Crowley opened his eyes, and screamed. Phantom pains from the holy water that had killed him washed over his body, and it was a full minute before his near-blank mind caught on to the fact that there wasn't really any pain at all. As he lay there without moving, slowly readjusting to reality, he began to be able to think again. And his first thought was:
He carefully raised himself on his elbow, and looked around, confused and bewildered. Not a living thing in sight, only grass and trees and open sky. He blinked. Wasn't he supposed to be in London? He looked down at his own body: naked and unmarred. But... that couldn't be. The memories were crystal clear. A group of low-ranking angels had attacked him; he would have fought them off with ease, but he had not known of the secret weapon they carried.
A shiver wracked his frame. He remembered the burning, the dissolving, the writhing in a kaleidoscope of sheer agony. The one thing that had not been spinning before his eyes had been another pair of eyes, blue and wide-open and filled with endless horror. He also remembered looking deep into those eyes before...
No. Not falling asleep. Dying. Being destroyed. The ultimate end. But then, how was he still here?
To his astonishment, he found that he didn't care one whit. Where he was, how he still was, none of this mattered. Other things were important now.
He got up, snapped his fingers, and was once more attired in an impeccable Armani outfit, complete with stylish sunglasses. It was then that he noticed the piece of paper under a rock at his feet. He stooped, picked it up, and unfolded it. There were two words on it, written in golden ink, in the tongue of Heaven and Hell.
He nodded, and the paper turned to ashes between his fingertips. There was a grim smile on his face as he started to walk.
It appeared that Someone, Somewhere, agreed with him.
After an hour or so, near the middle of the day, he reached a tiny village. Just some houses and shops arranged around a square, with a few narrow streets leading away from it. Nothing unusual about it, and Crowley would simply have passed right through, had his eye not fallen on an ancient-looking ruin at the edge of the village, some distance away from the other buildings. For some reason he could not explain, the sight filled him with deep dread, yet he was irresistibly drawn to it. There was something...
As soon as his fingers touched the worn stones, it was as though an electric shock went through him. Standing in the middle of the ruined walls, he could still feel it. The place vibrated of Aziraphale, shouted of him. But something had happened here, a long time ago, something dark and cold. Traces of it went tingling along his every nerve like a maddening fever-pulse, and he felt himself start to panic. Where was his...
"Young man, get away from there! That place is cursed!"
He spun round. It was an old woman who had spoken, looking at him with fear in her eyes. "Young man, you have to get away from there! It's dangerous!"
Reluctantly, even though the fading of the fever was a relief, he walked out from amid the stones, asked her, "Cursed? Dangerous? How do you mean?"
Still looking frightened, her voice low, she answered, "A very, very long time ago, that place, a bookshop I believe it was, was the home of one who was the Guardian Angel of this village - now, now, no need to start shaking, young man! But something very, very bad happened to him, no-one ever found out what. He set fire to the building, and left us all behind. Since then, everyone has shunned the remains, for as I said, we believe the place is cursed." She frowned, concerned. "Why, whatever is the matter, dearie? You look as white as a sheet! Do you need to sit down, have a drink of water?"
Crowley hurriedly composed himself, wiping his brow and forcing himself to stop trembling. "N-no, thank you, I'll be fine. Do you..." His voice failed him; he took a deep breath and tried again, "Do you know where this person is now?"
"What makes you think he's still alive?"
Crowley felt his blood turn to ice. "You mean... he isn't?"
The old woman sighed. "Well, yes. Yes, he's still alive. It's just not something people around here like to talk about."
Crowley had heard nothing beyond the 'still alive'. He's still on Earth. Thank Someone, he's still on Earth. "And do you know where he is or not?"
She shook her head. "No, that I don't, not exactly, anyway."
"But you do know something?" he pressed, straining himself to keep down his mounting impatience.
"Oh, only a few old rumours. But tell me, dearie, just to satisfy an old woman's curiosity, why are you so interested in finding him?"
"Never you mind why I am," snapped Crowley, fully at the end of his tether. "Where is he?"
The woman quickly stepped back, frightened. A burly-looking man grabbed Crowley's arm from behind. "Now listen here you, don't you go threatening old ladies like that."
A glare from behind black lenses, a hiss, and the man reeled back as though he'd stepped on a viper. Crowley turned back to the woman. "Well?" he asked, his voice dangerously calm.
Looking terrified now, she replied, "I... They say he still roams the countryside, to the north of here I think, but I'm not sure, we never see him around here anymore."
With a quick nod, Crowley began to walk away, but stopped, turned back to the old woman. "Please don't call me dearie, or anything like that. That word is not for you to say." With that, he quitted the village, leaving everyone staring after him, and the old woman muttering to herself about odd rude young folk.
Daylight was beginning to fade, and a light rain was drizzling down.
He saw him from afar, and immediately knew him. His own angel. He'd always been unmistakeable, since the beginning of time.
Crowley dashed forward at a speed he would not have believed possible, and closed the distance between them in less than thirty seconds. With a grin that was threatening to split his face in two, he clapped his hand on the other's shoulder, and spun him round.
Only to cry out at what he saw.
The same face, the exact same face, but ravaged beyond recognition. Old, old grey eyes stared at, no, through him, dull and lifeless as tarnished lead. They could still see, Crowley realised, aghast, but they no longer grasped...
"Angel," Crowley gasped. "Angel, what's happened to you?"
"Angel! Answer me! Don't you recognise me? It's me, Crowley!" Just how long have I been gone?
Still nothing, not even a blink of the eyes to acknowledge his presence.
"You bloody bastard, answer me! What's wrong with you?" Crowley shouted, shaking the other like a rag doll. Finally, in desperation, he struck him across the face. He might as well have lashed out at a wooden image for all the reaction he received.
Crowley's arms dropped to his sides, and he merely stared. At last, after what felt like a century, he stepped closer to Aziraphale, and took his face between his hands, covering the mark he'd left on the other's cheek.
"Oh, angel," he whispered, though he knew by now that he would get no answer, "what's happened to you?"
"Tha's not an angel no more, mate," said a scratchy voice from somewhere to the left.
Crowley let go of Aziraphale, and turned toward the source of the voice. A low-ranking demon, a mere imp, was standing some ten feet away, leering at them.
"What do you mean? What else would he be?" Crowley asked, taking a few steps forward.
The imp sniggered. "'E was a right 'oly one once, they say," he replied, "but 'e's one of us, now."
The world shattered like slow-motion glass, recombined itself all wrong, turned white, then black, then grey. Through a misty haze, Crowley peered at the imp.
"You 'eard me. 'E spat in the face of God, an' Fell. The Broken One, we calls 'im," he said, gesturing toward Aziraphale with his cigarette. "Been like that for, oh, a thousand years now, I reckon."
It took several moments for Crowley's devastated mind to fully seize the meaning of those words. When it did, he screamed in horror, and whirled round to face his angel, who was still just standing there, completely oblivious to all around him.
Crowley's heart was wrenched so sharply that it was a physical pain, like a knife being twisted slowly between his ribs. He wanted to run to his angel (angel?), take him in his arms and hide him, but he found that he was paralysed, feet rooted to the ground. No, he mouthed, for his voice was gone, strangled. No... But the truth was in those dead eyes.
The imp bent down and picked up a rock. "Want me to throw this at 'im?" he asked, idly tossing it up and down. "It won't exactly scare 'im off, 'cos 'e don't feel anythin', but it's fun to do. Kind of like a sport with us."
From grey, to crimson.
A violent spasm shook Crowley. Only now did he see the red marks on Aziraphale's face and neck, bright red, even through the dancing mist.
Crowley did not hear the imp's next words over the rushing of blood in his ears. His vision was flickering, and for one terrible second, he thought he was going to faint, for the first time in his existence.
Until that rock struck Aziraphale's temple.
Searching for another projectile, the imp said, "See 'ow much fun it is? Why not join in? Bet you 'e'd just stand there till 'e was stoned to..."
He never got to finish his sentence. Crowley had sprung at him, blind mad with fury. There was a sickening crack, and the imp lay very still on the ground, his spine snapped in half.
Crowley, mercifully numb inside and out, for now, walked back to Aziraphale, and took his hand, studiously ignoring how limp it felt in his. "Let's get you out of here," he said, and moved off, Aziraphale following docilely behind.