|New CoT 'Verse Fic: Until Death (Aziraphale/Crowley, R)
||[Sep. 9th, 2012|01:47 am]
Title: Until Death
Pairing/Characters: Aziraphale/Crowley, Ensemble Cast
Word Count: 8,000
Notes: This full-length story is #17 in the Crown of Thorns 'Verse sequence; it follows the most recent long piece, Modest, Yet Refined (more recent small additions to the series include Outtake #2 and Outtake #3, with Outtake #1 having been an inset ficlet for The Walls, the Wainscot, and the Mouse). If you've managed to follow me this far, then you'll know that domesticity doesn't necessarily guarantee an easy ride. This story will mark the first time (unless you count certain events in What to Do When the Clock Just Stops and Some Assembly Required as having been the first and second instances) that strain above and beyond the ordinary will throw a significant warp into the life they've woven. I beg your trust.
Summary: Autumn has arrived, and with it, a sea-change come too soon.
"Let me get this straight," said Crowley, opening the container in which his latest culinary experiment had, hopefully, not gone awry. "You chucked the dissertation at your department secretary around four, and here you are? You're knackered, surely. It's de rigueur on the MA course to pull an all-nighter leading up to hand-in, isn't it?"
"Not if you're me," Sophia said, leaning on the work-top. She peered under the lid along with Crowley, wrinkling her nose at the sharp-sweet tang of fermentation. "Besides, you promised we'd celebrate. I borrowed Adam's car. What is that?"
"Date-palm paste," Crowley said. "Waste not, want not. If it's cocktails you're after, there's no time like the present. This stuff smells ready to me. Can you get those tumblers down from the cupboard? Thanks. Also the tin of coconut milk if you find it; that'll probably make for an excellent base, although I can't be sure what else that barkeep used to throw in. Besides nutmeg and crushed lemongrass, I mean."
While Crowley poked the vile-looking stuff with a fork, Sophia paused with the glasses and the tin cradled in one arm. "Lemongrass," she said. "Is it a Thai specialty?"
"Mmm, no," Crowley said, licking a bit of date-palm paste off the fork. "Say, that's pretty close to what I remember. I wish I'd paid more attention at the time."
"Fine, then," Sophia said, depositing her burden on the work-top. "Indian? African?"
"Try ancient Near East," Crowley said, reaching for the tin-opener. "Jordanian, maybe, going by today's borders? I promise you it's nothing but sand out there now."
Sophia was strangely quiet as she watched him work; he tried to pay it no mind. She fetched everything else he asked for: fresh lemongrass from the refrigerator, ground nutmeg from the spice-rack, and vodka from the liquor cabinet. It would hide beneath the rest of the flavors easily enough; if the date-palm hadn't fermented properly, he wanted to make damned sure the alcohol content was to their liking.
"Are you having one of these, angel?" Crowley called into the living room.
"One of what?" Aziraphale asked thirty seconds later, absorbed in his reading.
"One of these cocktails you never had the good sense to try."
"Whatever you wish, my dear."
Crowley made a face at Sophia's amused shrug.
"I guess that means three," he said, and Sophia fetched another tumbler from the cupboard. Mixing by hand proved difficult, as the paste was thicker than it should have been, and the coconut milk wasn't a very efficient solvent. In the end, they threw it all in the food processor with honey, vodka, and crushed ice for good measure.
"This is not, strictly speaking, authentic," Crowley said, somewhat dissatisfied as he poured an even amount of the contents into all three tumblers. "I've done the best I can from memory, and it's not as if anybody wrote this down." He handed a glass to Sophia and picked up the other two, which were already slick with condensation. "Let's go in and keep him company. We'll make him celebrate with us, if you like."
"Oh?" Sophia asked, trailing after Crowley into the living room. "You had me thinking you'd pulled this from one of Aziraphale's rare books," she said, nodding to the angel where he sat in his tartan armchair. "Did that barkeep teach you how to make it?"
"The barkeep never offered me anything except every tenth drink free," Crowley said, gesturing for her to take a seat on the sofa. "Therefore, this is entirely experimental." He stepped in front of the armchair, waving one of the cocktails directly beneath Aziraphale's nose. "Sophia's handed in her dissertation," he said, passing the tumbler off to Aziraphale. "Many happy returns, and, of course, to an eventual PhD."
"Hell no," Sophia said, leaning to clink her tumbler against Aziraphale's, and then against Crowley's as he took a seat beside her. "Mum expects it, of course, but that's because she earned hers at scarcely twenty," she added. "What a freak."
"Have you tasted this?" Aziraphale asked both of them, with mild trepidation.
"Nope," Crowley said, bringing the tumbler to his lips. "Bottoms up!"
Sophia and Aziraphale both choked, but Crowley did his best to remain composed.
"Okay, that's gross," Sophia said. "No offense, but the vodka is overkill."
"I fear the young lady's assessment is correct," Aziraphale sighed.
Crowley snapped his fingers in irritation, taking another sip of his own. There.
"It's better now," he said. "Takes a minute to...you know, settle."
Sophia grimaced and swilled her cocktail. "Are you serious?"
"Actually, yes," said Aziraphale, blinking on his second sip. "Surprising."
Crowley drank some more of the miraculously corrected concoction and watched as Sophia peered into her tumbler, swilled its contents again, and then frowned. She sniffed the cocktail suspiciously, and then held it up to the light in wonder.
"It smells different now," she said. "It even looks different."
Aziraphale set his paperback aside and gave Crowley a warning glance.
The ingredients were all wrong, Crowley protested. I had to fix them.
Serves you right, thinking you could replicate it, Aziraphale replied.
Just then, Crowley realized that Sophia had bravely emptied a third of her glass and was staring at both of them with the glassy expression of someone who'd not only just tried the most fantastic drink in Creation, but who'd also heard both of their thoughts as clearly as she'd heard Crowley's the day they'd gone to lunch in Cambridge.
"Oh God," she said, taking another gulp. "Why does it always happen when I drink?"
"Because you have a talent for it," Aziraphale told her. "Just like your mother."
"Lowers your inhibitions," Crowley said. "Makes the whole process a bit easier."
She squinted at him, then at Aziraphale, and downed the remainder of her glass. For several seconds, Crowley thought she might be sick, but she closed her eyes tightly and held out a hand. "I'm fine," she whispered, lifting her head. "I'm..."
Crowley, what did you put in this? asked Aziraphale, somewhat desperately.
What do you think? Crowley shot back. Whatever originally went in it!
"Which you don't," said Sophia, eyes opening, "kno—oh holy fuck. You have wings."
Crowley felt a thrill of terror; it had been ages since he'd known a human who could catch the impression of them even when not fully manifested, much less pitch from mundane to switched-on so quickly. In fact, only her husband as an eleven year-old boy had earned that distinction (but, of course, Adam had been sober at the time).
The wine in Cambridge simply hadn't been strong enough to tip her.
"Which of us, dear girl? You've drunk that rather fast, and the angle of the light—"
"Both," she said, just barely managing to slam her glass on the coffee table as her hand sagged toward the floor. "Oh God," she repeated, covering her mouth with her other hand, which was shaking. "Maybe I'm having an allergic reaction. But what...?"
"Calm down," said Crowley, taking her wrist. "You were nearly there anyway."
"Yes, but you didn't have to force it!" hissed Aziraphale.
"I didn't force anything! All I did was adjust the recipe!"
"Then there must be something in it modern humans aren't used to!"
"Shut it!" Sophia shouted.
They both looked at her, chagrined and instantly contrite.
"It's just...wow, my head hurts," she said, and dazedly reached out to touch Crowley's face. "Your eyes," she said, tracing the plane of his cheekbone up to his temple. "Not human. I always knew." Her eyes flicked over to Aziraphale, quietly afraid. "Nobody can read that many dead languages. Not even Mum. Where'd you first have that cocktail, then? Ur? Babylon? No, wait. Maybe you'll tell me it was Atlantis."
"Actually, it was Gomorrah," said Crowley, pensively staring into his tumbler.
Sophia groaned. "Oh, of all the tired paradigms—"
"If it's any consolation," said Aziraphale, "we got tired of it, too."
"Explain?" she asked, allowing Crowley to remove her hand from his cheek.
"With regard to what we did all those years ago, the thing your mum and Adam both remember in spite of certain Powers' best efforts to the contrary," he said, "you might say we helped your lot stage a rebellion of sorts. And together, fortunately, we won."
"Suddenly," said Sophia, "those note-cards in Mum's files make sense." She folded her hands in her lap and stared at them, as if piecing things together the way Aziraphale must have when he'd got his hands on the Book. "Powers," she echoed. "I always did wonder about the Two Powers nonsense. Agnes had an odd sense of humor, and Mum had always tried to explain it away as a cautionary tale or a metaphor. Imagine."
"You don't know the half of it," Aziraphale muttered.
"I do," she said. "You're angels, and not in the fluffy sense people like to imagine."
Crowley opened his mouth, shut it again, and then sighed.
"Fluff never had anything to do with it, believe me. If you'd met the others—"
"No kidding. Those two at the wedding? Mum was afraid of them, but I felt safe."
"As safe as you feel with your husband, no doubt," said Aziraphale, carefully.
Sophia gave him a wry smile as knowing, innocent, and old as Earth itself.
"He's got a lot of explaining to do. Don't worry; I've got his car."
"Which you won't be driving back," said Crowley. "Not in this state."
"I'm not drunk, thanks very much," said Sophia, over-enunciating.
"No, but you're under the influence of a mild narcotic," replied Aziraphale. "Or an opiate, or heaven knows what. Dreadful stuff, of course. They didn't regulate what was put in drinks back then, and I'm afraid Crowley's reproduced this to a fault."
"Not with the blender," Sophia insisted. "I saw everything go in."
"Not with the blender," agreed Crowley, wearily, taking a sip. "When I fixed it."
Sophia blinked at him in stupid fascination and mimed snapping her fingers.
"Just like that? You transformed it without even knowing what went in?"
"He transforms inferior wine all the bloody time," Crowley said.
"Why shouldn't I?" asked Aziraphale, defensively. "No harm, no foul. Er."
Sophia was studying them both with the same intent consideration that Adam could summon even in a casual glance. Crowley wondered what the label pasted to the back of his skull said when she looked at it; was it slightly blurry, he wondered, like the distant letters on the wall that young Robert's optician would make him try to read?
"But you're so human," she whispered. "You fell in love."
Before either one of them could respond, Crowley's mobile, which was on the coffee table, rang. Aziraphale picked it up before Crowley could even react, apologizing as he answered it. Pippa, from the sound of things, judging by that greeting—
Aziraphale's expression withered, unlike anything Crowley had ever seen.
"Oh," murmured Sophia, in prescient warning. "Oh no."
"We'll be there straightaway," said Aziraphale, and hung up.
Crowley tugged Sophia to her feet, nudging her urgently toward the door.
"The Bentley," he said, reaching to catch Aziraphale's hand. "Now. I'll drive."
* * *
Even at Crowley's habitual breakneck speed, they didn't beat the ambulance.
Pippa hovered on the porch as medics passed her with the stretcher, oddly stoic.
It wasn't till she saw the Bentley roar into park along the road that her expression began to crumble, till she saw Crowley racing across the lawn ahead of Aziraphale, who had the unenviable task of keeping Sophia on her feet. The girl stumbled as they walked arm-in-arm, almost dragging them both down in the muddy grass.
"Sorry," she murmured, pulling free of Aziraphale's grasp. "God, what was in..."
Aziraphale left her swaying with one hand on the bird-bath and continued to the porch, where Crowley already had Pippa folded so tightly in his arms that Aziraphale wondered if either of them could breathe. He touched Crowley's shoulder.
"What happened?" he asked. Bewildered panic hovered beneath his sense of calm.
Crowley tucked Pippa's head under his chin, gathered her shaking form even closer.
"Heart attack," he said, eyes fixed unblinking on the front door. "Stroke. Hard to say."
Aziraphale stroked Pippa's hair; her sobs were muffled in Crowley's jacket.
"Go get her," Crowley snapped, his eyes darting to Sophia. "What's wrong with you?"
"I'm okay," said Sophia, hovering nearby, unsteady in her muddy shoes. "I'm here."
"Up you get," Aziraphale helping her step onto the porch. She didn't let go of him this time, her eyes wavering between Crowley's pale, pinched features and the medic emerging to hold the door open for his colleagues as they bore Harold outside.
"Who're you?" asked the medic, closing the door. "We can't take you all."
"The neighbors," said Crowley, indicating Aziraphale with a nod. "Next cottage up."
"You too?" the medic asked Sophia. "Daughter? Granddaughter?"
"Friend of the family," said Sophia, helplessly. "I'm just visiting—"
"There's no time for that," said the medic, taking Pippa's shoulder. "Come along."
Pippa disentangled herself from Crowley, dabbing her eyes on her sleeve.
"I'll ride with these gentlemen here, if it's all the same to you. Get a move on!"
"Yes, ma'am," said the medic, and dashed hurriedly away.
Twenty-five minutes later, once Harold had been stabilized and the team on-site had found all of the initial paperwork miraculously completed, a young Indian woman in a lavender lab-coat met the four of them in a secluded waiting-room at Saint Richard's Hospital. Aziraphale, Crowley, and Sophia hadn't been told to leave, as no one since the young medic had attempted to cross Pippa. Nobody had dared to try.
"Mrs. Morrison," said the woman, gently, extending a hand to Pippa. "My name is Doctor Rathod, but you can call me Aishwarya—actually, just Asha if that's easier."
Pippa blew her nose on Aziraphale's handkerchief and let go of Crowley's hand, to which she'd been clinging on the arm-rest of her chair ever since they'd been shown into the waiting room. Sophia, much improved, had run to the vending machine and got them all tea. She sat across the aisle from the rest of them, nursing her cup.
"Philippa," she said, shaking Asha's hand. "But you can call me Pippa."
"I'll be taking care of Harold," Asha said. "This is not an easy thing to tell you, but your husband has suffered a major stroke. He is unconscious and in critical condition, but stable for now. We are doing everything we can to make him comfortable, Pippa, and we are considering the possibility of surgery to alleviate the pressure caused by hemorrhage in his brain. Do you understand, or would you like me to clarify further?"
Aziraphale stared at his hands, not quite able to meet Crowley's gaze across the space between them, which was occupied by Pippa. It was a terrible prognosis: coma on the heels of a stroke. Asha had essentially asked Pippa if she understood that her husband was dying and that there was very little they would be able to do to save him.
"No, that won't be necessary," said Pippa. "I understand. It's how my mother passed."
Asha crouched in front of Pippa and took hold of her free hand.
"I can't imagine how difficult it must be for you to hear this again. I meant every word about the surgery; we will leave no option unconsidered. If surgery is possible and he survives, he may never speak again. There will be significant paralysis. If we can't perform surgery, he may last forty-eight hours, or he could last a week."
Pippa nodded, closing her eyes. "Three days we waited on Mum," she said.
"You can stay if you like," said Asha, "but I strongly suggest that you return home and get some rest. We'll call you when we have further answers, and I'm so, so sorry."
"Goodness, it's not your fault," Pippa said, welling up as she patted Asha's hand.
"If you'd like to stay, my dear, I'll stay with you," said Aziraphale. "Crowley's got to get poor Sophia back to Cambridge; Adam will be wondering where she's got off to."
"I went to Cambridge," said Asha, turning to Sophia. "Give it my best."
"She's a bright girl," said Pippa. "A good girl, and a very great friend."
Crowley rose, releasing Pippa's hand. "You've got my number. If you need anything, call. I'll have the phone on—angel, don't worry, Sophia can answer if I'm driving."
Aziraphale stood and grasped Crowley's lapel, kissing him on the cheek in spite of Asha's vaguely surprised expression and Sophia's failed attempt to look away.
"Be careful," he said. "Mind the speed limits."
"I'm always careful with her," Crowley said, offering Sophia his arm. "Let's go."
And then Aziraphale and Pippa were alone, each staring into a cup of lukewarm tea.
"This isn't how I imagined it would be," Pippa said. "Sit back down, love."
"I should think not," sighed Aziraphale, and sat. "Things rarely turn out as we expect."
Pippa nodded. "You'd know that better than most, I don't doubt."
"How do you suppose?" Aziraphale asked, surreptitiously heating both cups of tea.
"You found love later on in life, so you never know how much time you've got. It's all well and good you've exchanged rings, but it's times like this that I'd fear for you."
If only you knew how little you need worry, thought Aziraphale. "Why?"
"If you end up in hospital," said Pippa, pressing the handkerchief to her lips, "they could bar him from seeing you. Not as likely these days, but if the paperwork's not all signed and sealed, they could. Do you mean to tell me you've never had a scare?"
"There was once," Aziraphale told her, before he quite realized what he was saying. "We went to Tokyo eleven years ago. This was before—well, not long before we became—before we moved out here," he continued, mindful of Crowley's preference for privacy even in his absence. "There was a very famous sushi restaurant with an even more famous chef. Foolishly, I decided to try fugu—pufferfish, that is."
"The one that's poisonous if they don't do it right," said Pippa, darkly.
"Yes, the one that's poisonous if they don't do it right," Aziraphale sighed.
"Close call? I mean, the chef had to've done it right. You wouldn't be here otherwise."
"I choked on it," he continued. "Crowley caught on to what was happening—" miracled the poison from my bloodstream, he thought, just before it could shut down anything important "—and, well, thank goodness for the Heimlich maneuver, I always say."
"I suppose you must worry about him, too," Pippa said, "what with the way he drives."
It was the tone of her voice, perhaps, the fragile emptiness that only genuine loss could impart to a statement that, for Aziraphale, would otherwise have gone in one ear and out the other, if not for the memory of a certain windswept morning several months before, by sword and scythe and arrow-point, how close they'd really come—
I'd have been discorporated if Crowley hadn't been faster than the poison. If he's ever in a collision and I'm not there to stop it, too far gone to repair the damage himself...
Aziraphale had never had a particularly difficult time obtaining a new body. These days, he didn't doubt Gabriel would require a significant amount of bullying if it came to it, but having two out of four Archangels on one's side did rather bode well—
But Crowley, set adrift by his former employer, no longer had any such recourse.
If he were to be discorporated—if, heaven forbid—
"Fuck," Aziraphale whispered, every other thought pushed from his mind.
"I'm sorry," said Pippa, in tears again. "I didn't mean..."
She'd burrowed against Aziraphale's shoulder, sobbing, before Aziraphale could collect himself. "My dear, I need your mobile," he said shakily. "We ought to call Nicola."
* * *
Crowley was sitting at Anathema's dining-room table, drinking some tea that was much better than what he'd got at the hospital. Sophia had instructed him to drive her to her parents' house instead of to the flat in Cambridge, as she suspected she'd find Adam there anyway. Newt had invited him to informally crash-test some software.
"How'd it drive?" asked Adam, joining Crowley and Sophia at the table.
"It makes less noise than I'm used to," Crowley admitted, studying his mug.
"It's not half bad," Adam said. "Want me to drive you home? Rough day, sounds like."
"Yes," Crowley agreed. "And that's not necessary. I can just as easily fly."
Adam gave him a curious look, and then turned to Sophia.
"Yep," she said, blowing on her tea. "Shit just got real."
"I guess that means you've got a lot of questions," said Adam, pensively.
"Yeah, but they can wait till later," she replied. "I'll steal the note-cards."
"Borrow them, you mean," said Anathema, wandering in from the kitchen with a bowl of kettle corn. She set it down in the middle of the table and sat down beside Crowley, leaning over to look at him more closely. "You're not really ready for this, are you?"
Crowley shook his head. "That's not the problem. Not by far."
"Aziraphale's not ready, then. He knows intellectually, I'm sure, that we're all going to die on you. He hasn't let it sink in, though. Not the way you have. Is that right?"
"And then some," said Crowley. He looked at Adam, but the young man's face was impassive, as difficult to read as Aziraphale at his most closed-off. Will you die on us, I wonder? I still don't know just how much you've kept and just how much you've sworn off. You've let half of Heaven's SWAT team get cosy with humans. What next?
I'll figure that out when the time comes, Adam sent back tetchily.
I beg your pardon, Crowley replied. What?
Sophia was trying hard to pretend she hadn't heard, but she looked frightened.
Anathema set her chin in her palm. "Crowley, what can I do?"
"Stand by," he said, rising, loath to leave his tea unfinished.
You didn't think I knew enough to decide all the rules for myself in a neat little row, did you, which ones I'd hang onto and which ones I wouldn't? Adam asked. I was eleven. I knew I could do anything I wanted, but in the broadest sense possible. I knew that no more messing about sounded like a great idea, and I knew enough to put things back the way they were, with interest. Should I have left off the interest? Should I have forbidden collateral, the good and the bad? What do you think?
Crowley blinked at him. So you don't know if you're going to die?
Not exactly, Adam said. It's just that I haven't decided.
We're not finished here, Crowley thought, buttoning his jacket. "Anathema, Sophia, thanks ever so much. As always, it's been a pleasure. You," he said, pointing at Adam, "keep your nose clean, and don't break anything your father-in-law can't fix."
He disappeared before any of them could respond; the last thing he saw was Sophia's wide eyes, her lips parted in eloquent dismay. He hated this part. Reassembly still gave him the creeps no matter how many times he'd done it or would yet do.
Aziraphale was sitting at the kitchen table with his crossword and a cappuccino. He looked up, and Crowley had never seen such unabashed relief in...well, ever, and he'd seen more humans with cause to wear that expression than he'd have cared to recall.
"I was wondering when you'd return," said the angel, standing in such a rush that he spilled half the cappuccino across his copy of The Telegraph. He vanished the spill with an irritated huff, reflexively reaching for Crowley. "I couldn't help—"
"Pippa," Crowley said, holding him at arms' length. "Why aren't you with her?"
"Nicola and Trevor came as soon as they could," Aziraphale said. "I rang them."
"What about Rob?" asked Crowley. Did the boy know his grandfather was dying?
"He's with Trevor's parents," Aziraphale reassured him. "Crowley, you look..."
"Awful, yeah," Crowley said, sagging into Aziraphale's embrace. "We've got to talk."
Aziraphale stiffened against him, but relaxed again just as quickly.
"It can wait, my dear, surely," he said. "You're wrecked."
Crowley turned his head, perfectly willing to lose himself in Aziraphale's kiss. Besides, he hadn't quite found a way of framing the information he'd got his hands on: Oh, yeah, by the way, the former Antichrist hasn't quite thought things out as clearly as we would have liked. D'you suppose this will pose a problem? It wouldn't do to spring that on Aziraphale, not after the shock of what had happened earlier that evening.
Bed seemed as logical a place to take this as any. It very rarely hurt, at least.
"Slow down," Crowley muttered several minutes later, halfway out of his clothes and already pinned to the mattress. Letting Aziraphale have his way usually wasn't anything to complain about; as Crowley understood this in human terms, the angel was what most of them would call thorough to a fault. He nuzzled and then bit Aziraphale's lower lip, working both hands down the back of Aziraphale's trousers.
"Terribly sorry," Aziraphale sighed, his breath hitching as Crowley's fingertips skated down the backs of his thighs. When their trousers and underthings vanished, all pairs present, it wasn't really worth asking who'd done it. "It's just that I've missed..."
"I was gone for all of three hours," Crowley said, distracted by the fact that Aziraphale had got at his hips and his lower back and was slowly, teasingly kneading his way down to Crowley's arse. "This isn't going to work, angel. You've got my arms trapped."
"Then lie back," Aziraphale murmured, running one knuckle deftly down the cleft, "and leave me to it." Crowley shivered at the sudden slickness. One finger, two...
Aziraphale left it at that, knew exactly where to press. He worked a thigh in between Crowley's as they twisted and gasped, never wavering, his pacing clever and careful. Crowley came first, clenching with it: pleasure like a knife slipped in where you'd least expect. He flipped Aziraphale over, finished him off with fervent mouth and hands.
Afterward, Aziraphale arranged them front to front and drowsily draped one leg over Crowley's hip. He traced the length of Crowley's spine and asked what was the matter.
"Nothing," lied Crowley, snuggling closer with a yawn. "Pippa and all. 'M tired."
"Yes," sighed Aziraphale, sounding genuinely exhausted. "Yes, quite."
Whatever the matters were, they'd both do well to sleep on them.
* * *
Aziraphale woke up at eight-thirty in the morning to the sound of Crowley's mobile vibrating its way off the bedside table. He caught it just in time, fumbling the ancient flip-phone open. He'd have a word or two with Crowley about an upgrade.
"Mmm, yes? Hallo?"
"I didn't mean to wake you," said Pippa, her words slow, tone hollow.
"Don't even think it," Aziraphale said, sitting straight up in bed. Crowley had rolled away from him sometime in the night to curl toward the door, one hand fisted fretfully in his pillowcase. "How are you holding up? Has there been any news?"
"They can't operate," she said. "Trevor's father's bringing Rob this afternoon."
"Oh, my dear," said Aziraphale, his throat constricting. "Is there anything I can do?"
Crowley took hold of Aziraphale's upper arm, startling him.
"I'll go over," he said, rolling out of bed. "Ask her if they need food."
Aziraphale felt a wash of relief. "Would you like breakfast? Is it the three of you?"
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble," said Pippa, her voice so taut it hurt to listen.
"Are you at the house, or have you gone back to the hospital?"
"On our way back there now," she said. "Trevor's driving."
"Three, got it," Crowley said, fully dressed, holding out his hand. "I'll need that."
Aziraphale sighed. "I'm sending Crowley," he said. "I'll follow soon."
Pippa hung up with a whispered thank you, saving him the trouble.
Crowley snapped the phone shut and stuck it in his back pocket, leaning to kiss Aziraphale on the mouth. "You got the worst of it yesterday," he explained hastily, donning his sunglasses. "The least I can do is give you a breather."
"I have some things to do online," Aziraphale said. "I won't be long. A few hours."
"Funny, that's exactly what I owe you," said Crowley, kissed him again, and left.
If Aziraphale had learned anything from Crowley's weekly Skype sessions with Uriel, it was the sheer, brilliant utility of a web-camera over more traditional means of conference-call. It certainly beat getting a crick in one's neck and eye fatigue from staring so long into glowing, nebulous blue. Aziraphale turned on the computer, went to make tea and toast, and returned with his hands full. He fired off a brief e-mail, mindful not to get crumbs or marmelade down the keyboard, and booted up Skype.
Twelve minutes later, Uriel's number rang through. He answered it.
"You're lucky I've got a BlackBerry," Raphael said, yawning. In the grainy camera feed, his hair was a wild, mussed halo glinting fiery by desk-lamp light, much longer than it had been at the wedding. "And that I had the sound turned on. What's up?"
"Is Uriel there?" Aziraphale peered at the edges of the feed. "I need to be certain—"
"If she's the one you wanted to talk to, darling, you should've asked. She's out."
"Good," said Aziraphale. "I'd rather she didn't hear what I'm about to ask."
Raphael tapped his nose and winked. "I see. We don't want demon-dear to know."
Aziraphale took a sip of his tea before continuing, and the Archangel made a face.
"You always did have a flair for the dramatic," he said. "Or was that dithering?"
"What do you know about Gabriel's current stance on discorporation?"
"Tricky," Raphael said, scratching his temple. "It hasn't been an issue in the last few thousand years, so I haven't made any up-to-date inquiries. Which goes against procedure every which way, I know, so please don't point that out."
"Wasn't about to," Aziraphale admitted. "My situation's been similar. Neither have I."
"Before you go asking if Uriel knows anything, she's never needed a replacement."
"Fortunate," said Aziraphale, "but unhelpful. Theoretically, what would you guess?"
"My feeling," Raphael confided, "is that Gabriel's been so tight since Himself stopped handing down orders that any one of us would be lucky as to get so much as a toenail out of him. What would be the use in a replacement body if he feels we are, essentially, currently useless? Discorporation? Bam, instant recall. Either that or being doomed to hopping from channel to channel, host to host. Neither one is a thought I relish, as you can imagine, so I keep clear of bullets and reckless drivers."
"Those are easy enough to deflect if one is vigilant," said Aziraphale, uncomfortably.
"Yes, but I have the feeling your theoretical denotes a circumstance in which one has not been. You tend not to worry about yourself overmuch, do you? Perhaps you ought to, given that little incident twenty-odd years ago. Would the boy be as quick to help, I wonder, now he's settled down with a pretty, charming, thoroughly mortal wife?"
"It's Crowley," said Aziraphale. "If anything were to happen when I'm not to hand..."
"Perhaps that woman would help you out again," Raphael said. "Shadwell's tart."
"Would you please just be serious, even for a moment?"
Raphael rubbed his eyes. "Az, I'm always serious. I don't like the thought one bit."
"Then, short of sharing him with some recalcitrant human—which, by the way, was not at all pleasant, I can assure you, having once been stuck in that particular bind—what would you suggest in such a circumstance, however improbable?"
"How can you be sure Hell wouldn't pull him straight down? Do they attach some kind of reel-back mechanism? Not keen on releasing souls once they've got them, you know, not either side. There's the real value of a human body. Autonomy."
Aziraphale's mind spun. On top of it all, Harold would surely pass before night fell.
"Listen," Raphael continued. "If you're that concerned, go to the boy. Raise the issue."
"Lose him," said Aziraphale, disbelieving. "To think that I even could..."
"Hey, there you are," said a familiar voice offscreen. "Waited up for me, huh?"
Raphael fixed Aziraphale with a determined look, reaching to switch off his web-cam.
"I've got to go, darling," he said. "Do what I say for once, would you? Good luck."
* * *
Somber breakfast in the waiting-room had given way to a brief visit to Harold's bedside, from which Crowley had tactfully hung back, lingering in the doorway. There had been tubes and monitors everywhere, and if not for the name on the clipboard at the foot of the bed, Crowley would scarcely have recognized the man had he not been party to the proceedings from ground zero. Harold's skin had taken on a waxy, unnatural cast. His dry, motionless lips were cracked, looked almost purple.
The worst part of it by far was Pippa, who clung silently to her husband's stiff hand while Nicola bent over her father's pillow and stroked his sparse hair, her constant, frantically murmured words an ineffectual litany against hopelessness.
Crowley had turned away and gone back to sit down with Trevor, whose dark eyes and even darker skin, when coupled with his somber, melancholy air, had given him the impression of a living shadow. He'd offered Crowley a cigarette, which Crowley had accepted with murmured thanks and put in his pocket for later. He'd need it.
The four of them had gone to lunch in the hospital cafeteria, during which time Crowley had endured a number of fascinated questions from Nicola with regard to Aziraphale's erstwhile bookshop and how they were finding life in Sussex.
Robert's paternal grandfather, a stern, wise-looking seventy year-old islander—from Haiti, Crowley thought, or perhaps Jamaica—had brought the boy up to the waiting-room shortly after they'd returned from lunch. He'd chattered happily to Crowley about the fact he hadn't needed glasses after all, but that it didn't mean he couldn't have contacts someday. Trevor's father had joined his son, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law at Harold's bedside. They'd taken Rob in shortly after, but he hadn't stayed for very long. He'd run back to Crowley with a tear-streaked face.
"Pap won't come back once the doctors take him away," the boy had sobbed.
Crowley had scooped Rob up and rocked him, at a loss for words.
"Sometimes people don't when they're old or sick," he'd said. "That's the way of it."
"Will Gran go away?" Rob had hiccuped against Crowley's shoulder.
"One day," Crowley had said, cursing Above, Below, and Everything. "But not soon."
"Will you go away?" the boy had asked.
"No," Crowley had said, and hated himself for it.
Now, outside and alone, he'd never needed the blessed cigarette more. He'd only managed to smoke around a third of it when his mobile rang; he fumbled it out of his pocket and almost dropped the cigarette in the process of flipping it open.
"Bloody thing. Angel, I swear I'll get one of those smart-phones soon, just you wait—"
"Crowley?" Uriel asked uncertainly. "What's going on?"
"Oh, what's not," Crowley moaned, taking a deep drag on what was left of his hard-earned prize. "Harold's dying. D'you remember Pippa's husband? Maybe you don't. Anyway, he suffered a major stroke last night, and we were first on the scene. Sophia was there. It's kind of a disaster; she knows...Uriel, she knows."
"All in one day," she said. "Gosh. That's a lot. Are you okay?"
"I'm at the hospital," Crowley replied. "Outside it, rather. Just having a smoke."
"I would ask you why Aziraphale's not there, but I already know he's not."
Crowley took a final puff and pinched the stub out between thumb and forefinger.
"Why do you say that?" he asked, ignoring an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"I came home to Raphael wrapping up a little Skype session with him."
"Is that unusual? Aziraphale's pretty tech-savvy, don't let him fool you."
"It's unusual when Raphael won't tell me shit about the conversation."
"He's not taking it very well," Crowley told her. "That could be the reason."
"What, Raphael's not? Don't make me laugh. He didn't even talk to Harold."
"No, I meant Aziraphale. There's that whole emotional intelligence issue, and..."
"And it's something more serious than that. Before I got to the back room, I caught a few choice words like Gabriel and autonomy and do what I say for once, would you?"
"Damn it," Crowley hissed. "Why!"
"I don't know," said Uriel, helplessly. "That's why I called you. I wanted to know if Aziraphale's been acting strangely, but I guess the answer there is, yeah, sure, he's only losing his mind over the notion that all of his human friends are going to die."
"We're not particularly close to Harold," Crowley admitted.
"It's Pippa," Uriel said. "And it hits close to home."
"And it's the rest of them," Crowley said. "Anathema. Newt. Shadwell and Tracy."
"Mandy and Sophia," said Uriel, not missing a beat. "But what about Adam?"
"That," Crowley said, "is an interesting question, and I'd like to hear your thoughts."
He described the unspoken exchange he'd had with Adam the evening before, as well as the conversation he'd had with the boy some two and a half years ago in a Cambridge Caffè Nero. Which had also been the first time he'd met Sophia.
"I really hate to say this," said Uriel, at length, "but that is ineffability for you."
"I hate you," Crowley said. "Not in general terms, of course, and no offense meant, but in this one painfully specific instance? Without hesitation or reservations, I do."
"None taken," Uriel sighed. "If it's that big a problem, do what you did last time."
Crowley dropped the cigarette stub and stamped on it. "Which is?"
"Go to the boy. You just told me you told him that the conversation wasn't over."
"Yeah, and I also very likely got myself on his black-list by mouthing off."
"That's your real weak spot, sweetie," said Uriel, almost sadly.
"What? Are you serious? What is?"
"Getting in the last fucking word."
Crowley opened his mouth, shut it again, and hung up.
As per usual, she was right, and he was done playing silly buggers.
And, judging by who was headed across the parking lot towards him at that very minute, he wouldn't have to go far in order to set the proverbial ball rolling, either.
* * *
Aziraphale stuck his hands in his coat pockets, glancing sidelong at Adam. Crowley met them halfway, having pushed off the brick wall and broken into a hurried walk the moment he spotted them. He smelled like smoke and someone else's tears.
"Moral support, is it?" Crowley asked, looking Adam up and down.
"Aziraphale came to find me," Adam clarified, "but we needed to come here."
"Harold won't last much longer," said Aziraphale. "And there's something—"
"You bet there's something," said Crowley, pointing a finger at Adam. "If our favorite godchild doesn't make a few important decisions, who knows what trouble we'll be in."
Adam pursed his lips, and Aziraphale blinked at him in undisguised horror.
"Do you mean you've...realized, I mean...has it crossed your mind, too?"
It was Crowley's turn to blink at Aziraphale.
"I have no idea what you're talking about, unless we're talking about the same thing."
Adam held out a hand to silence them, chopping the air curtly.
"One at a time," he said, and extended his open palm to Aziraphale.
"I'm talking about you," said Aziraphale, miserably. "Have you given any thought to what might happen if you were to get discorporated at this point in time, as unlikely as that may sound? Please don't look at me like that, my dear. Think about it," he said desperately. "Insofar as we know, you've been cut off. No more...no more bloody-minded stationery department, wasn't that how you once put it?"
"Oh," Crowley said, "my God."
Aziraphale reached for him as he staggered forward, caught him just in time.
"Was that what you meant? And do you have any idea? I spoke with Raphael, but—"
"Neither did Uriel, to be fair," said Crowley, leaning hard into Aziraphale. "Nobody knows anything. It doesn't matter what I was talking about, because it's really all the same thing. Our humans are going to die, and you're going to have to accept that, but what about him? If he eventually chooses to go, what about the rest of us?"
They both turned their heads to stare at Adam, still clinging to one another.
Adam breathed in through his nostrils and stepped back from them, shifting his stance. He held his hand out in front of him as he'd done once before, and Aziraphale swore he could hear the same low, faint, ominous hum that had surrounded them twenty-three years ago to the day. Death on the anniversary of rebirth.
"I reckon you've got a choice to make, too," said Adam. "Just like I have."
"Terms," Crowley said, steadying himself, but he didn't let go. "Yours first."
"I'll go," he said. "I'll go when she goes, if she goes first, or not very long after. I'm not really interested in hanging about if she's not here to share it with. Is that fair?"
"Abundantly," said Crowley, indicating that Adam should continue. "And?"
"And everything I've said will hold," said Adam, gravely. "No more messing about."
"You were curiously unspecific about that at the time," Crowley continued, and it was all Aziraphale could do to hold his breath. "Since then, a couple of pretty fascinating things have happened, both of which we could've done without. Well, wait, no—one of them's pretty all right, but it's got worrying ramifications, and as for the other—"
"What happened?" asked Adam, his brow furrowing. "Aside from you getting fired?"
"Laid off," Crowley corrected him. "The other thing happened the morning after your wedding. Michael turned up on the beach with an eye to...hmmm, what's the expression they're so fond of in gangster films? Sending me to sleep with the fishes."
"Uriel and Raphael took care of it," said Adam. "We agreed that's what they were for."
"For safeguarding the humans, yes," interjected Aziraphale, "but—"
"I wasn't talking about humans when I said security detail. I was talking about you."
"Raphael doesn't put much stock in Gabriel's ability as an organizer, and neither do I."
"Organizer?" echoed Crowley. "Is that what they're calling it these days?"
"You may have a point," said Adam, turning his hand a fraction. "As above, so below. Two up there and two down here, that's fair. No moving back and forth, and no swaps, either. That way they can get on with their job and not worry so much."
"Which ones?" asked Crowley, stupefied.
"The ones upstairs, doing what they do, and the ones down here, doing what they do."
"Gabriel and Michael mostly run things with iron, er, fists," Aziraphale muttered.
"Right, so they can go on doing that, but only up there," said Adam, reasonably.
"And the other two?" asked Crowley. "What is their job, exactly?"
"Looking after you two, of course," said Adam, turning his hand another fraction. "Somebody's got to do it if I'm not always going to be here to be doing it, which actually brings me to my next question. How long do you want to stay?"
"I beg your pardon?" asked Aziraphale. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"I don't think so," Crowley said. "When have you ever known him to joke?"
"Hell's out of your hair," Adam told Crowley. "They really are. Can't be bothered."
"None of them?" said Crowley. "Are you sure? Not even—"
"Not even those two," Adam said. "They got awfully interested in each other."
"If you mean more than before, you can stop right there," said Crowley, shuddering.
"As I was saying," Adam repeated, "you've got a choice, and we haven't got all day. Your friend is dying, and his wife needs you there. D'you see? All's fair in love and war, or at least everything will be as soon as you give me an answer."
Aziraphale and Crowley looked at each other for one long, considering moment.
They'll all die, Crowley repeated. Can you bear it?
I know they will, my dear, Aziraphale answered. Can you?
I can bear anything as long as you're beside me, angel. Hadn't you guessed?
Aziraphale felt an endless weight lift, and Crowley was smiling—really smiling.
"We'll stay," he said. "Someone's got to look out for them, the ones we love—"
"—and the ones we will love," Crowley cut in. "Rob's not bad. There's hope for him."
And Sophia's son, Aziraphale reminded him. Someday.
"Right," said Adam, turning his hand in a tight circle.
Not to erase this time, Aziraphale realized, but to seal. Something shook the ground just beneath them; Crowley stumbled, and they clung together for dear life. It didn't last more than a few seconds. Everything settled again, much the same as before.
"Now, what did that do, exactly?" Crowley asked.
"Your favorite," said Adam, grinning from ear to ear. "Miraculous escapes for everybody, and I do mean everybody. You know, should you ever need 'em."
"Yes, oh," said Aziraphale, holding Crowley close. "Yes, I do know."
"Perfect," Adam said, dusting his hands off. "At least till next time. I've got to get out of here; Soph's sick as a dog. We went out with some of her friends last night, even after I told her that wasn't the best idea after what she had at your place."
"What, are you nuts?" Crowley asked. "She's just handed in. Celebration's in order."
"Don't I know it," said Adam, strolling away. "I've made up my mind. Feels great!"
"I should hope," said Aziraphale, glancing upward. "Which window? We'd better go."
"You do realize he looks awful," Crowley said, "and that Pippa's even worse?"
"As you said," Aziraphale replied, "there's nothing for it, but as long as I'm here...?"
"As long as we're here," Crowley corrected him. "Don't forget it."
"Perhaps we'd better take the stairs," said Aziraphale, opening the door. "After you."
Eyes set resolutely forward, Crowley reached back and took his hand.