By the time Crowley arrives, the city has more or less returned to what passes for normal, and the great library is ashes.
He stands outside its charred skeleton, mouth twisted in a frown. He shakes his head and wonders vaguely where the nearest tavern is. Crowley braces one hand on a section of wall so he can step over what might have once been a table but is now kindling, and his fingers come away black with soot.
He narrows his eyes at the impudence, and the soot obligingly vanishes. The remaining stone structure is closed off from what little sunlight penetrates the ash-heavy clouds above, but as Crowley makes his way through the wreckage, he finds there is somehow enough light for even humans to see by. It spills out from a doorway up ahead, and Crowley heads toward its source.
The angel is streaked with soot from head to toe, sifting methodically through the debris with the single-minded devotion he usually reserves for rich food and drink or reviewing some latest acquisition. His cuticles are peeling, carefully kept hands caked in grime. Crowley watches in silence for a while. The newly repaired areas are blank, Crowley can see - apparently not even a miracle can restore text without knowing what it once said.
Aziraphale peers at it, a deep-set wrinkle in his brow, and then he sets it aside. Aziraphale sits back on his heels and lets out a long, slow breath.
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Even surrounded by ruin and covered in its ashes, there is something radiant about him, like a glimmer of metal half buried in sand that catches the light. He frowns at the light-colored bit of papyrus, stark against the rubble, and then he gets to his feet. I believe you said something about a drink?
He ducks out of the way of a collapsing market stall, and it hits the ground in a shower of sparks that catch on his robes and ignite. He barely spares a thought to put them out, already rounding the next corner. Crowley dodges one that comes a bit too close, but it throws up a spray of dirt and gravel that hits him in the face before he can bring up an arm to block it. It would be just like that stubborn idiot of an angel to get himself discorporated trying to protect some old clay tablets.
Only a few more streets, a left and then a right and He stops just short of actually colliding with Crowley, pulling his outstretched hands back at the last moment to wring in front of himself instead. He attempts to rein it in, affecting a more teasing tone. Aziraphale goes a little pink, blush not quite hidden in the flickering firelight that engulfs the city around them.
Aziraphale just scowls at him. Crowley got credit from his superiors simply from proximity, and having the ear of the emperor was quite a lavish life. Somewhere off to the side of them, another market stall collapses, but the debris gives them both a wide berth. Aziraphale has always been a blazing point of heat and light, drawing Crowley in with something stronger than gravity, too strong for his occult powers to deflect. Crusading in the name of Christ and all that? Something about remarkable dedication to furthering the cause at any cost. Hypocrisy is a subtle sin, far too subtle for Hell to appreciate, which is probably for the best.
If hypocrisy could send a being to Hell, there would be very few angels left in Heaven. He stretches out, tipping his chair back onto two legs and sips at his wine. He glances around at the other patrons in the tavern, the usual assortment of drunkards and laborers. He almost pities the serpents, that the smell should settle heavy on their tongues when they taste the air.
Crowley clutches his wine glass, half listening to Aziraphale natter about something or other, and inhales carefully in the only place he can breathe without gagging.
The air is stale and a little musty, but nothing is dying here. He shrugs and drains the rest of his wine. Proper concern verging on pity then, Crowley thinks. Aziraphale often reads aloud while Crowley lounges, but he usually skips the Songs of Solomon. Not because he has anything against the book, but because Crowley tends to jeer at the racier bits.
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He tips his head back to rest on the top edge of the settee and stares up at the ceiling without really seeing it, empty wine glass dangling loosely in one hand. What Crowley would really like is a nice, long nap, maybe for the rest of the century. To just check out for a while and wake up when the flood waters have receded. He takes another slow, careful breath.
It smells like dust and bookbinding glue and old wine, comfortable and familiar. Nothing is dying here. Aziraphale settles back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest, and lets out a sigh. Crowley shrugs. Distantly, he can hear Aziraphale breathing, the occasional heavy sigh, the soft rasp of pages turning. He wonders vaguely what it is Aziraphale is reading, but the thought slips away before he can get ahold of it to ask.
He lets himself drift, not quite awake but not asleep either. It takes even longer for Crowley to remember how to move his limbs, how to lift his head against the heavy press of gravity. The days are all starting to run together like wet paint, and there have been so many of them. Thousands - millions, probably, and Crowley has seen every single one of them, simultaneously untouched by time and staggering under its weight.
Empty bottles litter the floor around him as well as a few that are still half full of cheap wine. He takes a pull off the closest bottle, hands shaking so badly than wine drips down his chin and soaks into his clothes. He has no idea what time of day it is, or even what time of year, but there are few other patrons in the tavern, just a low rumble of quiet conversation and muted sounds from the street outside to fill the silence.
A clatter of knocked over glass rings through the tavern, too sharp and too loud. Crowley squints up through bleary eyes at the pristine form of an angel standing over him, overbright and alien in this dark place.
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Crowley hisses reflexively, but Aziraphale just tuts at him. He sways unsteadily, but Aziraphale keeps a tight hold on him, bearing most of his weight with a divine strength that seems at odds with his soft, rounded exterior. You usually invite me to your little parties. Crowley slumps against the back of the carriage bench, wishing vaguely for unconsciousness. He touches Crowley so tenderly, like Crowley is something precious, something dear, something worthy of reverence.
Crowley finally passes out. The air raid sirens sound just as Aziraphale is pouring their second bottle of wine. He startles, spattering the table and his crisp, white shirt sleeve with burgundy. Crowley twists his hand in the air, and the spilled wine vanishes.
Aziraphale frowns down at his sleeve, but he pours the wine and hands Crowley a glass. The siren is still going, screaming its warning into the otherwise quiet night. Aziraphale glares down at his glass, or maybe at his sleeve, as Crowley sips his wine. There are no atheists in the trenches, or cowering in their bomb shelters either, apparently.
Heaven knows what Barbara will do now, of course. If Aziraphale wants a fight, then Crowley will bloody well give him one. He puts his hands up. But there are lots of other things I could have done and, for all you know, did. Aziraphale lets out a long slow breath, all the fight draining out of him, and slumps back in his chair. And none of that widespread, low grade nonsense you sell to your superiors - something that even comes close to what humans do to each other. Aziraphale just gives him an arch look.
He swallows hard against a wave of nausea that rises in his stomach. This belief was the reason that, when the presents were dished out, I cried a lot and asked to go home and then cried the whole way home in the car. I remember a girl who sat next to me on that rug one year when I was five, maybe six, dressed in a purple dress, neat as a Laura Ashley violin lesson. Long hair plaited with silken ribbons, perfectly bowed, sweetly smiling at me as I sat cross-legged in the pink velour tracksuit and blue wellies I refused to change out of for the first eight years of my life.
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I smiled back at her, pleased to make such a glamorous new friend. Santa paced the room, ho-hoed and hoed some more, dished the presents out one by one, built the tension terrifically, eventually stopped in front of me and my new best mate. He said our names. I wiggled, butt clenched on the floor.
He passed us our gifts. The girl next to me unwrapped her Barbie Dream House. I unwrapped my Christmas Edition Cadbury selection box and one paper aeroplane and attempted to kill the girl next to me with my frown.
I looked around, grumpy as a Monday school run. I watched my brother unwrap his Christmas Edition Cadbury selection box, while peering incredulously at the boy beside him, who was throwing lashings and lashings of bubblewrap out of a big box, the exact size of a brand new remote controlled car.