Crowley was comfortably sprawled on the couch in the back room of Aziraphale’s bookshop, basking in the sunlight that was conveniently streaming in right onto him. It was eight days after the world Had Not Ended. He wasn’t really sure how much the two of them had to do with it, but Heaven and Hell had each needed someone to blame. And so, seven days ago, with a nudge from Agnes Nutter and a clever little trick, they both Had Not Been Executed.
Which meant it was six days ago today that he had woken up from a brief nap in this exact spot, and Aziraphale hadn’t been in the room. So Crowley had staggered out into the shop, but he still hadn’t been able to see the angel, and then… well…
Eventually, when the screaming and the shaking had finally stopped, and they were both breathing like normal humans again (not that either of them needed to breathe, but their corporations preferred it, and the ideal way to breathe was like calm, normal humans), they had further calmed themselves down by drinking half a bottle of scotch while Crowley had numbly talked through, as well as he could, what he’d been seeing and feeling, which was basically a flashback to The Fire. Aziraphale had listened while doing some relevant reading, and the angel had ultimately announced that the thing that had happened to Crowley had most likely been a panic attack, brought on by being in the bookshop and not knowing where Aziraphale was.
Crowley had polished off the rest of that bottle of scotch in one go. “Hell yes, I panicked,” he’d said. “That Fire destroyed me. You were gone. Angel, you were gone…”
Aziraphale had grabbed the bottle from him and, disappointed to find it empty, he’d set it down and clasped one of Crowley’s hands between both of his. “I’m here now,” he’d said.
“…Yeah. See that,” Crowley had said, drinking in the warmth of the angel’s touch. It was better than alcohol. “Just… I couldn’t.”
The irony of the whole thing was that when Crowley had started screaming, Aziraphale had already been on his way back to check on him… for the tenth time in that hour alone. “To be quite frank, my dear,” he’d said, “I’m not keen on letting you out of my sight just now, either.”
“…Huh.” Crowley had turned to face him better, and had bravely wrapped his free hand over both of Aziraphale’s. “Should maybe avoid it, then,” he’d said, trying very hard to be mild and casual about it.
Aziraphale had beamed at him. “That would be lovely,” he’d said.
That had all happened six days ago.
Five days ago, they had been forced to concede that it simply wasn’t practical to constantly stay in each other’s line of sight. They had discussed it over a bottle of wine, and had reluctantly accepted the reality that at some point, they were likely going to need to be in different places at the same time, and it would be best to be able to do that without getting all worked up worrying about each other.
“Probably should split up some, anyway,” Crowley had said as they’d started on a second bottle of red. “I mean, if we spend every second together for the rest of eternity, we’ll be sick of each other by… I dunno. End of the next decade, maybe?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure. Probably much sooner, even,” Aziraphale had said. And then they had grinned at each other and chuckled, because neither of them really believed it, and it was still new and exciting that it was even possible for them to spend all of their time together.
Nevertheless, they had agreed to work their way up towards being comfortable with not seeing each other sometimes. Slowly. Very slowly.
And so that was what they were doing now.
Crowley was lounging on the couch in the back room, because this had been his favorite place in the world for more than 200 years now, and The Fire was not going to take that from him. Aziraphale was not in the room, but that was alright. He was just out in the shop, making sure to make enough noise that Crowley had no reason to doubt that he was there and safe. They’d been spending some time like this every day, with Crowley pretending to nap or doing things on his phone while Aziraphale puttered around his shop. Crowley preferred pretending to sleep, because then Aziraphale would come in to check on him. He knew it, because he would suddenly feel the angel’s fingers gently brushing through his hair, and it was a wonderful sensation. Someday, maybe soon, Aziraphale would do that when Crowley was awake, too, but for now the demon had no qualms at all about faking a few naps for that touch.
It came at a cost, of course. Sometimes, while he was pretending to sleep, Crowley would realize he hadn’t heard Aziraphale for a while, hadn’t heard any books being moved or pages being turned. Queasiness would flash to icy fear, and he would flinch upright with his eyes snapped open… only to see Aziraphale beaming down at him, pure affection quickly giving way to concern. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to startle you,” the angel would say.
And Crowley would relax and stretch and grin, because Aziraphale was literally watching over him. And that was more than worth a tiny little panic. “Guardian angel,” he would tease.
Unfortunately, it had somehow come up in conversation this morning that if Aziraphale was checking in on Crowley while he was “sleeping” (which he was), then he wasn’t really getting used to going any amount of time without seeing the demon.
Aziraphale had huffed about it on their stroll through the park. “Well I was under the impression that we were just getting you more comfortable being in the bookshop first,” he’d said. “Besides, I’m the one making all the noise. You’re practically silent back there! I get… concerned.” And he had pouted.
The angel’s pout was almost as hard to resist as his puppy-dog eyes, so Crowley had given him a long, indulgent look, and then he had sighed dramatically.
So now he was lying on the couch with his eyes closed, but he couldn’t actually pretend he was sleeping, because—
“Crowley?” Aziraphale called. “Did you want a blanket?”
He was in the sun. Nice and warm. “Nuh… m’fine, angel.”
He couldn’t pretend to be asleep, because he had to be able to answer if Aziraphale called for him. That was the compromise they had struck. Aziraphale wouldn’t come in the back room to look at Crowley, but Crowley had to make noise, and Aziraphale was allowed to request that he make noise, in any—
“Would you like some tea?” Aziraphale called.
Crowley squirmed against the couch. “When have I ever drunk tea?” he complained, or pretended to complain.
Aziraphale’s primary way of ‘requesting noise’ was to offer—
“Shall I list all of the times I have seen you drink tea?” the angel said dryly.
“Bastard,” Crowley muttered affectionately, but it was too quiet to count as an answer. “Ngk, fine. When have I ever wanted to drink tea?” he snarked at a more acceptable volume.
“…Again. Would you like me to list the times—”
“NO, angel! I don’t need you to list anything.”
All sarcasm aside, Aziraphale mostly had been ‘checking in’ on Crowley by offering things—blankets, tea, biscuits, scones, a pillow. Crowley refused all of it. If he accepted, that would count as him needing to see Aziraphale before Aziraphale needed to see him, and somehow, this little exercise of theirs had become a game. Not that Aziraphale had been playing by the rules. Crowley twisted around until he was (relatively) more upright and facing the door to the front of the shop, so he would be able to catch glimpses of the angel shuffling around the shop. He put his sunglasses back on because it was bright, and if his eyes were hidden he could claim they were closed. Plausible deniability and all that.
Two could cheat at this game.
“You still haven’t actually answered about the tea,” Aziraphale called.
Crowley let out a dramatic, put-upon sigh. “No, angel, I do not want any tea,” he said.
He didn’t really mind the interruptions. It was never really about tea. Or blankets, or biscuits, or any other things the angel offered. It wasn’t really about any of the actual words they said. What they were really doing was just calling out to each other, checking in, making sure. I’m still here. Are you? Like they were kids, playing… playing…
“Angel!” Crowley called out. “What was that explorer’s name?”
Aziraphale had clearly not expected that. “…What?”
“The human explorer,” Crowley clarified, as if any other species bothered with both exploring and having names. “They made a big fuss over him.”
“Ah… I’m afraid you’ll have to narrow it down a bit, dear,” Aziraphale answered. “Explorers have never really been my area of expertise.”
“Nnmh, well no one makes games about writers,” Crowley grumbled.
“It was some really catchy name,” Crowley said.
“That… Columbus fellow?”
“Nngh… no, no. I think it was shorter,” Crowley said. “They play a game with it.” He spotted the top of the angel’s hair, floating along behind a shelf of books. Lovely.
“The name, you mean?” Aziraphale said. “Who plays a game?”
“Who plays any games?” Crowley said. “Kids. Obviously.”
Aziraphale’s hair stopped moving. “…Crowley,” he said delicately. “I know I don’t have to tell you about games that are not for kids.”
“…Alright, games that don’t involve sex or alcohol,” Crowley clarified.
“Or gambling,” Aziraphale said. He was moving again.
Poor naïve angel. “Kids gamble, too,” Crowley said, watching as Aziraphale’s hair moved out of sight. “They just bet with peanuts or Pokémon cards.”
“…Pokey what cards?”
Crowley rolled his eyes. “Pokémon cards. The ones Warlock liked,” he called. And he waited.
“…Oh!” Aziraphale inevitably said. “Oh, the blue ones, with the silly creatures.” And then that tuft of hair drifted back into view. “What do those have to do with an explorer?” he asked, baffled.
Crowley was fairly certain they were better at conversation when they were drunk. “Nothing! Just… There’s a game, that kids play, with the name of an explorer… human. One kid yells part of his name, and the other kid yells the other part, and they find each other.”
“…Odd game,” Aziraphale decided.
“…There might be more to it than that,” Crowley said. He caught a glimpse of cream suit, and then Aziraphale was moving closer to the front of the shop, out of sight. “That’s pretty much what we’re doin’ though, yeah?” Crowley called after him. “I mean it doesn’t really matter what we say. Just, makin’ noise at each other. So we hear it.”
“I suppose so,” Aziraphale said. Crowley could hear him moving books around. “Given that we are in a bookshop, I’m inclined to argue that words always matter… but I suppose you don’t always use them, do you?”
“Uh—yghzzuh, wha… pfff… ‘course I use words, angel!” Crowley objected. “How else would I talk?”
“All those noises you make,” Aziraphale said dismissively. The bell on the door rang, and Aziraphale’s response was predictable—until it wasn’t. “We’re clo—”
The fact that his voice stopped there instantly had Crowley upright, on alert. The quieter “oh” that followed was distinctly upset and confused and reason enough to bolt to his feet and move. By the time Aziraphale let out a strangled “Ah, uh,” staring frozen and wide-eyed at the open door, Crowley was surging to his side and standing half a step in front of him, holding an arm out to shield him.
It was just as well that Crowley’s reaction was so strong and instant. Their visitor was a blasted Archangel. “Peace be upon you, Principality,” the Archangel was saying with a polite bow, which was a good start, at least.
And if Crowley had to choose an Archangel to show up at Aziraphale’s shop, this was the one he’d have picked, based on the very low standard that as far as he knew, Raphael had never tried to kill either of them. But still. An Archangel was an Archangel.
Aziraphale put a hand on Crowley’s upper arm, not to hold the demon back so much as to protect him. His eyes did not budge from Raphael. He was still visibly reeling from the sudden turn of events, but having taken it all in, he had already assessed the situation and determined that the best way to handle it was with a bright (albeit somewhat panicked) smile and a politely cheery, “…Hello.”
Among all the angels, Raphael had by far the most fluid approach to minor little things like gender and pronouns and physical appearance. At the moment, she was a short, plump woman with an angular face and skin the color of an acorn, topped with a cloud of light brown hair that danced in the faint breeze. Raphael’s eyes were the only unchanging feature: irises like gold coins, rimmed with silver. Those eyes could be incredibly unsettling. Right now, they were regarding the arm Crowley had in front of Aziraphale, and the hand Aziraphale had on Crowley. She finally took in the rest of Crowley, and she looked him in the eyes—or at least, in the sunglasses—and she nodded. “How do you do,” she said, apparently having decided this was the polite, appropriate way to greet a demon.
Crowley wasn’t impressed. “What do you want,” he snarled. Aziraphale glanced at him, but otherwise did not chide him for manners.
Raphael beamed at him like this was a warm welcome, or at least pleasant conversation. To be fair, it had not been an explicit threat, and the absence of an explicit threat was probably the closest most angels figured a demon could get to being remotely civil. She turned her attention back to Aziraphale. “May I come in, please?” she asked.
Crowley and Aziraphale glanced at each other very briefly. Just long enough to establish that they both did not trust the Archangel, and that they were both just now noticing that she had not, technically, entered the shop yet. She had opened the door, but she hadn’t crossed the threshold.
Raphael’s face softened. She held her hands up to show that she was unarmed, which would have been more reassuring if it weren’t for her ability to miracle up anything from a pistol to a nuclear bomb. “From what I’ve heard, neither of you have any reason to trust anyone from Heaven or Hell right now,” she said softly, looking at both of them as she spoke. “I promise you, I mean you no harm. I only want to talk. And to listen.”
The two of them shared another very brief glance. They’d each had thoughts about what might happen if one or both sides decided not to leave them alone. Having an Archangel show up, claiming to want to listen to them, was most definitely not in the script.
Not that anyone really even had a script these days. At all.
“You may come in,” Aziraphale said quietly. But neither of them dared relax.
“Thank you.” Raphael stepped into the shop and immediately started looking around, her gold-and-silver eyes darting every which way, raking over every inch. She moved in small, slow steps past the little round table.
Aziraphale couldn’t help bracing himself, thinking of the confused, repulsed faces that any other Archangel had always made when they looked at his shop. But Raphael’s expression was warm, and her smile was kind.
“Oh, this is a wonderful place you’ve made, Aziraphale,” she said, turning to beam at him. “It’s so full of love.” She loosely clasped her hands in front of the simple white sundress she was wearing, and she grinned at both of them.
Crowley lifted his chin and peered down at her, slowly lowering his arm as he re-assessed. The Archangel was looking at them with oddly positive emotions, like they were star students in the class. It was a very unfamiliar feeling for both of them. But Raphael seemed to genuinely like the bookshop, so maybe she really wasn’t a threat, after all.
Besides, no self-respecting Archangel went to pick a fight wearing a sundress.
Aziraphale was every bit as confused by the praise as Crowley was, if not more so. He was still gripping the demon’s arm, but now it was almost for balance. “…Thank you,” he finally managed to say. And then, utterly disoriented by it all, he fell back on the reliable old standby of being English. “Would you like some tea?” he said, and then he immediately bit his lips, because he knew better, he knew that Archangels did not sully their celestial temples with gross matter—
“Oh, yes please!” Raphael said.
Crowley tilted his head down and raised his eyebrows. Now, this was interesting.
Aziraphale blinked. “…Right!” he said brightly. “I, uh… I’ll put the kettle on.”
And so, after several painfully long minutes of awkward conversation about the weather, the three of them sat down to tea and biscuits in the middle of the bookshop at a table recently cleared of books. In spite of the tension, Aziraphale thought of their earlier conversation and couldn’t help giving Crowley a smug look as he poured tea in the demon’s cup. Crowley answered by crinkling his nose in a sneer totally devoid of menace.
The familiarity of that silent exchange steadied them both, and they leveled their eyes on their… guest. Raphael seemed perfectly comfortable sipping tea and nibbling biscuits, and it couldn’t possibly have been her first time doing either of those things, and that counted as a point in her favor. But there was a limit to how long anyone could tolerate discussing the names of different kinds of clouds.
“Why are you here?” Crowley asked abruptly.
Raphael paused, and she smiled as she placed her cup and saucer on the table. “Mostly,” she said softly, “I’m here to say something, to both of you. Something I think you both ought to hear, but I doubt either of you will hear, from anyone else, at least.”
Aziraphale stopped with his teacup poised for a sip, and he and Crowley glanced at each other. “And what would that be?” he asked.
Raphael folded her hands on the table. Her gold-and-silver eyes were sparkling as she looked at the two beings before her. “I came to say thank you,” she said. “I quite like the world. I’m glad that you saved it.”
“…Oh.” Aziraphale gingerly set his cup and saucer on the table and let his hands rest in his lap as the words slowly insisted on sinking in. He beamed.
Crowley was watching him fondly. “…Actual acknowledgement,” he said, a gentle tease over the last time Aziraphale had thought someone was acknowledging their role in things. The angel in question flushed and grinned at him, just for him, and oh, but that grin was contagious. With no small difficulty, he forced himself to look at Raphael before he forgot there was an Archangel around. “Not sure how much we really had to do with it, but we did try,” he said mildly.
“That’s true!” Aziraphale said with a chuckle. “Nothing we tried to do actually worked, did it? It was all Adam, and his friends.” He was still grinning, like he was inordinately proud of their failure. (He was.)
But Raphael held her hand up to quiet them. “You questioned Gabriel and Beelzebub,” she said knowingly. “You got them to question, just enough to leave the boy alone. And you gave Adam the strength to face Satan.” She lifted her teacup. “Things would have gone quite differently, had you two not been there.”
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows and gave Crowley a sideways glance. “Hear that, serpent,” he said primly. “You tempted the Archangel Gabriel to question.” And he sipped at his tea.
Crowley snickered. “Well, what about you, angel?” he said, smugly leaning forward with his elbows on the table. “You managed to get the Prince of Hell to do Good.”
“Hallelujah,” Raphael said, lifting her teacup as if making a toast before she drank.
Crowley cocked one eyebrow and tilted his head as he regarded her. “…Amazing what one or two little questions can do,” he drawled, and he made a show of taking a long, slow drink of his tea as he watched her (and very pointedly ignored the smug look Aziraphale was giving him for drinking the tea). He very deliberately placed the cup back in its saucer. “And I do like questions, Raphael,” he said. “For instance: if you like Earth so much, why didn’t you do anything to save it?”
The look Aziraphale was giving him swiftly flipped from smug to warning. Be polite.
Raphael gave the demon a faint smirk. “I didn’t have to do anything, did I?” she said mildly. “You two and Adam handled it all fine.”
Crowley crinkled his nose up. “Oh, now you just sound like Her,” he managed to both sneer and whine, jutting his chin up on the last word.
Raphael threw her head back and laughed, tossing her light brown cloud of hair into tight dark brown little ringlets that just brushed the back of her neck. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said gleefully, clearly aware that it had not been intended as such. But then her smile and her metallic eyes turned sad. “I did try,” she said quietly. “When I heard that the Antichrist was on Earth, I sent blessings along that he would find friends who were good, who loved the world. I thought, perhaps he would save the world for their sake.” She picked up a biscuit and stared at it as she turned it over and over with her fingertips. “I suppose, that is what happened, to a point. But I didn’t know if it would work, and I was worried, so, I… went to Mother about it.” She smirked up at them. “I suppose I was rather a pest about it,” she said slyly. “Or a brat, even. I insisted that there had to be a way to stop the Great Plan, She loves the world so much, why let it be destroyed just to watch us all fight again? I thought it was a good argument, really, but, well…” She held her hands out palms up, and gave them a helpless look. “You know how She is,” she said.
Aziraphale had been very carefully noting all along how the Archangel was addressing both of them, treating Crowley as Aziraphale’s equal—which he was, of course, but Raphael was not treating him with the sort of contempt and disregard angels were ‘supposed’ to have for demons. She was treating him like a fellow angel, who happened to have Fallen. And now, on this last comment, You know how She is, Aziraphale could not help noticing that Raphael was addressing Crowley, almost (though not quite) excluding Aziraphale. Maybe she knew Crowley had been a Seraph, had actually been in Her presence almost constantly before the Fall. Maybe she actually even remembered him.
Her eyes squared on Aziraphale again as she continued. “She finally told me to stop fretting, because you were on it, with your usual help,” the Archangel said, gesturing to Crowley with her biscuit. “And then She sent me off to deal with the bee population crisis, which some of the humans are finally talking about, at least.” And she daintily nibbled on her biscuit while Crowley and Aziraphale sat in silence, reeling, glancing at each other again and again and trying to process all the revelations so casually dropped on them in that statement.
The Almighty had planned all along for the two of them to stop Armageddon, or at least play a part.
The Almighty knew and approved of Crowley as Aziraphale’s “usual help,” and so did Raphael.
The Almighty apparently trusted the two of them to be fully capable of saving the world without an Archangel’s help, thank you very much.
The Almighty had expected the world to continue long enough for bees to continue being a necessity, even while the rest of Heaven had been preparing for war.
Either that, or the Almighty liked assigning busywork to pesky Archangels.
“I did like your idea of influencing the Antichrist while he was growing up,” Raphael said, breaking the silence. “I did what I could to persuade the other Archangels—well, that they should continue allowing you to do it.”
Aziraphale blinked, shared one more glance with Crowley, and then raised his eyebrows at Raphael. “You… You did seem interested in my reports… when you were there for them,” he said. “But you hardly ever were there.”
“Yes, well,” Raphael said with a dismissive wave of her hand, “They hardly ever bothered to tell me when you would be in Heaven to report. And frankly, I try to avoid the place if I can.”
She said it like she was talking about avoiding rush hour traffic, or a particularly crowded tourist trap, or watching infomercials. But this was not a human who avoided waiting in long lines or hearing irritating sales pitches. This was an Archangel who avoided Heaven, where angels were supposed to belong, supposed to want to be. It was rather like if a human child avoided a toy store.
Aziraphale felt his mouth drop open just slightly. Crowley’s eyebrows were far less subtle about climbing almost halfway up his forehead. “Rrreeally,” the demon said.
Raphael tugged her lips back in something that was probably meant to be some sort of smile. “It’s not like it used to be,” she quietly told Crowley. “It’s all very… bureaucratic, and impersonal, and cold.” She swallowed her last gulp of tea and gestured with her empty cup. “I mean, even the visual aesthetic,” she said, clearly more comfortable with the surface level of the topic. “The architecture is awful. Or, well, I suppose the architecture itself isn’t so terrible, but the interior design is just… it is dreadfully vapid.” She looked at Aziraphale and gestured to the bookshop, which had very much the opposite of Heaven’s aesthetic. “I mean, you must agree.”
“Mm.” Aziraphale nodded. “Like being in a fish bowl, I think,” he said. “More tea?”
“Oh, yes please.” She put her cup down so he could pour. “Thank you.”
“Of course. Crowley?” He raised his eyebrows, still holding the teapot, smugly offering to top off the demon’s cup. Crowley just gave him a dirty look, so Aziraphale allowed himself another smirk and filled his own cup.
“Fish bowl is a generous description, really,” Raphael said. “It’s more like a petri dish. Fish bowls at least have some decoration. Those pretty little castles, or fake plants, or a miniature scuba diver. Or at the very least, some pretty rocks at the bottom, or sand.”
“Or colorfully-dressed inhabitants,” Crowley said dryly, earning himself an offended frown from Aziraphale. He clarified his meaning by looking at his angel and discreetly nodding towards the Archangel’s completely plain white dress. Aziraphale at least wore cream and tartan.
Raphael either missed it or pretended to. “Earth is so much nicer to look at,” she said. “I get a headache looking at all the nothing in Heaven. I want… I want all the vibrancy of Earth.” And here, her demeanor changed. Her voice softened to a murmur of a caress, and her gold-and-silver eyes sparkled with passion; the sort of passion Aziraphale had when he talked about food, or discussed a book in great detail; the sort of passion Crowley had for his Bentley. “All the colors, and the textures, the patterns and the contrast, and the… the variety of it! The flavors and the spices, and the… the flaws and the imperfections of it all!”
Aziraphale sipped his tea and slid his eyes over to Crowley, wondering at the sight before both of them. Were they both seeing this? Hearing this? Crowley sank his chin against his palm, studying the Archangel. “…You don’t get on well with Gabriel, do you?” he mused.
Those metallic eyes glittered with something that almost looked like mischief. Raphael smirked. “We have been known to disagree,” she said mildly.
Aziraphale made some tiny choked sound into his teacup—the only indication of his hastily clamped down snicker—and Crowley looked at him. I’ll tell you later! his shining eyes promised over the rim of the cup, because even he had managed to hear rumors of Raphael and Gabriel and their very loud, animated disagreements. For now, Aziraphale may have used a tiny miracle to keep from spewing his tea. He very carefully placed his teacup in its saucer, and he dabbed at his lips with a cloth napkin. “I can see why you’re glad the world survived Armageddon,” he said.
Raphael beamed. “Very glad. Absolutely,” she said. “That’s… That’s why I thought it was important, for me to thank you in person.” She smirked at Crowley. “Easier to thank both of you in person, anyway. No paper trail.”
Crowley understood that, knew all about that, of course, but his attention was on the tension in Aziraphale’s corporation, the way his angel had started thinking and was now twisting his hands in his lap.
“You do know…” Aziraphale began, watching the Archangel, hesitant and cautious. “You do know, the thing that you’re thanking us for—the very same thing—you do know that I was… punished, for it? Or, they tried to punish me.”
Crowley felt his hands clench and the burn of anger in his chest. It was torture, watching all of that parasitic anxiety come crawling back in, watching his angel worry about Heaven again. Mere moments ago, Aziraphale had been perfectly calm about politely calling Raphael out for not bothering to be there for his reports. Less than an hour ago, he’d been ready to shield Crowley from this very same Archangel, ready to fight her if it came to that—Crowley had felt that in the grip on his arm. And now? Now his angel was nervous, fretting, fearful of Heaven again, and no matter how nice Raphael had been up to this point, she had a lot of work to do to fix this, and a lot of pain in store if she didn’t. Crowley glared at her.
Raphael at least looked devastated, which was a good sign but it wasn’t good enough, wasn’t even a start. On closer inspection, there was actual anguish in her face, and maybe even guilt. So she was already suffering. Good. “Yes. I know,” she said quietly, her voice heavy and sad. She rubbed her forehead, and her angular features became softer and rounder. “That’s the other reason I’m here,” she admitted.
Not a good way to say that, Crowley thought, because it sounded to him like Raphael was saying she was here to do something about punishing Aziraphale, and that probably wasn’t what she’d meant, but—
Aziraphale merely lifted his eyebrows. “Oh?” He sounded mild and disinterested and even, almost, bored, and he knew it. It was by design. Inside, he could feel himself teetering on a precipice. Ready to fight. Ready to cower. One or the other. He didn’t know which.
Raphael rubbed both of her hands over her face and drew a breath in as she straightened up and regarded them with those silver-rimmed eyes of gold. “Like I said, I came here to talk: to say thank you,” she said quietly. “But I also came to listen.” She turned her gaze entirely to Aziraphale. Two disconcerting discs of two-toned metal stared into him, sad but steady. “Because Gabriel was right about one thing, Aziraphale: there are consequences for angels who go against God’s will… even Archangels.” She held her hands out, palms up, then palms down, then back again, the flesh of those hands shifting through nearly every human skin tone available as she did so. Her eyes did not budge from Aziraphale’s. “I wasn’t there. My hands are clean,” she said. “So it falls to me to dole out those consequences. And so I need to know what happened, Aziraphale. I need to know what they did to you.” She folded her hands on the edge of the table. “I came here hoping that you would tell me,” she finished.
“No.” Crowley shot the word out before Aziraphale even had time to panic, louder than was strictly necessary. His hand gripped the table in front of Aziraphale, his arm up like a shield for a second time today, fiercely protective.
But for once, Raphael ignored him. She was staring straight into Aziraphale’s eyes. “Aziraphale,” she said quietly. “Please.”
“I sssaid, no,” Crowley hissed, and he leaned closer, putting more of himself between them, demanding attention. “He’s been through enough, Archangel Raphael,” and the title and name both dripped with malice. “You are not going to make him relive that again.”
Raphael fixed her full gaze on the demon. “I have no interest in making either of you do anything,” she said fiercely, and then her voice turned almost dangerously soft. “It’s Aziraphale’s choice, Crowley.”
Aziraphale himself sat perfectly frozen, save for his eyes, which flicked back and forth between the two supernatural entities now locked in a staring contest over their tea. Raphael didn’t know it, of course, but there was one rather large obstacle to him telling her what the other Archangels had done to ‘him’ in Heaven last week: he knew almost nothing about it. Crowley had bought him time to think instead of panicking, but the demon’s posturing would accomplish nothing else. With an air of calm he didn’t entirely feel, Aziraphale reached around Crowley’s wrist to pick up his cup and saucer. “Well, you weren’t there, but there were three other Archangels present,” he said stiffly. “I’m sure you could talk to them.” He drank his tea. It wasn’t very soothing.
Raphael’s expression softened as she turned to face him again, and he couldn’t help noticing the deep, aching sadness that rushed into her eyes. “I have,” she said. “They have told me their side, and it would be very nice if I could actually trust that they had honestly told me everything. But they didn’t even bother to give me the illusion that I could trust them. Their story has some rather obvious holes.”
“Ask them again,” Crowley told her. Dared her.
She gave him an exasperated look. “As if that would change anything,” she spat.
“I thought angels were supposed to be honest,” Crowley taunted.
“We’re supposed to be a lot of things,” Raphael said bitterly. “But clearly, some of us have been falling short.”
“Oh, Fffalling, are they?” Crowley wasn’t entirely in his seat anymore. He didn’t seem to realize he was starting to stand. Raphael’s entire body went very tense at his words, and she wasn’t entirely sitting now, either. “Can Archangels Fall?” Crowley asked.
“If they did,” Raphael said bitterly, standing up now, leaning forward with her hands flat on the table, “They would find no mercy in Hell, and you know it. They would be destroyed, as soon as they landed.” And she obviously hated the very idea of it.
“Not if your lot don’t send the Holy Water to do it with.”
“I’m not the one who brought it down there, Crowley.”
“Ooh. Is Michael Falling, too, then?”
Aziraphale eased out of his own seat and stepped to one side so he could reach to put his cup and saucer on the table. He saw Raphael’s hands clench.
“I need to know what happened,” she said fiercely.
“Why not ask your God?”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale warned quietly. Too quietly.
“She’s supposed to be omniscient, isn’t She?” Crowley pushed on, gesturing broadly with his arms. “Doesn’t She know?”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale tried again. Still too quiet.
Raphael’s eyes were blazing. “God is the only reason I even know that anything happened!” she said. “She told me the other Archangels betrayed Her, and that I had to do something about it. That’s all.”
“Then go back and have Her tell you details,” Crowley said, waving his hand like he expected to dismiss her.
“You think I didn’t ask? You know how She is!”
“So you come harass the one angel who shouldn’t have to deal with this, shouldn’t have to deal with any of you ever again!”
“Well how else am I going to find out—”
“Some loving God!”
“Biscuits?” The plate of sweets Aziraphale shoved between their faces made both of them recoil, which was humorous, but he did not laugh. He stood perfectly calm and still while the other two snapped out of it. “If you don’t mind,” he said, sternly and evenly, “We just did an awful lot to avoid a war, and I would quite prefer if you two didn’t start a new one right in my bookshop.”
Raphael ducked her head down. “I do beg your pardon,” she said quietly, and she almost guiltily took a biscuit. “Thank you.”
“Crowley?” Aziraphale leveled a stern look at the demon, holding the plate out closer to him.
Crowley instantly forgot his temper and went straight to gazing at Aziraphale with pride and admiration. His way of (not) apologizing was to obediently take a biscuit, but a mischievous little grin twitched over the utterly adoring look on his face. “Shall we take it outside, then?” he said mildly.
Aziraphale rolled his eyes. “Do kindly shut up, dear.”
The time it took for both of them to chew and swallow their biscuits was just enough for Raphael to remember that she was not actually upset with either of them (no matter how hard Crowley tried), and for Crowley to remember that Raphael had made no indication that she would actually harm Aziraphale, or even force him to talk. Aziraphale dared to hope that at least one of them would even realize they actually had nothing to really be arguing about; they just both had some very strong emotions about this conversation.
“Right,” he said, setting the plate down on the table. “Now, if we’re all thinking a bit more clearly…” He put a hand on Crowley’s arm and turned to the Archangel. “Raphael, perhaps you could excuse us for a few moments,” he said gently, and his eyes slid over to Crowley. “I think perhaps we ought to discuss this privately.”
“Of course,” Raphael said, nodding. “Whatever you need.”
With a clipped, business-like “Thank you,” Aziraphale snatched Crowley’s hand and marched him straight to the back room without even looking back.
It occurred to Crowley, as he was getting pulled along, that he probably wouldn’t be very good at talking right now. His mind was very busy with flips and fireworks over the fact that they were holding hands! In the six thousand years they had known each other, that had happened exactly once. Ever. Well twice, now. Because this was the second time. Ever. At all. (Unless you counted the hand-sandwich-thing six days ago, but that seemed like a different category.) Crowley was a demon, of course, and he wasn’t the slightest bit giddy about holding hands with an angel. Not even a bit.
But as soon as they were in the back room, the first thing Aziraphale did was to look out into the shop, straining to see around a bookcase to where Raphael was sitting. That snapped his brain back to functioning. Crowley flashed his free palm at the opening, and despite the door still being wide open, it was now essentially soundproof; it would be impossible for Raphael to hear them. Aziraphale repeated the gesture and added his own soundproofing blessing on top of Crowley’s miracle, just in case, although a demonic miracle was probably a more effective barrier against an Archangel, anyway.
Only then did Aziraphale turn and look Crowley in the eyes. They were still holding hands. “Well,” the angel said quietly. “Seems we have a bit of a tricky situation.”
Crowley squirmed a little, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand. “…S’pose I didn’t really help that. Just now,” he mumbled guiltily.
“Not your most diplomatic moment,” Aziraphale said kindly, but with a squeeze of his hand, Crowley knew he was forgiven. (Also, they were still holding hands.) “But what would help is if I actually knew what had happened there.”
Crowley fidgeted. Safe behind his sunglasses, his eyes darted around, returning to Aziraphale’s face again and again. “I told you,” he hedged. “I told you what happened.”
“No. You told me that it was Hellfire,” Aziraphale said patiently. “You told me every word that you said, as me. But you haven’t told me a single thing anyone else said or did.”
“And I won’t,” Crowley said firmly, staring him in the eyes now. “You know I won’t. You know why I won’t.” And he did know. It was their third time having this conversation. “No, angel.”
Aziraphale sighed. “Crowley…”
“No.” His voice was firm and quiet, without any of the usual dramatics. There was a hot fury building in his chest, but it wasn’t for Aziraphale, and they both knew it.
Still, Aziraphale let out a little huff through his nose. “I’m not fragile, Crowley,” he said. “It’s not as if I can’t handle it. I’ve heard the way they talk to me for six thousand years.”
“Not from me,” Crowley said hotly. “I’m not spewing their venom at you, angel. I won’t!”
Aziraphale gently scooped up Crowley’s free hand in his own. (So now they were holding both hands, which was completely new [except for the hand-sandwich-thing, but that was a completely different configuration] and that was amazing, and also probably an instance of the angel definitely not playing fair.) “It couldn’t possibly hurt me, coming from you,” he murmured.
But Crowley scowled, and then he stomped his foot. “…Sss’not the point, angel,” he hissed. “Point is… Point issss… I mean, y’jussst said. You’ve dealt with them treating you like that for sssix thousand yearsss!”
The utterly vacant attempt at a smile the angel gave him was a twisting knife to the chest, and rendered whatever argument Aziraphale was about to make null and void before it was even spoken. “Yes, precisely,” he said softly. “After all that, what harm could a few more words possibly do?”
“Too much!” Crowley snarled. He was clenching Aziraphale’s hands tight, too tight, and he hastily loosened his grip and kneaded his thumbs into those soft, warm palms to soothe away any pain. “One word of it, one instant of it ever was too much, angel! Don’t you sssee that?” he insisted. “You never deserved to be treated like that. You never should’ve had to hear any of it. Shit if I’ll ever be the one to sssay it to you! I won’t.” And with all of that said, Crowley let his shoulders relax, and he took several slow, deep breaths, because—well. Because corporations liked breathing.
He watched as all of it washed over Aziraphale, watched him struggle to comprehend it ever so briefly before he accepted it, the way his little smile turned genuine, tremulous and tender. He watched the look in Aziraphale’s eyes as he also accepted just how strongly Crowley felt about the whole matter, and how hard it would be to sway him. But his angel was a stubborn bastard, and so Crowley watched, saw it in his eyes, as Aziraphale simply changed tack.
“Raphael needs to know,” he said.
Crowley scowled. “No she doesn’t.”
“Crowley. She needs to know what happened,” Aziraphale said reasonably.
“Nrrrgh… She can ask someone else!”
“Oh?” Aziraphale raised his eyebrows. “Who else was there, Crowley? Anyone? Even one single individual, who even could speak against the Archangels, let alone want to?”
Crowley groaned and gave him an annoyed glare. Then he furrowed his brow. “…Well, there was the demon who delivered the Hellfire,” he said petulantly.
Aziraphale gave him a stern look. “Yes, and I’m sure that demon saw just as much of my execution as Michael saw of yours,” he said pointedly.
Execution. Aziraphale didn’t even assume he’d been given a trial, even knowing Crowley had gotten one in Hell. He hadn’t expected a trial, either, when they’d talked about it the night before, when they hadn’t yet thought to swap bodies and fool everyone. At best, I’ll have a moment or two to state my case, but it won’t matter. Perhaps they’ll think to offer me some last words, he had said morosely, grim and exhausted and yet quietly amused to be sitting prim and proper on Crowley’s throne. More likely, they’ll pretend to tolerate it if I blurt out a little. Not for long, though. Best not to push it.
It made Crowley’s blood boil all over again just thinking about it. “Well she shouldn’t be bothering you about it, anyway!” he burst. “You shouldn’t even have to think about… about any of it anymore! You shouldn’t have to talk about it. She shouldn’t make you—shouldn’t even ask you…”
“…No,” Aziraphale said conspiratorially. “Not me.”
Crowley picked his head up and looked at him, confused. “…Whu…”
With a tiny lift of his eyebrows, Aziraphale gave him that look, with the big soft eyes, that he was fairly certain he was physically incapable of refusing. (Not that he had ever actually tried. Why would he?)
Crowley stuttered. “Whu… ah, yuh… what—I tell her?”
Aziraphale’s lips curved in the sort of smirk that meant he had one of his brilliant, absurd ideas, and that Crowley had guessed right. “Well obviously, don’t tell her the real reason why you know what happened as well as you do.”
The sunglasses hid how wide Crowley’s eyes were. He shook his head. “S’too risssky,” he whispered.
But Aziraphale was smug. “You’ve already set it up beautifully, my dear,” he murmured. “You told her not to make me relive it again. Which rather strongly implies that I’ve already relived it once. Which I would have done, when I told you every, single, detail.”
Crowley gulped and squirmed. “Still risky,” he said nervously. “We could switch again. Do it that way, maybe?”
“That would be riskier,” Aziraphale whispered. “She already can’t hear us right now. If we close the door, she’ll know there’s something we don’t want her to see. And besides, I still can’t do your walk.”
Crowley rolled his eyes. “And if no one in Hell noticed I walked different, why would an Archangel know it?”
But Aziraphale tugged on his hands, pulled him a tiny bit closer. “We don’t know how closely she’s been watching my usual help,” he whispered, a new intensity in his eyes.
And that was an important point. That one casual little phrase made it abundantly clear that Raphael was far more familiar with the idea of them working together than anyone else in Heaven had ever let on. That could have been terrifying. Would have been, a week ago. What mattered now was that it was possible that Raphael was more familiar with Crowley’s mannerisms than anyone in Hell was. And Crowley knew and understood all of that, but right now, hearing himself being called Aziraphale’s usual help—hearing Aziraphale say it—he couldn’t help but grin. “Oh, you liked that, angel,” he murmured, and he squeezed Aziraphale’s hands, because he could. (He could, because they were still holding hands.)
Aziraphale smirked. “Oh yes, I do. So do you,” he murmured smugly, and then his face turned more solemn. “And it’s all the more reason I’m sure Raphael believes that we tell each other everything,” he whispered.
He did not say that he thought they would be telling each other everything now. He did not mention the fact that he had told Crowley every detail of his own trial and failed execution, or point out how he had been trying very hard over the past week to go through and at least start telling Crowley the very many things he felt he should have told the demon over the past six millennia, beginning with the lies and omissions he’d made in the week leading up to Armageddon. He did not say any of that. But Crowley could still see all of it there in his eyes.
He sighed. “I just don’t want you to hear it, angel,” he whispered.
“…Well, I wouldn’t have to be in the room,” Aziraphale said, and he tried again with those big, soft eyes.
“You wouldn’t?” Crowley studied his face, trying to figure out the catch, but resistance was a lost cause, anyway. He could never say no to those eyes, and now Aziraphale was offering to continue not knowing all the horrible things that had happened at his failed execution.
“Besides,” Aziraphale went on, as if he hadn’t already won. “You’re the one so keen on seeing Gabriel suffer.”
And that made Crowley’s jaw fall open. “Wha… I… ghn… yuh… How’d y’know?” he finally managed to ask, because he was very sure that he had not said anything out loud about what he would do if he ever saw Gabriel again, or the fact that he sometimes found it soothing to imagine certain Archangels, and one in particular, battered and bloody with eyes gouged out and every last feather yanked out one at a time. He had very diligently kept all of that to himself, because he wasn’t usually so bloodthirsty and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that and he definitely didn’t want his ever-loving angel thinking less of him because of it.
But Aziraphale seemed to know about it anyway. “I know, because I’ve seen it all over your face, my dear,” he said gently, and he didn’t sound horrified or disappointed. “Well, now’s your chance. Raphael is the one who will decide his punishment. You can be the one to tell her how badly he ought to be punished. Tell her everything. Tell her every single terrible thing he said, every cruel smile, every condescending glare. Every passing little thing I’ve ever mentioned over the years that made you angry about how they treat me. Tell her every single thing about Heaven that still makes your blood boil.”
Crowley considered that and very slowly tilted his head to one side. “…Have I mentioned lately, you got very good at doing my temptations for me,” he said.
Aziraphale beamed. “I’m afraid you haven’t mentioned that since 1977,” he said smugly.
Crowley scowled. “I’m sure I said it in the ‘90s.”
“That was the 1790s, dear.”
“Ngh… y’earned it then, too.”
Aziraphale nodded towards the front of the shop. “Shall we?”
Aziraphale dropped one hand but held onto the other as he led the way out into the shop. Raphael was sitting at the table in the same chair she had used before. They stopped several feet away from her and stood watching, because Raphael was…
“…Meditating?” Aziraphale very quietly guessed.
She was sitting very still and straight and quiet with her hands flat on her lap, slowly breathing in and out. Her appearance hadn’t changed, except for the fact that her dark brown ringlets of hair were now a single long black braid down her back… and the minor detail that her skin tone was in a steady, constant state of flux, paling to near porcelain with each inhale and darkening to near midnight with each exhale, smoothly sliding back and forth between extremes.
“Show off,” Crowley muttered under his breath. Sure, they controlled their own appearances, more or less, but no average regular angel or demon had that level of control, changing one variable, in isolation, that smoothly, at a consistent speed, and timing it perfectly with some other body-related thing like breathing… That was just ridiculous. It was obscene, really. The art of tweaking your corporation was supposed to be a subtle craft, like the minor adjustments he made (unrelated to organs he didn’t care to have) when he felt like a different gender, or the way Aziraphale’s waistline fluctuated far more willy-nilly than the angel would admit. (Actually, Aziraphale’s waistline fluctuation probably had more to do with him not paying attention to it, but that was beside the point.) Raphael was definitely showing off, and it was obnoxious.
Crowley’s strong reaction had absolutely nothing to do with being jealous about that degree of control. Obviously.
Aziraphale shifted his weight, but before it could get awkward—or, well, more awkward—the Archangel opened her gold-and-silver eyes and noticed that they were there. “Oh!” She gracefully stood up and turned to face them, her skin tone finally settling on something a few shades darker than when she’d arrived. She folded her hands in front of her. “I wanted to apologize for… forgetting myself, earlier,” she said humbly. “I’m afraid I…” She wrung her hands, and worry lined its way across her face, and for a brief moment, Crowley couldn’t help thinking that despite all the obvious physical differences, she looked like Aziraphale. Maybe it was an angel thing. “I’m afraid it’s all been a bit much, this week,” she admitted.
“Quite alright. We understand,” Aziraphale said graciously, and a stern glance and a hand squeeze informed Crowley that he had better understand, or at least pretend to. He took a deep breath as he turned to face the Archangel again. “I wonder if we might be able to strike a compromise,” he said.
Raphael blinked in surprise, and she nodded eagerly. She had clearly expected to be rejected outright.
“Crowley is quite adamant that I not… go through, all of that, again… and I must admit, I’m not keen about even thinking of, of certain events,” Aziraphale said. “But Crowley himself already knows everything that happened. Would it be enough if he tells you?”
Crowley allowed himself a moment to be impressed at how cleverly Aziraphale had not lied.
Raphael blinked again and turned to Crowley. “Would you be willing to do that?” she asked.
Of course he was willing. Aziraphale had asked. And given him those puppy-dog eyes. Twice. His compliance was a foregone conclusion, really, but Raphael didn’t know that. He regarded her. “…On the condition that you really listen, and dole out punishments that fit the crime,” he said.
A deep sadness filled Raphael’s expression. She nodded solemnly. “I accept those terms.”
Aziraphale let out a breath. “Well, that’s settled, then,” he said. His eyes flicked back and forth between the two of them. “I have some books in the back room. I’m sure I’ll be able to occupy myself.” His gaze settled on Crowley. “You’ll know where to find me,” he said softly. He squeezed the demon’s hand one more time before he pried their fingers apart, and then he slipped away and disappeared among the bookcases.
Crowley focused his thoughts on the door to the back room and flicked his wrist, putting one more miraculous layer of soundproofing over it, just in case it had been a one-way thing before. Then he warily looked at Raphael, who was warily watching him. He eased himself back into his chair, and she sat down across from him. “So,” he said. “Where should we start?”
Raphael shook her head. “Up to you,” she said.
“…Right.” He shifted around in his seat, trying to get comfortable. Chairs were awkward things. “…’Kay, so. Well. We were just in the park having ice cream when we got ambushed. Both sides, just—swooped in and dragged us back to head office. My side knocked me out, but your side had Aziraphale bound and gagged, and made him watch me get knocked out. And they gloated about it. That was Uriel and Sandalphon, gloating, about—renegade angels, tied up in string, bein’ a few of their favorite things, which by the way.” He put his elbow on the table and leaned forward to wag his finger at her. “That’s already just cruel. I mean, gloating, yeah, sure. Expect that. But that blasted musical is bad enough—I mean, fine the first time, maybe. But after twelve or so, that’s in the realm of torture. And then they went and did that to it. I mean, I’ve heard it’s real popular in Heaven ‘cause She likes it, and that’s ironic. Y’know it’s about a nun who leaves the church and a… I dunno, military, commander guy, who deserts? Very disobedient. Anyone up there even notice that?”
Raphael quirked her eyebrows up. “You mean besides God, Aziraphale, and me?” she said. “Don’t think so.”
“Aziraphale isn’t Up There,” Crowley said sternly.
Raphael gave him a sad smile. “Not if he can help it, no, and neither am I,” she conceded. “But, you were saying?”
“Ah, yeah.” Crowley shifted around in his chair, and he took a deep breath. “Right, so, once they dragged him away, they covered his head, too, so he couldn’t even see what was happening, or who did what, but they shoved him around a lot. And then, once they got up to Heaven…”
He leaned forward and studied her face as he slowly told her every detail. About how ‘Aziraphale’ had been tied to a chair, and how Gabriel had gloated over what was coming while Uriel and Sandalphon watched. Raphael’s face twisted through a range of emotions. Anger and outrage flashed at all the right points. Bitter disappointment and shame filled the gaps. And all the while, those gold-and-silver eyes were brimmed with a deep, aching sadness. It occurred to Crowley that perhaps Raphael felt her fellow Archangels had betrayed her, as well as Aziraphale and whoever else. Her eyes never left his face as he spoke, and she only interrupted once: when he told her that the demon who had brought the Hellfire had asked if he could hit Aziraphale, because he’d always wanted to hit an angel, and Sandalphon had given him permission to do it.
“He what?” she burst.
Crowley raised an eyebrow at her, because really, out of all of this, that was the part she was objecting to? “He didn’t actually hit Aziraphale. Backed out, at the last minute. Decided he’d better run along home instead.”
“But they would have allowed it,” she fumed.
“Ngh-hm. They didn’t even bat an eye,” he said.
Raphael clenched her fists and glowered at the teapot, muttering angrily under her breath. Crowley caught the words “completely unnecessary” and something about the nameless demon having more sense than three Archangels. Then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and held it for a long moment before she slowly let it out. She looked at Crowley again. “Please, continue,” she said quietly.
So he did. “So… Demon went on his way,” he said, and he told about how Gabriel had been enjoying the sound of his own voice again, announcing in an awfully condescending tone that Aziraphale had averted the War with an act of treason, and Aziraphale had tried to say something about the greater good being worth that. “But he barely got two words out, and Gabriel interrupted him, of course. He said, ‘Don’t talk to me about the greater good, sunshine, I’m the Archangel Fucking Gabriel,’ and how the greater good was—” And Crowley wavered. “…Or, well, I gather that that’s what he said. When Aziraphale told me, he said ‘Archangel Effing Gabriel,’ but I rather got the impression that your Archangel said the actual word.” Aziraphale wasn’t exactly known for having a dirty mouth, and it seemed like a good detail to throw in as a reminder that obviously, Crowley knew all of this only because Aziraphale had told him. “You alright, Raphael? You seem a bit unwell,” he said airily.
She looked about ready to vomit. Could an angel vomit? Apparently Gabriel’s pride was a bit much for her to stomach, but she waved away the question, so Crowley continued.
“Anyway, Gabriel said the greater good was that your lot was finally going to settle things with the opposition—” he gestured to himself “—once and for all.” That didn’t seem to sit well with Raphael’s stomach, either. “And then Uriel untied him and said ‘Up,’ like he was some sort of dog.” Crowley pushed himself away from the table, needing some physical show of his disgust, and then he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “…Of course, Aziraphale stood up,” he said quietly. “And he was so… damn polite. All, ‘Oh, don’t suppose I can persuade you to reconsider?’ And—well, I guess he did lash out a little. He said, ‘We’re meant to be the good guys, for Heaven’s sake.’”
He glared at Raphael, because angels were meant to be the good guys, weren’t they? He wasn’t sure if she could see that he was glaring, though. Mostly, he just hoped his sunglasses were enough to hide the fact that Raphael’s wasn’t the only upset stomach in the room.
“And Gabriel just… turned it around on him,” he went on. “He said, ‘Well, for Heaven’s sake, we are meant to make examples out of our traitors—’ which is a load of bollocks, by the way.” And now he knew that no sunglasses in the world could hide his glare. “You can’t make an example without an audience. Hell wanted to make an example out of me, so every single demon who could manage it came to watch me take a holy blessed bath. That whole massive room they had Aziraphale in—you know how many angels were there to see the example they made of him? None. It was just Aziraphale, and three shitty Archangels. That isn’t making an example. That’s sweeping your problems under the blessed rug!”
Raphael’s face was clouded with anguish. She nodded.
Crowley took a deep breath and let it out in a whoosh. “…Right. So… yeah. He said, ‘We’re meant to make examples of our traitors, so, into the fire.’ And Aziraphale… walked over to the fire, and…” He tried to swallow the lump in his throat. His hands were shaking. He could see that blazing column of Hellfire so clearly in his mind still, could smell it, could feel the heat of it on his skin. Such a vivid memory of any fire, while he was sitting in this bookshop… And he couldn’t see Aziraphale, couldn’t even hear him. The back room was soundproofed. He’s safe. He’s here. He’s safe. Aziraphale is safe, Crowley told himself. He shook his head to try to clear it, and he took a deep breath. “…Ah, sorry. Um—”
A warm, calming sensation flooded his body then. Not the heat of any fire, but the cozy warmth of being safe inside with Aziraphale and a mug of hot cocoa during a blizzard. It felt like Aziraphale. This sensation was something his angel had sent him. You know where to find me, he had said, but he had also meant, You’re safe. I’m safe. I’m right here. And now he could almost still feel the angel holding his hands.
Feeling steadier, Crowley took another breath and faced the Archangel again. “…So, Aziraphale walked over to the Hellfire,” he said quietly. “And he looked right at the Archangels, and he had to say goodbye to everything somehow, of course. So he said, ‘Lovely knowing you all. May we meet again on a better occasion.’ Very polite, isn’t it? Terribly forgiving of him. And Gabriel, that… that bastard Gabriel, looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Shut your stupid mouth, and die already.’ And then he smiled. This big, horrible, nasty smile.”
Raphael was the one who was shaking now, trembling. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and breathed, and then she opened her eyes. Crowley still wasn’t talking. “And then?” she said warily.
With his elbows still on his knees, Crowley sat very still and stared at her. “What do you think? It’s Aziraphale,” he said quietly. “…He walked into the fire.”
The Archangel had been sitting straight this entire time, her posture nearly as good as Aziraphale’s. Now she crumpled, pressing her hands firmly over her face. “…He survived,” she said, her voice strained, still covering her face.
“Obviously,” Crowley said quietly, although he hardly objected to being reminded of that fact. The pleasant warmth he’d felt a moment ago was quickly withering in the heat of the fire in his memory. “…He stayed in there long enough to make it clear he was going to survive. And then he stepped out and said, ‘Anything else, then?’ Calm as can be. And the Archangels didn’t have much to say to that. Not often that Gabriel is speechless, is it?” he said mildly.
Raphael drew herself up again, put her hands down, and gave him a strained smile. “Not often enough,” she seemed to force herself to tease.
Crowley rewarded that quip with a grin. “I can believe that,” he said. “So then Aziraphale said, ‘Well, if that’s settled, perhaps you would all be quite good enough to leave me very much alone,’ and all three of them agreed. So he left.”
Raphael drew in a deep breath and sighed it out. She nodded wearily. “Thank you for telling me, Crowley,” she said, and she rubbed her forehead. “None of that should have happened.”
“Oh, no?” he said dryly. “Because all of it did happen. And do you know what the worst part is, Raphael?” Satan, but he needed to see Aziraphale, needed to see that he was okay. He fought the urge to panic by getting angry, which was easy to do, given the circumstances. “The worst part is, he expected it. Every single bit of it. He knew it would happen.”
The truth was that, while Crowley had refused to tell Aziraphale any of this because he didn’t want the angel to hear how badly he’d been treated, the real reason he was so adamant about not telling was that he knew he wouldn’t be able to bear watching Aziraphale not react. Because he wouldn’t react, not really. He would press his lips into a tight line, maybe wince here and there, and then he would say something like Sounds about right and dismiss it all with a little nod.
“He doesn’t expect to be treated any better than that by Heaven. It doesn’t even occur to him that he should be,” Crowley hissed. “And still! Even now! When I say something about it, he just barely comprehends that he ought to be treated better than how Heaven has treated him all these years.”
Raphael looked properly horrified. “…All these years?” she echoed warily. She folded her hands in her lap like it would help her to brace herself for whatever was coming.
Crowley’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead. “Yyyes, all these yearsss,” he said, deliberately holding the s. “Why, how did you think anyone on your side has ever treated him? Not with respect, surely. Because he hasn’t had any of that in a… auuugh… nn, actually, don’t think he’s ever mentioned anything Heaven did that actually sounded… respectful.”
Raphael squeezed her hands a little tighter, clearly reeling.
“It’s usually all more subtle than that,” Crowley explained. “S’why I was surprised when he thought he’d get Hellfire. I said, ‘Naaaah, angel, it’s Heaven. Either She’ll make you Fall, or they’ll do some… horribly cruel passive-aggressive type of thing.’ But he said they’d already crossed the line into corporal punishment, so—”
“When?” Her eyes flashed. “What did they do?”
“Oh, they didn’t mention that, either?” he said sarcastically. He kneaded the heel of one palm into the other. “To be honest, I don’t know details on that one. Only talked about it the one time, and he was upset, and we were both getting executed the next day, so… Mostly, we just got drunk.” Mostly, they’d collapsed in his flat and held onto each other while they puzzled over Agnes Nutter’s prophecy until they’d decided to try switching bodies, and there had actually been painfully little alcohol involved, but nobody needed to know that. “But I do know that on the day of Armageddon, Michael, Sandalphon, and Uriel cornered Aziraphale somewhere, told him they finally caught on that we’re friends and he was in trouble, and… I don’t actually know which one of ‘em shoved him into a wall, but it was Sandalphon who punched him. Right in the gut.” He watched as Raphael’s stomach clearly made another attempt to test whether or not an ethereal being could puke. “As far as I know, that and the Hellfire are the only times it was actually physical. Not that any other kind of abuse is much better,” he went on. “Didn’t you know about any of that? Archangel?”
He didn’t care how nice she had been or how remorseful she seemed. That particular knife deserved to be twisted. She was an Archangel. She was supposed to at least know what Heaven was doing, and if she didn’t like what they were doing, she was supposed to stop them. And she hadn’t.
“…Thank you for telling me,” she finally said. She wasn’t looking at him now. She was staring down at the floor without seeming to see it. She wrung her hands in her lap, and she nodded grimly. “It seems I have my work cut out for me, then,” she said, and she met his eyes (or at least his sunglasses) again. “You could bring him back in now, I suppose. Or… Is there anything else you want to tell me, without him hearing?” she asked quietly.
Crowley raked through his memories, trying to recall all of Heaven’s most egregious offenses against Aziraphale. He tilted his head to one side. “…How do you feel about angels… consuming earthly food and beverages?” he asked her.
She raised her eyebrows and looked at the table, which was still laid out with the tea and biscuits they’d had, and she’d had a considerable amount of both. She looked at Crowley and gestured to the table. “How much of a hypocrite do you take me for?”
“You’re an Archangel,” he said, as if that explained everything. (Well, it did, didn’t it?)
She stared at him for a moment before she decided that she would, in fact, have to elaborate. “…Any angel who spends absolutely any amount of time among humans will find themselves in a situation where the surrounding humans will all either be eating, or talking about eating, and any respectable angel had better be able to keep up,” she said sternly.
“…Huh,” Crowley said pointedly. “Safe to assume, then, you’d say it’d be out of line for an Archangel to… disparage an angel for eating?” She stared and blinked, so he elaborated. “Gabriel makes a habit of… reminding Aziraphale that a proper angel should never eat.”
She continued to stare at him for a long moment. Then a whole new variety of anger burned in her metallic eyes. She started muttering under her breath, and Crowley didn’t catch most of what she said, but it definitely ended with “Archangel Flipping Gabriel.”
“I think you meant fucking,” Crowley said helpfully.
“I meant…” Raphael fumed, and she glared at the plate of biscuits so hotly that it was probably a miracle it didn’t burst into flame. (Not a pleasant thought, a spontaneous uncontained flame in the middle of the bookshop. The back of Crowley’s neck tingled.) “…Ignoramus,” she decided. She took a deep breath and slowly let it out, but it didn’t seem to do much to calm her down. And that was perfectly fine with Crowley. The angrier she was, the harsher she would be with Gabriel’s punishment. “Right. I have work to do. And I should get out of your hair,” she said, and she looked at Crowley. “But I would like to speak with Aziraphale again, before I go,” she said, her voice suddenly softer and gentler.
“I’ll get him.”
Crowley practically lunged out of his chair, fairly desperate to see Aziraphale after so much talking and thinking about fire and how cruel Heaven had been. As soon as he turned his back to Raphael, he realized he was much closer to panic than he’d thought. It took a conscious effort to keep from running to the back room. He’s safe he’s safe he’s safe he’s safe I KNOW he’s safe—
“Aziraphale!” he gasped out as he burst into the back room. His eyes landed on the angel, who was standing just in front of the couch, watching the door expectantly, looking straight at Crowley.
“Are you alright?” Aziraphale asked as he immediately took Crowley’s hand in his.
Holding hands! Again! It was amazing how disorienting it was to suddenly have solid ground under his feet. “…Uh yeah! Fine, m’fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Aziraphale very kindly did not call him out on his botched attempt at playing it cool. Instead, the angel gave him a warm smile… and pulled the rug out from under him. “You skipped the part where I blew Hellfire at them,” he said mildly.
Crowley’s jaw fell open. You weren’t supposed to hear me. While his brain short-circuited, his mouth muddled through. “Uh, yyuh, uhm—didn’t—wanna get you in more trouble…”
“Mm.” Aziraphale squeezed his hand. “I like that part,” he said, and he shrugged dismissively. “Probably the Archangels mentioned it, anyway.”
“Ngk, uh—yeah don’t think she trusts ‘em now. How did you…”
Aziraphale let out a little huff. “Really, Crowley. You only soundproofed the back room,” he said.
“Yngh—but… but y’said—”
“I said, that there are books in the back room, and that I would be able to occupy myself,” Aziraphale said. “I never actually said I was going to stay back here.”
Crowley stared at him. “…How much, did you…?”
Aziraphale tilted his head down, a hint of apology in his eyes. “All of it,” he said softly.
Crowley stared for one more moment. Then his shoulders slumped, and his expression crumpled. “I didn’t want you to hear it,” he whispered.
“I know, my dear. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t have, except—” He stopped himself, studied Crowley’s face, and let out a faint sigh. “…Well, except—with what happened the last time you were in the shop and couldn’t see or hear me… Oh, Crowley.” His free hand gently cradled the demon’s cheek. “Do you really think I’d risk that happening to you again? Especially with—” His eyes flicked towards the doorway for a split second. “With someone here we don’t entirely trust?” he whispered.
“…Oh.” Crowley barely managed to make even that sound. He felt very dizzy. He had no idea if it was from how quickly the panic was subsiding, or the fact he was just now realizing how panicked he had been, or the very tender way Aziraphale was touching his face. Or, maybe he was dizzy because it was just now occurring to him that he’d felt Aziraphale send him that comforting sensation and hadn’t thought to question how the angel had known exactly the moment he’d most needed to feel it.
It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter why he was dizzy, or how dizzy he was. All that mattered was the soft, warm hand on his cheek, and how it steadied him.
And then all that mattered was the fact that Aziraphale was suddenly hugging him, tucking the demon’s head down into the crook of his neck and holding him, safe and secure.
Apparently hugging was something they did now. That was new. That was a definite first. Unless you counted the night after Armageddon, in his flat. Did it count as a hug if it was firmly in the realm of cuddling? Crowley wanted to count everything as separately as possible. That way, they could have more firsts.
He twined his arms around Aziraphale’s trunk, and that was when he realized he was shaking. He focused on the feeling of Aziraphale’s arms around him, Aziraphale’s chest pressed against his, Aziraphale’s collar against his face, Aziraphale’s deliberately slow, steady breath lightly blowing on his hair. He felt himself getting steadier. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“Shh…” Aziraphale brushed his fingers through Crowley’s hair.
Another first. Or at least, it was the first time he’d done that while knowing that Crowley was awake. All sorts of firsts today. Maybe he wouldn’t have to wait a full millennium before they got around to cuddling again.
“Are you alright?” Crowley murmured. “Hearing all that?”
Aziraphale held very still for a moment, very quiet. “…I will admit, that I could have done without hearing… a—about—that punch, again,” he whispered. “I’m glad you handled that.”
Crowley gave him a gentle squeeze. “…And the rest?” he asked. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know. He did not want to hear his angel not reacting to all of it.
But Aziraphale was brushing soothing fingers through his hair, again and again. “I understand why you didn’t want me to hear it,” he murmured. “…Thank you, my dear. For—for what you said—what you keep saying, about… how I ought to be treated. …And also, for trying to spare me from it.”
Crowley closed his eyes. His stomach churned at just how mild and unbothered Aziraphale’s voice sounded. He squeezed the angel a little tighter. “You’re not upset,” he whispered.
Tucked in like he was, he couldn’t see the smug little smirk that sparked on Aziraphale’s face then, but he heard it soon enough. “Actually,” Aziraphale said, “I was rather… proud, I suppose? Yes, proud, to have been enough of a problem for them to feel they needed to… sweep me under the rug, as it were. I could be very generous and go so far as to say it almost implies that they felt some sort of shame for what they were doing, hiding it like that. But to be perfectly honest, it helps that it all failed so spectacularly, and now they will all pay for it. Rather dearly, I should think.”
And now he sounded absolutely… gleeful. Crowley had no idea if that reaction was really ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ in the long run, but for now Aziraphale sounded happy, and that was enough for him to finally notice that being in this position was pushing his sunglasses into his face in a very uncomfortable way, pinching against his eyebrows and digging into his nose. He picked his head up just enough to rest his chin on his angel’s shoulder, so that he and his sunglasses (and his eyebrows) were no longer squished. Not that he was in any hurry to move any more than that. He fully intended to stay as close to Aziraphale as he could for as long as he could, taking in every detail. Later, he would replay all the physical contact in his mind and be giddy about all of it. In a very dignified, demonic way, of course. For right now, though… “Did you hear what Raphael said about angels eating?”
“Mm-hm.” Aziraphale was still lightly stroking the hair on the back of Crowley’s head. “That was a bit validating,” he said. “And it looked to me like that was what really put her over the edge, with her anger. She seems eager to go dole out punishments.” He started to straighten up. “I suppose we should go say goodbye—”
“Wait—looked to you—you saw?” Crowley picked up his head and studied Aziraphale’s face. “Weren’t you just—back behind some shelves, or something? How’d you see…?”
Aziraphale hesitated, wavering between embarrassment and pride. “Well, I had to be able to see you, dear,” he said. “I was… on a shelf.”
Crowley raised his eyebrows. “On a shelf,” he repeated.
“Yes,” Aziraphale said simply. “Just… shrank myself down. To about an inch. I was between Hamlet and Richard III. Had an excellent view of both of you.”
Crowley stared at him. “…Obviously,” he said. He decided to make a note of where Hamlet and Richard III were shelved.
Aziraphale gave him a smile and nodded towards the door. “Shall we, then?” he said. He let go of Crowley and led the way out into the shop.
This time, Raphael was standing next to the table, waiting for them with her hands clasped in front of her. “Aziraphale,” she said, “In light of—recent revelations…” She glanced at Crowley. “I think I should ask: Do you know about all of the commendations you’ve received?”
Aziraphale stopped short. He blinked a few times. “…Commendations?” he repeated. He looked at Crowley, as if the demon might know more than he did about his own commendations from Heaven.
Raphael pressed her lips tight together, and her gold-and-silver eyes sparked with anger, but she did not look surprised. “Do you know about any of your commendations?” she asked, her voice so much gentler than her expression.
Again, Aziraphale glanced at Crowley. He knit his brows together. “…You mean, that—promotion, business? A little more than two centuries ago…?”
She let out a huff of air. “You mean when Gabriel tried to reassign you?” she scoffed. “I told him you wouldn’t want to leave Earth. I don’t know what finally convinced him, but I’m glad it did.” Crowley flashed a grin at Aziraphale, who returned a tight smirk. But Raphael sighed. “No, I don’t mean the promotion thing. Or at least, not just that,” she said. “I mean all of the commendations you’ve earned over the last six millennia. I wish I knew the exact number. It seems like there’s been one every century, at least. More than anyone else I can think of, and that’s not even counting all of the Principality of the Month awards.”
Aziraphale stared. He couldn’t manage much else. Lucky for him, Crowley was there, and a bit quicker to recover. The demon raised his hand. “As the inventor of the participation award, I find it offensive that there is such a thing as a Principality of the Month Award,” he announced.
Raphael threw her hands up in a dramatic shrug. “It wasn’t my idea. I think Uriel was bored or something.”
She looked at Aziraphale, who was still dumbfounded by the news that he had, possibly, received more commendations than any other angel. It was understandably shocking after six thousand years of nothing more than an occasional backhanded compliment and one medal with a meaningless promotion.
Raphael’s gaze turned sympathetic. “I obviously have a lot of work to do to even begin to fix all the wrong that’s been done to you, Aziraphale,” she said sadly. “I’m not sure that I can fix all of it. I’m not sure anyone can. But at the very least, I can start by sending you a full record of all of your commendations.”
Aziraphale finally regained the ability to speak. Sort of. “…Thank you,” he managed to say.
“Thank you. Both of you,” Raphael said, giving them both a warm smile. “For everything.” She drew herself up with a deep breath. “I should go… tend to things. Let you get back to your day.”
“Yeeees… I believe you have some Archangels to discipline,” Crowley said.
Raphael set her jaw and nodded. “Definitely.” She turned and started walking towards the door.
Aziraphale blinked a few times and finally recovered properly. He followed the Archangel to the door, and Crowley stayed close beside him. “Raphael,” Aziraphale said, and she stopped to look at him with her hand on the door. “Thank you for listening, to both of us,” he said.
Raphael smiled kindly. “Any time,” she said. She started to open the door, but then she hesitated and let the door ease shut again. “Aziraphale… With everything that’s happened, I wouldn’t blame you at all if you never want anything to do with Heaven, ever again,” she said quietly, sadly. “But I do hope you won’t completely walk away. I mean, of course, you’ll never report to Gabriel again, but… I think you’re the best we’ve got. It would be a shame if we lost you.”
Aziraphale and Crowley quickly looked at each other.
Raphael held her hand up before either of them could speak. “You don’t have to answer now. Or ever, if you don’t want. You certainly don’t owe us anything,” she said. “It’s entirely your choice, Aziraphale. Now and always. Any time you want in—or out, for that matter… You have that option.”
Crowley watched as Aziraphale clasped his hands together and raised his eyebrows. “You’re saying that, if, at some point, I were to… return to Heaven’s employ, so to speak… I would be able to just walk away, whenever I wanted? No consequences?” he asked skeptically, and Raphael nodded. “Rather difficult to give orders to someone who can leave whenever they want, isn’t it?”
Raphael smirked. Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, very difficult, I should think,” she said. “So it’s probably best not to think of it as orders. More like… freelance work. You could take it or leave it as you please.”
Aziraphale looked over at Crowley and knew, without technically seeing, that he was sliding his eyes back and forth between the two angels. “I see,” said Aziraphale, and he kept half an eye on the demon as he regarded the Archangel again. “And if there ever were to be such a thing as a freelance angel… to whom would that angel report?”
Not Gabriel. She had already promised that much. Her expression softened. “You would report to me,” she said gently. Then she shook her head. “Don’t think about it now. In fact, I won’t take seriously any answer you give me for at least a month. Besides, I still have to figure out the exact particulars. I—” She stopped, and her face turned more pained. “You aren’t the only one with a new role,” she said sadly. Then she shook her head again. “I should go.” She opened the door and looked at both of them. “Peace be with you.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Mind how you go.”
Raphael’s sundress transformed into a tracksuit as she stepped out of the shop, and she started jogging down the street as the door swung closed.
Crowley and Aziraphale stared at the closed door.
“…I could do with a drink,” Aziraphale announced.
Crowley made a show of checking his watch before regarding the angel. “…Tea?” he said dryly.
“Decidedly not,” Aziraphale said, straightening his waistcoat for emphasis. Then he cocked an eyebrow at the demon and smirked. “Although, if you would like more tea, my dear…”
“Hnnmrg…” Crowley gave him a dirty look, and then glanced at his abandoned teacup on the table. “We could spike it,” he suggested.
Aziraphale scowled. “Blasphemy,” he chided.
And Crowley laughed and followed him back to the table. He casually circled, trying not to be obvious about looking for Hamlet and Richard III while Aziraphale gathered the dirty plates and cups. “Wonder what she meant, about having a new role,” he mused as he glanced over the spines.
Aziraphale glanced at him. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Raphael acting as disciplinarian before,” he said. Crowley’s cup still had a few swallows of cold tea in it. Aziraphale poured it down his own throat and continued stacking dishes. “Besides, if the Almighty has ordered the other Archangels to be punished, I’m sure they’re not being trusted with their regular duties. Someone has to pick up the slack.” He loaded nearly everything on the table onto the same silver tray he’d brought it out on. “Could you grab the biscuits, please?”
So Crowley picked up the plate of biscuits and followed him to the kitchenette. “You mean, whatever it is that all the Archangels do all day…”
“…She now has to do on her own,” Aziraphale finished. “Yes, I’d imagine so.”
“…Hng. No wonder she’s mad at them.”
Aziraphale set his tray down and took the biscuit plate from Crowley. “You know, on the rare occasion that I actually saw Raphael in Heaven, I always thought she was much more… flighty, than the other Archangels. But I don’t think that’s it at all, is it?” he said as he neatly slid the biscuits back into their tin. “It’s really just that she’s more…” He smirked. “Down to Earth. So to speak.”
“Mmm. Well, she spends more time here, sounds like. That’d make anyone seem eccentric, Up There.” Crowley folded his arms over his chest and leaned his hip against the counter. “Always liked Raphael,” he said mildly. “I mean, in the old days. The really, really old days.” Then he furrowed his brow. “…I think.” He dismissed the matter with an uneasy shrug. “What is it that Archangels have to do, exactly?”
Aziraphale raised and lowered his eyebrows and glared at the sink as he started washing the dishes. “I’m sure I have no idea,” he said coolly. “But apparently, their duties include handing out hundreds of commendations and conveniently neglecting to even mention them to their intended recipient.” He handed a plate to Crowley, who miracled it dry. “Six hundred commendations, Crowley! If I’ve had one every century, that’s six hundred!”
“At least six hundred,” Crowley said, continuing to miraculously dry every dish he was handed. “Probably more. Not counting awards for Principality of the Month, whatever that entails.”
“Hmph.” Aziraphale scrubbed at an antique teacup with far more vigor than was necessary—or recommended. (The teacup knew better than to suffer any ill effects.) He furrowed his brow and glanced at Crowley. “Did you actually invent participation awards?” he asked.
Crowley very dramatically rolled his eyes. “I do actually work sometimes, angel. Not everything I claim to have done is made up.”
“Yes, of course,” Aziraphale agreed, and he braced himself for the inevitable explanation of how participation awards were brilliantly demonic.
Crowley’s head snapped up. “Marco Polo!”
Aziraphale shut the tap off and turned to stare at him. He blinked. “…What?”
“The explorer… name,” Crowley said. “Game. …Thing.”
Aziraphale continued to stare at him. Then he sighed. “Just… get the brandy out, my dear. Please.”
Crowley was happy to comply.