"Who would win in a fight: an angel or a demon?" Pepper asks, and all eyes swing toward the local representatives.
Aziraphale, who has just finished assembling an artisanal cracker topped with a generous smear of chevre, curl of prosciutto, and exactly two fresh-cut sprigs of chive, hastily shoves the whole lot into his mouth and pastes on a mournful expression as he vaguely points at his full face.
Crowley is stretched out beside him, long legs dangling off the side of the blanket. He's using the angel's left side as a divine backrest, and now he tips his head back against the angel's shoulder and makes considering noises in the back of his throat while he scans the sky for inspiration.
"It's got to be angels," Brian pipes up when it becomes clear neither angel nor demon is going to answer. "In stories, good is always triumphing over evil. Like, evil might look like it'll win right till the end, but the hero always pulls it off, right? With the power of love or friendship or a really cool sword or something."
"That's ridiculous," Pepper shoots back acidly. "In stories, it's always the rebels winning, and demons are the rebels, not angels." She doesn't have a strong opinion about angels or demons one way or another, but the Them have been at "who would win" for nearly a full half hour, and Brian's on-the-nose arguments are slowly driving her spare.
"Actually, it probably depends on what kind of angel is fighting what kind of demon," Wensleydale says. "Do you suppose there are weight classes, like in sport?"
"That's an excellent question, Wensley," says Adam. In the year since the apocalypse, and at the wizened age of twelve, he's been doing a lot of personal reflection and trying to rebalance the dynamic of the Them to something less theocratic. This has so far involved encouraging various members to have a turn choosing games, providing Supportive Validation on game decisions, and making a point to inquire about their opinions on his own games.
The collective Them are tumbled together on the corner of the blanket closest to the park, Dog rolled on his back asleep in the nearby grass. It's late into summer, and the near-constant play over the past two months since school let out is starting to blur the edges between them. Their heads move in eerie sync as they turn from looking at the angel and demon sat across from them to their next-best source of information on the ethereal and occult.
Newt blinks rapidly as he tries to convince himself, poorly, that he's not intimidated by a group of preteens, and nudges Anathema's shoulder with his own. She glances up from her book at him, but turns when he twitches his head toward the children.
"What are we talking about?" she asks distractedly. She's half-closed her book over her thumb, but is obviously waiting to judge whether the conversation truly deserves her time before committing to the bookmark in her lap.
"It's still the 'who would win' game," Newt supplies. "They're on angels versus demons and wondering if there's different types."
Anathema, sensibly, looks to the angel and demon sitting catty-corner to her, but they're still aggressively avoiding eye contact with anyone. Aziraphale is slapping together another three cracker towers to have at the ready when he can no longer reasonably justify not swallowing the first. Crowley has his arms folded over his chest with his fist ponderously tucked under his chin like an upended, goth rendition of The Thinker.
The witch is undeterred. She spent almost the entire month of June getting pulled into various "who would win" arguments before remembering she doesn't, in fact, need to engage in pointless arguments with twelve-year-olds if she doesn't want to, and has since refused to play.
"Well," she says, drawing out the word, "most occult sources agree that demons are former angels. So unless there's a loss or transformation of power associated with Falling, you can probably judge type of both groups based on the ranks discussed in angelology."
"Oh, do you mean like choirs and such," Brian says with the overly enthusiastic tones of a boy who paid approximately four minutes of attention to a relevant lesson in Sunday School.
Anathema hums in agreement and narrows her eyes consideringly at Aziraphale and Crowley. The angel is making a serious study of something in the high branches of the tree they're taking shade under. Crowley has abandoned all pretense and is playing a game on his mobile.
"I wonder," she says, loudly and sweetly in their direction, "who would win: Aziraphale or Crowley."
"Oh!" Aziraphale startles. "Well—such a question. It's not as though either of us has engaged in so much as fisticuffs in ages, and one does need to keep up practice with these sorts of things." His fretting dies abruptly when Crowley cuts over him clearly, baldly: "Aziraphale."
Aziraphale's mouth clicks shut, and he goes so still that the group is forcibly reminded that ethereal beings don't technically need to breathe, have a heartbeat, or even metabolize energy to exist. Beside him, Crowley's stiffened up and his lips pull back from his teeth in a toe-curling wince.
Newt lets out an incredulous bark of laughter and immediately ducks his head in mortification. Aziraphale's already impeccable posture somehow gets even more correct as he glares at the man.
"What, really?" Pepper demands even as Brian is smugly leaning back muttering, "Angels. Said so, didn't I?"
"Yeah," Crowley admits with profound reluctance. He looks like he wishes words were physical objects he could snatch back out of the air and shove in a convenient wood chipper.
"Didn't you stop time that once?" Adam says, tone so carefully removed of incredulity that it has somehow circled right back around to outraged.
"Yeeeeeah." He tucks his mobile decisively into the inner pocket of his jacket and scrambles to his feet. "Anyway, anyone fancy an ice cream? Yes? My treat!" The last is said at almost a shout, due to his already being halfway across the park.
"Miserable serpent," Aziraphale mutters and miracles himself a book on the spot that he holds up directly in front of his face.
The rest take several moments to recover, all apart from Brian in various degrees of shock over the unexpected proclamation, the obvious baggage attached to said proclamation, and the angel's unusually blunt use of a miracle.
"Why does it bother you?" Anathema eventually asks. She feels a little bad for dragging the pair into the game, now that she's seen the result, but not bad enough to quash her curiosity.
This must not be what he was expecting to be asked, because he actually drops the book down far enough to peer at her over the edge. After a moment of squirming under the entire group's undivided and shockingly quiet attention, he purses his mouth and lowers his arms far enough that the book covers his chest instead of his face.
"Oh, I suppose it's because one always has a certain image of one's self, hmm?" He flashes them a smile that gently requests they agree with him. Newt dutifully bobs his head up and down. "And sometimes," he continues, fingers flexing against the open flaps of the book, "that image doesn't always quite match how one was made." Newt bobs his head even harder, and Anathema pats his knee absently, eyes riveted to the angel. "But then..." Aziraphale says, and his eyes squint up in an awful way that makes Wensleydale reflexively check his pockets for any tissues his mum might have tucked in there. "One has to remember that She made you, and She must have had a reason for it all to be so"—he struggles before settling on—"incongruous." He takes a deep breath and forces out a cheerful laugh that doesn't fool even Brian for a second. "That's ineffability for you."
"Well, I think, no one can tell you who you are but you," Pepper says stoutly. Adam beams at her like a loon and throws an arm about her shoulder. She rolls her eyes but doesn't shrug him off.
Aziraphale's eyebrows have gone from tragically furrowed to softly arched. "What a lovely sentiment, dear girl. Thank you." He lowers the book into his lap, and a tentative smile tugs at the corners of his mouth.
"Oh, no," Adam blurts suddenly and so fervently that all attention is immediately wrested from the angel to him. He's not look at Aziraphale, however, but at something across the park.
When they turn, they see what looks like a small herd of disreputable and irredeemably unwashed goths seething toward them from the far side of the field. An invisible but palpable menace rolls off the group. Around them, the few other families and couples out for picnics and lawn games in the early afternoon sunshine are scattering like startled birds.
"Crowley," Aziraphale half shrieks, half chokes as he awkwardly pushes to his feet.
The demon's red hair is a shocking spot of color amidst the group, bobbing quite low to the ground. A pair of identical, burly demons with black eyes, blunt faces, and taloned hands have Crowley gripped tight by his biceps. The toes of his snakeskin shoes gouge furrows in the lawn as he's dragged along between them.
At the head of the group is a tall demon with a pale face and a rather bedraggled-looking frog plastered to the thin wisps of grayish hair on top of his head.
"Are you the Principality Aziraphale, Guardian of the Eastern Gate?" The demon bawls across the lawns at them.
"Hastur," Aziraphale snarls, and for a moment his face twists into something terrible as his eyes flash. But then he takes a deep breath and expels it sharply through his nose. "Yes," he calls back in an airy, aloof drawl, "I am he."
"Oh, good," the demon says and turns to his cohorts. "This is them, then. The ones you're to torture."
As one, the other demons smile sharp and slick. They shift restlessly and an excited murmur unfurls like a miasma within the group. With the almost uniform grubbiness of their clothes and persons it's difficult to be sure exactly how many there are in the group. Too many, Newt thinks, and even his internal voice is several octaves higher than normal.
"Oi, Crowley," Hastur says, and he reaches between the two demons holding Crowley between them to shove roughly at his head. "You're meant to pay attention to this part. It's no good if you're not able to suffer through every second of it."
The twin demons hoist him higher up, until he's more-or-less on his feet. Crowley groggily lifts his head. His glasses have been lost somewhere, so it's easy, even at the distance the other group has stopped at, to see how unfocused his eyes are and the lack of any white sclera to soften the serpentine yellow. A jagged gash on his forehead is slowly oozing blood down his temple.
"'Ziraphale?" he calls, voice thready.
"Yes, over here, dea—um..." The angel cuts himself off and waves awkwardly. Anathema is frankly astonished by the show of discretion.
"Didn't get the ice cream," Crowley rasps.
"Quite all right," Aziraphale responds, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. "I rather thought you settled things with Hell quite dramatically last year. Can I assume this is more in the vein of personal revenge?"
Crowley twists his hands up from where they're hanging limply at the ends of his arms to give a double thumbs up.
"If it's a fight they want, we'll kick their arses," Pepper declares, stepping up to the angel's right with a large tree branch hefted up like a cricket bat. It's no flaming sword, but she'd run off The Johnsonites with less in their last gang scuffle.
Aziraphale startles and looks at her with no small measure of alarm.
Wensleydale and Brian stomp up beside her with their own branches. Brian's still has a poof of leaves on the end. Dog plants himself between their feet and gives two sharp yaps before sneezing into a whining growl.
"Oh, dear," the angel murmurs.
"Yeah!" Brian says, chest puffing up. "We're the good guys, and we've already beat the four horsemen. You can leave our friend and just bugger off."
"Um," Newt hazards as he crowds up to Anathema's shoulder. Apart from standing up, they haven't moved, though Newt is making calf eyes at the woods behind them. "I don't suppose being a recently retired professional descendant that you know how to get rid of demons?"
"All of my equipment is at the cottage," Anathema replies with a grim set to her mouth. Nevertheless, she's standing with her hands loose at her sides and her shoulders thrown back confidently. Newt self-consciously straightens from his slouch.
"Oh, naturally," he says faintly. He takes one last longing look at the relative shelter of the trees before swallowing down the bile climbing up his throat and muttering, "Bugger all," as he grips Anathema's hand tightly in his and faces the demon horde.
"How touching," Hastur sneers. "Look at all your little friends lining up like lambs for the slaughter."
"Yeah," Crowley says, sounding a bit apologetic, "while I appreciate the gesture, you lot aren't the most intimidating."
Adam squeezes between Pepper and the angel and plants himself firmly in front of the group of them. "Don't worry. I can take care of this."
"OK, that might tip it," Crowley concedes, and several of the demons look at him strangely. Apart from Prince Beezlebub, no demons had gotten a good look at the former antichrist. Now that his powers exist in a dormant state unless he's feeling particularly puckish, there's not much to distinguish him from the other absolutely barmy preteens clustered next to the angel. Bully for his friends, Crowley thinks blearily. They'll at least have the element of surprise.
"Enough," Hastur shouts, jarring Crowley from the mildly concussed wandering of his thoughts. "We'll murder the humans, pluck every last feather from the angel, and then drag you both down to Hell. We may not be able to kill you, but we can torment you for an eternity."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Aziraphale grouses, throwing up his arms in exasperation. "Crowley, you owe me so much alcohol."
"Obviously," Crowley croaks and then screws up his face. "For which part, exactly?"
"Oh, I hate this," the angel whines, and then steps forward and tugs Adam back by the shoulder. "No need for that, dear boy."
"Mr. Aziraphale?" Adam asks, looking up at him, a little bewildered but not resisting as the angel firmly steers him back to stand next to his friends.
"Crowley is my responsibility," the angel says, voice implacable and jaw set as he squares his shoulders. "Now, then," he says and turns to take several decisive strides forward that place him some metres ahead of the rest of the group. "I must insist that you foul ruffians unhand my friend and leave us in peace."
The demons collectively jeer and make lewd gestures at them.
Aziraphale grimly begins undoing his bowtie.
"Oh, shit," Crowley says, voice a little high-pitched. "Aziraphale? Angel, are you sure? If you give me a tick, I could probably think of something."
Aziraphale roughly pulls one end of the tie through the collar of his shirt and then shoves it into his coat pocket. "My dear, I'm afraid I've been pushed quite past my limits. Just look at your poor head." In an almost elegant movement, he shrugs out of his coat and folds it over one arm. He then begins working open the top button of his collar one handed.
"Wait," one of the demons on the end of row pipes up, "I thought you said the angel doesn't fight. A pacifist or something." The blob fish on his head quivers in agitation.
Hastur sneers. "You've seen Dagon's files. He's gone as native as Crowley. He's soft. I heard that while the rest of the angels gathered for the glorious apocalypse, he deserted like a coward."
Aziraphale half turns back to the rest of his friends, and Newt cringes at the expression on his face. The angel's affect has gone completely flat, and without the hypermobility of his eyebrows and expressive movements of his mouth, it's easier to see the deeply etched frown lines on his face and the stern set of his eyes and jaw. Beside him, Anathema tightens her grip on his hand. "His aura," she says in an undertone, like a warning.
"Adam," the angel says while holding out his coat, "be a dear and hold this for me, will you?" His voice is quiet and much lower than usual.
Adam steps forward and takes the coat reverently before stepping back into the loose half circle of the Them. Dog sits down hard on his left foot and trembles, but resolutely keeps his snout pointed toward the threat and his lips curled back to expose his sharp teeth.
"You're going to fight them?" Pepper asks with all the outrage a twelve-year-old girl can pack into a single sentence.
"You were just saying that you don't like to fight, Mr. Aziraphale," Wensleydale points out. He's still clutching his tree branch in front of him, but the tip is starting to droop toward the ground.
Aziraphale lifts the corners of his mouth in what might very charitably be called a smile if it weren't for the coldness in his eyes. "Quite right. But it is rather what I was made for, and in this particular sort of circumstance..." he sighs, small and sharp and awful. "Oh, I suppose it is a useful design."
"Oh come off it," Hastur bellows. "You're just a Principality." He spits the word hatefully.
Crowley hoots a laugh and then winces as it jostles his head more than he'd really like. "Oh, sure, a Principality on paper. But he was Guardian of the Eastern Gate. Remind me, Hastur, what sort of angels guarded the gates of Eden?"
Hastur's face moves quickly between incredulity and loathing before settling on disgust. "Stuff your lies, serpent. He can't be a Cherub. The files said Principality."
"Well, he bollocksed up apple duty, and then gave his bloody sword away to boot. Got demoted, didn't he? Doesn't mean they remade him."
Some of the demons share uncomfortable looks.
"A cherub," Newt says doubtfully in an aside to Anathema. "Like... those little fat babies in the paintings?"
"Cor, no," Brian pipes up enthusiastically. "We learned about Cherubim in Sunday School. They're proper terrifying. With four beastly heads and wings everywhere."
In front of them, Aziraphale holds his arms out to the sides and opens his palms. "Yes, well, best you all keep behind me, and, er, perhaps close your eyes." A swirl of wind whooshes outward in a circle around his feet.
"Oi, you're supposed to say 'Be not afraid'!" Crowley pipes up helpfully, and the demon on his right shakes him roughly by the arm in retaliation.
"Crowley," Aziraphale snaps, "do shut up," and reaches into the air beside his head and pulls the flaming sword out of the firmament. He brandishes it at the demons, and a pair of great white wings flare dramatically toward the sky.
The demons freeze as a unit in mute surprise. There isn't a trace of soft fussiness in the face of the creature holding War's sword. All that remains is a detached righteousness so cold it blisters.
"I thought you sent that back," Crowley calls, incredulous. The angel's hard gaze is a horror to behold, but he struggles to keep it.
"It was my sword first," Aziraphale says, flat and reasonable. With a roll of his shoulders, another set of wings unfurls just beneath the first. The wind, which had begun to pick up slightly as they had been talking, starts to whip across the field more urgently, tugging at clothing and hair.
"Are you telling me you could have miracled that bloody thing up at any time in the past six thousand years?" Crowley shouts, tone going a bit pitchy. He's being purposefully, recklessly aggravating, but he's desperate to provoke something familiar in his friend's too still expression. The demons still gripping him by the arms startle out of their stupor, and the one on his right cuffs him across the head with a growl to be quiet already. Crowley grunts in discomfort but manages to keep his eyes fixed on Aziraphale, wide and beseeching.
Something does flicker in Aziraphale's face at the display of casual cruelty, but it isn't anything like the anxious outrage Crowley might normally expect to see. Instead, it's a rage so consuming the angel alights in awful white fire.
The wind howls. The trees at the edge of the park begin tossing madly, and the demons feel themselves having to focus a fair amount of demonic energy on not stumbling under the persistent force of the localized gale that has sprung up. The Them, Newt, and Anathema huddle closer together. For all the noise, the wind isn't pushing them around the way they can see it wreaking havoc on the rest of the clearing. The tartan picnic blanket they're standing on is an eye in the sudden storm.
"What's going on?" Newt manfully shrieks.
"I think it's a practical demonstration of 'who would win,'" Anathema shouts back and tugs him forward so they can huddle closer to the Them.
Amongst the demons, uneasiness is leapfrogging from one to another, not helped in the least by the fact that even Crowley has gone quiet and pale. Hastur steps forward, brandishing his own demonic cutlass. "Come on, there are nine of us and only one of him. We have the odds."
"I wouldn't rely on numbers," Crowley mutters.
The demon to Hastur's left shuffles in place. The giant beetle on his head is buzzing its wings in agitation. "Hastur, a Principality is one thing, but I don't fancy fighting a bleeding Cherub if I don't have to. Couldn't we just take the little worm to Hell now and find other ways to torture him?"
Hastur scoffs, but Crowley can see from the wild-eyed looks being shared that the crowd isn't totally with him anymore. Sensing a wedge forming, he decides to see what he can do to help shove it in further.
"Do any of you remember that big ol' church I razed to the ground back in, oh, 1225 was it?" he asks.
"Sure," the demon on his left says, a touch admiringly. "One of the few truly demonic acts you performed."
"Hmm, well, thing is," Crowley hedges, "I may have fudged the paperwork on that one. See, it was a satanic church, and I got caught by a summoning. They were going to sssacrifice me to gain unholy power." He sucks in a breath through his teeth. "Excsssssssept, Aziraphale got wind and, ah, came and did a bit of sssmiting."
All the demons are looking at him now, even the various bugs and lizards on their heads preternaturally still.
"He killed 66 people," Hastur shrills. "There wasn't a stone left standing. It was all turned to sand and glass. Do you expect me to believe that soft, sorry excuse for an angel did all that?"
"Yup," Crowley says, obnoxiously popping the P. "Didn't even have the sword that time."
Across the clearing, Aziraphale's form at the junction of his great wings is writhing and white like a lightning strike. A blast of sound containing a cacophony of church bells, roaring eagle screams, and pulsating growls rings out. The concussive force pushes the demonic host into stumbling back awkwardly. The sword has elongated into a blazing lance of holy flame.
Crowley squints through the glare and can just see their friends still huddled together on the picnic blanket, all of them with their faces turned away and hands held up against the searing brightness. The angel's wings are arched up and back, the terrible afterimage shadow they throw falling across the group to provide more protection. Only Adam is still standing witness, hugging the angel's coat to his chest and gazing sadly at the back of Aziraphale's head.
When a Cherubim speaks, it feels like a star searing through your retinas and a heavy bass note rattling your heart out of rhythm:
"GIVE HIM BACK."
It sounds both like a gong rung directly beside your head and like the memory of a scream from a nightmare. Each word presses the lungs like a punch to the solar plexus for a fraction of a second before relenting. For the demons, who don't need to breathe, it feels like the first terrible moments after the Fall when they instinctively reached for the vital essence that had been stripped from them and found it achingly gone.
Crowley is gasping and sweating right along with the rest of them, the intensity bringing tears to his eyes. All the same, he scrounges up the breath to say, "Oh, and don't forget he can withstand Hellfire now, too."
"Right, bugger this," gasps the demon to his left, and he shoots down through the ground with a little poof of dirt. The rest of the demons, all save Hastur, quickly follow suit.
As soon as he's free, Crowley scrambles away and awkwardly runs in a wide arc around the harrowing glory of his best friend, leaning as far away from the blazing light sizzling his skin as he can without falling over. Once he's circled behind the spread of the Cherub's wings, he shuffles close to stand just behind Aziraphale's back. Even in the relative shadows, this close he has to squeeze his eyes shut and turn his face away. The holy light makes his skin prick hot like what he imagines a sunburn must feel to a human. Nevertheless, he gropes his left hand out and clutches at the juncture between Aziraphale's left shoulder and neck. He can feel the muscles of the Cherub's neck bulging and retracting as he rapidly cycles through faces; heat and fur and feathers and coarse bristles shift beneath Crowley's palm. He gives a bracing squeeze and squeaks out, "All right, m'safe now. The ol' sturm und drang worked. Well done. You can douse it, angel."
"HE WILL TRY AGAIN." the Cherub thunders like an organ chord descending from major to minor, except in a way that aches in the back of your jaw. Crowley can feel him raise the sword high in preparation to strike.
"Aziraphale," Crowley begs, voice cracking. "I'm sure he's learned his lesson." He brings his other hand up and reaches over the edge of a wing to grip the angel's upraised bicep; it's like gripping marble. "Come on, you're going to give yourself an ulcer. Put it back."
He can't see, but he gets the impression of movement to the right of them.
"You hate this," Adam says quietly, but it cuts through the shrieking wind to land softly in their ears. "I can make a rule he has to follow. No more messing about with you and yours."
Beneath his hands, Crowley feels Aziraphale shudder, muscles softening a fraction. He doesn't dare open his eyes yet, but he takes a gamble and rests his forehead against the angel's spine just above where his wings begin. It's like pressing his face against metal that's baked through a punishingly hot day, but Crowley's good with heat. This close, he can feel the edges of feathers brush his face. His skin hasn't started boiling off, so either the angel is exerting some effort to protect him, or the old tales of a Cherub's wings being able to smite a demon on contact are overblown.
"Let him, Aziraphale," he says with entirely manufactured authority. "You're going to ruin your manicure. And I can't haul a great bloody Cherub in to the Ritz, now, can I?" He forces a laugh and then takes a steadying breath so he can inject as much command and confidence into his voice as he can muster under the circumstances. "Come on, you soft bastard, me and the antichrist can sort it from here."
Despite the effort, his voice still shakes like the leaves of one of his plants, but apparently it's enough, because the wind begins to die down, and the angel lowers his arm. When he feels Aziraphale's shoulders slump, he dares to squinch open an eye and finds that the angel is now merely glowing like an obnoxious fluorescent lightbulb and just has the one face again.
Crowley lifts his head and peers over Aziraphale's shoulder. He's no longer holding the sword, which has vanished back to who knows where. Instead, he's clutching Adam's hand tightly. The antichrist, for his part, is glaring daggers at Hastur, who is still standing defiant about fifty metres away holding up his cutlass and quivering like a baby lamb.
Aziraphale hasn't brought his wings in; they're still spread aggressively and defensively, shielding Crowley and the humans (apart from Adam). But he reaches up and grasps Crowley's hand to his shoulder to keep it in place.
"Right, you, um," Adam starts and then tilts his head.
"Hastur, Duke of Hell," Crowley provides.
"Hastur, Duke of Hell," Adam repeats. "You're not to mess about anymore with Aziraphale or Crowley or anyone or anything they consider under their protection."
"Either directly or through intermediate agents," Crowley murmurs.
Adam obligingly tacks this on as well.
Hastur sneers and makes to step menacingly forward, but finds himself abruptly swinging around to face away from them. He snarls, turns back around, and tries to lob the cutlass at them with a bellow of rage. The cutlass dissolves into dandelion puffs that immediately scatter on the ebbing wind.
"Don't think this is the end," he shrieks. "I'll find some way to get at you, Crowley. You can't protect everything, and that's where I'll find a way in."
Aziraphale tuts. "You're forgetting that I'm Earth's only active Principality." There's still a bit of electric charge in his voice when he says coldly, "I think you'll find the entire world is under my protection."
At that, Hastur throws a proper, high-pitched fit and begins stamping his feet hard enough that he's slowly sinking himself back down under the ground to Hell below. Moderately reassured that the angel isn't going to flare back up any worse, Crowley waves a jaunty goodbye with his free hand.
As soon as the dirt settles over the demon's head, Aziraphale takes a huge, shuddering breath and lowers his wings. Adam gives his hand a final squeeze and turns back to look after the others.
"All right, angel?" Crowley asks.
Aziraphale folds in both sets of wings and turns his head. There are shimmering tears running down his face, and his eyes are still a little too glow-y to be considered back to normal, but he's got a tremulous smile pasted across his face.
"Oh, Crowley," he admonishes, "why must you always get yourself into these situations? You know how irritating I find that form."
Crowley's jaw drops. "Wha—" he splutters and yanks his other hand back so he can shove the angel lightly on the shoulder. Aziraphale uses the momentum to turn fully around so they're face-to-face. "That's bloody rich coming from the angel who invented the damsel in distress archetype."
Aziraphale's giggle is watery, but his smile is looking less strained. He reaches a slightly trembling hand up to touch the gash on Crowley's forehead. "Oh, your poor head."
Crowley shrugs. "Had worse."
"Well, I still have a bit of oomph to jiggle out," Aziraphale says and reaches up to draw Crowley's face down so he can gently press their foreheads together. When he pulls away, the gash and blood are gone from Crowley's face, and the last of the glow has left Aziraphale's eyes. He pats Crowley's face gently, and the demon knows that the stupidly besotted grin he feels bursting inside is leaking out, much to his chagrin.
Aziraphale huffs a breath, shakes his hands out, and turns back to the rest of the group. "Adam, do you still have my coa—oh. Oh, dear," he trails off.
Other than Adam, everyone is still frozen in the huddled mass they'd assumed during the worst of the angelic storm, though now they're all staring at Aziraphale with uniformly wide eyes.
Crowley hisses through his teeth. "I think you overdid it, angel," he says.
"Oh, my goodness, I am so sorry you all had to go through that," Aziraphale says, wringing his hands. His feathers fluff out in distress; given that there are four wings' worth of them, the overall effect is more distressed pigeon than avenging angel. "Is there something I can do to help ease the burden for you? If you think it would help, I could probably alter the memory for you; make it less, ah, excessive."
"S'creepy, angel," Crowley advises in an undertone, crossing his arms over his chest.
Aziraphale shoots him a venomous glare and turns back beseeching eyes on the group.
Adam adds, completely unselfconsciously, "They didn't much like it when I tried to erase their memories of the Apocalypse."
This seems to jolt Pepper out of her paralysis, and she straightens up to improve the impact of her glower. This has the effect of pulling up Brian and Wensleydale as well, since they are each plastered to either side of her. "No one's messing with my mind," she scolds.
"That was wicked," Brian whispers, hair twisted up into even more of a disaster than usual.
"Actually, it would be more accurate to say it was divine," Wensley pipes in. He unwraps one arm from around Pepper's waist to adjust his glasses. He almost puts the arm right back before visibly thinking better of it and straightening up to his full height, though he keeps close enough that they're still pressed together shoulder to hip. Brian's own sense of preteen self-consciousness is shockingly underdeveloped, so he stays put until Pepper impatiently puts her hand to the side of his face and pushes just enough that he drops his arms. It helps that Adam has come up on his other side and slung a casual arm around his shoulders.
Anathema, of course, is the one to zero in on the obvious: "You really would win in a fight," she says flatly.
Aziraphale winces and does a thing with his shoulders that might be shrug of acknowledgement. Crowley grins sunnily, bobs his head in an unequivocal nod, and performs a vertical slouch against the angel's side. Aziraphale sways a moment in surprise before rolling his eyes and straightening up into a better slouching surface.
"But," Newt says, "you didn't try to fight at the airbase. You made Crowley come up with a solution."
"Well, I'm hardly a match for Archangels, fallen or not," Aziraphale scoffs.
Crowley hems and haws a bit. "I'd say when you get your feathers properly ruffled you could absolutely wipe the floor with Gabriel's smug face—that purple-eyed bastard. Probably Uriel, too. Michael's a different story, but that comes down to intended function. But fair point on Satan Himself. Needed something more than raw power for that."
Aziraphale's shoulders, which had started to creep up, relax slightly, though he still keeps his gaze on his folded hands.
"And anyway, it's part of our Arrangement, isn't it," Crowley concludes with a self-satisfied nod.
"Your workshare arrangement?" Anathema asks doubtfully.
While Crowley bobs his head up and down, Aziraphale turns a curious look at him. "Is that how you've always seen it?"
Crowley arches incredulous eyebrows at him. "Maybe unspoken, but sure. Anytime you're in a pinch, I take care of the icky bits. You get to stay soft, and I rack up some demon points. Win-win." He shifts and shoves his fingers in his decorative pockets and then, clearly unable to help himself, asks, "Why, what did you think it was?"
Aziraphale waves a hand in the air vaguely, eyes locked on the demon's with an unbearably soft crease between his eyebrows. "It always seemed to me like chivalry."
Crowley's face flushes deeply, incriminatingly red.
Privately, Anathema thinks it sounds more like practical self-preservation if the demon knew that any time the angel made an effort to defend himself it might leave a smoking crater. Can't tempt piles of ash to sin. Then, Anathema reasons, she isn't an immortal supernatural being: maybe they measure romance and being a supportive partner on a slightly bigger slide rule.
"Well, you shouldn't worry anymore," Adam states with the sort of preternatural confidence that soothes Newt, Brian, and Wensleydale into dropping the last of their tense posture and absolutely riles Anathema and Pepper right up.
"Adam, you're doing it again," the witch warns.
His eyes widen comically, and he awkwardly tries again. "I mean, I made a rule, so that demon thing can't cause any more trouble, so I think that means we don't have to worry anymore?" He squints around at his friends. Since he managed to keep the supernatural will out of his tone this time, Pepper nods at him approvingly.
"Wonderful, so no one's irreparably scarred?" Crowley asks brusquely. "No? Excellent!" With a snap, the picnic stuff is banished back to the various cupboards and refrigerators from whence it came. "Best thing for it now's probably a lie down and a cuppa," he advises as he grips Aziraphale by the shoulders and angles him toward where they'd parked the Bentley earlier that morning. "Book girl, computer guy, you'll see the kiddies safely home, yeah? Here, I'll even throw in a little blessing for safe travels. Right-o, see you lot later." He doesn't pause for breath as he begins frog marching the angel, who's still looking a bit wobbly around the edges, in the direction of the car.
The group can feel a bit of a tingle as the hamfisted blessing settles on their shoulders. It puts Newt in mind of when his mother used to grip him firmly by the back of his neck when he was little and they needed to cross the street. Dog sneezes.
"A demon can't do blessings," Brian says without much conviction.
"Well obviously one just did," Pepper needles back.
That finally does break the last of the tension, and the group begins drifting back in the direction of the Them's home, a little shaken but otherwise none the worse for wear. After the Apocalypse, only mildly harrowing danger just doesn't pack the same punch.
They don't so much drive back as close the doors of the Bentley in Tadfield and then reopen them with the Bentley parked in its usual appropriated loading zone spot across from the bookshop.
Crowley springs from the car like demented jack-in-the-box so he can open the passenger door and gently bully Aziraphale out of the car and across the street in record time. Once inside, he chivvies the angel onto the sofa, glaring miracles around the shop to ensure the door locks up behind them, something gentle with violins begins playing on the gramophone, and a cup of sinfully dark chocolate cocoa with whipped cream pops into being on the end table.
He points a stern finger in Aziraphale's face. "Drink your cocoa."
Aziraphale rolls his eyes but dutifully picks up the mug and brings it to mouth.
Satisfied, Crowley prowls upstairs, grumbling to himself. He slithers back down a minute later with the angel's favorite cashmere sweater, tartan house slippers, and throw blanket bundled in his arms. One demonic shrug later, he's holding Aziraphale's coat, waistcoat, and bowtie neatly folded in one arm and his brogues in the other.
Aziraphale huffs but snuggles down in his softer attire. When he fusses with the drape of the blanket across his lap, he notices the buff finish from his latest manicure has transformed into a rosey pink polish.
"Crowley," he protests, finally. As much as he appreciates the pampering, it feels a bit like being subjected to a tender but brutally efficient checklist of comfort. "Come here, please."
The demon slinks out of the bookstacks, arms full of what he's pegged over the past few centuries as Aziraphale's comfort reads. He deposits them gently on the coffee table before slumping dramatically onto the couch and leaning determinedly into the angel's side.
Aziraphale tips his head gratefully against Crowley's temple but doesn't give up the tight grip he has on the mug of cocoa.
"You are a heartless wretch," he accuses, because all things told, it's the easiest thing to broach first.
Predictably, Crowley squawks a protest and sits ramrod straight. "I beg your pardon?" he splutters.
Aziraphale takes a placid sip from his mug. "You revealed something I don't like sharing without asking and then ran away."
Crowley chokes on air and then groans, slumping back on the couch and slithering down so far his hips almost come off the cushion. "Yeah, fine, that was shit of me. Sorry, angel. I panicked."
"I had to answer very uncomfortable questions. It was dreadful."
"Yeah, all right, I get it. I'm an arsehole." He tips his head back and looks up with as contrite an expression as one can manage with snake eyes. "Karma caught me quick on that one, though, didn't it? Hadn't barely cleared the park before a bloody pack of demons was there to kick my arse."
Aziraphale stiffens and fixes him with a stern glare. "Anthony J. Crowley," he admonishes, because he knows it makes the demon squirm to hear him say his full name, self-chosen or not. "I seem to remember a drunken lecture on the differences between consequences and, as you so eloquently put it, 'bloody buggering coincidence.'"
"Ugh, angel," Crowley protests, throwing his hands up and letting them fall dramatically in his lap.
"Don't 'angel,' me," Aziraphale snaps. "Or are you intentionally trying to martyr yourself."
"No," Crowley groans, drawn out, and gathers himself enough to sit up and draw the angel into a sideways hug. "I am completely owning the fact that I was a shit friend. Getting my arse kicked by some demons doesn't absolve me of that."
Aziraphale hums disapprovingly, and Crowley adds with the put upon tone of someone repeating a scolding, "Nor did I deserve it." He follows up by burying his face in the angel's shoulder and hanging on grimly.
Aziraphale stews for as long as it takes to finish his mug of cocoa, which isn't all that long. When he finishes, he places the empty mug back on the end table and then turns fully into the hug and wraps his arms tightly around Crowley's waist.
"I know it was an accident," he says. "I forgive you."
Crowley shudders in his arms, doing as good an impression of a constrictor as possible without giving up the ghost and outright transforming. Aziraphale presses his cheek into the softness of his friend's hair.
"All those times in the past when you stepped in to do the 'icky bits,'" he ventures after a moment. "Was it not chivalry?"
Crowley grumbles into his shoulder.
"What was that, dear?"
The demon turns his head enough that he's not speaking directly into the plushness of the angel's sweater. "I said... 'maybe.'"
"Maybe it was chivalry, or maybe it wasn't?"
"Look," he says with the shredded patience of someone suffering their fifth transfer in a customer service telephone tree. "I maybe like being able to do you favors."
"Favors of courtly love," Aziraphale says with no small amount of relish.
"I am a demon. Getting you out of trouble provides a lot of opportunities to do evil things."
"Evil things like saving the life of an angel—"
"Saving you from paperwork."
"—and sparing someone you love a great deal of pain," Aziraphale finishes placidly, rubbing his cheek against Crowley's hair. "Your motives appear awfully suspect, dear heart."
"You kept letting yourself get discorporated for awhile there, and it was bloody boring, frankly, waiting for you to get back since you always insisted on a bespoke replacement."
"I like this corporation. You like this corporation."
"I like you," Crowley snarls, hugging tight enough to force the unnecessary air from Aziraphale's lungs. After a literally breathless pause, Aziraphale clings back and presses his face into Crowley's shoulder.
"And yeah," Crowley presses, unspooling even as he winds tighter, "even back then, before the arrangement, it tore at my shriveled black heart that it hurt you so much to pull out the warrior that you would rather let yourself be murdered and trapped in that bloody awful shining prison for years and years while I was left cooling my heels on earth not knowing if they'd let you come back." They're tangled so tightly, Crowley is hissing the words against Aziraphale's jaw, quiet enough that no one beyond the clinging knot of their embrace could possibly hear the confession. "Seemed better for all involved if I stepped in and did something about it." He presses a fierce kiss to the angel's jaw. "Like I said, win-win."
Aziraphale shudders out a soft sob and digs his fingers into Crowley's back.
The sun is close to setting before Aziraphale feels centered enough to gentle his grip on the demon. Crowley immediately draws back just enough to sweep a stern, serpentine gaze across the angel's face. Beyond the red-rimmed eyes and blotchy cheeks, he is looking fair enough. Still, Crowley raises his eyebrows in silent question. Aziraphale takes a shuddering breath and exhales on a tiny smile.
"I'm feeling more like myself, now," he says quietly. "But I am quite exhausted."
Crowley bobs his head up and down. "Of course, of course. Turning into a localized supernova would have that effect, I'd expect."
Aziraphale blanches. "Quite." He licks his lips and brings his hands up to cling at the lapels of Crowley's jacket. "I don't like," he says, and stops, takes another breath, and starts again: "I hate how people look at me after." He's making a clear effort to keep his voice matter of fact. "I hate that when I have to, it can be hard to remember who I truly am and not just what I am capable of."
Crowley nods and lightly grasps the hands grasping him. He doesn't ask why the angel still does it sometimes, when he hates it so much. He's only seen Aziraphale become the Cherub a handful of times in the past six millenia, but it hasn't escaped him that it only occurs when Crowley's unable to wriggle himself out of certain peril. It's the kind of knowledge that he can only hold in his brain if he doesn't look at it head on. That Aziraphale is willing to risk the pain of losing himself for Crowley's sake but not his own feels too much like the angel is putting his metaphorical beating heart into Crowley's hands, and that's a lot of responsibility for one demon.
"I'm sorry I let them get the drop on me."
"Oh, Crowley," Aziraphale protests in pained exasperation.
"No, I know, not a martyr. Just..." He shrugs helplessly. "I'm still sorry it happened. I couldn't stop it. You felt like you had to do it when I know you hate it—I'm sorry for that."
"I always do the maths, dear," Aziraphale says, voice a little hoarse as he tips forward and presses his forehead to Crowley's. "When there's trouble," he clarifies. "I only do it when the risks are unbearable. And I do so appreciate how hard you try to stack the odds for me."
Crowley grunts in acknowledgement and closes his eyes in self defense. His ears are beet red. A smile flickers over Aziraphale's face.
"It does make it less painful, you know," he confides, shifting so he can press a kiss to the corner of one of Crowley's eyes. "That you strive so valiantly, every time. And that I can trust you'll always tell me when it's safe to put it away. That you prefer it—that you prefer me—when I'm true to myself."
"Like you soft," Crowley mutters in a rush and then clambers astride Aziraphale's lap so he can wrap all four limbs around the angel's torso like a koala with an axe to grind.
Aziraphale gladly clutches Crowley to him, pressing their cheeks together. "The black knight's secretly chivalrous heart," he says on a sigh.
"Shut up, you bastard."
Aziraphale lets himself relax against Crowley's chest, drooping his chin and arms so the demon is taking the full weight of his upper body. It truly is astonishing, he reflects as he nuzzles into Crowley's neck, that six feet of tensely quivering demonic anxiety can make him feel so secure.
"Shall I grant you a token of my favor?"
"Bloody Victorians and their made up bollocks," Crowley grumbles.
"I'm sure I have a perfumed handkerchief I could spare."
"How about you favor me with a good vintage and a blessed nap."
"Of course, darling. Anything for my handsome knight," Aziraphale soothes and scoops his hands firmly around the back of Crowley's thighs.
"Oi, what are you—" Crowley cuts off with a yelp as Aziraphale stands up and hoists the clinging demon with him.
"A nap sounds lovely," he says. "We'll dig into my special reserves later."
The demon protests loudly about his dignity as Aziraphale crosses the shop and begins an easy ascent up the back stairs to the efficiency flat. He doesn't, however, make any move to untangle himself. Aziraphale favors him with a chaste kiss and then asks whether Crowley would prefer he change into silk or flannel for their nap. Crowley chooses flannel, even though it's tartan.
1 Brian tends to pick "who would win" rather more often than any of the rest of them would prefer, especially since he is spectacularly bad at it. But, Adam supposes the important thing is that Brian is having fun and feels special. [return to text]
2 The Them has bemusedly tolerated this tonal shift in the fits and spurts Adam has remembered that he's turned over his Adversarial leaf in the past ten-odd months. Pepper's patience is wearing the thinnest of the three. The next time Adam earnestly and rather patronizingly tells her that the game she's picked is "awfully good" when she didn't even want to have to spend the mental energy anyway—that's what she has him for, thanks—she's going to kick his arse. [return to text]
3 A sun-bleached Tesco receipt. She has an entire drawerful of appropriately witchy bookmarks—all handmade paper with blessings inscribed in calligraphy, preserved dried flowers and dramatically colored leaves, hand-dyed flax woven into flattened sigils and runes, etc., etc. But much like having an entire pile of reusable bags for the shopping, nice bookmarks are only as useful as your ability to remember to grab one on the way out of the house. Otherwise, you're obliged to buy new or submit to scrounging what's available in the boot of the car or the fathomless depths of your purse. [return to text]
4 Even if the outcome of his miracles usually have all the subtlety of a brick to the face, Aziraphale usually at least attempts at misdirection or a bit of stage magician flare to soften the cognitive whiplash most mortals endure when ethereal/occult beings manifest objects from nothing. [return to text]
5 "Killed," Crowley had thought when he'd filed his report, was a technically accurate description of what happened, no matter what Aziraphale would protest, which is why he'd put it down. He could have explained that in a truly unnerving display of righteous mercy the angel had so ruthlessly rewritten the cultists' memories to root out the inclinations that had led them to become satanists in the first place such that, while they had all been physically intact, they had walked away from the incident fundamentally different people, but he didn't think Hell would appreciate the nuance. [return to text]
6 "Bitch," he does not add because he has managed to reclaim his manners. [return to text]
7 It is, of course, no coincidence that Pepper and Anathema are the two in the group with the most experience in shrugging off someone's attempt to dictate their feelings to them. [return to text]