. Aziraphale had set the notebook on the desk and joined him on the sofa but Crowley was sure it was all he could think about. Hell, it was all he could think about and he didn't even want to read it. And he knew that if he wasn’t here, Aziraphale would be halfway through the damn thing already.
“You don’t want to live in a world without dolphins, do you?”
He rolled those gentle words around in his mind and muttered, “Dolphins.”
Aziraphale looked at him. “What about them?”
Crowley tipped his head back to swallow the rest of the wine, holding out his glass for a refill. He slumped further into the sofa, his head lolling to the side. “D’you think I care more about dolphins than you?”
Aziraphale’s brow knitted and Crowley resisted the urge to rub the lines away from his face. “Well...” his friend replied in a measured voice, “I care about dolphins. All creatures are worth caring about, of course. But you do seem to have a particular fondness for aquatic mammals...”
Crowley rolled his eyes. “I mean, do you honestly think dolphins are the most important thing to me on this whole sodding planet?” He did like dolphins but they were middling on the list and it aggravated him that Aziraphale had asked him that question when the answer was so clearly you, angel, you are the thing, the only thing that matters.
“Oh,” Aziraphale hesitated, “No, I suppose not.”
“Because if we were living in a world where that was true,” he said, “Then you’d be a dolphin. The dolphin. The only dolphin. On the whole planet and that would be enough for me to keep what’s-his-face from boiling the oceans.”
He shook his head and swallowed a mouthful of wine, and he thought, En Sabah Nur and Anathema Device and the prophecies could all go to Hell. With the notebook and the telephone, too.
“I don’t care about the dolphins. Or the people,” he said into the lip of his glass, very deliberately not looking up because he didn’t want to see his angel’s face right now. By some infernal intervention Aziraphale got the hint, or enough of it to fill the silence between them.
“Now I know that isn’t true.” Gentle. Nonjudgmental. Reminder that Aziraphale overestimated him, that he was one fuck-up away from letting him down.
Oh, but it is, angel. Crowley was generally optimistic about things working out in his favor because he was clever and looked great in black. And he liked the world. But he wasn’t gonna be sentimental about something that was one superpowered mutant away from a radioactive garbage dump. In the face of a battle he knew he couldn’t win, he was all about the exit strategy – and Aziraphale. The two of them. Battening down the hatches, stocking up on canned foods, and riding this whole Apocalypse thing out.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, asking about the dolphins.” Crowley said nothing and Aziraphale had had enough to drink to stifle his typical recalcitrance. “I was only thinking, what sort of world would it be if we did what you’re suggesting? You and I on a beach… when the fish are dead...and the turtles and the crabs…” Aziraphale struggled to sit up on the sofa but couldn’t seem to work his way out of it, settling on turning toward Crowley, looking at him with those big, round eyes when he whispered, “Could you really live like that? All of those dead things, and… us.”
Aziraphale’s eyes widened even more. “Really?”
Crowley gave a slippery shrug, not even a shrug, more of a wobble. “Better than us being the dead things.” They grew quiet. “But it would smell.”
“Probably,” he agreed.
The shapeshifter shrugged again. “With your nose, I’m sure you couldn’t,” live with it, that is. He was going for joking, not pathetic. “And you’d be stuck with me.” It occurred to him that while he wouldn’t mind if they were the only two people on Earth, his angel might not see that as a perk.
“Stop that,” Aziraphale replied, absently reaching for Crowley’s hand, holding it in his own as if it was something they did all the time (they did not). “There would be other survivors. And him.” En Sabah Nur. “I can’t imagine either of us would be free for long.” With most of the world’s population destroyed, it would be all too easy to locate the mutant signatures of the ones who were left.
Crowley couldn’t argue with that (and he could argue with almost anything). He hadn’t thought about it. But he did rub the pad of his thumb along Aziraphale’s palm, taking advantage as he was wont to do whenever they were slightly more than tipsy and sitting in close proximity, shoulder to shoulder.
“I’m going to sober up, dear,” Aziraphale murmured. The shapeshifter acknowledged the soft suggestion with a squeeze of his fingers. “I want to get started on the book tonight.” Crowley could have predicted that so he didn’t argue. He made no effort to move until he felt Aziraphale’s warmth slip away, his friend getting off the couch to return to the desk.
A few focused seconds cleared the alcohol from Crowley’s system and he made a face, the aftertaste of wine on his tongue. He always hated that. “I’m gonna get some sleep,” there was no point in sitting around looking over Aziraphale’s shoulder while he read. He’d come back with the laptop.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Crowley tried not to let it sting when his friend barely responded to the words, and certainly didn’t ask him to stay. Not that he was expecting it. He stopped by the desk on his way out and touched Aziraphale’s shoulder. “Don’t stay up too late.”
“Of course, dear,” was the distracted response, “Mind how you go.”
Aziraphale had made a promise but in truth he didn’t sleep at all. He read carefully and with painstaking attention to detail the pages of Anathema Device’s notebook which was quite nice, leather-bound and well-organized. It was, apparently, Volume 106 and consisted entirely of compiled prophecies related to the rise of Apocalypse. It included copies of visions that Anathema’s mother and grandmother had had but the vast majority belonged to Anathema herself. As the clairvoyant born closest to the event itself it made sense that she would have the strongest connection to Apocalypse. Still, it was rare for mutants to inherit the same powers across generations and even rarer for clairvoyants to take such detailed notes of their own readings. Aziraphale had never known a family like this. It was fascinating.
The notebook began with the family’s visions of the past, confirming the origins of the mutant En Sabah Nur: an infant born with grey skin and blue lips, abandoned in the desert by his tribe. Aziraphale felt himself moved to pity, a painful knot swelling in his throat at the memory of his first encounter with Crowley. Before mutant, humans had many different words for those possessing extraordinary gifts. Aziraphale’s powers had given the (incorrect but flattering, he supposed) impression that he was a saint, touched by God. Not knowing any better, he believed it too. But for every saint, there were many more allegations of witchcraft, sorcery, possession, and evil.
Crowley might have become something quite terrible, subjected as he was to the pain and abuse of those who thought they were doing good, purifying what did not need to be purified. But he had overcome the unrelenting cruelty of his early years, and remained compassionate, generous and so very kind (though he would never admit to this). As such there was only so much pity Aziraphale could muster for the abandoned infant, En Sabah Nur, considering what he had become. Several transcribed visions concerned his past: the mutant Apocalypse traveled from civilization to civilization, presenting himself as a deity, and used his powers to initiate terrible wars, disease and death. In time he was betrayed by his own servants, drained of his powers, entombed alive and forced into hibernation.
Anathema’s account of future events began with The Awakening. She had sketched symbols and structures, attempting to illustrate the shape of the pyramid buried underground, the markings of the tomb including logographs that did not resemble anything Aziraphale recognized (but then he was rusty on his non-phonologic languages). She sketched the entity’s face, paragraphs dedicated to the sound of his breath, the dilation of his pupils and the sheer force of power she felt. A blinding flash of light, a crumbling temple, and the disappearance of En Sabah Nur from his crypt.
Aziraphale lost track of time. He had gotten up to use the loo and make himself another cup of cocoa but otherwise remained at his desk well into the morning. He was still reading, hunched over the notebook, when he heard the cheery ring of the bell at his front door.
“Angel, you up?” Crowley’s voice filled the silence and Aziraphale would have responded but he was trying to get the end of this passage about the Horseman in North Africa. “I come bearing… gifts...” his friend’s voice trailed off until it was right behind him. The tone changed. Crowley plopped a bag on the desk and it smelled wonderful. “Aziraphale, have you been here all night?”
Aziraphale straightened with a wince, blinking away the bleariness that set in. He pressed his palms to his browbone for a moment, murmuring his assent, “There was so much to read. There is still...” he dropped his hands to pick up the book, gently turning the pages to show his friend what he had left to read. He craned his head up to look at Crowley and offered what he hoped was a reassuring smile, “I’m very close to finished. I only need a few more hours.”
“You’re going to bed.”
“Crowley...” His reflexes were not what they should’ve been, and Aziraphale protested as the shapeshifter reached over and snatched up the book, holding it well out of reach.
“You promised,” he said. It was a silly promise but one Aziraphale felt guilty for breaking all the same.
Still, “It is Apocalypse, dear. I can sleep once it’s finished-”
“Upstairs. Let’s go.” The shapeshifter kicked the leg of his chair lightly – a smack of snakeskin boots against wood – and Aziraphale grudgingly conceded only after his two attempts to take the notebook failed. His whole body crackled appreciatively as he got to his feet, and he followed Crowley – with his bag of food and the notebook – out of his back room and up the stairs to his flat.
In many ways, it was an extension of the bookshop. Shelves of his most treasured first editions, wood-carved furniture upholstered in soft, warm fabrics, and as much light as could be safely let in without damaging the antiques. There were a number of lovely plants, too, gifts from Crowley: pothos and English ivy, trailing down the legs of the accent tables, a jade plant on the windowsill in the kitchen, and a peace lily in the bedroom. Crowley groused about the state of the ivy as soon as he saw it. Aziraphale never trimmed the plants; he didn’t have the heart to discourage them from growing and, in fact, he was delighted to watch them flourish from week to week.
“Where are your shears?” Crowley asked, loud enough for the plants to hear him.
“The same place you left them, I expect,” Aziraphale sighed as he sat down on the edge of the sofa to untie his shoes. Oof, but that did feel better.
“You’ve got to discipline them, angel.” Crowley told him this every time he saw the state of his plants. Aziraphale privately thought they got more than enough ‘discipline’ from these visits.
“What did you bring me?” He gave a pointed look to the bag in Crowley’s hand.
The shapeshifter glanced away from the English ivy, followed Aziraphale’s gaze, and smirked. “Breakfast is for people who put on their pajamas,” he nodded to the bedroom, “Go on.”
Aziraphale frowned, mollified when Crowley promised to plate the food for him. He did have an artistic eye, which was something Aziraphale had always admired. So he carried his shoes into the bedroom and closed the door. He unraveled his bowtie and unfastened the buttons of his vest and shirt, pulled off his undershirt, his trousers and his argyle socks. He changed into blue and white pinstriped pajamas, listening through the door to the muffled talking-to Crowley gave his plants, the rise and fall of his voice, agitated and threatening over their disobedience.
“Don’t take it to heart,” he reassured the lily as he drew the curtains of his bedroom closed. Aziraphale turned on the lamp next to his bed and pulled back the comforter and sheets. Settling under the covers, he was delighted by his friend’s impeccable timing. The shouting stopped.
Crowley knocked on the bedroom door. “Are you decent?”
Crowley opened the door and brought in a wicker tray. On the tray was a cup of tea and a plate of pastries: colorful macarons – pastel pink, lavender, white and green – and two hazelnut chocolate chip scones. The macarons were laid out beautifully, with dollops of strawberry compote and cream.
“I think you missed your calling in the culinary arts, Crowley,” he smiled up at his friend, who shrugged off the praise, “These look delectable. Thank you.” Aziraphale started with the tea, a strong chamomile with a hint of lemon. “Would you like to know what I’ve found out?”
“No.” Crowley left the bedroom to retrieve his spray bottle, and returned to circle the lily threateningly. Aziraphale was then treated to a show over the rim of his teacup as the shapeshifter crouched on the floor to investigate the plant in full, prodding the leaves and examining the lovely curve of slender white blossoms. Aziraphale enjoyed the taste of the macarons with a hum of pleasure: the crisp crackle of the shell and the tart, raspberry jam filling of the pastry. Crowley tended the plants while he indulged in breakfast, realizing that despite his protests this was nice.
It was only when Aziraphale was down to the last scone that Crowley joined him, sitting at the foot of the bed. After sharing so many meals, he had grown accustomed to having an audience. Crowley was not as self-indulgent about food. Aziraphale felt full, cozy and content, his thoughts turning fuzzy around the edges. He finished his scone with an appreciative sound,dabbing at the corners of his mouth with his napkin. Folding the napkin into quarters he looked up at Crowley and smiled. A warm tingling sensation collected behind his eyes and he blinked it away.
“This whole situation does make me wish we had been a bit more… active.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “Active how?”
Aziraphale put his napkin on the tray and looked down at his carefully manicured hands, clasping them in his lap. “I don’t know...” he hesitated, feeling torn, lips pressed together, “…if a bookshop was really the most productive thing I could have done with all this time.”
Crowley blew out air in a sound like a hiss, “Of course it’s not. You don’t even make a bloody profit.” Aziraphale turned pink and suppressed a wince. It was terribly self-indulgent, wasn’t it? He was vaguely aware that Crowley was still talking abut he wasn’t listening. He was staring very hard at his empty plate, guilt welling up, sour and hot, in his stomach, when a thin hand passed into his line of sight, long tapered fingers coming together in a clean snap. The sound startled him. He looked up. Somehow Crowley had shifted much closer to him (or had he always been just on the other side of the breakfast tray?).
“Don’t ignore me.” Crowley sounded very put-out. Aziraphale straightened, indicating that he was listening this time. “I said, you like it. Your bookshop. So it doesn’t matter if it’s productive.”
Aziraphale sighed. “But don’t you think we could’ve done more for… our fellow mutants?” He was so frustrated with himself, so panicked in the midst of this sprint (and he was a terrible sprinter) towards what might well be the end of the world. Surely he could have prepared for this eventuality. “If we weren’t so set on isolating ourselves, we might have known...” he trailed off anxiously.
Crowley rolled his eyes. “Face it, angel, we don’t play well with others.”
Aziraphale frowned. “That is not funny.”
“You know it’s true,” Crowley prided himself on being difficult, “What do you think we could have done that a thousand other mutants couldn’t do? Nobody’s managed to stop him. It is what it is.”
“But we have no time.” Aziraphale was afraid that anything he did now would not be enough, that Anathema Device’s prophecy was precisely what Crowley suspected it would be: a suicide mission.
The shapeshifter shifted forward wordlessly, sliding the tray along the sheets and away from Aziraphale. He pushed it to the side and drew his legs onto the bed, sitting cross-legged in front of him. “Everything seems worse when you haven’t slept,” he said, uncharacteristically gentle.
“Crowley...” Aziraphale tried to smile and it came out as quivering and unsure as he felt, “I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate Apocalypse, what he’s done, what he’s capable of...” What could be worse? Crowley took Aziraphale’s hands in his, his fingertips smooth and warm, rubbing along his knuckles and the lines of his palms, wordless designs that were distracting in a very nice way.
“Lay it on me, then.”
Crowley said, “I’ll make a deal with you, angel. Tell me what you know, and I’ll do some digging online while you rest.” Aziraphale didn’t want to rest. He couldn’t imagine himself being able to fall asleep, knowing a fraction of what was coming but Crowley was persistent. And by the time he had finished revealing to the shapeshifter everything he had learned, the slow circles Crowley rubbed into his hands and wrists had relaxed him. He felt drowsy enough to be agreeable as his friend coaxed him into the bed and pulled up the sheets, turned out the lamp, kissed his forehead and promised that the world would still be there when he woke up. The last thing Aziraphale saw before he well and truly tuckered out was Crowley’s silhouette, standing on the threshold of his bedroom, illuminated by the light of the living room in the most angelic way.
Let it never be said that Crowley couldn’t get results. It was all a matter of motivation. And Aziraphale on the verge of tears in his pajamas was better motivation than bloody Helen of Troy. He skimmed the book, brought over his own printer (if it wasn’t for him, Aziraphale wouldn’t have WiFi or a TV) and scanned the photos to his computer (more interesting than the prattling on about the taste and texture of the visions). Crowley was able to confirm a lot of information – wars and plagues in the old days, a recent archaeological dig in Egypt that resulted in the deaths of all involved (a tragic cave-in or some such), a war correspondent named Carmine Zuigiber who’d reported on failed peace talks in North Africa (and had since disappeared, per her chatty colleague he'd spoken to on the phone) and strange weather patterns settling over Tadfield.
Crowley printed out the reports he’d found and laid them out on the table, labeled them with the page from the notebook. It was the sketches Anathema had made of the horsemen that interested him the most. Good quality. Forensic art quality. Something one might run through a government database and get a hit off of, if one had the right clearance. And what government wasn’t tracking mutants these days? The Americans were the obvious choice. A very comprehensive set-up, there.
It wouldn’t be easy to get access to the database outside of the country, unless one happened to have clearance and a way into the embassy by virtue of forged documents… the sort of clearance that a high-ranking cultural attaché with direct ties to three U.S. presidents might have.
The bedroom door opened and he glanced over his shoulder to see Aziraphale, peering into the living room as he rubbed at his eyes. Crowley had checked on him half a dozen times to make sure he was sleeping, and now it was a quarter past four. Six hours of sleep.
“There’s tea in the kitchen.”
Aziraphale nodded. He walked over to the table, past the sleek black wireless printer Crowley had brought in, and peered down at all of the work that the shapeshifter had done. Photographs, maps, news articles, formed a timeline in accordance with the details from the notebook.
“You’ve been busy.”
Crowley smirked. “Miracle of the internet, angel. Sit down, I’ll show you what I’ve found.” And he did, explaining to Aziraphale what he’d been able to substantiate – current events were easier than say, six thousand years ago. Not bad for less than a day. “And I’ve got something else.”
“There’s an American diplomat living here in London. I need access to his personal computer.”
Aziraphale looked scandalized (he was good at that). “Why would you need that?”
“I’m gonna hack the Americans’ Mutant Registry this week,” he grinned, feeling unaccountably pleased with himself for what he thought was a brilliant idea, “But I need his passwords to do it.” Getting into the embassy was no problem, Crowley had been there half a dozen times on jobs in the past. Jobs that Aziraphale didn’t need to know about because he wouldn't like it.
“What?” Aziraphale was giving him a look of blanket disapproval but there was no time for moral outrage, end of the world, chop chop, let's dispense with legalities, “You wanted me on board. I’m on board. We know that at least one of the horsemen is American because Apocalypse recruited him in New York. I can run this photo,” Anathema Device’s true to life sketch, “Through the registry and find out who he is.”
“And that’s going to help us?”
“Do you want to go into a fight not knowing what the Horsemen can do?”
“I suppose not.”
Crowley, Aziraphale, Future Girl, and some kids did not make an A-Team of Apocalypse-fighting superheroes, but at least if they knew what they were going up against, they could try to cheat. Getting rid of the Horsemen had to weaken the big guy, right? Why else would he recruit them?
“I thought of something too,” Aziraphale admitted, choosing not to push back against the shapeshifter’s proposal of breaching foreign national security which meant he had to be at least a little impressed (Crowley would’ve liked to have been acknowledged as a genius, but he supposed that would come when he had something to show for it). “Anathema Device said that she thought Apocalypse might be coming for one of her students. We should try to find out which one it is and why.”
“You want to break into the school?”
“No,” Aziraphale said emphatically, “I thought we could give her a call.”
“Right.” That was a lot less interesting than espionage and compromising government databases. “Yeah, sure. Knock yourself out.”
Aziraphale was fretting. “I know she said we shouldn’t come by until Friday but… it seems like information we would want to have before Friday, don’t you think?”
Crowley shrugged. “Come with me to the Dowling Estate tonight,” he didn’t want Aziraphale going off on his own on the word of that bloody psychic. They could sort out the school information in the morning.
“I called over there already,” pretended to be interested in a job opening, “The diplomat and his wife are going to a fundraising gala at the Copthorne,” he said, “This is the perfect time to go.”
Aziraphale did his usual round of protests but Crowley knew his heart wasn’t in it, especially after he promised dinner. It took less than half an hour to comfort and cajole his friend into getting dressed. Crowley made him tea while he was in the shower and left it on the nightstand.
Dinner was fine. They talked about everything but the end of the world. Aziraphale grew pensive and quiet as the waiter took away their dessert plates. Crowley asked for the bill.
“Problem?” Aziraphale always was better at the silent treatment than him. Guileless blue eyes gazed at him from across the table and Crowley fixed his friend with an expectant look over his sunglasses.
Aziraphale turned pink. “Apologies,” that wasn’t what Crowley was asking for but the explanation came a beat later, “I was just thinking how different our lives might have been if we’d gone to a school. For people like us.”
“There were no schools for people like us,” Crowley reminded him, “Not back then.”
“Besides,” Crowley braced his elbows on the table and leaned forward, “I think I did a pretty good job, showing you the ropes. I got you out of the church,” still a point of pride – not for corrupting a priest (it sounded so much sexier than it was, unfortunately) but for setting him free. No more services, no more rules, no more Catholic guilt, no more expectations of godlike behavior.
“You also tried to recruit me for the Hellfire Club,” Aziraphale said pointedly.
Crowley sighed. “I should’ve known you’d never go for that.” He’d been affiliated with them when he met Aziraphale for the first time; he was doing a job for them when the priest knocked him out. Not his finest moment, getting a holy water bath, but he got Aziraphale out of it too.
“Yeah, yeah,” he knew what they were about but they were mutants – like him – and powerful, rich, all the things he had never been. They protected him. He was loyal for awhile.
“I am proud of you for walking away,” Aziraphale said gently, “That showed great strength of character.”
Crowley shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “It wasn’t a hard decision,” he muttered. He remembered how pissed off he’d been over the ultimatum, and they had a big row over it. Didn’t talk for years. He didn't want to reminisce about it. “I wouldn’t have minded meeting you earlier,” Crowley admitted abruptly, ruminating on the idea of a school, “Dunno how much it would’ve changed things.” He had what he wanted, mostly.
Aziraphale nodded. “Meeting you changed everything for me,” he said, fixing that warm affectionate gaze on Crowley that made him want to climb the walls, “For the better, I think.”
“Couldn’t do much about your sense of style,” he tried for humor.
Aziraphale’s eyes widened in surprise, lips parting in mild indignation, “There’s no need to be rude, Crowley.”
“Forgive me,” he drawled in a way that suggested he wasn’t very sorry at all.
“I’ll consider it.”
Crowley grinned wider. “Penance?” he offered, “I could make you crepes.”
Aziraphale gave him a look. “You can’t crepe yourself out of trouble all the time.” Crowley raised an eyebrow and waited for the inevitable concession, the shy smile, “Though I do love them. Breakfast, tomorrow?”
“With crème fraiche?”
“And strawberries,” he promised.
There. All was forgiven.
Aziraphale’s smile faded as the waiter returned with the bill, and Crowley slid his card over without looking at the price. “There is something I’d like to say, that I- I have been trying to say,” Aziraphale managed. He sounded nervous.
Crowley narrowed his eyes, waving off the waiter. “What is it, angel?”
“It’s only...” he paused, sliding his hands off the table and into his lap, “I hope that you know, Crowley, how much you mean to me.”
“Of course I know,” Crowley answered reflexively, “We’re friends.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale agreed, glancing down to the silk flower centerpiece between them, “You are such a good person, Crowley.”
“You are,” he insisted, “I’m afraid I don’t always appreciate it the way I should, how thoughtful and generous you are, how I look forward to seeing you every day... ”
“Aziraphale,” Crowley cleared his throat, a strangled sound, and hated himself for it, “Why are you sssaying thisss?”
“I...” Aziraphale hesitated, “I want you to know that… well, you know, if things don’t go the way we’re hoping for, if we don’t… I just… I… I-”
No. No. No.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” It took him a beat too long to hear it, to understand what Aziraphale was struggling with, and he saw what this was. “A goddamned death bed confession? That’s what you’re doing right now?”
Aziraphale’s face fell. He’d always been a terrible liar and it was written all over his face, the anxious darting of his eyes, noticing that they’d drawn some attention, “Crowley, please-”
There was only thing one thing he liked more than a dramatic entrance and that was a dramatic exit. He slammed his hands down on the table and kicked the chair back across hardwood. He felt like he was scraping what was left of his pride (what Aziraphale hadn’t run over like the bumbling, well-meaning idiot he was) off the floor and all he could manage was a sneer, before he turned on his heel and stormed out of the restaurant. He sank into the Bentley with a wordless whimper, the sort of sound he’d never let Aziraphale hear. He was pathetic. He was ashamed, too. He shouldn’t have yelled at Aziraphale. The look on his face… bewildered, confused, and embarrassed.
He always thought he’d just take those ugly unrequited feelings to Hell, or wherever people like him ended up. Reincarnated as a weevil in his next life, who knows. He wasn’t gonna spew them all over Aziraphale like a kid on a carnival ride after too many corndogs. And he didn’t want to hear what a great friend he was because that wasn’t even true. He was a shitty friend. He always had been.
And he did a nice job reminding Aziraphale of that by yelling at him in the middle of a restaurant and running out of the building. He was the one who insisted on driving. Crowley realized he should call Aziraphale an Uber, figuring that his friend would (rightfully) want nothing else to do with him tonight. He shifted in his seat and dug two fingers into his back pocket for his phone, slid his thumb across the lock screen and-
The passenger’s side door opened.
Crowley gaped at Aziraphale, who took one look at him and climbed into the car. His face looked pink. His eyes were shining wet, lashes clumped together. The realization struck him in the chest like a fist, and Crowley bit back an apology. You made him cry, you selfish fuck. Yes, thank you.
“Do you want to go home?” Crowley asked, turning his gaze to the dashboard. Do you want to get away from me? Anywhere but here?
“You said the Dowlings would be gone by now.” It was not a ‘yes’. It was not a ‘no’ either. And it was true. Aziraphale’s voice was soft but steady.
“We should go to the estate then.”
I'm on Tumblr :) @thetimemachinejellyfish
Chapter 5: Undercover
Aziraphale and Crowley have an awkward car ride. Crowley infiltrates the Dowling Estate and things do not go as expected.
The slowest of burns, my friends, I promise we are making progress. It is coming. Thank you for your patience and your support!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Aziraphale had walked away from Crowley before.
When he felt he had no other recourse, or that his friend asked too much of him, he left. They wouldn’t speak afterwards, for days, months, sometimes years. Crowley had his pride, after all, and Aziraphale certainly wasn’t going to compromise. He could not recall a time in their shared past when Crowley had been the one to leave and yet he had ended up sitting alone in the restaurant.
He recovered as best he could from his friend’s outburst, following him outside and discovering, with a sigh of relief, that Crowley hadn’t seen fit to drive off without him. His chest was tight with an entirely different feeling after he joined the shapeshifter in the car, and decided to go to the Dowling Estate.
“You forgot your credit card,” Aziraphale broke the quiet tension, offering the card, wrapped in the customer copy of his receipt from dinner. Crowley looked at him, gaze unreadable behind his glasses.
“Hold onto it,” Crowley said. Aziraphale frowned. He could sense, rather than see, the roll of Crowley’s eyes when he explained, “You’re the one who wants me to keep both hands on the wheel.”
Crowley had never been particularly concerned with safety features in the past but Aziraphale decided not to argue. He shifted forward in his seat to pull out his wallet, where he tucked the card away. Music filled the Bentley and neither of them spoke for several minutes. The silence was not pleasant. It was heavy and uncomfortable, and for Aziraphale filled with unspoken regret. He wondered, casting furtive glances at Crowley’s profile in the dark, if he ought to apologize. The sting of rejection had dulled into an ache he could almost ignore, a heavy stone in the pit of his stomach, no longer pricking at the corners of his eyes, or in his heart. He supposed Crowley had spared him from making an utter fool of himself.
I was selfish. Aziraphale had made a decision without considering the terrible timing of it – the rise of Apocalypse, honestly – or Crowley’s own feelings on the matter. Their friendship was more important than any misguided confession Aziraphale might have been inclined towards, and it was truly reprehensible of him to put Crowley in such an uncomfortable position. This is for the best.
The Bentley clipped a sharp corner, rolling up onto the curb, and righting itself so suddenly that Aziraphale gasped in protest, “Crowley, please.”
“You could, at the very least, stay on the road.” Aziraphale clutched reflexively at his own seat, squeezing his eyes shut as Crowley swerved between two lorries without so much as a by your leave. “Crowley!”
“Relax, angel,” he drawled, “I’ll get us there in one piece.”
Aziraphale huffed in response, and it was enough to ease the tension between them. Familiar words, the same argument they’d been having since the 1930s. And Crowley had made substantial alterations to the Bentley since then, allowing the car to reach speeds that were not standard-issue, so to speak. As they drove out of London proper, the traffic thinned and Aziraphale found he could breathe easier.
The sun set and the car filled with a warm darkness. Then Crowley spoke, “This was your idea.”
“What?” The Dowling Estate was certainly not his idea. His idea was to call Anathema Device about her roster of students, and to narrow down who might be the intended, er, target.
Crowley glanced at him. “You know, fighting the good fight.”
“Oh.” The sarcasm made him wince. It wasn’t as if he was eager to get involved with Apocalypse. Aziraphale simply couldn’t see any other way out of the situation. Couldn’t imagine any future where they wouldn’t be found (and likely made to suffer for it).
“I wanted to get out of town. You said we had to stay, so...” Crowley’s voice trailed off into one of those indefinable wordless sounds he made when he was annoyed, and Aziraphale looked down at his lap, pretending to examine his own cuticles even though he couldn’t see a thing. He was no stranger to being chastised, but it was less palatable coming from Crowley.
“Yes,” he whispered.
Crowley went on. “And I agreed to stick around. I made notes. I came up with a brilliant plan and I took you to a nice dinner to celebrate and you...” Crowley thumped the steering wheel, and Aziraphale flinched, “You...”
“...I ruined it.” Aziraphale finished the thought before Crowley could, in a rush of trembling words. He didn’t think he could bear another half hour of this. “Crowley, I am sorry.”
More silence. Crowley’s shadowed profile, gaze fixed on the road, was as inscrutable as his sunglasses. Aziraphale’s shoulders grew tight and he curled his fingers into the fabric of his trousers, miserable. He was afraid of saying anything more, worried that he might offend Crowley all over again. The only sound in the car was the whisper of clothing as Crowley shifted and, to Aziraphale’s surprise, reached across the front seat to take his hand. With an unsteady breath, he slipped his fingers through Crowley's with a tentative smile.
When Crowley spoke again, his voice was gentler, “It’s a bit insulting you think I can’t get us out of this alive, angel.”
Aziraphale tried to speak, paused, then sighed, “I suppose you’re right.”
“If things don’t go our way?” he paraphrased Aziraphale’s own fumbling words, scoffing, “Stupid.” The insult was at odds with the way Crowley squeezed his hand.
The rest of the trip passed in companionable silence. Crowley turned off the main road and onto a paved driveway leading up to what must have been a most impressive estate. It was dark. Aziraphale only caught glimpses of the grounds before Crowley dimmed the Bentley’s headlights, pulling to a stop in front of a wrought-iron gate, tall and imposing with spiraled ornaments and pointed finials.
“Shouldn’t take more than ten minutes.”
Aziraphale glanced away from the gate. “You don’t want me to come with you?”
“No need,” Crowley shrugged, turning off the car’s ignition, “It’s a harddrive, not the Holy Grail.”
Aziraphale pursed his lips. He wasn’t sure what a ‘harddrive’ was so he supposed he wouldn’t be much help in the acquisition (theft?) of it. “And if you get into trouble?”
“Ehhh,” he could hear the shrug in his friend’s voice, “Have a little faith, angel.”
“It’s not a matter of faith...” Aziraphale protested, pulling his hand out from under Crowley’s, “You are walking into a situation you know nothing about. There could be armed guards. Americans-”
“The Dowlings are out,” Crowley interrupted, “The place is as empty as it’s gonna get.” He dangled the keys in front of the radio and Aziraphale took them with an uneasy shift in his seat, “Stay here.”
“Crowley?” Aziraphale blurted out his friend’s name after he climbed out of the Bentley. Crowley’s head dipped down to look at him, eyebrows raised. Aziraphale tightened his grip on the keys until the metal bit into the skin of his palms. “Are you… sure about this?”
“Course I am,” he wriggled out of his jacket and left it on the seat, “I had all day to think about it.”
‘All day’, Aziraphale reasoned, wasn’t a particularly long time to contemplate anything, let alone breaking into someone’s home and stealing their personal information. This was illegal. It was wrong. Shouldn’t he…?
“Apocalypse, angel,” Crowley reminded him, as if he could read the conflict on Aziraphale’s face (perhaps he could) and decided to offer some perspective, “I’ll be back soon.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Alright,” he sighed, “Please be careful.”
Crowley shut the door and sauntered along the length of the gate until- ah, Aziraphale followed the tilt of his friend’s head and noticed the security camera stationed on top of the gate. Crowley reached the blind spot beneath the camera and pressed against the wall, his hair shrinking, clothes fading into skin that shimmered – not unlike a mirage – as iridescent black scales raised through the flesh. His belly turned red. He sank to the ground, body twisting into a coil, arms blending into the sides of his bottom and legs knitting together until what was left was a large snake. Aziraphale leaned forward, bracing his hand on the dashboard, and watched Crowley slither between iron bars and disappear into the grass.
Aziraphale didn’t put up a fight about staying in the car. It meant Crowley didn’t need to explain himself – not about the surveillance or the floor plan. He went around back and entered through the garden, tipping his head back to gaze up at the house, but his vision was worse as a snake than in human form. Great sense of smell, though, which was how he found his way in: the chef was taking a smoke break outside, muttering under his breath about the nonexistent palate of an eleven year old brat (who said the borscht tasted like poo and he wanted fish and chips instead). Crowley nosed open the door and slipped into the house, shifting into the form of the chef as he stood up. He grimaced at his reflection in the smooth, stainless steel oven door, exaggerating, showing his teeth, and left in search of Thaddeus Dowling’s study.
The family hadn’t done much redecorating in five years, and it was in the same room as before. The computer was on the desk and Crowley booted it up. A frame on the edge of the desk caught the corner of his eye and he squinted at it – it wasn’t a picture of his family, it was a signed photo of Dowling shaking hands with Trump against the backdrop of an airport hanger. Crowley’s bottom lip curled and he flicked the frame. It toppled off the desk, landing on the floor with a satisfying smack.
Sinking into the oversized leather chair, Crowley noticed the laptop was password protected. He narrowed his eyes at a yellow post-it note stuck to the corner of the screen. Rows of words and numbers, variations on a common theme: Colts1958. Colts2006. ColtsXLI!. Crowley typed in the first option, pressed enter and watched the little blue wheel spin around a few times before the homepage came up.
“Huh.” That took a lot less work than he expected. Crowley shrugged off the unexpected ease of his expert sleuthing and signed into Google Drive to back all the data up. It’d be safer to use a thumb drive but he couldn’t exactly fit one in his mouth while he was slithering across the lawn. He’d make the transfer via VPN once they got back to the bookshop. While he was waiting for the upload to finish, Crowley rifled through the contents of the desk drawers, pulling out anything that looked remotely interesting – including two manila envelopes, a Blackberry and a day planner. He decided to try out the post-it passwords on the Blackberry. Dowling seemed like the kind of man who had the same password for everything.
“What are you doing?”
Crowley froze, glancing towards the voice. It belonged to a kid, who was standing in the threshold of the office in pajamas with a Nintendo Switch in one hand (he wasn’t playing it, and it was silent, but it was on). Dark hair hit his chin and he looked sullen. Crowley’s lips twitched into a pleased expression and he replied, “Looking up a recipe. Go on into the kitchen, I’ll get your fish and chips started.”
Warlock Dowling scowled at him. “You’re not the chef. You’re old.”
Crowley realized it as soon as the kid spoke, his own voice echoing back all wrong – not wrong, it was his own, but it should’ve been the chef’s. He looked down at his own hands and noticed his fingers had thinned out of their own accord. And he was naked. Crowley didn’t wear off the rack. It was easier to create clothes than to buy them, and have you ever seen a snake try to crawl out of leather trousers? It was not dignified. Much better to make what he could absorb back into himself. Exception: Italian jackets and boots. He had a thing for Balenciaga, the real deal – but he’d left that in the Bentley. With Aziraphale.
And now, he was sitting bare-arsed in Thaddeus Dowling’s desk chair. For the past five seconds, he’d been trying to shift back into the chef’s body, into clothes. It wasn’t working.
“Fuck.” What the fuck. What the fuck. He was still the chef when he sat his happy arse down on this chair. His tongue darted out to lick his lips, the only outward display of panic crawling up the inside of his throat- and that was wrong too. Thick and solid. His fangs ground down into human teeth.
You lost your powers. Shut up. Mutants didn’t just lose their powers.
“Are you a bad guy?”
“What?” Fuck. He forgot about the kid. Crowley wriggled down as low into the chair as he could get – so he wasn’t at risk of flashing Warlock and scarring him any more than he already had – and he grabbed a manila envelope, stuffing it in his lap and covering up all the best bits.
“A BAD GUY,” Warlock repeated loudly, in that exaggerated and annoyed way that kids did when they had to repeat themselves and didn’t want to – but adults didn’t listen.
“The worst,” Crowley agreed distractedly, grateful he hadn’t turned on the lights – the dim glow of the computer was his saving grace right now, but he couldn’t focus without something, “Listen, kid, I need you get me a coat or a robe. I don’t care what it is, s’long as it’s knee-length.”
“I’ll give you fifty quid if you do it right now, and don’t ask me stupid questions.”
Warlock glowered in response. That wasn’t the way to get to him. Crowley knew better. He could’ve streaked past the kid and out the front door, and about 75% of Crowley’s brain was screaming run run run run and some wordless anxiety about Aziraphale, but the other 25% reminded him that he’d already walked out on Warlock. He owed him a little more than this, powerless, naked, or not.
“You and I know each other,” Crowley went on, voice softening into an approximation of the one he used years ago (no vocal cord adjustment, but he could pitch Scottish on his own). “I used to be your nanny,” until Warlock turned six, and his dad got involved in the Mutant Registration Committee. He felt bad about leaving the kid behind, but he got the information he came for. And Aziraphale had returned…it was complicated – at the time. Not his finest moment.
Suspicion gave way to confusion, flitting across the boy’s face. He seemed conflicted but Crowley watched that harden (as much as anything can harden on an eleven year old’s face). “I don’t remember.”
Liar. Crowley could see the words ‘Nanny Ashtoreth’ forming in his head, before Warlock decided to pretend he didn’t remember – to hurt him, Crowley thought, not that he could blame the kid for that. Leaving Warlock Dowling alone with his parents and the succession of hired help they brought in to raise him was among the most unconscionable things he’d done.
“Fair enough,” Crowley decided not to push it, “Still need a robe, though. Please?”
Warlock exhaled long and loud. He turned and walked out of the room. Crowley didn’t know if he was gonna come back or not, and he needed to figure out what the hell happened. He looked down at his own hands and watch them ripple into the shape of the chef’s, small, suppler and smooth. He froze, digging his heels into the floor as the clothes and shoes reappeared. Crowley rolled back and forth in the desk chair, but nothing happened. Whatever negated his powers was gone.
Then it trooped back into the room, dragging a raincoat on the floor. The changes receded as quickly as they’d come in, fingers lengthening, bony, clothes disappearing. His tongue knitted itself back together. It tickled and Crowley made a strangled sound in the back of his throat.
“Throw it here,” he managed, warding the kid off from getting closer to the desk than he had to. Warlock flung the coat at him; it fluttered through the air and nearly missed the desk altogether, but Crowley sprang for it, lunging across the table and dragging it over the paperweight, computer, and desk lamp. He pulled it into his lap and put it on, shoving his arms through the sleeves and wrapping the tie tight around his waist. It was at least two sizes too big for him, built for the broad shoulders of the American.
“You have to give it back,” Warlock said, “It’s my dad’s.”
“I’ll have it dry-cleaned,” Crowley promised, glancing across the desk to the boy.
“Are you naked under there?”
“Not sure.” But I’ve got an idea. Crowley narrowed his eyes at Warlock. “Are you doing this to me?”
“You know what.”
Crowley tried something else, “Can you take three big steps backwards? Out of the room?”
“Because I said so.” Warlock glared at him instead. Okay, new tactic. “I’ll tell you what I’m doing here if you listen to me. Alright?” The kid hesitated, then conceded with a heavy sigh and dragged himself a step backwards. Then another, and another. Crowley stood up and moved around the edge of the desk, and felt his powers return as Warlock stepped out of range: tongue splitting, teeth sharpening, clothes reappearing beneath the coat. Crowley gave up on impersonating the chef, considering his cover was already blown by an eleven year old. Now all he wanted was to look like himself.
He edged along the invisible, undetectable line between himself and the kid; when he crossed it, getting too close to Warlock, his clothes dissolved back into his skin. He lost his powers. Crowley backed up and moved forward, and after a minute, he had Warlock doing the same, moving forward and backwards. Each time either of them moved too far in one direction, or the other, Crowley felt it until his whole body felt tight and tingling. It had to be the kid. Proximity to Warlock wiped out his powers. And if he wasn’t aware of what he was doing, and this had never happened to Crowley in the past, it must've been a new development.
“Well,” Crowley didn’t have to wonder what would happen to a mutant who could suppress other mutants’ powers – the Americans had been threatening to cure mutants for years, they’d ship Warlock to a laboratory before you could say bob’s your uncle. No mutant worth his salt would let that happen. They’d kill him first. He was clearly powerful, eleven years old and wiping Crowley’s powers out like it was nothing – and this was without him even knowing what he was doing. Made you wonder whether he could take on Apocalypse, weaken him long enough for the rest of them to… lock him up again.
This could be good.
If they all lived through it, he could stew over the ethics of dragging kids onto a mutant battlefield – and hey, he wouldn’t be the only one. Anathema Device was running a school for it.
“I need to get into your dad’s work,” Crowley admitted to Warlock, “So I looked at his computer.” That reminded him to check on the upload’s progress, so he returned to the desk as he spoke. It was done – so Crowley logged out, cleared the history and with a few keystrokes, set up a system restore for twenty four hours prior.
“Figures,” Warlock muttered.
“What does?” Crowley glanced to the kid as he cleared the desk of the other papers he’d dug out, notebook and Blackberry, holding onto the phone but putting everything else back in the drawers.
Crowley straightened. “Does your dad know you’re a mutant?”
Warlock’s eyes widened and for a split second, the shapeshifter saw the shadow of real fear cross his face – more afraid now than he was finding a stranger in his dad’s office. “I’m not a mutant.”
Crowley wrinkled his nose. “Pretty sure you are.”
“Ooookay.” He could probably let it go, but he’d already been caught. If he wanted to persuade an eleven year old not to rat him out to his parents, he needed leverage. “I am. Wanna see?”
Warlock’s brow furrowed, chin jutting out and fingers curling around his hand-held console like a shield. He looked apprehensive, distrustful, but curious He didn’t say no. He didn’t scream bloody murder. This was going better than Crowley expected, considering he was winging it.
“No cameras in here, right?”
Warlock frowned. “No.”
“Good.” Crowley held up a hand. “Stay there, yeah?”
Crowley ignored the question to reach across the desk and flick on the lamp instead. It threw the room into sharp relief and gave him a better look at Warlock, no longer backlit by the corridor. He pushed off from the desk and stepped further away from the kid, slipping out of his range of influence. The eyes went first, as they always did, teeth and tongue, his shirt and trousers reappeared and he untied the coat to demonstrate. Not showy enough for Warlock. So Crowley dug deep into his fondest memories of Mary Poppins. His hair lengthened and curled tight against the nape of his neck, his trousers dissolving into a pencil skirt and stockings, and as she finished up, it reminded her how much she missed pumps.
“Nanny,” Warlock breathed the word like a bad word.
Crowley arched a brow over her sunglasses, pursing red lips to mask her smile. She decided not to point out to Warlock that he remembered her after all. She shifted into the chef next, and then into Warlock himself, his father’s coat pooling on the floor at his feet. The kid’s eyes were wide as saucers, all pretense of disinterest gone.
“You look just like me.”
“Yep.” Crowley rocked back on his heels, looking smug. He didn’t shift into kids very often – and when he was young, he learned how to mimic adults to protect himself – so it felt strange but talk about a showstopper, eh? Better than a moviestar or musician. “I can look like anyone.”
“That’s your power?”
Crowley shed the pre-teen body and shifted back into Nanny. She liked to think she had a great many powers but if they were speaking strictly of mutation... “Yes.”
Warlock thought about that for a moment, then- “What’s mine?”
“Gimme a sec.” Crowley drew the coat closed, buttoned up from the waist down and tied it tightly, then gestured Warlock over with a crook of her scarlet nail. The kid drew closer and as he stepped within range, Crowley returned to his masculine-presenting human form.
Warlock hesitated, standing across from him. “What happened to your shirt?”
“It wasn’t a real shirt.” Crowley didn’t usually explain that his clothes were an extension of his powers, something he made out of his own DNA. He pursed his lips, trying to think of a good way to get it across to a kid, “More of an… extra layer of skin. I made it into a shirt.”
“It’s free.” Crowley was a better designer than half the rubbish they sold in stores.
Warlock didn’t look impressed. “You didn’t tell me what my power is.”
“You’re using it right now,” Crowley said, pointing to himself, “The reason I look like this is because of you. You’re negating my powers.”
“Yeah. You probably don’t even realize you’re doing it.” Defense mechanism, maybe.
Warlock frowned. “How do I know you’re not doing it?”
“I’m not wearing trousers, Warlock,” Crowley reminded him impatiently, “Why would I want to do that?”
“I dunno,” defensiveness edged into Warlock’s voice, “You’re weird.”
Crowley opened his mouth to protest, then closed it and shrugged. “I’ll give you that,” he admitted, “But I didn’t want to get caught tonight.” Especially not by his former ward. Without any pants on.
Warlock squinted. “So my power is to turn your power off?”
“Not just mine, I’d wager,” Crowley replied, “Any mutant.”
“I once knew a bloke who sweated acid so...” Crowley sniffed, “...could always be worse.” The kid didn’t so much as scoff, or grimace, at the thought of getting saddled with a mutation like that. The shapeshifter felt a pang of sympathy and he tried again, “Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but flash is overrated.”
Warlock still looked disappointed – but now that was tempered with confusion. Better. At least he was looking up at Crowley again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re powerful. You don’t need the bells and whistles,” sparkles and glowing, all flash did was distract people – and he knew that better than most, “In a room full of mutants, you’d be the strongest one there. A lot of ‘em rely on their powers too much – like me, see? Without even trying, you knocked me on my arse, Warlock,” Crowley snapped his fingers to demonstrate how quickly it had happened too, disrupted his whole night and left him naked and confused, “I’m practically at your mercy.”
Warlock seemed to be listening. He almost grinned. Crowley didn’t lie to kids (withholding wasn’t lying), so everything he said was true. Negating a mutant’s abilities disoriented them, made them vulnerable, because most of them had forgotten what it felt like to be human. To be powerless.
Warlock’s ghost of a smile faded, the corners of his lips dipping low. “My dad doesn’t like mutants.”
“I know.” Crowley didn’t have much else to say – nothing flattering about Thaddeus Dowling, that was for sure. But it did give him an opening- “Warlock,” the boy looked up at him, “I need you not to tell your dad that I was here. I’m trusting you to keep my secret.”
Warlock seemed to consider that, “Are you gonna hurt him?”
Crowley blinked. “No.”
A piercing alarm echoed through the corridor and Crowley snapped his mouth shut short of securing a more enthusiastic promise out of Warlock. He crossed the office – barefoot – and peered out into the hallway. Even after the sound died out, his ears were ringing. “What the hell was that?”
The answer came from outside – distantly, Crowley could hear shouting. He swore again, and spun around to face Warlock. “Stay here, yeah?” The shapeshifter realized he wouldn’t be coming back tonight but- “I’ve gotta go, but I’ll see you tomorrow. Come to the garden after supper.” Warlock didn’t say if he’d be there but Crowley knew he’d just dumped a revelation on a kid who had no one else to talk to, so he owed him… more than the fifty quid for the borrowed coat. Especially if he had to kidnap him later.
Crowley let himself out the front door and gave one last glance over his shoulder at Warlock, who looked – in that moment – so much like the six year old he once was that it made the shapeshifter grimace. There was another reason to come back tomorrow. Crowley had given the two week notice to the parents back then but when it came to explaining things to Warlock… he didn’t do right by the kid.
Hell, he could get maudlin about it later. Crowley pulled the door shut and ambled down the steps and into the grass. His clothes and shoes formed beneath the coat and now that he’d well and truly put some distance between himself and Warlock, he felt like himself again. In an oversized coat.
Aziraphale was getting handcuffed by the front gate. There were two security guards with him, one doing the cuffing and the other one with a hand hovering over his hip holster. American. It wasn’t that he was necessarily worried about someone pointing a gun at Aziraphale – it was the manhandling that pissed him off. Crowley took the driveway down, easier to mask his footsteps on asphalt than the whisper of grass rubbing up against his legs. He caught snatches of words, Aziraphale’s protests, his insistence that it was a misunderstanding that led him to trespass on private property, and no, as a matter of fact he didn’t see the sign, and would someone mind loosening the handcuffs just a smidge?
Crowley slipped behind the guard with his hand on the gun, eyeing the one with the handcuffs in profile long enough to shift into him. A slow smile curled unfamiliar lips – he wouldn’t take them for granted again, these powers – and he wrapped his right arm around the guard’s neck, digging his fingers into the curve of his shoulder. The stiffening realization that he was being choked by an unseen assailant cost the human precious seconds and Crowley pressed his left arm to the back of his head, locked his grip, and pressed.
The sound of struggling, the slap of the human’s hands against his arm, frantically scrabbling for purchase, drew the attention of the second guard. He twisted around and his eyes widened at the sight of a doppelganger – himself – choking out his colleague. Crowley grinned widely, teeth sharpening, doubling, mouth spreading wider than humanly possible, eyes blazing yellow. The skin flashed scaly and bloody, and as the body sagged in his arms, the other guard swore and staggered backwards, stumbling into the wall.
Aziraphale turned around, hands bound behind his back. “My dear.”
“Angel,” Crowley released the unconscious human, swiping the gun from his holster before dropping him to the ground. He pushed the magazine release and removed it, pulled the slide back and ejected the cartridge. All this seemed to remind the other guard that he was armed, but before he managed to pull the revolver out of his holster, Crowley chucked the empty gun at him. It smacked the human in the head and he toppled over like a sack of potatoes.
“I thought I told you to stay with the car,” Crowley said, crouching down by the nearest human. He searched his pockets for the keys, jerking his head to the side. Aziraphale turned around and Crowley let him out of the handcuffs.
“You said it would only take ten minutes, I- thank you dear,” Aziraphale gave him a grateful look, rubbing his wrists absently, and Crowley shrugged it off. “I was… ah, rescuing you.”
A smile twitched on his lips, amused. “Were you?”
“Hmm,” Crowley followed Aziraphale’s troubled gaze to the body on the ground, and he nudged it with his foot, “He’s still alive. I only cut off his air. Practically knocked himself out,” panicking and whatnot.
“I see.” Aziraphale could have healed the would-be bruises around the guard's neck if he’d wanted to, but Crowley was pleased that he didn't, “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Crowley made a face. “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you in the car.” The shapeshifter strolled past the bodies to the gate, waving his hand in front of the motion sensor. It opened for them – and it occurred to him that there wasn’t a sensor on the other side. Easy to leave, hard to get in unless… a thought occurred to him, and he stopped, “Did you scale the wall?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
Crowley grinned, slipping back into his own body. “I would have liked to see that.”
“I’m rather glad that you didn’t,” Aziraphale looked flustered, “It was… ah, strenuous.”
Crowley hummed in response, sauntering through the open gate and back to the car. “Keys?” Aziraphale gave them back to him with a questioning look, no doubt noticing the new coat. It was a good thing they had a drive ahead of them; this would give Crowley the chance to tell Aziraphale what happened (while skipping over the worst and most embarrassing parts of his adventure inside the Dowling Estate). And for all that, he hadn’t even looked at the contents of the harddrive or the Blackberry, so here was hoping it wasn’t for nothing.
One of my favorite mutant tidbits is that shapeshifters walk around naked. Their powers don't allow them to manipulate matter that isn't part of them, so they create their clothes out of themselves (this way it can be manipulated to look like the target's clothing). It seems like it'd get chilly, but their bodies adapt for temperature fluctuations as well. Nifty powers!
Chapter 6: Interlude: The Horsemen
War, Famine and Pollution are recruited by Apocalypse.
cw for veiled references to abuse and violence, death (not of MCs).
Bir Tawil (No Man’s Land), North Africa
Carmine Zuigiber had known anger her entire life.
From her parents to her classmates, she found herself on the receiving end of it for years. She had a miserable childhood, one she would not wish on her worst enemy, and this stunted her powers. She was a powerful empath – but limited. She could sense, manipulate and exacerbate feelings of rage, fear, anxiety and resentment, forcing her targets to act on their worst instincts. But she had never mastered the ability to read love, hope, trust, joy or any constellation of those pure and happy sentiments. Carmine’s powers gave her purpose and protection, but desensitized and alienated her from the pain of others. She was a ruthless, cynical and uncompassionate individual with an unparalleled vindictive streak. It was this profound lack of empathy that drove her monetize her talents, offering to destabilize peace talks and incite conflict on behalf of those who were willing to pay for it.
Today, Carmine was on a job. Her gaze slid from soldier to soldier, the slick grip of fingers wrapped around semi-automatic weapons, muscles twitching, barely contained violence in their eyes. Mistrust, doubt and dissatisfaction borne out of years of fear and suffering, revenge passed down through generations. There was so much anger and resentment among them. A slip of paper with three signatures was not enough to dissolve that pit of rage throbbing in each one of them. It reminded her of a story she’d heard as a child – swallowed watermelon seeds bursting inside of you.
“It is good that a member of the world press is here to see us sign the peace accord.”
Carmine held up her badge, a laminate hanging from a lanyard against her jacket, smiling at the king, the prime minister, and the supreme leader. They turned away from her towards their mediator and with a nudge, began to argue amongst themselves about who should sign the peace treaty first.
He stepped into the tent and Carmine lost focus, swiveling where she stood. Her eyes widened. He was well over seven feet tall, square jawed and blue-skinned beneath a dark cowl and heavy robes. His lips were an even darker shade of blue and his eyes were white, weighted with age. The way he looked at her made Carmine want to squirm – like he could see into her, the deepest, ugliest parts of her.
“Who are you?”
Carmine had forgotten about the humans in the tent but she heard the sound of their guns, half-raised, cocked, and felt a flash of annoyance. For his part, the man in the cloak didn’t acknowledge them.
“My child,” he greeted her in a gravel-deep voice, rumbling low and soft in his chest, “Why do you allow them exploit your power?”
Carmine swallowed. “Pays the bills.”
“No longer.” The man drew a steel sword from a black and gold scabbard, hidden in the folds of his robes – it was beautiful, she thought. It gleamed against the interior of the tent and to Carmine’s surprise, he offered it to her, balanced perfectly in his palm, twice the size of her own.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Making you stronger.”
Carmine reached for the sword, uncertain and wary, until her fingertips brushed the hilt. Her body went rigid as his power flowed from the weapon into her. It burned through her, skin tight and tingling, and she shuddered through gritted teeth, sucking in breath after breath. The pain passed and with it all of Carmine’s doubts. Rage sang in her veins, a bloodthirsty, infectious fury that slaughtered armies on the battlefield, angry mobs in the streets, barely contained and in need of an outlet. Tightening her grip on the sword, she felt the weight in her hand and sliced a figure eight into the air, twisting her wrist to hear the swishing sound of metal cutting through the air, thick with the promise of violence.
“Put it down.”
Carmine’s gaze flicked from the sword to the voice and she smiled wide and scarlet-lipped. “That’s not gonna happen, is it?” she drawled with certainty, eyes flashing red with purpose, “Duty calls.” Carmine understood she had a greater purpose, and He had shown her the way. She turned back to the mutant in the cowl, exchanging one wordless look, and she followed him out of the tent. Stepping over the threshold, she let the power engulf her, and an uncontrollable rage overtook the humans, causing them to turn their guns on one another. Then there was silence.
New York, New York
Dr. Raven Sable had a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Harvard University and an MBA from NYU. In addition to his fitness empire, consisting of several celebrity-endorsed books, videos and smartphone apps for D-Plan Dieting, he owned a chain of five star restaurants. In school, Raven had majored in nutritional science in an effort to understand himself. From the age of twelve, he had been unable to enjoy food. In fact, he couldn’t even consume it. His parents were the first to notice. He was always hungry but each time they tried to force him to eat, he threw it up again. His mutation had fundamentally altered his body’s needs, and he was hungry. Sustenance came in the form of touching other people, draining them of nutrients and good health to supplement his own.
His childhood was marked by dozens of hospital visits, doctors who could not explain what was wrong with him. Countless needless, inconclusive blood tests, IVs that made him sick- but in the end it made him stronger. He hid his hunger from his parents, fed on those who would not be noticed, he was careful. The hospital visits stopped and Raven went on undetected. At university, he flourished.
And now he was here.
The restaurant was sleek and minimalist – like the food – with black marble walls, white tablecloths, and a touch of bronze in the lighting. His assistant, Frannie, picked at her food while he watched – not only her, but the waiters, the bartenders, the hungry pulse of the Manhattan elite. Raven stood, adjusting his cuff links, and told Frannie to enjoy her meal. He walked through the dining room, stopping by the tables of his most recognizable VIPs and with the brush off a hand he fed from them. He skimmed the surface, just enough to stir hunger pains in their bellies, and he moved on. He enjoyed starving the rich, whose egos were so over-inflated they barely noticed what he took.
A flash of red hair caught his eye from a corner table. A woman, elbows braced on the tablecloth, was watching him, her mouth turned up into a smirk. She was wearing a red motorcycle jacket, fastened at the throat, standing out among the blacks and blues of suits and gowns. She was looking at Sable as if she knew him, but he would’ve remembered her if they’d met. She wasn’t alone at the table, but he couldn’t see the face of her companion, but he did notice he was wearing a cloak. Strange, that. Stranger still that no one else had noticed. They were deliberately not-noticing. Sable watched the glazed eyes of the waitstaff slide over the couple as if they weren’t there… compulsion?
Mutants. Sable had no love for human beings, but he had never felt an affiliation with his own kind either. They had never sought him out. He had learned what he was and navigated those powers on his own; all of this, he had done on his own. He wasn’t interested in anyone coming to him for favors or support in the name of brotherhood or whatever the hell it was these days. A table of mutants sitting down at his restaurant on the same night he happened to be there? Not a coincidence.
Sable decided to get a taste of what they wanted, so he approached their table. It was empty, clear of menus and silverware, with only the centerpiece – lilies in a glass vase – between them.
“Good evening,” he greeted the woman first with a charming smile, which faltered when he glanced to her companion. His skin was blue, his jaw broad and square, his eyes unblinking.
“Evenin’, sweet thing. I’m Red,” the woman spoke to him, extending her hand. Sable regained his composure with a tight smile and forced his gaze back to her. He took the hand and felt the press of power beneath her skin. On instinct, he reached out with his powers only to come up against a wall, tasteless and impenetrable. There was a force protecting her, shielding her life source from him. He couldn’t feed from her if he tried, and he suspected it would be the same with the man. Sable had never met anyone, human or mutant, who could resist his hunger. He let go of her quickly.
“Dr. Raven Sable,” he introduced himself smoothly. His voice did not betray him. “I suspect you aren’t here to eat..” Neither mutant denied it.
Red smirked. “Does anyone come here to eat?”
Sable inclined his head in response. The portion sizes were small and exorbitantly priced. No one left his restaurant satisfied – it was what they wanted. To be hungry. “What can I do for you?”
“This is about what we can do for you,” she said.
Sable smiled carefully. “I’m not looking for any new investors.”
“I have not come to invest in your restaurants, Dr. Raven Sable,” the man spoke to him, drawing Sable’s gaze to those unnerving white eyes.
He swallowed. “What do you want?”
“For you to feel the full reach of your power.” The man produced from his robes a small set of silver weighing scales, which he set down on the table. Raven gave him a questioning look.
“Yours,” the man intoned, “Take them.”
Sable glanced to the woman but she wasn’t watching him now. She was gazing at the man who’d spoken with something inexplicable in her eyes. He looked down at the scales once more, glittering in the candlelight, and felt himself shift forward on the balls of his feet, without intending to move at all. It did not even occur to him to turn away, the longing washed over him so suddenly, and he reached out for the balances, wrapping his hand around the fulcrum. Sable braced himself on the edge of the table with a raspy gasp, a violent shiver. He glimpsed a skewed sliver of his own reflection, his teeth bared and sharp, eyes bleeding black with power. Hunger crawled out of him and he breathed deep, nostrils flaring, and gave in to that aching need. Sable drained the room without touching them. His powers dragged the essence out of the dining room, bodies shriveling in a matter of seconds. At once, he heard the echo of so many desiccated heads striking the table, the cutlery, the plates at once.
For the first time since he could remember, Sable felt full.
The kitchen staff would find the room full of skeletal, starved bodies after he had left, along with Red and the man in the cloak. Emergency services and police would descend on scene, only to stagger out again. The CDC was called and several unnamed agents in dark suits arrived shortly thereafter. The restaurant was closed and the deaths were ruled accidental. The official story was a gas leak. The unofficial story was no story at all. The deaths could not be explained. The bodies were burned.
River Uck, East Sussex, United Kingdom
Mx White finished a job in Lagos, Nigeria and flew back to London.
They took their motorcycle – a heavily modded Kawasaki Z1000S in white – out of the parking garage at Heathrow and drove through the city. They loved to breathe in the smell of London smog, spilling out of exhaust pipes and filling the air with clouds of pollution. They loved their motorcycle, too. It still ran on dirty IV petrol, not the CNG mandatory for buses and cars. Ten times more polluting per mile than a passenger car, truck or SUV. Mx White thought it was beautiful.
In school, kids called them ‘Chalky’, teasing them for their white hair and funny eyes. Then those kids got sick and when their hair started to fall out, Chalky didn’t seem so funny-looking anymore. Eventually the school was shut down under pressure from presents, citing contaminated groundwater and vapors for their children’s health concerns. The ground and the air were poisonous. But it wasn’t because the school was built on a toxic dump. It was because of Chalky. Their parents died of cancer due to prolonged exposure to their powers. No one else in Chalky’s family wanted anything to do with them, so they went into foster care until aging out at eighteen. Chalky decided to keep the name.
They drove out of town via the M25 and the A22, a little over an hour and a half until they’d run the tank down to empty. Chalky pulled off the road and pulled off the helmet, hanging it on the handlebars and pushing the bike along the grassy verge to the riverbank. The motorcycle’s wheels crushed the grass and flowers beneath the weight but it was Chalky’s footsteps that marked the path. The soles of their white shoes were coated in an iridescent sludge that sank into the soil. Within a day the grass would be dead and those footsteps would turn yellow and brown. Nothing would grow there again.
Chalky put down the kickstand and let go of the bike, unzipping their white jacket to pull out an empty Coke bottle. Chalky unscrewed the cap and tossed it to the side, crouching on the edge of the river, shoes sinking into the muck. Chalky dipped the bottle into the water. Their fingertips skimmed the surface of the water and wherever they touched, a petrochemical sheen dribbled onto the surface. Filling the bottle, Chalky got up and sat down on a bench facing the water. Covering the open end of the bottle with two fingers, they shook it over and over again, until the contents took on a foamy, murky color, glistening. Chalky could watch it for hours, if left to their own devices.
But they were not alone.
Two people sat down on either side of Chalky, the woman in head-to-toe red leather, legs spread in a sprawl that nearly bumped her knee up against Chalky’s own, and the man in a black suit, sitting straight with perfect posture. Chalky’s shoulders slumped, relaxed and unthreatened. They held the contaminated water bottle in their lap and watched a plastic Tesco bag float past on the river.
"I like your bike," the woman said, "The adjustable suspension on the chassis is slick."
"Yes, it is," Chalky agreed.
"I'm a Ducati girl myself. Drive a sweet 1199 Panigale."
It was possible the three of them had arrived by bike and stopped off the road the way that Chalky did, but no one would leave a motorcycle like that in the verge. They would have liked to see the Panigale. It wasn't one they had ever tried out. "Where is it?"
"Angling for a joyride?"
Chalky smiled. "Perhaps."
"Not here. But I'm planning to pick it up before the fun starts. What about you?"
The man in black answered, "I prefer BMWs."
The woman in red laughed, and it sounded like a gun. The sound of her laughter rang in Chalky's ears like shell casings striking a concrete floor, long after the two of them grew silent. Chalky knew they would not forget that sound.
“What do you call yourself, my child?” The one who spoke was neither of the people sitting on the bench, and Chalky did not look away from the river. In their periphery, they noticed the figure.
“Chalky.” Their voice was soft and neutral.
“You may call me Apocalypse.”
Chalky hummed in response. “Are you going to end the world?”
“With your help, I will purify it.” Chalky’s lips twitched into a smile, amused. “Together we will cull the weak and build a new world, a better world.”
Chalky felt as if their powers had always been intended for this; they had not been close to anyone in so long, because none were strong enough to withstand the toxicity. They got sick and died. Chalky would have liked to have a world full of people like them. They had been lonely. So when the one known as Apocalypse bestowed a crown upon Chalky, they accepted it without question. Pleasure gurgled, thick and viscous, somewhere deep in their throat, and seeped deep into their bones, fingertips turning dark and mottled. This darkness spread to the crown, tarnished the silver until it shone black and dripping. Chalky set it on their head, letting the water bottle tumble from the bench. The plastic dissolved before it struck the ground, splattering black sludge in every direction. That sludge spread across the grass as if with purpose and killed it, dribbling down into the river. Chalky watched through filmy eyes as it spread. The fish began to die, bobbing to the surface like shiny baubles.
Chalky smiled at the river, and smiled to their new friends (who felt very much like old friends - and this proved to be a strange sensation for one who had never had friends). Red and Black. Now White. The three of them stood together in perfect sync, and gazed at their master with hungry eyes. They each knew now there was but one more horseman to gather – Death – and then their army would be complete.
Chapter 7: Angel of Death
Death comes to London on a Thursday.
Not to give too much away, but a cw for semi-graphic language related to growth of wings. It lasts one paragraph, and occurs in the third part of the chapter. Thanks for reading!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Eleven years ago, Aziraphale and Crowley had gotten into an argument over Crowley’s continued affiliation with the Hellfire Club (in its twenty-first century iteration) and Aziraphale had sworn not to speak to him again until he severed ties with those criminals. Properly. It had taken five years for them to get around to speaking to each other, and in all that time Crowley was still in London. Well, London-adjacent. Aziraphale had never asked what Crowley had gotten up to during their separation; he had spent most of it melancholic and isolated. It was painful to remember.
The Bentley idled in front of the bookshop and Aziraphale was quiet. He had learned a great deal in half an hour: Crowley made his own clothes and he had spent their time apart as a nanny to an American diplomat’s son. He had an entirely different life as Ms. Ashtoreth. Aziraphale had never even met her and prior to tonight, he would’ve said with confidence that he knew each and every one of Crowley’s preferred aliases. They had been friends for a very long time.
“You were a nanny for five years?”
“Yeah,” Crowley replied, “If you hadn’t been in a snit, you could’ve come with. Been the gardener. They were looking for somebody at the time.”
“I was not in a snit.”
Crowley made a non-committal noise and Aziraphale frowned. “Anyway,” he gracelessly went on, “It was a reunion. I never expected to see that kid again.”
“What in the world was so important that it took you five years to finish?” Aziraphale asked. Crowley was clearly capable of getting information together in fifteen minutes. He couldn’t imagine how involved the task must have been for his friend to dedicate five years to it.
Crowley shrugged. “The gig didn’t actually take that long, it was…" he paused, "I didn’t have anything else to do and, uh,” the shapeshifter’s voice dropped low and quiet, “I liked him.”
Aziraphale had never thought of the shapeshifter as the caregiving sort – but truthfully, Crowley might’ve been better suited for it than he was. He didn’t seek out living things, people, to take care of, not the way that Crowley did with his plants and his, er, ward. Healing the wounded, well now, that was a short-term commitment and a moral course of action, but to dedicate years of his life to someone else… Aziraphale wasn’t sure he’d ever been that way, even when he was part of a parish.
“Why did you leave then?” he asked.
Crowley didn’t speak for so long that Aziraphale thought he might not want to answer. “You rang me up,” he replied finally, “Figured it was time to sever ties with all that. Besides, he was getting to the age where he’d remember.” Crowley thought it would hurt the boy less if he left before he was old enough to understand what was happening – but children were very astute. Warlock still remembered.
Aziraphale bit the inside of his lip. “I wouldn’t have taken issue with you as a nanny...”
Crowley barked a laugh, and it came out rough. “It doesn’t matter.”
Aziraphale pressed, “But you never mentioned it.”
“You never asked.”
Aziraphale paused, considered the truth of those words, and conceded, “I suppose you’re right.” He fiddled with the buttons of his waistcoat and steadfastly ignored the weight of the shapeshifter’s gaze.
“Aziraphale.” Crowley rarely said his name, and it was always quite serious when he did. So he looked up at his friend and met his gaze which, under the murky light of the street, seemed unreadable. “What does it matter? It happened years ago. That’s not the part of the story we should be focusing on.”
“I know...” there was the matter of the harddrive and the boy with his powers, “I...” It is the end of the world and I am reminded, again, how little I know about you. “I’ve never seen your flat.”
“Your flat,” Aziraphale repeated, “You’ve been to mine more times than I can count, but I’ve never been to yours. Don’t you find that strange?”
“Not… really,” Crowley said, “It’s not as homey as yours. Didn’t think you’d be interested.”
“Well,” Aziraphale straightened in his seat, “I am.”
“Ooookay.” Crowley hesitated, then glanced at him, “Wanna come to mine then?”
“Yes-” the certainty flagged in favor of propriety, “Ah, if it’s not an imposition.”
Crowley laughed again, a surprised sound. “I think we blew past imposition,” it was true that he hadn’t been particularly tactful, but it had been a very long day- night- week. As if anticipating Aziraphale’s second thoughts, the apology on the tip of his tongue, Crowley waved it off before he even opened his mouth, pulling away from the curb and onto the street, “It’s fine. You’re being presumptuous as fuck but it’s fine.”
Aziraphale was almost certain Crowley was teasing him but he blushed all the same. This felt like a step forward, didn’t it? After all the ups and downs of this evening… “The book!”
Crowley swore but managed not to swerve anymore than usual (perhaps he was as good of a driver as he claimed to be). Aziraphale remembered halfway down the street that Anathema Device’s book and Crowley’s computer were still in his flat, and he was still under the optimistic impression that they might get some work done tonight. So Crowley pivoted in the middle of the street, nearly clipping a tourist on her smartphone, but he swung back by the bookshop. The two of them gathered their respective supplies, including a pinot noir he’d picked up in Chambolle-Musigny to share (it was the least he could do, Aziraphale reasoned, considering he’d invited himself over). Only then did they drive across town.
Crowley lived in Mayfair, and Aziraphale tried and failed to mask his dismay at the sleek and stark interior of the flat. The furniture was white. The ‘entertainment center’ was black and full of an overwhelming number of gadgets and buttons and lights Aziraphale had no interest in. The plants, however, were beautiful. Large and luxurious and verdant green, he couldn’t help but exclaim at how gorgeous they were. He cajoled his friend into describing each one to him, and despite the grousing and his very critical eye, Aziraphale thought Crowley seemed… pleased.
Aziraphale sat primly on the edge of the leather sofa. The shapeshifter spilled onto the cushions next to him with glasses in hand. He opened the pinot noir and they both enjoyed it. The conversation inevitably turned to the events at the Dowling Estate – better that than their fight at dinner, or what had been said in the car – and Aziraphale ruminated on the matter of the boy. His powers.
“What was it like?” he asked Crowley, wriggling into the sofa as best he could to find a comfortable spot – without spilling the wine. Aziraphale could not remember a time before he was aware of his powers. The closest either of them had ever been to human would have been as children.
Crowley grimaced over the rim of the glass and shook his head, “Bad.” He took a swig of wine and Aziraphale was distracted by the movement of his lips.
Crowley shook his head. “Felt…” he gesture towards a word that Aziraphale couldn’t see, settling on a substitute he didn’t seem completely satisfied with, “...trapped.” The shapeshifter scratched at his own wrist as if remembering what it was to be confined to a body that didn’t respond to him. “Powerless, that’s the point. The kid didn’t know what he was doing but if he did...” Crowley’s eyes were unfocused, peering into his half-empty glass with a gloomy expression.
“I was nothing,” he went on, ignoring Aziraphale as if he hadn’t said anything at all, “Nothing without my powers. I’ve got no clothes, no skills… even you’ve got a job and I- I don’t have anything. What would I even do, angel, if I wasn’t… me? I’d… I don’t...”Crowley couldn’t even bring himself to finish the sentence, jerking his chin up and draining the rest of the wine.
“Crowley,” this time, he said his friend’s name with a touch of firmness, not quite commanding attention but receiving it all the same, “You have a great many talents.” For all his bravado, Aziraphale suspected that Crowley did not a very high opinion of himself – which mystified him. “You are an excellent gardener,” this was a talent that had nothing to do with his being a mutant.
“The floral industry is dying,” Crowley answered morosely, “There’s been a nine percent decline each year for the past decade. I’m not gonna open a bloody shop with those numbers.”
“I didn’t tell you to open a shop,” although it sounds as if you’ve been considering it. “You’re very good with children-”
“You are artistic. You speak a dozen languages.”
“Can’t write any of ’em.”
Aziraphale ignored the insistent contrariness of Crowley in the midst of his wallowing, and replied mildly, “Together we’d be a formidable polyglot.” As it so happened, he was adept at reading and writing in several languages but he had no talent for speaking them, and his accent was atrocious.
“Together,” Crowley repeated absently, reaching for the pinot noir. He turned to refill Aziraphale’s glass only for the wine to trickle out in a sad sort of way, warranting the retrieval of a second bottle.
By the end of it, and once the two had sobered themselves up, they had spoken around the topic of Warlock Dowling and his powers – it was all hypothetical, and neither of them could outright claim that kidnapping an eleven year old and setting him up against the oldest and most powerful mutant on earth was anything short of… negligent, to say the least. They were likely to get him killed, and could they live with that? To save the world and themselves? They decided to pursue the original plan first – identify Apocalypse’s Horsemen and Anathema Device’s students, and go from there. The boy would be a last resort.
“Crowley, it’s nearly four in the morning,” Aziraphale murmured, grimacing as he sat up on the sofa. It really wasn’t made for lounging. Crowley was right about this place. Not homey at all.
“Stay.” Crowley was on his back, head dangling over the arm of the chair and one leg hooked over the back of the sofa. He looked absolutely ridiculous – how could that be comfortable?
“Spend the night here.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale had intended to ask Crowley to give him a lift home – although, if he didn’t feel up to it, “I can call a taxi, my dear. I wouldn’t want to put you out...”
“Not putting me out,” Crowley rolled his neck forward and lifted his head to look at Aziraphale, yellow eyes remarkably clear, “Don’t be stupid. We’ll be up in five hours. Might as well stay.”
Aziraphale could have pushed the subject, insisted, and Crowley would have let him go. But he realized he didn’t particularly wish to. Although he did wonder… “Please don’t take this wrong way, but where exactly would I sleep? This sofa is...” terrible.
“It’s not meant for sitting.”
“Oh, of course not,” Aziraphale replied dryly, “God forbid the sofa serve such a purpose.”
Crowley rolled his eyes. “There is such a thing as aesthetic value, angel.” He liked the look. Aziraphale was not impressed by that justification – furniture without a practical design, it was absurd. Crowley shimmied into a proper sitting position next to him and said, “The bed’s the only thing I actually use. It should meet your standards. C’mon.” Crowley unfolded his long limbs from the sofa and led Aziraphale into the adjoining room. It was as minimalist as the rest of the apartment, with the exception of the king-sized four poster bed in the middle of the room. There were fewer pillows than the bed at his own apartment, and the sheets were black, but as he took a seat on the edge of Crowley’s behest, Aziraphale was pleasantly surprised by the soft give of the mattress underneath him. The sheets were soft. His were comfortable and well-worn, faded cream and light blue, and he had owned them for a century, but Crowley’s were smooth and silky. Aziraphale’s first thought was... how luxurious.
“Well?” Crowley plopped on the bed next to him.
Aziraphale smiled at his friend. “It’s lovely.”
“The full Crowley experience.”
“Quite an advertisement,” a thought occurred to him. “Where will you sleep?”
Crowley blinked, his smirk disappearing. He shrugged, pushing himself to his feet. “Sofa.”
Aziraphale frowned but he wasn’t brave enough to ask the shapeshifter to stay. There was nothing untoward with sharing a bed, just to sleep, especially one so large - but it felt very much like crossing a line. The results of their disastrous dinner still stung, and Aziraphale was afraid of overstepping again. So instead he asked, “Would you happen to have a nightshirt I could borrow?”
Crowley dug a pair of black silk pajamas out of his wardrobe – the only pair he owned, apparently, on account of the fact that he often made his own (or slept nude). Aziraphale smiled his thanks and set the clothes down on the bed. He began to unbutton his waistcoat and Crowley excused himself, pulling the door shut behind him. Aziraphale folded his clothes neatly and set them aside, changing into the nightshirt and trousers. The silk flowed over his fingertips in the most delightful way, and Aziraphale enjoyed the texture of it against his skin far too much.
The trousers were a bit tight around the thighs but Aziraphale didn’t want to seem ungrateful. The only reason they fit at all was because Crowley was fond of loose pajamas (in contrast to the rest of his wardrobe).
Aziraphale washed up and took his time to admire the bathroom and the bedroom properly, places he had never seen before. He came to the conclusion that while it was certainly stylish, it didn’t feel like Crowley. This, in turn, made Aziraphale wonder if perhaps it was Crowley and he simply didn’t know his friend well enough to see the resemblance. With a sigh, he decided to go to sleep – before the melancholy got the best of him. So Aziraphale crossed the bedroom and opened the door, smiling to see the top of Crowley’s red head on the sofa – where he said he’d be.
“You need something?” Crowley craned his neck to look at him, the question fading in his voice. He looked at Aziraphale for a long moment, blinked and swallowed.
Aziraphale resisted the urge to tug at the pajamas, feeling self-conscious, and shook his head. “No, nothing,” he replied, summoning his most convincing smile, “I only… wanted to say thank you, again for the hospitality,” Crowley waved off the gratitude, “And to wish you a good night.”
“Good night, angel.”
Aziraphale felt a tension strum in the air between them, filling the silence between Crowley’s words and his own uncertainty, but he didn’t know what it meant or how he ought to respond to it. So he forced a tremulous smile of his own and closed the bedroom door, leaning against it with a sigh. He shuffled over to the bed and pulled back the covers, wriggling beneath them and turning out the light. Aziraphale rolled onto his side and pressed his face into the pillow, imagining that it smelled just a bit like Crowley. It was the last thought he had before he drifted off to sleep.
The next morning he woke up to crepes (with crème fraiche and a plate of strawberries, as promised). After a shower, change of clothes and breakfast, he and Crowley spent the day working. Aziraphale sat on the sofa with Anathema Device’s book and a notepad and Crowley dragged a truly audacious excuse for a chair into the living room (as opposed to working in his office), draping himself over it with his computer in his lap.
Over dinner, they shared their respective findings and Crowley announced that he’d ‘hacked’ the diplomat’s schedule and would be going to the American embassy in the morning. Aziraphale offered to come along as moral support, but Crowley refused – he hadn’t proven to be particularly adept at staying in the car, apparently. Instead, the shapeshifter promised to swing by the shop as soon as he’d finished. Aziraphale grudgingly agreed, if only because he knew he wouldn’t much help in the embassy. It wasn’t as if Crowley hadn’t done nefarious and dangerous things on his own, but often Aziraphale didn’t know about them until after the fact. This ‘having all the facts beforehand’ business made him anxious.
Crowley dropped him at home and begged off coming in for a nightcap, citing his promise to Warlock Dowling. He was determined to pop in on his former charge, confident in his ability to get in and out unnoticed (provided he took another vehicle in lieu of his very familiar Bentley). Aziraphale had objected to this as well, and he fretted over his friend well into the night, hovering by the phone until he couldn’t stand the silence any longer. He decided to ring Crowley on his mobile, determined to do something, but the blasted phone wouldn’t work. He picked it up and the receiver was silent. He fiddled with the contraption for close to a minute before it occurred to him to check the wall - ah, there was the issue.
Grumbling to himself, Aziraphale crouched down in an undignified manner behind his desk to find the cord and plug it into the socket. The moment he did, the phone rang. Aziraphale jumped, startled by the sound, and pushed himself to his feet. He lifted the receiver and held it up to his ear with an apprehensive, “Yes?”
“It’s Anathema Device.”
“Oh,” the disappointment was evident in his voice, before Aziraphale caught himself, “Good evening, Anathema. I must say, your timing is spot on.” He had only just plugged the phone in.
“I know. Have you had a chance to look at the book?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale replied, and he realized that now was as good a time as any to speak with the headmistress. He had been planning on it, “I was hoping to discuss something else with you.”
“You want to know about my students?”
Aziraphale blinked. “Er, yes,” it was a bit uncanny, her intuition, “You mentioned the other night that you suspected Apocalypse had designs on one of them. Do you happen to know which one?”
Anathema was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “I’m not comfortable discussing this over the phone. We live in a surveillance state, you know. They monitor everything we say.”
“Come to the Institute and you can meet him. Sooner rather than later.”
“Yes. I know I said Friday but I think…” she paused, a weighty silence stretching between them, “You should come to Tadfield now, Aziraphale. I’m worried about you.”
“Ah,” he smiled weakly, and tried to joke, “That doesn’t bode well.”
“It doesn’t,” she agreed, “Look, I don’t know how to say this in a way that won’t freak you out but I’ve been getting the same card all day – it’s Death. And I think it’s in London.”
“Oh.” Death. Aziraphale swallowed uneasily, shifting the receiver of the phone from one shoulder to the other. “And you think…?”
“You need to get out of London.”
Aziraphale nodded to himself. “Alright,” the mention of Death made him nervous and he sought a discreet way to end the conversation, “I appreciate your call.” Ms. Device seemed to understand implicitly, and excused herself. Aziraphale nodded along to the words with a tight, grateful smile, “We’ll be in touch, Ms. Device- Anathema. Thank you.” He put down the receiver, then picked it up again and dialed Crowley’s number.
The shapeshifter answered on the first ring and Aziraphale released a slow sigh of relief. He was clearly driving but he sounded better – which Aziraphale could only assume meant his meeting with the boy went well. And of course, he hadn’t gotten himself caught by the estate security. Aziraphale told Crowley what it was Anathema had said to him, and that he was disinclined to doubt her.
“Getting all four horsemen together isn’t great news,” Crowley grimaced over the phone, “But at least we know he hasn’t done it yet.”
Aziraphale took a breath. “Crowley, I’m not sure about this embassy plan of yours.”
"The timing is... inopportune."
"There's an opportune time for Apocalypse?"
"No, of course not," Aziraphale sighed, "I didn't mean-"
"I've got a three hour window on Thursday,” Crowley protested, “Get in, get out with the data we need." He made it sound so easy.
Aziraphale adjusted his reading glasses on his nose out of nervous habit, “It seems too much like tempting fate-” tempting Death, as it were, which frankly sounded much riskier, “What if the reason Ms. Device called was to stop you from doing exactly that?”
“Then she should’ve said so,” Crowley was on the verge of another rant about how he detested what he called the ‘vaguebooking’ of psychics. Aziraphale wasn’t sure what it meant, but he understood that clairvoyance was not an exact science – a great source of frustration to Crowley.
Aziraphale soldiered on, “I’m sure she is doing her best. She did call to warn us.” Crowley scoffed wordlessly in response, a grunt of a sound. “We could go on to Tadfield tonight.”
“Go in blind? That’s what you want to do?”
“Well, no, I just-”
“Look, angel, Death isn’t coming for us. Apocalypse is coming for them, whoever the poor bastard is,” Aziraphale agreed this was likely true and yet... “I’ll go first thing in the morning and pick you up afterwards.” It went back and forth between them for some time, but Crowley was determined not to be scared off by the word of Anathema Device or the prospect of a fourth horseman found. He had a plan.
Aziraphale was not comforted and long after they had hung up, he puttered around his shop nervously. He scarcely slept at all, feeling that now more than ever he needed to know the exact details of Apocalypse’s initial defeat at the hands of his own followers. Therein lay the key. Unfortunately, for all its detail in some respects, the visions were frustratingly vague with regard to instruction.
The next morning, Crowley phoned him from outside of the embassy at eight o’clock, checking in one last time. He promised to buy lunch when it was over.
Aziraphale did not open the shop. He did not have the nerve to deal with customers at the moment, and instead he spent his morning nursing a cup of cocoa and worrying. The minutes dragged on until just after eleven. Aziraphale heard the sound of a door opening and closing, the faint ting of the bell, and he stood up. Relief flooded his body and he rushed out of the backroom, “Crowley?”
Thank God, he thought, I’ve been worried about you all-
It was not Crowley.
En Sabah Nur was standing in his shop. Aziraphale did not need to be clairvoyant to recognize him. He was a large mutant, towering over him by over a foot, and his cloak hung over his shoulders in such a way as to emphasize his breadth. He was… intimidating, and his aura – if you could call it that – pressed against Aziraphale’s mind. Aziraphale didn’t think it was intentional; he was simply so powerful that it seeped out of him, impossible to ignore. He was flanked by three individuals dressed in red, black and white, and Aziraphale could only assume these were horsemen.
“Hello, Aziraphale.” Apocalypse had the voice of a man who, even if its softness, was made for booming proclamations and commands. It was unsettling to hear his name from those lips.
“Hello.” His voice pitched higher than normal but it didn’t shake, and at least he articulated one word that was not a curse. Fuck. Fuck. Should he run? Where would he run? The only way out was up and he didn’t fancy himself faster on the stairs than the foursome before him. “I’m afraid the shop is closed,” he managed in his least quavering voice, slowly edging around the register.
Aziraphale braced himself against the counter top, biting back a whimper at the crushing power of that voice in his head, the weight of centuries bearing down on the command, silencing his panic. He squeezed his eyes shut and struggled to push Apocalypse out of his mind, but he might as well have been a fly smacking against a cement wall. He understood, in an instant, that Apocalypse now knew everything that he knew: Anathema Device and her book of visions, Crowley’s account of what he’d found at the Dowling Estate, including the boy, and every word exchanged...
Apocalypse finished his excavation and retreated from Aziraphale’s mind, releasing it. The ease with which the other mutant had entered his mind and rifled through his memories like pages in a book impressed upon Aziraphale the fact that Apocalypse could, just as easily, have ripped it apart, stripped his mind bare, peeled it open and left him a drooling mess on the floor. Aziraphale sagged against the register and blinked back tears.
Your arrogance is commendable.
Aziraphale wouldn’t call it arrogance but he understood how Apocalypse might interpret this: that he and Crowley had deigned to imagine a turn of events in which they succeeded, it was nothing short of… hubris. ignorance. delusion. “Hope,” he whispered to the voice in his head. It was hope.
“Hope will not save them.”
Desperation clawed out of Aziraphale’s chest and into the back of his throat, strangling and sour. There was no element of surprise – had there ever been? - only a last attempt at reason. Aziraphale knew the outcome before the words left him, “There doesn’t have to be a war.”
“Peace does nothing to enhance mutants’ powers, to force them to evolve into the strong.”
“I’ll drink to that,” one of the horsemen said. Her hair was a shocking scarlet-red, blending with her clothing. Aziraphale did not find it appealing at all, nor did he appreciate the fact that she unzipped her leather jacket, pulled out a package of Sterling cigarettes and a red lighter. She put the cigarette between her lips and Aziraphale grew increasingly irate at the prospect of her smoking in his bookshop. It was almost offensive enough to distract him from his precarious situation.
“You could let evolution take its natural course,” Aziraphale insisted, voice just shy of plaintive, gaze meeting Apocalypse’s briefly before he averted it to the side.
“I am the natural course.” Coexistence with human stock has made you soft, Angel.
Aziraphale flinched. “Don’t call me that.” There was real anger in his voice, a sharpness that rippled surprise through the horsemen. They had taken one look at this frumpy bookseller and dismissed him; his fighting days were long behind him – if he had ever had any. “Put that cigarette out.”
The red-headed woman raised a brow. “You’re a fussy thing, aren’t you?” she spoke around a cloud of smoke, spitefully exhaled in his direction.
“Do as he says,” Apocalypse murmured. Annoyance flashed across her features but the horseman obeyed. She dropped the cigarette to the floor and stepped on it, a very deliberate twist of her ankle grinding the tip into ash with the heel of her boot. Smoke hung in the air between them.
Aziraphale looked up at En Sabah Nur. He couldn’t bring himself to say ‘thank you’ but he could feel the inevitability of his fate closing in on him like a noose. “Please don’t do this.”
“It is already done,” Apocalypse replied, “I have judged this world and found it wanting. The weak will perish, the strong will thrive. That has always been the way of Apocalypse.”
“You have no right to judge.”
“I have the only right.” Aziraphale sensed in the cadence of words a trace of anger, of defensiveness, and he realized he had pressed his button as the saying went. “I am a god.”
“You are not my god.”
Apocalypse knew this to be true. He had been inside of Aziraphale’s head and knew exactly what he thought of him: a powerful mutant, yes, but a man on a power trip. He was not a deity. “Not yet.”
Apocalypse advanced on Aziraphale who instinctively retreated, inching along the wall of his shop in the desperate hope he might reach the back room and miraculously be granted a thirty second reprieve to… call Crowley. To tell him to stay away from this place and to warn the others…
“I have something for you, Aziraphale.”
“There is nothing you have that I want.” Aziraphale’s fingers brushed against the hinge in the door and he knew he had reached the threshold. He understood he would never make it but he couldn’t not try, so he turned and he ran- tried to run. Apocalypse allowed him two steps before stretching out his hand and holding Aziraphale in place. It was effortless, and Aziraphale was again reminded of an insect.
Do not fight me.
Aziraphale disobeyed but for all his struggling, beads of sweat collecting on his brow, muscles contracted tight, he couldn’t move. Apocalypse bestowed his gift unwillingly. He pierced Aziraphale’s flesh with wordless power and pulled at his skeleton, forming new bones beneath skin and muscle, dragging them out of his flesh like splinters. Aziraphale began to scream, and he screamed and screamed and screamed as the pain swept every conscious thought from his mind. His knees buckled, and Apocalypse allowed him to crumple to the ground, head dropping down between hunched shoulders. His back bled and tore itself apart, jagged, hollow bones breaking through skin. His shirt, vest and cloak were shredded in the insistent scrabbling of those bones to escape the confines of his clothing, flaring wide and spidery behind him, dripping in blood. Layers of skin and muscle stretched over the bones and the feathers followed, prickling as they burst from newly formed follicles.
Rise. The pain subsided to a whisper as the Angel’s body was bathed in light, knitting itself together around the wings attached to his shoulders and back. It left him with absolute clarity. He understood the Great Plan. His master spoke again inside his head. Rise, my angel. Ungainly at first, unused to the weight of this gift, the Angel stumbled to his feet, gripping the edge of the doorframe for balance. He turned where he stood and raised pale eyes to meet his master’s.
“You will lead the Horsemen into battle.”
“Come,” his master beckoned him forward to join them, and the Angel left the bookshop. He understood implicitly where he was meant to go, and did not look back. He did not see War light a second cigarette, and flick it into the building. He did not see Pollution open their palm and with a breath, blow the cigarette into a blaze. The Horsemen departed, and the bookshop burned.
A thousand cookies for those of you who predicted this: indeed, Apocalypse is snatching up and brainwashing our very own angel to complete his foursome. This is a strong deviation from Good Omens canon, of course, but Angel is one of the Horsemen in a handful of Apocalypse arcs.
Chapter 8: Into the Fire
Crowley discovers the bookshop on fire - and no Aziraphale to be found.
cw for non explicit suicidal thoughts.
Crowley strode out of the American embassy, a glass cube swathed in sails of plastic, set on a plinth and surrounded by a pond on the edge of the River Thames. It was the sort of shiny, ostentatious structure – with a moat - you’d expect from an American architectural firm. Truth be told, the building grew on Crowley, the more it aggravated Aziraphale each time they drove past it. Constructed with solar panels, its unusual facade served a purpose: minimizing solar gain and glare, while still allowing natural light into the building. It also shifted in color based on the position of the sun. Crowley decided that it was innovative and slick. Aziraphale thought it was a hideous eyesore.
Crowley researched the building just so that he could drop architectural trivia neither of them cared about into conversation, provoking Aziraphale into an argument that would end with them laughing, drinking- and last time it was the transparent ETFE film they used on the embassy’s laminate glazing, which Crowley pointed out was the same plastic used for the bio-domes in the UK’s Eden Project. Aziraphale gave him a look that managed to be both exasperated and perplexed.
“And what, pray tell, is the Eden Project?”
Crowley hadn’t thought this far ahead. He figured Aziraphale would reject the idea of a modern, plastic-encased attempt at Eden right off the bat, but instead he almost seemed curious. Crowley gave it a real answer. "World’s largest indoor rainforest, or so they say. Down in Cornwall.”
“That sounds fascinating.”
“Yeah.” It was built in the mid-90s, opened in 2001, and Crowley had always intended to visit. “They built it in a big crater.” The project hosted concerts, special events, educational and therapy programmes. Horticulture for people with depression and social anxiety. Crowley liked that. “We should go see it,” he suggested on impulse, “Drive down this weekend. What do you think?”
Aziraphale agreed and so they went. It was a good weekend. Crowley found plants he had never seen before – jade vines from the Philippines, pink Chilean bellflowers, wild plantains from the Neotropics, South African sprawling shrubs, and desert-dwelling Brazilian Carnauba palms. The humidity was miserable inside the biome, but miserable in a way they both enjoyed. No way they’d be sweating their way back to London though, so they spent the night at a hotel.
Separate rooms, of course. He was thinking about making it an annual thing. After they stuffed Apocalypse back in his box, they could get out of town for a few days. Crowley’s gait shifted the further he walked from the pavilion, losing Thaddeus Dowling’s lumber and easing into his own natural swagger. It didn’t look as good in the American’s body, no surprises there. He rounded the corner to find the Bentley, parked in one of the few blind spots between the embassy and Sainsbury’s.
Dropping the diplomat’s disguise, Crowley shifted into himself and reached for his sunglasses on the dashboard. The engine turned over and he pulled onto the road. One hand on the wheel, he leaned over to the glove box to rummage around for his mobile. His fingers brushed sleek, cool metal and he touched the microphone icon in the corner of the screen. “Call Aziraphale,” he said.
The phone thumped against the passenger’s seat. “Calling Aziraphale.”
Drumming his fingers on the curve of the wheel, Crowley frowned sideways at his display. Calling Aziraphale blinked on the screen but the phone wasn’t ringing-
“We’re sorry. The number you have entered has been temporarily disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please hang up and try your call again.”
Crowley swore and the Bentley lurched to the side, rolling up onto the curb and nearly taking out a cyclist in a yellow vest. He only vaguely acknowledged the startled cry, jerking the wheel in the opposite direction. He tried Aziraphale again, same message, and a third time – he dialed the number, no change. He tried their Thai restaurant and the call went through; it wasn’t the mobile phone network. Had Aziraphale unplugged his landline again? He was so worked up about the embassy Crowley half-expected him to be ringing off the hook. Then again, Crowley did say he’d come by the shop, no reason to call. Maybe the psychic tried to ring him again or a proper telemarketer this time…
The Bentley sped through two intersections on a red light, running over the white line separating lanes of traffic to swerve between two red buses, weaving and slipping between cars in the rain. He turned onto Aziraphale’s street and saw the smoke pouring out of the corner shop through the fog of his windshield. Men in yellow vests were on the sidewalk, urging pedestrians with umbrellas onto side streets and setting up barricades. Yellow flames burst out of the first and second floor windows, the whole damn thing was on fire. Crowley slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car.
“Are you the owner of this establishment?”
Crowley answered the question with one of his own and didn’t wait for an answer – no, he didn’t look like he ran a bloody bookshop –and shoved open the front doors to the sound of shouting. He barely touched the doorknob and the metal still burned the hell out of his hand, and Crowley shook it off with an irritated flick of his wrist, charging into the middle of the shop.
“Aziraphale!” Crowley broke into a cough on the last syllable, making the mistake of sucking in hot, smoky hair that made him gag. Fuck. “Az-” he couldn’t fucking breathe, “-Azi-rapha-!” Shoving his forearm against his mouth, eyes watering from the smoke, he staggered through loose-leafed paper and ash in the air, on the floor, towards the back of the shop. Crowley stumbled over the threshold, eyes widening. Fire crawled up the walls, the furniture, the gramophone, and all his… his books…
Crowley, seeing double, blinked over and over again at the desk, fingers scrabbling for the papers. A notebook, the notebook, from the damn psychic, must’ve been the last thing Aziraphale was looking at. He shoved it under his jacket and left the room. His vision was blurry around the edges and his chest ached, the tight, painful pressure crawling up his throat from his ribs, and he knew he was suffocating because he’d felt this before – last time it was almost getting drowned but this was worse. Crowley jumped at the thunderous sound of bookshelves crumbling.
He made it back into the main room of the shop and snapped yellow eyes towards the sound of broken glass just in time to get slammed in the chest by pounding water. It knocked Crowley onto his back and he lay stunned, wet and breathless, on his back for a second. Two seconds. Fuck. Fuck. He rolled onto his hands and knees, gasping for air and getting a mouthful of smoke. He blinked across the room to the staircase. It was still on fire but sprayed down by the shitty aim of the hose, it looked doable. So Crowley hauled himself to his feet and grabbed the railing, letting out a low hiss when burning wood splintered up into his hand. It healed almost as soon as it pierced the skin, and he kept going. He made it halfway before the step gave way under his foot and Crowley let out a strangled cry when his leg dropped straight through, dangling above the shop floor. Wood tore through his pants, dug into the meat of his thigh and Crowley let out an infuriated snarl, digging his nails into the next step and wrenching himself free of the broken stair. He crawled his way to the top of the landing and dragged himself to his feet, but he felt unsteady and drunk. “Aziraphale!” He lost his balance, slipped against the railing. It broke apart under his weight and Crowley stumbled forward to avoid falling.
He tried to kick the door and missed it the first time. Second time- third time he rammed it with all his body weight and it burst open. He got inside. “’ziraphale?” he tried again, shielding his eyes from the worst of the fire and going the other direction, “Answer me, you-” he coughed through the insult, “-fu-uh-cking idiot!” Where the hell was he? Fire swept along the walls, the curtains and furniture. It made the floor unsteady to walk on, but the windows were blown out and everything that wasn’t on fire was wet. Crowley went room to room but he knew- he knew Aziraphale wasn’t here. He’s gone. Head swimming, the shapeshifter braced his hands against his forehead and sank to the floor.
“You’re gone.” Ash in his mouth, throat repairing itself as fast as he could damage it, sucking down debris with each shallow breath. Crowley curled his hand into a fist. The only reason he’d be gone – and he had to be gone because look at this fucking shop – was if they’d gotten to him. Apocalypse. The Horsemen. Death. Didn’t just kill him, destroyed his body too, because that’s what they’d have to do. He was so goddamned powerful, if they didn’t obliterate all traces of him, he’d survive. He could take a bullet to the skull, a heart ripped out, a spine crushed, could heal anything, everything. If there was one fucking spark of life left, Aziraphale would use it and he would come back.
Crowley rocked with his head in his hands, on the kitchen floor. It was hot. His throat was tight and his head pulsed, fit to bursting like something was squeezing his brain, digging their nails into it until it popped, and he could hear the bum bum bum of his heart ringing in his ears. His body was fighting it, the instinct to shut down because there wasn’t enough air, but he was sucking in what was left and leaving his lungs to clean it up. The only reason he was still conscious was because of the bloody windows, wide open, feeding him and the fire.
“You killed him,” he gasped against his own chest, chin dipping down, “And you waited until I was gone because you knew what I WOULD DO IF I WAS HERE YOU BASSSTARD!” Crowley was screaming at everything and nothing and it came out raw. The screaming filled his head and went on and on, and he imagined for a delirious moment that Apocalypse could hear him. He was telepathic, wasn't he? I HOPE YOU ARE LISTENING YOU BLUE-LIPPED FUCKFACE ‘CAUSE I’M GONNA FIND YOU AND GUT YOU WITH MY BARE FUCKING HANDS. I’M GONNA RIP OUT YOUR RIBS AND SHOVE THE PIECES DOWN YOUR GODDAMNED THROAT. ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME? I’M GONNA KILL YOU! I’M GONNA KILL YOU!
Crowley sagged forward, chest heaving with the effort – he hadn’t said anything, but his muscles trembled, jaw clenched tight and aching – and braced his elbows on the kitchen floor. There was no answer. A part of Crowley wanted to lay down and die- or sit in a pub and drink himself to death- beat his body down until it gave up the ghost. He didn’t believe in God, and even if he did it wouldn’t be much comfort. He’d never end up the same place as Aziraphale. He’d go straight to Hell. Whether he lived or died, he'd never see him again.
Crowley could test the theory later - once he'd killed himself going after Apocalypse. He would make him regret coming into this shop. Crowley struggled to his feet and stumbled out the way he came in, out the front door. It was still on fire. The landing was shot to hell. Crowley jumped the staircase and his jacket caught on fire, but he put that out and he made it through the front door. He rolled his ankle and busted up his fingers but they straightened themselves out. On the threshold of the shop, Crowley slammed his hand into his chest as he coughed, burping up bits of wood and paper, spitting out the slivers onto the ground. The sound of water and shouting rang in his ears. His glasses were wrecked and he debated whether he should litter before throwing them out. Then he walked away from the still-burning building and got into the Bentley. He pulled a spare set of glasses out of the glovebox and tossed the book down on the passenger’s seat. He stared it for a moment.
Tadfield was two hours away. Crowley made it in under one. Forty-three minutes alone in his car. He twisted the volume as high as it would go, and the Bentley shook with the sound of Freddie Mercury.
“I should come with you.”
Crowley scoffed. “What are you gonna do at the American embassy?”
“Well...” Aziraphale trailed off, his hands clasped at his waist, “I could stay with the car.”
“Because that went so well the last time?” The Dowling Estate had a fraction of the security of an embassy, and Aziraphale still couldn’t manage not to get manhandled by the guards.
If he didn’t know better, he’d think Aziraphale was embarrassed. No, annoyed. “I thought you were in trouble,” he replied tersely, and Crowley sucked on his teeth to keep from smiling.
“Butt naked and powerless, I was still in less trouble than you,” he drawled, shrugging off the way it made him feel to know his angel scaled a bloody wall for him. “I’ll be fine. This ain’t my first rodeo.”
Aziraphale blinked. “You’ve never been to a rodeo.”
“Course not,” any enterprise that forced animals to perform for entertainment could go fuck itself as far as he was concerned, “It’s an American saying. I was doing my accent.” See, he couldn’t take Aziraphale within twenty paces of an American embassy. He’d never pass for anything but English, and how would he explain Thaddeus Dowling dropping by the office with Aziraphale in the passenger’s seat? The whole point of this was to blend in, be subtle, and Aziraphale was incapable of that.
“Ah.” Crowley watched Aziraphale fiddle with his buttons, rubbing at an invisible smudge with his thumb. “I still don’t think you should go alone. It’s too dangerous.”
“You know what’s dangerous? Me, worrying about you… getting the Bentley impounded by the Americans ‘cause you can’t follow directions. Can’t focus if I’m worried about… that.” It was a low blow, he supposed, and not strictly true. Crowley could multitask - he could obsess about Aziraphale and impersonate a diplomat and hack a government database simultaneously. But if he could make Aziraphale feel bad enough that he agreed to stay home, that was better.
Crowley curled his fingers into the steering wheel, nostrils flaring and lips pressed together. The corners of his eyes burned behind his glasses. Aziraphale wanted to leave. He shouldn’t have been in the shop. If they had gone on to Tadfield, or if Aziraphale had come to the embassy…
“Oh, I’ve been wanderin’ around but I still come back to you. In rain or shine-”
Gritting his teeth, Crowley lurched forward to shut off the music. Glancing up, he swore as the turn off flashed past, hit the brakes and, with a haphazard look over his shoulder, reversed. He turned the Bentley down the lane which led to a sprawling brick mansion. For one impulsive moment, he thought about ramming his car through the iron gate; instead, he unrolled the window and pushed the buzzer until it crackled and a thick Scottish voice came on the line.
“Get me Anathema Device.”
The voice on the other end of the speaker sounded suspicious. “If ye sellin’ somethin’ laddie, we’re nae buyin’.”
“Not selling anything,” Crowley snapped, scrubbing one hand over his face, “Get me the goddamned psychic.”
There was a muffled sound of indignation and multiple voices on the other end, but the shapeshifter wasn’t listening. The front gate swung open with a mechanical hum and he ducked his head back into the Bentley. He drove up to the house, throwing the car into park outside the front steps.He grabbed the book off the passenger’s seat and slammed the door shut.
He pivoted where he stood and looked up at her. Same dark hair, same glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, and he drew a sharp breath, jaw tightening with rage. “See this coming, did you?”
“Not exactly,” she replied, brow furrowing, “I told Aziraphale everything I knew.”
“Saying thisss is hisss fault?” Crowley’s voice dipped low, the white in his eyes disappearing. He advanced on the psychic, backing her into the door frame.
“Don’t twist my words,” she retorted, “What happened?”
“The fuck do you think happened?!”
Crowley slammed his fist into the brick next to her head, and before he realized what was going on, Anathema Device flexed her wrists and in a coordinated move, smacked his ears with open palms. The sound disoriented him and he staggered backwards when she shoved him, tripping over the steps and landing on his arse in the gravel. His glasses went flying – he didn’t see where they landed.
Anathema straightened, adjusting the flap of her high white collar, and followed him down the steps. “I can feel the pain throbbing in your aura,” reading auras was her lesser practiced power, but his was radiating hot and red like a wound, impossible for her to ignore, “So I know you’re not thinking clearly. That doesn’t mean you can threaten me, Crowley. If you want help, ask for it.”
Crowley swallowed a retort in light of getting knocked on his arse, glaring up at her. She held his gaze expectantly and with a grudging degree of respect, he acknowledged it with a sharp nod. The psychic leaned over, offering a hand to help him up and Crowley took it. She pulled him up halfway, gasped, and dropped him again. The shapeshifter caught himself with his elbows, swearing at the girl.
Anathema didn’t apologize, rolling the stiffness out of her shoulders as the vision passed. Crowley got to his feet on his own, found his glasses in the grass and put them on. By the time he turned around, the psychic was looking at him, “There was a fire at the bookshop?” she confirmed.
Crowley blinked. “Yeah. Aziraphale wasn’t… his… I didn’t find a body.”
“I know,” Anathema frowned, “You’re early. The book was meant to come back on Friday.”
“Yeah, well,” Crowley scowled at her, “You’re not as good as you think you are.”
Anathema didn’t see everything in perfect HD with cast commentary telling her who did what and why, she saw snatches of scenes, heard sounds, perceived possibilities like ripples in a pond. It was always changing. “I wouldn’t have called if I didn’t think we could influence the outcome.”
“The outcome was Death!”
“Death can mean a lot of things, Crowley,” especially in a card, pulled in the context of a reading, “I thought it might suggest the Horseman, I didn’t...” well, to be frank, she didn’t interpret it literally. This wasn’t the first time she’d drawn that card and people did not keel over from it. Sometimes it was a good thing, not that she was going to tell Crowley that because he wasn’t in a receptive state of mind.
“You didn’t know what you were doing,” he cut her off angrily, jabbing a bony finger in her face, “You dragged him into thisss. Your worthlesss visions got him killed, you ssstupid girl!”
Anathema’s eyes flashed in indignation. “I didn’t drag him into anything,” she didn’t make up the future, she tapped into it, “I told him to get out of London. Didn’t he mention that to you?” Her gaze narrowed on the nearly imperceptible shift in Crowley’s features, and she understood. “He did. You convinced him to stay, didn’t you?” her voice softened, not accusatory, “You think it’s your fault.”
Like a marionette whose strings had been cut, all the tension – the fight – streamed out of Crowley in an instant. She couldn’t read his face – those glasses obscured whatever it was filling the silence between them – but his aura hadn’t changed. “It is my fault,” he agreed flatly, emotionless, “I told him you were an idiot. It was safe,” that if Death was coming, it wasn’t for the two of them.
Anathema glanced away from Crowley, accurately perceiving that he wouldn’t appreciate the sympathy in her face – and she did sympathize. She knew what it felt like to take on guilt for things she couldn't possibly control. It was debilitating. “I do find it hard to believe he couldn’t survive a fire,” she said, changing the subject abruptly, “He regenerates, doesn’t he? The same way that you do.”
“Not the same way,” Crowley objected in the same dull voice.
“But he does regenerate,” Anathema waved off the semantics of it. “How do you know he’s dead?”
Crowley stiffened. “You saw the fire.”
“You said there wasn’t a...” no tactful way to say this so Anathema blurted out, “...body.”
“There wouldn’t be a body,” Crowley retorted, “Not if they wanted to kill him.”
“Or if they wanted to take him,” Anathema mused, considering, “By ‘they’ you mean Apocalypse and the Horsemen?” it felt like the destruction of the bookshop was irrelevant. The focal point was the mutant who owned it, "How much do you know about what Aziraphale is capable of?”
“I know him better than anyone,” Crowley’s throat was tight. “What’s your point?”
“Killing mutants at random isn’t Apocalypse’s modus operandi. He would consider it a waste,” especially if the mutant in question was capable of regeneration – a significant boon, evolution-wise, not the sort of thing Apocalypse would destroy for no reason. “And if he thought Aziraphale was a threat...” which sounded ridiculous as she was saying it, “He’d probably convert him.”
“Convert him,” Crowley repeated, “Aziraphale would never go for that.”
“It’s not always a choice,” Anathema thought if she could walk the interior of the bookshop, she might be able to see what transpired between them – confirm for herself that Apocalypse was responsible for Aziraphale’s disappearance – but the next best thing was on the ground. “My book was in the shop when it burned?” Crowley nodded wordlessly. Anathema smiled. “Thank you for saving it.”
“Didn’t do it for you.”
“Still,” Anathema picked the book up off the ground, wrapping her hands around it protectively. “I could probably get something out of this, if it occupied the same space as the fire. Objects have...” she searched for an adequate word, “…memory. They can perceive things, to an extent.”
“It’ll tell you what happened to Aziraphale.”
“Maybe,” she hedged her response, “I don’t want to get your hopes up.”
“You just told me he was alive.” Fuck the book, nothing was gonna get his hopes up like that, and he desperately needed to believe it was true.
“I said," she corrected the shapeshifter, "It would be uncharacteristic of Apocalypse to kill him.” Crowley did not sound impressed and muttered something vaguely insulting about her powers. Anathema narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you want to know or not?”
Crowley shoved his hands in his pockets, and cleared his throat. “Yeah, I wanna know.”
“So do I,” Anathema gave him a small smile, “Let’s go inside, then.”
Chapter 9: The Tadfield Institute
Crowley arrives at the Tadfield Institute.
The main foyer of the Tadfield Institute included an ornate area rug and round table in the middle of the room. There was also an imperial staircase with hardwood banisters facing the front door, opening onto the second floor ('sleeping quarters and classrooms', according to the psychic). Anathema Device led him down a red-carpeted corridor to her office, and although the mansion was quiet Crowley knew there were other people here. He had heard at least three voices over the intercom before someone buzzed him in.
Crowley didn’t care. He focused on the task in front of him: leaving the bookstore, driving to Tadfield, reading the book. He recognized the anxious itching under his skin, the uneven catch in his throat, the grief pressing at the edge of his thoughts, threatening to overrun them.
Anathema Device knelt on the floor next to a round coffee table. Crowley didn’t complain and he did the same, sitting across from her. “When you found the book, was it open or closed?”
Crowley glared at her. “How the hell would I know?”
“You picked it up,” she reminded him, turning each page carefully.
“I didn’t pick it up to read it.”
The psychic didn’t answer him, her fingers stilling between two pages. She smoothed her hand across the inked indentations and closed her eyes. There was movement beneath her eyelids, twitching beneath the skin, and Crowley watched her fingers curl around the notebook.
“Hello,” the psychic intoned, her voice barely trembling.
Crowley scowled. “What?”
“I’m afraid the shop is closed.”
He leaned closer, bracing his elbows on the table. “Aziraphale?” No. It wasn’t his voice – it wasn’t even a good impression of him, Anathema Device was parroting the words she was hearing.
“Hope. Hope. will not save them. There doesn’t have to be a war. Peace does nothing to enhance mutants’ powers, to force them to evolve into the strong. I’ll drink to that. You could let evolution take it natural course. I am the natural course.” The psychic went on, uttering words about judgment, a three-way conversation. Crowley’s hands trembled on the table and he flattened his palms against the wood, “I have something for you, Aziraphale. There is nothing you have that I want.”
Anathema stiffened, tension rippling down her spine, brow furrowed. Her head dropped between her shoulders and she gasped suddenly, letting out a blood-curdling scream. “Hey!” Crowley shouted, snapping his fingers in front of her face. She continued to scream, her body contorting, fingers spasming, nails ripping into the pages of her notebook because it was the only thing she could hold onto. The sound turned guttural, deep and rough, and Crowley shoved the coffee table to the side with an angry squeal, grinding against the wood floor. “Aziraphale!” He gripped the girl by the shoulders and pushed her upright, without really seeing her at all.
Crowley smoothed long, dark strands of hair away from the psychic’s face as she cried out, imagining for one insensible moment that if she could feel Aziraphale’s pain then he could feel this. Anathema went silent and, after a long moment, gasped again – this time, audibly, a hoarse rattle in the back of her throat – and opened her eyes. Her lashes were wet from tears and she blinked up at him.
“Where is he?”
“You didn’t fucking leave him there-” he broke off, strangled, swallowed and tried again, voice low and urgent and shaking with things unsaid, “-ssscreaming- did you? Did you leave him?”
“Crowley,” she repeated his name, “It was a memory. I didn’t leave him because he’s not… there anymore, you know that.” Right. Right. The screaming happened before the fire- it did happen before, didn’t it? They didn’t set him on fire, did they? Fuck. Fuck, did they set him on fire?
Before he could string together a coherent thought, three people burst into the room at once, the loudest among them the Scottish brogue roaring at him to, “Get away from that girl, ye great bassa! Don’t make me use this!” Crowley let go of the psychic and shifted defensively, his gaze fixed on the intruders and – with an arched brow – the threatening shake of the old man’s index finger.
“Mr. Shadwell,” this, from a redheaded woman in her fifties. She touched Shadwell’s outstretched arm with her hand and assured him, “I don’t think Mr. Crowley here was hurting Anathema.”
The third intruder rushed to the psychic’s side as soon as he got in the room, his hands hovering around her shoulders without touching her. He was early twenties, about the psychic’s age, with dark hair and eyebrows twitching like furry caterpillars behind his glasses. “Anathema? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Anathema managed, waving off the concern and nearly smacking the bloke in the glasses by accident, “It was a vision, that’s all,” she forced a smile, glancing up to Shadwell and the redhead, “I appreciate your concern. Crowley and I need to speak privately, if you wouldn’t mind...” her gaze darted between the shapeshifter and her colleagues. With a suspicious curl of his lip, Shadwell allowed himself to be led out of the study. “Really, I’m fine, Newt,” she insisted, with a meaningful look to the kid with the glasses. He mumbled something in response – Crowley wasn’t listening, and it wasn’t meant for him anyway – before getting up. ‘Newt’ shut the door.
“Was it the fire?” Crowley’s voice was calmer now.
“No.” Anathema was grateful for that. Her ancestor – the earliest recorded clairvoyant in her bloodline – had been burned at the stake as a witch. She dreamed about it one time. It was more than enough to put her off fire for the rest of her natural life.
“What was it?”
“I’m not sure,” Anathema admitted, and anticipating Crowley’s displeasure she quickly explained, “A book doesn’t have eyes. I got a sense of the room, but it was mostly sound. And feelings.”
“What did he feel?”
“Crowley...” They both knew how Aziraphale felt – she’d lived it, and he’d heard it, so why was he torturing himself by asking? He stared at her until she conceded with a sigh, “He was afraid...”
“And in pain,” Crowley finished the statement for her.
And alone. Crowley made a noise that didn’t sound human at all, a choked off whimper, a mournful bay caught in his throat, behind his teeth, released with a slow, wracking shudder of his shoulders, his body folding in on itself. Lips moved silently, not necessarily forming words, pursing, tightening, parting over and over again, tongue caught between them. The psychic tentatively reached out her hand to touch his shoulder and that was all it took – one touch, and Crowley crumpled on the floor with a howl of grief that broke her heart, dissolving into heaving sobs.
Anathema drew her hand back and sat with him while he wept. She waited until the sounds quieted down to a wheezing, Crowley’s head buried in his hands, sunglasses skewed.
“Aziraphale isn’t dead,” she said – perceiving that would be more welcome news than anything she might sugarcoat for him, “What Apocalypse did to him, I can’t say for sure, but it was some form of conversion,” the ‘something’ he had offered to Aziraphale must’ve been linked to the pain he felt, “I couldn’t get a read on what happened afterwards,” it was as if a rubber band had snapped mid-vision, sending her bouncing back to the Institute, and she wasn’t sure why, “I’ll keep trying.”
Crowley didn’t raise his head and his voice was muffled when he asked, “Can you find him?”
“Apocalypse is impossible to track- we’ve tried.”
“Maybe,” Anathema thought they’d have a better chance with Aziraphale than the other acolytes of Apocalypse, because she had met him, sensed his aura, and understood his feelings. Madame Tracy could draw on that knowledge in her own attempts to scry for the bookseller. “Apocalypse’s power protects his followers, but we know more about Aziraphale than the others. We could try.”
“If we find Aziraphale, we find Apocalypse, yeah?”
“Right.” Crowley was looking at her now, and his face was dry, sunglasses readjusted. It was impossible to tell he’d broken down; she couldn’t even hear it in his voice. “You do that. Find him,” it wasn’t a request, “I can help you with the horsemen. The Americans have one of ’em registered.” The data was in his car where he’d left it this morning- fucking hell, it felt like a hundred years ago. Crowley got to his feet unsteadily, ignoring the psychic’s proffered hand, and left the room. He also ignored the three mutants hovering in the corridor, pretending not to eavesdrop.
Madame Tracy was not a medium (despite what her advertisements in the paper stated) but she was a telepath. This secret enabled her to put on a very good show of drawing back the Veil, by virtue of dipping into her clients’ memories about their deceased loved ones. And she did not feel guilty about her work – because she did, at the end of the day, help people move on. Telepathy also made her exceedingly good at her other job. Until recently, she was a highly sought after (self-professed) courtesan with an uncanny ability to respond to the discerning gentleman’s unique proclivities.
She had since retired from those lines of work – and London – in accepting Anathema Device’s invitation to live at the Tadfield Institute. She was persuaded, in part, by the fact that Miss Device extended the same invitation to her neighbor, Mr. Shadwell. They had come to Tadfield separately but together and now coexisted quite nicely. He no longer referred to her as Jezebal in public, for one. And Madame Tracy – born Marjorie Potts – had come to find she had a soft spot for children.
With a bit of luck from Mr. Shadwell and a few moments spent in telepathic consultation with Anathema, she decided to attempt to locate Mr. Aziraphale. As she made her preparations, Crowley sat across the room with the other psychic and tried to mask his profound discomfort. He transferred data from his mobile to his computer and by the time he was finished, his face was drawn and tight. Anathema sat next to him, perched on the edge of the chair to peer over his shoulder.
“What is that?” she nodded to the document he’d pulled up onto the screen.
“It’s a report filed by the CDC with the FBI. Describes the true conditions of the bodies found in a Manhattan restaurant, Chow.”
Anathema made a face at the name of the restaurant. “How do you have access to FBI files?” Crowley sneered at her and she decided to change the subject. “Never mind. What about the bodies?”
Crowley pulled up a New York Times article dated a week and a half ago. The headline: GAS LEAK KILLS 43 IN MANHATTAN RESTAURANT. “Forty-three people died in a freak accident. The restaurant’s closed until further notice, the owner is MIA – but take a look at this.” A few more clicks and photographs appeared on the screen – a corpse on a metal slab. Anathema recoiled with a grimace, squinting as her eyes made sense of what she was seeing: the teeth were visible, the eye sockets sunken in, lips drawn back and paper thin, bones of the face sharply defined in a way she had never seen.
Anathema had never heard of a mutant who could do that – not to a room full of people, not without touching them. “What does the coroner’s report say?” she asked. Crowley let her read it for herself: she wasn’t an expert in the breakdown of bodily contents, but the coroner detailed what was missing and what the state of the organs was. It was easier to understand because the coroner didn’t understand, so the details weren’t obscured by medical jargon. The degree of fat and muscle mass breakdown was characteristic of prolonged starvation. “Sounds like vampirism,” the non-Hollywood version that included more than bite marks and blood and Tom Cruise in his one good role. There had always been mutants who gained strength by siphoning from others: blood, emotion, energy.
“There were staff in the kitchens,” Crowley said, “Their witness statements swore it was a minute or two, at the most. One waiter said he walked out of the dining room, everything was fine. He picked up a plate of appetizers, walked back in and everybody was dead.”
“Starved to death in a minute.”
“Yep,” Crowley muttered, “The owner’s a person of interest, missing. There was only one unoccupied table in the restaurant, and no one can remember or account for who was sitting there. What they can account for was their boss coming in that night, sitting with his assistant, then…” he shrugged, “No one knows where he went. He could’ve walked out before the suckfest-”
“-but he’s got a dozen sealed medical records from his childhood.” Suspected mutant.
“Man hasn’t been to a doctor in twenty-five years.”
“Well, that’s not uncommon,” Anathema mused, “The American healthcare system is corrupt and exploitative," designed to line the pockets of Big Pharma and keep everyone sick.
“He’s rich,” Crowley replied, “Don’t think that’s his reason.” Whether it was Sable or someone the staff didn’t notice, this was Famine. “The mutant has a range – kitchen staff, people on the street were fine. So either they didn’t want to kill everybody or they couldn’t. I’m betting on the latter.”
Someone who killed forty-three people indiscriminately wasn’t limiting themselves for moral reasons. “There’s no other record of this mutant?” If he was that powerful, there should have been previous, smaller-scale incidents. He would have surfaced before now.
“Nothing,” Crowley said, “I’m thinking Famine wasn’t so powerful before they became Famine.”
Anathema glanced at the shapeshifter. “Apocalypse has been known to share his power,” to augment the natural abilities of those he selected, “It keeps his servants on the same page.”
“Aziraphale is not his servant.” But Crowley thought that if the fucker lent his power to Aziraphale to control him, then it wouldn’t be permanent. It could be undone, taken away.
Anathema decided to ignore him. “Severing his connection to the Horsemen is not going to be easy,” if it was, they would’ve done it a lot sooner. She was under no illusions as to whose side Crowley was on. Right now, their goals aligned but that would only last until they did find Aziraphale, and she didn’t know what state he would be in then. “Did you find anything about the journalist?”
“She’s not in the American registry,” Crowley said, “But there is a file on the massacre at Bir Tawil- you said it was somewhere in North Africa,” Bir Tawil was a strip of land located between Sudan and Egypt, periodically claimed by various ethnoreligious groups but never officially recognized by the rest of the world, “Leaders of three factions met to negotiate a peace treaty. Nobody survived it.”
“She was there?”
“According to her bosses at the National World Weekly, but her body wasn’t recovered.” Carmine Zuigiber had a history of being in the wrong place, right time per her publication record. Places where nobody was fighting until she showed up, then suddenly people were going at each other.
“I didn’t see her getting shot,” Anathema admitted, brow furrowing as she recalled the vision, “She was walking away from the tent. People were screaming behind her. She was in control.”
“Telepath, mind control,” Crowley shot a glare across the room to ‘Madame Tracy’, who smiled at him in response, seemingly unperturbed by the unspoken hostility. “Empath, maybe.”
Neither of them could identify the third horseman – biblically, that would’ve been Pestilence – so Anathema questioned the shapeshifter about Aziraphale instead. Crowley was reluctant to discuss his friend’s powers and managed little more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the psychic’s questions. The telepath interrupted them, announcing that she needed to touch them to focus her search on Aziraphale.
But there was too much ground to cover, and hundreds of thousands of minds – human and mutant – to sift through, and with no external means of enhancing her powers, Madame Tracy could not see beyond the village. In the end, she discerned only that Aziraphale was not in Tadfield.
Useless, Crowley thought disparagingly.
I’d like to see you do better, Mr. Crowley.
He wrenched his hand out of hers with a glower. “Stay out of my head.” He was frustrated for having wasted his time in coming to this place. He had given them information and gotten nothing out of it. He was no closer to finding Aziraphale than he was three hours ago – outside the damn bookshop. “I’m leaving.”
“You don’t have any other leads,” Anathema pointed out, following him out of her office and into the foyer, “You wouldn’t have come here if you had another way to find him.”
The shapeshifter didn’t deny it, but few things would convince him twiddling his thumbs under the same roof as a telepath was a good idea. “You’re not the only mutant I know, Device,” he glanced at her, “You’re not even the most useful,” Crowley had other contacts. Not ones that Aziraphale would approve of, and he wasn’t looking forward to it – but he was sure they knew what was happening. Anathema Device wasn’t the only prophet, and the Hellfire Club (being full of powerhungry bastards) was well-versed in the myth of Apocalypse. He could leverage a few favors to get answers about the Horsemen.
“Don’t be an ass,” Anathema protested, grabbing the singed sleeve of his jacket when he stepped outside, “Apocalypse will come to Tadfield. You should stay here.”
“No.” Crowley fixed the psychic with a withering look – until she released him. He patted his trousers for his keys, laptop under one arm, while Anathema searched for some way to distract him.
“Wait-” she stepped between him and the Bentley, blocking his way (not a smart place for her to be, considering it was the only thing he had left), “You should meet the Them before you go.”
The Them consisted of four children from Tadfield, whose powers had all manifested within the same month. The statistical improbability of this led Anathema to suspect that Adam made it happen, that he’d triggered the latent mutant powers of his friends so that he wouldn’t be alone.
It was likely unintentional, a side effect of his growing abilities. Sometimes Adam had strange dreams. In the middle of the night, he would levitate above the bed and the objects in the room would levitate too, spinning around in haphazard circles. Sometimes the floor would dissolve into quicksand or reveal the illusion of cavernous tunnels underneath, the furniture reshape itself into fantastical shapes from his favorite stories – about underwater civilizations and aliens from outer space—the walls disappearing in a shimmering translucence. Voices would whisper to him in the dark, urging him to make it real. (Almost) everything shifted back to normal when he woke up.
Today he was wide-awake and thinking about the way things were, and the way they ought to be. “You’ve got to help me sort it out,” Adam announced to his friends, slumping into his chair. His head bumped up against the bicycle tire that formed the back of his throne, and he gripped the knotted end of their rope swing in both hands. The Them sat on the ground with Dog. This was their spot, in the woods behind the mansion. They called it Hogback, even though there weren’t any hogs. “The thing is...” he started, leaning forward to brace both elbows on his knees, “The thing is people like us have been around for thousands of years, as long as the humans, but we’re always hiding from them.”
“Not in America,” Wensleydale said, “They’ve got an Institute too.”
“Ours is a lot better,” Pepper said dismissively, “We don’t have to wear uniforms and our team name isn’t sexist.” The X-Men weren’t just made up of men so they should’ve been called X-People.
“The point is,” Adam went on, “The mutants in America get in trouble all the time. They’re always in the news and the government is trying to make them illegal, remember? That’s why our Institute is still a secret. Miss Anathema is afraid of what the humans would try to do to us. It’s not fair.”
The Them nodded in agreement.
“If everybody was like us, we wouldn’t have to pretend,” Adam concluded, “We’d all have powers so nobody would be afraid of using them. There wouldn’t be any more humans to mess things up.”
“Our parents are human,” Brian pointed out reluctantly, “They don’t mess things up.”
“They’d still be better if they were mutants,” Adam retorted, and Brian didn’t have anything to say to that. Wensleydale couldn’t even tell his parents that he was a mutant; they thought he went to private school, which Adam supposed was true except that the Institute didn’t teach boring stuff like maths. “We should make a new world. One where mutants don’t have to hide anymore.” Make it happen. Make it real. Adam thought he could make it real, if he tried hard enough. “We’d be in charge.”
But Pepper didn’t want to be in charge, and Wensleydale didn’t want to make his mum and dad mutants, and Brian thought Adam was acting a little scary, when he talked about things like he could change them. Adam got annoyed, and he snapped they didn’t get it. Pepper said that if they didn’t get it, it was probably because he wasn’t explaining it right. Dog barked when it was time for dinner.
His friends wanted to go. Adam didn’t want to let them.
“I could make you stay,” he blurted out. They always agreed with him. They said he came up with the best games. Now he wanted to do something important and all they did was complain.
Pepper crossed her arms. “Take it back, Adam.”
He didn’t want to, but he didn’t want to fight with his friends either. With a sigh, he shrugged off the threat and trudged after them out of the woods and back to the Institute.
For a kid who could warp reality, Adam Young was pretty well-adjusted. Crowley watched him regale Anathema with stories of the games they’d played in the woods, his friends periodically chiming in with their faces stuffed with mashed potatoes. He seemed normal. Crowley was expecting a mini-Apocalypse, classic megalomania and power tripping in an eleven-year-old’s body. If the clairvoyant was willing to take in a kid that powerful and risk getting wished out of reality to teach him to control it, maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad place for someone like Warlock. That kid needed some socialization, real friends that were his own age, not video games or estate staff.
“Not what you expected, is he?”
Crowley could feel the telepath smiling at him, and he ignored her. He wasn’t expecting anything, but he was pissed when he found out what the big surprise was. The clairvoyant had made it sound like she wasn’t sure which one of the kids Apocalypse would want – was that a joke? Did she think Apocalypse was gonna go for the kid who could play with plants? Or the one who could punch through a wall? He didn’t need party tricks. His master plan was eradicating humanity and evolving the survivors into mutants. If that didn’t demand reality warping...
To keep that kind of power out of the hands of somebody who could literally wipe out the planet, they needed to kill this kid. As far as Crowley knew, killing him might be the only way to save Aziraphale. Was he really gonna get squeamish at this point in the game?
“He doesn’t look strong enough,” Crowley muttered.
“We are all stronger than we look, Mr. Crowley.”
“Just Crowley.” Cagey responses from a telepath were even more annoying than the ones he got from the clairvoyant, and the shapeshifter dragged his gaze from the kid to hers. “No one can alter reality for seven and a half billion people. It’s not possible.” No mutant - let alone some eleven-year-old kid from Tadfield - was capable of that. His powers were, yeah, impressive but not enough.
Madame Tracy dipped her spoon into a bowl of stew and mused, “I suppose you-know-who has already thought about that.” No one wanted to say Apocalypse around the dinner table.
Crowley was dubious that keeping the truth from this kid was a good idea, but what did he know? Was Apocalypse planning to use him like a battery? Plug him into a satellite and let him rip? The sort of equipment he’d need to amp up Adam’s power enough to affect the whole world was… staggering.
"You don’t know?” he asked instead, dryly.
“I can’t read his mind, dearie.”
“Right.” Crowley was shielding to keep the telepath out of his own head. He wasn’t planning to kill the kid right now and there was ‘no liquor in the common area’ so he was sober, and the only reason he stuck around was because Anathema pulled the ‘it’s what Aziraphale would’ve wanted you to do’ card. It was true but he hated her for it. She made it sound too much like he was dead, and Crowley was doing this in his honor. If he was gonna do anything in Aziraphale’s honor, he’d start by drinking extraordinary amounts of alcohol.
Crowley didn’t speak to the Them. He still hadn’t settled on what to do about Adam Young, but if he did have to get rid of this kid, he didn’t want to… talk to him, act like he was… like he was what? When they first saw him, the Them stared. The one with ice cream stains on his shirt asked him about his glasses and the girl, Pepper, asked him if he was a new teacher. Crowley nearly lost it. No. Fuck no. What would he even teach? The kids lost interest in him eventually, and they didn’t notice when he got up and left. No one tried to follow him. The Bentley was where he’d left it.
Crowley dug his keys out of his pocket and got into the car. He realized he forgot the book of prophecies only after the gates swung open, but he didn’t plan on going back for it. He made it six kilometers before he pulled off the road, took off his glasses, and sat in the dark. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and tried very hard to think about nothing. The screaming wouldn’t go away. The sound of the psychic’s voice was burned into his skull and he couldn’t heal that. He’d kill for something, anything, to dull the memory of it. Shifting in his seat, hands trembling, Crowley hit the steering wheel with the base of his palm, swearing to himself. Pain shot up his arm, a split second of discomfort, and he did it again. Again. Both hands. Crowley hit the steering wheel over and over again, letting out a frustrated sound between his teeth.
He knew better than to take things out on the Bentley. Crowley muttered an apology, swallowing the swell of regret. The thing he should be hitting was himself. He thought about everything that had happened since he got that first phone call and lied to Aziraphale about it, and there wasn’t a single fucking decision he’d made that he didn’t regret. He lied. He stormed out. He left Aziraphale outside the gate. He wouldn’t go to Tadfield. He lied again. He left Aziraphale in the bookshop. He went to the goddamned embassy. He walked out of there thinking he’d done something.
Thank you for the lovely comments and support for this story. It means the world to me!
And now, regarding powers. Mediums do exist in the X-Men universe, but it worked a little better for me to interpret Madame Tracy's impeccable insight as telepathy (in part because telepathy is more relevant to the overall story - and it would aggravate Crowley more). I hope it works for you too! In terms of Adam's powers, Scarlet Witch / Wanda Maximoff is canonically a reality warper, although this is not how she's been interpreted in the Marvel films. For those who are interested, I'm pulling from her to contextualize Adam's abilities within mutant mythology :)
Chapter 10: Distraction
Apocalypse sends a distraction after Crowley. It is (predictably) effective.
Crowley lost track of time. He didn’t fall asleep, but he wasn’t all there either. He stayed that way for hours, replaying his fuck ups in infuriatingly accurate detail, hating himself, imagining the way it could have gone if he was smarter, more patient, less stubborn, less arrogant, less… himself. Being who he was, he couldn’t help but go the wrong way. He always went the wrong way. Aziraphale knew that better than anyone. For this to turn out any differently, he would have to be somebody else. And maybe that flash bastard would deserve Aziraphale.
His mobile went off. Crowley jerked upright, blinked and saw a silhouette on the road. Without thinking, he flipped on the headlights. Harsh, white light washed over a pale face in a hooded robe, and Crowley was scrambling out of the car before he even fully registered what he was looking at.
“Aziraphale,” Crowley breathed the name like a prayer. He shoved the driver’s side door shut, muting the sound of his mobile – still ringing – before he rounded the Bentley.
He let out a hysterical laugh, half a groan and half a whimper, at the sound of his… of that voice. “Hey. You…” you’re alive, you’re here, you’re not screaming anymore, “…got wings.”
Crowley could see them now that he’d stepped in front of the headlights, and he wasn’t catching the glare through the windshield. Great sweeping feathered arches behind the shoulders. The feathers rustled and Crowley’s eyes widened as the wings opened, stretching long white tips. Dozens of smaller, softer-looking feathers at the bottom, fanning into longer, stiffer feathers spreading out from the blunted V where the arches met. Christ, they were massive. Aziraphale with a wingspan took up the whole lane; it was wider than the Bentley.
“How did you get away?” For one brief moment Crowley let himself believe his friend had escaped from Apocalypse – if anyone could do it, it’d be him. He was so bloody clever.
“I didn’t.” Aziraphale blinked at him with eyes that were familiar and not. There was recognition but no warmth. Crowley would’ve taken anything – anger, disapproval - over the cold, blank neutrality of that face. Of course, he knew he should be grateful that he was seeing Aziraphale at all. And he was. He was grateful.
“Right,” Crowley swallowed, “He’s got you brainwashed, then.”
Aziraphale lowered his hood, white curls catching the light. “I am not brainwashed.”
He gritted his teeth in a painful approximation of a grin, “That bastard tortured you and burned down your bookshop.” His voice caught on the last word, because under normal circumstances Crowley would never tell him like this. He knew what the bookshop meant to Aziraphale.
“My master did not-”
“-he’s not your fucking-”
“-master.” Crowley barely registered the rest of what was said. “You don’t have a master, Aziraphale.” Crowley’s voice shifted to something approaching plaintive, and he closed the distance between them. “Look at what you’re wearing. You can’t prefer that to your poncy waistcoat and your tartan bowtie,” the robe was a few thousand years dated, even for Aziraphale, “You remember me. You remember your shop.”
An expression passed over his friend’s face that Crowley vaguely recognized. It was the sort of look he got when he thought Crowley was being dimwitted or missing the point. “The trappings of a human life,” he said, “It’s beneath us to grow attached to those comforts. I see that now.”
Aziraphale seemed unperturbed by Crowley’s slack-jawed disbelief, and his voice took on the earnest quality of a zealot – which he’d never had before, not even as a priest. “I have such clarity, my dear. For the first time in my life, I have prayed, and He has given me answers,” Crowley scrubbed a hand over his face, hating the sound of my dear tacked on to the rest of this shite, “It is a kind of peace I have never known. I wish you could experience it too.”
Crowley barked a disbelieving laugh, pinching the bridge of his nose, squinting without closing his eyes. In some unacknowledged part of his mind, he was afraid that if he looked away from Aziraphale, he would disappear again. “He’s trying to destroy the world, angel.”
“He will destroy it, Crowley,” Aziraphale – a version of him, anyway – replied, “In order to build a better one for those who survive. It will be a world without corruption, without suffering. This is the Great Plan,” the reverence in his voice put Crowley’s teeth on edge, “We were foolish to think we could oppose the will of Apocalypse.”
“It was always a longshot,” Crowley didn’t bother to deny that. It wasn’t like they’d be earning commendations for strategic genius. With a noisy exhale, he pressed closer than Aziraphale would ever realistically let him get, close enough to smell him. He watched the jutting of Aziraphale’s jaw as he adjusted to the proximity. Crowley didn’t make eye contact, focusing on the curve of his nose, the swell of his cheek, the cupid’s bow of his lips. “If this is his idea of a recruitment offer,” he murmured, “He’s even more deluded than I thought.”
“My dear boy,” Crowley glanced from Aziraphale’s mouth to his eyes, which served to remind him that this was still wrong, “He knows you as I do. He did not send me to tempt you.”
There was an unspoken weight to the words, a truth between the lines, and Crowley understood with a clench of his jaw that he was missing something. “Go on then,” he managed, “Enlighten me.”
Aziraphale gave him a near-pitying look. “He sent me to distract you.”
Crowley knew he could stand be a little quicker on the uptake, but it had been a long day- night- hell, he didn’t even know what time it was. It occurred to him to check his mobile, but he left it in the car because it was going off. The only other person who had that number – not Aziraphale – was the psychic. He gave it to her in the interest of sharing information, but he wouldn’t have answered it anyway. “He’s going after the kid.”
“Brilliant.” Fucking fantastic. The devil on his shoulder was saying, forget the kid, he was tough, he’d figure it out (or not). He was not Adam Young’s nanny. But hell, getting ahead of Apocalypse was the whole point, breaking his hold on Aziraphale. He knew that too. “I’m gonna go, myeeegh," Crowley made a decision, "Thwart the big plan, I guess. And save you while I’m at it.”
Crowley stepped back, knees unsteady, and he noticed the movement out of the corner of his eye. The wings collapsed, folding behind his friend’s shoulders. Aziraphale fixed that unfamiliar, unreadable stare on him. Unnerved by the stillness of it, Crowley shifted on his heels and sauntered back to the Bentley.
“I wish you wouldn’t, Crowley.”
“Save you?” he swayed to a stop next to the Bentley, “If you’d give it a rest, I wouldn’t have to.” He listened to Aziraphale approach him, soft footsteps on the asphalt.
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
Crowley twisted around to face his friend and decided to gamble on the words. “Sounds like we’re on the same page.” Aziraphale still looked loopy but there might be enough of him left to sit this out until Crowley could figure out how to fix it. The dodgy sense of self-preservation told him he shouldn’t turn his back on Aziraphale – he ignored it. He was still Aziraphale. Crowley went for the driver’s side door, getting close enough to catch a glimpse of the glow of his mobile before Aziraphale moved – faster than most people would give him credit for. Sinking his fine, manicured nails into the back of Crowley’s jacket, Aziraphale yanked the shapeshifter backwards.
Crowley lost his balance and let out a startled grunt when Aziraphale threw him against the car. His back slammed into the bonnet and the impact of metal on bone knocked the air out of him. “Damnit angel!”
Aziraphale appeared in front of him and stretched out a hand to touch his face. Crowley stood there, uncertain. There was something in the soft press of fingertips that felt so damn good; then the hand glowed, white light escaping between his fingers and nearly blinding Crowley. His gaze darted down, eyes widening, and he curled his fingers against the reflexive impulse to push back. He tried to jerk away instead, smacking his elbow against the Bentley with a hiss. Pain shot up his arm and- and he forgot about it. It went away, and he blinked in muzzy confusion.
A sudden constricting tightness in his chest made him lurch forward, bumping into Aziraphale. He gasped, a bubbly, frothing sound and thrashed to get away from his friend’s glowing touch. The angel backed away and Crowley still couldn’t get upright, slumping back against the Bentley with a violent cough. He wiped at the frothy spittle with the back of his hand and saw blood. Did that come out of him? Was he coughing blood?
Crowley couldn’t breathe. He panted loud and hard, hoarse, rattling gasps for air that wouldn’t fucking come, and panic beat out everything else. It felt like being drowned, and the less he could breathe, the harder he tried, striking himself in the chest hard enough to crack a rib. Crowley’s legs gave out under him and the shapeshifter landed on the ground, doubling over in pain.
He made a disgruntled sound in the back of throat and ignored the shout. It was a woman’s voice and he couldn’t place it but it wasn’t Aziraphale’s so whoever it was could fuck right off.
“Crowley! Get up!” Hands on his shoulders shook him a few times before they gripped his jacket.
“Stop,” he muttered, “You’re gonna stretch it.” He really liked this jacket. It was one of the few things he didn’t make for himself. He didn’t want the seams to get fucked up by some stranger in his flat- no, not his flat. He slept on the floor sometimes, but this didn’t feel like the floor. He felt the distinct knot digging into the back of his head- not knot, a rock. He was on the ground… the street… Aziraphale. The kid. Fuck.
Crowley blinked open his eyes, and the nervous-looking bloke – what was his name again? – backed off. The only person in his face was Anathema Device. Her face was streaked in dirt and her glasses were skewed; the left lens cracked. She held out a hand to him and Crowley ignored it, pushing himself up into a sitting position. The Bentley was here. Anathema crouched down next to him with the other one – Newt – hovering uselessly behind her.
“He took Adam.”
Crowley grimaced. “I know.”
“He knocked us out of the way like we were nothing.”
The shapeshifter was nonplussed, rolling his shoulders as he pulled himself to his feet. “If it was easy, he wouldn’t be called Apocalypse. He’s not gonna hurt the kid, you know that.” Good fucking luck to anyone who tried. Adam wasn’t the one who needed protection.
Anathema frowned. “He is hurting Adam,” she insisted, “Adam’s a sweet kid…” and something told Crowley she had seen a part of Adam that wasn’t so sweet, but c’mon, fucking reality warping. They were lucky to be alive. “Madame Tracy is scrying, but we think Apocalypse is shielding him.”
“Or he’s shielding himself.” Crowley dug into his pockets for his keys, sighing in relief when he found them.
“Crowley,” he ignored her because he didn’t like that tone of voice, she didn’t know him well enough to say his name like that. She followed him to the car. “I Saw what Aziraphale did to you.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Crowley got into the driver’s seat and reached for a pair of sunglasses from the glovebox. To his annoyance, she stepped too close for him to shut her out, wedging herself in between the car and the door.
“He killed you.”
“Obviousssly,” Crowley turned to glare up at her, “He didn’t.”
“Your breathing stopped. Your heart…”
“Crowley.” Anathema ducked her head, bending over until they were nearly eye-to-eye. “You need to consider the possibility that Aziraphale-”
“He didn’t kill me!” Crowley leaned back against the headrest, blowing a hard breath out of his nose. “You think he would’ve left me there to heal if he really intended to kill me? Aziraphale’s not an idiot.” He did just enough internal damage to bench Crowley while Apocalypse grabbed the kid. The fluid in the lungs was a nice touch. He was so terrified of drowning that it triggered all the wrong responses, and he was out. And he wasn’t gonna think about what it meant for Aziraphale to use that against him. He was still alive.
“Come back to the Institute,” Anathema said.
“I might forget your number the next time I have a vision.”
Crowley blinked, brow furrowing in confusion. The psychic gave him a flat look. It took the shapeshifter a beat too long to figure out what angle she was playing at. “Are you blackmailing me with your powers?”
She had the nerve to look smug when she said, “Yes.”
Anathema was more than clairvoyant, because she could recognize a concession when she heard it. “We’ll follow you.” She and Newt had borrowed a moped from the telepath to find him on the road, and he didn’t invite either of them into the Bentley. He turned around and drove back to the Institute in silence. The front gate had been pulled up – it looked like a tornado had ripped through the grounds, trees up-rooted and driveway cracked. The mansion was mostly intact, and the lights were still on. There were worse places to be.
Crowley didn’t sleep. None of them did.
He sprawled over the desk chair in Anathema’s office, surfed the web for apocalyptic omens, and made snide comments about the distinct lack of alcohol in this school. Shadwell finally coughed up his stash but one finger of single malt whiskey cost Crowley twenty quid. He sobered up almost instantly, but he liked the way it tasted. Aziraphale would hate it. Aziraphale would be devastated. If he was here right now, he would be sitting by the fireplace grieving for his bloody shop and trying to pretend everything was fine. He would feel guilty about being so broken up about his books with Apocalypse on the horizon and the reality warping kid missing.
The earthquake hit at six-thirty in the morning. Crowley felt the bump on his way back from the loo, and in the time it took him to turn around and wonder what the fuck that was, a harder jolt rocked through the foundations of the house and sent him staggering into the wall. “Fuck!” He bolted for the office and dug his nails into the doorframe as the floorboards began to shake. Glass broke, picture frames fell off the walls, bookshelves toppled over, the rolling shudders growing worse with each passing second. The force of the quake knocked Crowley on his arse, Shadwell and Tracy crawled under a table, and Anathema covered her head with her hands.
Crowley squinted up at the ceiling which he swore was moving, sinking down in the middle. The plaster cracked and a meter-wide chunk of it smashed into the floor. Dirt tumbled out of the hole like ash. The cracks splintered out in every direction and Crowley yelled, “Ceiling!” moments before the whole fucking thing came down.
“Mister Shadwell!” Tracy screamed.
Crowley swore as the whole room filled with dust – but he heard coughing from inside. He edged into the room as the dust cleared, stepping over wet clumps of plaster and half a broken pipe, squinting to see if they were alright. Shadwell was still under the table with Tracy – a table that miraculously still stood even with about three solid feet of ceiling dumped on top of it – and had his finger pointed at Anathema. She was crouched on the only spot in the whole room where the ceiling didn’t come down. How the hell did that happen?
The tremors died down to rolling shakes and then after another few seconds, there was nothing.
“What did you do?” Crowley asked, incredulous to see everybody alive and uninjured, “You telekinetic, Shadwell?”
He crawled out from under the table and helped the telepath up as well, shooting Crowley an imperious look. Or as an imperious as an old drunk Scotsman can be, making finger guns in the middle of an earthquake. “I’m lucky, laddie.”
“Luck’s not a power.”
“It is,” Shadwell replied matter of fact, "Ye don’t want to end up on the wrong side of these.” He held up his fingers and Crowley eyed him doubtfully. Before he could sort out whether Shadwell was having him on or not, Anathema was out of the room, calling for Newt and the Them. She ordered everyone out of the house. Crowley noticed the corner of the notebook under a pile of rubble and, on impulse, picked it up on his way out. Halfway down the ruined corridor, he remembered the Bentley was parked outside. By some infernal fucking intervention, she was teetering on a fissure of concrete, the driveway split up the middle, but she was in one piece. Not so much as a scratch on her. Now that was lucky. Crowley ran his hand over her bonnet with a soft murmur and ignored the teary reunion of Tracy with her charges, and Newt and Anathema.
Crowley tried to get a signal on his mobile, but there was no service – and he figured that meant the tower lines must’ve been disrupted. Nobody planned for a bloody earthquake in Tadfield. He rounded the Bentley to give the clairvoyant a head’s up, but all she wanted was the notebook he’d managed to salvage. The moment he handed it over, she went stiff and unseeing. Long story short: they didn’t need a newsfeed. Anathema claimed she knew where the quake had originated and that they needed to go- now.
“Where?” demanded Shadwell.
Anathema straightened, smiling her thanks at Newt. “Tadfield Air Base.”
“Is that where Adam went?” Brian asked. The three kids were covered in a layer of dust but otherwise looked fine, and they gravitated to Anathema with furtive glances to their half-collapsed school.
“Yes,” Anathema replied. Crowley had noticed that Anathema spoke to the children like they were people – smart enough to know what the hell was going on, deserving of the truth. He liked that about her. “But that’s not where you’re going to go. I’ve got to get you three home. If you ask Mr. Crowley nicely, maybe he’ll drive you.” The shapeshifter’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline, and he scowled at the clairvoyant.
“Mr. Crowley will not,” he retorted, souring instantly. She was a pain in the arse.
Pepper wasn’t having any of it. “That’s not fair!” she protested, “We’re superheroes in training-”
“That’s right,” Anathema cut in, “In training. You are not going to the air base. You need to go home.”
The kids argued and Tracy took over fielding the complaints while Crowley pulled Anathema aside and said, “I thought your vision showed those kids on the battlefield with the rest of us.”
“It did,” Anathema replied tiredly, rubbing at the bridge of her nose, “But it doesn’t matter. If we can’t figure out a way around this that doesn’t involve killing eleven-year-olds, maybe we deserve what we get.”
Crowley cocked his head to the side. “You’re willing to sacrifice the world to save a few kids?” That didn’t sound like the Anathema who showed up at Aziraphale’s bookshop in London and ruined his night five days ago. Then again, she probably didn't think it would get this bad.
She looked up at him and he saw, for the first time, the weight in her eyes. Generations of prophecy, of seeing this coming in bits and pieces, and carrying it because she’d never done anything else. “You didn't see him. There is nothing they can do.” She sounded sure.
"And you think there's something we can do?" Crowley didn't want to state the obvious but they were not a powerhouse team of mutants.
"We can try. We understand the risks." Anathema didn't think the Them could consent. Crowley wasn't sure if he was impressed or not.
In the end, he agreed to drive the Them to Jasmine Cottage, because Newt's car was rubbish and three kids were not going to fit on a moped and a bicycle. But Crowley made it clear they could find their own way home from the cottage because he had stuff to do. He’d just have to make up the time on the drive to the air base. He piled the three dirty superheroes-in-training into the backseat, muttered an apology to the Bentley, and peeled out of the Institute’s grounds. He ignored the kids as they argued amongst themselves about whether or not Adam was a supervillain.
During the drive, Crowley thought about Warlock. What if he dragged Warlock into the general vicinity of the air base, kidnapped Aziraphale, and forced him to sit with the kid? If Warlock did his thing and Aziraphale lost his powers, he’d lose the wings. What if Apocalypse’s hold was linked to those? What if he could only brainwash mutants? And even if he did still have a hold on Aziraphale, Aziraphale wouldn’t be able to do anything because he’d be powerless. Then what? Crowley would need to stay with them to make sure nothing happened. He would have taken one horseman off the table, but the others would still be alive. And Apocalypse, too. So the world would still end.
Crowley kicked the Them out of his car by the gate to Jasmine Cottage – as promised – and he sped off towards the air base, pushing the speedometer beyond what it was capable of, faster than Aziraphale had ever let him drive, and he thought of a different plan.
If you've seen Deadpool 2, Shadwell's power is based off of Domino(/Longshot), mutants who have the ability to manipulate probability fields in their vicinity to make situations turn out in their favor. To the layperson, it looks like they are lucky. The recurring joke in canon is that no one believes 'being lucky' is an actual power. While it may not be flashy, it is extremely effective and annoying to other people so I thought this jived well with Shadwell. He doesn't necessarily need to do the finger wag to trigger his powers, but a lot of superheroes have a special pose or gesture to accompany power use. Why not Shadwell? :)
Up next... the battle! with Apocalypse! and the Horsemen!