Aziraphale tugged his gloves down tighter, then knocked resolutely on the door of the terrace house. The wind was picking up, and he resisted the urge to stamp his feet and rub his hands together. He wasn’t even particularly cold. He didn’t really get cold, unless he was especially drained. The heat of holy power spun within him, surrounding the core of himself, glowing with pure potential. However, humanity was contagious, like yawns, like laughter, like one good turn to another, and thousands of years had instilled him with many small habits.
So, even though the swirling snow mostly ignored him, and the cold couldn’t hold a candle to the warmth of his grace, Aziraphale found himself turning up his collar and pulling his coat around him tighter. He was moments from knocking again when he heard the click of a latch. The door swung inward hesitantly, leaving just enough space for Aziraphale to see half of the man’s face. It had been a year or so since they’d last met (Aziraphale hadn’t been much in the mood for anyone’s company but Crowley’s since all the stress of a nearly-ended world), but Decker appeared much older than he remembered, with dark under eyes, and a pale, peaked look to his face.
Aziraphale frowned in concern, doing some quick math in his head. He should only be… early fifties? That wasn’t that old. Right? Yes. It was certainly old enough to explain the wrinkles and the hair, but the tired, nauseous look was before its time.
“Mr. Fell,” Decker greeted him quietly, pulling the door open a little wider. “I… Well to be honest I was hoping you wouldn’t come.”
“I was certainly surprised to receive your letter, Mr. Decker. Can I ask why the change of heart? After all this time?”
The man simply opened the door wider and gestured him inside, hand visibly shaking. Aziraphale’s stomach twisted slightly as he walked through the door and out of the cold. He hadn’t really thought about why the old book collector had changed his mind so suddenly. If Decker had fallen on hard times, or was ill... Well, something just didn’t feel right about the whole situation.
“If…,” Aziraphale started hesitantly, squeezing his hands nervously in front of him as Decker led him further into the house. “Well, if this decision was made out of necessity or in haste, I would hate to take advantage. Perhaps we can work something out…” Aziraphale trailed off as he turned the corner into the library. The hallway opened up into a circular room, whose ceiling was a full story higher than it should have been, the second floor of this section having been removed to make room for row after row of inset bookshelves, leaving only a small walkway that circled the room halfway up, with a second doorway on that floor leading to it. There was no furniture, only two rolling ladders set into tracks around the wall, one on the ground floor and one on the mezzanine.
Aziraphale walked slowly toward the far end of the room, eyes wide at the towering shelves around him.
He’d been trying to get at Mr. Decker’s collection for some time, and Decker at his own. Over the past couple of decades, he’d tried nearly every method he could think of to get his hands on the books, and had begrudgingly come to admire the man’s fortitude.
They’d even gotten coffee on occasion. Aziraphale had come to regard him as something of a colleague, someone with whom to gossip lightly about others in the rare-book business. It had become apparent to each of them that the other would part with their collection only at death, and Aziraphale had resigned himself to patience toward that inevitable conclusion.
“Perhaps a will…” he murmured under his breath. He had nearly reached the center of the room. Decker had stopped in the doorway behind him, but Aziraphale had eyes only for the shelves above him, gaze tracing over the titles, immediately picking out the volumes he didn’t have in the bookshop.
He took one more step forward, reaching the center of the room, and froze, feeling tendrils of magic wrap themselves around his being, seeking him out, binding him in place. He spun to look at Decker, eyes wide with shock.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, regretful.
“How did you-,” the angel’s breathing was beginning to pick up as he glanced to the floor, seeing the circle of sigils and lines he already knew had to be there. He took a step forward, to the edge of the circle, then stopped immediately when he felt a sharp tug at something deep within him. It didn’t hurt, not yet, but it was uncomfortable, and a little dizzying. The binding was well-written, and it promised certain agony at any further movement from the point to which he was tethered. If he were to attempt to move past the edge of the circle while it was still latched to him, the strength of its hold ensured not all of him would come with.
He stepped back into the center, shoulders slumping in relief at the slack on the binding, but he could still feel where it was attached to him, gripping his core. The sigils glowed below him, ancient words, both holy and demonic, staring up at him in careful, precise lines around the edge.
“I didn’t want to,” Decker spoke again when Aziraphale looked back up to him. “You’ve always been a nice man. A friend even.” Even from his position, Aziraphale couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy at the break in his voice. “I didn’t want to. You have to believe me.” Decker was nearly begging, eyes darting around the room, above him, behind him. His hands shook at his sides.
“I don’t understand,” Aziraphale tried to keep his voice calm, to not scare the obviously distraught man any further.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Decker made eye contact with him again. “It’s not like he threatened me. Or anything of the sort. I just… did what he said. And I don’t know why. I- I don’t think he’s human, Mr. Fell, though I suppose…” Decker swallowed and looked at the circle for a moment, then back up at Aziraphale. He seemed about to continue, but suddenly backed away, hitting the wall, mouth closing so fast his teeth made a loud click.
Aziraphale felt the change in the air at the same moment, a burst of power and a whiff of ozone. He spun, and jumped when he came face to face with Gabriel leering cheerfully over his right shoulder.
“Aziraphale!” he smiled as if greeting an old friend, then clapped his hands together loudly, so close it made Aziraphale flinch. “You’re early, so glad you could make it.” He began to walk around him, admiring the circle beneath his feet, careful not to cross it. It posed no real danger to him, it had already been activated, but crossing the bounds of an active circle was never a fun experience.
“Gabriel,” his voice wavered despite his best efforts. “What is the meaning of this?”
Gabriel wasn’t paying him any attention. He finished his circling and pulled his sleeve back slightly to watch the gaudy, overpriced watch on his wrist. Aziraphale sucked in a steadying breath.
“Gabriel, I demand you-,”
“You will demand nothing,” he snapped, mask of false cheer almost breaking, one side of his nose twitching upward with disdain. “And you,” he turned, looking down his nose at Decker, who had started to edge his way out of the room. “Stay.” And Decker stayed, walking mechanically back to just inside the doorway, pushing himself as far back into the wall as he could, eyes wide with fear and legs trembling beneath him, but unable to leave.
Gabriel turned back to Aziraphale, and in response to his horrified expression, explained.
“Can’t have him leaving the party early. We’re still waiting on a few guests,” Gabriel grinned, hints of glinting white teeth showing.
As if on cue, Aziraphale heard the front door slam open, the wind and chill pouring into the small house, creating little tendrils of cold that whipped through the space until the door slammed shut again.
“Right on schedule,” Gabriel grinned as two figures rounded the doorway, dragging a third between them.
Aziraphale let out a strangled cry as Uriel and Sandalphon threw Crowley to the ground at his feet, just short of the circle. His hands were bound behind his back, eyes closed, and face drawn tight in pain. Aziraphale was on his knees before he made the conscious decision to drop to them, hands reaching for Crowley, shaking as he strained against the pull of the tether bound to him. He reached just a little further, wanted desperately to comfort, to hold, but stopped right at the line of the circle, being pulled back painfully now. Another centimeter would be ruin.
And he wanted to do it, wanted to face the rending consequences of reaching out. Because being able to do nothing was far more painful when Crowley was in such a state. The delicate skin around his eyes was already mottled black and green and an ugly, sickly purple, more bruises forming around his throat. There was a dark stain on the outside of his left thigh, and Aziraphale didn’t want to think about the size of the hole at the center of the stain, didn’t want to look any closer past the ripped cloth of his jeans.
He pulled his hand back to cover his mouth, all too aware of the three angels watching them, enjoying the scene, and he tried his damnedest to stifle the sob that worked its way up his throat when Crowley coughed, the sound turning to gag halfway through as thick blood began to slide past his lips.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale’s voice broke, and at that Crowley’s eye’s blinked open. Only one could open all the way, unfocused and confused, the other swollen to show only a sliver of color.
“Crowley!” Aziraphale could see the way his eyes snapped into focus, gaze shifting to make eye contact.
“Hey, angel,” he rasped, then smiled a lopsided grin that showed blood-stained teeth and only wobbled a little.
“Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry.”
“Naaaahhhhhhh,” the word descended into more wet coughs. “Should see the other guy.”
Aziraphale caught movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up to see Sandalphon shifting uncomfortably. His eyes widened when he caught sight of the large, heavy bruises forming on his cheek, the strange angle of his nose, the way he held all of his weight on one leg, the missing jacket.
“Crowley, you-,” Aziraphale’s voice pitched high with stress. There was a reason Gabriel often chose Sandalphon as his right hand, his muscle. He was ruthless, a fighter by nature. He was the one you sent when you wanted to level cities, and, apparently, when you wanted to kidnap demons. “You fought Sandalphon?”
“He tried to,” Sandalphon interjected, veneer of calm turning defensive.
“He had to call for backup,” Crowley grinned wider.
“I had it handled.”
“Not from where I stood,” Uriel chimed in smugly, and Sandalphon shot her a glare. Gabriel, who had been watching the scene with barely-concealed disapproval, stepped forward.
“You two should go check on things upstairs,” he suggested forcefully.
“But-,” Sandalphon started to protest, and Gabriel stopped him with a tilt of his head and a narrowing of his eyes.
“You’ve done your job adequately enough. I can take things from here.”
Sandalphon nodded tightly, and both he and Uriel looked skyward, disappearing in two glares of white light.
“Now then,” Gabriel spread his hands wide. “Let’s get this party started.”