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For Five More Minutes

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The most talked-about show on the West End runs once a week, if that; it’d take a real miracle to be assured of good seats.

Fortunately, when one is a retired demon looking to enjoy the human-created delights of the world one helped save from utter obliteration, that’s the simple bit. It’s always been easy to talk Aziraphale into going to the theatre,* and now they don’t even need the excuse of business as a cover for basking in each other’s company. It’s an afternoon show, so they can linger over an early lunch, pop down to the theatre, and then linger over dinner afterward, if they feel like it.

(*With the exception of The Sound of Music, as between the Almighty’s soft spot and the Archangels’ complete misinterpretation of the material, he was already mind-numbingly familiar with it by the time it hit a local stage.)

Besides, Crowley wouldn’t miss this one for anything. The ladies of the Tudor court were far more interesting than old Henry, to a one, and it’s past time someone actually gave them their due. It’ll be a lark of a Saturday afternoon.

Or so he thinks, right up until the show starts. Then the lights come up not on actors, but half a dozen ghosts, and he completely understands why the performance schedule is so erratic.

“How the entire fuck,” he says, under the cover of applause for the first number.

Aziraphale shrugs. “I was going to ask you, dearest. Still, perhaps it’s just as well they’ve been afforded this chance.”

Maybe halfway through the show, Crowley decides fuck it, he’s going to say hi afterward. At least one of them won’t remember him fondly, but Aziraphale can keep her occupied, and maybe some of the others will.

***

Anne lives for the stage-door crowds. (She does on the days she can handle being subjected to public scrutiny, anyway, but the days she can’t are part of why their performance schedule is so erratic; this is shaping up to be a very fun way to work through their trauma, but that can’t change the fact that Henry was a walking traumatic experience.) It gives her a chance to actually see the audience, since she can’t very well do that with a face full of electric stage lights. None of them believe this is autobiographical content, of course, but Anne can’t blame them for that.

There are days she can’t believe she’s here to do this, herself.

She’s made it a habit of assessing the crowd size before they all properly charge out to greet people, after Jane and Kitty panicked on seeing the gathering after their first performance. Tonight’s not too bad, but she catches sight of a weirdly familiar face lurking toward the end, and ducks back inside. That could be trouble if left unattended, and contrary to popular belief, she doesn’t always go looking for trouble.

Fortunately, her best hope at damage control is still in the dressing room when Anne checks, wiping off the ridiculous amounts of stage makeup they need to not look like the ghosts they arguably are. “Oh, good, I could use your help with something, Anna.”

“That depends on the mischief, love, you know that.”

“Why does everyone always assume it’s mischief? And this time it isn’t, it’s a stage-door thing. There’s someone at the back of the queue that… I’m not sure, but if I’m right, Catalina wouldn’t take kindly to seeing him again. Think you could help keep her distracted?”

Anna raises an eyebrow, meeting Anne’s eyes via the makeup mirror. “Not someone all of us wouldn’t take kindly to seeing?”

“I wouldn’t be half this calm if our mutual nemesis was out there, and anyway, if he turned up I really doubt he’d show his face after.” She wants nothing more than to rule out Henry darkening the theatre doors, but - well, they’re all here to begin with, against all odds, so she can’t. “Get Jane to help you if you need it. I just don’t want this to ruin a good night. Please?”

“If she sees this person anyway, I make no promises, but I’ll do what I can. How do I know who we’re avoiding?”

Anne grins. “I fully intend to head right for him.”

And she does, as quickly as she can without blowing off the rest of the night’s audience, stealing glances down the queue when she can and trying to picture the possibly-not-a-stranger in court dress. It would have been black then, as he seems to favor now; everyone always took it to mean he was in mourning. The hair would have been styled differently, too, but it’s the same vivid red she remembers, nearly as bright as Lizzie’s. It could, of course, be some distant descendant, but the dark glasses really have her wondering. Surely it wouldn’t all come together like this just to be a coincidence.

When she reaches the end of the queue, the maybe-stranger says, “An entertaining time as always, milady,” and lowers his glasses just enough to wink at her properly. It’s exactly who she thought it was; those golden eyes are distinctive, if less visible from behind modern lenses than the ones he used to wear.

“I do try, Sir Anthony, you know that. So, does this mean Catalina was right and you were a fiend sent from the pits of Hell to ruin her marriage?”

“Well, it had nothing to do with her marriage, as such, and more taking advantage of the instability the Reformation was causing, but she was more right than she knew. The risk of hearing it from her again was worth it for the rest of you.”

Anne laughs. “Good thing I had a look at the crowd before we got going, then. I’m hoping to keep her busy with other people. Though if she was on to something, you wouldn’t happen to know how we ended up here again, would you?”

“Not the foggiest fucking notion. Last I checked, it shouldn’t even be possible - reincarnation can slip through the cracks now and again, but that’s to a different body entirely, nothing like this. I guess if anyone’s going to be an exception, it might as well be you ladies beating him at his own game.”

“How do you figure we’ve done that, aside from pretending we all had sense?”

“You always were more interesting than the small-dicked petty tyrant who blamed everyone else for his own shortcomings,” Sir Anthony says. “As for you in particular? Your church and your daughter, that’s how.”

“It… does sound like Lizzie did well for herself, in the long run.”

“Every inch her mother’s kid, too. You should be proud.”

“Oh, I am.” Anne smiles, because it’s that or start sobbing. “I just wish I’d been there to see it happen.”

***

Kitty usually trails in Anne’s wake, when dealing with the stage-door crowds. It’s fun, sure, but this show is emotionally exhausting every time they do it (worthwhile, but no less difficult), and leaning on her cousin’s bubbly, chaotic personality helps her not go to pieces in front of all these strangers.

Well. More pieces than she does during her solo, anyway.

Today, she needed a moment before going out there, so she arrives to find the crowd somewhat dissipated and the others already scattered among whoever’s left. Cathy may not even be here any longer, but she usually leaves first. Anna and Jane are flanking Catalina, and talking to a portly blond gentleman in a beige suit. Anne’s at the far end of the queue, deep in conversation with someone wearing quite a lot of black.

Nothing for it but to brave the gauntlet, then, so Kitty does. Luckily, the people who are left are pretty subdued, which is a balm on days like this.* Rather than try to shoehorn into a four-way conversation, she makes her way toward Anne.

(*What Kitty’s not considering is that the fans remaining at this point are the ones who wanted to talk to her. She’d find the idea baffling, if she thought about it; she’s not as interesting as Anne or Cathy, and doesn’t have Catalina or Anna’s force of personality, and Jane’s reputation survived Henry more or less intact. She’s just a teenager who never really had a chance.)

As she closes in, the stranger’s saying, “Frankly, I’m surprised any of you can handle doing this kind of performance at all.” Kitty frowns, not because they’re wrong (they’re completely right, and she feels like she’s weighing the group down on really bad days), but because their cadence is familiar. Not to mention, whoever this is, they’re accepting the show as autobiographical fact, where most people think it was scripted and handed off to actors.

“There’s a reason we schedule weekly shows and call them off with abandon,” Anne says. “Sometimes it’s wonderfully cathartic. Other times… not so much. We honor the tickets for the canceled shows where we can, and what are people gonna do, call for our heads?” Then she sees Kitty lurking, and pulls her around to join the conversation before she can protest. “Kit, perfect timing, I don’t know if you ever would’ve met--”

“Lady Crowley?” Kitty blurts out, before she can think better of it. Now that she’s got a good look at this person, it’s not just the way they talk that’s familiar - it’s the cheekbones, and the dark glasses, and the sheepish smile in response to her faux pas.

“Hi, Kathy. You can drop the ‘Lady,’ we’re not exactly in court anymore.”

Anne looks from Crowley to Kitty and back again, and bursts out laughing. “Oh, that’s clever. Slipped past him wanting to throw out everyone who thought I was a good idea and into something more comfortable, did you?”

“I felt like a change, is all. And knew how to get him to look right past me.” Crowley sighs, and turns back to Kitty. “Anyway, I… may kind of owe you a bit of an apology.”

Kitty blinks. “I can’t think what for. Without your advice I would have made - well, more of a fool of myself in court than I did.”

“Yeah, but I was indirectly responsible for what happened when you got there. ‘You’re the king,’ I said, ‘why should you have to wait for the pope’s say-so if you want a divorce so badly?’ And he took it way farther than I ever thought he would. The schism would’ve been plenty of trouble on its own, no need to wreck at least eight women’s lives in the process.”

“Eight?”

“Maria and Lizzie,” Anne says. “They managed all right in the end, but it wouldn’t have been the same if Henry had known what restraint looked like.”

That’s easier for Kitty to get her head around than the notion of someone apologising for what she’s been through. Anne, Cathy and Anna tell her she can and should be angry about it all, and Catalina and Jane are too generous in picking up the pieces when Kitty breaks hard, but regret? That’s a new one.

“And for the record, I never met those first two.” Crowley’s all but hissing, which used to happen when they got angry (some things never change, Kitty supposes). “If I had, they would have seen consequences, especially that fucking waste of oxygen Mannox. You were too young and he blessed well knew it.”

“I - there’s nothing to forgive,” Kitty says, because she feels like she ought to say something. “I know who’s to blame, and it was never you. Most days, I even know it wasn’t my fault.”*

(*Believing it wasn’t her fault is still difficult, but Kitty figures she has time to work on that.)

“Even so, it was never meant to get that out of hand. And the time being what it was, I never got to tell you what I really wanted to.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t need his permission to be remarkable. You never did.”

It’s the conclusion Cathy led them all to early on, the one they pretend they reached for real at the end of every show - but something about hearing it from someone else breaks the (very weak) dam that’s been keeping Kitty’s tears at bay all day. Anne pulls her into a hug, and she’s only vaguely aware of Crowley taking their leave, to say nothing of the trip home.

Once the storm passes, though, she feels oddly better. Maybe she never had a chance before, but she has one now, and no one can stop her from taking it.