The Enemy of My Enemy (is Still an Enemy, Just a More Useful One)
"Crowley, are you sure about this?" Aziraphale asked for what had to be the third time in at least the last ten minutes. If his hands hadn't been occupied with holding a torch aloft in the darkened cavern, Crowley was certain the angel would have been wringing them fretfully.
He rolled his eyes, forgetting for a moment that with his sunglasses on, the angel wouldn't see it. He considered taking them off and rolling his eyes again, just to make sure Aziraphale knew how tiresome he was being.
"Ngh," he muttered in vague assent. "It's here somewhere." Crowley wrinkled his brow, half-glancing at his companion. "You really can't feel that? This place, it's just… rolling in hate."
"Rolling" was perhaps not the word to best describe the cavern. It was a cavern. It did not roll, so much as hold very, very still as stone typically does. There was, however, a definite feeling about the place. The negative energy was so oppressive that the demon believed it might suffocate them both, except for he was apparently the only one affected.
"I'm sure I wouldn't know," Aziraphale sniffed, though his gaze was wary as he brandished the torch. "I'm an angel. We're beings of love-"
"Yes, that's all well and good. But I'm telling you, there's something here. Something that oughtn't be."
"Something demonic, perhaps?"
"Naw. This is different. It's…" Crowley scrambled for the best descriptor before settling simply for, "Older."
It gave him the creeps, truth be told, and he was used to hate and evil and darkness. This felt different from Hell, though, and more troubling was that it was here on Earth. Crowley had only found it by accident while in Turkey for a quick spot of mischief—as well as a very minor miracle, per the Arrangement with Aziraphale. There was something here, something oozing malice, and he'd tracked the source to this cavern before prudently deciding it might be nice to have backup this time.
Besides, if this wasn't demonic, and it certainly wasn't angelic, then it stood to reason it was a threat to both sides and the humans. It only made sense that Aziraphale do his part to help. It wasn't because Crowley felt better with an ally he could trust implicitly, or because the light of the angel's mere presence was in any way a weapon against the evil here. Nothing like that.
"Perhaps I ought to report this to the Proper Authorities," Aziraphale persisted, in that tone of voice that people reserved for when they knew that was the correct answer but were only saying it because someone ought to make a good show of things.
Crowley snorted. "What, you mean Gabriel? Fat lot of good that would do. What are you going to report when we don't even know what it is?"
Aziraphale didn't have an answer to that, so he contented himself to frown disapprovingly at the demon.
Ignoring this, Crowley came to a halt as they found themselves at last inside a vast open space within the caverns. He glanced around warily, then realized he'd taken several steps back. "It's in here," he whispered with thudding heart. The sheer amount of evil emanating from the cavern stole his breath. "Angel, it- it's here."
Aziraphale tutted and held his flickering torch aloft. His eyes looked worried, though, as he turned back to Crowley. "But this place is empty. My dear, are you sure you aren't-"
"I'm telling you, it's coming from in here!" Crowley raised his own light and swept his gaze over the walls. He couldn't see anything else, either, but… "Wait, what's that, then?" He nodded to something on the far wall that flickered as the light passed over it, almost too dim to see. Together, he and Aziraphale hurried over to inspect what seemed to be a symbol carved into the rock wall.
Crowley inhaled sharply and jerked back. "That's it. Whatever this thing is, all the feeling is centered around that thing." He studied it for a second before making a sound of exasperation. "But I've never seen that symbol before."
"I… I have," the angel murmured. He held out a hand but didn't touch. "In a book. A very old book. It's the sign of the First Ones."
"The first what ones?"
"Just that. The First Ones."
"Now listen," Crowley snapped impatiently. "You can't be called the 'first ones' unless you're a thing to be firsts of. Are we talking monsters, or-"
"Oh, Crowley, I don't know!" Aziraphale protested. "I don't know what they are or what they look like, only that they were here first. Before demons or angels. They're as old as the archangels, I believe."
Crowley cocked his head. "How'd anyone write a book about 'em, then?"
Aziraphale harrumphed but didn't answer. He didn't know the answer. Crowley had an unfortunate habit of asking lots of questions that Aziraphale didn't have answers to, but felt that he ought.
"According to the book," he went on as though he hadn't heard. "The archangels were the only ones strong enough to keep these First Ones contained. Back as recent as the time of the garden, they were still trapping the last ones here on Earth and imprisoning their energy since they couldn't be killed. Because they were a threat to mankind, you see."
"Not to mention angels and demons."
"Quite right. Which means this is likely one of those prisons, meant to be sealed up by archangel magic to keep the First One locked away."
"This cavern? This one here? ...The one you and I waltzed right into?"
"Er," Aziraphale said. "Well, yes."
"If it's sealed with archangel magic, how did we get in?"
"Er," the angel replied again. Yet another uncomfortable question that he had no good answer to. "I suppose because the seal is broken." Had there been better lighting in the broad cavern, Crowley might have been able to see how pale Aziraphale had just gone. He was quite a brave little angel, but the idea of a primordial evil who even an archangel couldn't kill was enough to make the bravest of angels a tad nervous.
"The humans have been doing excavating type… things… not far away," Crowley murmured, now running his hands over the wall in search of cracks or other symbols. "Maybe they disrupted the seal somehow."
The demon spun around in time to see two things. First, the symbol carved into the wall was now alight and glowing a sickly neon green like radioactive slime, and that green Stuff was shooting out of it towards him.
Second, Aziraphale was also shooting towards him, tackling him out of the way of the Stuff. The green ooze latched onto the angel instead, now where Crowley had been a second before, and he was soon engulfed in it.
"Angel!" Crowley grabbed Aziraphale's wrist, avoiding the ectoplasm-like material that cocooned him, and pulled for all he was worth. It did no good; the Stuff, the First One, had tethered itself to the wall and Aziraphale and seemed to have no intention of letting him go. It clung tightly around his limbs, neck, and face, smothering the angel so that he couldn't cry out.
But when the slime started to glow with streaks of white light that seemed to be coming from Aziraphale himself, Crowley could still hear him scream.
The sound, smothered by ectoplasm, was enough to momentarily paralyze Crowley, until he realized that while the Stuff was pulling energy out of Aziraphale, it was simultaneously shoving black sludge into him. The angel's veins were dark in the light of the torch he had dropped, his essence being slowly replaced by whatever nameless malice the Stuff was.
It was killing him, Crowley realized uselessly. The thing was going to kill Aziraphale by consuming his light and then probably using him as a receptacle to walk out of the cavern and finish destroying the rest of the world. Time seemed to slow as this thought occurred to him, like how a car crash happens in slow motion. Only in this case it wasn't a car crash, it was his best friend being eaten alive by a formless monster.
Aziraphale hadn't stopped the muffled screaming, which goaded Crowley into action. Drawing a dagger he'd brought with him, because one of them ought to have a weapon when going up against an unknown evil, Crowley dashed back to the wall. He didn't know why he thought it would work, but everything in him urged the demon to plunge the dagger into the heart of the carved symbol, so that was what he did.
The green slime tore itself away from Aziraphale, who fell bonelessly to the ground. A horrible shrieking filled the cavern. It pierced Crowley's skull, so terrible and furious that it rattled the cavern and seemed to send the world tilting in all directions.
Crowley wanted to clap his hands over his ears, but instead he scooped Aziraphale up in his arms, threw him over a shoulder, and bolted.
The sound of the furious screams echoed off every stone and passageway as the demon ran like a snake out of hell, assuming snakes had legs to run on, and this one did. Crowley had no idea if the Stuff was in its death throes or just very cross, and he didn't intend to stop long enough to find out. Logic said that if archangels couldn't kill the thing, his little knife was unlikely to have done much but force it to release Aziraphale.
Perhaps he'd been right that it needed a body to follow them out, because the oozy hand he'd half been expecting to grab hold never appeared. Crowley burst out into the fresh air outside the cave at last, whirling around and waving a frantic hand to bring the entrance crashing down in a cave-in that might or might not be any use at stopping the primordial evil from escaping. Crowley could still feel the weight of its darkness, confirming that he hadn't killed it.
But there was an even more pressing problem.
"Angel," he gasped, kneeling so he could carefully drop Aziraphale onto the dusty ground. Now that he had better light to see by, Crowley noted with dismay the grey pallor of his friend's face. Aziraphale's eyes were closed. His veins still stood out where the dark sludge had contaminated him, and Crowley's attempts to heal it were utterly fruitless.
Crowley's heart thudded with terror at the realization that Aziraphale was dying, maybe already dead, and the damage from that First Whatever was far too extensive for his measly demon power.
"Why did you do that?" Crowley shouted at the unconscious angel, leaning back and curling his shaking hands into angry little balls. "It- it would have hit me instead… you stupid angel, what were you thinking?"
Aziraphale offered no defense, still and silent in his corpselike state on the ground. The angel had saved his life. Crowley had to help him.
Pulling out his new-fangled cellphone, the demon rang his flat. No one was going to answer, of course, when the sole occupant was currently stranded with a dying angel in the middle of Turkey. That was quite alright—well, not the dying angel part—but Crowley in fact didn't need anyone to answer, so long as the Ansaphone was working properly. The direct connection to his flat was much more useful as a mode of transportation than it had ever been as an answering machine.
Crowley clutched a still motionless Aziraphale to him tightly. As soon as the line connected, he was off, disappearing into the global communication network with his precious cargo. Seconds later, they were both dumped out onto his floor.
"-wley, you know what to do, do it with style."
Crowley ignored the following beep, dropping his cell phone and leaning over Aziraphale again. "Come on," he muttered frantically. "Come on, come on… wake up, angel." He patted Aziraphale's ashen cheeks with no response. "Bless it, wake up!"
Aziraphale's head lolled to the side, eyes refusing to open. He was barely breathing, and even though of course he didn't strictly need to breathe, Crowley still took it as the bad sign it was. That Stuff had leached most of Aziraphale's life essence away… two seconds longer and he would probably already be dead.
But again, Crowley knew that wasn't the sort of thing he had the power to fix. The only thing that would help his friend now, he realized with dismay, would be another angel. An archangel. Something strong enough to trap the First Things were likely the only things strong enough to undo the damage one had caused.
"What good does that do?" Crowley demanded of himself aloud. "Yes, that's brilliant, I'll just pop up to Heaven, shall I, 'excuse me, Archangel Gabriel, this angel who isn't supposed to be friends with me is in need of some healing because he saved my life while we were working together like we frequently do, won't you help him, old sport?'"
Leaping to his feet, the demon began to pace agitatedly, running his hands through his hair. If he took Aziraphale to Heaven, they were both dead. Gabriel would likely look on the Principality as a traitor and refuse to help him. Hell would drag Crowley off to some deep dark pit for the rest of eternity, if he was lucky. But if he didn't take Aziraphale to someone who could help, the angel would die anyway. Because he'd been protecting Crowley.
"Think, Crowley," he growled, still pacing. "Think!"
A soft moan from the motionless heap on the floor drew Crowley's attention back to the angel and he threw himself down beside his friend hopefully. But Aziraphale didn't wake. He'd only started to shudder slightly, heat radiating out from his body. This, Crowley realized, was going from bad to worse.
"Angel, what do I do?" he pleaded. "Tell me how to help you."
Aziraphale moaned again, face tightening in agony.
That did it.
With a curse, Crowley scooped the angel up again and hurried down to the Bentley. Consequences or not, he had to call an archangel, and the bookshop was the closest place with a summoning circle. The drive over took hardly any time at all, what with Crowley taking the Bentley at 240 km/h… quite a feat, since the Mark VI's top speed was only 160.
By the time he'd reached the shop, though, Crowley did at least have a Plan. It wasn't a good plan, as plans went, but it was the only one he could think of.
"I'm sorry about this, angel," he murmured as he carried a trembling Aziraphale inside and locked the doors. "But desperate times."
The archangels would never go for this if they thought he was a friend. But maybe if he could convince them he was an enemy…
Crowley pulled off his sunglasses—his natural eyes made him look much more evil to anyone but Aziraphale—and activated the summoning circle.
"Yes, Aziraphale, what is it?" an angel asked, face appearing in the glowing column of light. She paused as she registered the face looking back at her, recoiling in alarm from the slit-eyed glare.
"Assss you can sssssee, I have your angel," Crowley hissed, letting his forked tongue dart out wickedly towards her. He drew his dagger again, this time pointing it at the unconscious angel at his feet. "Unlessss you want him to meet a messsssy end, you'll connect me to Gabriel. Now!"
"Er," the angel replied, still staring at him in horror. "That is…"
Crowley grabbed Aziraphale by the nape of his coat, mentally wincing as he yanked his friend halfway off the floor and pressed the dagger to his throat. "Now!"
The other angel squeaked and disappeared, giving Crowley a second to anxiously glance down and make sure he wasn't actually breaking skin. A nick would be the least of Aziraphale's concerns at this point of course, but the thought of really hurting him in any way nearly stole the demon's nerve. "Just hold on, angel," he murmured. "I'm gonna get you some help."
He composed himself quickly, as several more angels filled the space with stony glowers. Including, he was relieved and terrified to see, Michael, Uriel, and Gabriel.
"What do you think you're doing, demon?" Michael asked haughtily, staring down her nose at the pair. "What have you done to him?
Crowley was a demon of great imagination. Right now, he was imagining that he was Hastur, trying to appear as evil and cruel as the duke. He was also imagining that he wasn't literally shaking in his shoes, because that kind of fear hardly seemed intimidating and he needed the archangels to believe he really would pull the proverbial trigger.
Snickering with what he imagined to be a sinister air, Crowley shook his head at the angel. "He did thissss to himssself," he hissed. "I wasss planning to ssssset one of the Firssst Onesss loosssse… the angel interfered. Again."
"The First Ones?" Uriel demanded as the archangels traded uncertain looks. "How do you even know about them?"
"How can there be a book?" Uriel snapped impatiently. "They're older than anything but us archangels!"
"Funny, that'ssss what I wanted to know…"
"And now that you've been thwarted, what?" Gabriel growled. "Why call us? Wanted to gloat, did you? Planning to finish him off in front of us, I presume? It won't gain you anything."
Crowley flashed another grin that he hoped looked cunning rather than annoyed that none of them had yet expressed a hope that Aziraphale was okay.
"Thought about it," he lied, pretending to press the dagger more roughly to the angel's throat. "I could kill him right now. Sssslit hissss throat. Or…" Crowley paused for dramatic effect. "I could releasssse him for you to heal."
Gabriel laughed sarcastically. "And, why would you do that?"
"Would you believe, out of the goodnesssss of my heart?"
All three of the archangels started laughing at that, mirthful and scathing.
"The goodness of your heart?" Michael repeated with a jeer. "You think we're that stupid?"
"There's no goodness in your heart, demon. Nothing but pure evil," Uriel snapped. "Now what do you really want, Crawly?"
The whole idea was for them to believe exactly that, yet Crowley found himself with a rather painful ache in his chest at the words. Letting the pain fuel his act, Crowley pulled his unconscious "hostage" higher against him and angled the blade even more threateningly. It did at least get the three archangels to fall silent as he snapped,
"You're right. Nothing comessss for free. Why kill the angel when I could ussssse him inssstead? If you want him back, it'll cosssst you."
Think, Crowley, THINK, he desperately thought. The truth was, this was about as far as his plan had taken him. What specifically should he ask for as ransom? It couldn't be anything too valuable, or they might not go for it. But it had to be valuable enough that Hell would find him clever and cunning for thinking to trade an angel's life for it, rather than simply killing the angel. As he would have been expected to do.
"Oh, will it?" Gabriel asked with a snort. "And what do you think we're going to pay you for him?" He grinned, mocking. "I mean, we have a hundred angels we could send to his post instead."
What? So Gabriel wasn't even going to consider it, without even hearing what the ransom was? Aziraphale was just replaceable, was he? Hatred uncoiled in Crowley's chest, reminding him of his true nature as a demon. Hate wasn't really his style, but for this archangel, he could muster the feeling.
Fortunately, any rage in his eyes would seem only natural to them, though Crowley had to bite his tongue to keep from going off on Gabriel and undoing his careful charade.
"Hmm. Sssso you don't want him?" he asked casually. "Pity. He'ssss the only one who could have told you where the Firsssst One issss… unlesssss you don't want to sssseal it away again, which only an archangel can do." Crowley looked down at Aziraphale's grey-tinged face and tried not to shudder. "Of coursssse… he may ssssuccumb to hissss wounds if you don't decide fassst."
At the mention of the First One, the other two archangels traded a nervous look. Even if Aziraphale's life wasn't worth a ransom to them—and how dare they?—having one of those on the loose was clearly an effective threat.
"And what is it you want in exchange for Aziraphale?" Michael finally demanded.
Crowley smiled. He knew exactly what he wanted now. "A feather." Slitted eyes turned to Gabriel and the demon's smile widened into a hateful leer. "One of his."
"Absolutely not!" Gabriel immediately snarled, jabbing a finger at the demon. "How dare you? You think I would ever give one to you?"
"A trophy that will gain me much resssspect in Hell," Crowley pressed, showing his teeth. Taking the feathers of an enemy defeated in battle was a time-honored if antiquated tradition, since there were few outright battles between angels and demons anymore.
Crowley was usually uncomfortable with the idea, truth be told, mostly because the only angel he'd ever even been in a position to fight would be Aziraphale. The notion of taking a feather from the angel as a trophy, of putting it on display as a show of his power over him, was unthinkable, nauseating.
But one of Gabriel's, after the archangel had showed such clear disdain for Aziraphale? He deserved this humiliation, and worse. Besides, no one else had an archangel feather trophy. That alone would give him some protection in Hell. They wouldn't dare question his loyalty.
"I said, no deal!" Gabriel shouted, face turning an impressive puce. "Kill him for all I care!"
"Then sssay goodbye to your angel." Sorry, Aziraphale! Crowley anxiously thought as he forced himself to jerk the dagger just enough for a single droplet of blood to slide down the blade. He hoped they couldn't see him sweating.
"Gabriel," Uriel hissed. "Let's not be hasty."
"We need to know what Aziraphale knows," Michael murmured. Crowley figured she and Uriel were mostly just relieved it was one of Gabriel's, and not one of theirs, that he'd asked for. "It's worth it."
"Not to me, it's not! He's worth, maybe, a feather from a principality. Maybe even a dominion, at most."
"He's the only angel familiar enough with human customs to blend in," Uriel argued. "That makes him worth at least two dominions. Which is equivalent to an archangel feather. Give it to him."
Were they actually haggling with each other over how much Aziraphale's life was worth? Crowley couldn't help but cling a little tighter to his angel, mentally reeling at how little they valued him. Of course, had their positions been reversed, Beelzebub wouldn't have given anything at all for him, but Crowley had always imagined angels would be a little better.
But honestly? They didn't deserve Aziraphale.
"He's the one you beat!" Gabriel argued now, gesturing at the unconscious angel and glaring suspiciously. "You want a trophy, why not just kill him and take one of his?"
"Resssst assssured, one day I will," Crowley violently lied. His heart thudded in anguish just to say the words, which was a most inconvenient distraction. "After all the timesss he'ssss thwarted my planssss? Thissss one isss mine to kill. If he diesssss now, it'll be the Firssst One that did it. When the final battle comessss… and it issss coming… I want him to know it wassss me." Never, angel, you know that, right?
They still looked suspicious, but Crowley was nearly out of ideas. And he was getting tired of hissing. But Aziraphale softly moaned again and the demon knew he had to see this through no matter what the cost. He shrugged, hoping they couldn't see him floundering. "Besidessss, Gabriel'ssss will get me more… glory. And fear. Loads of fear. Did I mention the First One may be breaking free any moment now? You're running out of time if you don't heal him soon- ssssoon."
"Oh, Gabriel, just do it," Uriel snapped. "We agree, demon. An archangel feather for Aziraphale."
"Excellent," Crowley hissed with a shaky wave of relief. He fixed his baleful eye on an outraged Gabriel, warning, "Come alone, we'll make the trade. I warn you, I have one foot in Hell already. One falssse move and I drag the angel sssstraight down to the pit inssstead."
A flash of light illuminated the bookshop, then faded to reveal Gabriel's furious countenance. White wings materialized at his side and he hesitantly reached out to pluck one of the primaries with a tight grimace. He slammed it down on the desk with chest heaving in rage and mortification.
"Your turn," he seethed. "Release him."
Crowley gave the archangel one more cold, victorious smile, ready to pass out from anxiety and guilt. But that didn't matter. Aziraphale was safe now, that was the important thing. Letting the angel fall to the floor with one more mental apology, Crowley snatched the feather and disappeared down into Hell before Gabriel could change his mind.
"Hallo?" a suspicious voice answered the phone.
Aziraphale smiled softly. "Crowley. You're alright then."
"Angel? Is that you? Where in the blazes have you been, do you know it's been a week since Turkey? What if they hadn't been able to heal you, eh? What if they decided to send someone else to your post instead of you, did you think about that? Did you think about any of that? What if you'd died, where would I be then? I swear to Go- to Lucif- I swear, Aziraphale, if you ever do something like that again, I will never speak to you, do you hear me? Well? What have you got to say for yourself?"
"Oh dear," Aziraphale murmured, leaning forward in his chair. He still felt significantly weaker than he ought to, but it seemed as though a primeval monster had tried to suck his life force away, so perhaps it wasn't all that unreasonable of a feeling.
"Oh dear? Oh dear- that's the best you can do?"
"Crowley, tell me you were never worried?"
"Worried? That I'd be stuck with some other angel even more infuriating than you, maybe!"
Aziraphale chuckled fondly, which didn't seem to soothe the demon in the slightest. Before Crowley could get himself worked into more of a tizzy, the angel quickly spoke over him. "Listen, dear, I'm back now, right as rain, and just wanted to say thank you."
There was silence on the other end at last.
"It seems I, er, rather bravely managed to thwart some evil plan of yours to unleash a monster on the world. I told them right where to find the cave as soon as they put me back together, so they've gone to set that to rights and make sure no humans can get close enough to disturb it again. Probably for the best that we let them know. You and I would have rather mucked it up, I'm afraid."
Crowley sounded strangely uneasy, so Aziraphale waited to let him get it out. When he didn't say anything more, the angel prompted,
"It also seems as though I had a rather harrowing time of it. I'm told that I'm fortunate the archangels were close by to rescue me from a wily captor."
"Listen, angel, whatever they told you I said or did- I mean, you were dying, right? And if I'd gone and asked nicely-"
"We'd both be traitors and you would likely be dead," Aziraphale finished seriously. "Not to worry, dear, you must have put on a marvelous performance. They seem to believe you're the evilest of the lot, though how in Heaven's name anyone could think that is beyond me. But I'm quite grateful for everything you did." He half laughed. "Saved my life, you know."
"Saved mine first."
"You didn't get in trouble with your side, did you? For... you know?"
Crowley snorted into the phone. "Commendation, actually. For tricking the archangels into taking care of that First Thing. Would've been just as bad for our side if ol' Slimey had gotten out. Besides, they were impressed with... my souvenir. Listen, are you sure… you sure you're alright? Because I'd understand if you were finished with me- er, with the Arrangement. I did lead us right into that mess."
"Crowley!" Aziraphale exclaimed in dismay. "If you hadn't, that foul thing might have one day escaped and destroyed half the Earth!"
It was true. Neither of them could know, of course, but the First One had been only a few days away from finally luring a human into the cavern to act as a body. It had thought its time had finally come. It was not expecting an angel and a demon with a penchant for trying to do good and accidentally messing things up until it was fixed again.
No one ever does expect that.
"Crowley, dear, I want to thank you," Aziraphale earnestly repeated. "Crepes, perhaps. Next time we meet, though I'm afraid that can't be for a while. It's too risky. They may be watching closer for some time."
"Fine. Didn't want to see you, anyway."
Aziraphale smiled affectionately at the rather forlorn tone. "The one thing I can't understand is how you managed to fool three archangels when you really are a most unconvincing liar. Goodbye, Crowley. We'll talk soon."
The angel set the phone back in its cradle. He pulled his mug of cocoa closer—it was a little on the cold side, as he couldn't exert himself too much yet. But it would do, and between that and a good book, Aziraphale was content to lose himself for several hours to rest.
So absorbed was he in the latest tome, Aziraphale lost track of both the time and his surroundings, but at some point he definitely noticed when something wrapped itself around his leg. The sensation made him jolt back to reality and look down in surprise.
"Oh, really," he said without any real protest. With a fond smile, Aziraphale glanced around to make sure the coast was clear, then reached down so the snake could coil himself around his arm instead. "I'm quite alright, dear," he assured the snake. "Really, there's no reason to fuss."
The snake—black, with a red underbelly—flicked his tongue out in what was probably an argument, then closed yellow-orange eyes to sleep, still wound around Aziraphale's arm.
With an indulgent sigh and a shake of his head, the angel picked up his book and continued to read.
For anyone who's interested, I've started an experimental "graphic novel" version of this series (part 1 starts here). Find me on Tumblr!