|New Good Omens Fic: "What to Do When the Clock Just Stops" - A/C, Others - R
||[Feb. 8th, 2011|10:58 am]
Title: What to Do When the Clock Just Stops
Fandom: Good Omens
Pairing/Characters: Aziraphale/Crowley, some familiar faces, various OCs
Word Count: 7,700
Notes: Written for tea_fiend on account of her very generous donation of $100 to the charity of her choice in helpbrazil2011. This story follows A Better Place and The Walls, the Wainscot, and the Mouse, rounding the set off as a trilogy. I've done a hardcore, no-nonsense Apocalyptic AU where people get hurt and even die, but what about a low-key, domestic apocalypse, a more benign take on that same universe? Anyway, I'm giving it my best shot here. A note on the timeline: The Walls, the Wainscot, and the Mouse is happening in late 2005, and the flash-forward three months that you get in A Better Place puts them in early 2006 (yes, WW&M is a bit of a flash-backward within the context of ABP). This piece picks up a bit further down the line: it's happening now (i.e. February 2011). Expect the odd hidden easter-egg.
Summary: Wherein not forwarding one's post turns out to have been a bad idea.
Almost six years on, Crowley thought, pulling his coat tighter about himself to keep out the chill, hastily knotting the belt as he rounded the corner, and I'm still not sorry.
His flat had never been what you'd call easy to find, tucked down one of those innumerable charming side streets in the heart of Mayfair where the rent was higher than the population of Camden. Before the move, he'd considered putting it on the market, just as Aziraphale had done with the bookshop, but, at the last minute, he'd thought better of it. Or, rather, Aziraphale had thought better of it. He'd reasoned that a flat for weekending in the city might prove useful. Crowley had laughed at him.
Nobody from around here spends their weekends in London, angel, he'd said.
We're not from around here, Aziraphale had pointed out, the clever bastard.
All told, their weekending activities had amounted to roughly three or four times per year, mostly for purposes of visiting favorite haunts and collecting Crowley's post. He'd had a fright when a familiar change-of-address form had turned up several years ago in one such neglected batch, but he'd incinerated it on sight (Aziraphale had kicked up a fuss, worried that the property manager might notice the ashes).
Life had been much more relaxing with Hell well and truly out of his hair, and Crowley intended to keep things that way. Aziraphale hadn't heard anything from Upstairs, but then, his lot had never fully grasped the importance of memos. No: as far as Crowley was concerned, it was business as usual. And, frankly, after a botch-job like that, wouldn't you just soldier on as if it had never even happened? Let it not be said that their respective employers lacked common sense when push came to shove.
Crowley dashed up the front steps and fumbled his key into the lock. It was always a relief to know that they hadn't changed the fittings on him. There were advantages to owning a second-floor flat, the laziness of one's neighbors being chief amongst them. Nobody ever bothered to come up and knock, and in nearly six years of sitting empty, the premises hadn't once experienced a break-in. He hadn't left behind anything of value. The flat was sparsely furnished; next to everything had gone to the cottage.
The pile of accrued letters was substantial enough this time that Crowley had to give his door a good, hard shove. The envelopes went skittering, and he peered into the dim hallway with an irritated hiss. There were at least twenty or thirty pieces of correspondence, all shapes and sizes, most of which looked like rubbish. He shut the door and stalked off to the kitchen, where he dug a plastic Sainsbury's bag out from under the sink. He returned to the hallway and gathered up the post carelessly, dropping it into the bag. He'd leave it for Aziraphale to muck through, as the angel took perverse pleasure in paperwork. Odd, considering his superiors' poor example.
Crowley had scarcely had the chance to turn on the lights and have a look about when his mobile rang. He fished the device hastily out of his coat pocket. It only had three ring-tones. He'd assigned his favorite (Red Priest butchering Vivaldi) to Aziraphale.
"Great timing," Crowley told him, squinting at the ceiling. "These spiders are huge."
"I don't doubt you'll leave them to it," Aziraphale sighed on the other end of the line.
"They aren't hurting anything," Crowley said, idly swinging the bag full of letters as he wandered into the living room. "I guess you're ringing to make sure I got here."
"I would've appreciated a call," replied Aziraphale, tartly. "This winter's been dreadful, and it's freezing out there today. The sky's overcast. One never knows."
"The snow's all buggered off to America," Crowley said, brushing the dust off his lonely side-table. He could never stand to look at it for long; he suspect it resented him for leaving it behind. "Haven't you been watching the news?"
"No," Aziraphale said. "I've been reading those books Pippa brought. Speaking of—"
"We can discuss the relative merits of YA literature once I'm back," Crowley reassured him, not keen on getting another earful of what sounded like the most diabolical plotline since the Inquisition, only it was kids doing the killing. He'd liked it much better when it was those brats in Lower Tadfield dunking each other in the pond.
"Any post?" asked Aziraphale, eagerly.
"Loads of it," Crowley said, peering through the closed blinds and into the street.
"Don't forget my things," said Aziraphale. "You'd better go before they close."
"Yes, that's next, and then I'm off," Crowley reassured him, surveying the room. Nothing out of order: bookshelves still empty, entertainment center still bare. "What was it again? Fortnum and Mason? Red and white, a split half-dozen?"
"I wrote down the labels and vintages," said Aziraphale. "The paper's in your pocket."
"Right, yes, sorry," Crowley said, poking his coat, relieved to hear something crinkle.
"Love, do get out of there," murmured Aziraphale, and hung up.
Crowley bit his lip and smiled, slipping the mobile back in his pocket.
* * *
Aziraphale dropped Mockingjay on the sofa the instant he heard the Bentley pull up in the drive. By the time he reached the kitchen, Crowley had already come inside.
"Here," said Aziraphale, reaching out, "let me—"
Crowley deposited the cardboard box full of wine on the table with a thump.
"Three bottles of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc 2001, plus three bottles of Château Palmer 1996. Do you have any idea how much those cost?"
"Nine hundred pounds, VAT inclusive," Aziraphale said. "The money's in your pocket."
"Not in my coat, it isn't." Crowley glared at him halfheartedly and stuck his hand in his back trouser pocket. "Fine, you've got away with it this time," he conceded, folding the bills and tucking them in his wallet. "It wasn't terribly funny at the till, trust me."
"I do," said Aziraphale, helping him out of his coat. "It's why I send you on errands."
"You might warn me when said errands are set to break the bank," Crowley sighed.
Aziraphale hung Crowley's coat in the hall and returned. "Our accounts are fine."
"Speak for yourself," Crowley said. "Mine have seen better days."
"It's all relative," Aziraphale reassured him. "Shall we open a bottle of the red with dinner?" He squeezed Crowley's shoulders, pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth.
Crowley resisted at first, and then sagged into Aziraphale's arms.
"Best save them for New Year's. 2012 approacheth, et cetera."
"That's nonsense," Aziraphale said. "And a whole year from now, besides."
"I'm not hungry," Crowley said, teasing at the top button of Aziraphale's waistcoat.
The bed was still unmade, just as they'd left it that morning. Aziraphale had given up on tidying the duvet a long time ago, and Crowley had claimed that having the covers bunched and skewed every which way made for more comfortable circumstances when he ended up flat on his back with his head just shy of hitting the footboard.
He hadn't realized how attractive sarcasm was until he'd heard that statement.
Aziraphale sucked sharply at Crowley's inner thigh, leaving a faint, rosy mark. Crowley clutched at Aziraphale's wrists, already trembling. He tasted of salt, of fever, of himself. He wrenched one hand free and stifled a groan in the crook of his elbow.
"It cou—couldn't wait?" Crowley panted.
Aziraphale pulled off, nuzzling Crowley as he gasped for breath. "No. You left in such a hurry this morning, didn't even finish your breakfast. I would have come with you—"
"But Pippa was stopping by, I know," said Crowley, sounding pained.
"There would have been time," murmured Aziraphale, and drew him back in.
"Yes," Crowley whimpered, mindlessly threading his fingers in Aziraphale's hair. Less than a minute later, he was shouting it, his voice gone dark, lovely, and broken.
And then, retaliation. Aziraphale couldn't bring himself to feel ashamed at how quickly he unraveled beneath Crowley's kisses, the slight warm weight of him, his words.
Half an hour later, Aziraphale shifted a heavily dozing Crowley to one side, got up, retrieved the Sainsbury's bag of post from where Crowley had abandoned it just inside the door, and snagged one of the bottles of Château Palmer as an afterthought.
Crowley was awake by the time he returned to bed, sleepy-eyed and inquisitive.
"Here," Aziraphale said, tucking the wine under Crowley's arm as he dumped the flurry of envelopes out on the sheets between them. "You won't feel a thing."
Crowley muttered and rolled over, clutching the bottle like a security blanket.
"You really ought to have set up forwarding," sighed Aziraphale, and got to work.
* * *
As it turned out, the red wine was good. In fact, it was very good.
Crowley spent a long, lazy while lounging against Aziraphale's side. By then, he'd drunk roughly half the bottle, and Aziraphale seemed so absorbed in his task of sorting papers that he'd forgot the wine was even there. At some point, when Crowley had returned to drifting in and out of consciousness, he felt the bottle pried gently from his fingers and something flat and smooth, yet scratchy set down on his belly.
"My dear, what's this?" Aziraphale asked, tapping on it.
Crowley propped himself up on his elbows. His stomach lurched, but it had nothing to do with the wine or how quickly he'd risen. He'd know that stationery anywhere.
"I can't persuade it to open," Aziraphale continued. "The seal's quite persistent."
"Hell does nothing by halves," said Crowley, picking it up by one corner.
He turned the document over. The seal wasn't one he recognized: not Dagon's, not Hastur's, not even one belonging to an under-secretary (and he'd always made good with the administrative staff, because you never knew when having them on your side might matter). With his free hand, Crowley made an intricate gesture, the one that always made his fingers cramp. The seal fizzled, popped neatly out of existence.
The letter, previously folded in three, dramatically fell open.
Crowley sat up and spread it flat against the mattress, frowning.
"Inhuman Resources?" said Aziraphale, leaning over and squinting at the letter.
"I advised them to re-name the department," Crowley replied. "Slaves and Minions was too outdated. Morale went up twenty percent with the change; I'm amazed they didn't revert back." They'd redesigned the seal, which explained why it was unfamiliar.
"Crowley, they're firing you," Aziraphale blurted.
Did he always have to read ahead?
"Correction," Crowley said, squinting at the next paragraph of sigils. "Literally translated, they're downsizing. I'm being let go. My job's been rolled into..." His stomach dropped lower. "Let it not be said that adopting a policy of non-interference in the affairs of man is unwise. Humans are doing a smashing job all on their own."
Aziraphale frowned. "Does that mean—"
"The severance package is two thousand years' pay, so that's all right; add that to what I've got currently and I'll probably last until the mortal inhabitants of this planet manage to annihilate themselves. As for what we'll do when that happens, I can't..."
He really couldn't imagine.
"Shhh, don't think like that," Aziraphale said, and before Crowley knew it, he was bundled into one of those too-close-for-comfort embraces that was, actually, just what he needed at the minute, because this nonsense was nowhere in the programming and what in God's actual name did they think they were doing? He had tenure.
"No more nine-hundred pound wine!" Crowley choked.
"I haven't been fired. There's nothing wrong with a one-salary household."
Crowley laughed hysterically.
"Time to face the music. It's not as if we've been of any use whatsoever to them for the past...what, when was it, 1990? Twenty-one years. So, Below's finally caught on, and I'm willing to bet you the remainder of our wine-rack that Up Above is next!"
"We never change policy," said Aziraphale, crisply. "It's policy."
"Oh, brilliant," Crowley groaned. He slitted one eye and skimmed the remainder of the letter. Nothing about what he was supposed to do with himself. No personalized addendum from Beelzebub saying they'd caught wind of where he'd set his allegiances (with humanity and with a ludicrous, infuriating, wonderful angel), no summons warning that if he failed to comply, he'd be rather painfully collected.
Nothing at all.
"It must be very liberating," said Aziraphale, with a touch of envy.
"Change makes me nervous," Crowley muttered.
"I have no idea how you've lasted, then," Aziraphale sighed fondly.
"With a little help," replied Crowley, chewing his lip.
Aziraphale took the letter out of his hand and set it on the bedside table. The rest of the correspondence, in five neat piles, scattered and mingled as the mattress shifted beneath them. Crowley allowed himself to be turned and tugged closer, burying his face against the angel's neck. Aziraphale took a thoughtful swig of wine, which turned into polishing off the bottle, and then set it down on top of Crowley's letter.
"Just to be certain," said Aziraphale, slowly, "can you still..."
Crowley snapped his fingers. The lights went out. He blinked, and they went back on. He summoned his shirt from where it lay discarded on the floor, only to have Aziraphale impatiently push it off his shoulders before he banished it again.
"Apparently?" he said.
"It wouldn't have been terribly sporting of them to disarm you."
Crowley shivered. He hadn't even thought of it until Aziraphale had brought it up.
"I believe the term clusterfuck applies."
"Of course not," said Aziraphale. "It's business as usual. Only without pay."
"I liked the part where I got paid."
"You'll get paid one more time."
"Do you trust me?" Aziraphale asked, his voice flat and calm.
Crowley lifted his head. "Yes, why wouldn't I? I let you send me on errands."
Aziraphale gave him that endearing, slightly tilted smile.
"Good," he said. "Because if they interfere, I shan't be responsible for my actions."
Crowley shivered again as they kissed, but for an entirely different reason.
Maybe he did like it dangerous. Once in a while.
* * *
That night, Aziraphale didn't sleep. He slipped out of bed as soon as Crowley was dead to the world, dressed with a thought, and resumed his reading. It's not that he'd been impatient to get back to the book, not really: reading helped to clear his thoughts prior to facing a particularly unpleasant task. He finished inside half an hour and set the book aside. Much better than those mystifying vampire novels, at any rate.
He was hard pressed to think of anything more unpleasant than Crowley frightened.
The address-book on his computer was badly out of date, not to mention sorely lacking in parties who might be of assistance. As far as Aziraphale was aware, none of the humans had any conscious memory of what they'd been through, and even if they had, what good would any of them be able to do, except for Adam Young himself?
Aziraphale shivered. He wouldn't go to the boy, not yet.
Perhaps it's all a misunderstanding, Aziraphale thought, clicking through tabs and closing windows in disgust. Some personnel files got scrambled, and Crowley got somebody else's letter. Much though Aziraphale wanted to believe that for Crowley's sake, instinct told him it wasn't likely. Hell's bureaucracy was far more efficient than Heaven's had ever been, no small thanks to Crowley. What a loss.
If only they'd have him back, Aziraphale thought, and banished the notion as quickly as it came. No; Gabriel would want him for a PA, and I'd never see him again.
Aziraphale was about to click away from the current tab when his eyes fell on the name: DEVICE-PULSIFER. A quick Google search and some quicker psychic snooping told Aziraphale that the couple had not only relocated to the vicinity of London shortly after the debacle at the air base (Newt had enrolled in some IT courses), but Anathema had managed to both complete a law degree and give birth to three daughters (Sophia, twenty, reading Politics and International Studies at Cambridge; twins, Janet and Natalie, seventeen, rebelling their way through sixth-form).
With a name like that, Anathema's website wasn't difficult to find.
Ten minutes later, having read several pages of cleverly veiled language, Aziraphale wondered, admiringly, exactly how many housewives in England could boast that they were not only an independent scholar, but also an Occult Solicitor in their spare time. Granted, the title appeared nowhere on her website; no, that was entirely Aziraphale's devising. She marketed herself as an all-around freelance family solicitor, but used terms like obscure matters and discreet handling and all other options exhausted.
Sophia on the front steps of Downing Street, smiling and waving for the cameras. Green Party, absolutely impossible. She's made history. And the blond man standing beside her, holding a black-haired, pale-eyed boy, perhaps three years old—
Aziraphale shook his head, told himself to focus. He jotted down Anathema's phone number and, on a lark, checked the AFFILIATES section of her site. Individuals who were equal parts dodgy and intriguing, all of them: Amsterdam, Chicago, New York, São Paulo. Her London counterparts sounded curiously mundane; since when did Occult Solicitors work with Consulting Detectives? Aziraphale squinted at the address.
Oh. Old magic, archetypes, and love that made Lower Tadfield's aura look like a tremor after a 10.0 earthquake, assuming there'd be anybody alive left to look.
(You knew it once you'd felt it. Always.)
Tucking the scrap of paper in his pocket, Aziraphale wandered into the kitchen. Sunrise through the kitchen window was his favorite thing about the cottage; if they'd stayed in the city, he'd never have known what he'd been missing.
Crowley straggled out of bed at eight to find tea and toast waiting for him.
"You're up to something," he told Aziraphale around a mouthful.
The angel pursed his lips.
"I have no idea what you're talking about. Did I get the sugar right?"
Crowley was already cradling his tea as if it were something precious.
"You always get it right. Which is rather annoying, actually."
"Eat," Aziraphale told him, brushing Crowley's arm as he passed. "I'll be in the study."
"You left the computer on. There was all this stuff about deduction. I closed it."
"No matter," Aziraphale called back over his shoulder, summoning Crowley's mobile to the palm of his hand. He'd have to make the call brief. Crowley wouldn't stay away.
He hadn't been so nervous about dialing someone in—well, twenty-one years.
It was the right number. Of course it was the right number.
"Good morning, Device-Pulsifer Consulting. Just so you know, we don't open for another hour." There was some rustling in the background, and then, plaintively, "Mum, Nat took my earrings!" followed by "I didn't! They're right here! She's mental!"
"I'm terribly sorry, my dear girl," said Aziraphale. "Forgive my familiarity, but—"
There was a long pause on the end of the line.
"It's you," Anathema said. "You fixed my bike. And stole my book."
"Go to school," said Anathema, thinly, covering the mouthpiece.
"Can't find my Oyster card, either." Janet, Aziraphale presumed.
"Not my problem," sighed Anathema, returning to the call. "I'm sorry. My daughters."
I know, Aziraphale wanted to say, but instead, he replied, "It happens to the best of us, my dear. Yes, I fixed your bike, and as for the book, you'd left it behind."
"Are you still with him? Dark hair, sunglasses, nice smile when he bothers?"
"Yes, for all my sins," Aziraphale sighed. "He's why I'm calling."
Anathema suppressed a laugh. "What did he do?"
"No, it's the other way around. He's been done unto."
"I see. What's the trouble?"
"He's been let go. By his employer, that is."
"I hardly think my services are required in such a mundane matter."
"His former employer is anything but."
More silence, followed by another brief scuffle and the slamming of a door.
"They're gone, thank goodness," Anathema said. "Right, first things first: I know who you are, and I know what happened. Most of it, anyway. It took me a few years after the fact to piece everything together, but I got the shape of it. Adam kept dropping clues. He wouldn't go away. I think he wanted me to remember."
"You're a useful ally, certainly. What about your husband?"
"He doesn't like to talk about it," Anathema said. "He gets on with machines now. Sorts them out the traditional way, as opposed to applying brute ignorance. The truth is, I suspect he had some kind of curse, and Adam fixed it."
"Like he fixed everything else," Aziraphale murmured, tapping his chin.
"I'd ask him if he knows anything about this. By the way, which of you is which?"
"Who did the firing?" asked Anathema, wryly.
"Just who you'd expect, given your verb-choice. Pardon the pun."
"I'll be damned," she said.
"Nobody's perfect. Listen, do you think there's anything—"
"I'll have to talk to him myself."
"Your young man, Mr. Fell. Whose mobile you're using without his permission."
"Right," said Aziraphale, swiveling around in the chair at a sudden noise behind him.
Crowley stood in the doorway, mug in hand, his eyes glowing worried gold.
"How does next Tuesday sound?" asked Aziraphale. "I'll pay for your rail fare."
"Excellent. Email me later today to arrange particulars," she said, and hung up.
"What are you doing, angel?" asked Crowley, warily.
"Getting you some help," Aziraphale admitted, holding out the mobile.
Crowley snatched it away and took a sullen sip of tea, staring hard at the floor. He looked fragile like this, but also strangely fierce, muscles coiled tight beneath his well worn grey Bentley-logo tee and nondescript pyjama bottoms from Marks & Spencer.
"How is Ms. Device-Pulsifer keeping?" he asked.
* * *
"Remind me why we never come here in nicer weather?" Crowley asked, idly stirring sugar into what promised to be a mediocre cappucino. Since Mandy had gone off to uni, the beach-front café hadn't managed to hire anyone who could make one as well as she could (or, for that matter, as well as Aziraphale could make them at home).
"Because we're normally at home when it's nice out, or at Pippa's, or that Thai place with outdoor seating," said Aziraphale, waving at someone over Crowley's shoulder.
"Speak of the devil," Crowley muttered. This outing had not been his idea.
"I'm so glad you liked the books!" Pippa said, pulling up a chair right between them. She took the boxed set off the table and set it down on the floor beside her handbag. "And not a scratch on them. Nicola will never know I lent them out."
"How is your charming daughter?" Aziraphale asked.
"Busy with the little one," Pippa said, signaling to the bar that she'd be having what Crowley was having. "Robert turned three last week, can you believe it?"
"Yes," Crowley said, yawning. "They tend to do that."
Pippa chuckled, patting his hand. "I've missed your sense of humor! I wish we'd been home for Christmas, but the kids have been demanding. We'd have had you over."
"Crowley's had a spot of bad luck, I'm afraid," Aziraphale said. "His job's been cut."
Pippa's eyes widened, that oh-you-poor-dear look she reserved solely for Crowley.
"It was bound to happen eventually," Crowley said, which was more or less true.
"But you work so hard," Pippa said. "Always on the computer when I drop by..."
Are you kidding? I play Sims and Solitaire, was what he wanted to say, but instead, at a warning glance from Aziraphale, he just shrugged ruefully and sipped his cappucino.
Symathy from the devil, even this version of the devil, was better than none at all.
"All those jobs being moved overseas," Pippa murmured darkly.
Oh, just what I need, Crowley thought. Another reminder that you read the Daily Mail.
"Dreadful business," Aziraphale cut in before Crowley could draw breath to speak. "But we'll sort it out. And, if not, I should think we'll get on just fine. I'm still well enough connected through the antiquarian book trade—"
"Of course you are!" Pippa chided, slinging one arm across Crowley's shoulders and hugging him tight. "You should've encouraged him to take early retirement when you two first moved here. Would've spared you an awful lot of trouble, I should think."
Crowley wanted to shrug her off, but he couldn't think of any way of doing so that wouldn't offend Aziraphale. As for Pippa, well, nothing ever seemed to offend her. She seemed incapable of reading gestures as malicious, and if Aziraphale hadn't given him a look, he probably would've gone on about the computer games.
"We have a friend who might be able to help," Aziraphale said carefully. "A solicitor."
Aziraphale hadn't mentioned that's what Anathema was up to these days.
"Well, maybe he'll be able to help you," Pippa said, nodding thanks to the waiter as he delivered her cappucino. "Ooh, gracious. It's a bit strong today, isn't it, Crowley?"
"I'd noticed," he said, shoving the sugar bowl in her direction.
"In the very least she'll have some advice," Aziraphale said.
"A young lady, is it? They have opportunities these days I'd never have dreamed of."
That's because, for all of your kindness, you lack imagination, Crowley thought.
"She's coming for supper next Tuesday," Aziraphale replied, averting his eyes.
"Thanks for giving me fair warning," said Crowley, icily. Oh, now he'd done it.
"You're hesitant to accept help, I understand that. But she might—"
Have previous experience running a law-suit against Hell? Not likely!
Crowley bit the inside of his cheek. "She might what, angel?"
"Have some ideas," said Aziraphale, helplessly. "Set your mind at ease."
"Oh dear," Pippa murmured into her cappuccino. "Ought I to—"
"No, not at all," Crowley said, and his hand was on hers before he could stop himself. "It's fine. It's just, communication isn't always his strong suit, you know?"
"Oh, don't I. That's my Harold for you. Well, I don't doubt you'll sort it all out," she added, giving Aziraphale a mildly reproachful look, which didn't happen very often and was far more satisfying than it ought to have been. Crowley grinned behind his hand.
"Of course we will," said Aziraphale, firmly.
"Let's talk of happier things," said Pippa. "Which of the trilogy was your favorite?"
Crowley got up and excused himself, not bothering to take along his cappuccino, which had gone cold. He'd have thrown in some kind of jab, perhaps I'll leave you bookworms to it, but it always rankled that his reading preferences never seemed to line up with what Pippa constantly brought through their door. He'd recently read Cloud Atlas and found it nothing short of extraordinary, but how was he supposed to explain that to people who preferred violent post-apocalyptic futures and probably sparkly vampires, too? Granted, part of Cloud Atlas was post-apocalyptic...
There was sand all over his shoes by the time he reached the tide-line, but that hardly mattered. There was nothing of interest strewn on the shore. There rarely was. You needed Aziraphale for truly spectacular finds. He had a knack for them, and that knack was cheating. For what it got him, Crowley was willing to turn a blind eye.
It had been wrong of him to get angry over Anathema, he supposed.
At least one of them was willing to cheat when there was no other option.
* * *
In the living room, after they'd eaten, Anathema pored over Crowley's letter while Aziraphale busied himself with a tray of coffee and biscuits in the kitchen. She'd aged visibly, which shouldn't have been so startling, except the long-haired nineteen-year old who'd worn skirts and dangly earrings had transformed into a jeans-and-clogs-wearing forty year-old mother with hair neatly cropped to her chin (no less brilliant).
Her earrings were still eccentric, but now you had to squint to see them.
"They have nice stationery," Anathema was saying to Crowley as Aziraphale carried in the tray. "Why worry about image when you're in the business of damning people?"
"Because I advised them to," said Crowley, wearily.
"They seem to have taken your advice in quite a number of matters, then," Anathema said. "We could always highlight that in your response."
"I'll be responding?" asked Crowley. "I thought you were just here to give advice."
Anathema tucked her hair behind her ear and glanced up at Aziraphale.
"We hadn't really discussed a course of action," said Aziraphale, defensively.
"You'll be paid for your time," said Crowley, grimly. "Don't worry about that."
Anathema set the letter down and accepted a cup of coffee.
"I'm not. I think you'd have a case. They didn't give you fair warning."
"There isn't exactly a court system in place to hear things like this," Crowley said, eyeing Aziraphale pointedly. "You should've thought of that."
"Why wouldn't a human courtroom hear it?" Anathema asked. "You're proof that Hell can send up representatives that don't look like walking nightmares, and—"
"In case you weren't paying attention, I'm the exception to that rule."
Anathema nibbled on a biscuit. "I suppose they'd laugh at a threat, wouldn't they?"
"Depends on the language you use?" Aziraphale asked, taking a seat beside Crowley.
"Angel, the language won't matter. A law-suit is a threat."
"I hate to say this," Anathema said, "but why didn't you go to Adam instead of me?"
Aziraphale exchanged a nervous glance with Crowley.
"Because he's terrifying," said Anathema, flatly. "Right. I'll grant you that."
"You're much more level-headed," Aziraphale told her. "Less impulsive."
"Ah, I see. You're afraid that if he were to Change things again—and, yes, you heard me right, that's a capital C—he might upset the balance. And it doesn't take a genius to see that balance means the world to you. It means a lot to me, too."
"On the contrary," said Crowley, softly. "World without end."
How is it that your heart survived intact? Aziraphale thought, momentarily overwhelmed. And how is it that I deserve to be at the center of it all, what when you love doves and mice and spiders, otherwise good and innocent things?
"Should you decide you want to speak with him, I'd be happy to set you up."
"About him not going away," Aziraphale said. "He always was fond of you."
"These days, it's not me," Anathema said wryly. "He's dating my eldest daughter."
Sophia, Downing Street, the child, Aziraphale thought. That explains everything.
"Even more terrifying," Crowley said. "Antichrist as prospective son-in-law."
"Not anymore," said Anathema. "I always did wonder what he kept for himself, what he got rid of. He's very good at playing by the rules. My rules, anyway."
"Or maybe he's the terrified one," Crowley added, breaking into a full grin.
Anathema smirked. "So, are we sending a letter to these twats or what?"
Aziraphale sipped his coffee in the silence. It was Crowley's decision. It had to be.
"I'll think it over," Crowley said. "I'll email you by Friday, I promise."
"Excellent," Anathema said. "For now, we've got a lot of catching-up to do."
She seemed sad to hear that they were hardly ever in London anymore, and Aziraphale got the uncanny sense that, for her, that absence made some sort of palpable difference. He'd never considered the void they'd leave behind, if any at all: there would always be someone to dine at the Ritz, always be someone to go speeding down Oxford street, always someone to feed the ducks in St. James's Park.
Did the who really make a difference?
"How's Newt?" Aziraphale asked, shifting in his seat uncomfortably.
"Settled," Anathema said. "He's so patient with the girls, never loses his temper. That's more than can be said for me. The twins never stopped being a handful."
"And how does he feel about Adam...?" Crowley ventured.
"Are you kidding? I was barely twenty when he and I met, so you can imagine he sees nothing wrong with the age gap. And, as I said, Adam's very good at playing by the rules. Newt keeps less of an eye on him than I do."
Anathema excused herself after her third cup of coffee, insisting that she'd better get going if she planned on catching her train. Realizing that volunteering Crowley's services as a chauffeur probably wasn't the best idea at the moment, Aziraphale said that, yes, of course, that was perfectly understandable. Crowley embraced her briefly and wished her goodbye, excusing himself with even less grace than usual.
Aziraphale saw Anathema to the door.
"I can't thank you enough for coming, although I should expect nothing will come of this," he said, pressing a folded cheque into her hand. "As unsettled as Crowley is by these circumstances, I don't think he truly wants to fight them."
"Why would he?" Anathema asked, handing it back to him. "If there's no sign that they intend to follow up, and you're sure there will be no negative repercussions, why bother taking action? In his shoes, I'd be downright relieved. Good riddance."
"I think me might be," Aziraphale said. "But he hasn't taken the time to let it sink in."
"He really doesn't cope well with it, does he?" Anathema asked.
"With what?" Aziraphale asked, holding the door as she went out.
"Change," Anathema said, waving from the foot of the steps.
* * *
Crowley slumped forward, jaw resting heavily on Aziraphale's shoulder, temple plastered to the headboard. His thighs ached from the strain, although they wouldn't do for long, and he was still searching for his breath, which at times like this tended to fail him completely. He felt open and wholly undone. That look in Aziraphale's eyes as Crowley had positioned himself, borne down hard, taken in all of him.
He hadn't seen it in twenty-one years.
"Penny for your thoughts?" asked Aziraphale, scarcely above a whisper.
That's my line, Crowley thought, drawing a desperate lungful. "None as of yet."
"Liar," Aziraphale murmured, trailing one hand from Crowley's hip up to his nape.
He banished the mess before Aziraphale decided to run for a washcloth, settling in closer. He traced an absent pattern on the angel's upper arm, unable to find words.
I'm sorry I was mad about Anathema; I know you were only trying to improve the situation. I'm about to do something that'll upset you. I'm sorry about that, too.
"You're heavy enough without brooding," Aziraphale teased gently.
"She looked so different," Crowley said. "So different from what I remember."
"She's been through quite a lot since last we saw her," Aziraphale replied, pressing his mouth to the side of Crowley's neck. "But she's aged gracefully. I would have liked to have seen Newt again, too. And their daughters."
"Nothing says we can't," said Crowley. I'll be seeing one of them soon.
"There you go again. Crowley, what's the matter? We've just..."
Crowley turned his head and kissed Aziraphale as deeply as he dared. What Aziraphale couldn't read from his expression, he'd certainly have tasted in the wistfulness of Crowley's lips and tongue and newly restored breath.
"But we haven't," he said, breaking away. "Not in the least."
"Haven't what?" asked Aziraphale, his voice tinged with worry.
"Changed," Crowley said. "Why didn't she run? It must have been unnerving."
"She knows what we are. And I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with you."
"Our not changing. Crowley, there's more to change than appearances. We have."
Crowley sighed and shifted away from him, settling down against the pillows. "The sight of her affected us more deeply than the sight of us affected her."
"That's precisely what I mean," said Aziraphale, settling down beside him. He slid one arm around Crowley's waist, drawing him in close. "You've had a long day. Rest."
"You'd do well to get some sleep, too," Crowley said, cringing inwardly.
"Sleep for everyone," Aziraphale said, sounding so relieved that Crowley felt sick with guilt all over again. "That's wise, my dear. Very wise."
You'll hate me in the morning, Crowley thought, counting the interminable minutes until Aziraphale's breath had slowed to almost nothing and his arm thrown across Crowley's middle had gone limp. Good thing I won't be here to see it.
He squeezed his eyes shut. Shifted shape, slithered free. Vanished.
It was a two and a half hour drive to Cambridge. That's where she was: Sophia, the eldest daughter. He'd pulled it from Aziraphale before he'd sounded Anathema out for confirmation, so strong was the wave of recollection he'd felt rolling off the angel during that point in the conversation. Find Sophia, he'd told himself, and you'll find Adam. He had no plans to disturb Anathema any further, and she was right. He ought to have gone looking for Adam in the first place, rather than worrying Aziraphale.
Crowley arrived just after two in the morning. Parking was easy to come by, so long as you could justify cheating. He wandered the streets aimlessly until dawn, although it wasn't as if there were many streets to wander, at least not where the town center was concerned. Sophia lived in a private flat not far from Sidney Sussex College.
Perched on the front steps of Great St. Mary's, Crowley bullied his mobile into yielding up a photograph off a closed campus directory. Second-year student, just beginning spring term. Already earning high marks. She looked very much like her mother had when she was younger, although she had her father's eyes and a sense of mischief in her expression that Crowley couldn't help but imagine was pure Agnes Nutter.
Crowley's phone rang. Vivaldi. He rose and ignored it, crossing the market square.
Through some strange confluence of cobbled side-streets and sheer force of not trying to get anywhere, Crowley found himself standing next to the entrance of King's College Chapel. He'd unwittingly gone from one church to another.
"It doesn't open for an hour and a half," a passing student told him. She looked tired, maybe even worse for wear. Crowley felt in her an exhaustion equal to his own, a hope both quiet and unspeakably fragile. She was in love and stood to lose it.
"Thanks," he said, and, once she'd passed, slipped inside.
The art of passing through places unseen wasn't as difficult as Crowley seemed to remember. Maybe it was because there were so few souls about in the cavernous space, no hushed voices to echo off the ancient stones and myriad, towering panes of glass. He stood still in the center aisle for a very long while, staring, until his mobile went off again, the irreverent strings harsh and vibrant. Footsteps echoed behind him.
Help her, he thought, and fled as quickly as he'd come.
Catching up with Sophia proved slightly more difficult than he'd imagined, if only because, by the time he reached her front door, both she and her flatmate had already gone. In his second feat of breaking and entering that day, Crowley managed to learn from some saved email on her laptop (how lucky that she didn't carry it everywhere, he supposed, but how unwise, given that their common-room window was right at street level) that she was meeting Adam at Caffè Nero on Market Street once her morning seminar let out. Perfect. He'd intercept them.
Crowley had a good few hours yet to decide how on earth he was going to explain himself, although something told him that wouldn't be necessary, if Adam setting eyes on him this time was going to be anything like the first. He wasted an hour in Waterstones and ended up purchasing the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy in a fit of guilt. He'd give it a chance, but he'd also make Aziraphale read Cloud Atlas.
Lacking anything to do besides drink coffee, Crowley settled in at Caffè Nero with a mediocre cup of tea and started to read. His phone went off again, which earned him some irritated glances. Crowley turned it off.
And, nearly two hours later, when he was certain he couldn't stand any more heartbreak than he'd just waded through, the door opened, and a tell-tale prickle raced down his spine. Adam took a detour and ordered some hot cocoa before making his way directly to Crowley's table in the corner.
"I expect Soph will be late," he said, setting down his drink before flopping into the armchair across from Crowley. He broke into a genuinely delighted grin, and, instead of fear, Crowley found himself mesmerized at how much the same Adam was, never mind the fact that he wasn't eleven anymore and had grown so tall that he had nearly an inch on Crowley. "It's been ages, hasn't it? What are you doing here?"
"You mean you don't know?" Crowley managed.
Adam shook his head. "Not a clue. But it can't be anything good. You look troubled."
Oh, God, Crowley thought. He remembers, but he's given it up. He can't do a thing.
"Losing one's employment is rarely good," Crowley said, resuming his mug.
Adam frowned, nodding gravely. "Yeah, I know what that's like. I got laid off last week. Mum had a fit, but I told her it was all right; something else will come along."
The former Antichrist at a loose end. This economic crisis has gone far enough.
"Did you study here, too?" Crowley said at length.
"I went to Oxford and couldn't wait to leave. Pepper came here, though. She did postgraduate work at Canterbury and teaches in London now. Do you remember her?"
"Red hair," Crowley murmured. "Yes, of course. Do you think I forget any of it?"
"It gets hazy sometimes," Adam admitted. "I hope it doesn't haunt you."
"Sometimes," Crowley echoed. "So, about what's happened...you don't know..."
"Not as such," said Adam, thoughtfully, "but I reckon it was inevitable. When I said no more messing about, I seem to recall meaning it, and that didn't just go for you and for him, you know. It went for both your sides, full stop."
Both our sides, thought Crowley, wonderingly. No more messing about. Full stop.
"Thank you," he said. "That explains a lot. Explains everything, actually."
"Ace," Adam said, clinking his mug against Crowley's. "Because Soph says she can't make heads or tails of it when I get to talking to her mum. She says we ought to be locked up for our own safety and everyone else's. She may have a point."
You're going to marry her. You're going to marry her and she's going to be Prime Minister and bloody hell. Your son will grow up and do something really very important, but I'm not sure I want to know. Not right now. I'll let it go.
"I don't know," Crowley said. "You seem harmless enough."
"That's not what my mother says."
Crowley and Adam both looked up in shock, and it must have been comical, of course it had been comical, to prompt such a smug, familiar smile from the young woman who stood watching them with one slim hand resting on the back of Adam's chair.
"What's going on?" Sophia asked Adam. "And who's this?"
"Crowley's a very old friend of mine," he said. "And your mother's, as it happens."
"That village you grew up in seems creepier every time I hear about it, let alone visit," Sophia said. She leaned across the table, offering her free hand to Crowley. "Hello. It's very nice to meet you, and I'm sure you're not crazy."
"Pleasure's all mine," said Crowley, and thought, I'm not sure that's not true.
"Will you stay for a while?" Adam asked. "Have something else? My treat."
"I'd love to," Crowley said—and, oddly, meant it—"but I've really got to be going."
"You didn't tell him you were coming, did you?"
"No," Crowley admitted, rising. "And so—"
"Your name sounds familiar," Sophia said. "Mum mentioned on the phone last night—"
"I'll see you again," Crowley said, stumbling past them. "Both of you. Very soon."
He thought he heard Sophia say You've got a lot of explaining to do as he rushed out.
Which was exactly what he was going to hear from Aziraphale, only worse.
* * *
Aziraphale had done the only thing he knew how to do when waiting was the only option left. He'd staked out a spot at the kitchen table, made himself cup after cup of hot cocoa, and begun to read whatever was on hand. As it happened, he'd found a copy of a novel called Cloud Atlas buried in the covers at the foot of the bed.
He'd attempted to ring Crowley several times as the intricate, nesting-doll narrative unfolded and began to collapse back in on itself, from spectacular supernova to a dying star. And at its center, inevitably, a black hole: Crowley's absence.
By mid-morning, it was all a bit too much to bear. He tried ringing Pippa, but there was no answer. She and Harold were likely on their morning walk.
Crowley's preferred method of clearing his head was normally strolling on the beach, so Aziraphale abandoned his shoes just inside the front door, never mind how cold it was, and headed down the strand. The beach went for miles in either direction, and Aziraphale doubted Crowley could have got far. He'd find him hunched down next to one of his favorite tide-pools, perhaps, collecting shells and God knew what else.
Three tide-pools within the first mile and a half, and Crowley wasn't at any of them.
Aziraphale lingered at the farthest one for a very long time, seated on an unpleasantly damp patch of sand. Perhaps if he waited, Crowley would eventually show. He pulled wonder after wonder from the shallow pool at his feet: a painted medieval tile fragment, an Elizabethan coin, a tiny Regency finger-ring made of hammered gold.
Crowley would tell you to stop, he thought. Save some of those wonders for later.
Rising, Aziraphale pocketed the three he'd got with very little sense of guilt.
By the time he got home, it was almost three in the afternoon, and the Bentley was back where it should be. Aziraphale brushed his feet off and entered the house soundlessly. Whatever Crowley had done, he would remain calm. He would try.
He found Crowley asleep on the sofa—shirt untucked, sunglasses askew, shoes abandoned—with two familiar paperbacks clutched to his chest. One of them, he must have acquired wherever he'd gone. The other, Aziraphale had been reading up until he'd left the house. He bent and carefully removed Crowley's sunglasses.
Crowley stirred with a gasp, but his eyes opened slowly, already focused.
"My dear," Aziraphale murmured, "where have you been?"
"This is the part where you yell at me," said Crowley. "I think."
Aziraphale shook his head, taking a seat on the edge of the cushion. Crowley shifted to accommodate him, losing his hold on the books in the process. They tumbled to the floor in a messy flutter of pages. When he tried to fetch them, Aziraphale stilled him.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" he asked. "Answers, perhaps?"
"You might say that," Crowley replied. "We're not in any danger, if that helps."
In spite of himself, Aziraphale felt a rush of unadulterated relief.
"I always knew he was sensible. That'll be Anathema's good influence, of course."
"Of course," said Crowley. He curled a bit closer, uncertainty hovering about his lips.
"I imagine you found him by stalking the girl. She didn't mind terribly, did she?"
"Adam found me first. She never even knew she'd been stalked."
Aziraphale frowned at him, leaning until their noses almost touched.
"What is it, Crowley? For heaven's sake, I can only take so much."
"Let's not lose track of them," he said desperately. "Or London."
Aziraphale kissed his forehead.
"What are we waiting for, then? Let's go."
—Extra: Creature Comforts—