Word count: 3251
Rating: PG / Teen and Up
Tags: ineffable husbands, missing scene from episode 5, (incorrectly) assumed major character death, angst, grief, rage, emotional trauma, then new scene post-episode 6, Deliberate Tense Change at that point, more angst, hurt/comfort, friendship, best friends, positive/hopeful ending, you can ship it if you want to, but you don’t have to if you’d rather not
Summary: Sitting in the wreckage of the burning book shop, Crowley needs to know who started the fire which killed his best friend. When he reverses time and finds the origin of the conflagration, he learns that the culprit is the last person he would ever have imagined. Later, after Armageddon didn’t geddon, it all gets too much for him. Aziraphale is there to help him through his anguish.
Author’s Note: I’d be interested to know from readers whether the tense change partway through the story worked or whether it really interrupted the flow. I’ve never done such a thing before but saw it done in someone else’s fic, and something made me try it for this story.
Crowley had lost Aziraphale and the world was ending in a few hours. As far as he was concerned, it could bloody well end. Sitting on the floor of the burning book shop and clutching a random book he had picked up from nearby, he was tempted to bring about a miracle to make the fire engines outside disappear and then to set up barriers around the area to prevent any more fire fighters getting near the shop. Maybe he could boost the ferocity of the flames enough to cause his human body to be destroyed. He didn’t even care what would happen to his discorporated essence after that.
He slumped lower and began to focus his power, but paused when an urgent question suddenly came into his mind. Distracted, he listened to the question while it repeated in his head and was followed by a huge surge of anger.
Who did this?
The rage grew inside him. He had to know. He had already realised that the fire wasn’t Heavenly in origin, nor was it Hellfire. It was just an ordinary conflagration – if there was such a thing – but it was still possible that someone from above or below had caused it, or had compelled humans to start it. Someone had started the inferno, and Crowley was determined to find out who. It was too much of a coincidence for this to have happened at the same time as Hastur and Ligur had arrived at his flat; their approach might actually have been timed to prevent him from getting to Aziraphale in time to help. The fire must have been deliberate.
Somebody had killed his best friend, and Crowley was going to find out who. And once he did, and because there were only a few hours until the Earth was destroyed and the War between Heaven and Hell began, and because nothing mattered any more, Crowley was going to kick down the door of the instigator – even if that door was the entrance to Heaven or to Hell – and he would claw or maim or kill anyone who stood in his way until he was face to face with his friend’s murderer. After that ... well, it didn’t matter whether Crowley survived, provided he lived long enough to avenge Aziraphale’s death.
He got to his feet and breathed in deeply, forcing himself not to cough as the smoky air filled his lungs, and tamped down his fury and grief and focussed it into a tight ball inside him. Closing his eyes for a moment, he concentrated and then stared upwards and savagely raised his hands towards the sky.
Crowley had stopped time before but he had never done what he was about to attempt. He knew it was theoretically possible but also knew that it was incredibly difficult and very dangerous. Even Lucifer had only done it once or twice and had been exhausted afterwards. But Satan hadn’t had the determination which Crowley had; Satan hadn’t had the desperate need which Crowley had.
Slowly he lowered his arms, re-focussed his mind and began to wind back time.
All around him the flames began to reduce in size and ferocity. The smoke gradually became less thick and the broken windowpane became solid again as the water from the fire hose withdrew out into the street. Crowley watched as his past self stormed backwards out of the shop and the door slammed shut in front of him. Books and bookshelves began to reconstitute and the fire became smaller, smaller, and began to reduce and shrink down towards its start point. Standing in the middle of the shop floor, Crowley gritted his teeth and forced time ever backwards. The flames left more and more of the shop untouched and undamaged and shrank towards their origin.
It took an agonisingly long time but eventually the only flames were coming from some papers on the floor near a desk. Crowley watched as the fire guttered down and revealed a burning candle lying on its side and just touching the papers. Then the flames went out and the candle tilted backwards and began to roll slowly away across the floor. From the speed it was going, it was clear that it had only just made it to the papers; if those papers hadn’t been there, the candle would have stopped rolling before it reached anything flammable. Idly, Crowley realised that there were several other lit candles in a circle on the floor nearby but before he could focus on them he noticed something that blew his world apart.
Crowley stopped time again and held it there. Wide eyed, his jaw clamped with the effort, he stepped closer to the conflagration point and stared downwards as the memory surfaced in his mind.
‘Could literally climb every mountain over and over and over and over and over ... and over and over.’
Eleven years ago. The memory was clear. He had stood beside that desk eleven years ago and waved a Sondheim programme at Aziraphale before picking up a programme for a performance of The Sound of Music and rambling drunkenly about the Almighty’s love of the show. Then ... then he had dropped both programmes on the floor instead of putting them back onto the desk, and they had lain there all this time, just waiting for the candle to roll to them. If they hadn’t been there the shop wouldn’t have burned and Aziraphale wouldn’t have died. He wouldn’t have died if Crowley – lousy stinking demon that he was – had just been a bit more respectful of his best friend’s possessions.
His fault. It was his fault.
Gasping with exhaustion, grief and guilt, Crowley slumped to the floor and released his control. Time wound forward to the present and then the fire was all around him again, destroying the book shop, destroying everything that Aziraphale had loved so much and had worked so hard to build as his home on Earth. And it was Crowley’s fault that the shop was dying. It was Crowley’s fault that Aziraphale had died. It no longer mattered why the candle had been rolling across the floor in the first place. It no longer mattered what had happened before that moment or who had started the fire. Only one thing mattered.
Crowley had killed his best friend.
There was no point going on. He didn’t deserve to go on. Without Aziraphale, there was no reason to try to prevent the Antichrist from starting Armageddon, or to try to save the Earth, or to try to prevent the War. Crowley had killed his best friend and he deserved to perish in the destruction.
He wasn’t going to try to escape. He was going to stay right here on Earth and wait for the end.
He might as well go out drunk.
Stumbling to his feet, he bent and picked up the unburned book from the floor, hissing at the thought that he probably didn’t deserve to have a souvenir of his lost friendship. Grimacing at the sound of shattering glass as another burst of water from the fire hoses smashed the windows upstairs, Crowley put on his broken sunglasses and headed for the door.
“Oh, the book shop!” Aziraphale exclaims after they’ve finished a second bottle of champagne at their table in the Ritz. “Can we go and see the book shop?”
Crowley’s stomach clenches. He’s not sure he’s ready to go back there yet. He saw it this morning before they were snatched by their head offices, but he was distracted by the surprise that the shop had been restored, plus he was focussing on holding Aziraphale’s form steady. But now they’re in their own bodies and hopefully not in any immediate danger, and he simply doesn’t want to go back to the shop any time soon.
“You go,” he tells Aziraphale. “I’ll see you later.”
“Oh, no, do come,” Aziraphale pleads and, as usual and despite his reluctance, Crowley can’t refuse him when he turns those stupid puppy dog eyes on him.
They pay the bill and Aziraphale is too full of anticipation to notice Crowley’s slower than usual stride as they walk through the streets to the shop. They reach the door and Aziraphale unlocks it and goes inside, gasping with joy as he walks to stand under the oculus and turn a full circle while he gazes around the shop, clasping his hands together and wriggling excitedly.
Crowley stops in the doorway, unable to bring himself to go inside. This morning it was bright sunshine outside and the shop’s interior was equally bright, but now it’s dusk and the light is too similar to when he went in when the shop was burning. He stands and stares with dread into the interior, barely registering Aziraphale’s excited chatter as he wanders through the stacks exclaiming in delight at certain sights and grumbling about other areas.
“Good lord, I’m going to have to re-catalogue almost the entire stock,” he says with a mixture of exasperation and anticipation. “It’ll take me months to get it all sorted out.” He pauses, realising where Crowley is standing. “Do come in, dear,” he tells him.
Hesitantly Crowley takes a couple of steps inside and closes the door behind him, turning the sign around to show that the shop is open. He’s hopeful that some customers might come in and then he can distract himself by being a bloody nuisance to them. He turns to face Aziraphale, who frowns when he sees his expression.
“Crowley, what on earth is the matter?” he asks.
Crowley feels like his head is about to explode. The shop looks perfect, maybe even better and cleaner than before, but all he can see inside his head is fire and smoke and ash and burned paper and that sodding candle and those sodding programmes ...
“I can’t be here,” he rasps. “This place, it’s ... I can’t ... It’s too much. I have to go.”
“Crowley, why?” Aziraphale says, his face a picture of confusion. “It hasn’t changed that much.”
“That’s the whole point!” Crowley yells, unable to contain his anguish any longer as he storms closer to his friend. “It’s like it was before ... before it burned down. And I know it’s fixed and cleaned up and it doesn’t smell of burning any more but I can’t ... I can’t ... Sod it, angel, I can still smell it.”
“You ... you were here when it burned down?” Aziraphale asks in shock.
Belatedly Crowley realises that he hasn’t yet told his friend that part of the story. “It was already on fire when I got here,” he confirms dully. “I’d just dealt with Ligur and Hastur and I figured you’d be in danger as well, so I drove over to try and get you.”
He looks away, haunted by the memory. “I tried to call you when I was in the car but you didn’t answer. Then I got here and the shop was burning and I assumed that someone – your lot, my lot, I didn’t know which – had set the fire deliberately, and I came in to find you. And I couldn’t find you.”
He rips off his sunglasses and tosses them away, feeling furious with himself when he can’t stop his hands from trembling. “I thought I’d lost you. The shop was burning and you weren’t here. I couldn’t sense you, I couldn’t smell you. I couldn’t find you. You were gone. And I wanted to know who did this to you, so I took time backwards and found the source of the fire. It was those stupid bloody musical programmes I dropped on the floor all those years ago when we were agreeing to raise the Antichrist together. They were what started to burn and set the whole shop off.” He pauses, tries to swallow back his anguish, but it surges up inside him and his voice gets louder. “It was my fault. My Fault. I chucked them on the floor and if they hadn’t been there the candle wouldn’t have rolled into anything and the shop wouldn’t have burned and I wouldn’t have thought you were dead and why the bloody Heaven don’t you tidy up occasionally? Satan’s sake, angel! Over ten years and you never picked up the programmes, you idiot. What were you thinking?”
He finally runs out of breath and buries his face in his hands. They’re still shaking.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale says softly. “Look at me.”
Crowley turns his back on him, his hands still covering his face. “I killed you,” he yells into his palms. “The shop burned and you died and it was all because of me. I killed you.”
“No, you didn’t,” Aziraphale tells him quietly. “It was an accident. If anything, it was as much my fault as anyone else’s.”
“No,” Crowley snarls. “I did this. You died ... discorporated ... because of me.”
Aziraphale steps closer behind him and takes hold of his arms. “Look at it,” he tells him gently. “It’s here. The shop is here. And I’m here. I’ll always be here.” His hands are still on Crowley’s upper arms, firm but gentle, the only comfort. “I won’t leave you. You have my word.”
Crowley lifts his head from his hands, still tense, still trembling, unable to calm himself down. He gazes across the shop but can’t get his eyes to focus. “Angel,” he says shakily. “I can’t stand it.”
Aziraphale tightens his grip on his arms and the shop blinds lower over the windows, the door sign flips to Closed and the door locks itself before the blinds drops over its windows.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Aziraphale tells him. “You know that, really. It was nobody’s fault. You have to let go. You can’t blame yourself like this. You’re harming yourself for no reason. Stop taking the blame for everything. Release it, Crowley. Let it out.”
Crowley shakes his head.
“Let it out, dear,” Aziraphale urges him gently.
“Can’t,” Crowley chokes, the tension inside him threatening to tear him apart. Let it out? It’s impossible. Over six thousand years of pain, betrayal, anguish, love, rage, loss, fury – if he lets it all out it’ll probably destroy the world.
There’s a tingle of power and the sound of Aziraphale’s wings manifesting behind him. The white feathers swoop around either side and then close in front of Crowley, blocking the view, leaving him staring wide eyed and agonised at a sea of white. Aziraphale steps closer behind him and wraps his arms around his shoulders. His voice is quiet but firm in his ear, encouraging and with a hint of compulsion.
“Let it out, Crowley. Let it all out.”
Fighting to keep control but finally unable to contain himself any longer, Crowley takes in a long breath and then screams.
The anguish pours out of him and everything that has ever hurt him streams into the air. His loss of God’s Grace, his terror as She abandoned him and sent him plunging downwards, his horror at becoming a demon and learning what he had to do repeatedly to humankind to avoid punishment from Hell, his shock throughout the centuries while realising that humankind could sometimes be even more cruel than Heaven or Hell, losing Aziraphale when he refused to understand why he needed Holy Water, losing Aziraphale when he refused to run away with him, losing Aziraphale in the book shop fire, the terror of the approaching apocalypse, the terror of Satan’s arrival, the fear that he would lose Aziraphale again when he was taken by the demons. Long after Crowley has expelled all the air from his human lungs, his demonic soul continues to scream. And Aziraphale holds him through it, his wings absorbing everything that Crowley screams into the world, muffling the sound, neutralising the poison and protecting the planet and the people from the demon’s anguish.
It feels like days later – it may well be days later – when Crowley finally manages to stop and haul a deep breath into his lungs. He closes his mouth and breathes out again. His mind and his body feel drained. He’s not sure if it’s a good feeling or not, and there’s still so much pain inside him, but for now he feels more in control of himself. He straightens up a little in his friend’s arms.
“Aziraphale,” he says weakly.
Then his knees buckle. Aziraphale’s arms tighten and support him, and the angel bends his knees and lowers Crowley downwards, sinking down with him and eventually sitting on the floor while turning Crowley so that he can cradle him in his arms and press the demon’s face into his shoulder. He holds him, rocking him gently when Crowley begins to weep exhaustedly, quietly crooning a wordless tune into his ear for minutes on end. Crowley eventually focusses and recognises it as the lullaby he used to sing to Warlock. He raises his head a little from Aziraphale’s shoulder.
“I’m not a baby,” he protests quietly.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Aziraphale tells him. He puts a finger under Crowley’s chin and tilts his head up until their eyes meet. “Are you back?” he asks him softly.
Crowley nods and snuffles, wiping his sleeve across his tear-stained face. “I’m a bloody useless demon, though,” he mumbles.
Aziraphale smiles. “Hello,” he says fondly. “My name is Aziraphale. I’m a bloody useless angel. I think we may have a few things in common. Would you like to be friends?”
Crowley chokes out a laugh. “Yeah, wouldn’t mind,” he says.
Aziraphale chuckles. “That’s nice,” he tells him. Unwrapping his arms from around his friend, he gets to his feet and holds a hand down to him. Crowley takes it and stands. Both of them pretend not to notice that they don’t release their clasp for several seconds, but eventually Aziraphale gently drops his hand and straightens his waistcoat.
“Drink?” he asks.
Crowley is about to agree but then realises that there’s something else he would like to do.
“No offence, angel,” he tells him, “but I’d like to go and see the car, take it for a drive. Want to come?”
“No offence, Crowley,” Aziraphale tells him, “but no, thank you.”
Crowley grins. “Coward,” he says affectionately. “See you tomorrow, then? Lunch?”
“Love to,” Aziraphale tells him.
“I’ll pick you up at midday,” Crowley says. He looks round the shop, no longer afraid at the sight of it. “Not a bad place, this,” he remarks. “Might come back some time.”
Aziraphale beams at him. “Come here any time you want,” he tells him.
“I’ll always come here,” Crowley confirms. He tempts fate and deliberately continues. “Over and over and over and over and over.”
Aziraphale holds his gaze. His smile is so bright that it could light several cities. “And over and over,” he adds.
Relieved that the use of the phrase hasn’t brought back his distress, Crowley gives his friend another grin, collects his sunglasses and leaves the shop. And if he cries again once he’s behind the steering wheel of the Bentley it’s not such a bad thing, especially because he feels as if soft white feathers are surrounding him and soft arms are wrapped around his shoulders and he can feel the soft warm breath of his best and only friend in his ear.
Aziraphale is alive and has promised never to leave him. Maybe Crowley does deserve to live after all.