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I. Dubrovnik

The first time it happened, Aziraphale had just arrived in Dubrovnik, ship sliding between the enormous cliffs that sheltered the bright red roofs of the port city. A towering stone castle stood atop the cliff to the west; it hadn’t been there last time Aziraphale visited, but was at least a century old already.

It was just a quick stop over, in and out, on his way to more pressing matters up north; low-profile work, protecting a few travelers, blessing a few churches.

But all during the journey, he had heard whispers, rumors that something evil lurked in the city.

What he should do was contact his superiors, asking for orders and recommendations. He had never failed to do so before.

Evidence of demonic work, he would say. Sometimes he would be given instructions on how to counteract the most likely lines of infernal influence; more often, he would be detoured, given a new path to his destination that avoided any confrontation. A few times, reinforcements had been sent, though always they were dedicated soldiers who were quick to smite. If any of Michael’s legions showed up – or worse, Sandalphon’s – well, that would be the end of any low-profile work for at least a century.

But it wasn’t fear of destroying his cover that kept him from calling Head Office. In fact, for once, it hadn’t even crossed his mind.

Instead, he stood at the prow of the ship, hands tapping at the rail, excitement mixed with nerves. Yes, he could sense the agent of Hell, even from here, like a faint scent on the breeze, and he knew Crowley could sense him, too. Five thousand years on Earth grants you a certain…familiarity.

Crowley would be waiting. Not a doubt in his mind. And woven all through his usual what ifs and be carefuls was the simple, buzzing happiness of seeing the demon again.

Docking took an eternity; Aziraphale had to resist the urge to simply miracle himself ashore. Why not? His charges had all been marked so that he could easily find them again, conveniently bump into them in the marketplace in time to join them on the next leg of his journey. He wasn’t carrying much baggage of note, nothing he couldn’t replace easily. Just a small teleportation, Heaven probably wouldn’t even notice…

With a thud, the plank was lowered, and the small group of travelers began making their way to the pier. Aziraphale joined the throng, moving slowly, slowly ashore…

By the time his feet reached solid ground – which seemed to tip for a moment but a quick miracle cured him of any lingering motion sickness – Aziraphale was already scanning the crowd and there – there – brilliant red hair barely contained by a black veil, deep red dress down to his ankles covered by an impossibly black overgown, covered in onyx and red coral, sleeves scandalously short. Tall and narrow and gliding through the crowd like a fish through water, like a shark, predatory smile that nevertheless made Aziraphale’s heart speed up and his stomach twist. He couldn’t breathe.

He couldn’t breathe.

Suddenly, all thoughts of Crowley were shoved aside by the doubts, the endless worries, surging to the surface: his assignment, his next report, the dinners, the lies, what he would say to Gabriel next month? What would he say if Gabriel showed up right now? He never should have come – should have reported in hours ago – should have never invited Crowley for oysters – should have – should have – should have –

His eyes were wet, but he wasn’t sad or happy or any of the things that usually brought tears, they were just there, in the corners. His fingers shook uncontrollably as he reached to wipe them away.

No, there wasn’t time for this, he needed to push the thoughts aside – make a list – deal with all of them, yes, start with – start with – start with – Breathe.

The first gasping, wheezing breath felt strangely voluntary, as if he were simply trying something new. What happens if I do this with my lungs instead? Then came another normal breath. See? Just experimenting. Now another wheeze.

But someone would notice. He should stop.

At which point he realized, all at once, that he had no control over anything. His body was simply doing what it would. He staggered, bending over, gasping, searching for breath. Tears began to run down his face and he sucked in one high, shrieking breath after another.

“Angel! Aziraphale! Are you – what’s wrong?”

This was absurd. He was drawing attention, making a scene right here by the water. The crowd was pushing away – people would notice – this wasn’t low-profile at all!

He needed to explain – needed to stop – but the world tilted dangerously, worse than the ship ever had.

“Can you hear me?” Two hands gripped at his shoulders, long fingers digging in. “Aziraphale!”

“Of…” he started, but was interrupted by another wheeze. It was strange. His mind could take everything in, perfectly logically, but his thoughts were spinning so fast they had become blank. It seemed that he was standing slightly apart from the body, watching it fall apart, watching the shaking hands fumble weakly for Crowley’s gown, tugging at the fabric, pulling him closer.

No, no, that wouldn’t do. He ordered the hands to let go, the legs to step back from the demon’s grip. They obeyed, but the brain immediately got worse, dizzy, nauseated, and Aziraphale felt himself drifting even farther away from the body as it fell, crouching, hugging its own knees.

“Fine.” He forced the lips to say. “Just. Air.”

“You aren’t fine!” Again those gentle narrow fingers reached for him, brushed across his cheeks, which were now coated with a stream of tears Aziraphale couldn’t control. “Aziraphale, look at me!”

His eyes finally moved to fully take in Crowley, crouching before him in that lovely dress, curls breaking free of the veil to dance in the sea breeze around golden eyes, wide with fear.

It made his chest hurt, worse than anything, as if his heart were trying to escape entirely.

“Heaven,” Crowley said suddenly. “You need to go to Heaven. Now. There’s – your body is dying.”

“No—” Aziraphale’s head shook frantically, partly just from the tremors. “Don’t – what do I say? You’re here—”

And then Crowley was gone, leaving no trace except a wave of demonic energy that would surely be felt by any angel on Earth and many in Heaven besides.

Enough of this. He tried to breathe normally, to stand up, to let go of his legs – anything to return to some semblance of normalcy. His body refused to listen.

When the angels arrived – one of Uriel’s units, thank goodness, at least they had some idea of how to act like they belonged – he was still crouched in the street, breathing barely under control.

(He could stop the tears, he could stop the gasping, he could stop all of it. Aziraphale was in control.)

He spent two days in Heaven, being poked and prodded as experts attempted to determine the nature of the demonic attack that had left one of their best agents helpless in the street.

(Aziraphale felt the usual mix of pride and shame at that – he only ever seemed to be called one of our best agents when he’d failed to live up to the title.)

But in the end, there was nothing – no sign of any attack, damage or illness – some heightened hormone levels, but that could easily be an aftereffect of the stress on the body. There was some discussion of replacing the body with another one, better functioning, better suited to Earthly combat.

(No one asked Aziraphale’s opinion on that. It was just a piece of equipment, after all, even if he’d become rather attached to it.)

In the end, Aziraphale was sent back to Earth, almost too late to reconnect with his charges, with strict instructions to contact Head Office if the demon attempted another strike.

(Crowley would never. It was a terrifying thought, to be so confident in one’s nemesis. But Crowley would never.)

--

II. London

The second time, it was after he and Crowley had parted ways. They’d sat up late in the tavern – past the town’s curfew, but by a miracle the innkeeper failed to notice two men sitting by a roaring fire, pitcher of wine passing between them.

They had talked of work – jobs, travel, schemes; where they would keep out of each other’s ways, where they would claim to have thwarted each other. Coin tosses determined which side would win for many of those, until Aziraphale grew suspicious about the number of times Crowley won.

“Look, doesn’t matter,” Crowley had said, coin vanishing again. “So long as we appear to be doing something, Hell doesn’t actually care if I beat you or not.”

“They don’t?” Aziraphale scooted his bench a little closer. “Surely your side must be as concerned with – with job performance as mine is.”

“Eh, might get a slap on the wrist if I mess up too many jobs. Long as I send in something impressive, they’ll let it slide.” Crowley took a drink of wine. “Looks like there’s another war starting in France, and something up in Scotland, too. I’ll see which one looks good and grab credit for it.”

Aziraphale tutted. “Another war? Surely both of those were settled just last decade.”

“Humans. Always have something brewing. Very reliable that way.” Crowley got to his feet with a grin, sliding the black lenses back over his eyes. He had told Aziraphale he was still perfecting the design, but the current effort seemed to work rather well.

“Crowley, wait.” Something had been bothering him for the last few centuries. “When you say…slap on the wrist…what is that…what does that mean for demons?”

Perhaps the lenses weren’t so effective after all. They did nothing to hide the brief wave of pain and fear that passed over Crowley’s face. “Never mind that, Angel. Nothing I haven’t already lived through.”

It was probably meant to be comforting.

Instead, Aziraphale spent the night sitting on his bed, grinding his teeth and tugging on his fingernails, possibilities running through his mind, one after the other. He knew what sorts of…physical penances…Heaven demanded for particularly notable failures. Hell would be worse, much worse, and Aziraphale quite suddenly found his imagination unlocked, scouring everything Crowley had ever said for hints.

The thoughts ran faster, faster, slamming into each other, making him dizzy, making him cold, making his mind skip and shake, until he couldn’t hold any of them for more than a few seconds. Crowley in chains – Crowley on fire – Crowley being slowly torn to bits – that was just for failures – how much worse for a demon actively working with an angel?

The first gasping, wheezing breath frightened him – he hadn’t known it was coming, had forgotten his body could make that noise. He tried to force his body to calm down, to breathe normally but there was another, and another.

I don’t have time for this, he thought desperately as tears began to run down his face. I need – Crowley needs a solution. Now! Before they – before they—

The more urgent his fear, the more his body failed him, wheezing like broken bellows, trembling. The sound of his blood pounding in his ears grew louder, louder, like the voices of demons, whispering, laughing, plotting.

Aziraphale clutched at a pillow, trying to muffle the awful noises coming from him, the wheezes and sobs and moans, before someone heard, before someone realized—

He didn’t know how long he sat that way, but when his mind finally drifted back into his body, regaining control, he had dragged pillow and blankets into one enormous bundle, clutching at it with arms and legs. Like some sort of infant animal, clinging to its mother. The part of the pillow close to his face was soaked through with tears and other fluids; he’d lost all track of what his body did.

Judging by the candle, the attack had lasted less than a half-hour, perhaps much less, but it had seemed to go on for hours, days.

It was, of course, an attack just like the one that had struck him in Dubrovnik all those years before; the chest pains hadn’t been as bad, the breathing had been worse. There was a lingering twist in his gut, a need to fix this, to find something to do, anything right now.

But what could he do? They were already three hundred and seventeen years into the Arrangement, one thousand, two hundred and ninety-eight years into a friendship that had started over oysters, five thousand, three hundred and forty-one years past the moment of companionship, watching an approaching storm, musing about the nature of the world…

Aziraphale clutched at the pillow and blankets again, stomach aching. He didn’t seem to be on the verge of another attack, but perhaps the first hadn’t entirely worn off.

He didn’t contact Heaven. How could they help? What could he tell them that wouldn’t simply make all his fears come true sooner?

Aziraphale sat that way for many, many hours, all through the night, until dawn released him.

--

III. Versailles

The next attack that Crowley witnessed was at a ball in Versailles.

Aziraphale stood with a group of women, fanning himself. The silk of the ball gown was gorgeously soft, and he thought it flattered his figure rather nicely – he’d caught Crowley’s glance back in the garden, more than once – but the heat of the day was becoming oppressive, and the panniers hung heavily at his sides, weighing him down as worries began to weigh down his mind.

He was in the middle of a comment – he could never remember about what, taxes, the theater, something – when suddenly his voice went high and tight. He ran a hand across the front of his stays, feeling the familiar knot of panic begin to build. He was sweating more than he should be – already his head felt light – nausea wouldn’t be far behind. Aziraphale turned away from the group, trying to maintain control. Just breathe. Just breathe. He nodded to one of his companions to continue talking, sending his ostrich feathers bobbing, and tried to fight the tears already gathering in the corners of his eyes.

Somewhere in the distance, Crowley circled again. He’d ignored the puffed, frilly, colorful fashions worn by the men of the court in favor of black jacket and breeches over a deep red shirt. Aziraphale tried to keep his eyes forward. Grinding his teeth, masking his tremors with flutters of the fan, waiting for the attack to pass, But he felt those gold eyes even through the lenses, watching him, always watching…

The room around him dimmed, narrowed, as if swallowed by a mist.

“Pardon…I need air…” Aziraphale stepped away from the group, walking as fast as his voluminous skirts would allow, faster still, all but running for the door, for one of the elaborate halls decorated in gold and silver, and the promise of a moment’s privacy.

He didn’t quite find it.

Bent almost double, arm braced against the wall, hand pressed to his stomach, Crowley found him, just as he thought he had the gasping, retching, shaking back under control.

“Aziraphale! What’s happening? Are you alright?”

“Fine – Just – Fine – leave me…” He turned his face away, hoping Crowley wouldn’t see the tears hovering at the edges of his eyes.

“Don’t be like that,” Crowley said, tone flippant, but hovering close with concern. “Is it your stays? Have you been tightlacing?”

“Certainly – not.” Aziraphale brought his hand to his chest as his heart started palpitating and straining against his ribs. Say something. Send him away. Don’t let him see—

But his thoughts were no help. The part of him that could think rationally was two steps removed from the useless, trembling, gasping creature floundering in the hall, and any words – anything that might ease Crowley’s curiosity – were beyond him just now, mind a shifting, terrifying maze of smoke.

The room tilted like a sinking ship, and the sound of his heartbeat became whispers, hissing voices…

He wasn’t under control at all, it was worse, it was so much worse.

“Angel, please tell me. Do you need help? I can summon—”

“Don’t! Can’t – know!” And he made the mistake of turning to face Crowley.

Aziraphale knew what he must look like. He’d had an attack near a mirror once, seen the wild, terrified look that filled his eyes, the strain around his mouth and jaw. Crowley reached for him, shadow of fear flickering around his own face, and Aziraphale stumbled away, swatting at his hand, nearly falling over in the hall.

“Here, let me – there’s a chair. Just here.” Crowley’s fingers lightly on his ribs and his elbow, guiding him a few steps. “What do you need? Water? Wine? What can I get you?”

Aziraphale pressed forward, sitting in a most undignified way, shaking his head as he gasped. The tears dripped, staining the silk of his dress.

Something warm settled into the space between his shoulders – Crowley’s hand, resting lightly, rubbing in small circles. The demon was kneeling beside him – still had one hand on his wrist—

Don’t let him touch you! Don’t let them see! Get under control – Always in control – Tell him – Tell him—

But Aziraphale’s body had a mind of its own, leaning towards Crowley, sinking into the curve of his arm. Stop it – they’ll see – they’ll know—

“I’m here. It’s alright, Angel.”

His heart squeezed as if trying to press itself through his ribs. Another wave of vertigo – a shudder fit to pull his limbs apart – and then it passed, as suddenly as it had begun. Aziraphale’s mind settled back into the body, still trembling with a truly intolerable amount of fear.

“I – I know it’s alright, Crowley. I’m not – there isn’t – it’s just a-a-a malfunction in my corporation. Happens sometimes.” He wanted to stand up, but his legs were still too weak, so Aziraphale settled for smoothing his dress and straightening his hair. Crowley scrambled to his feet and stepped back. Good. As it should be.

“Don’t tell me that was nothing. That was – that – how long has this been going on?”

“Centuries, my dear fellow.” There. The quiver was almost gone from his voice entirely. “It hardly matters, does it? The attack is over.” Except for the ache in his stomach, which would remain for days.

“Will it happen again?”

“Perhaps.” Aziraphale tried to keep his voice light. “Sometimes they happen every day for – for a little while, and then…nothing. Not for years, decades.” He touched a hand to his face and – oh, those tears were much worse than he’d thought, he must look a mess.

Crowley held out a dark red handkerchief. Hesitating, Aziraphale took it, wiping his face clear. “Thank you my dear. It…it happens…when I worry too much, so really you mustn’t concern yourself or-or it may get worse. I have it under control now.”

“Worry?” Crowley scoffed. “What do you have to worry about? They love you here. All those humans practically eating out of your hand, while I muck about trying to…” He fell very still. “It’s me, isn’t it? I’m the reason.”

“Oh, don’t be s-so dramatic,” Aziraphale tutted. A few more deep breaths and he should be fine, externally at least, and really wasn’t that all that mattered? “Yes, sometimes I worry myself sick about – about the Arrangement. Perhaps if you were a bit more careful I wouldn’t have to!” He refolded the handkerchief and dabbed his face again. “But…yes…no harm done. I’ll be myself again soon.”

“Is it—” Crowley stepped away, then back again, almost as if he were dancing. “Is it every time?”

“No.” He did his best to smile. “No, sometimes I hardly worry at all. I rather think I’ll be fretting a few more days this time, though that should give you some space to do your own work.” He held out the handkerchief. “I suppose I should thank you?”

“No. Keep it.” Crowley started up the hall, walking with fierce energy. “In case it happens again.”

“But I hardly—”

“I’m leaving,” Crowley called over his shoulder. “Tonight. There’s another job in Vienna, I’ll probably have better luck there without some angel interfering.”

“No, Crowley, wait!” Aziraphale staggered to his feet, tipping as the floor listed under him, grabbing at the chair for balance. He tried to bring his mind to bear. “There’s no need to—”

The dark figure turned just before re-entering the ballroom, a gentle smirk on his face that did wonders to unknot that terror Aziraphale felt. “Thwarted me again. I suppose I’ll see you in London, in a few years?”

Despite himself, Aziraphale felt a smile tug at his lips. “Suppose you will.” And Crowley was gone.

Aziraphale folded and re-folded the handkerchief a few more times, feeling the linen flow across his fingers, before finally tucking it in his sleeve.

--

Interlude: London

It was strange. The attacks didn’t always come when he thought they should.

Standing in St. James’s park, seeing the word Holy Water scrawled across the piece of paper, he felt the familiar sensations: his stomach, twisting, burrowing, turning itself inside-out; his heart swelling, bursting, crushing his lungs. But when he ended it – cut Crowley off – claimed he didn’t need the demon in his life, he felt…calm. This was it. This was the solution. This was the way to keep them both safe.

Seventy-eight years later, riding back to his shop in a black automobile, clutching the books he’d thought gone forever. His head felt light, fuzzy but in a warm way. Peaceful. It was strange. The opposite of worry. His heart pulling him up for once, not dragging him down. He hadn’t realized he could feel like this. Hadn’t realized how much he’d longed to have the demon back in his life. This would make things worse – he had every reason to panic. But he didn’t, even when he sat alone in his shop, numbly searching for any way to keep Crowley safely at his side.

Twenty-seven years after that, handing over a flask of the forbidden liquid, the weapon he knew would destroy the being most dear to him. His heart in pieces, shattered. There was an end now to everything he cared about, whether that end was tonight, or a month from now, or centuries hence. It didn’t matter. He knew – he knew – this was the right thing to do. Not pushing Crowley away, not taking all the burden of worry on himself. The end would come. And Crowley could face it now – to fight, to flee, to protect himself from pain – in control of his own fate.

Each of these events came and passed, without the gnawing, tearing, frightful, all-consuming panic.

But if each time Aziraphale sat in the back of his shop and cried over a centuries-old red handkerchief, well, no one knew but himself.

--

IV. An Oxfordshire Bus

Aziraphale wasn’t sure how he kept it all in – the twisting terror that had been building up for hours, for days, for years. All through the Apocalypse, no matter how bad things got, he took a breath, he pushed it down, and he kept moving forward.

It was almost a relief when his corporation was destroyed. No distracting, unbalanced chemicals. No malfunctioning emotions to stop him from what he needed to do. Perhaps when Adam gave him the new body, it was fixed – properly functioning – improved even.

The strange, dull exhaustion he’d felt at the bus stop belied that, as did the way the ache inside grew on the ride home. He caught himself grinding his teeth, picking at his waistcoat, as waves of heat and cold rolled over him. Stop that. One last mystery. Just keep pressing on until we solve the prophecy, please!

But the words tumbled apart in his mind. When all is chosen, fire your speech wisely. When all is fyre, face your choices wisely. When all is face, choose fyre. Fire. Fyre. Fire.

The gasp shrieked out of him, so loud it ripped through the bus, it arched his back against the seat, clutching at the armrests. Not now – not now – don’t do this now!

“Aziraphale! Are you alright?” He heard Crowley’s voice, distant, as if through water. Yes, I’m fine, I told you not to concern yourself with this old body, it’s never worked right. But above that – around it – the endless swirl of thoughts: Times up. You lose. Crowley loses. The end. All is done. Fire. Fire. Fire.

Tears were streaming now, and he couldn’t control them, couldn’t control anything. His hand – wandering – grasping – found Crowley’s and clutched for dear life, squeezing until he thought those precious bones would snap.

“Shhh, Angel, shhhh…let it out…”

“No! No – time!” There’s a solution, there has to be, stop wasting time. Stop wasting Crowley’s time.

“What are you talking about?” A gentle chuckle, fingers brushing uncertainly over Aziraphale’s hair, down his cheek. “Plenty of time. Won’t be back in London for an hour. Can’t do anything before then, right? We have time.”

The obvious lie of that just made things worse. He cried as he never had in all his thousands of years, tears falling unheeded. His heart seemed ready to burst, his whole body shaking itself apart. Everything around him became distant, fuzzy, faded, as if the world were melting into mist, nothing to see, nothing to feel, leaving only Aziraphale and the certainty of—

“Take a deep breath,” a voice said, unfamiliar, female, sitting right in front of him. “In through your nose, and count to three.”

“Wha…”

“Like this.” A long sniff. “Then hold it for three, and out through your mouth.” Gentle blowing. “You, too.”

Next to him, he heard Crowley breathe in and out, slowly, timed with the voice in front of him. Then again. On the third breath, Aziraphale tried to join in, trying to force his gasping lungs to obey.

“That’s it. Keep doing that. Three, three and three.” It seemed to help, a little.

“That’s better, love,” she said, when at least the gasping had stopped. “It’s alright. Nothing attacking you here. You’re safe. You’re with friends. Isn’t that right?”

“Yeah...yeah, that’s right. I’m here, Angel. I’m not going anywhere.” Crowley said. He was just a voice in the darkness; sight had abandoned Aziraphale altogether. “And we’re going to figure this out. You and me, like we always do. As soon as I get you home, alright? We’ve come this far, I’m not giving up—”

“Shhh,” the human’s voice came again. “Don’t try to talk to him, not yet. Just let him breathe.” Then, ignoring her own advice, the voice said, “Hold out your hand, love.”

Aziraphale’s left hand still clutched Crowley’s, though he could hardly even feel it anymore. His right carefully opened, and somewhere a million miles away, something slid into his palm.

“Can you open your eyes?” He hadn’t even realized they were shut. Aziraphale tried, but it was too bright – it hurt—

“Keep them closed, then. Tell me what that feels like.”

“Cold.” His voice still sounded tight.

“Good. What else? Is it heavy?”

Aziraphale sniffed. “Y-yes.” He ran his thumb across the object, felt the world come just a little more into focus. “Round. Like…like a coin, but bigger.”

“Rough or smooth?”

Thoughts screamed at the back of his mind again. “No time,” he said, feeling the panic take him. “Need to – to work out—”

“No, first you need to work this out. Don’t worry. Rough or smooth?”

Crowley’s fingers on his arm, just barely felt through the jacket. How long had he been stroking Aziraphale’s arm like that? The angel couldn’t remember. “Why don’t you tell me?” he asked, voice so much quieter than usual. “What does it feel like, Angel?”

Aziraphale curled his hand, pressing the object between palm and fingers. It was like a coin – a two-pound coin, perhaps, but thicker. “Both,” he decided. “One side…is little, sort of…bumps? And the other…glass…enamel. Very smooth.”

“Anything else about the smooth side?”

“There’s, ah…” He ran his thumb across it again. “A line. Raised. Rigid. Sort of wavy. Cuts it in half. And a raised spot. Here. And here.” His eyes fluttered open, braving the brightness of the bus, and he was shocked by how solid it looked.

Not very clear, though; everything still swam in tears. “Thank you,” he managed, trying to smile at the shadowy shape ahead of him. “I feel…not well, but…” He dabbed at his eyes. “Remarkable, really.”

“Grounding techniques,” she explained. “Good for panic attacks, PTSD…dissociative episodes…”

“Dissociative…?” Aziraphale’s voice was still a little shaky. Crowley handed him a handkerchief, and for a moment everything wavered, as he remembered the last time, the treasured square of red cloth, tucked in the desk at his shop, the shop that was—

“It happens sometimes under stress. Feeling detached from what’s going on around you, disconnected from your body. I don’t know. I don’t mean to pry.” Aziraphale rocked in his seat, the world shifting, and he thought the fit was taking him again – no, the bus simply slowed to a halt. “This is my stop.”

“Wait.” He wiped his face clean as quickly as he could. “Your, er, trinket—”

“Keep it. You probably need it more than I do.”

By the time he could see clearly again, the bus was empty except for himself and Crowley, still beside him, still holding his hand; local passengers delivered, the bus driver started towards London.

“What a…an interesting person,” Aziraphale said. He tried to pull away, sit up straight, but he must have lost his balance; he wound up resting his head on Crowley’s shoulder. “I do feel calmer, though. Not entirely,” he amended quickly. The knot of worry was still present, their impending doom bearing down on them. “But it’s…manageable, I suppose.”

“Thank someone for that,” Crowley whispered, more fervently than he believed possible, and pressed his lips against Aziraphale’s hairline. “Let me know if you feel it coming again. We can try the breathing thing or…what was that she gave you, anyway?”

Aziraphale opened his hand to look at the little disk, enamel buried in silvery metal. It was the Taoist symbol of duality, the black and white swirling about each other. Each side contained a dot of the other color, darkness inside light, order inside chaos.

“You know, my dear fellow,” Aziraphale found himself saying. “I think I have an idea…”

--

V. New Bond Street

They walked together, back from the Ritz, Aziraphale almost ready to take Crowley’s arm. He had his hands in his pockets, elbows stuck out at angles like an awkward chicken, and there was a space – right there – for Aziraphale to slide his hand.

Just thinking of it, his heart began to skip. Was it… allowed?

The shop drew closer every moment. Home. Safety. But an end to the evening. Should he ask Crowley to come inside? And…do what? Talk more? Sleep on the sofa? He must be exhausted, surely he would prefer the comfort of his own bed, would want to see that his beloved car was intact.

It was time to decide. Maddox Street lay just ahead, Mayfair to the left, Soho to the right.

It was foolish really. Had he determined to ask Crowley over from the start, they could have taken a more direct route. Had he determined not to, they could have parted ways at the Ritz. Either option would have been quicker. Crowley could have been home five minutes ago.

But he couldn’t decide. What he wanted. What he dared to ask for. What was safe. What was right.

They came to the crossroads.

“Crowley,” he said, the word coming out slow, as if unfamiliar, as if it hadn’t been on his mind every day since before the founding of the city they stood in. “I…imagine you need a chance to rest. Recover.”

“Don’t think I’ve ever been this tired.” He smiled, just a little, a curl of the lips that plucked at Aziraphale’s courage. “Think I’m going to spend the week sleeping, eating, and sleeping again. You?”

“Well, ah, I’m not sure.” He smoothed his waistcoat, tugging the worn velvet down, watching his hands move through the familiar gesture. “Suppose I’ll spend a few days looking over the shop. See what’s changed. And you know, I’m quite behind on my reading this week. Probably good to catch up a bit.” He glanced up at Crowley through his eyelashes. “But I think…I’d like to see you again. When you’re ready.”

Crowley stepped a little closer. “Another dinner?”

“Well, I thought…” His trembling fingers found Crowley’s tie, straightened it, smoothed it. When had he gotten so close? “Perhaps it’s time for that picnic?”

“Nk. Uh. Yeah.” Crowley shuffled even closer. “St. James’s Park? Hyde?”

“Could we go…I don’t know…someplace south? I haven’t been south in ages.” Aziraphale smiled, his mind light, giddy, thrilled at his own boldness.

“I…I know a place.” His hands hovered over Aziraphale’s arms. “If you’d like…”

“I would. Very much.” And then, all at once, his arms were around Crowley, pulling him close, and Crowley’s were around him, and everything was right.

Their hearts beat together, racing, trying to outdo each other, Aziraphale wrapped his arms around Crowley’s narrow waist and buried his face in his slender neck, felt powerful hands twining across his back, clutching the fabric, pulling him closer, holding him, embracing him, confining him, trapping him.

Aziraphale stumbled backwards, pushing Crowley away as the familiar pain flared up in his heart. No! No! Not now! Never again! No!

“I—” He took a breath, forcing himself to stay outwardly calm. “I must – must go. Next week. Yes.” Already his feet were taking him across the street, right, towards the shop. “Call me when you—yes.”

“Are you alright?” There was no hiding the concern in Crowley’s voice, and it sent another wave of pain through Aziraphale.

“Perfectly…splendid, yes…absolutely…”

“Tickety-boo?” Crowley called, but Aziraphale was running now, as fast as he could, trying to control his breathing. What had the woman said? Three in, three out? Oh, that was difficult to do while running.

The body made it almost a block before the legs gave out, shaking, stumbling. He fell into an alleyway, collapsing against the wall, pressing his back against the bricks. Breath screamed in and out of lungs that pulled it without absorbing anything. “No, no, noooo…” he managed, and the tears began to fall. Already the blood pounded in his ears, the laughter of demons, this time mixed with the cold tones of Gabriel, the harshly melodic voice of Satan himself…

He slammed his head against the wall. It isn’t real! None of it is real! But it was all real, they were coming, they would never stop – never let him have peace – they would take Crowley away—

“Angel?”

Crowley’s voice was a beacon, a lighthouse in a sea of mist and shadow; the two golden eyes a signal leading him back to reality. Aziraphale felt his arms wrap around Crowley, dragging him close, and he sobbed into that black shirt. “Why? Why aren’t I better? I’m sup-supp-supposed to be better.”

“Shhhh. You’re safe. I’m here. Nothing going to hurt you. I’m here.”

After many long minutes, hours, eternities, Aziraphale found his way back to his body, sitting in the filth of the alley, clinging to Crowley like the last spar of wood in a shipwreck. And Crowley held him back – just as tight – just as warm, hand making circles between his shoulders. “I’m here…I’m here…”

“Oh, my dear fellow,” Aziraphale managed, not moving away. “What is wrong with me?”

“Panic attack. That’s what she called it, right?” The hands shifted, and now Crowley rocked him, gently, swinging together, side to side. “It happens to millions of humans. Gotta happen to a few angels, right?”

“Why me? Why now? We’re safe.” He burrowed closer, sinking into Crowley. “We’re supposed to be safe.”

“Aziraphale. We’ve – you’ve – been in danger for hundreds, thousands of years. It’s going to take more than a few hours to, I don’t know, retrain your brain.”

“I was…” Aziraphale turned his head a little, enough to see Crowley’s jawline above him. “I was looking forward to seeing you. In a few days.”

Crowley laughed. “Guess you’re going to have to see me now. Sorry to disappoint.” One more sway, two bodies in motion together, another quick squeeze. “Time to get you home, Angel.”

“Nonsense,” he protested weakly. “There’s no reason for you to—”

“Yes. There is.” Crowley pulled back, cupping Aziraphale's face in his hands. He'd taken his glasses off, and his golden eyes were so soft. "This is what it means, to be on our own side. I will be here, for you, whenever you need me. We'll figure this out together."

And there was no arguing with that.

--

+1: South Downs Cottage

The missives from Heaven always set him off.

They would simply appear, when he least expected them, the windowsill where he watched the sunrise, across his pillow as he climbed into bed, tucked into a book he’d just picked up to read. Folded cream paper, wax seal, violet ink.

It was difficult to say why the letters made Aziraphale anxious. Gabriel insisted on keeping him updated on the aftermath of the failed Apocalypse, the politics of Heaven and Hell, the plans they were making, the ones that fell through dramatically.

It shouldn’t have bothered him at all. But read between the lines, and each was filled with accusations, recriminations, threats. Your fault. Ruined everything. Look what you’ve made us do. Failed angel. Coming for you next.

The latest letter – ostensibly detailing Michael’s new military strategies, the disciplinary issues they inspired, and the subsequent punishments – tumbled from Aziraphale’s trembling fingers.

His head jerked around, looking, searching the corners of the cottage (Where are they? Are they watching? Are they coming?) but already everything was misty, distant. Aziraphale clutched at his chest, eyes clenched shut, leaning against the wall as the first gasp ripped out of him.

That’s as far as he got.

Crowley had been in the garden. Now he stood beside Aziraphale, gently guiding him into a kitchen chair. “Shhh, shhh,” he soothed, taking up positing behind him, hands on his shoulders. “Shhhh, breathe, yeah? Like this.” Crowley took a slow breath through his nose, held it, let it out. Aziraphale struggled to match at first, but the gentle run of fingers up and down his arms, timed to the rhythm of Crowley’s breath, gave Aziraphale something to anchor him.

“Good, keep breathing,” Crowley rested his chin on Aziraphale’s head. “Just like that. Push your feet into the floor. Can you feel the chair? Feel the curve of the back of it?” Aziraphale nodded, trying to focus. “Run your fingers around the seat. It’s ok. Find the crack in the wood.”

His fingers found it, just a tiny split by his right leg, but it gave him another thing to focus on.

“What comes next?” Crowley’s hands shifted, until he was holding Aziraphale across the chest pulling him closer.

“Light,” Aziraphale remembered.

“Yeah. Picture your energy as a light. What color is it?”

“Violet,” he said, remembering the color of the ink.

“Violet, huh?” Crowley’s hand kept stroking Aziraphale’s arm. “Well, we don’t want that, do we? Where does it go?”

“Into the floor.” He imagined all the fear – the anxiety – everything clouding his mind sinking away through his feet. Leaving him, heavy and drained, leaning against Crowley. It seemed to take forever, with many, many reminders about his breathing. But soon – soon, he felt that odd, heavy serenity, as if he’d just stepped out of a hot bath.

“You ready? Open your eyes.”

Aziraphale managed it, blinking away tears. The room was still too bright – too fuzzy – he felt disoriented and strange. Too much to take in.

“Five,” Crowley whispered.

“A vase of carnations on the table,” Aziraphale said slowly, naming the first thing his eyes fell on. “Ah. My Oscar Wilde books, on their special shelf.” His eyes darted, looking for something concrete. “My mug of tea, with the angel wings. The – the newel post, carved like a snake. And…the window. The – the apple tree you planted when we moved in, out in the garden.”

Crowley kissed the top of his head. “Four.”

“The wood of the chair, hard, smooth. Ah.” His fingers ran across his own body. “This new shirt you bought me, soft, loose.” Further up, catching against Crowley’s hands. “Your ring, hard little garnets. And…and…” Crowley bent closer. “Ah. Your hair, brushing against my ear.”

Another kiss. “Three.”

“Birds in the bushes outside.” Aziraphale listened closely. “The grandfather clock ticking in the living room. And…and the wind blowing through that window we never fixed.”

Another brush of pressure atop his head. “Two.”

“The smell of earth and dirt, it’s all over you.” Aziraphale smiled. Everything was nearly as it should be. Without his even noticing, the haze had drifted away, and the details of their home had settled back into place, one at a time. “And…and that lovely pie I baked this morning.” He held his hands up and sniffed them. “Yes, still a trace of spice.”

The pressure at his back vanished as Crowley circled around, kneeling in front of him. He smiled up, golden eyes dancing, long red hair twisted into a bun, except where curls of it escaped to frame his face. He rested a hand on Aziraphale’s knee, and in his other held out a raspberry, fresh from the garden. “One. So you don’t have to go licking your fingers this time.”

He held it up and Aziraphale parted his lips, accepting the offering. It was plump on his tongue, lumpy, tiny hairs and fibers scratching at his mouth. When he bit down, it was juicy and a little crunchy, tiny seeds crushed by his teeth, releasing a sharp flavor. All while he chewed, Crowley’s fingers rested on his cheek, just a little rough, a little sharp, under all that tenderness.

Swallowing, he met Crowley’s eyes. One more deep breath, and he nodded. “I think…yes, I’m…I’m better now. Let’s…let’s…”

In an instant, Crowley was standing, tugging him to his feet, pulling him into a hug. “I got you, Angel. You’re safe. I’m here.” Aziraphale nodded against him. He felt…peaceful. Not ashamed, not afraid. No need to explain himself, make excuses. Just here, in the moment, with his dearest friend. “What do you think?” Crowley asked. “Sofa, or garden?”

“Garden, I should think. It’s such a warm day.”

A few minutes later, they settled on the large wooden swing, surrounded by a thousand carefully cultivated flowers and bushes and trees. Everything in lines and circles, with the stone paths crisscrossing and weaving through, joining together at the duck pond far to the back. Aziraphale rested his head on Crowley’s shoulder, hands pressed against his tea mug, which was miraculously full again, tea the perfect temperature for the heat of the afternoon. They began to move, back and forth, Aziraphale’s toes brushing across the ground.

“You don’t have to read them, you know,” Crowley said. “He only sends them because he knows they upset you.”

“I…I believe you’re right.” Aziraphale tucked his legs up onto the seat, curling into Crowley’s side, and one long arm looped around him. “Why else would he tell us so much? No, this is meant to – to make me feel as if he is still in control. Still watching me.” A sip of tea. “He probably is.”

“Where was it this time?”

“The pantry. I went for some jam and…there it was. Just in front of the jar I wanted.” He shivered, despite the heat.

“Burn it next time. That’ll show him.”

It was tempting. He pressed his fingers harder against the mug, until he thought it would crack. “No. It…it’s painful to read but…we need to know. And,” he tipped his head back to smile at Crowley, “and if Gabriel is watching, I’m sure he’s not happy to see that this is the result of his interference.”

Crowley waved two fingers at the sky. “Sod off, ya bastard. Go find your own demon to cuddle.”

“Oh, don’t say that, he actually might.” Another shiver, this time more dramatic. “Can you imagine? Gabriel with Hastur? Or Dagon? Or Beelzebub?”

“Ugh, now I’m going to be sick. Why? Why would you say that?”

Aziraphale laughed, watching the bees buzz across the summer flowers. His stomach still ached, a little, but it hardly mattered.

He was here. He was safe. He wasn’t always in control, but with Crowley’s help, he didn’t always have to be.