Crowley would have liked to think that he handled the beginning of Armageddon with a poise and dignity befitting the Serpent of Eden. He would have liked to think that his meeting with Hastur and Ligur had gone off without a hitch; that he’d gotten his instructions without batting an eye; and that he’d handed the Antichrist to the nuns and driven off without a second thought.
He would have liked to think that. Unfortunately for Crowley—and, in many ways, for Aziraphale—that wasn’t what happened.
The truth was: He had panicked.
“You what?” Aziraphale hissed, horrified eyes fixed on the wicker basket that hung limply from the demon’s hand.
There was a hollow ringing in Crowley’s ears that hadn’t stopped since he’d peeled away from the convent, the Bentley’s tires kicking up gravel in his wake. His fingertips were numb—a creeping, blue-white electricity jumped between the gaps in his muscle fibers, traveling down his arms and into his hands. He could feel beads of sweat trickling through the wispy hair at the base of his neck and down along his spine.
Crowley swallowed around the lump of dread that had lodged itself in his throat and repeated, “I may have stolen the Antichrist.”
Aziraphale stared at him. He looked as though he might faint. Crowley would feel guilty about that if he had room in his body for any emotion other than sheer, bone-rattling terror. The angel then stated, quite eloquently, “Fuck,” put his hands up, and walked away.
Crowley was left on the doorstep of the bookshop, blinking after him.
Throughout Aziraphale’s more-than-six-thousand-year existence, he had come to expect the following: Days that started out with promise tended to go spectacularly pear-shaped by the end.
He had first learned that fact back in 3004 BC.
Morning had dawned in Mesopotamia. The sun crested, bright and brilliant, over the Zagros Mountains as Aziraphale had eaten a meal of dried apricots, goat’s cheese, and roasted duck. As the sky had slowly morphed from plums and pinks to a crisp blue, he remembered thinking that he had never seen a more magnificent sight. He had felt God’s grace beaming down on him and all the other people whom he’d come to know recently. He had felt loved.
And then he’d discovered that God intended to drown nearly everyone and everything in the region.
Since then, it had happened on numerous occasions, and Aziraphale had come to suspect that it was some sort of cosmic joke. So, really, he should have known.
He should have known when he’d started his day with an absolutely divine breakfast of kippers, poached egg, fresh fruit, and a buttery, flaky croissant; when he’d taken a leisurely stroll around Soho and been charmed into granting a miracle for a lovely couple on their honeymoon from America; when he’d sold not a single book back at his shop and had even managed to run off a customer who’d been intent on buying his signed copy of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime. He should have realized—but, like a fool, he had tempted fate and had gone out for sushi at his favorite restaurant.
And that’s when everything had gone downhill.
Aziraphale now sat at the dining table in the little flat above his shop, glaring at Crowley through the steam curling up from his tea. “You really are an idiot,” he told him testily, fear and irritation flaring beneath his skin like a coal-seam fire.
Crowley, for what it was worth, looked equal parts contrite and vaguely worried. His hair was longer than the last time Aziraphale had seen him and it was frazzled, like he’d been running his hands through it. He had taken his sunglasses off at some point; his eyes darted to the wicker basket that now sat on the table near them. “I know,” he said.
Aziraphale glanced at the basket, as well, a now-familiar frisson of worry making its way down his spine at the thought of its contents. “What happened?”
“I honestly don’t know, angel,” Crowley sighed and Aziraphale briefly contemplated knocking his teeth in.
Instead, he asked, “Can you just start at the beginning?”
Crowley shrugged one shoulder and made a few of his incomprehensible noises before he said, “Um, well, I—I got a message earlier today, telling me to go out to Tadfield for a meeting with Hastur and Ligur. Met with them and they’re the ones that gave me the Antichrist.”
They both looked at the basket again.
“Okay,” Aziraphale said and took a sip of milky Earl Grey tea. It did little to calm his frazzled nerves.
“There was a plan in place,” Crowley continued, his hands moving through the air before him. “The Diabolical Plan. I was given the baby, don’t ask me why. They gave him to me and told me to deliver him to such-and-such place at such-and-such time—”
“Are you being intentionally vague,” Aziraphale interrupted waspishly, “or is your mind just more addled than usual?”
Crowley narrowed his eyes for a moment and then, in an apparent burst of childishness, stuck his tongue out at him with a hiss. Aziraphale politely did not dignify this with a response.
“They told me to bring him to these nuns at a little hospital out in the countryside,” Crowley amended.
Aziraphale blinked. “Nuns?”
“Satanic nuns. The Chattering Order of-of—St. Bernard or something like that.”
“Anyway, apparently they had arranged for the pregnant wife of an American diplomat to be at the hospital when I arrived with the baby. There was supposed to be a switch—baby for baby, unbeknownst to the humans—and the diplomat’s wife would leave with the Antichrist. Simple.”
Aziraphale glanced at the basket. From within, he could hear the Antichrist snuffling. Voice dry and sharp with skepticism, he repeated, “Simple.” Crowley scowled at him.
“Well, it was supposed to be.”
Crowley watched Aziraphale sigh and run a hand across his scalp, turning his normally well-groomed hair into a bristling halo. His face had taken on the pinched look that the demon associated with events in history such as the Black Plague or that one terrible crème brûlée back in 1702.
“An American diplomat? Really?” he asked, bitter indignation in his voice. “As if Armageddon was a cinematographic show you wished to sell in as many countries as possible.”
Crowley just rolled his shoulders and sipped from his mug. The tea was hot and dark, the malty flavor of his preferred Kenyan black leaving a wonderfully bitter taste in the back of his throat.
“Now, this diplomat and his wife,” Aziraphale said, looking fleetingly towards the basket again. “They were to raise the baby?”
“Yeah. He’d be brought up with strong political and demonic influences—me, for that second one,” he added needlessly and Aziraphale gave him a look that could peel wallpaper. Crowley cleared his throat. “A-anyway, when he turned eleven years old, he would come into his power. After that, the final battle would commence.”
“Between Heaven and Hell.”
Aziraphale was contemplative for a few moments, seeming to be quietly processing everything Crowley had just told him. His fingers drummed an arrhythmic pattern against the tabletop, his blue-gray eyes distant. Then he went still and looked up at Crowley, expression wary. “So, what happened? Please—please, tell me that you didn’t get the baby, put him in your car, and then just put your foot on the pedal and hightail it here.”
He glanced over at the windows then, as if expecting to see demons or Satanic nuns with their faces pressed up against the glass. Crowley scoffed and rolled his eyes.
“No, of course not,” he said offhandedly, rolling his mug back and forth between his palms. “I would never put you in danger like that.”
Aziraphale blinked and turned back from his inspection of the windows. As his face softened imperceptibly, Crowley realized the gravity of his statement. He froze, chest tightening with embarrassment.
The two of them regarded one another for a long moment, the only sounds permeating the flat those of the sleepy, early morning traffic outside. London was still a few hours from waking up properly. Then Aziraphale swallowed and, voice infinitely gentle, said, “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”
Crowley lowered his eyes to his mug and shrugged one shoulder, uncomfortable as always with the tender look Aziraphale was giving him. It always made him feel too big for his body—like his soul was stretching beyond the confines of his bones and skin. He cleared his throat and said, “I’d actually given him to the nun and walked away. Was getting in my car, but...” He trailed off.
In truth, Crowley had gotten into his car and had driven away. He’d made it to the end of the lane leading up to the convent, gone to make a left-hand turn back to London, and had stopped dead. He just couldn’t make himself put his foot on the petrol. There had been a weight against his chest, almost pressing him back against his seat; a heaviness in his limbs.
What would happen if I drove off and let the Antichrist go to the diplomat? he had thought then, hands clenched around the Bentley’s wheel. If I just let this happen?
And the answer had been simple: Humanity would have eleven years left. A little more than a decade of the Earth he’d come to know and appreciate, then it would all be wiped out. Ended in fire and flame.
The battle would be unimaginable, he knew. Millions would perish and—no matter which side won—there would be no enemies spared. Crowley wasn’t altruistic by any stretch of the imagination; whatever compassion existed within him had been burned off in The Fall. He didn’t care what happened to other demons or to angels. He didn’t really have friends.
He just had the one.
And the thought of losing Aziraphale had sucked the air from his lungs like he’d been catapulted into space. He’d sat idling a few minutes more, thinking about every way this could go wrong—then he’d turned the car around and had driven back to the convent.
When he remained silent after trailing off, Aziraphale prompted, “But what?”
Crowley blinked a few times. “Dunno. Something made me go back. I just—” He jostled his shoulders in an inelegant shrug. “I just couldn’t leave the Antichrist in the hands of—of a few useless humans.”
Aziraphale’s brows lowered and he took a sip of his tea before asking, “Wasn’t that the plan, though? Or rather—The Plan, as it were.”
“The Diabolical Plan, maybe. But not necessarily The Great Plan,” he said. Aziraphale frowned and Crowley could see the wheels in his head begin to turn. He was hoping that the angel would follow that line of conversation, lead them down that path so they could have a theological discussion. Aziraphale, however, was never good at doing what Crowley wanted him to.
“So, how did you get the baby out?” he asked, taking another sip of tea.
Crowley scowled and waved a hand. “Oh, it wasn’t hard. Turns out there was another couple at the hospital having a kid. So, just did a quick miracle and a bit of bamboozling, left them thinking there were just the two babies. They switched them and off I scarpered with the Antichrist.”
“And—” Aziraphale glanced at the window again. “Hell is none the wiser?”
“As far as I’m aware. Heaven, too, I assume.”
“Right,” Aziraphale said with an uneasy sigh. Despite the brittle, irritated energy that had been radiating off of him since Crowley arrived, he seemed nervous as he asked, “So, what—um, what exactly do we do with him?”
What, indeed, Crowley thought. He leaned forward and planted his bony elbows on the table, settling in.
“Well,” he began, voice pitched low, “I guess that depends on you.”
Later—much later—Aziraphale would realize that what his answer to this statement probably should have been was: “No, it really doesn’t depend on me, my dear. We are an angel and a demon—heredity enemies! I am not assisting you with this endeavor in any way. You got yourself into this mess and you can get yourself out of it. Now please remove yourself and your Antichrist from my bookshop. Good day.”
What he wound up saying instead was far less articulate.
“Me? W-what do you mean?”
“Eloquent, as always,” Crowley said. He was giving him an amused look, his eyes glowing like burnished gold in the lamplight of the flat. Aziraphale huffed and tamped down on the fondness he could feel growing in his chest like a weed.
“Anyway, I’ve been giving it some thought,” the demon said, “and I think I’ve got a plan.”
Aziraphale pressed his lips together as he pointedly side-eyed the wicker basket, annoyance flaring briefly. “Well, that would certainly be a change,” he murmured to himself and took another sip of tea.
Crowley lifted an eyebrow at him. “What was that, angel?” he asked sweetly, lip curling up to reveal a flash of teeth.
“Nothing, dear,” Aziraphale said mildly. “So, what’s your plan? I do hope it’s better than the one where you just put the Antichrist in your car and drove away.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk about stupid plans, Mr. Let-me-just-hop-across-the-English-Channel-during-the-French-Revolution-because-I-wanted-some-crepes,” Crowley snarked.
Aziraphale glared at him, but remained silent. Crowley had a point. Of course, that didn’t stop him from happily imagining how livid the demon would be if he snapped his fingers and miracled him into the Thames.
“That’s what I thought,” Crowley said, a smug lilt in his tone. “Anyway, think about it. The final battle—the End of the World and all that—will commence when the Antichrist comes into his power and declares that Heaven and Hell rise up and destroy one another. One triumphs over the other and the world ends in fire and flame, all of humanity burned away. That’s the same, no matter who wins.”
Aziraphale glanced heavenward, considering. If this were a purely theoretical discussion—the two of them drunkenly bickering on Aziraphale’s sofa, Armageddon still just a vague idea set to take place at some point in the future—he would have jumped in to pontificate. He would have told Crowley that Heaven would certainly win and all the demons would get their comeuppance and it would all be rather lovely.
However, with the Antichrist sitting at his elbow and Armageddon looming on the horizon, it was all feeling unnervingly real. He decided against commenting, other than to say, “Well, it is The Divine Plan, after all.”
“Yeah, but The Divine Plan is contingent upon the Antichrist growing up and actually accepting his power,” Crowley said pointedly. “If he doesn’t, then the war doesn’t happen. No fire. No flame. No Armageddon.”
“And how exactly do you plan on making sure that he doesn’t come into his full power?”
Crowley rolled his wrists, his expressive hands twisting through the air as he talked. Aziraphale was momentarily distracted by his long fingers and neatly trimmed nails. “Well, he can’t come into his power if he doesn’t exist,” he said. Aziraphale frowned.
“And you’ll accomplish that how, precisely? Go back in time?” he asked, dubious but genuinely curious. “Make it to where he never came to be?”
He knew that Crowley could control time, at least to the extent that he could stop and restart it in several-second intervals. Aziraphale didn’t think that he would have the power to unwind time to the point of erasing the Antichrist from existence; admittedly, though, he didn’t have a lot of insight on how controlling time worked. It may have been something that Crowley could accomplish just once if he put all of his effort into it.
When he focused on Crowley’s face, however, Aziraphale found himself being regarded with the flat expression of someone who had just found a fly in their soup—disappointment mingled with disgust. “No,” he said wearily. “I’m not suggesting that, you imbecile.”
Humiliation made his temper flare and he snapped, “Well then, what are you suggesting?”
“I think maybe you should kill him.”
Crowley had to admit that he quite relished the gobsmacked look on the Aziraphale’s face. The last time he’d seen it had been back in 1941. He’d walked into St. Dunstan-in-the-East to find the idiot surrounded by Nazis, a gun to his head, and he’d looked so utterly flabbergasted at Crowley’s presence that it had almost made up for the burning in his feet.
“K-kill him?” Aziraphale sputtered, nearly knocking his tea over. ”You want—you want to kill him?”
He’d gone pale and he kept throwing frantic looks towards the basket, as though the newborn within could understand the words and would set them on fire for even considering it. To be honest, Crowley wasn’t sure that the kid wouldn’t, but he was willing to risk it.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t absolutely terrified to bring it up.
“No,” he said in the calmest voice he could manage with his nerves jangling. He gripped his mug of tea to hide the trembling in his hands. “I’m not really one for killing kids, personally. I think you should kill him.”
“Me?” Aziraphale asked, his voice gone high and reedy. “I-I’m not—I’ve never—”
“Oh, come on, angel,” Crowley interrupted, exasperation momentarily overriding his fear. “Your side isn’t exactly shy about infanticide, if I recall. The Flood, Abraham, all the firstborn of Egypt. Not exactly the best record, in my book.”
Aziraphale glared at him. A muscle twitched beneath one of his eyes and his hands were clenched into fists on the tabletop, knuckles bone-white. There was tension radiating off of him, a brittle angelic energy that warped his frame so badly that Crowley could barely stand to look at him. He could taste a sharp, metallic tang of ozone—the subtle charge in the air that preceded a lightning strike.
“I’ve never killed anything,” Aziraphale whispered, voice quavering. “And I’m certainly not starting now. I am not killing anybody.”
Crowley tilted his head, heartbeat thrumming in his ears. “Even if it means saving everything? One life,” he said, pausing significantly and looking towards the basket, “for the universe.”
“I am not—killing—anybody,” Aziraphale repeated slowly, bearing his teeth with each enunciated word. Crowley waited a beat, muscles coiled tight—then he sighed and slumped forward.
“Yeah, I figured.”
Aziraphale, who had been puffed up like a viper, deflated so suddenly that Crowley thought he might sink right out of his chair. His shoulders slumped, the fractal edges of his silhouette rounding off and smoothing back to his soft, human form. “Er, p-pardon?” he stuttered, looking flummoxed.
Crowley shrugged, a dejected lift of one shoulder. He honestly couldn’t tell if he was more relieved or disappointed that Aziraphale hadn’t agreed. “I knew you wouldn’t go for it,” he said mildly. “Figured I’d give it a shot anyway.”
Aziraphale stared at him, then gave a sort of full-body twitch and lifted his hands up, fingers curled like talons. “You—you’re—you are impossible!” he shouted and slammed his hands against the table in frustration. Crowley blinked owlishly at him.
There was a brief, ponderous moment where silence hung heavy in the flat. And then, from within the basket, the Antichrist began to cry.
Crowley leapt away from the table like it was made of holy water, his arms pinwheeling as he stumbled back and knocked over his chair. Aziraphale sat in horrified disbelief, his hands still pressed flat against the table. His whole body felt flush with adrenaline, the air whistling in and out of his lungs as he panted. He and Crowley looked up at each other.
“Look what you’ve done!” they both shouted simultaneously.
“Get him out of here!” he hissed at Crowley, pushing himself up. Muted by the confines of the basket, the wails grew louder and more distressed, rattling the marrow of Aziraphale’s bones.
“And what am I supposed to do with him?” the demon cried out, looking increasingly agitated. His eyes were wide and frantic; his shoulders tensed, pulled back like he was considering unfurling his wings.
“I-I don’t know! Can you—you know—take him back?” Aziraphale asked and immediately felt moronic when Crowley gave him a look that could curdle milk.
“He’s not a dress that I wore once, Aziraphale!” he snapped, lip curled in derision. “He’s not a book you never read! He’s the bleeding Antichrist—I can’t just return him!”
“Don’t you dare get cross with me!” Aziraphale scolded, his cheeks burning. “I am trying to help!”
“Well, you’re shit at it!”
“Look, I’m sorry if you think I’m being rude and brutish or whatever, but there’s no way that I can bring him back, angel,” Crowley said, words coming faster the longer he spoke and somehow all of them sibilant. He was hissing. “I wish it were that simple, but the switch has already been made. If I show up again with a mysterious third baby and try to get the diplomat to take him, Hell is going to know something is up!”
The coppery taste of fear flooded Aziraphale’s mouth and he swallowed around it. His hands curled into fists, the nails biting into his palms, grounding him.
And your lot doesn’t send rude notes, he remembered with dread. They’d annihilate you—rend you limb from limb and burn the rest into dust—if they ever discovered that you had a plot to steal and kill the Antichrist.
“Right,” he said faintly, the cries from the basket echoing in his ears. “So, um—if we can’t kill him and we can’t bring him back to the hospital, w-what can we do?”
Crowley ran a tremulous hand through his hair, pushing it back to reveal a pale, pinched face. The spray of sunspots across the bridge of his nose stood out like old ink stains on vellum. He scowled, looking pained.
Instead of answering Aziraphale’s question, he asked through gritted teeth, “Can you make him stop that?”
He indicated the basket with a jut of his chin and Aziraphale gaped at him. “What makes you think that I know the first thing about babies?” he asked, his voice gone high and incredulous. “If anything, you’re the one that’s good with kids!”
Not only good with them. Crowley seemed to actually like kids, of which Aziraphale had seen plenty of evidence throughout their long acquaintance. The children he’d snuck aboard the Ark, safe and dry down in the belly of the vessel; the little Jewish kids he’d brought clean food to during the Black Plague; his tutelage of young 18th century street urchins on how to steal without getting caught; and just a few short years ago when he’d absentmindedly passed his untouched ice lolly to the little girl who had been looking longingly at it. He may have tried to pass it off as mere tolerance, but Aziraphale knew better.
Crowley was fond of them.
“When they’re up walking and talking,” the demon groused, his agitation becoming more evident the longer the Antichrist cried. “I try not to interact with babies!”
“And I do?” Aziraphale scoffed.
“No, but you’re an angel, as you keep oh-so-helpfully pointing out to me,” Crowley snarked. “I would think that, between the two of us, you would be more equipped to deal with a baby human. I mean, don’t you have—” He waved his hand vaguely in Aziraphale’s direction. “—instincts or something?”
The angel glowered at him. “You know perfectly well that I don’t—”
Aziraphale stuttered to a halt. The antique lamps that lit the flat had begun to waver sporadically. As their soft, honey-colored light flickered and threw monstrous shadows across the walls, he realized that they were surging and fading in time with the Antichrist’s squalls.
He’s affecting the energy in the room, he realized. Heart seizing in his chest, he looked over at Crowley.
The demon looked as though he might vibrate right out of his skin. His eyes—huge and yellow and scared—were focused on the basket. Through the haunting wails, Aziraphale could hear his breathing pick up until it was clattering out of him in desperate gasps. As the crying reached a crescendo and the lamplight once again guttered dangerously, Crowley turned back to Aziraphale. The gold of his irises had leeched out into the whites of his eyes like broken egg yolks and his pupils were fluctuating, dilating and contracting with the light. He looked so crazed that Aziraphale actually took a step back.
“Do something!” Crowley shouted, his voice raw with pain and frustration.
Aziraphale stared as the cries of the Antichrist carried on, pitched high and frantic. The lights wavered again and Crowley flinched; clamped his eyes shut.
So Aziraphale did.
He took a long, deep breath through his nose, tried to calm the calamitous beating of his heart, then he stepped up to the basket and opened it.
When Crowley came back to himself, it was to find that the Antichrist had gone quiet. There was a high-pitched drone in his ears, like feedback from a badly tuned radio, but past that, there was nothing but silence. He gasped in relief and opened his eyes to peer around the room. The lamps were low and steady, no longer flickering in response to the kid’s cries. Crowley squinted at them, trying to focus through his headache, and then looked back towards the basket.
He instantly realized why the wailing had stopped.
Aziraphale was holding the Antichrist. The red blanket that had been wrapped around him when he was in the basket was now tucked into the crook of one elbow. Through the folds of red fabric, Crowley could see the baby’s scrunched up face.
“Angel?” he whispered, voice tremulous. He suddenly wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was real. It felt like a fever dream.
Aziraphale glanced up at him, gave him a wobbly sort of smile. He was pale and sweating, his wheat-colored hair curling damply at his temples. His pupils were blown wide with fear. “Crowley,” he said in a quiet voice.
“What are you doing?” Crowley asked, trying to concentrate. There was a buzzing in his head like he was standing too close to Lord Beelzebub, and a prickle of unease ran up the back of his neck.
“You asked me to do something to stop the crying. I did. H-he was wet, it seems. So I miracled him clean. That appears to—um, to have settled him.” Aziraphale said all of this in a soft, even tone that belied how stiffly he was holding himself, his posture rigid. He swallowed and asked, “Are you all right, dear?”
Through the febrile annoyance that was still clouding his thoughts, Crowley considered the question—did a self-assessment. Was he all right? Well, he felt flushed and jittery, like he’d had a few too many cups of espresso, and there was a headache throbbing in his temples. Hot static crawled across his skin.
To put it quite frankly, he felt like shit.
But it was nowhere near as bad as when the kid had been screaming. He’d never felt anything like that before. Not really pain; more like the comedown he’d experienced after the one time he’d tried opium back in the early 1900s. A desperate swirl of irritation and anxiety, mixed with the sickening sensation that his bones were liquefying and seeping out through his pores.
He breathed out a sigh and admitted, “No, I’m not. But I—I think I will be.”
Aziraphale stared at him, eyes narrowed. “Are you su—”
“I’ll be fine, angel,” Crowley insisted, and it actually felt halfway to being the truth. “And—y’know—Thank you.”
“Oh, please don’t mention it,” Aziraphale huffed and looked back down at the bundle in his arms.
While he was distracted, Crowley took a few seconds to close his eyes and focus his powers inward, attempting to miracle himself into a more stable frame-of-mind. It was like sobering up after a long night of drinking. His hands steadied themselves and his headache vanished, leaving just a vague sense of vertigo behind.
Not perfect, but he’d take it.
“He’s quite small, isn’t he?” Aziraphale asked out of nowhere, voice soft.
Crowley opened his eyes. The angel was still peering down at the Antichrist, something akin to awe on his face. He took a moment to focus on the words, then scoffed. “Well, he’s a baby,” he sneered, still feeling irritable enough to be snappish. “What were you expecting?”
“I’m not sure,” Aziraphale said, sounding a little surprised at himself. “I wasn’t expecting him to look so—so normal.”
Fighting the sudden anxious jolt that gripped him, Crowley leaned forward to take a look. Aziraphale turned obligingly towards him. He had one hand splayed over the Antichrist’s tiny chest—angelically monitoring him, most likely—and the baby was staring vaguely up at him. Crowley tilted his head, considering.
The Antichrist did, indeed, look normal. Well, as far as human babies went, anyway. Crowley always thought that new humans looked like someone had granted life to a particularly old, vindictive potato—for the life of him, he could never quite understand why people would stand around cooing about how beautiful they were.
Mysteries of the universe, he thought foggily.
Leaning back, he scoffed, “What? You thought he’d have horns or little hoofikins?”
Aziraphale opened his mouth to respond, then blinked and looked up at him. His expression was incredulous as he repeated, “Hoofikins?”
Crowley waved a hand as if batting the words away. “Never mind,” he sighed. No use in trying to explain where he’d picked up that word from.
Aziraphale squinted; he frowned like he was thinking about pressing the issue, but eventually seemed to decide against it. Instead he just rolled his eyes and said, “So. We’ve—uh, concluded that you can’t bring him back to the convent. Nor can I, um—” He glanced down at the kid, who just gurgled and blinked sleepily at him. “—kill him.”
“Right,” Crowley concurred, voice flat.
“So, what do we do with him? I mean, it’s not as if you could—” Aziraphale stopped talking suddenly. A look of dawning realization passed over his face like the crest of a wave, raising his brows until they all but kissed his hairline and widening his eyes.
Somehow, Crowley knew what he was going to say before he uttered a single word. “No,” he said emphatically. “No, no, no . I am not keeping him.”
“No! He isn’t a puppy I found on the side of the road, Aziraphale.”
“Look, Crowley,” Aziraphale huffed, uncomfortable, “I’m not fond of the idea either. B-but it’s not like you can just hand him over to someone else! You said it yourself! ‘I couldn’t leave the Antichrist in the hands of a few useless humans’ or something to that effect. You said that, Crowley!”
There was a little fizzle in the back of Crowley’s skull as his brain sputtered and ground to a halt. He felt somewhat like a car that had suddenly lost its engine and simply lacked the imagination to keep running. Shit—he had said that, hadn’t he?
Adjusting his hold on the kid, Aziraphale sighed and asked, “Do we have any other options? Because if you can think of something, now is the time. Otherwise, I believe we’re left with the prospect of raising this child ourselves.”
Even through the cloying panic, Crowley felt something small and warm unfurl in his chest.
Aziraphale gave him an exasperated look. “You didn’t think that I was going to do this on my own, did you?”
“Oh, no, I—uh, I didn’t—I didn’t think that,” Crowley muttered, flustered. He stooped to collect his fallen chair, stalling for time as his thoughts swirled and eddied like a riptide.
Raising the Antichrist with Aziraphale.
Initially, Crowley rejected the idea on a visceral level. It was absurd! This was the Antichrist—the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan and Lord of Darkness—and they were an angel and a demon. Despite the fact that they had been on Earth for an eternity, he didn’t think either of them had a clue about babies in general; they were hardly qualified to raise one.
Besides, it seemed like an impossibility. Even with the kid currently in the flat, real and gurgling irritably as Aziraphale rocked him, Crowley couldn’t fathom a way that they could keep him a secret from Heaven and Hell.
He sat heavily in the now-righted chair and gazed up at Aziraphale through his lashes; the angel’s attention was diverted back to the baby in his arms, so Crowley didn’t feel too awkward about staring at him. He still seemed nervous, but it wasn’t as sharp as it had been. It reminded Crowley more of the look that came over Aziraphale when he got his hands on a book of prophecy—wonder and a sort of apprehensive respect.
Like he was looking at something ancient and powerful and precious to him.
Crowley swallowed and tried to wrestle up the will to be aggravated at him for being such a ridiculous sap. Rolling his eyes, he returned to his perusal of their last remaining option.
Okay, so. Cons: Obviously, the kid was the Antichrist. He would, no doubt, bring about the destruction of the known universe and incite a deadly war between Heaven and Hell. Also, Crowley and Aziraphale would probably be tried as traitors and publicly executed. It would all be extravagantly bloody, Crowley was sure.
Plus, in the meantime, they would have to raise a baby, which he didn’t think he would be any good at.
Pros: If they kept the kid close at hand, they got to have authority on what he learned, how he interacted with people and things. They would essentially be shaping what might be one of the most powerful beings in the universe. Not a bad idea, considering that he and Aziraphale had just effectively made enemies of their superiors.
Crowley scoffed. “If we keep him, you’ll want to turn him into a goody two-shoes, no doubt.”
Aziraphale side-eyed him and said in an imperious tone, “While I do admit that the idea of an exultantly virtuous Antichrist is intriguing, I don’t hold out much hope. After all, you would be raising him, too.”
Crowley made a rude gesture, which Aziraphale seemed to magnanimously ignore. “Frankly, dear, given his odds,” he continued, “I would settle for him being even-keeled. Not-entirely-good and not-entirely-evil. With you doing your tempting and me influencing him toward the light, he may just turn out—”
“Normal,” Crowley finished, rolling the word around in his mouth.
“Yes, exactly!” Aziraphale said, sounding a little breathless.
“So, you think that if he’s brought up with equal amounts of heavenly and hellish influences, they’ll—what? Cancel each other out? And we’re supposed to do this for eleven years and just hope that it’s enough to stop him from destroying everything?”
He watched as Aziraphale visibly deflated, his shoulders slumping and the hopeful gleam disappearing from his eyes. “Oh, you’re right! It’s a ridiculous notion! I don’t know why I even—”
“It is ridiculous,” Crowley interrupted him, flapping his hand to ward off the impending self-flagellation. Normally he would consider it great fun to get Aziraphale all riled up and fluttery, but he’d had an extremely long night, so he nipped it in the bud. The angel blinked at him. “But, you know—we’ve pulled off ridiculous before. And, to put it bluntly, we are scraping the bottom of the barrel here, so even terrible ideas are starting to look good.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” Aziraphale muttered, but he didn’t seem too put out by the demon’s comment. Regardless, Crowley stood and stepped over to join him by the table, ignoring the frisson of unease that swept through him at the sight of the Antichrist. He was chubby and blotchy pink and decidedly potato-like, very much like many babies Crowley had seen in the past. Still, it felt like the glassy blue eyes that peered up at him from the kid’s scrunched face were that of a predator—something primordial and dangerous. He looked away.
“You sure about this, angel?” he asked. “We could still kill him.”
“You’re welcome to try,” Aziraphale huffed with a roll of his eyes. “And of course I’m not sure, my dear. I don’t think that this is something we can ever be sure about, but here we are.”
Here we are , Crowley thought. We go from seeing each other once every few months to raising the Antichrist together, all the while trying to keep him a secret from Heaven and Hell. Sure hope this isn’t moving too fast for you, angel.
He held a hand out for Aziraphale to shake. This was generally how they sealed the deal on the arrangements of the past, and it seemed particularly important to shake on this. “To terrible ideas,” he said.
Aziraphale carefully adjusted his hold on the kid so he could reach out and grasp Crowley’s hand. “To terrible ideas,” he murmured, shook once, and then let go. Crowley shivered at the lingering heat and fizzle of angelic power that clung to his palm.
“And to the inevitable slow and painful deaths we will experience at the hands of Heaven and Hell when they undoubtedly catch us,” he added with a macabre grin.
“If you insist,” Aziraphale said. He regarded Crowley for a moment, then the demon watched the corner of his mouth crook up. “Do you want to hold him?”
A few seconds of silence passed as Crowley adsorbed that question like a punch to the gut, his stomach bottoming-out at the suggestion. Then he stammered and muttered, “Eh, b-best not. Don’t want to start—er, corrupting him with my wiles too soon. Got to give him a fighting chance, after all.”
“Of course.” Aziraphale gave him a smug, knowing look.
Crowley just scowled and glanced away, cheeks burning. “Tch. So, what are we going to name him?”
“Well, yeah. We can’t very well go around calling him The Antichrist, can we? Could you imagine?” He cocked his hips to one side, fluttered his hands against his face, and put on an exaggerated, falsetto voice. “‘Oh, what an adorable baby! What’s his name? The Antichrist? How interesting! Is it a family name?’”
Aziraphale glared at him. “Yes, yes, I suppose you’re right, you insufferable thing.”
“Of course I’m right,” Crowley said, dropping the simpering voice and folding his arms across his chest. “And unless you like the idea of calling him something like Byron Bonecrusher for the rest of his life, I would suggest you come up with the name.”
“I think Byron Bonecrusher is a little too alliterative, don’t you?” Aziraphale asked in a flat tone, giving the demon a look that could peel the skin right off of his body. Crowley just shrugged.
He wasn’t one to denote affection by naming things. Humans were very weird about that—they would name their kids, which Crowley understood, but they would also name their pets and their cars and their plants and their bloody vacuum cleaners. It was absurd. Why not just call the thing what it was?
Dog, Bentley, and Succulent. In Crowley’s opinion, people could save a lot of time and effort with names like that.
Aziraphale seemed like the type to name inanimate objects. Probably would if everything precious to him didn’t already come with a title stamped on its cover. Crowley imagined the kid walking around forever with something like Bob: An Antichrist by A. Z. Fell and Anthony J. Crowley tacked to him and snorted to himself.
At the sound, Aziraphale looked over at him, squinting in suspicion. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Nothing. Just promise me you won’t name him Bob.”
“You can rest assured, that is a promise I will not have to try very hard to keep,” he said with a grimace. “Actually, I was thinking Adam.”
“Adam?” Crowley lifted an eyebrow, considering. “Like the human from The Garden?”
Aziraphale nodded, and Crowley tilted his head, letting the name rattle around in the recesses of his brain. It wasn’t bad, honestly.
It was the first name, the foundation; somehow both new and incredibly old. To Crowley, the name felt like the pin on which scales balanced—something central, integral to their fates. It felt like stone and gritty sand beneath his bare feet; felt like drops of the first rain through protective feathers; felt like soft words and childish naivety and kindness.
It felt like the beginning of something tremendous.
“Okay, then,” he said, looking up at Aziraphale. “Adam.”