Gift for: bethbethbeth
Pairing: Crowley/Aziraphale if you squint
Summary: 'Home' was always one of those subjective words, of course.
Author's Notes: Not exactly a historical setting, but I hope it’ll do. Happy Holidays!
Above the third floor, the façade was starting to peel and crack - the gentle silvery shimmer of the shield bubble did little to hide how, above it, the roiling cloud of poisonous smog had stained the formerly pristine walls - but the Ritz was still among the foremost of the thousands of hotels in the city-state of London.
Although age rarely meant any more than frankly impractical height, there was something compelling about the fact that it was certainly one of the very oldest hotels, records stating that it had been established long before the Great War. It traced its origins back to when the ground London stood on had been made up of at least three different countries, before the Draining and subsequent building of the Southampton-Le Havre land bridge. Of course, records being what they were, almost precisely a quarter of the hotels in the city-state claimed just such a provenance, but there was something about the air of the Ritz that suggested it had been undisturbed for far longer than the exceptional upkeep might suggest.
There was one thing, however, that supported the Ritz’s quiet assertion (for it would never be so crass as to advertise such things). Unlike the majority of buildings in London, the Ritz laid claim to more land than was covered by its foundations; in fact, it boasted the very last ‘park’ on the planet (at least), except for those animated convincingly in the particularly advanced Vii-Rs. Quite how Green Park* came into the possession of the hotel at all was lost in the mists of time, but it made for a unique selling point and allowed the hotel to ask the most ridiculous of prices for even the smallest and most smog-bound of its rooms. Those on the ground, first and second floors came with a price tag that would make even the heirs to the Jobs fortune wince around their Botox, and a stay of more than a few days cost rather more than a luxury apartment in one of the Moon complexes.
It was considered worth the extortionate price tag, however. With more than one staff member per room in the hotel, and chefs good enough to make a nun swear (with her mouth still full), no business mogul would be considered worth dealing with until they had spent at least one night in a room that had remained almost entirely unchanged in the hotel’s long history.
One guest could tell you just where the changes had been made, actually. Could tell you about the extensive reconstruction, when those suites that could realistically be recreated were carefully moved from the penthouse floor to the first and second, every tile and elegant mahogany whatnot placed precisely as it had been. Could tell you, too, about the unfortunate Ming thing that had held pride of place in the lobby until a careless elbow in 1943, and could probably also tell you precisely where the shards had been hidden.
He wouldn’t, though.
Said guest was presently lounging on one of the beautifully upholstered blue settees in the Berkeley Suite, which he had been renting for rather longer than any of the staff members were able to remember, although much effort was expended to make sure that not a one of them ever noticed this fact. Loud music was playing; a famous conductor, passing in the corridor outside, paused a moment outside the suite’s door and listened greedily to what was obviously a very high quality (and most likely expensive) recording. It even had the gentle hiss, the soft pops that simulated ancient vinyl, which had been in fashion for a while around seventy years previously.
(In fact it actually was ancient vinyl, Beethoven’s 14th piano sonata picked up for a song and a dance and gold-plated banjo solo from Christies, and played on a distinctly unfashionable record player that had been bought in Woolworths some time in the mid 1970s.)
The elderly conductor moved on, and inside the suite the fluid run of piano notes somehow resolved themselves into a voice like a thousand flies buzzing gently in tune.
Crowley, it said, for that was the guest’s name.
“Dagon,” he acknowledged, picking up a pair of classic sunglasses from the side table and sliding them onto his nose. In years past – many, many years past – he’d always had a deferential sort of tone when Below chose to make its presence felt. Now he spoke with the vaguely bored voice of a colleague, perhaps even an equal. It would have been dealt with very swiftly indeed if Crowley had shown any sign at all of wanting a promotion; with the absence of even the slightest whiff of ambition, it tended to just make the other demons nervous.
Checking numbers, the voice continued sulkily. Wouldn’t want to find you were padding your figures. Thirteen in one morning?
“Cancellation of the express service,” Crowley told him distractedly, rummaging through one of the priceless vases for the wallet he was almost certain he’d deposited there. “Amazing how small a nudge it’ll take when they’re late for work.”
Hmm, Dagon buzzed, the flies yodelling particularly dubiously around the Adagio. Keep up the bad work then. Nice to see you so productive. A pause and then, half-hearted and for form’s sake more than anything, Remember, I’ve got my eyes on you.
“Sure,” Crowley said, unperturbed. “Ciao.”
He waved his hand and the music abruptly ceased. It was breakfast time, and that in itself was a large part of the reasoning behind the long-term renting of the rooms. People in hotels were so very suggestible before they’d managed to get through their first cup of coffee, the more so if they were aware of how much that first cup was costing them and therefore unlikely to stretch to a second. A freely offered carafe, a little conversation, a carefully worded question and someone far less talented could weasel their wallets out of their back pockets; he wasn’t after anything they valued nearly so highly.
There was something oddly satisfying, Crowley’d found, about filling your quota of souls for the day before you’d even got around to leaving home.
* and the attached St James’ of course, although very few people apart from the most dedicated of historians – one, in fact, and ‘person’ was a bit of a stretch at that - knew to discriminate between the two.
'Home' was always one of those subjective words, of course. Home was where you hung your hat, where - if you admitted to having one - the heart was; if you wanted to get technical about it, 'home' to Crowley was probably in a place far away, somewhere rather warmer of climate yet surprisingly not particularly popular with the tourists. If you wanted to get sentimental about it, though, claim home as a feeling or a state of being rather than the place you kind of wished you didn't come from - well, that got a little more difficult, frankly.
Crowley had lived all over. Literally, actually; the only habitable place he hadn't got around to living yet was at the South Pole. It wasn't that it didn't appeal - demons weren't cold-blooded, despite the interesting things they could do with their tongues, and there was something nice about the idea of being as far, weather-wise, from 'home' as he could get - it was more that there was nothing he could've come up with that would have topped what they could think of to do to each other, given enough time and proximity, given the entire winter in darkness.
It was difficult to say where he'd actually liked living most, since it'd take him at least a week to remember everywhere he'd been, but there was something about London that kept pulling him back. It was a place of such extremes, such decadence and cruelty and every now and again such unutterable grace that it almost gave him whiplash. It was ugly and beautiful, functional and ridiculous, sublime and creatively profane. It changed around him at dizzying pace, and still managed to hold his memories within it like the photo album of a perpetual loner. The only other familiar face belonged to Aziraphale, so much so that he almost expected to run into him around every corner.
Then there was Tadfield, which had never been home but likewise held his memories; it still tugged a little at his brain and his sinuses – more so, lately, like an itch somewhere in the back of his mind, a strange sort of throbbing that continued long after the Antichrist had not so much died as gone away.
The one place that had never even begun to feel like home to him, oddly, had been his flat in Mayfair. It was more a place in which he stored his things and terrified his houseplants, somewhere he went back to at the end of the day and waited until the people came out again. (London was not the city that never sleeps; around 4:45am it tended to have a little nap, and Crowley liked to follow its example.) Instead, home in London was an assortment of strange places: sushi restaurants where they remembered your name; Spitalfields market on a Sunday afternoon; a heave- wonderful smelling tea shop on Neal Street; a small dusty back room of a small unregarded bookshop, where the brass bell tinkled only when people mistook it for the more colourful place next door.
There was a hole dug out in Crowley where a heart ought to have been; he’d left his heart in San Francisco so he could make a space for this, London inhabiting his chest like a sort of harmless tumour along with everything (everyone) he associated with it.
It had sort of made the flat irrelevant.
Crowley hadn’t moved into the hotel directly, obviously; with the state of his investments at the time, that would have done for his resources in fairly short order. No – it’d taken the better part of two years before he’d admitted to himself that it apparently wasn’t reversible any time soon, before he’d stopped looking around nervously whenever he invested in any of the more morally dubious companies in case of a disapproving glance that he’d forgotten wouldn’t come. It hadn’t really been all that long after that, though, that he’d noticed his flat wasn’t nearly so appealing without a dusty back room to compare it to and the smugly superior feeling the comparison’d always brought.
The oddest thing about it, of course, had been the fact that Crowley hadn’t known right away. It felt rather as though he ought to have, like an angelic messenger should’ve come down and told him – or maybe, judging by the way his life had a tendency towards going, fetched him a good ding around the back of the head and pinned a note to his back while his ears were still ringing. He should have realised, is the point. Should have worked it out sooner than the discreet notice in the Telegraph, paid for by the local Women’s Institute, and wouldn’t Crowley have made a meal of that if anyone had been around to listen?
In memory of Ezra Fell, it’d said unobtrusively, in the quiet sort of typeface that suggests politely cleared throats and spotless embroidered hankies. Left us for Heaven, 16th of March.
Crowley’d laughed for a good ten minutes over that.
And then he’d read it over a couple more times, just to be sure.
It was all sort of a blur for a little while after that – it was a long time ago, of course. Made sense that he couldn’t remember a single moment when he’d decided that the angel wasn’t coming back, not any time soon at least, but it was about ten years after that when he’d bought the bookshop, just to have something to be sure of. The hotel had sort of made sense, then, and once the Official Damnations had started coming in from his superiors it’d seemed even more like a good decision all ‘round. Amazing how productive he could be, without distractions.
After another few years, he even stopped dropping by the bookshop, just to check.
The food at breakfast had been excellent as usual and the service likewise, if a little less attentive than he was accustomed to.
“I - of course we can bring another,” the Maitre d’ was telling a large gentleman as Crowley got up to leave; the man sounded unprecedentedly flustered. “If you’re sure you – “
His worried voice was lost in the gentle clatter of plates as another tray full of food emerged from the kitchen. Crowley carefully avoided the struggling waitress staggering in the direction of the glutton at table seven and headed for the front door, ignoring the really quite inappropriately lustfully locked couple by the grand staircase. What was the world coming to?
Taking a deep breath of the sterilized, slightly heavy air, Crowley turned – as was his habit – towards the nearest Tube station. Like hotel breakfast, public transportation had always seemed like a practical time-saving device, a means of tarnishing the largest number of souls in the shortest space of time, particularly when one factored in delays, construction, and whatever other subtle ideas lurked in the corners of Crowley’s mind.
There was, though, still a small part of him that whimpered faintly when he remembered his Bentley and the way she’d never been quite the same since the apocalypse. Inanimate objects were apparently unwilling to forgive and forget when they’d been set on fire and then bullied back into health; they tended to hold grudges deep in their workings, and she’d finally gasped and shuddered her way to a painful stop and stranded him outside the bubble for the better part of seventeen days before anyone happened to notice him. (He could have walked back, probably, might well have made it without irreversible damage, but he wasn’t so cavalier with his body as some, he’d thought snippily at the time.)
It was that part, though – the small, whimpering one – that grabbed him by the throat as he passed the dealership and demanded his loose change.
In a time when protection from the elements was the single most pressing need, public transport was subsidised to the hilt and personal transportation was the ultimate in luxury items. But Crowley – through extensively investing in many of the companies that had ended up causing this mess – could afford luxury items. And she was just beautiful.
The transport was shiny and black and… actually faintly clunky. Transports these days tended towards the low and sleek, everything about them suggesting speed and unnecessary expense until it was almost possible to see the oily sheen of exuded currency coating the bodywork. This vehicle certainly didn’t lack that sheen, but something about her lines was more traditional, oddly familiar, and he didn’t even need to see the winged B set discreetly on her bonnet to know her for what she was. His feet were carrying him up to the greasiest of the salesman before he’d even made a conscious decision to walk into the dealership.
Crowley’d had transports before. Obviously he’d had transports – it was very much a requirement of the job that he be all over, sooner or later, and you’d have thought he’d have relished the opportunity to really let loose on roads that barely saw traffic these days, but he’d found there was somehow something lacking; the joy of doing somewhere in the low hundreds of miles per hour had been diminished with the advent of suspension so good that you barely even noticed the astonished expressions of the mutated cows that you shot past. (Not to mention the fact that you could never tell if that was what they looked like anyway.)
That wasn’t the whole problem with them, though. There was always something faintly soulless about the transports, all with the same metallic smell that they shared with new minted coins and automatic weaponry. They all had the same soothing voice, too, the one that Crowley had commissioned for lifts in shopping centres, hold messages, sat navs. The gentle calming tones had probably caused more road rage incidents than any five other causes put together; it wasn’t just any demon, Crowley’d thought with satisfaction, that could cause road rage in a lift.
This beauty, though, this was different. The salesman made a show of unlocking the transport, sending Crowley a conspiratorial smile over the sheer novelty of doing things the old fashioned way, with a key and everything. He pulled the door open to a slightly musty smell on the inside that suggested it’d been stuck in one place for too long, with the gentle tickle in the back of the throat that always came to mind when people said ‘dust bunnies’.*
The interior wasn’t leather – processed cows never had quite the same feel to them, and started to liquefy after a couple of years – but was instead a heavy dark fabric that danced back and forth over the line between black and deepest twilit grey, depending on how the light hit it. Crowley lifted his sunglasses and squinted at a headrest that had, just for a second, somewhere amongst its shifting shades, held the barest of whispers of tweed.
Crowley eeled his way into the driver’s seat and scowled at the console – for nothing with as many knobs and dials and irrelevant lights could get away with being called a dashboard – and waited, as the salesman rounded the front of the car, for the first gentle admonishment about seat-belts.
When it spoke the voice was, instead of the blandly regionless female that Crowley’d been expecting, a male cut-glass English accent of the sort that had gone out of fashion while BBC announcers’ microphones were still bigger than their heads.
“Passenger door open,” it told him in gently remonstrative tones, and it brought on the bizarre urge to tuck his shirt in and make sure his fingernails were clean before it was replaced by the obsequious gloop that the salesman was busy ladling into his ear; the open-mouthed expression he’d been directing at the console swiftly shifted back into a scowl.
“I wish I had a transport like that,” a faint voice outside said enviously, as the salesman pulled the door shut behind him.
* He didn’t react as violently to the frankly unnerving term as he’d used to, not after Aziraphale’s face when he’d seen what’d happened to the bunny slippers malevolently lurking** behind the sofa.
** ’innocently left’
The CEO of one of the companies responsible for Crowley's current grin - of one of the companies that he had invested in heavily, in fact, the ones that allowed him to live and corrupt in such luxury – was actually in the place that had been weighing on the demon's mind. The borough of Tadfield was about as far off the beaten track as it was possible to get, and that had been rather its appeal; the last illness had been a difficult one, had been commonly thought to be, in fact, the last illness, and Tadfield had been chosen for its lack of - well, almost anything. They'd managed to find accommodation for him in somewhere fitting, although he was rarely awake to enjoy it - the bed was splendid, though, and that was something he could really get behind.
He was currently drifting vaguely somewhere between sleep and waking; aware of the remarkably soft cotton of his bed clothes and the gentle murmur of his good for nothing daughter just low enough not quite to be understood, but able also to cling on to the barest of dregs of dreaming, tangled between the tips of his fingers. They felt like cold sand that had been left unwashed by dead seas for too long, lonely beneath distant stars. And that was a lot more poetic than he tended to go in for, so he squinted around suspiciously for whoever’d put the thought into his head.
"Hello?" he said, only the daughter, who was attentive to the point of smothering now that there was the scent of a Will, didn't stop her soft conversation for even a moment. He couldn't really have been speaking; it felt stangely like he ought to have gotten an answer, though, like the space had been built around someone and was waiting for them to come back. He frowned a little, buried his fingers deeper into the ancient sand, and settled in to wait.
The test drive left the salesman looking greyer than his imitation designer suit, clinging white-knuckled to the door, but for Crowley it just confirmed what he’d already suspected: it was love. The Bentley’s suspension was such that eighty miles an hour had felt almost like they were about to take off, the gentle reminder about speed limits from the car and the terrified whimpering from the passenger seat going unnoticed as Crowley pushed her to go even faster. By the time they got back to the dealership, Crowley was grinning wider than he had in longer than he cared to remember, and the salesman didn’t even ask before making his wobbly (but transparently relieved) way to the office to fetch the paperwork.
Crowley stroked his hands gently over the steering wheel, his grin melting into an expression that felt even less familiar, something close to nostalgia; it was reflexive to turn to the passenger seat when a voice – as fond as it was familiar – broke the silence.
“You really are so very predictable,” it said, and Crowley stared blankly at the empty seat for a long moment before he almost sprained a muscle snapping his head around to look at the console.
“What?” he said blankly. “Wait. What?”
“Passenger door open,” it told him blandly.
Crowley blinked – an act almost entirely unprecedented – and it took the salesman three tries to get his attention long enough to get the paperwork signed.
After he’d managed that, buying the car was a relatively simple process; it was amazing how willing people were to settle things quickly when you were able to pay the asking price in full directly. Crowley got the impression that they’d really have liked to give him the red carpet treatment, could see the owner practically itching to drag him back to the office and offer him a bottle of something almost – but not entirely – unlike champagne. It would’ve taken a hell of a lot more than that, though, to get him to get out of the Bentley now.
“You won’t have a problem with it, my personal guarantee,” the salesman told him before he left, leaning through the window and smiling with an oily sort of glint. “It’s a source of pride to us that our customers are one hundred percent satisfied.” He nodded and repeated himself softly. “A source of very great pride.”
“Pride,” said Crowley uneasily, “yeah.”
It was weird, he thought as he drove away; there’d been something a little too intense in the salesman’s voice at the end there. Something a little too like religious fervour for him to be anywhere near comfortable.
Crowley eventually stopped off at a drive-thru Caffeine shop, ordering a couple of cups of what really ought to have been bland, flavourless energy drinks, but what turned out to be a faintly surprised USA* roast and a frankly gobsmacked cup of tea.** The latter he placed in a cup holder directly beneath one of the vents, and the rising steam was displaced by a breath of air conditioning that sounded suspiciously like a gently satisfied sigh.
“I’m not going mad?” he said after a minute’s internal debate, directing his question at the screen of the sat nav, considering it rather better than talking into thin air. “I mean, it really is you?”
There was a moment’s terrifying silence. Then the car spoke.
“I shouldn’t like to judge before all the facts are in, my dear. After so long I’m not nearly qualified to assess your mental state; not that everyone’s not entitled to a funny five minutes here and there of course, but – “
“Angel,” Crowley growled, heart in his throat.
“But yes,” the voice concluded, in the same matter-of-fact tone it’d used for normal things, non-completely-mindbending things, like seatbelts and tyre pressure and the breaking of seventeen separate driving-related laws. “It’s me.”
*United States of Africa
**Tea had never really taken to life under a bubble the way it’d been hoped, and had disappeared off the radar entirely over a century earlier. Crowley’d always suspected that the tea plants considered things too newfangled, these days. (And he blamed the angel for that train of thought entirely.)
The thing about Heaven, Aziraphale didn’t really need to explain*, was that if one happened to inconveniently lose corporeality through an unfortunate encounter with a runaway elephant, or bus, or old lady with a heavy bicycle and poor night vision**, then it was considered that one had had one’s chance. It wasn’t like Hell, of course. At least it was possible to stay occupied Below, with the torturing of damned souls or – he sounded slightly less certain – bureaucracy related admin, possibly? There was more to do, when it came down to it, than floating about with all the souls who had already managed to win the celestial game of whist, feeling faintly smug. Aziraphale imagined that there was rather less of a queue for the corporeal, Below.
“Don’t believe it, angel,” Crowley said wryly. “Never underestimate the appeal of just getting out of Hell.”
“Ah,” Aziraphale said, sounding rather uncomfortable. “I suppose that accounts for the recent productivity on your part? Laying claim to the post, and so on?”
Crowley rather pointedly said nothing, and Aziraphale went hurriedly back to his explanation.
It seemed that there had been some anomalies, lately. Inconsistencies in numbers, a marked rise on Hell’s scorecard that couldn’t be entirely explained away by – er - anyone’s apparent zeal. There was certainly no Apocalypse pending, since Aziraphale rather thought that at least one of them might have been informed of that, but there were enough oddnesses about goings on that he had apparently been drafted due to being an old hand at such things. Unfortunately, due to the temporary nature of these events, they hadn’t managed to spare one of the prefabricated bodies, and Aziraphale had never been comfortable with vessels and possession and so forth.
“It’s rather like wearing someone else’s pyjamas,” he informed Crowley primly. Crowley decided that for the sake of his sanity, already more than a little strained, it was probably better not to ask how he knew.
“So,” he said instead. “You’re back because of – what? A disturbance in the Force?”
“You really are quite odd, aren’t you?” the stereo asked him wonderingly. “It’s not just me?”
“Says the car,” Crowley said sarcastically. “Besides which, don’t even pretend you haven’t seen Star Wars. I wasn’t the one who got us chucked out of the cinema for yelling at Lando.”
“Hmmph.” A vent let out a gentle huff of air that smelled strangely of dust and old paper, then mumbled something about simplistic notions of good and evil.
“You’re telling me,” Crowley muttered, then spun the wheel into a U-turn so patently flouting several laws – not least of which were those of physics - that it was actually a good few minutes before Aziraphale could get much beyond protesting sputters.
“What was that?” Aziraphale eventually managed shakily – although that might have been down to the way the transport was vibrating with speed.
“Got an idea what’s going on,” Crowley said absently as he coaxed the car around a hairpin bend. “Thing is, there’s not many powerful enough to actually do it.”
“So we’re going – “
“To find one of them.” There was a long pause, and Crowley pushed his sunglasses a little further up his nose.
There was a gentle sound, and it took a moment to register as throat-clearing and not something protesting in the engine.
“I – rather thought you’d need a little more persuasion,” Aziraphale said, a little hesitant.
Crowley shrugged, his voice deliberately blank.
“It’s not like I don’t remember what you’d say anyway,” he said.
The journey after that was largely silent and, for the most part, uneventful; Crowley refused to pull over for a closer look at the road rage incident, no matter how gently Aziraphale tried to ease on the brakes.
“Wrath,” he said instead, and pressed a little harder on the accelerator.
* But did, anyway; there wasn’t a lot of idle chatter in Heaven. Crowley let him talk because it gave him an excuse to keep driving the Bentley aimlessly, and absolutely not in any way because he’d missed the angel’s voice.
** ”And was it –?“ Crowley asked, as innocently as he could manage.
“No,” said Aziraphale heavily, finally, and Crowley made note to ask about it at the least convenient time available. Possibly corporeality and the consumption of hot liquids ought to be involved.
The job market in Tadfield hadn’t exactly been the main reason that had persuaded her to move here, but Zinzi Thomas was really starting to regret taking this job in particular as she clapped her hands together and stamped her thin-soled shoes. It was far colder than it ought to be at this time of year, and strangely specific - it felt like someone was breathing chilled air against the back of her neck, the skin of her wrists where her sleeves were just too short to touch the edge of her gloves, her face above the scarf she'd wrapped high over her mouth and nose. When she looked, though, there wasn't even a trace of movement in the leaves on the trees.
She shouldn’t be here. Security hadn't exactly been a passion of hers; she'd always wanted to be a hairdresser, actually, but her mother had insisted on A-levels instead of training, had forced her into precisely enough education to be over- or under-qualified for every job she'd ever thought about applying for.
This one'd been easy to get, though, even with her lackadaisical approach to handing in application forms, to actually looking for a job. It'd appealed to her sedentary nature; just a couple of circuits of a house every hour or so, the rest of the time tucked up safely with a cup of tea and a bank of monitors to keep an eye on, nothing more challenging than that.
It bemused Zinzi, what they could have in this place that needed so much protection; they didn't seem to occupy much more of the place than the old library, the old man accompanied for the most part by his nurse except for the hour or so that his daughter visited each day. (She'd been the one that had hired Zinzi, and apart from the interview they'd not really had much contact. There was something about her that convinced Zinzi this was a good thing.) There were probably some antiques in the place, but everything was covered in such a thick coating of dust that it was impossible to tell what was worth anything, and it would probably be more trouble than it was worth to find out. Whatever it was had to be in the library and she'd poked her head in once or twice to see, but apart from the old man and the huge mirrors in one corner there was nothing aside from old books, and who'd pay her wages to protect those?
Zinzi shrugged her shoulders up around her ears, unwilling to expend the energy on extending the train of thought any further. It didn't seem worth it, frankly. To tell the truth, she wasn't sure she could be bothered continuing the circuit around the outside of the building, not when there didn't seem a point to her being there. She considered returning to the room she'd been sat in, the high stool and ranked monitors and the kettle that was waiting, but it was so much effort, when the driveway was a flat surface and so much closer…
Aziraphale managed to hold his tongue – metaphorically, obviously – while parked by the shore where Crowley stood and watched the sea lapping greasily at the shield bubble, even the silver sheen not enough to disguise the sickly-rainbowed brown of it. He kept his silence through what remained of Manchester, where the shielding technology hadn’t quite managed and Crowley had to manufacture a compelling distraction to get past the guards at the gate in the double-reinforced steel walls that had taken its place.
Apparently the rutted track to the rubbish tip that now took up the majority of what had once been Essex was the final straw, though. First the indicator lights started blinking annoyingly, like the tap of a restless foot, then the windscreen wipers twitched; he'd never been able to stay still when he'd had a body, either, not if there'd been something he'd wanted to know. Crowley grinned a little to himself, determinedly shrugging off the faintly sick feeling that Manchester had left, and tapped a gentle rhythm on the steering wheel just to be annoying.
"Well?" An exasperated voice asked eventually, impatience evident in the way the steering wheel pulled against Crowley's hands; so far the angel had mostly let him drive.
"Well I'd hoped that - ha!"
Crowley left the engine running - it was only appropriate - and leapt out of the car, forging his way over a pile of threadbare tyres towards where a small white-hatted figure in a fluorescent jacket directed rubbish trucks towards a dumping ground, one that was edging worryingly close to one of the few clear spaces left, so far untouched because of the reasonably clear brook that flowed across it.
"Mr White, I presume?" he called breathlessly as soon as he was within hailing distance; the young man looked around, white hard hat slipping forward a little over colourless eyes and revealing more of the dirty white-blond hair that had grown long enough to hang over his collar.
"I should get rid of him, Bianco?"
The speaker was tall - quite a bit taller than Crowley, actually, and the fact that her occupation involved lugging bits of furniture, ancient appliances and the remains of transports was pretty clear from the breadth of her shoulders. And yes, Crowley was a demon, but there was such a thing as advisable caution; broken limbs were always so inconvenient. He stopped a little way off and gave a small wave, trying to look as trustworthy as a man in snakeskin shoes could manage.
“Mr Crowley’s good people,” currently-Bianco said, then giggled softly at the irony. “From another life, you might say.”
The bin person - cleanliness maintenance technician? - nodded and moved to a wary distance, and Bianco stepped closer. (Or Albus, or Chalky; whatever name you referred to him by, it left the same unpleasant taste on the tongue.) Crowley shifted his weight as the muck under his feet moved in a sort of gentle slithering that made it feel suddenly horribly unstable; made it feel almost alive. Hungry.
"I'm not here to - " He cleared his throat. “Bygones, and all that. Sewerage under the conduit, or something. We've got no unfinished business here, am I right?"
"And yet, weirdly, I don't trust you." Bianco smiled slowly, teeth shockingly stained against his chalk-white skin. He glanced over at the car, silhouetted against the neon sunset; say what you like about the guy, Crowley thought grudgingly, he'd done a lot for the aesthetics of evenings. Bianco snorted out a laugh and looked back at Crowley, unsettlingly pale eyes considering.
"Incompetent magician," he said.
Crowley frowned. "...sorry?"
Bianco leaned forward and lowered his voice, conspiratorial. "You've a pigeon trapped in your glove box," he said, the faint waft of his breath making Crowley wince.
"I suppose that's one way of putting it," he said, agreeably, managing to talk almost normally around his stomach, which was making a concerted bid for escape through his mouth. "An incompetent magician, too."
Bianco removed his hard hat, shaking out his white hair, looking - in spite of the fluorescent jacket - nothing even close to human. Crowley swallowed hard and took a careful step back, his shoe slithering over the side of a discarded bottle and jarring him painfully.
"Seems the two of you together wasn't ssso good for me, lassst time," Pollution said, with a slimy hiss to his voice that put Crowley's best effort to shame.
"But this is different," Crowley insisted, hands out for balance as the heap shifted again, starting to close over the tops of his shoes. "It's not like - I only want information, honest, I'm not trying to - like I could, anyway, the way you've managed to get a hold on this place." His voice broke into an embarrassing sort of squeak at the end, and a laugh bubbled out of Pollution like noxious gases out of garishly coloured barrels.
"It'sss true, that." He turned and looked out over the heaped mounds of rubbish, the mountain range of broken transports to the East, the shimmering lake of TV screens glinting in the dying sun in the West. His silhouette solidified a little against the sunlight, and when he turned around he looked almost human again, just about forgettable. "It's probably why War and Famine're acting out," he said wisely, patronisingly, like he wasn't their youngest by far. "Hate having to admit that I'd clearly won."
"So it is them, then, bringing on the Sins," Crowley said flatly, with the resignation of a demon who'd faced worse than this before but really hadn't been thinking his luck could ever be so bad again. "Not just one or the other."
"It's a kind of courtship ritual, I suppose," Pollution said in a dreadful oily sort of over-friendly tone, like they were discussing the foibles of mutual friends. "It's difficult to say it with flowers when you're us; saying it with corpses has always been so much more effective."
"What, arranging them into the shape of the letters, sort of thing?" Crowley asked absently, his brain entirely too occupied with the images to pay much attention to what his mouth was saying.
"Well no," said Pollution, but he was sounding thoughtful; probably pondering how best you could manufacture an 's'.
"So – “ Crowley shook his head and tried to get back on track. “So up until now they've just been occupying themselves then?" He started to carefully extract one foot and then the other, trying not to rest too much weight on any one spot. It was lucky he was so bendy, really. "I mean, it seems weird they've waited this long since the Apocalypse to make a move."
Pollution considered him for a long moment, his head tilted to one side.
"You're tougher than you look - "
Crowley blinked. "Thank - "
" - like grease stains on glasses."
" - you. Er."
"I - suppose?" Crowley considered starting to edge towards the car; it'd probably be the last move he ever made, but this was starting to sound a little too much like a compliment for his tastes, which had never - to be quite frank - run towards the personification of waste products.
But then Crowley froze in astonishment, as Pollution told him what was actually going on.
On to Part II