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I Want to Break Free

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Selsey, Chichester, West Sussex, England
Sunday, September 3rd, 2073
6:14 am

The thing Aziraphale loved most about mornings was the thrill of possibility. Each dawn hummed with an energy that could twist and shape into any form, and no matter how many he saw he would never grow bored of the divine elegance of a sunrise. And though he knew Crowley didn’t much care to watch, Aziraphale knew that the demon had made sure their quaint hilltop cottage had a suitable veranda from which to view them. It was one of his favorite places in the whole house, and he sighed contentedly as the grey sky was finally pierced by a sliver of orange on the horizon.

A new day had begun.

Aziraphale stayed there for another hour, a silent witness to the awakening of the world. Birds began to chirp brightly as squirrels scurried from their nests in search of breakfast. Even the ocean seemed to change under the light of day—no longer mysterious and cold, but playful and welcoming. The waves crashed against the beach below the small cliff where they’d built their home, and his toes wiggled inside of his slippers in anticipation of his usual morning walk along the warming sand. He willed them still, knowing he would need to wait at least another hour before Crowley would be up and about.

The last of his tea slipped down his throat as he tipped his mug back. He raised his hand to miracle it full when a shuffle from inside distracted him.

“Crowley?”

There was a fairly unintelligible reply that meant the demon was awake, though not quite functional yet. He appeared in the doorway in a pair of black and grey striped bottoms that Aziraphale knew were as soft as a cloud. His coppery red hair was tousled from sleep and his golden eyes were shielded only by his hand as he rubbed the sleep from them.

“Morning, love.” Aziraphale scooted over, happily making room on the lounger. Crowley deposited himself rather haphazardly across the cushions, one leg kicked out and the other hooked over Aziraphale’s knee. The angel accommodated him easily, shifting to accept the weight of him against his chest as the demon leaned in.

“S’early,” Crowley mumbled.

Aziraphale brushed his lips over the crown of his lover’s head. “It is. Why are you up?”

“Heard something.”

At this, Aziraphale frowned. Crowley had become something of a deep sleeper after they’d moved away from London; it took quite a lot to rouse him most mornings. On top of it all, they’d enlisted the American witch to help ward their new home with all manner of spells and protections against any demonic or angelic attackers. It would take quite a bit of Power for anything to get close enough to harm them, and Aziraphale was certain he would have noticed something like that.

“Probably nothing,” Aziraphale soothed. “Why don’t you go back upstairs and get some more sleep?”

“Nah.” Crowley unlaced his hands from where he had rested them against his stomach and fluttered it about. “M’up now. Give me a minute and we can go for our walk.”

A minute turned into ten, then another twenty when, as Crowley shifted to stand, Aziraphale pulled him back down for a proper kiss good morning. Thoroughly greeted and smiling blissfully, the pair stood and went back inside to get ready for their day. They had just passed the front door when a pulse of power slammed into both of them; someone had gotten past the outer perimeter. They stood frozen for a moment, still grasping each other’s hands and staring dumbly in the direction of the threshold.

Aziraphale let out a rather undignified squeak when something heavy fell against the door. He released Crowley’s hand and stepped away to gather his Grace around him. Anything strong enough to get through their layers of protection was nothing to scoff at. He could feel Crowley several feet to his left drawing on his own Power, and he knew if he looked he would see no white in the eyes of his beloved.

The heavy thing fell on the door again, followed by a rhythmic pounding. Someone was knocking.

“Let us in!” The voice was muffled, but Aziraphale could hear the terror it held. “For God’s sake, please! Let us in!”

He had taken two steps towards the door before Crowley’s hand seized on his wrist and tugged. “Don’t!” the demon hissed.

Aziraphale glanced down at the fingers gripping his arm, then up at Crowley. “Someone needs help.”

“It’s a trap, angel.” Sometime between the first thump and the last, he’d miracled himself into dark jeans and a long sleeve shirt. His face was still bare, and his serpentine’s eyes were intense and bright.

The plea came again, punctuated by a pain-filled cry of agony. Aziraphale couldn’t stand it. Trap or no, someone had come seeking aid. He couldn’t ignore them. Trusting Crowley to watch his back, he gently pulled his arm from the demon’s firm grip and turned the knob.

Two figures tumbled into the foyer at Aziraphale’s feet. He jumped back in alarm, expecting one or both of them to leap up and attack, but they didn’t. Crowley was still standing just behind him, his Power held ready like an arrow on a taut bowstring. Aziraphale hoped he didn’t have to release it.

“Are you alright?” He knelt down slowly, his hand automatically reaching out for the figure on top. He was fair skinned with brown hair that just brushed the tops of his ears. The edges of his dark trench coat had fanned out, hiding his companion from view, but the hand that laid limp on the carpet was golden brown and feminine.

In a flurry of limbs the man scrambled to his knees, oblivious to the danger that sudden move had put him in. Only Aziraphale’s quick gesture kept Crowley from unleashing his onslaught. The demon snarled again but relaxed his posture slightly, giving Aziraphale enough breathing room to assess the situation. With a subtle motion of his hand the angel closed the door, resealing the wards on the entryway with a thought. The ones on the perimeter would need to be done later. It was odd, he mused, that these two had set them off in the first place; humans just didn’t pose enough of a threat. Perhaps they were being pursued by something hellish and had sought refuge in the only structure they could find. Yes, that made much more sense. Mystery solved, he turned his attention to the figures sprawled on the floor.

The man was bent over his companion as his fingers danced over her in search of any signs of life. Aziraphale gasped as he saw the ooze of blood that was quickly staining the carpet beneath her back, and the man muttered a string of curses that would have been impressive if they hadn’t been broken by intermittent sobs.

“She’ll be fine,” Aziraphale comforted, though he could only pray that he hadn’t just lied to the poor fellow. It was an awful lot of blood after all, and humans were so very fragile. He needed to get the man away so he could heal her injuries without revealing his own inhuman nature. “I need you to go to the closet with Crowley and get as many towels as you can carry.” It was a weak excuse, but humans were notoriously irrational when panicked so he thought it would work.

At least he did until the man looked up.

Aziraphale gasped again, this time in alarm, and he felt Crowley seize his collar and wrench him away from the man in one powerful pull. No, his mind corrected. Not a man. A demon. His eyes were pale blue, almost white, with a maze of reddish brown lines radiating from the black vertical pupil. They were quite stunning, really, or would have been if they’d held anything but panic and worry.

Aziraphale was still trying to regain his footing as Crowley launched himself forward at the intruder. He watched as his demon gathered up fistfuls of the other’s cable knit sweater before slamming him against the wall angrily, every line of his body promising violence. Aziraphale glanced back down toward the woman, her tawny skin ashen from blood loss, and suddenly it all made sense.

“Crowley, wait!”

“He’s a demon, Aziraphale!”

“I know,” he huffed, “but wait. The wards let them through. They’re not a threat, Crowley.” He knelt down on the carpet again next to the woman and took the time to really look at her, knowing almost immediately what he’d find. “Oh,” he exclaimed. “Oh, my.”

“Please.” The man’s broken whisper barely made it to Aziraphale’s ears. “Please save her. You can. She’s...she’s…”

“She’s an angel,” Aziraphale finished in hushed disbelief. “Crowley, let him go.”

“What?” The combination of Aziraphale’s request and his revelation was enough to slacken his grip, and the younger demon fell from his fingers in a heap onto the floor. He crawled to Aziraphale’s side immediately, his fingers brushing over his companion’s shoulder as if afraid to really touch her.

“Please,” he begged again.

“Roll her over so I can see the damage,” Aziraphale commanded gently. He had no idea what was going on, but he would be damned if he didn’t try to help someone—especially an angel—so obviously in need. “Carefully,” he warned as the demon slid his hands under her shoulders. Between the two of them they managed to get her onto her stomach without jostling her too much.

Crowley cursed quietly at the sight, which was all well and good because Aziraphale couldn’t even take a breath. Her back had been ravaged by something with terrible claws and there were more than a few places that looked like a great beast had taken a bite out of her. Hellhounds, Aziraphale’s mind supplied. Someone had set hellhounds after them. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. Aziraphale blinked slowly as the horror of what he was seeing finally sunk in.

“Her wings,” the demon whined pitifully. “He tore her wings away.”

Aziraphale swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat, held his hands out palms down and focused. He’d already called upon his Grace earlier, and so accessing it now took no time at all. Warmth suffused his fingertips as he let that energy flow out of him and into the angel in front of him. He encountered initial resistance, like thin crust of a creme brulee, but as he pressed forward he felt the tension give and her body began to accept the healing.

The wounds sealed up stubbornly, a byproduct of their infernal nature. He willed the blood back into her body, imagined her skin knitting itself back together, watched as the deep gouges began to mend. Eventually her honeyed skin was smooth and unmarred, though she didn’t stir.

Aziraphale reached further, probing with his angelic senses to find her. It took him longer than he liked, and for a moment he thought she might be gone for good. But then he found it, a tiny ember of holy fire nestled deep in the core of her. He prodded it carefully with his own, stoking it until he was sure it wouldn’t go out. Slowly he withdrew, coaxing her own angelic essence to take over as he retreated.

Aziraphale slumped over wearily. “That should do it,” he gasped. He flexed his fingers as though they’d gone numb, and he felt heavy as he shifted back to his feet. Crowley was at his shoulder immediately, helping him stand. “Let’s get her to the sofa.”

Their intruder-turned-guest hefted his companion up like she weighed nothing and followed them to the sitting room. Aziraphale left to fetch a pillow and a blanket, leaving Crowley alone with them only for a moment. When he returned, the tension in the room had rocketed tenfold.

“Really, Crowley, there’s no need for all of this,” he chided his demon lightly as he made the angel comfortable. The pillow he slipped under her head was from his favorite reading chair and the blanket was one of Crowley’s. Then, to their guest, he said, “Have a seat, won’t you? Can I get you anything? A cup of tea? Brandy?”

The demon shook his head quickly and sank into the chair nearest the sofa. “No, no, I…” He seemed lost, and Aziraphale took a moment to study him. He looked young, though appearances were deceiving when dealing with their lot. He could very well be as old as Aziraphale, who had been formed just before the Earth itself, or perhaps even older, like Crowley.

Aziraphale thought that perhaps he might be a bit nervous with the two of them towering over him, and gestured for Crowley to take a seat. He did, though he remained uncharacteristically on the edge of the cushion, his body tense and alert for the slightly sign of danger.

Aziraphale ignored him and sat on the ottoman, not quite out of arm’s reach of their guest. “Who are you?”

“My name is Renach,” he murmured. “I am...I was one of the clerks in Processing.”

Aziraphale glanced over his shoulder at Crowley for clarification. “Soul Processing,” Crowley explained. “It’s where they sort out the human souls and decide what kind of eternal torture they deserve.”

“Right,” Renach said. His voice was much less shaky now, and with his companion out of danger he seemed to regain some of his composure. “Been there for a while now. They promoted me once to Junior Torturer, but apparently I didn’t have what it takes.” He pulled a face that would have made Aziraphale laugh if the situation hadn’t been so dire. “So it was right back to filing and processing. Then the war planning started and things were starting to look up. I mean, I didn’t really want to go to war, but it was loads less boring than filing paperwork for the rest of time. I was sort of excited,” Renach went on, “I’d never been to Earth, but I’d heard about it. Sounded exciting, even if it was all going to go up in fire and flames.”

“And then it didn’t,” Aziraphale interjected. He couldn’t help the note of pride in his tone, though he was quick to cover it with a sigh. “But I’m confused. How did you and her…?” His eyes cut over to the angel resting on the sofa. He could feel her Grace slowly strengthening. It wouldn’t be too much longer before she was awake.

Renach ran a hand through his brown hair, combing the fringe on the front toward his right temple in an absent gesture. “Right, so, erm, after the war didn’t happen, Lord Bee—”

“Better not,” Crowley warned sharply. “Just in case.” Aziraphale agreed with a nod. Names were powerful, and if the Prince of Hell were to be summoned here now it would be very bad.

Renach paled for a moment and dipped his chin once. “Okay. So, when the war didn’t happen and we all had to go back to work there was a fair amount of grumbling, like you’d expect. But it wasn’t bad. Then some of the other demons got to talking. Said it wasn’t fair. You got to do as you pleased,” he gestured at Crowley with one hand, “so how come the rest of us have to work so hard? Stuff like that. Most of it was general grousing, but a few were serious. They got to thinking, you see, and they reasoned that we have more free will than they want us to believe.”

Aziraphale reeled slightly and looked over at Crowley. Sometime during Renach’s speech he’d summoned a pair of his dark glasses and slipped them on his face. Aziraphale knew it was likely more an intimidation tactic than a way to hide his eyes; Renach was a demon, after all. Still, he had an image to maintain and the glasses were a part of it. He couldn’t afford to appear too benign now, at least not until they knew more.

“What happened next?” Aziraphale prompted.

Renach’s stare was fixed on the sleeping angel, and for a moment Aziraphale thought he saw something familiar flicker in his pale eyes. “We started to meet in secret,” he said, finally looking up. “Not often and never for very long. But then we started hearing things, and one of them said that they had a connection with someone Upstairs. Someone in a group like ours.”

“You mean there were angels who thought the same thing?” Crowley questioned. He sounded equal parts impressed and outraged.

“We were surprised, too,” Renach nodded. “We thought that kind of thing would get them a one way ticket to the Pit.” He shrugged. “Times change, I guess.”

Aziraphale could practically feel Crowley’s agitation and knew this line of conversation could turn dark quickly. “How did you meet...her?” He finished the question weakly, ashamed for having waited so long to even ask her name.

“Indael,” Renach supplied. “Her name is Indael. We met about twenty years ago, at one of the joint meetings on Earth. We were partnered up. That’s how it worked: one angel, one demon.”

The revelation of that aside, the implications of his words were boggling. “How many of you are there?”

“Hundreds,” Renach said. “Probably thousands by now. Both Heaven and Hell have been ruthless to cut down dissenters, but there’s more of us all the time. At first we were just supposed to watch humans. They’ve had free will since the beginning, you know, so we were to study them to see how it’s done.” Renach’s gaze cut over to his unconscious companion with something like fondness, and Aziraphale stifled a gasp as the demon’s tone softened ever so slightly. “But Indael, she wanted to help them. I tried to counterbalance her blessings with temptations, but we drew too much attention. They set hellhounds on us.”

“How did you escape?”

Renach’s expression darkened. “We fought. Indael was injured and I just barely managed to take care of the last of the hounds. Then the Justiciar showed up. H-h-he…” Renach stuttered to a stop and took a shaky breath. “I couldn’t get to her in time. I tried. But then he...he just planted his foot into her back and ripped her wings from her body like they were nothing, like they weren’t…” He leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. Every inch of him screamed desperation and Aziraphale could feel his anguish. But he could feel something else, too; something that shocked him to his very core. He loved her.

After a few moments of quiet sobs, Renach pulled himself up and sniffed. “I...I don’t know what happened after that. I blacked out, I think? When I came to, he was gone and she was...I picked her up and tried to think of any place to go. It didn’t matter where, just away. When I opened my eyes I was on the edge of your property. I could feel the power in the wards, and I knew. I knew it was you.”

“What do you mean, you knew it was us?” Crowley asked.

Renach shrugged one shoulder. “The two of you are pretty famous in our circles.”

“Famous?”

“Oh, yes,” Renach smiled then, a thin, joyless thing that needed practice. “The two that defied Heaven and Hell and lived to tell about it? There isn’t an angel or demon in our ranks that doesn’t know your names. The First Ones. You’re the reason for it all, you know. You gave us our freedom, showed us it was possible.”

“Thousands, you said,” Crowley muttered disbelievingly. Aziraphale stood and walked over to his chair, reaching down to lay a hand on his shoulder.

“What does it mean, Crowley?”

“I...I don’t know.” He stood as well, his body still stiff with tension. “We need to talk,” he told Renach sternly. “Don’t leave this room.”

Aziraphale followed Crowley out to the veranda and shut the sliding door firmly behind him. Beyond the windows, the sun was shining brightly as the morning slowly gave way to the day.

“Crowley?”

“Thousands of them, Aziraphale. Thousands of angels and demons, all defying Head Office and thinking for themselves. This is…”

“Are you going to say ineffable?” Aziraphale’s lips quirked slightly.

Crowley glowered, though there was no real heat behind it. “Precedented, I was going to say. The last time angels got to thinking too much…”

Aziraphale reached out and grasped Crowley’s forearm. “I know. But this time it’s different. Because it’s not just angels this time, it’s demons as well.”

“Won’t matter to Gabriel and the lot,” Crowley snarled. “If they get their hands on that angel they’ll toss her into the Pit.” He pulled his arm from the angel’s grasp and stalked away, the sharp angle of his shoulders hunched as he gazed out toward the rolling waves stretching out to the horizon.

Aziraphale let him be for a moment, giving him space to process. Crowley had long ago told him the story of his own Fall, how he’d been cast down for the simple crime of asking questions. It had been an emotional evening of tears and affirmations of love, and though Aziraphale’s heart broke to remember it, he knew that evening banished the last of Crowley’s doubt regarding their relationship. They were bound together, heart and soul, and nothing short of the Almighty herself could tear them asunder. Our side. Aziraphale smiled as the thought hit him.

“What was it Renach said?” he asked softly. “They were supposed to study the humans?”

Crowley didn’t turn. “Yeah.”

Aziraphale stepped closer, just within arm’s reach. “And there are thousands out there?”

“Mmm.” The demon turned then, intrigued by Aziraphale’s line of reasoning.

Aziraphale reached out and took Crowley’s hand. “One angel and one demon per pair,” he reminded. “And if Indael is any indication, they’re not just observing. They’re cooperating, working together. Do you know what this means, my dear?” Crowley was staring at their joined hands, obviously drawing strength from the lingering Grace still emanating from Aziraphale’s core. With a tug, the angel brought himself close enough to press his body against Crowley’s, reaching with his free arm to envelop him in a one-armed hug. He felt Crowley sag against him as long fingers slid over his arm to press just between his shoulder blades.

“It means we’re not alone any more.” Aziraphale turned his head to peer through the glass door to where Renach was kneeling at Indael’s side. His fingers brushed over her cheekbone lightly, and though he couldn’t hear it, Aziraphale saw the demon’s mouth move in what he guessed were words of quiet comfort. With a contented smile, Aziraphale turned his head back and placed a light kiss against Crowley’s neck.

“Angel?”

“Crowley, I think our side just got a whole lot bigger.”