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Like a River Flows

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Shall I stay?
Would it be a sin
If I can't help
falling in love with you?


 

 

I.

 

            He stood upon the Eastern Gate, the white wing of an angel arced over his head as the first rain began to fall from the heavens above, whetting the appetite of the rolling desert below. Together, they watched the humans pad away, their hands clasped, and Crawley wondered how that felt. He’d never held another’s hand. He’d only just barely had hands at all.

            He glanced over at the angel, whose blue eyes were riveted on the mistakes he may or may not have made. Crawley knew it didn’t matter now; what was done was done. They no longer had the ability to go back to yesterday, not the way they could have done before yesterday existed. Before all of this existed.

            Side by side, they stood until the humans had long disappeared into the distance, until the rain slacked and the clouds parted and the angel tipped his wing to shake off the excess water. Crawley’s robes were damp at the bottom and his feet were reptile-cold against the hewn stone. They hadn’t said a word since Crawley’s last attempt at a joke, and he was desperate to make up for it.

            “Thank you,” he said quietly, drawing the angel’s attention. At the confused look he received, he lifted his own wings and gestured to the angel’s. “For… worrying. I guess it wasn’t holy water, eh?”

            The angel looked appalled at the prospect, as though it hadn’t occurred to him. “You stayed, when you thought it might have been?”

            Crawley shrugged and could not meet the angel’s eyes. “There are worssse thingsss than not exssisssting.” He didn’t admit that he’d gone through them first hand, but he thought maybe they were worth it.

            The angel stared hard at him, emotions Crawley didn’t have names for yet warring in his expression. He wasn’t sure he liked the one it settled on, felt it like a sword blade to his throat, like hellfire in his gut. “You shouldn’t be so careless with your life, Crawley. Even if you are a demon.”

            A long-forgotten feeling rattled under Crawley’s ribs like a bird, threatening to stop his heart. He forced a grin with too many teeth and not enough truth. “Aw, are you concerned about me? Be careful, angel, I might just fall in love...”

            The angel pursed his lips and spread his wings. “As if a demon could,” he said, and the bird in Crawley’s chest fell still in pain. “I have to go make my report. I suggest you don’t linger.”

            Crawley did, petulantly. He lingered another hour, two, staring stubbornly out over the sands. He would need to go back soon as well, to give his own reports, but no one expected him to work quickly. He was fairly certain no one really expected him to work at all.

            “Crawley,” said a fine, soft voice from behind him, and Crawley stiffened taut. Lucifer.

            “Yes, my Lord?” Crawley answered, tense and high. He’d done his job, or he thought he had, but he could feel the worry that he’d done the right thing zinging under his skin.

            “You did well with the humans,” Lucifer said, silky and heated, like the pour of liquid iron.

            “Thank you, my Lord,” Crawley bit out, not daring to turn around.

            “But...” Lucifer continued thoughtfully, “you shouldn’t talk to angels. We left them a long time ago. You do still remember, don’t you? What they did to us? How they hurt us?”

            “Yes, my Lord,” Crawley answered, swallowing thickly at the searing, phantom pain that streaked down his wings. The landing had not been gentle. The recovery afterward even less so.

            “I cannot have you falling in love with one of them,” Lucifer told him. Crawley didn’t argue that it was a joke. He was not sure Lucifer would understand jokes. Crawley had only recently invented them, but he thought they were going to be big someday. “Turn around.”

            Crawley desperately gulped in one more long look over the sands, one more moment before he had to face his punishment, and then he turned to look upon Lucifer. The fallen angel was still scarred from his own Fall, skin dyed red from the blood he’d shed, his halo warped and broken where it sat upon his head like a crown. His claws were out but his wings were not, and Crawley thought maybe there was hope yet.

            Then Lucifer reached for him, clawed hands settling to either side of his jaw, dark eyes catching his and holding them steady as he repeated himself. “I will not have you love an angel, Crawley.”

            “Would it be so bad?” Crawley mumbled, pressing a cheek to Lucifer’s warm palm. There was a reason so many had followed him, once. Even here, even knowing he could be destroyed by the Fallen One in the very next instant, Crawley wanted to do well for him. Wanted to prove himself worthy of Lucifer’s attention and care.

            “I’ll ensure it will be,” Lucifer promised, his soft, sweet tone at odds with the threat. “I will not allow you to love another above me. If you speak of love to him, if you act upon it, I will take it from you. Do you understand?”

            The way She took love away from you? Crawley thought, but he didn’t say it. He didn’t need to. “I understand, my Lord.”

            “Good.” Lucifer’s hands dropped away, and Crawley was released from his gaze. “Then go after the humans, now. Stir trouble for them, where they settle.”

            Crawley nearly answered, but Lucifer had already gone. Instead, Crawley let out a raspy breath and turned his back on the garden. The sands were warm and damp from the first rain, cutting their usual heated shimmer away from them. Somewhere in the distance, out of sight now, walked Adam and Eve, toward the soft curve of the horizon. Crawley spread his midnight wings under the noon sun, and took to the sky to follow in their footsteps like a shadow.

 

Chapter Text

II.

 

            Rain fell.

            It had fallen for several days and nights already, lifting the ark from the ground and setting it to sail. Aziraphale sat upon the stern of it, watching its wake swirl angrily behind it like a great dragon’s tail. There was debris in the water. There were bodies. Aziraphale watched them, too, and wondered how this could ever have been righteous, how it could ever have been holy.

            He saw the dark-winged shape long before it was close enough to alight on the solid rail. Crawley was bedraggled and furious and looked as though he’d come to fight, with his wings up and a short blade in his hands. His golden eyes blazed in the darkness, and Aziraphale stumbled rapidly backward to avoid the first swing, scrambling to give Crawley space.

            “You let them die!” Crawley hissed, fury thick on his forked tongue.

            “No!” he yelled over the sound of the pounding rain drenching them both. “Wait, Crawley, wait!”

            Aziraphale realized that he would not be given time to explain. His own sword, out now and not the sort that flamed, clanged against Crawley’s as he struck again. Aziraphale shoved him back, sending Crawley sprawling on his rear- he must have been exhausted from the flight, to be toppled so easily. Sword at the ready to receive another attack, Aziraphale raised his wings and stood over him.

            “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, as quietly as he could and still be heard. “And we can’t very well talk here. Come below with me.”

            Crawley’s face twisted into a snarl. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” He started to jump to his feet and Aziraphale lashed out with one foot, putting Crawley right back on the deck in a sprawl as lightning arced through the ash-dark clouds.

            “You can kill me after we talk, if you still want to,” Aziraphale shouted at him, a boom of thunder chasing his words. “I won’t fight you. But hear me out first.”

            Crawley snarled again, but when he got to his feet this time, he didn’t try to strike. The sword stayed. Aziraphale would take what he could get. He sheathed his own sword out of mortal sight, and turned his back on the livid demon. He hoped that would be enough of a show of trust. He hoped it would not be his end.

            Somehow, they made it across the huge deck and down into the dry interior of the ark. Aziraphale dried them both with a snap, without even stopping walking, and Crawley followed behind him as they descended further into the ship’s belly. They passed by sleeping humans and sleeping animals, all the way to the final deck. Aziraphale could feel Crawley’s eyes on him the entire time, feel the weight of his anger and, eventually, confusion.

            “Angel, where are we going?” Crawley asked, just before they got there. “Stop. Angel, stop! You wanted to talk.”

            “I’m afraid I may have misled you a little,” Aziraphale said, taking the last few steps and then turning to face Crawley as he put a hand on the stall door to his left.

            Crawley bristled, opening his mouth to say something, and fell statue-still at the sound of a small voice from beyond the door. He blinked, unnaturally quick, as his attention turned to the stall. Aziraphale took a step backward, out of the way as Crawley came closer, close enough to peer over the gate.

            His sword clattered to the floor.

            “You saved them?”

            Aziraphale turned to stand beside Crawley, looking in at the dozen or so children gathered in the stall, piled up together on dry straw and as many blankets as Aziraphale had been able to find. Almost all of them were asleep, save the one oldest, who sat with the youngest curled up in her lap. She stared up at them, silent and tired. Aziraphale had been caring for them for days, but he had very little idea what he was doing. Children were not his forte.

            “As many as would come with me,” he explained quietly. “But they didn’t know me, and wouldn’t come. These ones… I finally started to say your name when I asked. They came then.”

            Crawley’s voice caught when he spoke. “Why?”

            “Because you were right!” Aziraphale said, in the same plaintive tone he couldn’t help when he’d given away his flaming sword. “She can’t have meant to kill the children. They can’t have done anything so wrong.”

            “You’re going to be in trouble.” Crawley couldn’t seem to look away from the children, even though Aziraphale could see him struggling.

            Aziraphale fidgeted, hands coming up to rest on the gate. “Yes, I- I had thought of that. I thought perhaps you might want to… well. You had wanted to save them before...”

            “You want me to take the blame?” Crawley asked, finally turning to look at him.

            “Wh-when you put it like that, I suppose-”

            “I will,” Crawley said, before Aziraphale could finish his apology. “I’ll say I was thwarting an angel’s plan to kill them. Thwarting God’s plan. Saving some of my own work. Whatever I have to say.”

            “Oh,” Aziraphale sighed, heart jumping. “Oh yes, that will do nicely.”

            Crawley blew out a noise that resembled a relieved sob but most definitely was not. “You really saved them,” he breathes out. “Angel, I could kiss you right now.”

Aziraphale’s cheeks pinked. “That won’t be necessary. But… you do know I can’t stay, don’t you? Noah’s family will notice if I’m still gone by morning. And you’ll have to get them all off the ark once the rain lets up.”

            “If I don’t…?” Crawley asked.

            A pained sound rattled in Aziraphale’s chest and he could not hold Crawley’s gaze. “I have my orders, Crawley. I won’t Fall for a handful of humans. Please make sure they’re safely gone.”

            Though Crawley looked like he wished he could say a few choice words about that excuse, he just nodded and began to open the gate. He hesitated halfway through it, and didn’t quite look at Aziraphale. “I’ve never met anyone like you, angel,” he murmured. “Not in heaven or hell or earth.”

            “People don’t usually consider that a good thing,” Aziraphale told him.

            Crawley smiled. “I think it is. Might even be a little bit in love.”

            Aziraphale rolled his eyes and pulled the gate shut behind Crowley, closing him in with the children, who were stirring now at the disturbances. “Just keep them quiet,” he instructed. “I’ll come check on you when I can.”

            He heard Crawley’s soft thank you, and then the tremulous excitement of the exhausted children as they realized who had joined them. Crawley shushed them, and Aziraphale tried to ignore the way the entire stall glowed with the blaring presence of love that shouldn’t exist. Demons shouldn’t know how to love at all, and they certainly shouldn’t be so fond of humans.

            Or of angels, he told himself. There was a warm flutter in his belly to remember Crawley’s soft a little bit in love, even though he knew better. He knew it could not mean anything, and he was proven right the next morning when he descended to the child-filled stall to find Crawley standing defensively between the door and the children.

            “I won’t let you have them,” Crawley told him, as though he really thought Aziraphale wanted to take them away after having gone to the trouble to save them in the first place.

            “I don’t want them,” Aziraphale said, miffed, and Crawley relaxed a tiny bit. Aziraphale supposed he was glad that Crawley was playing along with the ruse so wholly. “I just came to see how you were.”

            “Fine without you,” Crawley spat, as if he’d never admitted to anything just a few hours ago, by the dark of night. As if they were strangers, or even enemies, all over again.

            Though his heart shredded a little at the coldness, Aziraphale nodded. It was for the best, he told himself. “I suppose I’ll leave you to it then.”

            And so he did.

            When the ark settled upon soggy earth a couple of weeks later, the stall was empty, the only evidence of its occupation a single, sleek feather the color of ebon. Aziraphale tucked it away in his robes, and went to help Noah and the others unload.

Chapter Text

 

III.

 

            He was surprised to see Crowley in Rome, but not surprised that the demon followed him to dinner at Petronius’ restaurant. Crowley was devilishly good company, despite his previously dour mood, and Aziraphale found himself leaning in as they talked over drinks they probably should have stopped indulging in at least three cups ago. He couldn’t help it, and more importantly he didn’t want to. Though Crowley had started out prickly, it took only a small amount of kindness and patience to soften him into being friendly and friendly was hard to come by where Aziraphale came from.

            When they were finally ushered from the closing building, Crowley leaned his long-bladed shoulders against the nearest wall and said: “Come back to mine? No reason to end the night early.”

            Some part of Aziraphale knew that Crowley meant to continue drinking, with or without company, and so he acquiesced. They stumbled through the streets, trying to stick to one side, and Crowley shouted things at passersby that Aziraphale thought were meant to be jokes but that definitely got lost on their way to the punchline, if they were even trying to get there in the first place.

            Crowley’s place, if it could be so called, was a small domicile on the outskirts of the city. There was hardly anything in it, but the door locked and there was soon a jug of something unrecognizable being poured into a cup and pressed into Aziraphale’s hands. He took a sip and found it was better than anything the humans had so far given him to try, and contented himself with sipping it slowly. Crowley stood instead of sitting, his long fingers wrapped around his own cup and his glasses slid so far down his nose they didn’t hide a thing.

            “You’re not what I expected, from an angel,” Crowley told him.

            Aziraphale didn’t know if it was a question or an accusation, but he could hear the echo of I’ve never met anyone like you, angel at the back of his mind. He wondered, briefly, if Crowley had forgotten telling him so before. They’d been rather stressed and preoccupied at the time. He decided not to worry about it.

            “What did you expect?” Aziraphale asked, curious now.

            Crowley shrugged and let his words stall behind a long drink. “More… pomp. I thought your lot was supposed to enjoy that kind of thing.”

            “Some do.” Aziraphale tried not to think of those angels. Of flashy appearances and booming voices and all the smiting some of the other angels had done. It was necessary, Aziraphale had assumed, but he was just as glad to have no part in it. “My assignment is much quieter.”

            “Like you,” Crowley said. He smiled, like he’d told another joke, but Aziraphale didn’t get it. “Because you- you’re quiet too, you know? Like a book.”

            “You think I’m like a book?” Aziraphale questioned, feeling a little dizzy now that he’d been sitting down a moment. They’d had so much to drink, and Crowley’s own concoction wasn’t helping sober him in the least.

            “Is that bad?” Crowley swayed a little on his feet, like he was trying to decide whether to sit, stand, or fall over, and then did none of them and leaned on the table in front of him.

            “No, I- I quite like books, actually.” He brightened considerably. “You know, the humans are starting to collect them.”

            “Yyyeah,” Crowley agreed in a drawl. He scratched thoughtfully at his own jaw, brow furrowing. “Call it a library, don’t they?”

            “Liibraaary...” Aziraphale repeated, feeling a bit pleasantly light-headed. The word felt nice on his tongue. “Yes that’s the word. Have you ever been?”

            “Might’ve done,” Crowley said. He stood up straight and set his mug down with a lot of purpose. “We should go.”

            Aziraphale straightened up a little and peered around the room uncertainly. “Now?” he asked, fingers tightening on his cup. “It’s the middle of the night.”

            Crowley lifted a hand and appeared to be counting something, and then he nodded. “It’s relative, angel. There’s daylight there now. Besides,” he paused to wave a hand, an unintelligible noise scrabbling around at the back of his throat, “middle of the night’s the best time for sneaking, innit?”

            Aziraphale frowned. “You don’t have to sneak into libraries, Crowley. They want you to come look at the books. Is that- did you break into the library?”

            Crowley’s mouth opened, though he seemed to very quickly think better of whatever he’d been about to admit to and said instead: “Why would I? I don’t like to read books.”

            The words wrapped cold around Aziraphale’s heart, doing rather a lot more to sober him than anything else probably could have. “I see,” he said, looking down at his mug.

            It took almost no time at all for Crowley to realize his mistake, and he pushed himself up from the table and practically stumbled the step between them. Aziraphale started to lean away when Crowley reached for his face, but he wasn’t quick enough, and as soon as Crowley’s too-warm fingers touched his jaw, he surrendered to them. He let Crowley tip his face until he had to meet his glowing, golden gaze.

            “I didn’t mean it like that,” Crowley assured him. “I’d… read you.”

            Aziraphale couldn’t help his surprised laugh at the joke, and Crowley’s entire demeanor brightened at the sound, one thumb smoothing over the curve of Aziraphale’s cheek.

            “Oh, angel,” Crowley said, a little breathless and much too soft for a creature that called the depths of Hell home. “I think I’d wait a lifetime just to hear you make that sound again.”

            A little shiver climbed Aziraphale’s spine like a ladder. “Crowley...”

            “Sorry,” Crowley murmured, a second before he leaned down just enough to brush his lips over Aziraphale’s.

            It was barely a kiss, but it was Aziraphale’s first and it made all his joints feel like warm jelly and stole the breath from his lungs. When his mind caught up to his body, Aziraphale made a small noise and pulled away. Crowley let him, hands dropping even though Aziraphale wished he would keep them there forever. He didn’t want to let this moment get away from them.

            “Why did you do that?” he asked.

            Crowley lifted a shoulder. “Wanted to,” he excused. “Wanted to all night.”

            “Well, you shouldn’t have,” Aziraphale said as he stood, forcing Crowley to take a step back or be run into. Crowley opted to step back, to give Aziraphale space. Aziraphale set his cup on the table beside Crowley’s. “I’m going to go, now.”

            He didn’t want to, and that’s why he did, and it was likely the reason Crowley made no move to stop him. It would be silly for an angel to get involved with a demon, no matter what he wanted in the moment. They weren’t even supposed to involve themselves with humans that way. That sort of thing was more up a demon’s alley, which Aziraphale supposed was why Crowley had thought he could get away with it.

            At least, Aziraphale thought when he spotted Crowley at Caligula’s party the following night, Crowley had the decency to pretend it never happened.

Chapter Text

 

IV.

 

            “Crowley?” Aziraphale asked softly, approaching the lump at the corner table. There was no response, so Aziraphale slid into the seat across from him and double checked that he could definitely feel a demonic presence in the pile of black cloth. “Crowley, are you alright? Do you-” He quieted, ducking and leaning closer. “Do you need help?”

            “M’fine.” Crowley’s voice suggested that he was most definitely not fine, and when he lifted his head, the rest of him seemed to agree. His eyes, only partially covered by tinted glass spectacles, were red-rimmed and bloodshot and his hair was mussed from where he’d been lying on it. “Wha’d’you want?”

            “I want to make sure you’re okay,” Aziraphale repeated, sitting back again. “You look a mess.”

            “Thanksss,” Crowley slurred wryly. He squinted at Aziraphale. “What’re you even doin’ here?”

            “Nothing noteworthy,” Aziraphale dismissed. The blessing he’d been sent to perform had finished that morning, and he didn’t have another assignment at all yet. He assumed that his head office was busy dealing with quite a number of other things at the moment, given the state of the world. “Did something… happen? To you?”

            Crowley’s face screwed up and then his head dropped back onto his folded arms, muffling his reply when it finally came. “I’m getting a commendation.”

            Aziraphale’s brows scrunched. “And that’s… not what you wanted?”

            There was a long silence, or as near to silence as one could get in a small, crowded tavern. They might have been sitting at the darkest, most secluded table in the far back corner of the place, but they were by no means alone. Just when Aziraphale thought Crowley wouldn’t answer, he picked up his head again and reached for the mug sitting near his elbow.

            “They think I started the inquisition.” He downed what was left of the amber liquid, and set the mug back on the table top with more force than was strictly necessary.

            “Did you?” Aziraphale asked.

            He was fairly certain he knew the answer. Crowley had never been one for actually hurting humans, if he could help it. He preferred, like Aziraphale, to let the humans make their own choices and face the consequences thereof. While they may have been on opposite sides, Aziraphale had well observed that they tended to function similarly. It was one of the things that had endeared Crowley to him over the years.

            “No,” Crowley admitted miserably. “The humans did that one. Thought it up themselves.”

            Aziraphale considered this. “Then why do they think you did it?”

            Crowley’s expression went pained, like maybe he would be sick, and Aziraphale readied himself to help if needed. Instead, Crowley blew out a breath and didn’t look at him and in a cagey tone said: “D’you remember when we tossed for Seville?”

            Scraping his memory, Aziraphale managed to find a dusty recollection of winning the coin toss for once. He’d been rather occupied at the time and hadn’t wanted to go all the way to Spain for… well, he couldn’t remember what exactly he’d been ordered to do, as he hadn’t been the one to actually do it. Crowley had done that blessing.

            “Vaguely,” he answered. “Why?”

            “Got seen down that way while I was doing… our work, and had to make up an excuse to not get caught,” Crowley mumbled at the table. “’n they thought that I talked to that royal tart about-” He waved his hand around, which told Aziraphale precisely nothing.

            “Which tart…?” he began.

            “The queen!” Crowley told him, exasperated. “She went and kicked up a fuss and next thing you know, bam, Inquisition’s begun. I didn’t start a thing, angel, but what was I supposed to do? Tell them I was there to do an angel’s blessing? Couldn’t. Now they keep- keep telling me how I’ve done a good job, and I- it’s not my fault. I didn’t do this, you have to believe me, you-”

            “I believe you,” Aziraphale said quickly, reaching a hand across the table to stop Crowley from getting any louder. He’d nearly started to yell. Aziraphale threw a glance around the room, glaring at the few patrons that had started to pay them mind, and then he rose from his chair. “Come along, Crowley. Perhaps we should go someplace a bit more private if we’re going to talk about work?”

            Crowley made a face. “Don’t want to talk about work.”

            “Then we won’t,” Aziraphale told him, hands gentle on Crowley’s shoulder and arm, urging him up from his chair. “But you’re a bit out of sorts and the humans are starting to notice.”

            “Let them,” Crowley sneered, but he allowed himself to be coaxed vertical and he stumbled in an approximation of the correct direction when Aziraphale steered him.

            There was no way they would make it all the way to where Aziraphale was staying, and he was not sure Crowley would tell him where his own room was, so a room above the tavern miraculously became free. Crowley made it up the stairs like a dog, hands on the stairs as well as feet, and somehow didn’t topple face first into the upper landing when there were no more steps. Aziraphale waited patiently through all of it, and led him to the small room. Inside there wasn’t much- a bed with a small chest at the end of it, a writing desk with a chair, a chamber pot, and a wash bin that held questionably clean water.

            Somehow, Aziraphale got Crowley all the way to the bed, and settled carefully if somewhat precariously upon it. Crowley latched onto his wrist when he started to move away, and Aziraphale froze.

            “Don’t leave me, angel,” Crowley croaked, sounding wretched. “Don’t leave me alone...”

            Aziraphale’s heart twisted, and he gently unwound Crowley’s fingers from his wrist. “I’m just going to get you cleaned up some, dear. You’re a bit of a mess.”

            Crowley made a sound that no one would mistake for laughter, and flung himself back on the bed. “You can say that again. Have you ever killed anyone? I mean really killed, not just-” He waved a hand about, though what he was attempting to indicate, Aziraphale couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter, the answer was the same.

            “No,” Aziraphale said quietly.

            Crowley shifted his head against the bed, mussing his hair. “Never? Not even… back then? You know?” He made a little slashing motion with one hand that Aziraphale assumed was supposed to represent a sword.

            “No,” Aziraphale repeated, looking down at his hands. He picked at one thumbnail self-consciously. He knew how to handle a sword, and he was supposed to be a warrior, a guardian. But the thought of ending something so permanently… “No one I didn’t bring back, anyway.”

            At that, Crowley squirmed up onto his elbows to squint at Aziraphale. “Like it doesn’t count, just because you brought ‘em back?”

            “It doesn’t,” Aziraphale said, feeling much too defensive. If he brought someone back, then he hadn’t really killed them, just like if he got discorporated he wouldn’t really be dead.

            Although Crowley stared like he might argue, he flopped back down again. “Alright,” he said. “Who was it? Some poor sap you miracled a bit too hard? Some human actually manage to get on your nerves? Maybe-”

            “It was a demon,” Aziraphale said, interrupting.

            Crowley struggled into a sitting position, his glasses askew on his face, and Aziraphale winced, turning away. He crossed the room and tugged the washing cloth from the edge of the washbin. With a small flick he cleaned both the water and the rag, altering the cloth to be thick and soft. He dunked it in, squeezing it once to wash off much of the excess water, and then fell still. He sighed.

            “In the war, I led a platoon,” he said, slower than he normally spoke, but steadier than he’d thought he could be about it. “The angels I led were strong but things were… difficult, then. Many of them had friends on… on the other side. I didn’t. I’m afraid I wasn’t very popular even back then. My platoon was resting on an off day, and I took a flight too near the border. I caught a demon sneaking over the edge of it, and I- I struck her down without thinking. But… no one had seen me do it. I carried her back to the edge, and brought her back.”

            He fell quiet, and Crowley didn’t ask more questions. Aziraphale had never told anyone of this particular transgression. He hadn’t intended to do so now, except that Crowley was clearly upset and in need of a kind of companionship humans wouldn’t offer and demons couldn’t. He cleared his throat.

            “She was quite disoriented, and I explained what had happened. I told her to go, and she did. I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t know if she survived the rest of it, or if what I did even mattered.”

            “It mattered,” Crowley said, voice thick. Aziraphale turned to see him and was surprised to find him with tears in his eyes. “I promise you, angel, it mattered to her.”

            Aziraphale forced a weak smile. “Yes. Well.” He shifted the cloth in his hands and then carried it over to the bed, taking a seat on the edge of it beside Crowley. “Why do you ask?”

            When Aziraphale reached for Crowley’s hand, Crowley sank back to the bed and let him have it, staring up at the low ceiling. “Because I… I did, a couple of times. When I had to, to survive. But they… they’re blaming me for all this. Thinking I started all of it, all this death.”

            “But you know that you didn’t,” Aziraphale reminded him, wiping down his sticky hands with the cloth. It came away grimy with things that Aziraphale would rather not think too closely about. He cleaned the cloth with a bit of his own magic and kept going. He probably could have gotten away with a minor miracle to clean him, but he didn’t think either of them wanted to lose the excuse for Aziraphale to stay.

            Crowley remained quiet for a while, idly watching Aziraphale wipe down whatever skin he could get at. It was nice, to be allowed to touch Crowley like this, so simply, so easily. It felt right. Eventually Aziraphale reached his face, and Crowley closed his eyes as Aziraphale stroked the warm, wet cloth over his cheeks.

            “Don’t like... people… thinking like that about me.” Aziraphale removed his glasses and his nose scrunched as Aziraphale wiped down the bridge of it. “Head office maybe. They leave me alone if they think I’m up to business. But… other people.”

            “Other demons?” Aziraphale asked as Crowley blinked open golden serpent eyes.

            “Something like that,” Crowley said softly, not looking away. “Well. Maybe nothing like that.”

            Aziraphale swallowed thickly, hand falling still at the curve of Crowley’s jaw when Crowley reached a hand up to stop him. “P-Perhaps you should sober up, Crowley,” he mumbled, breath too soft in his chest to speak any louder. “I’m sure you don’t… well, you’ll have regrets in the morning.”

            Crowley snorted. “Doubt it,” he said, not letting go of Aziraphale’s hand. “Won’t even remember it.”

            Aziraphale tried not to let that hurt. “Then you’ve certainly had too much.”

            “It’s not the drink,” Crowley said, a little too bitterly. He tipped his head a little and nuzzled into Aziraphale’s palm, speaking his next words into the soft skin there. “It’s you. I don’t want you to think like that about me, that I’d… do things like this. I’m not allowed to tell you that I love you, you know, but… I do. I have. And I hate that you don’t know.”

            “Crowley...” Aziraphale started, heart in his throat. For a while now he had secretly hoped to hear these kinds of words someday, but not like this. Not with Crowley in this state.

            “You remember when we met?” Crowley asked, and then continued without waiting for an answer. “You were kind to me, on the wall. I think I loved you a little then. Lucifer came to me after you left, and told me I couldn’t have you. That he… wouldn’t allow it. That if I told you, he’d take it from me. I think maybe he has, before. He will this time too, but I… you should know. I want you to know, even if I forget.”

            Aziraphale’s heart felt like it had been crushed beneath a boot. He didn’t want to think about this right now. He wasn’t sure he could face what it would mean, for either of them, if Crowley was telling the truth.

            “You’re talking nonsense, dear,” he said quietly. “I think if you won’t sober up, you should at least sleep. We can talk about this in the morning.”

            Crowley just shook his head, a sad smile curling at his lips. “No, we can’t. Will you stay? Just… just for tonight, stay, please… Don’t leave me here alone. I don’t want to wake up alone again.”

            Softening, Aziraphale nodded and reclaimed his hand. Crowley was really not in any shape to be left alone anyway, and Aziraphale desperately wanted to hear him say the same things by the light of day, without too much liquor in his corporation’s blood. “Of course I’ll stay.”

            Crowley made a small sound of relief and rearranged himself to give Aziraphale room to share the bed. With a small flicker of magic, Aziraphale relocated the washcloth and then turned himself to sit back against the headboard. He almost immediately found himself with a lap full of Crowley’s head, one arm slung over his thighs, and Aziraphale raised both hands to give him space, uncertain of what to do about this.

            “’m sorry,” Crowley slurred, his eyes already closed. He’d practically coiled around Aziraphale like a snake, without changing his form, and Aziraphale was uncertain how comfortable the position could possibly be. “I know you don’t… this isn’t… really your thing. Touching.”

            “It’s fine,” Aziraphale assured him, barely a murmur. Tentatively, he placed one hand upon Crowley’s soft hair. It was, like the rest of him, unkempt in a way that suggested he’d been wallowing for a while, but Aziraphale didn’t pull away. “You should rest. I’ll watch over you.”

            The words sent a slight shudder through Crowley, who buried his face where Aziraphale could no longer see. It didn’t stop Aziraphale from feeling the tears hot on his leg. He didn’t remark upon it, however, just set about gently stroking over Crowley’s hair until the demon relaxed into fitful sleep. Aziraphale had never been much for sleep, himself, so he simply leaned his head back against the headboard and tried to make sense of what he had just been told.

            Crowley loved him.

            That much he had been fairly certain about, at least for a while. Their Arrangement meant that they had done things for one another that Aziraphale would never have done for anyone else, and at some point he had started to honestly care whether or not Crowley was safe. Not because it would mean he got caught, but because he genuinely did not want to see Crowley hurt. It made a certain amount of sense that, demon or not, Crowley felt at least a little bit the same.

            What made no sense was the rest of it. Crowley had said that Lucifer would take Aziraphale away from him, if he fell in love. Well… not exactly, he reasoned to himself, dropping his gaze to trace over Crowley’s body in thought. He had said Lucifer would take Aziraphale away from Crowley if he admitted to it.

            Aziraphale frowned. That was not exactly right, either. Crowley had said Lucifer would take it away, not you. Not Aziraphale, then. Which meant… His heart sank as four and a half millennium’s worth of puzzle pieces fell into place.

            Be careful, angel, I might just fall in love.

            Might even be a little bit in love.

            I think I’d wait a lifetime just to hear you make that sound again.

            Aziraphale brought fingertips to his lips, the ghost of a stolen kiss brushing across them. “Oh, Crowley...” he whispered. “You foolish creature.”

            Lucifer wasn’t taking Aziraphale away from Crowley- he was taking Crowley’s love for Aziraphale. Crowley’s renewed aggression on the ark, the way he had ignored Aziraphale in Rome despite their soft night… it made sense, if any memory of love he had felt for Aziraphale had been excised. Stolen. He had not pretended nothing had happened- for him, nothing had.

            Fire burned in Aziraphale’s blood. That was fine. Let Lucifer come. Aziraphale would fight, if he had to. He had told Crowley he would watch over him tonight. If Lucifer came to take his love away, he would have to get through Aziraphale first. Crowley deserved better than to be toyed with by even the highest ranking of demons.

            He stayed vigilant through the night, just like that. His fingers threaded through Crowley’s hair, Crowley’s presence a warm comfort across Aziraphale’s lap. Despite the rocky start to his sleep Crowley eventually relaxed entirely, going practically liquid and boneless, his face relaxing. He looked… well, Aziraphale could easily picture him as an angel, like that.

            He did his best to commit every line of him to memory while he slept, knowing that if things went south, he might not get another chance. If Lucifer came for him, they might only have tonight. So he watched and he waited and he… loved. He loosened his grip on how he felt and let it spill over both of them, warm and heavy and comforting.

            Lucifer never came.

            Eventually the sun rose and dappled in through the filthy window, and Crowley stirred when it shafted over his eyes. He blinked blearily, and started when he realized someone else was in his bed. Aziraphale kept his hands to himself, not sure how badly Crowley would feel after all his drinking.

            “Angel?” Crowley said, thick and slurry with sleep. “Th’heaven are you doing here?” He stiffened suddenly, eyes going wild and nervy. “We didn’t-” He gestured between them and Aziraphale shook his head.

            “Your innocence is intact,” Aziraphale assured him with a soft smile that cracked halfway through when he realized what Crowley's questions meant.

            Crowley snorted a laugh and scrubbed at his face with both hands. “How’d you find me?” He peeked over his fingers at the rest of the room. “Where am me?”

            Aziraphale stared, throat too tight for words. Crowley didn’t remember, just like he had said he wouldn’t. Lucifer hadn’t come, but Crowley didn’t remember anyway. He’d been snatched right out of Aziraphale’s fingers and Aziraphale hadn’t even gotten a chance to fight for him.

            “...Angel?” Crowley prompted, all joking slipping away in favor of anxiety. “Where are we? What happened? Are we in danger?”

            Aziraphale tore his gaze away, giving his head a little shake. “What? No, uh… this is a tavern, east side of town. I just happened to be nearby last night. You’d had a lot to drink and I didn’t know where to take you. It was a bit presumptuous of me, I admit, but nothing-”

            “It’s fine,” Crowley said, waving him off as he relaxed at the simple explanation, instantly trusting of Aziraphale, whose chest ached over what could not be said. “Lend a hand when needed, right?”

            “Right...” Aziraphale cleared his throat and slid off the bed. He had to get away. He needed time to process this, and decide what he was going to do about it. Even if the Crowley he had promised didn’t exist today, Aziraphale had promised to watch over him, to protect him, and he had every intention of finding a way to do that. “If you’re ah… if you’ll be okay, I should go.”

            “Wha- can I buy you breakfast?” Crowley asked, bolting upright and looking bewildered at the sudden departure from their routine. Ever since the arrangement had begun, they tended to keep each other company for longer stretches if they had nothing more pressing to do. “For your trouble?”

            “No, I don’t think that would be a very good idea,” Aziraphale told him, heart twisted into a knot the Celts couldn’t have undone. Crowley obviously remembered him, remembered at least their friendship and their routine, but Aziraphale couldn’t handle sorting out which bits were which right now. “It was no trouble, anyway.”

            Crowley gave him a slightly confused look, but nodded. “Well. Thanks then. See you around?”

            “I’m sure,” Aziraphale answered. He turned to scurry toward the door, but couldn’t help himself, couldn’t give himself any mercy. He stopped with one hand on the knob. “Crowley, you don’t… you don’t remember last night? Any of it?”

            When he glanced over his shoulder, Crowley was giving him an unreadable look, like he was maybe trying to puzzle Aziraphale out right back. “Sorry,” he said. “Bit of a blur with the drink. Should have sobered up when I saw you, eh? Not great for a demon to be like that around an angel.”

            “I wouldn’t have hurt you,” Aziraphale told him.

            Crowley smiled. “I know. We’re… friends, right?”

            Aziraphale nodded his agreement, out of words and full of too many unpleasant feelings, and retreated as quickly as he could. He would sort this out, but he needed time.

Chapter Text

 

V.

 

            Aziraphale tread carefully after that night. He stuck to the Arrangement, and he was as kind as was appropriate for him to be; not for an angel to be to a demon, but for an angel to be to another angel, and that was perhaps telling in itself and a large part of the problem. He wanted to be kind to Crowley. He wanted to spend time with him, and see shows and drink fine wines and liquors and eat delicious human foods. He wanted exactly what he now knew would be taken away from him the moment he ever got it.

            So he was kind where he could afford to be, and he denied that they were even friends at all, and he tried not to regret the way hurt sometimes skittered across Crowley’s features when he said things like we don’t know each other. It was for the best. If Crowley never fell in love with him, then he would never admit it, and they would get to continue on the same as they always had.

            Aziraphale knew how to walk a fine line. He’d been doing it with Heaven for millennia. And for the next several centuries, he was very sure it worked with Crowley as well. Crowley never got too close, respecting the terms of the Arrangement and keeping just enough distance to lend credibility to Aziraphale’s denials.

            Which was why it came as such a surprise when, upon finding himself trapped in the Bastille with a reprimand from Gabriel he’d rather be discorporated than repeat, he was rescued by Crowley. Not Heaven coming to protect him, not Hell coming to watch, not even by his own nerve to disregard orders. Crowley, whom he had not told his whereabouts, showed up in the nick of time, well-dressed and a good deal slinkier than usual. Just as suave, though, as he froze time and snapped the manacles from Aziraphale’s wrists and made no secret of staring from behind those dark glasses.

            In all, Aziraphale found himself so charmed that, against his better judgment and without thinking at all, he invited Crowley to lunch.

            He didn’t regret the decision immediately. They had been to dozens of lunches in the last few hundred years. Lunches and dinners and breakfasts, and more than a few nights of sampling whatever new drinks the humans of the area had devised. Aziraphale had learned better than to continue making friends with humans, and Crowley seemed disinclined to try it in the first place, and what they had with one another was, in most regards, better than what awaited them at their respective head offices.

            Not homes, Aziraphale had finally admitted to himself. Just offices. Jobs.

            Home, as the humans were so fond of saying, was where the heart was, and despite his best efforts, Aziraphale’s no longer resided in his own chest.

            A fact which he was forced to rapidly come to terms with as he pushed open the door to the restaurant and realized that he desperately did not want to be parted just yet. Crowley did not seem particularly eager either, lingering a step past the stoop with his fingers hooked into his belt to keep them from fidgeting. The sun hung low in the sky and the air was crisp and the breeze carried with it the scent of smoke. It wasn’t a perfect evening, by any means, but Aziraphale just wanted to hold onto it a little longer.

            “There’s a vintner’s shop a few streets down,” he said idly, not quite looking at Crowley. “As I understand it, they have a lovely new perry that I would dearly love to try but… it… would be a shame, to drink alone, you see.”

            Crowley quirked a smile at him, brow rising. “You haven’t got to ask me twice, angel. Lead the way.”

            Aziraphale did.

            The perry was sweeter than he was used to and the Chardonnay Crowley drank was a bit too dry, but the company couldn’t be argued with. Crowley tried to explain why he was in France at all, which Aziraphale thought he had already done, and why he was down in the belly of the Bastille, which Aziraphale had wondered about. Both explanations amounted to I was looking for you but I don’t want you to think that’s what I was doing, and Aziraphale was not sure how he felt about that. He wanted Crowley to look for him, and he was acutely aware of how he should not.

            “Do you think we could make it all the way back?” Crowley asked as the shopkeep began to putter around cleaning, ready to close. “To you- to your bookshop I mean. Is it open? Is it...” He squinted, obviously trying to think of a word. “Built?”

            Aziraphale scrunched his brow. “It’s built,” he said. “But I haven’t moved any books into it. We shouldn’t go back there.”

            “You’re right,” Crowley agreed, setting his glass down. “Let’s get a bottle of something nice, and take it back to mine, shall we?”

            Aziraphale knew that he should say no. He knew that if he did that, it would break the rules Crowley couldn’t possibly know about. They’d had nights of drinking together in whatever inn or tavern or other human place they stayed while on jobs, but those hadn’t been nights Aziraphale had nearly died. Those hadn’t been nights Crowley had been looking for him. Those hadn’t been nights they were alone with just one another by design instead of accident or circumstance.

            “Do let’s,” he said, because tonight he was tired of pretending that they weren’t really friends.

            Twenty minutes later found them sober enough to work a key to let themselves into a room at the nearest inn. Night had fallen and Crowley lit the bedside lamp to chase away the dark of it, even though he didn’t need light to see by, and Aziraphale wanted so badly to do something about that sort of automatic kindness that he could hardly stand it.

            “You know, I wasn’t sure you’d come,” Crowley admitted, setting the lamp back on its wall hook. The flame flickered, sending shadows wavering around the small room.

            “Shouldn’t that be my line?” Aziraphale asked him, trying to force a smile.

            Crowley huffed a noise that only mocked amusement. “I’d always come for you,” Crowley told him quietly, glancing sidelong at him. “Part of the Arrangement, isn’t it? Lend a hand when needed?”

            “I don’t think that includes following me to a country neither of us is supposed to be in,” Aziraphale said, stepping further into the room. He set the bottle of wine on the small table under the lamp with a soft click, and turned to face Crowley.

            “I was worried,” Crowley said. “And right to be. You shouldn’t have crossed the channel, Aziraphale. You shouldn’t-” He stopped himself and looked away, jaw clenching a bit. “You can’t get discorporated. They might not send you back, and I couldn’t stand that.”

            “I’d come back,” Aziraphale told him, heart so taut in his chest he felt like snapping. He’d made a mistake. He’d been trying to keep his distance for so long he’d forgotten how it felt to be close and alone with Crowley. He’d forgotten how difficult distance was when there was nowhere to go.

            “Even if they didn’t send you?”

            “Even if they didn’t send me,” Aziraphale agreed. It was, perhaps, too soft a sentiment, but it had been a soft evening. He tried to find an edge, some way to re-establish distance, but the best he could muster was: “Who’d thwart your wiles if I didn’t?”

            “Is that all?” Crowley asked, fragile. His head dipped a little as he reached up to pull his glasses off his face, and Aziraphale realized what was going on a moment too late to stop it. “Is that the only reason you’d come back?”

            “Crowley, I-” he began, intending to stop him.

            “That’s not the reason I came to you today,” Crowley plowed on. The glasses clattered onto the small table top. “I saved you because I care about you, angel. I can’t lose you because I- I love you.”

            Aziraphale’s “don’t!” came too late to stop Crowley from saying it, and Aziraphale closed his eyes, face screwing up and heart shredding. “You stupid, stupid creature,” Aziraphale groaned, which he was sure was not the reaction Crowley had been hoping for.

            When he opened his eyes to look at Crowley, he saw almost exactly what he expected to see. Understanding. Regret. Pain. “I’ve told you before,” Crowley said quietly. “I’ve loved you before, haven’t I...”

            Though he knew what it would mean, that he had kept the information from Crowley, that he had stayed close to him all of these years despite knowing, Aziraphale still nodded. “A couple of times, I think.”

            Crowley remained silent for a few minutes, his gaze turned inward as he took that in. Aziraphale stood as still as he was able and watched him think, trying to hold his heart together in the meantime. He should have told Crowley. He should have walked away after Crowley admitted he would forget. He should have protected Crowley. He was an angel, and all he’d been able to do was sit by and let Lucifer take something so precious from his friend.

            Precious to himself, too, if he was being honest.

            “And you...” Crowley said slowly, finally looking up to catch Aziraphale watching him. “Did you…?”

            Knowing exactly how wretched the admission would sound if he tried to speak, Aziraphale nodded and then brushed at the edge of one eye with the back of his finger and forced a smile. “Desperately at times, my dear. But you told me what would happen...”

            Crowley nodded in return, as if that made sense. “And how… how did it happen?” he asked. Aziraphale had never heard fear in Crowley’s voice before. Anger, certainly, and worry and despair even, but never fear. “Did Lucifer come? Did it… did it hurt?”

            “No, no,” Aziraphale rushed to reassure him, though what he had to say could hardly be called reassuring by any definition of the word. “I was with you, the last time. You just… you had forgotten by morning. Not everything, just...”

            Crowley’s eyes ticked back and forth, obviously searching for such a memory. “Spain?” he asked. Aziraphale nodded again, and Crowley accepted the timeline. “And I didn’t forget immediately?”

            “You fell asleep shortly after,” Aziraphale explained. “After… saying so.”

            “So I could forget again at any moment?” Crowley said tremulously. He let out a breath like he’d been punched. When he met Aziraphale’s gaze, his eyes were wild. “Do you still? Feel… Do you love me this time?”

            Aziraphale ached with the desire to reach out and touch, to comfort Crowley, but he dared not get too close lest it be contact with him that cause Crowley to forget faster. “My dear… Crowley, I’ve never stopped.”

            That seemed to resolve something for Crowley, who stepped across the space between them, seized Aziraphale’s face in both his hands, and kissed him. Momentum carried Aziraphale back a step before he caught them both, hands coming up to reel Crowley in close. He swallowed down Crowley’s whine at the extra contact, kissing back for all that he was worth, for all the love Crowley was worth, everything he had not allowed himself to give in his attempts to avoid the morning after.

            Crowley pulled away from the kiss first, but he didn’t go far. “Then love me, please,” he mumbled, a little brokenly. “Let me be yours until morning.”

            “Mine?” Aziraphale repeated, with more than a little wonder, and at the shiver that snaked through Crowley’s body at the word, said it again with far more conviction. “Mine.”

            His grip on Crowley’s hips tightened, drawing another soft sound from Crowley, and he kissed him again, fiercely, possessive. If they could only have tonight, then they would have it. He would give Crowley everything he’d denied them both. He’d take anything Crowley wanted to give and lock it up so safely within himself that no one could pry it from him, not even Lucifer.

            Aziraphale parted them again, just enough to give him space to walk Crowley backward without accident, Crowley’s hands slipping down to his shoulders for balance. He stopped only when Crowley’s legs hit the side of the bed, but kept him from overbalancing.

            “And in the morning, you shall be mine even if you do not remember it,” Aziraphale promised him, earning a desperate whimper. “And I shall stay near you until you love me again, and we will do this over and over until Eternity has come and gone, Crowley. Lucifer may have his claws in parts of you, but this…”

            Aziraphale paused, searching Crowley’s eyes for just a second until he brought his hands up to cup Crowley’s jaw, to make sure he was paying attention. Aziraphale tried to remember what words he wanted to say for so long, tried to find the courage to actually say them. He brushed a thumb over Crowley’s cheekbone, worse than fond of him- absolutely smitten.

            “This side of you, the one that rescues plays and defends human children and loves a very, very foolish angel...” he said, peppering Crowley’s lips with kisses so he could not get a word of protest out. He rested his forehead against Crowley’s, the last words stuck in the emotions closing his throat. He tried to swallow down one without losing the other. “Every soft piece of you, every kind word, every bit of innocence left to you- they all belong to me, and I will protect them. Do you understand?”

            Crowley nodded, face still in Aziraphale’s hands. He turned his head enough to press his lips to Aziraphale’s palm, eyes closing. A few steadying breaths passed, and then Crowley tipped his head again, nuzzling his cheek into Aziraphale's palm. The very tips of Aziraphale’s fingers brushed against the coiled snake in front of his ear.

            They both gasped and Crowley’s eyes opened to look at Aziraphale, worried.

            “Too much?” Crowley asked.

            Aziraphale felt like a human that had touched an electric cable, his mortal fingers tingling and his true form’s essence singing with delight at the contact. Crowley’s snake was an open conduit directly to his true form. Aziraphale had never seen one so prominently placed, or so unguarded. He let out a shaky breath and shook his head.

            “Just unexpected,” he explained, and searched Crowley’s eyes for any sign of discomfort. Angels and demons, after all, did not touch one another’s true forms and it stood to reason that something as holy as an angel’s essence might do to a demon what anything holy did: burn. “Are you okay?”

            “’m fine,” Crowley mumbled, nudging his face back against Aziraphale’s hand like he wanted to repeat the experience.

            “Didn’t it… hurt?” Aziraphale asked carefully, letting him get close but refusing to touch the mark again until he had an answer.

            “Immensely,” Crowley admitted on a breath, “but also… not. I want you to touch me, Aziraphale. The real me.”

            Aziraphale gave a little frown. “Not if it will hurt you.”

            Crowley made a pleading noise and held Aziraphale’s hand in both of his, keeping it close. “Please, angel. Lucifer put a mark on me ages ago. I don’t want that to be all that’s left in the morning. Don’t say I’m yours and then refuse me proof. Please...”

            For one crystalline moment, Aziraphale knew that it would be a bad idea. He knew that he could not do as Crowley asked without risking damning them both. If Lucifer looked – if anyone looked – at Crowley’s true form, an angel’s mark would be a blaring neon sign that they’d transgressed. It could get them caught. It could get them killed.

            But Aziraphale was tired and heartsick and wanting, and Crowley was on the verge of begging again, mouth already opening to start, and so Aziraphale pushed gently against his hands. Crowley let him, leaning into it as Aziraphale’s fingertips brushed over that wiggly little mark and right on into his true form.

            The keen Crowley made vanished into the cacophony of mortal noise as Aziraphale lost himself to the electric, searing pleasure of touching another immortal’s essence. Part of him recognized the contact burned on the other side, that Crowley was in some kind of intangible pain, but he could also feel the welcome of it. He could feel Crowley reaching back just as surely, and he slid the energy of his form over Crowley’s, seeking.

            It wasn’t hard to find. The wound Lucifer left was yet raw. It stank of bitterness and envy and spite and it sat right on the surface, bright and gnarled like a badly-healed scar, leaving whorls in Crowley’s essence. Aziraphale trembled and reached one appendage toward it, covering the mark with his own. He pressed into Lucifer’s print and was distantly aware of a sound increasing in volume as Crowley writhed beneath him. It must hurt.

            Aziraphale pulled away, the gold of his imprint laid over the red of Lucifer’s. It faded, unable to compete with that kind of power, and with it went Aziraphale’s hope that he would be able to somehow rid Crowley of the mark and heal him of his curse right here and now.

            Crowley’s please echoed in Aziraphale’s mind, and he turned his attention away from the mark to look for someplace to lay his own the way Crowley wanted. Like this, Aziraphale could see the very core of him, burning the same yellow as Crowley’s eyes and slitted down the middle like a pupil, albeit a discolored one that had no sight. Crowley had plenty of other eyes for that.

            But… Aziraphale pushed deeper into Crowley, trying to get a closer look at what marred his core, and Crowley let him, wrapped around him now, burning and aching and ecstatic at the contact. Gently, and with a great deal of caution, Aziraphale reached out one tendril of energy, questioning, and laid it over the strange slit.

            Love, he realized, even as he yanked himself away from it.

            More specifically, Crowley’s love for him.

            It was a strange thing, pitted directly into the core of him, battered and scarred and resilient. Aziraphale could feel where Lucifer’s curse had tried to carve it out of Crowley completely, but it would have had to destroy him to do so. It ran too deeply, clung too tightly; Crowley had made it a part of himself the same as his wings and imagination.

            Aziraphale realized then that Crowley had not been falling in love anew every time he forgot; he had grown to love Aziraphale each time from the tattered remains he had protected by burying his love too deeply for it to be stolen. He had to have decided he’d rather be destroyed than lose it entirely.

            Without thinking, Aziraphale pressed himself closer, reached out to touch the ragged core of him. Crowley’s entire essence bucked at the first contact but Aziraphale did not pull away. He pressed golden marks into Crowley’s core, the only place Crowley would be unable to see them when he woke. He pressed mark after mark, burning, searing, relishing the sensation of Crowley’s essence coiling and uncoiling around him like a great snake made of sheer blissful energy.

            When neither of them could stand the contact anymore, Aziraphale withdrew back into himself. His corporation had immediate complaints about the decision, his knees screaming and his back giving a hearty twinge of agreement. At some point Crowley’s legs had given out and he had sunk to the floor, taking Aziraphale with him to his knees. Aziraphale sat, bracketing Crowley’s legs with his own, his hands still on Crowley’s face but damp with tears, their foreheads resting against one another.

            Aziraphale’s clothing all clung uncomfortably to him as he pulled back a bit, sitting on his heels. Gently, he drew a little power to him and used it to clean them both, barely a miracle at all. Crowley winced, but didn’t comment on it, and Aziraphale gave himself another moment to recover from the intensity of their interaction before his hands slid off Crowley’s face, down his neck, and rested only a blink on his collarbones before Aziraphale pried himself away.

            “Thank you,” Crowley said, the words so unsteady they ought to have toppled over in the speaking.

            There wasn’t anything Aziraphale could say that did not sound trite, and so he sought Crowley’s hands and drew him up, enough to get him standing. Crowley’s hands trembled finely in Aziraphale’s grasp, and he pressed a kiss to each before pushing gently, urging Crowley back onto the bed. Crowley went willingly if sluggishly. Aziraphale could feel his exhaustion, just as dull and heavy as his own, but he ignored it in favor of drawing back the thin covers and watching as Crowley arranged himself.

            When Crowley had settled, Aziraphale slipped in beside him. Crowley held himself still as Aziraphale laid down and drew the covers back up over them both.

            “You’re staying?” Crowley asked, hesitant.

            “If you want me to,” Aziraphale said, suddenly uncertain.

            Although Crowley had asked to be touched, Aziraphale was certain he hadn’t quite meant like that– until they were both nearly incoherent with the sensation of it, until no part of his core was left that didn’t bear Aziraphale’s mark. Most of them would fade with time, perhaps be destroyed by Lucifer’s curse, but for now Crowley’s core glowed with the golden light of Aziraphale’s essence. It had to feel strange, for a demon.

            “I do,” Crowley said, relaxing a little. “I just thought… that might’ve been a bit much for you.”

            Aziraphale huffed a soft noise and reached over, grabbing onto the first bit of Crowley he found and dragging him in close. “Hardly,” he promised, curling up around every part of Crowley he could reach. “I only wish we had more time.”

            He didn’t speak upon the twisted, scarred thing he had found at Crowley’s core, nor the seeping mark Lucifer had left, nor the way his own heart felt too heavy in his chest. He would have to let Crowley go by morning, have to pretend none of this had ever happened, that they were barely friends. He would have to look at Crowley in the morning and miss the light of love that shone in his eyes now.

            “We will,” Crowley said quietly into his side. “If you stay, I’ll fall for you again. Can't help it, apparently.”

            Aziraphale didn’t bother to wipe at the wetness in his eyes this time. He shook his head, unable to stand the hurt in Crowley’s voice. “I’ll find a way to end this, Crowley. I’ll find a way to keep you. I’ll fight Lucifer myself if I have to.”

            “Don’t,” Crowley told him, curling into him. “Don’t get yourself killed. Just… just stay near me. Just love me, even if I don’t love you.”

            “Of course,” Aziraphale promised, without hesitation.

            They fell silent then, coiled up tightly together, human hearts beating in tandem until Crowley fell asleep. Aziraphale couldn’t, far too aware of the time slipping through their fingers like fine sand. He filed every moment of the night away, safe and sound, until the first rays of light broke the horizon.

            And in the morning, when Crowley finally woke, Aziraphale told him they’d only had too much to drink the night before, and that everything was going to be alright. And Crowley gave him a smile, and Aziraphale could not help but notice everything that was missing from it.

Chapter Text

 

+1.

 

            The world did not end.

            It almost did, and it should have, but through a lot of luck that did not belong to them, it managed to survive. Through better luck than either of them had ever had on their own, they both managed to survive as well, although it was a much closer call afterward when their sides came for them in private. For once their plan had not backfired upon them, and they had both slipped through Heaven and Hell’s fingers without a mark upon their hides.

            Waiting for Crowley in the park had been a torture unlike any other. Aziraphale had no way to know if he had survived what Heaven would put him through, or if he would remain undiscovered. Crowley had been so angry the night before, when Aziraphale had come back to his place. He’d been tired and hurting and angry that it had come down to putting the fate of the world on the shoulders of an eleven-year-old child. Aziraphale had worried that Crowley wouldn’t be able to mind his tongue and would get caught.

            But he hadn’t.

            He had come back to Aziraphale, wearing Aziraphale’s face and body like a shield, and Aziraphale could barely contain his relief. Crowley was alive, and whole, and unscathed, and they had abandoned the sides that had kept them apart for so long, and when Crowley smiled at him, it wasn’t missing anything anymore.

            Aziraphale had known for a long time now that Crowley loved him. He’d recognized it in the bombed out church, when Crowley had passed him the rescued bag of books. Before that he had hoped, but that was the first time he knew that Crowley had fallen for him again, and the moment that he’d decided he had to keep Crowley from admitting it.

            He had tried, the first time, to prevent Crowley from falling in love at all, but it had failed. This time, he had combed his hair and dressed to impress, and turned up in Crowley’s car with the only thing he could think of that would scream I love you too. He had handed over a thermos of holy water and said the most damning words he could think of when Crowley got the exact right message. Just seven little words had ensured that Crowley would never, ever make the first move.

            Or at least he had thought so, back when the apocalypse had not been quite so pending. It had been nearly impossible to keep his distance while they were playing at godfathers, but the looming threat of failure had kept them apart readily enough. Their actual failure, on the other hand, had dragged them closely together so fast and hard it had left Aziraphale winded. It had left Crowley begging him to run away to another planet entirely, and Aziraphale had been so frightened that those words would be enough to cause Crowley to forget all the rest that he had tried to end all of it right then and there.

            By some miracle, it worked. Crowley had not forgotten anything. His smile, from beside him at the table, still contained every ounce of love Aziraphale had grown so accustomed to seeing. They were still themselves.

            “Aziraphale?”

            Aziraphale blinked, pulled from his thoughts, and looked up from his fork to find Crowley staring at him expectantly. He realized that Crowley must have asked a question, and that he had no idea what it might have been. “Sorry, what was that?”

            Crowley smiled softly. “I asked if you were going back to the bookshop?”

            “Oh,” Aziraphale said, heart dropping. He did want to see his shop with his own eyes, to affirm that it was whole and undamaged, but… he also couldn’t stand the thought of being apart from Crowley right now. He was not finished assuring himself Crowley was whole and undamaged. He swallowed. “I suppose I must,” he said slowly. “I haven’t got anywhere else go...”

            Crowley fidgeted and looked away. “You do,” he said. “You could come back with me again.”

            Aziraphale’s heart leaped up into his throat at the idea. He had sheltered at Crowley’s last night because they had been scared for their lives, and they had been so exhausted from avoiding the end of the world that Crowley had mostly fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. Aziraphale had stayed up prowling the flat to sate his nerves, and eventually ended up sitting among Crowley’s plants, stroking the long leaves of the bird of paradise plant Aziraphale had given him years ago.

            It had been while sitting there on the floor, wishing that he could take Crowley’s place if Hell came for him, that Aziraphale had decided well, and why not? Crowley had agreed in the morning, when Aziraphale had woken him with tea and a plan. They had spent the morning working out how to swap enough atoms to look like one another, and Aziraphale had been less than enthused about how uncomfortable it felt, but it had worked and that was worth anything.

            But now… now the world hadn’t ended, and they had successfully fended off the repercussions, and they were facing down the gap between the end and the beginning. Somehow, Aziraphale thought, this was worse. Before the end, things had been terrible, but they had been clear. Tomorrow, or at least soon, the new order of things would emerge.

            Tonight, however, was a blank page and Aziraphale was not yet ready to be pen and ink.

            However, he was even less ready to allow someone else to write his fate, and so he nodded. “I would like that, I think.”

            Which was how he found himself taking a slow, careful ride in the new Bentley, and how he followed Crowley up to his flat for the second time, and how they crossed the threshold one after the other. It was how Aziraphale remembered Crowley explaining that he’d used the holy water – a resource Adam had not been able or willing to replace for him – and how he found himself thinking that if he had been a little more lax, a little more willing to let Crowley love him, Crowley might be dead right now. If he had not shown up with that holy water and every intention to keep Crowley at bay, he might have lost him entirely.

            The thought felt like a bucket of cold water over his head.

            If he had let Crowley get any closer to him, Crowley would be dead.

            Aziraphale couldn’t breathe. He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be letting Crowley get too close. If he did, if he let him now, he might lose him again, and he was all Aziraphale had. They’d been through too much this time- Aziraphale couldn’t stand the thought of losing him again, could not bear to lose the love they had built this time.

            He turned around to announce his mistake and his intention to return to the bookshop after all, when he realized Crowley was already talking.

            “-if there’s not a tomorrow? I lost you once without telling you,” Crowley was saying, looking stressed, and Aziraphale’s brain puttered into the moment too slowly to stop what he suddenly knew came next. “I can’t take that again, Aziraphale, I can’t lose you without ever saying it. So, I love you.”

            Aziraphale could not stop the broken noise that tore out of him at the words. There were a million protests he wanted to give, a million more admonishments, but it had gotten late and they’d survived the world not ending and all he had the strength left to do was close the gap between them and kiss him.

            “You shouldn’t have done that,” Aziraphale told him breathlessly when they parted.

            “I shouldn’t have?” Crowley asked incredulously, even as he pushed forward to touch their lips together again, hungry in a way Aziraphale had never seen him, even the last time. “I’d do it a hundred times if this is your answer every time.”

            Then he pulled back, farther than before, far enough for Aziraphale to see realization dim the brightness of his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” Aziraphale told him, even as Crowley shook his head to keep his words at bay. “I’ve tried so hard to keep you from saying it...”

            “Then I had told you before,” Crowley said quietly. The words held so much anger, though Aziraphale had been around Crowley long enough to know that it wasn’t directed at him, at least. “I’d wondered. How many times?”

            “A few,” Aziraphale answered, wretched with guilt over keeping such a secret. Maybe tomorrow he could start off by telling Crowley he knew about the curse. Maybe it only stole Crowley’s memory if Crowley did something to tell Aziraphale. “Four or five times before now, although I’m not certain. You only told me two times ago, so I- I’m not sure about before that, but I have a couple of guesses. And it- before you ask, it doesn’t hurt.” He looked down then, heart twisting at the lie. “Well, it doesn’t hurt you.”

            “Aziraphale...”

            Quickly, Aziraphale closed the distance again, taking Crowley’s face in both hands to make him look at him and to keep him from saying his name that achingly broken. He couldn’t handle regrets right now. He wanted to make the most of the time they had.

            “Don’t,” he said firmly. “If I didn’t want this, I’d have walked away after the last time. But I stayed near you with eyes clear and head up, Crowley. I know I’ll lose you come morning, but I also know it won’t be forever. Dearest, let’s not waste tonight on regrets, don’t you think?”

            “Yes,” Crowley breathed out and pressed himself into a kiss again. “Please.”

            They didn’t do much talking after that. They kissed right there in the entryway for a long while, Aziraphale crowding Crowley back into his own door, and when that was not close enough, Crowley took Aziraphale’s hand and led him to the bedroom. Aziraphale allowed himself to be pressed back onto the bed, Crowley astride his hips to continue kissing him.

            Eventually kisses turned into just the gentle weight of Crowley’s body atop his own, Crowley’s hands fisted in his lapels and his forehead resting against Aziraphale’s. “You’ll stay, right?” he asked. “Even after…”

            “I’ll stay,” Aziraphale told him, stroking fingers through his short hair. “I will tell you as many times as you need to hear. I’ll stay. I love you. I will love you, whether or not you remember.”

            This seemed to placate Crowley, who kissed him one more time and then shifted off of Aziraphale and urged him to lay on the bed properly. Aziraphale went willingly, wondering if Crowley had something like last time in mind, if he would bring Aziraphale’s hand to his cheek again. But Crowley simply settled against his side much the way he had done the first time, and Aziraphale reminded himself that this was the first time as far as Crowley was concerned.

            Every time would be the first time.

            Crowley coiled up tightly to him as soon as he had settled as well, one arm slung over Aziraphale and an entire leg wedged between Aziraphale’s own. Aziraphale smiled, indulgent, and stroked over Crowley’s hair. It was nice hair, short and soft and with a little bit of prickle to it at the tips. He found a soothing enough rhythm that when Crowley fell asleep quickly, Aziraphale’s eyes slipped shut as well.

            He opened them again to sunlight streaming in through Crowley’s window. The covers had been pulled up over him, but the other side of the bed was cold and empty. Aziraphale shut his eyes again immediately, not ready to face what the morning must necessarily bring. He had stayed longer than he should have, long enough that Crowley beat him to waking, and now he would have some explaining to do.

            He’d known this would happen. He’d told Crowley as much. But knowledge didn’t stop the traitorous tears that made a run for it over the bridge of his nose and down his cheek. It didn’t stop the sick feeling of loss in the pit of his stomach that left him curling up on his side just to hold it in.

            Crowley had to have woken confused, enough so that he hadn’t woken Aziraphale to ask him questions. He’d just left. Aziraphale thanked his absent god that they had kept their clothes on- he had a feeling Crowley would be less than understanding if he’d woken up in such a compromising position without any memory of how he’d gotten there. At least like this, Aziraphale could blame it on the apocalypse. He could blame it on nerves after the body swap.

            He pushed his face into the pillow. It smelled like both of them, the coppery tang of blood and ash mixed with the acrid scent of ozone and dust. Comforting, in a way. Something he could remember, when they were apart. And they would be, this time, for a while, if he was any judge. Crowley had never left him previously. He’d had questions, had been confused, but he had never tried to leave. If anything, he had asked Aziraphale not to leave, to come to breakfast. To stay.

            He couldn’t. He had to get up, and he had to face Crowley, and he had to go back to his shop and his books and his cocoa for one, and tuck this memory away with the others for safekeeping. He would give Crowley whatever space he needed for the time being and when he was ready to pick up their friendship, regardless of where he thought they’d left off, Aziraphale would follow his lead.

            It was a good, solid plan.

            At least, it was a good, solid plan until Crowley appeared in the doorway just as Aziraphale swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and they both froze, eyes locked on one another.

            “Oh,” Aziraphale said, and his voice cracked over the simple word.

            He had wanted to sound normal, but sitting on the edge of Crowley’s actual bed, looking at him standing in his own doorway, comfortably dressed and with a mug of something steaming in his hands, Aziraphale found he couldn’t. They had never been in their own spaces before; he’d been able to leave the place where Crowley confessed. He’d been able to move on.

            A soft pink dusted Crowley’s cheeks, and he raised the cup in his hands a little. “I brought tea.”

            “Thank you,” Aziraphale said automatically and a good deal more hollow than he’d intended. “That was… well, thank you.”

            “Listen… uh...”

            “You don’t have to,” Aziraphale said quickly, unable to bear whatever explanation Crowley was about to give. He considered getting up, but he wasn’t sure his legs would hold him. He wasn’t sure of anything right now. As discreetly as he was able, he rubbed at one of his eyes with the back of a finger, removing the wet there before it could form enough to drip. He absolutely would not cry about this. “I should go. I’m sure you have things to put in order today, and I know I do, back at… the… bookshop...”

            He trailed off, watching as Crowley stepped across the short distance between them to set the mug down on the little nightstand rather than giving it to Aziraphale. The reason became evident only a moment later, when Crowley moved to stand in Aziraphale’s space, their knees touching for a second before Crowley sank down to kneel before him, his hands coming to rest on Aziraphale’s legs as he looked up at him.

            “Aziraphale… I didn’t forget,” he said softly, and everything in Aziraphale’s mind came to a screeching train-wreck of a halt. “I still love you. I just went to make breakfast. Thought I'd surprise you...”

            “What..?” Aziraphale said, sounding lost. “Y-you remember? Last night?”

            Crowley laughed, but it came out weak and a bit strained. “All of it, actually. All the way back to Mesopotamia. You saved those kids for me.”

            Aziraphale’s mind spun so fast he suspected that trying to grab a single thought would be like sticking his hand between the blades of a fan. “I cared,” he blurted out, unsure what exactly he was supposed to say or do at this point. Crowley remembered. He remembered all of it. Aziraphale had been prepared for a lot of different scenarios to play out this morning and this was never one of them. “Even back then, I cared for you.”

            Crowley nodded, his smile a bit wobbly. “I know.”

            “But- but how?” Aziraphale cried, low and pained. “Why now? What changed?” A bolt of worry shot through him. “Not that I’m not thrilled but-”

            “But you’re worried it will get taken away again,” Crowley said, hitting the nail on the head. He sat back on his heels, head tipping and eyes going unfocused for a second. “I can’t say it won’t. But Adam destroyed Lucifer… maybe that stopped it.”

            Aziraphale shook his head a little, heart thundering in his chest. This was real. This was happening. Crowley still loved him by the light of day. Crowley might be allowed to continue to love him because Lucifer had been defeated, and his Mark-

            “Oh,” Aziraphale breathed, straightening up. “Crowley, I wonder if you might… if I could…” He reached, and Crowley immediately leaned into the touch, cheek rubbing on Aziraphale’s hand, and Aziraphale couldn’t help but smile. “Not quite what I meant, dear. Your true form...”

            Falling still, Crowley looked up at him, eyes a little glossy already. “Like last time?”

            Aziraphale nodded, just barely, excited that he remembered but tense at the thought of being rejected this time. “When I touched you last time, I could see Lucifer’s Mark upon you. I should like to check for it, if you’ll allow it?”

            With only a moment of hesitation, Crowley tipped his head and Aziraphale felt the electric sensation of his palm brushing over Crowley’s true form. Crowley gave a little whimper and Aziraphale’s eyes fell closed as he pushed his other senses away, focusing on the singular relief of Crowley. Of how Crowley was in actuality, not as he appeared to mortal senses.

            Once again, Crowley did not flinch from the searing touch of a holy angel against his infernal true form. The contact came with the same rush of pleasure as before, but this time it echoed back at him, the pain on Crowley’s end almost negligible. Something had changed. Something had…

            Aziraphale burrowed toward the core of him, but the seeping mark Lucifer had left behind was nowhere to be found. Not even a remnant of it remained, no scars, no discoloration, no warping of Crowley’s essence. It was just… gone as if it had never been. Aziraphale felt the first stirrings of hope that they would be allowed to keep this. To keep each other.

            Before withdrawing, he pushed just a little deeper, Crowley clamoring around him joyfully, until he could touch upon the actual core of Crowley’s being. The golden marks Aziraphale had left were gone as well, and in their place lay something he did not at first recognize. It almost felt like Lucifer, but raw and mortal and innocent. It felt like summer nights in the country and the pride of a leader and the unadulterated joy of a child.

            With a start, Aziraphale realized what it was.

            Adam’s Mark.

            It had been laid directly upon the dark stripe of Crowley’s love for Aziraphale, and even now, Aziraphale could see what it was doing.

            Healing.

            The pitted, scarred, tattered thing Crowley’s love had been when last Aziraphale saw it had begun to knit and grow whole. It shone with the soft iridescence of an oil slick, glinting along Crowley’s core. Aziraphale felt fit to burst just at the sight of it, and only just barely managed to keep from reaching to touch, afraid that he would interrupt the process.

            Having seen enough, Aziraphale extracted himself from Crowley’s essence, back into his own corporation. Crowley’s cheek was slick with tears under his palm, though from joy or pain Aziraphale could not guess. He smoothed a thumb over Crowley’s cheekbone and then moved forward enough to slip from the bed, joining Crowley on his knees and pulling him into a tight, fierce hug.

            “You’re healing,” he mumbled over Crowley’s shoulder. “Adam has Marked you, but it’s a healing touch. Stronger than my own was.”

            Crowley slumped a little, hands coming up to hug Aziraphale back, and then he buried his nose in the crook of Aziraphale’s neck. “Clever little bugger.”

            “So it would seem,” Aziraphale agreed with a puff of relieved laughter. He clung more tightly, scarcely able to believe he would finally get to keep Crowley.

            They sat like that for long minutes, until Aziraphale’s corporation began to protest and Crowley became restless. Slowly, they disentangled, and helped one another to their feet. The tea had grown cold and, presumably, so had whatever breakfast Crowley had tried to make, but it didn’t really seem to matter that much. They had the time to make it again.

            “Crowley?” Aziraphale said, fingers threading into Crowley’s before he could get to the door. Crowley looked back in question. “Will you… will you say it again?”

            For a second, Crowley looked confused, and then realization warmed his smile. He tugged at Aziraphale’s hand, drawing him in close, hands coming up to Aziraphale’s jaw. “I love you,” he murmured, and kissed the tip of his nose. “I love you,” he repeated, kissing his left cheek. “I love you.” His right cheek. “I love you, Aziraphale.” His lips, just the softest ghost of a touch. Then he touched their foreheads together. “And I will tomorrow, and the day after that, and all the days to come.”

            Aziraphale smiled helplessly, chest full of Crowley’s love all around them both, stronger than anything Tadfield had had to offer, more encompassing. “I can think of nothing in any world I would like more.”

            “Not even breakfast?” Crowley asked, pulling back to grin at him.

            “Not even breakfast,” Aziraphale said, giving him a scandalized look, though he didn’t really mean it. He raised both brows and tipped his head a little bit. “Although, now that you mention it…”

            Crowley laughed, kissed him once more for good measure, and then led him by the hand to the kitchen to start the second – or perhaps third, or fourth, or fifth, depending on how one looked at it – very first day of the rest of their lives.