"He must fall," Her Archangels had beseeched Her. "He betrayed us. He was in league with an agent of the Adversary, and he averted the chance we had to end this conflict once and for all."
A moment passed. She could sense their fury, spilling from them, drenching them. She wished it was love, instead.
"He must fall," they repeated.
Of all the power She'd granted them, She'd stripped this from them eons ago, before they'd 'protected' Her into near-irrelevancy. They had shown Her, through the war they’d ignited in Heaven and the damnation of the dissenting angels without Her knowledge, that they could not be trusted with it implicitly. Never again would they cast out one of Her children against Her will. They'd believed that they were fulfilling their divine purpose, but damning the angels they'd fought against and broken without even asking for an audience with Her, that had given Her no choice but to limit them.
"He shall not fall." This was the word of God. Unquestionable. Aziraphale would not fall.
She could have said more. She wished that the millennia of attempting to change Her beloved Archangels had undone the instructions She'd charged them with, but She'd also made them to be immutable, above all influence. Even Hers. She could have said more, but it would have done no good.
"We understand," She heard Uriel say, though She could hear the underlying frustration more clearly than the words themselves. "We shall find another way to protect the kingdom of Heaven."
Because that was what they thought they were doing, these erstwhile children of Hers. Fulfilling their sacred duty, whatever the cost.
Before another word could be spoken, they were gone, and God was alone again.
The difficulty with creation being the strongest of Her powers, God mused, was that it sometimes overshadowed Her divine sight. For all Her power, even She could not foresee the full path ahead for that which She set into being and motion.
In other words, there'd been a hostile takeover in Heaven. It had left Her under house arrest and Her dark counterpart in Hell languishing in a cesspit of insanity and despair. It was a vast understatement to say that Morningstar—Satan—was in no shape to assist Her in fixing anything, even if he could have forgiven Her for what She'd allowed to happen to him.
But She was getting ahead of Herself. Perhaps we should go back to the beginning, or before even that, from the perspective of Her creations on Earth. We must go to the day of Her greatest anguish, the day so many of Her children were ripped from Her.
The Great Fall.
Just before our story truly begins, Aziraphale was bustling through the clean, beautiful landscape of Heaven, awaiting word of his next set of holy duties. He was, at that time, unable to put a name to the feeling scratching at his very being as he wondered why all the angels around him seemed either frightfully busy, or...something else he didn't have a word for.
Later, much later, he would easily find himself able to supply the words he'd lacked that day. Troubled, perhaps even worried, for the feeling he'd had at his lack of assignment. Agitated, to describe the demeanor of some of his brother and sister angels who had drawn his attention. Gabriel, for all he worked to affect an air of celestial tranquility in those days, had perhaps been the most agitated of all.
"She appreciates your benevolent dedication to bringing Her works into being, Aziraphale," Gabriel had said, "but the specifics of your next efforts are still a part of Her divine mystery."
Aziraphale, before the events of the Great Fall and his years on Earth, had been unable to hear the true message behind Gabriel's words that day. It wasn't until an otherwise uneventful day, centuries later, that Aziraphale first considered that Gabriel's words had more in common with the excrement left behind by herd animals than with any sort of earnest intention to communicate.
Crowley (not yet named Crowley, of course, but the name he'd carried in those days is now lost to all but Her memory) had just tucked his wings against his back as he landed near a few of his brothers and sisters he'd come to favor. His recent work had been taxing, hanging stars in the rich, dark blanket of the sky. The labor was hard: harnessing the elements to create them, then nudging them gently into place until a peace washed over him and he recognized the pattern as right . Though he had been molded by the hands of God Herself for this purpose, it required every bit of his strength and concentration to perform.
That a few of his fellow angels seemed to understand him better than the others, that they voiced the same thoughts he found himself plagued with, the words he wouldn't have dared to utter before discovering he was not alone in thinking them...well, the being who would one day name himself Crowley tried not to linger too long in questioning how the situation had come about. He finally had a sense of belonging. He'd always felt out of place among the rest of the angels, the strenuous and time-consuming nature of his duties separating him from most of the Heavenly Host enough to lose easy companionship.
He kept his silence much more than his compatriots did, but he felt at home in their acceptance of their own uncertainty. It had begun as a shared secret, hidden by those who felt this underlying urge for more, and they indulged in it only when they were amongst themselves—though the most daring of them had become more vocal of late. It wasn't until they got quite vocal indeed, that Not-Yet-Crowley noticed the too-familiar looks of distrust on his companions’ faces as he remained silent when the others began to speak openly of their doubts.
An unease settled deep within him at the prospect of losing their acceptance and finding himself isolated again.
If he could have seen what was coming, he would have felt quite foolish for thinking the worst fate that could befall him was a return to loneliness among his angelic brethren in Heaven.
She had been consumed with the light of a new creation in these times. She had conceived of an Earth among the planets in the universe, which She would bless with an unrivaled variety of beasts and flora. Her hands had sculpted the details of the mountains and plains, set the depth of the seas, and formed the creatures who would creep, slither, and soar around Her gifts of the land, sea, and sky.
This place would be an idyllic home for beings She was making in Her own image, giving them a favored place in this wondrous new world. She loaned Her divine power to some of Her angels, giving them one small area to mold with perfection for these favored creations. The angels created flowers and lush grasses with a wave of their hands, caused trees to rocket into the air with a gesture. She named the garden Eden, and created a pair of humans to appreciate it.
As She prepared to breathe the first gasp of true life into this creation, one She intended to be Her finest, everything fell apart.
As Crawly—when that had become his name, he couldn't recall—fell, a searing pain consumed him. It tore at his wings, etching an ache into him that he somehow knew he'd never again be without. His mind struggled to understand the depth of this loss, misinterpreting it in the constant attempts to label it. He felt blind, though he could see, and deaf, though he could hear. Something was missing. Something vital, something from deep within him.
It was as though he was being torn apart from the inside, gutted and left gasping. He hit the river of sulfur, his physical form twisting in agony and changing itself in a panicked grasp at survival. The smell hit him, not unlike the fires that burnt within the stars he'd loved into place with his graceful fingers, but this fire was set against him, reforging him against his will.
He cried out, hearing the echoes of despair from the others who'd fallen with him, and knew suffering for the first time.
Aziraphale was deeply shaken when he discovered how the Archangels had ended the war. He'd been fighting, tears of anguish blinding him as he tried not to cause any actual harm to his opponents, when the atmosphere went suddenly still. Half the combatants disappeared, and the army of Heaven stood down.
Then the Fall was announced, sending Aziraphale to his knees in disbelief. It was unthinkable, how many they'd lost, how many had been cast out . He had so many questions, mourning this deep loss that cut through Heaven and left a gaping wound in its wake, but he knew better than to give voice to them.
It was specified, after all, that the threat brought by those who questioned Her and Her works had led to the war. There was nothing Aziraphale wanted more than to please Her, so he banished his doubts, sealed his lips shut, and stayed silent as the tears continued to fall down his cheeks.
God recalled, though Her being recoiled at the memory, how the Great Fall had come about. Each angel was a part of Her, but She'd trusted the Archangels above the others, having taken great care when forming them to imbue them with the full strength of Her protective nature. They were to oversee Heaven as an extension of Her, to spread Her light and give fulfillment to their brethren.
She recalled the duty She'd charged them with when the last of them had come into being. "It is for you to protect the peace and harmony of that which I have wrought. It is your divine gift and responsibility, as the highest of all My angels."
This had been said when She was in the fevered aftermath of creation, as forging beings as powerful as the Archangels strained even the unlimited bounds of Her power. If She had been less wearied, perhaps Her divine foresight could have gifted Her with a vision of what was to come, and She would have tempered Her words.
Her grief was as immense as the strength of Her powers, a vast torment which had woven itself into the very fabric of the universe. She recalled with perfect clarity the moment She'd felt the Fallen wrenched from Her, but not before their anguish and pain had wrung through Her.
She loved the Archangels as She loved all of Her creations, all of them imperfect in some way, as She found beauty in the small flaws She'd breathed into them. Every error in the universe began with Her, and She knew Her most trusted angels had only sought to do Her will and protect the tranquility of Heaven.
She had forgiven Her Archangels for inciting the conflict. They'd begun peacefully enough, ordering the dissenters to excise the offending impulses from within themselves. Yet they'd promised to restore the peace, and when the two sides had come to an impasse, the Archangels had acted. They'd wielded, with no doubt of their own righteousness, the mighty power She Herself had set into them, casting out those who threatened serenity with uncertainty and the spectre of change.
They'd rent Heaven in two, their fury creating a dark shadow of Heaven for the Fallen to inhabit. Their actions brought the very concept of sorrow into being, traveling outward in waves throughout past, present, and future, and changing more than a few too-inquisitive angels could ever have hoped to.
Aziraphale would never know how close he'd come to being among the Fallen.
When Michael, Gabriel and Uriel had last spoken before the conflict began, they'd talked at length about the angel who didn't fit with the rest of them, yet wasn't technically among those who dared to question Her works. Aziraphale did tend to separate himself from the others, and was different in a way that seemed dangerous in those times, when harmony and unity had become the most prized virtues.
It was Michael who'd recalled Heaven's need for a Principality to watch over the Earth, the newest of Her creations. The thought of spending most of the wide eternity away from their divine home and communing with the low creatures that were to move about the Earth was abhorrent to many of the angels. Were it Her will, any of the faithful would accept the task and take up the mantle with honor, of course, but if one among their number seemed naturally suited to it, well...
Perhaps Aziraphale could escape his dire fate by accepting a more mundane one, reasoned Michael.
The demons forged a new existence for themselves, their grief twisting inside them to anger and hatred. They tested the limits of their new powers, fueled by the remnants of their divine natures but bent by their pain into something darker than any of them had conceived of before.
They spied on the angels finishing their work on the creation of Earth, discovering that many of them seemed to favor some of the creatures over others. The Fallen felt a kinship with the shunned, the ones not sought out or cooed over like those that were furry and warm.
It became the custom amongst the demons to choose one of these maligned creatures and remake themselves to resemble it. Lucifer, their leader and the most powerful among them, had added features of nearly all of God's “lower” creatures to himself, growing massive and imposing, leaving all traces of his old angelic form behind and taking the name 'Satan.' He was, truly, no longer the Morningstar, but a being of pain, anger, and frustrated ambition.
There was one among the demons whose fall had surprised many of the others, and they whispered to each other of how he'd never been vocal in his questioning of Her, how they couldn't sense more than a touch of their own thirst for power and chaos within him. Yet it was Crawly whose talent at remaking himself rivaled Satan's, as he could transform into a serpent who could fool God Herself. He could do this without the degradation of his non-serpent form, a talent almost none among the demons possessed. While the others rotted and deformed or lost the ability to morph fully away from their chosen animal forms, Crawly changed himself at will, his true face and form remaining fair, save for the eyes he'd taken permanently by choice.
And they hated him for it.
When Heaven sent the Principality Aziraphale to guard the Eastern Gate of Eden, Satan desired an agent of his own there to sow the seeds of discord and evil. Hatred burned in the place where his soul used to be, and he shared with his subjects the fire within him to subvert Her works and prove themselves more worthy and righteous in their exile.
Satan charged his closest lieutenants with the selection of the chosen one who would do their master's bidding on Earth. The reasons Satan's most trusted gave for their selection of Crawly were praises of his shapeshifting ability, the way he'd be able to hide in the open among the divine creations around him. Crawly was known to be crafty, more thoughtful and calculating than most. He was the perfect choice, they argued, and Lucifer agreed.
And Ligur, Hastur, and Beelzebub grinned darkly to each other, satisfied that sending the most loathed of their number away, where his appearance and demeanor would no longer torment them, had been so easily accomplished.
Caught up in the joy of creation, God had sequestered Herself and thrown all Her energy into Earth, never noticing until much, much later how seamlessly the Archangels had taken over the administration of Heaven. They had summoned up their powers and created for Her a conduit, a voice to stand in Her stead. In the fevered heat of the final steps of the Earth's creation, She accepted their gift of the Metatron wholeheartedly, feeling their overwhelming love for Her imbued into him, and She trusted above all that Her works were infallible.
Infallible, they were. Her Archangels would never forget the sacred duty She had charged them with, and would pursue it through eternity. Peace in Heaven at all costs, and they would do anything to secure it.
Yet God was still anguished on the day She set life into motion on Earth. In the last moment prior to The Beginning, She found Herself pausing as Her eyes cast over Eden. The life there vibrated with possibilities yet to come, and She wondered if any among them would come to the dark fate of the demons. Each of Her creations had divine flaws, from the humans, complex in Her own image, to the smallest and simplest bacteria. How could She know if those flaws would sow discord anew? Could it again taint everything, destroying all it touched and rendering Her greatest creation dead and barren?
In Her wisdom, She placed a tree in the most prominent of spaces, its branches laden with the most delectable fruits hanging heavily, inviting a taste of their flesh. With a single thought, She made the tree and its fruit forbidden, an edict settling into the being of every creature, unquestionable. It was a test, no more, no less. To taste of this fruit would bring the gift of knowledge, but it would also doom them to doubt. Doubt would lead to grief and pain, and if another of Her creations chose this over tranquility, She would have to alter their existence accordingly.
She saw the flicker of panic in Gabriel and Michael's eyes as She informed them of Her newest decree, before breathing life into the Earth and causing creatures who had been mindlessly twitching with potential to suddenly burst into the full continuum of existence. She knew uncertainty disturbed Her Archangels. Yet, as She sat later, alone and watching over what She had created, Her mind recalled the narrowing of their eyes before they'd replaced their tranquil countenances. That reaction spoke of a conflict to come, but the path to it was, as yet, unclear. It rested, at least partially, on those who were out of Her reach, obscuring Her view of what was to come.
In the end, Crawly found the temptation of Eve so simple as to almost be uninteresting. He burrowed down into the Earth to breach the garden, using the power of his serpentine form and reveling in the clever design of the animal he'd adopted as his own. He'd slithered close to the woman, whispering promises to her of novelty, of choice, of something other than the sameness in which she'd existed since her first breath, and the apple had been in her hand almost before his snake's eyes could blink.
It felt just , that he had been the one to lead the humans to such a noble gift. It was what he had been cast out for, the unforgivable sin of simple curiosity. A desire for change, for novelty, for discovery. Before he'd reached them, the humans had barely cast their eyes up to revel in the gifts he'd placed for them in the sky, much less thought about what might be outside the boundaries of the paradisiac prison of Eden.
He did feel rather foolish though, watching the ensuing fallout. Why had he expected more mercy for these poor beings than had been granted to the Fallen? He was disgusted with himself, at his genuine surprise as Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, abandoned to the merciless environs outside the garden.
He shouldn't have been naïve enough to hope he might have won these humans a mere loosening of the bonds to their idyllic but changeless home. There was no mercy left in Heaven, and the darkest part of the wounded remains of his soul doubted there'd been any to begin with.
Crawly was careful as he approached his adversary, an odd angel who outwardly seemed to be bumbling and unassuming, yet radiated blinding waves of inner power. Crawly expected to be threatened, blamed. Cursed. A smiting with the flaming sword the angel wielded didn't seem entirely out of the question.
Yet, he knew he'd be reprimanded if he didn't attempt contact with the enemy. Avoiding a skirmish or an opportunity to gather information about the other side would not be appreciated by those idiots who'd taken to calling themselves Dukes or Lords or whichever ridiculous title they'd dreamed up to set themselves apart.
The angel, Aziraphale, instead floored Crawly at every turn of their conversation. Though Crawly had circumvented the angel's guarding of the gate and set into motion the most disastrous of events for the forces of Heaven on Earth, their exchange was...amicable? Crawly had teased and prodded, waiting for the angel's righteous fury, and received instead a confession of Aziraphale’s own transgression with the sword and an oddly philosophical debate over the nature of right and wrong. He'd even stayed for a truly humiliating amount of time, sheltered from the first rain to fall upon the planet under the angel's protective wing. As much as he wanted to deny it, it was all because he almost couldn't bear the thought of leaving.
A shiver passed over Crawly when he parted from Aziraphale, unsettling him for far too long afterward. Something in his core growled, demanding more, needing to chase that feeling again, a drive to bask in the angel's nearness with a hunger he couldn't comprehend.
He didn't know, couldn't know, that She had been watching, and through them, Crawly and Aziraphale, the path to the future was becoming ever clearer to Her. She hadn't yet decided on the outcome of the game, but She could sense the pieces beginning to move into place.
Yet for now, She could only observe, holding back Her final judgement.
297 BC - Ancient Egypt
The cacophony of the festival celebrating the false deity Osiris surrounded Aziraphale as he struggled through the throng of people, not daring to draw any undue attention from Upstairs by miracling his way through. His hand clenched with the desire to snap and clear his path, but he put his chin down and persevered the human way.
He couldn't explain what had caused him to abandon his work in Alexandria, where he’d been 'helping' with the rare scrolls and documents that were miraculously appearing to populate the shelves of their Great Library project. The unease had manifested as a buzzing at the base of his skull he couldn't ignore, and he'd set off on the arduous journey by beast and by foot to this small, agrarian settlement.
Once he spotted Crawly, lying unconscious—could he truly be unconscious, or was he feigning?—in the middle of a downtrodden group of red-haired men tied up at the outskirts of the festival's central bonfire, the pieces began to fall into place. These misguided Egyptians worshiped a plethora of gods, Osiris among them. He'd heard the stories of humans with red hair disappearing in certain areas at a specific time of the year, but he'd dismissed them as rumor. So much of what these humans said was confused allegory, after all, as they tried to make sense of their own existence.
It was dark enough now for the fire's flames to lick brightly against the sky, and voices rose up in song about a sacrifice, a more bountiful harvest, and hopes for the blessing of rich, golden corn come harvest time. Such beautiful melodies for such an abominable practice.
These humans intended to burn alive anyone unfortunate enough to have red hair, just to sprinkle their ashes over their corn fields in a tribute to one of their ridiculous, false gods. Aziraphale’s disbelief was enough to make him quite dizzy, just as he’d felt the last night he'd tried a touch too much wine (he'd never do that again). But as terribly unsettled as he was, he was determined to come up with a plan.
He bounced on the balls of his feet as he thought, easily finding justification enough for a miracle or two in the service of saving so many souls from a pointless death. With a subtle gesture, he turned all the human redheads to brunets, but paused as he considered what to do about Crawly. Aziraphale wasn't sure his power was sufficient to alter the form of a demon, even a mundane detail such as hair color, and there was no time to waste in thinking it through. With another wave, he caused anyone looking directly at Crawly to want very much to look elsewhere and stop thinking about him entirely.
Striding through the suddenly fair-haired throng of men as they were being set free (for what fool would think Osiris would accept the ashes of a brunet man in return for healthy crops) Aziraphale carried Crawly's limp form, unnoticed, back through the crowd.
He didn't stop until they were outside the settlement, where he created a small shelter for them and settled Crawly inside. It wasn't until he conjured some light and examined the demon that he discovered the gash on the back of Crawly's head, still dripping blood and explaining why his corporation hadn't yet regained consciousness.
"How long can these primitive creatures believe in such obviously barbaric things?" Aziraphale raged to the wall of the tent, which fluttered, unaffected, in the breeze, providing no answers whatsoever.
Still hesitant to risk using angelic energy on a demonic form, Aziraphale set about nursing Crawly's humanlike body back to health using conventional means. He had some knowledge of mending wounds, having run into a few snags with his own corporation. This was more extreme, however, and he took care to be thorough and gentle with this gash that surely would have been enough to kill an ordinary human outright. It took days for Crawly to open his eyes, and then several more before the rasp in his throat cleared enough to speak.
"Fancy running into you again, angel," came a voice from the makeshift bedroll on the ground, and Aziraphale masked his wave of relief with a look of having been mildly inconvenienced, but not caring very much about it.
"I happened to be in the area and couldn't help noticing you putting yourself in mortal peril," he said, refusing to look directly at the demon, suddenly aware of how small the tent was.
"Ah, but I'm not mortal, now am I?" Crawly grinned, his eyes lighting up as soon as Aziraphale broke his internal promise to keep a cordial but businesslike distance and looked over at him, unable to keep up the façade.
"But this form," he argued, kicking Crawly gently on the shoulder, then rolling his eyes as the demon acted as though Aziraphale had just attempted a full exorcism, "isn't immortal. You'll get it destroyed and your horrible superiors will send someone else in your place and I'll have to go through a whole adjustment process. It would be terribly inconvenient."
Crawly raised his eyebrows at that, opening his mouth to speak, and then freezing in place.
"Crawly?" Aziraphale straightened his back in concern, getting hit full force with a very strong emotion emanating from the demon as he sat, motionless.
"The others," Crawly said, making as if to sit up. "The other men they'd rounded up, they—"
"Are now brunet, and so will their descendants be," Aziraphale finished. "It will take generations for red hair to reappear in this area, and hopefully this horrifying practice of human sacrifice will have gone fully out of favor by then. Are you disappointed?"
Crawly's features all seemed to meet in the middle of his face as he processed this.
"Disappointed? It's your lot who seem to go in for mass killing. I just assumed redheads had let Her down somehow and were being wiped out. Or have you forgotten that bit about the flood and the big floating menagerie?"
"We've been over that business with Noah and the flood more times than I can count," Aziraphale said, exasperated. "I've told you, She has promised never to do it again."
(God, peering down helplessly at Her emissary on Earth—too removed to have any real contact with him—winced terribly at the mention of the Great Flood. She had asked Her Archangels to use their powers to more directly influence Her creations on Earth for the better, and they had misinterpreted Her terribly. It was the first time Her sorrow had again reached the depths She'd felt the day of the Great Fall.)
"Still, I'm a demon, so I must have been here machinating some sort of deep evil, right? Death and destruction, all down to me, is that it?" Crawly sat up as he argued, a shudder wracking through his body that he seemed to be ignoring.
"Don't be a fool, dear boy. Shout at me all you like, but lie back and rest while you do. I'll not have you expiring here, now, after I've gone to all this trouble to preserve you." Aziraphale waited for Crawly to settle back, then continued. "If you wouldn't mind me asking, what were you doing here?"
Crawly turned away as much as he could without jostling himself too much and then mumbled something Aziraphale couldn't make out.
"I'm sorry, what was that?"
"I said, I came to curse the fields of the fool who leads this massacre every year so his crops would grow in the shape of Set's head."
"Set," Aziraphale said, blinking owlishly. "Set, the mythical god who they believe murdered Osiris, the god who blesses their crops."
"Before you even start, he'd never have stuck around long enough for anyone to kill him once the shape was noticeable. If I'd wanted him dead, I could have just killed him. Thought he deserved a little more time on this blasted dust rock to think about what he's done."
"All because you feel such brotherhood for the humans who share your hair color?" Aziraphale shot back, a touch whimsically now that he knew Crawly hadn't been up to anything as horrible as what he'd imagined.
"No," Crawly said, his voice icy even in the dry, hot air of the desert. "I just don't think a load of people should be destroyed over something they were created with, especially when they never asked to be created that way."
Aziraphale absorbed the words like a blow to the chest. He understood Crawly immediately, his mind casting back to the confused questions he'd never dared ask the day he'd learned the fate of the fallen angels. It had been difficult to master his urge to dwell on it, this desire to make some sense of what felt like a truly senseless act. Surely there'd been some other way to come to peace in Heaven, with all of them a part of God’s beloved Host at their core. He'd never understood—
He stopped himself thinking, squeezing his eyes shut and forcing blank serenity to wash over him, the white noise of it wiping away his doubt. He'd have to prostrate himself for many hours in private contemplation to make amends for questioning Her as it was, and simply couldn't risk following these thoughts any further. It wasn't for him to question; it was for him to believe and bring Good to the world.
"You're correct, of course," Aziraphale barrelled forward, pretending he'd never understood the implication behind Crawly's words. He knew the demon thought him naïve, so he played into that to find a graceful exit from this dangerous area of discussion. "But I've sorted it, you see. They can't murder people with red hair if there are none here, and I doubt the nearby communities will allow them to spirit away their citizens in the service of another city's crops."
"So, you've gotten them to do the right thing by tricking them into it. Just the sort of thing your lot loves, I suppose. Don't make sense of things, don't think it through. Don't think at all, if you can help it."
Aziraphale knew he was being baited and, with a truly heroic surge of control and self-preservation, refused to act on it. He simply couldn't continue this conversation, not without the risk of doubt seeping into his own mind, and he was frequently on thin ice with his superiors as it was. He turned his back, delivering his excuses into the wind, uncertain if Crawly would even be able to hear him. "I had limited time to act, Crawly. It took great concentration to divert them from noticing me as I spirited you away, and it was all I could think of in the moment to secure their safety."
Crawly heaved a deep sigh. "You didn't do anything wrong, angel. I was foolish enough to let one of them get behind me when they discovered me in the fields, and I'd be in Hell filling out recorporation paperwork by now if you hadn't intervened."
"You're welcome," Aziraphale said, letting himself turn back and kneel next to the demon, inspecting the wound he'd been tending. Crawly shivered at his touch and Aziraphale pulled back, wondering if the touch of an angel on a demon's flesh had actually hurt him, or if he simply recoiled at the idea of Aziraphale in general. It bothered him more than he wanted to admit. "You should be fine in a few days. I'll stay until you're able to stand on your own."
"You don't have to—"
"I'll stay," Aziraphale cut in, "until you can walk. I've brought a few scrolls I recently secured for the library they're putting together in Alexandria. I could read them aloud, if you'd like."
"Sounds like great sleeping material, you lecturing on some scholarly tripe while I'm being held captive here."
"You aren't a captive, you are free to leave as soon as you're able." Aziraphale paused, never sure why his conversations with Crawly always seemed to have a mind of their own. "Would you like me to read, or not?"
"All right," the demon conceded, as though he was granting some great favor by agreeing to listen. "I suppose it's a better way to pass the time than silence."
Aziraphale read, Crawly listened, and they both felt a bit of a pang when they parted ways a few days later.
God watched, humbled at the compassion Her Principality showered on his adversary. When She'd given humanity the ability to choose knowledge over safety, not even She had realized what it truly meant. She'd thought it was a test, when it truly was nothing other than an evolution. The Great War in Heaven had its roots in the same struggle, but this one had to turn out differently.
If only She hadn't allowed Her Archangels to trap Her behind layers of so-called protection, She could intervene on Earth and discover how to make the pursuit of that knowledge divine. She could have guided Her mortal creations to a more varied harmony of all possibilities, seeking symmetry and proportion with each other.
She didn't know if humanity could navigate the path to this balance alone, yet Her agent on Earth had somehow come to embody exactly that which She wished She Herself could gift to the Earth. She could feel Aziraphale's doubt, of course, the tension that weighed him down as instructions he received from the Archangels were set against what his very soul screamed at him was right.
She chuckled, recalling the very last direct contact She'd had with any of Her creations who weren't the Archangels or the Metatron. It had been with sweet, conflicted Aziraphale, whose empathy for the humans being cast out of Eden had overcome his earnest and overpowering desire to fulfill the duties he'd been charged with. She had asked him where his flaming sword was, delight suffusing Her as She began to make sense of the wonderfully atypical angel who was destined to walk the surface of Her Earth. But in that moment, Her connection to Her creations had been severed for the last time.
So, She watched.
Protected by the Archangels and secreted behind the Metatron, it was nearly all She could do. With all of Her power summoned, She could allow some of Her grace to flow to those closest to Her, enough to maintain some awareness of Earth through Aziraphale and Her human creations. It was even enough, at times, to gain some sense of what had happened to Morningstar.
He'd taken the name Satan, as all of the Fallen had renamed themselves after their celestial identities had been ripped from them. Satan's raw power, however, had left a thread of connection to Her in its wake. Not even the Archangels could sever him from Her entirely.
In the earliest days after the Fall, Satan wouldn't even acknowledge the connection. She'd tried to offer him some awareness of how it had all come to pass, casting about for anything She could do to bring some healing to the rift that now gaped between them. Her forgiveness was supposed to be eternal, and She knew part of the Fallen’s suffering was disbelief that it could be withheld from them.
It took millennia for Satan to send back any sense of confirmation to Her, and by the time they began the first shuddering steps toward actual communication, it was too late.
The highest of Satan's underlings hadn't fallen for nothing, and most of them had not Fallen simply for curiosity. An extreme, seething ambition had risen in many of them, an untemperable desire for sedition. They'd existed in the light of unimaginable power for so long, they'd begun to lust for it, slavering to harness it and gorge themselves on it.
They called it "worship," the long shifts they took in service to their demonic Lord. Their words rang out until their throats were flayed and raw, singing and shouting for the supremacy of Hell, to topple Heaven and murder God Herself. They buried Satan in dreams of power, of ruling the universe, of setting fire to the Heavens from the depths of their pain and banishment.
God could feel Satan's clarity slipping each time She was able to make contact. He stopped hearing Her, exalting in the promise of finding salvation again, of constructing their own forgiveness, as the reminders of what had been taken from them were scoured away by the rage and greed of his subjects. The hope of their first contact, halting and fragile as it was, burnt away as though it had been cast into the sulfur, itself.
She knew Her Archangels were preparing for the Great War, a conflict to obliterate the forces of Hell. They didn't speak to Her of it, but their essences were still entwined enough with Her that She could sense the vague outline of their intentions. She feared they intended to wage this war on the surface of Her Earth, this beautifully flawed place, this simmering cauldron of what might someday become perfect balance.
It wasn't that the Archangels simply didn't care what happened to Earth, but they were terrified of the entropy and uncertainty that seemed woven into its very nature. Allowing the Great War to leave Earth in flames and ruin simply settled two problems at once, as far as the Archangels were concerned.
God's influence over these events, to Her great sorrow, would have to be indirect. She knew enough of the future to see how Her angel, Aziraphale, and the demon Crowley could insert themselves into the fray, to tip the balance. She was determined to prod things into place around them, and lend them the strength necessary for victory.
Though She could not intervene on Earth directly, She began to work on a new project whenever the attention of the Archangels was diverted. Her new creation was a true extension of Herself, an offspring She could infuse Her very spirit into. Her Son.
He would be a conduit for Her, a way to study and guide these fascinating humans as they ranged over the Earth, sowing discovery and destruction in their wake in nearly equal measure. She could not reveal these plans to the Archangels, lest their protective instincts lead them to block Her. Instead, She would explain His existence as an opportunity for the humans to correct their moral course, a way to make amends for the sins of Adam and Eve.
And it was with great joy that She watched through Gabriel as he put Her plan into motion. She watched as Her Son grew, grace shining through Him infused equally with divinity and humanity, and She felt some relief. Perhaps She could work through Her Son, Her emissary, and exalt in Her creation's path into this new territory.
She felt carried on a river of joy as She watched people flock to Him, listening to His message of kindness and peace. He took action of His own, aiding the needy, healing the sick—but She found it more of a revelation to watch Him inspire humans to emulate Him. Of all His miracles, His effect on those around Him was what caused love to course uncontrollably through Her.
As Her Son came fully into his power, She allowed a deep sense of peace and love for all Her creations to wash over Her. She felt hope, and watched with furtive eyes for the blossoming of humanity She was sure would follow.
It was with an uneasy eye that She watched as the demon Crawly made contact with Her beloved Son. The actions of one of the Fallen were outside of Her plan, and She despaired at the idea that She could not guide Jesus more directly.
She needn't have worried, as it turned out, once She watched the interactions between the two of them. Her apprehension for Her Son turned to a deep ache that Crawly remained out of Her reach, that She had no way to ease his pain and feelings of betrayal. While he could have turned his dark, demonic energy (which She could sense was considerable) to the task of tempting Jesus, Crawly instead took it upon himself to reveal honest, almost innocent delights of Her Earth to Her Son. Most of what Crawly had done, any human could have done as well. He'd perhaps attempted a few half-hearted temptations, and yes, had genuinely wanted to get Jesus out of Jerusalem and away from his work in favor of a more indulgent exploration of the Earth. But once their travels were done, he'd mostly left the gift of some knowledge and perspective behind.
The Archangels also watched, and they feared. Instead of Jesus leading humanity into penance for Eve's original sin, He seemed to be encouraging human societies to...think for themselves. He tried too much to lead by example, revealed consequences for just and unjust acts instead of solely meting out righteous punishment. He consorted with the demon Crawly, and, to all outward appearance, seemed unable even to sense the pure evil that must have emanated from the creature. This experiment had to be stopped.
The Archangels gathered, jaws set and hands curled into fists, as they discussed how similar leniency for the Lord's subjects in Heaven had led to the Fall; how this tragedy had anguished God.
Michael approached Gabriel in secrecy, and suggested there might be a backchannel remaining between Heaven and the Fallen, leading Gabriel carefully to the conclusion that such a conduit to the damned could be exploited in the service of solving their problem on the surface of Earth.
"Interesting," Gabriel said, keeping his voice low. "Manipulate this...backchannel and take care of this." Michael nodded, turning to go, when Gabriel caught him by the sleeve, pulling them so close their noses nearly touched. "Then burn that conduit to the ground. Connections between Heaven and those vermin cannot exist."
Michael bowed, showing deference in the face of Gabriel's intense concern, and then promptly decided it would be folly to burn such a useful tool to the ground. The backchannel would merely have to be held by Michael in secret, waiting to be activated when it was again necessary.
And God was forced to watch as Her Son was tortured and murdered, tears of righteous anger and pain falling, and the angels trembled.
1973 AD - London
Aziraphale was never quite sure how his clandestine meetings with Crowley often seemed to morph into something else. He always intended to sit, implacable, where they'd planned a meeting and exchange necessary information related to The Arrangement, and then take his leave. Yet, here they were again, having finished a lovely meal at an eatery Aziraphale would never admit aloud he'd avoided trying until he could go with Crowley, and afterwards they'd retired to the back room of his bookshop to drink ridiculous amounts of spirits.
He was alone, unguarded with his...oh Lord, what was Crowley to him now...rival? Foe? Given how much of each other's work they were doing, perhaps even terms such as 'associate' were appropriate.
And Aziraphale took a long swig from his glass, suddenly realizing he'd do better not to think about what he and Crowley were at all, actually.
"All I'm saying," Crowley suddenly said, despite not having said a word for more than a half hour, "is that it isn't all bad. In fact, it was going to happen anyway, I just made sure it happened at a specific time."
"What was that again, dear boy?" Aziraphale blinked repeatedly, forcing his eyes back open each time in the hopes that his vision had cleared. "I'm afraid I can't recall what we were speaking about."
"Yeah, well, it was..." Crowley trailed off. "Not sure I can remember, either."
Aziraphale giggled, his vision of Crowley swimming about quite delightfully as he felt himself floating along the top of this wonderful oblivion the multiple bottles of 1947 Château Haut-Brion had afforded them.
"Had something to do with," Aziraphale said between bouts of laughter, "holidays?"
"Holidays!" screamed Crowley, pointing an unsteady finger at Aziraphale. "Yes! Right."
"But what were you saying about the holidays, again, my dear?"
"Well, I was clarifying to you," Crowley said, "that I hardly had to do anything to push Court Line into bankruptcy." He hiccuped to punctuate this pronouncement.
"All those people on holidays booked through them, though, depending on them and Clarksons to get home," Aziraphale mourned, thinking of all the people who'd been put out.
"Listen, with the strikes and the recession, it was all bound to happen anyway. No way they could stay solvent for much longer."
"But there are thousands left stranded," Aziraphale argued, forcing himself to some clarity through his haze of drunkenness.
"Oh, what a shame," Crowley said, his tone mocking in a way that always put Aziraphale in a mind to argue back. "Being stuck away from home and your horrible job, in a beautiful resort town where you can do nothing but relax and wait."
"But the expense!" Aziraphale countered. "The economy is absolutely ghastly right now. This will put such a strain—"
"The holidaymakers who really need it will receive some unexpected windfall in the next few months," Crowley grumbled, waving his hand dismissively in the air. "And I've got the ear of the Trade Minister, made him quite concerned about a general election likely to come up soon. He'll make sure to get everyone home, and return the money paid in advance to the people whose trips have been cancelled. He'll do it for the good PR, and I'll get credit for tempting him."
"You did all this for a single temptation?" Aziraphale goggled at Crowley, who smirked back.
"I did it," Crowley said, his teeth clacking together on the 'T,' "for a laugh."
Aziraphale rolled his eyes, the last nearly empty bottle catching in his field of vision as he did.
"Not much left of the wine, I'm afraid," Aziraphale said, picking up the bottle and waving it in Crowley's direction. "Want a top up before I finish it?"
"I can just make more—"
"Better not to. We're both feeling rather lightheaded already."
"All right then," Crowley said, holding out his glass. “Let's split what's left."
Aziraphale heaved himself to his feet, fighting to still the wobbling of his arm...or rather, line up the wobbling of his arm with the wobbling of Crowley's, so they wouldn't spill a drop of this delightful vintage.
"Here," Crowley said, using his free hand to steady Aziraphale, and all thoughts of the wine fled Aziraphale's mind as soon as they came into contact.
There was a reason Aziraphale avoided this. Even incidental touches between them carried all the weight of their eons of association with each other, and the full power of Crowley's tantalizing nature seemed to spark through the connection.
At least, that's what Aziraphale told himself. The feeling he got around Crowley, that had to be down to his demonic powers, his ability to allure and cajole. It couldn't be anything else, because that would mean hours of supplication to ask for absolution from the Almighty. It would mean Aziraphale was Wrong, and worse, a fool to think Crowley saw him as anything more than an engaging adversary.
"Angel," Crowley whispered, his fingers tightening around Aziraphale's arm. "Put down the bottle and come to me." His voice was so small, almost inaudible, and so very fragile.
Aziraphale prayed for divine mercy as he fell to his knees, letting Crowley's hand slide up to his shoulder to pull him closer.
"Angel," Crowley repeated. "Would you let me..." he began, but stopped, his brow furrowing. "You must know, don't you? You've always known, I'm sure of it. Do you need to hear it?"
"Crowley," Aziraphale gasped, and he wasn't sure if he was begging Crowley to stop or to continue.
"Do you need to hear it as much as I need to say it?"
Aziraphale could already hear it. It had always been there between them, in the silences and the absences and the connection they maintained regardless of distance or circumstances. He'd never allowed himself to put a name to it, and he'd taken pains (and oh, they were pains) never to give Crowley an opening to address it outright.
"You can't," Aziraphale said, forcing the words out and feeling himself shatter. One of them had to be strong. Aziraphale tasted panic on his tongue, metallic and dark, fearing he wouldn't be able to piece enough of himself back together to protect them. If Crowley continued, if one more word slipped, honeyed and bright, from between his lips, Aziraphale would be useless. "They'll erase you." Aziraphale willed him to understand. If they did this, if they made this real , it would lead to Crowley's destruction.
"You're afraid you'll fall," Crowley spat out, pushing Aziraphale away from him with a strength that sent Aziraphale tumbling backward.
"I'm terrified I'll fall," Aziraphale agreed from his place on the carpet. "But that's nothing next to what I fear might happen to you."
"Fine." Crowley rose to his feet, dusting himself off and giving off an air of being completely unaffected. "Was just the odd lark, angel. Didn't know you'd take it so seriously."
"Crowley, wait!" Aziraphale stumbled to his feet, nearly pitching forward in his haste but righting himself at the last moment. "Let's sober up, and we can talk about—"
"Nothing to talk about, angel. I'll see you around."
Aziraphale had never wanted anything more than he needed to follow Crowley right now, to take back what he'd said, and lose himself in the press of the demon's lips against his. He'd let the world crumble around them and not even notice.
But he couldn't.
Every time Aziraphale had held himself back, each moment that could have blossomed into something different between them, something beautiful, that strength would have to be called on again. If he failed, he wouldn't only fail himself, he would fail Crowley. Crowley would pay for Aziraphale's weakness, and nothing after that would matter.
He knew Crowley didn't care, but he'd always been self-destructive. This was Aziraphale's responsibility to them both, a gift he could give to make up for the millennia of companionship and understanding Crowley had offered to Aziraphale, even when the angel had offered little but dismissals and denial in return.
Aziraphale simply wished it didn't have to ache this badly.
God reached out as much as She could, to send peace to Her agent on Earth. If there was any hope for Earth at all, She would need Aziraphale resolute and sure.
When the Almighty sensed the creation of the Antichrist (and oh, how She still mourned the loss of Her own Son's Earthly presence) it was with a wash of relief. She'd known the other side had been working toward something, but the inner workings of Hell were opaque to Her until they manifested on Earth. The moment Crowley explained their plans to Aziraphale, She understood. She was troubled by the development, of course, but it would be much easier to nudge events toward a safer outcome for humanity now that the plan wasn't a mystery to Her.
Instead, Heaven's inherent limitations of unceasing peace and a fanatical devotion to suppressing any dissent had begun to war with the very nature of Earth. That was what this conflict had become, truly, a war neither Her angels nor the Fallen could possibly see or understand. It was a conflict between zealotry and the harmony of counterbalance. The only beings, the only system in the universe that possessed the complexity and potential necessary to bring it into being, was Earth, and the true war would be for its protection. For its very soul.
She would have two warriors at the forefront of this battle. She had watched them for millennia, as their ties to each other strengthened and became something beautiful of its own. Their unacknowledged love and devotion to each other was proof that the Fallen should never have been cast out, that judgments against Her poor, fallible creations had always been too harsh, too unyielding. God felt Herself humbled at how Aziraphale and Crowley had found balance, how they illustrated it every day they walked the Earth. They each embodied it on their own, but working together, tempering and stabilizing each other, they had stumbled into a perfection even they themselves didn't yet understand.
God had long watched as the angel and demon fought, made amends, and fought again. Her fingers itched to mold and shape the world around them, to lift the veil over their eyes. They were, nominally, supposed to be adversaries, but from the moment they entered each other's sphere, they could never truly be that. They worked for opposite sides, yet they both innately saw the value in balance, in the full spectrum between joy and heartache. Neither Heaven nor Hell would ever budge from the extremes, but Crowley and Aziraphale operated in the rich ambiguity of the middle ground.
And so, the introduction of the Antichrist would be the beginning of the war for Earth's soul. Though both sides labored to keep the child's existence and identity a secret, any grander act of creation in Her universe pulled at Her edges, was an itching at the base of Her skull. She felt Crowley's dread as a tendril that reached out to Her, allowing Her just enough connection to him to distract him from the duty of switching the babies. She needed the child to bathe in the light of humanity alone, isolated from the meddling of Heaven or Hell. Bless the poor, injured soul of Her fallen angel Crowley, it was not difficult to nudge him into inattention long enough for him to lose track of the child.
Earth had endured enough celestial and demonic meddling. God had created it while embracing Her own wonderings about the merits of uncertainty, of balance. The moment Eve tasted the apple should have been the harbinger of a new era for the universe, but that opportunity had been wasted. The fate of humanity, then, would rest on the shoulders of two ordinary human parents and their child.
Though it would have no bearing on the fate of the universe, She did watch the angel and demon's machinations to interfere with the bringing up of the decoy Antichrist with great interest. It was, oddly, a bit of referendum on the worthiness of the champions She'd chosen to fight for humanity—as well as, and She could be honest here, quite humorous to behold.
Warlock was certainly growing up to be an atypical child: uncommonly spoiled, and his adolescent sarcasm was tinged with a worrying edge of meanness. Crowley and Aziraphale were to be easily forgiven for continuing to believe they were influencing the true Antichrist, given the odd pettiness that suffused the child's nature.
If any outside observer had discovered that the nanny and the gardener were actually agents of Heaven and Hell, meddling in Warlock's upbringing, they would surely attribute the boy's somewhat dark character to that. She assumed this was why Her Archangels and the overseers of Hell had yet to suspect anything was amiss with their plans.
It was only from Her unique viewpoint that the truth was clear. The boy's flirtation with nastiness, the pettiness within him, it wasn't due to the occult and angelic forces influencing him. If anything, Aziraphale's odd, folksy advice and Crowley's alarming, somewhat concerning lessons would have made Warlock a fairly normal, if quirky, example of humanity.
The smallness that had taken up residence in the boy came from the habitual absence (both physical and emotional) of his father, and from the disinterest of his mother. Warlock had noticed how it was always Nanny tucking him in at night, offering him solace whenever he'd skinned his knee or been hurt by a friend. The gardener had always been happy to see him, setting aside his work instantly if Warlock so much as coughed in his direction.
They'd both just disappeared in the space of a month or two, and the loss of the two people who seemed to actually care about him was a loss he internalized and assumed was somehow his fault. His mother had told him that he'd grown too old to need a nanny, so she'd been let go. Warlock hadn't even been allowed to tell her goodbye, and his request to send a letter after her was met with an aggrieved sigh. The gardener hadn't lasted more than a few weeks after Nanny had departed; his mother complained that the garden was suddenly suffering, its lushness overtaken by a brown sea of dying plants. Similarly, he'd been sacked and left without a word, and Warlock had learned his lesson not to ask his mother for more.
God ached for the boy's pain, wondering if having two beings there and caring for him in a way his parents were never destined to had been unnecessarily cruel. It weighed on Her, especially when She watched him grow into a soul who would eventually be claimed by Hell.
The tragedy of that, as much as anything, transformed itself into resolve within Her, to bring this issue, the fate of humanity, to a head as quickly as possible. She'd failed so many souls, so many people who'd never had a real chance to prove their worth. She would remedy that as soon as possible.
God remained watchful, stuck in the gilded cage Her Archangels had constructed around Her, and nudged events wherever She could. Hell's attempt to kick off a true War To End All Wars continued, encouraged by Her own angels, though none of them seemed to notice that they hadn't had to arrange the reunion of the four horsemen. She supposed Her attempts to veil Her interference, along with the ugliness of their glee at the impending conflict, were enough to distract them. She made certain the tools were delivered and the riders were assembled with everything they'd need to move forward and make a true attempt at Armageddon, something big enough for humanity to notice and thwart.
The frustrated forces of creation that swirled within Her roiled as angels and demons, witches and witchfinders, and four of the most blessedly, wonderfully human children in Her universe assembled themselves, moving like chess pieces in a game She could only spectate. She feared all was lost once Lucifer broke free of his fevered insanity and pierced through the crust of Her Earth to rain down fire and destruction, but Her angelic and demonic warriors sensed their moment, their chance to spur humanity to action.
Just as Crowley had offered Adam and Eve the twin gifts of free will and self-destruction, he drew upon the depths of his innate power to stop time and give humanity a choice. And just as Aziraphale had given the humans the power to both protect and destroy themselves back in the Garden of Eden, he pulled from his deep wellspring of love and cleverness the right words to calm the overload of knowledge and emotions in Adam Young's mind. Aziraphale gave the boy the power to insist on his own choices, and Crowley gave him the desire.
She wept, watching as a young man rewrote the fiber of himself and defied the Lord of Darkness, taking his human father and mother close to his heart and putting an end to the threat. (For now, She knew, noting with a lightning bolt of pain that the bloodthirsty forces of Heaven and Hell would hardly rest forever.)
She continued to watch as Her angel and Her demon deciphered Agnes Nutter's prophecy, tricking the Archangels and the Lord of Hell in turn. As they were all so distracted, She was able to break free of Her “protection” long enough to make their immunities real, knowing there was another conflict to come.
Crowley and Aziraphale reunited, a wonderful, blinding light of joy amidst the everyday miracle of human mundanity surrounding them. There was a relaxation to them, a relief they both tried to hold back through a reflex of self-protection that She whispered to them to abandon. She smiled and looked away, giving them their privacy for now. Their celebratory meal at the Ritz was to be postponed for a few hours, deep truths of their own personal universes begging to be shared with each other, first.
"Crowley," came Aziraphale's voice, quiet but sure in the cabin of the miraculously restored Bentley. He chanced a look at the being in the driver's seat next to him, a miracle in himself so much greater to Aziraphale than any of the wonders of the preceding day.
"Hmmm?" Crowley's answer was distracted. He was picking his way through the crowded traffic, concentrating, Aziraphale knew, more than he let on to keep the surrounding travelers safe from the speeding Bentley's erratic movements.
"Could we, perhaps, make a stop before the Ritz?"
"Whatever you like, angel." Crowley looked over, and Aziraphale wondered if he knew how naked the love and joy written across his face had become. Did he know, and was he choosing to allow it to show so plainly, or were his relief and happiness so profound that he simply couldn't help it?
Aziraphale had to clear his throat, suddenly thick with emotion, before speaking again. He knew his hands were trembling, and on another plane, his wings were twitching with repressed energy.
"Your flat?" he managed to squeak out, worrying his hands together in the hopes of obscuring their shaking.
Crowley's puzzlement was plain, one small divot between his eyebrows, barely visible from behind his sunglasses.
"Did you leave something there?"
Aziraphale thought of the burdens they'd both been carrying, of the lies and subterfuge they'd had to employ against their sides to keep each other safe. He thought further of the lies he'd told himself, and to his great shame, the ones he'd told to Crowley. In those moments, he'd believed he was protecting them both, but it had always been more about selfishly guarding his own cowardly heart. The weight of it all was crushing now that he could fully acknowledge it, and he wanted nothing more than for both of them to put it to rest for eternity. No more lies, no more deceit, no more pretending.
"I'd like to leave something there, if I could," he said, already feeling the pressure receding, a promise that they could be themselves at last, together.
The confusion on Crowley's face intensified for a moment, and he knew it was plain that he was being a bit cagey on the details.
"It's nothing to be concerned about, my dear, I promise."
At least, he hoped it wasn't. He was relatively certain Crowley's love for him rivaled the love Aziraphale had for him in return. They merely needed privacy to take each treasured and carefully concealed feeling from their hiding places and bring them into the light to admire together.
"'Course," Crowley said with a shrug, and swung the Bentley onto a new path.
Crowley led the way from the lift, fingers shoved into the idiotically small pockets of his jeans. He'd never thought he could feel such tension again after they'd somehow managed to avert the apocalypse the day before, but that had been nothing compared to making the walk down the long hallway to his flat for Aziraphale's mystery errand. Were it not for the waves of peace and contentment coming off the angel (strong enough to knock an adult human to their knees, if only they could sense them) Crowley was sure he'd have crumpled to the floor by now in a heap of stress and worry.
A distracted snap opened the front door, and Crowley's nervous energy burst out of him in twitchy gestures—a straightened painting here, a light dimmed as he pointed a finger at it. He chattered as he moved, talking absolute bollocks, words he wasn't even registering as he tried to fill the silence.
"Crowley," Aziraphale said, attempting to interrupt, but the spike of pure fear it sent through the demon's body made him ignore it and keep talking as though Aziraphale hadn't said anything.
"Wait until you see the additions that chef at the Ritz is currently deciding to make, angel. All your favorites, everything you've ever mentioned you especially liked. I hope you're hungry, because—"
"My dearest, please give me a moment, if you would," Aziraphale said, persevering with a soft hand held up between them, palm forward—a peaceful entreaty for Crowley to quiet himself and listen.
Even Crowley's nerves couldn't override Aziraphale's silent earnestness. He gave an equally silent nod and waited, fixing his gaze at a point just over Aziraphale's left ear.
"I'm not sure where I should begin, honestly. I feel I've been quite wrong at so many points of our relationship, and I can't possibly have the right to simply tell you what I want without addressing those transgressions first."
Aziraphale paced, his movements small and halting, and Crowley finally found the strength to look directly at him.
"Angel, no. Whatever you think you have to apologize for, you don't. I've pushed you and pressured you, and you've had to protect yourself."
"And also protect you, my dearest," Aziraphale broke in. "I've been so terrified of what Hell might do to you if they even thought we'd maintained a passing, friendly acquaintance. If they knew how much I loved you and discovered you hadn't tried to twist that to your side's advantage, I feared they would destroy you...or force you into a position where you felt you had to destroy yourself, with that blasted holy water I gave you."
Crowley had stopped listening at 'loved you.' He'd stopped breathing, moving...thinking. The train wreck that his mind became at those words screamed to a halt inside of him, unable to process what it had heard.
"You..." Crowley stammered, needing three tries at the 'y' to get to the rest of the word.
"Ah," Aziraphale said, a ruby red dusting the tops of his cheekbones as his own words appeared to sink in. "I suppose I did rather get ahead of myself, didn't I?"
"You wouldn't lie. Maybe about some things, but not about this. Never about this," Crowley said, talking mostly to himself as he shook his head, face pointed resolutely at the floor. His body was burning, electricity flowing through him, yet he somehow felt as though all that energy had just brought him, paradoxically, to a stop. He felt hot and cold at the same time, like frostbite—a horrible, wonderful tingling numbness as his thoughts whited out.
"It is my greatest aspiration, my dearest Crowley, never to lie to you again." Aziraphale stepped forward, taking one of Crowley's trembling hands in both of his. Warm, protective. Fond.
"What does this mean?" Crowley asked, pulling off his glasses and throwing them down to the floor, needing to look at Aziraphale with nothing in between them. He needed to see, he needed to get this right.
"Well, first, and only if it isn't too difficult for you...I was rather hoping to hear whether my feelings are reciprocated?"
Crowley's shoulders relaxed, more of the tension falling out of him every moment Aziraphale stroked his riverstone-soft fingers over the back of Crowley's hand.
"Angel," Crowley breathed. "Yes. I—of course I do...they are..." he said, stumbling through the words, forgetting exactly how Aziraphale's question had been worded.
Aziraphale could hardly believe it at first, this answer he'd been so sure would come but which had knocked him back on his heels regardless. He let his head fall back, relief and joy washing over him with a comforting warmth he'd never truly felt before. Several deep breaths later, the two of them competing for the available air in the room, Aziraphale began to laugh.
"I thought I was sure I was reciprocated, and yet I was so anxious waiting for your answer. But how I feel now..." he trailed off, blinking back tears. "Transcendent." He brought Crowley's hand to his lips, eyes closing as he pressed a firm kiss over the knuckles. "My dear...my dearest." He looked up again, the tears spilling freely down his cheeks, now. "My love."
Crowley flinched, his eyes widening, and Aziraphale released his hand right away.
"I should have asked, my dear, I'm sorry," he said, taking a small step back to give Crowley some space. "We haven't discussed how you might feel about physical affection, and I really shouldn't have assumed, even for a small gesture such as that."
"Aziraphale— angel, no. It wasn't that. You can do that whenever you like," he added, rubbing at the place on his hand where Aziraphale's lips had been. "I just...I'm having trouble believing this isn't a dream."
"It's a marvelous dream—a waking one, one we needn't ever put an end to, if it suits you. As the quite inconvenient nervous tics of this corporation of mine keep reminding me, this is all wonderfully, beautifully real."
"Could we..." Crowley said, his voice halting and uncertain (and Aziraphale had quite a lot of work to do to convince his love he never needed to doubt what was true between the two of them again) as he closed the distance between them, one hesitant hand curling around Aziraphale's shoulder. "Could we do more? Could I kiss you?"
"To your bedroom, then?" Aziraphale said, wishing immediately he hadn't when Crowley's eyes went comically wide. "Ah, or...if that's too fast—"
Crowley broke out in a laugh, a desperate sound that seemed to come from deep within his chest, with just a tinge of incredulity to it.
"Six bloody thousand years we waited, and you think that I think this is too fast?" He wiped a bit of moisture from his eyes as the laughter died away.
"There's no need to tease," Aziraphale said, feeling a touch ridiculous, though it didn’t interfere with his need to get Crowley into his arms and tucked up against his chest as soon as possible.
"Oh, I've no intention of teasing you," Crowley purred, drawing Aziraphale closer as he walked them toward the bedroom. "Unless that's something you'd like me to do."
Aziraphale was no stranger to this feeling, this sensation of breathless anticipation when something delectable and long-coveted was on its way at last, about to be placed in front of him so he could indulge in one of the finer things in Her creation. He'd always rationalized his predilection for such things as a more specific form of worship, a narrowing down of the wonder he was meant to have for everything She had put on the Earth.
He intended to sink into anything Crowley would offer him—delight in the wicked curving of his lips, or while away hours tracing the fine sinews of his love's body with the tips of his fingers. It felt as though the world had opened up at last, that they could come together and find the ways their imperfect pieces fit together.
They stopped at the side of the bed when they reached it, and Aziraphale searched those dear, golden eyes for any hint of trepidation or regret. He found none, just a quick darting of his gaze from one part of Aziraphale's face to another, as though he couldn't decide where he wanted to look first.
"Would you mind if I kissed you, my dear?" Aziraphale said, his voice trembling a bit as he anticipated the answer.
"I will discorporate...right here, into a pathetic puddle of goo...if we don't, very... very... soon."
Aziraphale took Crowley into his arms, first, encircling his shoulders. Crowley's hands fluttered at Aziraphale's waist, fingers twitching with something Aziraphale hoped was an anticipation rivaling his own.
When their lips finally met, it was nothing like the explosive, almost violent reaction Aziraphale had always pictured whenever he'd allowed himself to imagine something like this happening. Instead, there was a softness and a warmth that built between them, guiding their achingly slow and languid movements as they sank into the kiss.
Crowley's hands wound upwards, hooking over Aziraphale's shoulders and pulling him closer, heat flowing between them where they were pressed tightly up against each other. Aziraphale broke away from the kiss just for a moment to gasp in a breath, lightheaded with how very much it all was.
"You are a river," he whispered against Crowley's cheek. "A miraculous river flowing around me. I could drink from you for millennia and never come close to being sated."
"Angel," Crowley returned, before he took Aziraphale's bottom lip into his mouth and laved at it with his tongue, transforming that liquid feeling in which Aziraphale was willingly drowning himself into something molten and full of need.
Crowley eased Aziraphale back onto the bedding, and he sank into the decadence of the plush mattress and pillows, Crowley moving to cover him with the revelation of his firm chest and wicked hips as they slotted together.
"Should've undressed you first, angel," Crowley growled, nipping at a place just behind Aziraphale's earlobe.
Aziraphale raised his hand to pull a miracle from the air, but Crowley stopped him, clasping their palms together and entwining their fingers.
"We've waited this long, been to Hell and Heaven and back. Let me learn you properly," he whispered, and Aziraphale shivered at the sound of Crowley's voice. It was earthy and it burned, the same way a swallow of hundred-year-old whiskey making its way down Aziraphale's throat would have.
Crowley shifted off to the side, helping Aziraphale to remove his outer layers, hands winding along his shoulders and arms to ease the garments free. The bow tie was next, a slow, indecent slide of silk against silk as the knot loosened.
"My dear," Aziraphale panted, the gentle movements of Crowley's fingers dampened by too many layers of fabric. "I love you so very much."
"Angel," Crowley said, capturing his lips in a kiss as he paused his insistence at getting Aziraphale out of his clothes. "I haven't said it to you yet, have I?"
"You needn't pressure yourself, my dear. I know it may be diffi—"
"I love you," Crowley said, each sound a caress. Aziraphale got lost in the roundness of the vowels, the 'L', a scrape of Crowley's divine tongue against his palate. He took in the parts of it, the offerings of Crowley's gaze, his fingers brushing over Aziraphale's cheekbone, and it became a core truth of Aziraphale's universe. He was loved. This frustrating, marvelous creature pressed up against him had seen him at his worst, his best, and everything between, and was holding out his own heart like a fervent offering.
They came together again, mouths pressed together as their fingers worked at buttons and zippers, pulling clothing off and away, until they'd bared themselves to each other.
"You glow," Crowley whispered, trailing kisses down Aziraphale's chest.
"You burn," Aziraphale gasped, the heat of Crowley's mouth closing over one of his nipples as Crowley's fingers toyed with the other. He kept at it until Aziraphale's breathing turned to a moan for more , and Crowley pulled back, holding himself up on one hand to fix Aziraphale with a serious look.
"Are you sure?" he asked. His hips, where they were slotted between Aziraphale's legs, ground forward, asking the rest of the question for him.
"Oh, my dear," Aziraphale said, almost choking on the air as he tried to speak. "I've never been more certain of anything in my life."
They kissed again, then Crowley pulled himself back to kneel, snapping his fingers as he went. His palm was slick as it curved around Aziraphale's cock, both of them groaning as Crowley started to move. His hand stroked slowly, teasing, building the aching need from the depths of Aziraphale's very being.
Just as Aziraphale felt sure he would go mad, the calming weight of Crowley's other hand on Aziraphale's thigh disappeared. Instead, the tip of one finger began to slowly circle Aziraphale's entrance, enough of a suggestion of what was to come to make Aziraphale's heart race even faster.
"You're so patient for me," Crowley said, his pupils blown wide in the dim light of the room.
"Everything you've given me is perfect," Aziraphale said, his voice trembling. "I could suspend myself here forever."
"I don't know how much longer I can wait," Crowley admitted, the finger breaching Aziraphale with a gentle push, and the slide forward made Aziraphale's eyes flutter closed with pleasure.
"Oh, I suppose I could speed things along," Aziraphale sighed, concentrating to move one of his boneless-feeling arms to attempt a miracle, but Crowley stayed his hand again.
"I misspoke," Crowley said, placing Aziraphale's arm back on the covers. "I don't want to miss a moment of this."
Just that single finger stroked Aziraphale until he thought he would combust, and then a second joined it. The stretch sent a delicious sting through him, his back arching as the melody of Crowley's voice above him blended into nonsense tones he couldn't quite make out. The pleasure was too much, required too much of him to appreciate, and his other senses dimmed.
By the time Crowley added a third finger, Aziraphale was floating, eyes closed and head back as he basked in the waves of affection pouring off Crowley like the molten heat from a star. After thousands of years of denial and fear, he finally understood what it was to trust the bond between them, leaning into it with his entire being and feeling Crowley as the strength holding him aloft.
Crowley's fingers stilled, deep inside, as he leaned forward to drape himself over Aziraphale's pliant body.
"I'm going to make love to you now, angel," Crowley whispered, his lips tickling against Aziraphale's ear.
"You're beautiful," Aziraphale told him, blinking up through misty eyes at his partner in all things, his love.
"I'm sorry. This might hurt you," Crowley said, his arm trembling as he held his weight on one arm, taking himself in hand with the other to guide his cock to where they would soon be joined.
"I trust you, my heart."
"Angel," Crowley said, his eyes rolling up before he blinked them closed. "You can't say things like that and expect me to survive."
"Please," Aziraphale said, "I need you."
"Grab my shoulders, angel. Squeeze if you need me to slow down or stop, all right?" Crowley nipped at Aziraphale's jawline, trembling with repressed need as they remained at the precipice.
The feeling, as Crowley moved forward, was like nothing Aziraphale had ever experienced before. The novelty of it, the sharp sting of being filled along with a most curious and delicious stretch. Yes, there was some momentary discomfort, but it subsided quickly as Crowley inched his way inside, his body continuing to shake in Aziraphale's arms as he held back.
"Crowley, please. I need all of you. I need you to trust that I can accept you, everything you are."
This wasn't just about their bodies, of course, and Aziraphale could see the moment Crowley fully understood what he was trying to say. His features relaxed, those fine wrinkles of anxiety and strain smoothing, the sharp angles of the last of Crowley's defenses coming down.
"I love you," Crowley whispered, sliding home and bringing them fully together. Aziraphale rocked back to absorb the thrust, and Crowley bit at his adam's apple then reached up to lace their fingers together by Aziraphale's cheek.
Crowley began to move, pulling away and coming back at a deliberate pace as the two of them sank into the mind-numbing pleasure of finally being together. The slow slide of Crowley's cock inside him sent bolts of pleasure through the center of him into his very soul.
Aziraphale shifted, some instinct inside him demanding it, and the ecstasy of the new angle was almost unbearable. He had to move, meeting Crowley's thrusts with abortive little movements of his hips. When that wasn't enough, he cupped Crowley's arse with his free hand to gain some leverage, but that backfired spectacularly. Once he could feel the way Crowley's muscles worked and strained to surround Aziraphale with his love and devotion, Aziraphale stilled himself to enjoy it, luxuriating in the wonders of Crowley moving above him.
"Angel, I don't know how much longer I—"
"Take what you need from me, my dear," Aziraphale told him, but a twinge of uncertainty danced across Crowley's face in response.
"Not without you. Not before you," Crowley said, the words punched out of him as he drove his hips forward.
"I'm not sure I'll survive it," Aziraphale breathed, trying to imagine any way this heady pleasure could get more intense without his corporation imploding with the power of it.
Crowley unclasped their palms and moved his hand between their bodies, fingers curling around Aziraphale's cock, just as he'd done before. Every caress mirrored the slide of Crowley's own cock, sliding in and out of Aziraphale's body. When Crowley whispered, "Come for me, angel," in his ear, the effect was immediate and world-ending.
Every molecule that made up Aziraphale's earthly form tensed and then released, waves of the pleasure/pain of euphoria overcoming him as he strained in Crowley's arms. Crowley followed after, the counterpoint of his own release pulsing deep within Aziraphale's body.
And finally, afterwards, they knew contentment.
There was disorder in Heaven, and as much as it pained Her to feel it, it also loosened the bonds of Archangelic protection around Her. Many of—most of, really—the rank-and-file angels who'd been told they'd be fighting the forces of Hell in a final conflict had now begun to ask questions. They wanted answers about what would have become of the humans and what would have become of the human souls who'd been consigned to Hell. What would they have told the human souls in Heaven, who would hear of the destruction of their former home at the hands of their protectors? Who would... could... soothe their grief when their descendants perished as collateral damage in the fallout of the war?
The Archangels had always seen these issues as unimportant, focused as they were on keeping order in Heaven and vanquishing those they'd cast out. It wasn't the case, however, that the bulk of the Host felt the same way. Many of their duties were focused around the care of the souls that had ascended to Heaven upon their death, or sending goodwill to humanity as it ranged across the surface of the Earth. They'd performed these tasks for millennia, growing fond and protective of their charges.
God hoped, for a brief, shining moment, that these doubts would be enough to put an end to this talk of war. If the Archangels realized they didn't have the full support of the rest of the angels (and they had been forbidden to start another civil war in Heaven) then they would have to set their aspirations aside.
It wasn't to be, however. With grief, God felt the iron hold the Archangels had over their brethren, and how the questions fell from their minds with time. Years passed on Earth while the doubts subsided, and eventually talk of a new war had been broached to the Host without them outwardly showing discomfort.
It was time. She cast Her eyes down to the Earth to speak to one of Her warriors.
Crowley was taking a last stroll through his Mayfair flat, wandering the dark corridors and reassuring himself that there was nothing left in this hollowed-out space that he wanted to keep.
The possessions he truly treasured—some art, a few trinkets, his old ansaphone and the box of tapes that went with it, each bearing message after message from Aziraphale over the last score of years or so—had already been moved. His angel had become soppily romantic over the idea of setting up house together the human way, and had made puppy eyes at him until he agreed to hire removers to come 'round with a load of boxes and bustle their things off to the cottage in the South Downs. All that was left was for Crowley to make one last trip through, confirm he hadn't forgotten anything important, and then vanish the rubbish.
He paused by his chair...well, throne, really. It had always pleased him, the drama of it, the gilded edges and rich, red fabric. If he was being honest, it was hard on the back—and not a treat on the buttocks, either—but it was the one thing he had paused to reconsider getting rid of.
He brushed his fingers over the finial closest to him, instantly transported back to the day he'd draped himself over its gothic carving and pleaded his case against armageddon to God. Whether She'd been listening, he figured he'd never know. At the time...well, he'd probably been imagining it, but he'd felt something. It was a pain echoing his own, some sense of empathy that had felt like it came from outside of himself. He'd brushed it off, assuming it had been wishful thinking, but—
"You were right, Crowley," came a voice inside his mind, a voice he hadn't heard in thousands of years. "I tried to reach you that day, but couldn't quite make it through."
"No," Crowley said, pacing. He had to move, his legs carrying him to his now-empty plant room, where he picked up an abandoned pot and slung it against the wall. It shattered with a deafening crunch, the sound almost satisfying enough for him to forget what he'd just heard. He hunched down, clutching his stomach as though he'd been punched, and cried out.
"I'm so sorry, my son," said the voice of God, the calm tone a stark contrast to the sheer audacity of invading his mind like this.
"You don't get to call me that," Crowley gritted out, sagging backward and scrabbling toward the wall to slump against it. "Not even for old times' sake," he added, desperately trying to hold tight to his carefully-honed layers of sarcasm and snark. "It's a bit late to try apologizing now."
"I can't offer an apology that would be meaningful to you, I can see that now. It's too much to apologize for. I come to you only because I'm finally able to reach you, now, at this moment when you were thinking of the last time you tried to speak to me. I wouldn't do this to you if it wasn't so important, and if it wasn't necessary to give you the tools you'll need to survive."
"You're the Almighty !" Crowley yelled, collapsing into his throne and curling over the arm of it. "You can do whatever You like! And if it’s so bloody important, why aren’t You talking to Aziraphale? Do you understand even a fraction of what he's done in Your service? And You've abandoned him! Get out of my head, right now."
"Aziraphale has too much fear to hear Me through the barriers My Archangels have put in place around Me. I wish I could, to tell him the sword he gave away was just as much of a gift to humanity as the apple you gave Eve."
"Why didn't you stop them?" Crowley said, not bothering to explain further, assuming She would know what he meant. "Do you understand how close we came to failing? It's practically an accident that the Earth is still here."
"I couldn't. I created the Archangels to protect order, and their actions are out of My reach. They've wrought...many works in My Name which I would never have done Myself. The Great Fall, chief among them."
Crowley shut his eyes, absorbing the idea that the Great Fall, his Fall, hadn't been dictated by Her. He wasn't sure if that made it hurt more, or less.
"You said something about giving me the tools I'll need to survive?" he asked, needing to change the subject right away, before he thought too much on what he'd just learned, and how much it made him want to shred everything within a ten block radius.
"Another conflict is coming, one you foresaw yourself not too long ago. Humanity has been judged a threat to the order of the universe, and the forces of Heaven and Hell will come together to destroy it. You'll need to stop them, and I'm afraid you don't have much time to prepare."
Crowley let out a dark laugh, all of the brightness and hope he'd allowed himself to feel as he and Aziraphale had moved on together after the last aborted apocalypse crumbling into dust and slipping between his fingers.
"Shouldn't be too hard, then? One demon and one angel, set against the entirety of Heaven and Hell? Sure you don't want to ask us for something harder?"
"You'll have help. As much as I can send you. Anathema Device. Adam Young and his friends. Warlock Dowling."
"No." Crowley scrambled to his feet, leaning on the throne for balance when his legs wobbled beneath him. "Leave the kids out of this. They've all been through enough."
"They're all already linked to this, and you can't win without them. They'll perish along with the rest of humanity if you don't allow them to help you."
Crowley bit his cheek, willing himself not to cry. He'd hoped this would never happen, that Heaven and Hell would remember how they'd been beaten the last time and slink off into infinity, tails between their legs.
"Won't they just cause another flood? Plagues of locusts? Water turning to blood?"
"They've been barred from those, Crowley. I've done what I can, forbade them from everything I could, but because of the duties I've charged them with, there's only so much I can do."
Crowley could hear the apology in Her voice, his mind reeling at the idea that God had been as helpless as the rest of them for the last six millennia.
"The first of the portents is coming soon. Aziraphale will notice it. Do everything you can to stop them."
Crowley felt the presence slip from his mind, and anger flared within him.
"You can't just go! Haven't we done enough? How many times will we..." Crowley said, trailing off, his shout becoming more of a mumble. She was gone, and he was yelling at no one.
With a snap of his fingers, his old flat was empty, and Crowley stalked out of it.
In the coming weeks, Crowley did what he was best at. Outwardly, he pretended as though his little conference call with the Almighty had never happened. No reason to mention it to Aziraphale until it was all a done deal.
(He couldn't bear to ruin the angel's quiet joy as he nattered over the placement of furniture and debated about what sort of blanket would be best to drape over the back of his old, overstuffed sofa.)
It all became unavoidable the day Crowley came back from the bakery with a box of fresh pastries, only to find Aziraphale sitting, frozen in place and his face ashen with worry, in front of the new computer Crowley had insisted on buying.
"Angel?" Crowley asked, his stomach sinking when Aziraphale merely continued his silent, blank stare and failed to answer. "Hey, they had two of those pomegranate turnovers you like. Shall I bring you one with a cup of tea?"
"I..." Aziraphale began, pointing a hesitant finger toward the screen. "You need to see this."
Crowley leaned over Aziraphale's shoulder, covering Aziraphale's hand on the mouse with his own and clicking the play button on the video. A short, squat American with oily-wet black hair began to speak, his booming voice occasionally drowned out by the off-camera audience. He called out phrases of worship so garish they were almost parodies, though devout enough, in their own twisted way, to send hissing stings through Crowley's demonic soul.
"What reason on this bloody Earth could you possibly have for figuring out how to watch this false prophet shout out his ignorance to the world? You can't be worried that any soul worth saving is drawn in by this tripe, can you?"
"All souls are worth saving," Aziraphale answered, almost automatically, and Crowley loved him even more. (If that were possible.) "He hasn't begun the troubling part yet."
Aziraphale shook some sense into himself and took over moving the mouse, shuffling along the timeline of the video and dropping them back in about ten minutes further along.
"The Archangel Gabriel appeared to me," the television preacher called out, an ugly smirk on his face. "He came down in a bolt of lightning, his blazing purple eyes nearly blinding me. When his voice rang out, he spoke of a great change that's coming. Heaven is coming to Earth to burn away the evil and blasphemy, and they're asking for the devout to welcome them with open arms. Some of our brothers and sisters have wandered so far from the light that they've become a festering wound, and the judgment of Heaven is coming to cauterize them."
Crowley's fingers twitched and he paused the video, his heart racing, but he tried to keep outwardly calm for Aziraphale's sake.
"Lucky guesses, angel. Or someone remembered bits and pieces of that apocalypse we stopped, and their tiny human brains put the details back together wrong."
"No," Aziraphale answered, simply. "It's not guesswork or a fluke. I can feel it. This feels like something . I was meant to see this, Crowley."
"You can't be certain—"
"But I am, " Aziraphale insisted. "I wish I could express to you how certain I am. This is a sign."
Crowley recalled the word of God, hand-delivered to him by the Deity Herself, and realized that if he was working this hard to argue against it, that probably meant it was true. She had told him that Aziraphale would notice the first portent, and if the miracle of Aziraphale remembering Crowley's lessons about how to use the computer well enough to find this particular video of a horrible, craven excuse for a 'preacher' (who was soliciting for donations to his "Soldiers of Righteousness" club right there on his YouTube page) wasn't a sign, Crowley wasn't sure what else would have been.
"All right, so that wanker Gabriel is trying to flex his wings. You know he's too incompetent to get anything done."
"He isn't, though," Aziraphale insisted, his voice still quiet, but resolute. "He may not understand much about Earth or humanity, but where smiting and inciting war are concerned, he and his cohorts are quite the experts."
"Still. We can't be sure—"
"Anathema Device contacted me out of the blue, just last week."
"Who?" Crowley asked, knowing full well who Aziraphale meant.
"I believe you called her 'book girl,'" Aziraphale answered, his face softening minutely, but enough for Crowley to notice. "Haven't heard from her since she came to see me in the bookshop just after armageddon was averted. She didn't even have the telephone number for the cottage. She dreamed it."
"She dreamed what? Our phone number? "
"Yes," Aziraphale said, his 'this is quite significant' look on his face. "It's not the only thing she's been dreaming of. She's begun to have visions of a war."
"Just because she's Agnes Nutter's descendant doesn't mean she's inherited the gift."
"I agree it doesn't have to mean that, but in this case, I feel certain it's true." Aziraphale stood, putting his soft hand against Crowley's cheek. "Adam Young went to visit her at Jasmine Cottage, on a break home from university. His inner circle has grown by one."
"Don't be coy, angel. Come out and say what you mean to say."
"Warlock Dowling. Adam and his friends have met Warlock at university, and they've all become fast friends. They brought him along to show him the town where he was born."
"How did Anathema know that was something worth mentioning?" Crowley said, knowing the answer before Aziraphale said it.
"She dreamed about Warlock, about how we thought he was the Antichrist instead of Adam. She knows all about Adam, too, things she would never have been witness to when we were all scrambling around to stop the apocalypse. She's seen that they're linked to something, along with their friends."
"And she came to you...?"
"Because we're linked to it as well. Along with her." Aziraphale swallowed hard, leaning forward and pushing up on his toes to put a long, somehow mournful kiss on the apple of Crowley's cheek. "She wanted to tell me that she's ready," he whispered, lips brushing Crowley's skin as he spoke. "Adam also appears to have a sense of what's coming, and knows he'll need to prepare his friends. We'll need to be there, Crowley. We'll need to help them, or humanity will be obliterated."
"It isn't fair," Crowley said, shoulders slumping.
"Life rarely is, I've found," Aziraphale returned with a sigh, placing another long, soft kiss on Crowley's cheek before pulling away.
"I have some things I need to tell you." Crowley couldn't look Aziraphale in the eyes, and wished he hadn't left his sunglasses on the hall table when he'd come in. "You might not be happy I kept them from you until now, angel, but I was really hoping it had all been a terrible hallucination."
Aziraphale leaned heavily against the back of the sofa when Crowley had finished recounting his chat with the Almighty, allowing the dread to sink in.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you right away." Crowley's voice was a mere whisper, an unnecessary apology. "It's like I said, though—I didn't want it to be true, and telling you about it would have proved it was."
Aziraphale didn't make him wait for absolution, unable to watch as the clear manifestations of worry marred the usual, easy grace of the demon’s movements.
"I understand," he said, and at Crowley's incredulous look, he continued, "I truly do. I've kept similarly important pieces of information from you, remember. I'm quite familiar with the impulse to fix it before anyone else need get involved, or simply hope for it to go away."
"If it troubles you, we can talk it through more thoroughly...after we've saved humanity. Until then, let's focus on more pressing matters."
"I know that preacher," Aziraphale began. "He was one of my...stops...along the way to finding a temporary home with Madame Tracy when I'd been discorporated. I've been inside his head, enough to give me some insight into how we can get more information out of him."
Crowley raised his eyebrows, and that was enough to get Aziraphale to continue.
"I could appear to him...let more of my true form show, and see if he'll be more forthcoming with details if he knows he's speaking to an ethereal being. Right now, we don't know any of the specifics of what they're planning. The preacher mentioned Gabriel wanting to enlist the help of some of the humans, so there's probably more details I can ferret out in a one-on-one."
"Better give yourself a false name," Crowley added. "Gabriel's a knob, but he might have had the foresight to warn the preacher man about you." He paused, his teeth worrying his lower lip. "Still, it'll be dangerous. I could go instead."
"Crowley," Aziraphale whispered, scandalized. "I know this man's a charlatan, but he still might have access to holy water."
"No, remember? G—" Crowley stopped himself, apparently unable to say her name. " She told me Heaven and Hell are working together this time. If I went and flashed a little black wing, this idiot would probably think he's just getting an update from a different team this time."
"That's risky," Aziraphale said, after a sharp gasp. "If the preacher is meant to work on Heaven's side, he likely doesn't know about the alliance."
Crowley laughed, pointing at the monitor.
"There's evil radiating from that wanker that's so potent, I can't tell him apart from a Satanist."
"Perhaps, if he doesn't seem to already know about the alliance, we can tell him about it." At Aziraphale's doubtful look, he continued. "Look, it's not going to faze him. He's a temptation waiting to happen. Could even tell him I'm Lucifer himself, if we thought that would be more impressive."
"Oh, better not. What if he's met Lucifer?"
"Lucifer's been insane for millennia," Crowley said, blinking slowly, surprise evident. "I thought your whole lot knew that."
"No! Angels—well, angels who aren't lucky enough to have a demon as their love and partner in life—aren't told anything about demons or Hell except that they're the evil, detestable enemy."
"Well, until now," Crowley said. "Seems like the rhetoric must have changed if they're going to try to team up."
"Hard to even imagine it, given the sort of vitriol the Archangels had fostered among the Host whenever the subject of Hell came up."
"Yeah," Crowley agreed, drawing the word out for several thoughtful seconds, and Aziraphale suddenly had a sense of something important coalescing inside Crowley's mind. "It is hard to imagine, isn't it? Difficult to see any sort of truce lasting, given all the hatred on both sides."
"Gabriel and his band have always been so smugly self-congratulatory about the Fall, that they did the right thing in casting the dissenters from Heaven," Aziraphale said, the very idea leaving a terrible taste in his mouth. "I always felt, deep down, that they hadn't even tried to resolve things without going to such...awful lengths. The anguish they put all of you through, and, though I know it doesn't come close to what you felt, the pain the remaining angels felt when the Fallen were cast out. We were all so close then..." Aziraphale said, shuddering at the memory, "...it felt as though I'd lost a wing."
"Beelzebub and zir band of wankers aren't any better. Turned the sense of loss and betrayal into a loathing you probably couldn't even conceive of, angel, as good as you are." He let a sideways grin peek through the look of serious concern he'd been wearing since the beginning of this conversation. "More than a few dartboards in Hell with Archangel faces on 'em."
"Oh...my." Aziraphale tried to look shocked, reminding himself that he didn't truly mean anyone any harm unless it was to stop them from causing greater harm...but deep down, he suspected he might enjoy a go at one of those dartboards.
"I think I know how to stop them." Crowley clicked his tongue, eyes flashing with devilish glee. "I'll wager they can't really work together. They've told themselves that humanity is the greater threat, that they'll use the 'other side' to get some destruction done, but you know they'll both be watching for an unguarded back to slide a knife into."
Realization was slowly dawning on Aziraphale, the full, horrible implications of what Crowley was saying sinking in.
"You think both sides are looking for a way to turn on the other. In all probability... during this next war they're planning."
"Do you believe either side would consider the obliteration of the human race a full victory? While there's all that commotion? Would anyone notice a smiting here and there? Or a demon taking a nice bite out of an angel when no one else is looking?"
"Terrible world, where you can't even trust your hereditary enemies anymore," Aziraphale said. "Well, except for the two of us."
Crowley pulled him into a kiss, unexpected enough that Aziraphale's head spun dizzily as Crowley's tongue waged a commendably-fought war for conquest. When they broke apart, Crowley grinned at him again.
"I'll make the travel arrangements. We've got a preacher to visit."
Their appointment with the preacher wasn't difficult to get. It merely required a demonic miracle to create a huge pile of American money they could 'donate,' and then Anthony and Ezra were enthusiastically given a nice window of time to meet with the Reverend Bagman.
Aziraphale was nervous, of course, once the ornate doors to the man's office had been closed behind them, and Crowley gave him a significant look.
"Would you mind if I pulled your draperies shut?" Crowley asked, tapping his sunglasses. "I'm frightfully sensitive to light."
"'Course, no problem, gentlemen. I could pray for those eyes of yours, my friend. I'm sure the man upstairs could see his way clear to improving your sight." He put out his arms, expansively, as though he was offering them the world, or at least their pick of the tacky, gold-leafed knick-knacks littering his desk. "It would be my pleasure to do that for such generous and devout people like yourselves."
"No need," Crowley said, once their privacy was assured, and he let the full glory of his jet black wings come forward onto this plane to stretch fully out, knocking at least two horrible tchotchkes to the floor. With a nod at Aziraphale, the angel did the same. "I like my eyes the way they are," he added, and slid his glasses down to reveal the shining gold behind.
The preacher, who'd looked terrified at Crowley's reveal and then idiotically relieved at Aziraphale's, fell to his knees and dropped his face toward the ground. It wasn't too surprising, as the mere act of looking upon an angel and a demon in their full glory was often physically painful for a human. Aziraphale should probably have felt at least a little bad about this, but there was something satisfying about seeing a false prophet such as the one before them squirm.
"Behold, human," Crowley said, and had the audacity to wink at Aziraphale as he did. "I am the demon Asmodeus, accompanied by the angel Nanael."
"I'm honored," the preacher said. "Your power is welcomed here with open arms."
He shouldn't have felt so surprised, given what a charlatan Aziraphale knew this man to be, but he'd anticipated the need to explain the alliance between Heaven and Hell before Bagman understood why a demon and an angel would visit him together. The information did seem to be a surprise, but not an unwelcome one. This preacher would apparently take his power from whomever offered it.
"Gabriel told me there would be gifts, but I didn't know they would come so soon. I'm grateful for this bounty. I'll be very comfortable until the reckoning leads me to glory in the afterlife." He winked, leaning forward conspiratorially, "Not that I've got long to spend it."
"Yes," Crowley purred, stepping closer to the prostrate man and causing him to shiver. (And oh, Aziraphale noticed how much Crowley was enjoying this, and he'd be damned if it wasn't a dreadfully sexy thing to behold.) "About your part in the reckoning," he continued, with a significant look at Aziraphale. "Hell isn't content to accept the word of Gabriel, an Archangel, and we'd like to be assured that you are as ready for your part in things as we've been led to believe. I come to you today to allow you to prove it to me, so that I may assure my side that all is well."
"Right, yeah, of course," the toady, obsequious man stammered. "The recruitment effort is going really well. Really great, I swear. There'll be hundreds of humans ready to fight with the angels." The preacher finally looked up, grinning madly at Crowley. "I mean, I was told I was only supposed to build the forces for the angels, but if it's Satanists you need, Asmodeus, I can get you those, too. I'll just need to know that I can assure them of a kingdom in the afterlife as nice as the one I'll be going to." He paused, looking pleased with himself. "Oh, and my followers too," he tacked on, as though the fate of the people he was recruiting to help bring about the end of the world was an afterthought to him.
Which, once Aziraphale thought about it, was clearly true.
"We have our own effort ongoing with one of our Earthbound faithful," Crowley said, shaking out his wings and stirring the air in the room. "And I can guarantee that our warriors will have a much more rewarding experience in the hereafter." He leaned down, close enough that his breath had to be brushing against the preacher's forehead when he spoke. "Not too late to change sides."
"That's enough, Asmodeus," Aziraphale chided. "The agreement was for Hell to find their own worshippers to build their half of the army."
"Can't fault me for trying." Crowley turned just enough so the preacher couldn't see his face, and grinned like an idiot.
Aziraphale cleared his throat. "There has been some heavenly concern with regards to the timetable," he said, letting an echo of celestial trumpets marry with his voice as he spoke. He'd wager that Gabriel had been terribly pompous when he'd spoken to the man, and they'd be more believable if he gave off a similar aura of superiority. "Are you certain you can be ready on time?"
"Three months," the preacher said, nodding his head. "I know there isn't a day to spare, and we must be ready on time to receive our reward."
Aziraphale wanted so very much to gasp, his heart sinking at the idea they had only a handful of weeks to put their own plan into motion. He'd hoped for a decade or so, or at least a year, though he knew now that he'd been foolishly optimistic. It was obvious that Gabriel was slavering for revenge and wouldn't wait a moment longer than he needed to.
One glance at Crowley's face made clear that he was similarly dismayed, though he covered his reaction before he turned back around to face the preacher.
"Good." Crowley nodded, again posing his wings for maximum terrifying effect. "Don't take a day longer, or all promises from our unholy alliance will be forfeit."
They both put their wings away again and then left—the preacher still on his knees behind them—and Crowley took Aziraphale's hand once he knew no one of importance would see them.
"Three months is nothing, angel. So much less time than I was hoping—" He abruptly stopped walking and Aziraphale almost tripped rather than unclasp their hands. "I really shouldn't have pressured him not to be late then, right? Ugh, I'm an idiot."
"It's no matter," Aziraphale told him. "We were never going to have much time, that much is clear to me now. It's vital that we work quickly. It's time to bring in reinforcements."
Crowley had wondered how Aziraphale was planning to contact everyone. They hadn't exactly kept in touch and had barely interacted, really, even during the failed apocalypse.
As it turned out, he needn't have worried at all. People mysteriously popped out of the woodwork, one by one, and Crowley could feel the distant tingling sensation of a hand working in 'mysterious ways' with each and every encounter. God seemed to be leading them all together, beginning with Anathema and Newt showing up at the bookshop one day just before Aziraphale decided to close it in favor of staying in the South Downs more permanently. The kids—or 'young adults,' as Aziraphale was so fond of reminding him—followed not too long after, led by an even more self-confident Adam. Warlock was with them, just as She had said he'd be, and it both unnerved Crowley and broke his heart that it didn't seem right to explain to him who his nanny and gardener had been.
Through all of this, watching Her plan come together, he tried not to let his anger at Her actions rise to the surface. When he (quite frequently) had trouble doing so, Aziraphale patiently held him and talked him down each time he grew frustrated at the idea that She could act now, but had never been able to help them before.
"It's a good sign, I think," Aziraphale had whispered to him after he'd pulled Crowley into his arms in the late hours one evening, the two of them intertwined on their overstuffed sofa. "According to what She told you, it's been millenia since She's been able to break through the layers of protection surrounding Her. It must mean the Archangels are quite distracted."
"Or they've strayed so far from their mission," Crowley said, grinding his teeth as he pictured the look on Gabriel's face when he'd told 'Aziraphale' to walk into hellfire and murder himself, "that their power is waning."
Aziraphale looked shocked to even entertain the idea.
"Do you really think that's possible?" he asked, his eyes wide, but he appeared to reconsider almost immediately. "I suppose they were never as devout as they appeared to be, especially given your conversation with—"
Crowley cut him off with a gesture, unable to talk about his little impromptu chat with God any longer. He knew how much it still hurt Aziraphale that She had chosen to appear to Crowley and not to him, and there were bigger fish to fry here, besides.
"Gabriel had better hope he never comes near me if we find ourselves on the same battlefield," Crowley snarled. "He had his foot on your neck for so long that you still default to seeing him as Good. Maybe he was once, but—"
"—or perhaps he's just lost his way," Aziraphale interrupted, "and can still find his way back."
"I don't honestly care, angel," he said, ignoring the look he got in return. "Where he stands with Her is between the two of them. I know what I want to protect, and it's this." He gestured around them, sitting up a little in Aziraphale's arms. "It's you. And in a... distant second place, the world."
"It's terribly selfish, my dear, but I feel the same way. Since we discovered these new machinations of Heaven and Hell, I've almost asked you about Alpha Centauri more times than I can count."
And oh, it was on the tip of Crowley's tongue to shout that they should do it—they should run, let the humans sort things out on their own. They'd done rather well for themselves last time, as it happened, but Crowley couldn't quite see this one going the same way.
They began with a long planning session with Anathema, whom Crowley had been secretly delighted to get to know better. For a human, she was surprisingly enjoyable to be around. She had a wicked sense of humor and a cunning sense of exactly when to unleash it to defuse tension, and she didn't seem to be overly intimidated to find herself working alongside immortal beings. Even better, she agreed with both of them that the war couldn't be won by humanity if they were depending only on straightforward fighting. The weapons Heaven and Hell had to wield would be too powerful, and though the Archangels had been barred long ago from unleashing plagues or natural disasters—and the demons didn't have the powers necessary to create anything like that—their more mundane miracles could still lead to damage and destruction.
To win, they needed to begin a shadow war now, with the aim of sabotaging the alliance between the angels and the demons. It shouldn't be hard to influence the rank-and-file on either side, once Crowley and Aziraphale had considered their experiences with the lower-ranked ethereal and occult beings.
Most of the demons were known to clamor for the occasional job that required them to go topside, and they loved the more carnal delights Earth had to offer. The angelic Host, outside of the tightly-knit group of Archangels, had a rather uniform awe of all of God's creation, and regarded Earth and humanity as two of Her masterworks. Aziraphale had an odd feeling that most of them were probably already troubled at the plan as it had been presented to them.
"Gabriel and Michael and the rest of them have always been so insular, acting as though they're leagues better than the other angels. Anyone not of their rank was, frankly, below their notice, and they've never been unclear about that." Aziraphale looked smug, and while Crowley agreed they were all pompous twits, wasn't sure what the significance of this was.
"Yeah, they're wankers, Aziraphale. I'm not sure how that helps us, specifically, though."
"I seem to recall how I once rather pompously gloated to you about how evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction," Aziraphale said, looking guilty, and Crowley wanted to kiss the worry right off his face. "I think I was on the right track, but wrong with the details. Any plan rooted in such an ugly and destructive place is so contrary to the spirit in which the universe was created that it must, necessarily and at its most basic level, be horribly flawed. Gabriel is so sure of his own righteousness that I don't think it's ever occurred to him that his angelic army would dare disagree with him."
"They might not, angel," Crowley warned. "They might be so terrified of him..." He trailed off, not wanting to think about what would happen if they couldn't sow discord in the ranks.
"There's being afraid of him, and then there's watching all of humanity suffer and perish. If we manage to create some doubt in their minds before the fighting starts, I know their hearts will recoil from what they're being asked to do." He looked thoughtful. "But do you think most of the demons really enjoy their trips to Earth enough to refuse to fight?"
Crowley flashed a wicked smile.
"Demons do so love a good time, angel, and you've seen Hell. Blessed few opportunities to party there the way it can be done up here." He paused for a moment. "I know a few demons who sneak up here just to lick the walls."
The look Aziraphale gave him was priceless, and Crowley quickly pulled out his mobile and took a photo to enjoy later.
"One of the many weird offenses punishable by torture down in Hell. Didn't you see the signs while you were there?"
"I wasn't exactly enjoying the sights during that particular visit, dear."
It was just about then that they both seemed to remember they weren't alone, and they found they had quite a lot to explain to Anathema, who had reported herself "half terrified, half intrigued" by the whole conversation.
"We need to worry about the humans both sides are recruiting, too," Anathema reminded them, looking thoughtful. "We may not have the ability to perform miracles, but humanity has certainly proven its ability to create violence and destruction, regardless."
"That's where our little band of humans comes in." Aziraphale got out an ancient leather-bound notebook and his fountain pen, and began to consult his list. "From our last conversation, I believe you said you have some influence among...well..." Aziraphale's face contorted. "Witches. Other occult-leaning humans," he choked out and Crowley just barely stifled his laugh at how uncomfortable the angel was with that whole subject.
"And Newt can help, too!" Anathema insisted, with an air of knowing she was saying something they wouldn't believe. "I know you got the impression, before, that he was..."
"Guileless? Harmless?" Aziraphale suggested.
"Bit of a useless wanker?" Crowley added, and was quite affronted when Aziraphale smacked him in the shoulder. "We could talk around it for the next hour, or we could just get it out in the open, all right?"
"There's something you may not know about one of his ancestors." She wrung her hands for a moment. "He was in the Witch Finder Army back before it was..."
"Guileless?" Crowley said, with a grin. "Mostly harmless?"
"That ancestor...he killed Agnes."
" Agnes Nutter, Agnes?" Aziraphale asked, his hand over his heart in shock.
"Yeah," she nodded. "Something bothered me about how interested he was in technology, yet all he had to do was touch something with an integrated circuit board and it was as good as ruined. I don't know if she meant to do it, or if it was even Agnes who did it, but there was a curse on Newt's entire male lineage."
"Murder a witch, get the business end of the wand," Crowley muttered.
"We don't use wands," Anathema groaned. "It's not Hogwarts."
"But back to your point, my dear?" Aziraphale prompted.
"It took some time, but I managed to find out enough about the curse to break it." She had a far-away smile, so fond and soft that she nearly reminded Crowley of Aziraphale. "He's a whiz, now. Went back to school, learned all about it. He's quite the hacker now."
Crowley and Aziraphale looked at each other, their eyebrows raised.
"That," Crowley began, surprised to be saying what he was about to say, "will be incredibly useful."
"You don't have to look so shocked," Anathema said, clearly a bit upset with the two of them. Crowley just shrugged, while Aziraphale studied the ceiling.
"Newt may be of invaluable help to Adam and his friends." Aziraphale tapped the top of his fountain pen against his lips, and Crowley would be lying if he didn't admit that the gesture made him think about...other...things. "They've each become very influential in their own areas, now that they're away at university. They'll start organizing with their contacts at their own campus but push for word to spread further. They may need to avail themselves of Newt's skills to get them into different areas of those electronic webworks everyone's so fond of."
Crowley opened his mouth to correct him, then thought better of it. He was demon enough to admit to himself that he found it sexy as fuck whenever Aziraphale showed himself to be at least a decade (if not longer) behind the times. Why ruin something good?
"Anything to help us reach more people." Anathema bit her lip. "Most people will think we're all crazy, though."
"They might," Crowley agreed. "But it could be enough to make a few people think twice, if they're approached for recruitment."
"And once the fighting starts, they'll know it was all true, and hopefully they'll be less shocked and ready to defend themselves," Anathema said, nodding in agreement.
"What about Warlock?" Aziraphale asked, already shrinking back before Crowley had a chance to scowl at him.
"Warlock keeps out of this."
"But he doesn't want to," Aziraphale said, scooting over to take both of Crowley's hands into his. "And he's old enough that he doesn't have to listen to us if we tell him to stay out of it. Better for us to welcome him onto the team, my dear, so he'll be adequately prepared."
"I don't like this." Crowley shifted restlessly in his chair, half wanting to push Aziraphale away and half wanting to collapse in a puddle in the angel's lap.
"You've made that abundantly clear," Aziraphale agreed, his eyes mournful when they met Crowley's.
"I've spoken to him," Anathema said, obviously treading carefully as she spoke. "He's a...unique...young man."
"His parents are both self-involved arseholes," Crowley said, his temper flaring almost out of control. "He was raised by a demon and an angel who—" He stopped, choking up. "Who thought they were raising the Antichrist, and messed about with his head." All the fight went out of him, and his entire upper body slumped forward, when he realized he was really mad at himself. "I was the closest thing he had to a parent for almost half his life. Until one day, when I just disappeared."
Anathema looked completely baffled, but that made perfect sense. She knew the two of them had some connection to Warlock, but she didn't know any of the specifics about Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis.
"Doesn't matter," Crowley said, angrily brushing a tear away from where it had escaped against his will. "Like you said, we can't stop him. No point in moaning about it."
"Crowley," Aziraphale began, and Crowley knew that tone. The angel's heart was breaking, and there just wasn't room for that right now, not with the world at stake. Again.
"Drop it," he warned. "The kid probably has lots of American contacts. Children of politicians and wealthy buggers with plenty here on Earth to fight for."
Aziraphale's pen scratched away at his list, but he otherwise kept quiet. If there was one thing Aziraphale knew how to do, it was let Crowley cool down on his own timetable. Crowley couldn't be more grateful.
"So," Anathema said, breaking the silence after a moment or two had passed. "The whisper campaign starts now. We'll give everyone their assignments, and we'll all work to subvert their recruitment efforts and prepare anyone who'll believe us for the fight that's to come."
They worked almost non-stop for the next three weeks, all of them staying in a miraculously-enlarged version of Crowley and Aziraphale's cottage, which also suddenly had the fastest internet connection in the whole of southern England.
Aziraphale didn't understand much of what was going on with this computer nonsense, but for his part, he had been visiting a lot of religious groups. He'd tromped into church basements and town halls to sit with humans banding together, looking for meaning.
It had taken much more of what he'd learned from Crowley about temptations than his own innate ability to give divine inspiration, but he'd managed to start many philosophical debates about the hypothetical end of the world and whether a merciful and just God would really decide to take away the gift of an Earthly lifetime from each human's immortal soul. He'd always known the Book of Revelation was utter tosh invented by people who wanted to use religion to control others, and he was happy to have the opportunity to spread the word.
Aziraphale also managed to arrange a meeting with two of the few angels he actually trusted, and they came together in the same place and the same time as Crowley set up a tête-à-tête with a few of the more rebellious, Earthly pleasures-loving demons he knew. They'd both had the grimmest of outlooks about the outcomes of these conversations, but they'd turned to look each other in the café halfway through and shared a wicked grin of triumph.
Once Crowley had pointed out to his former co-workers that they'd lose access to night clubs and terrible movies with lots of car chases, he found they'd quite gone off the idea of teaming up with the angels to destroy the Earth. When he suggested further that he'd been surprised Beelzebub was willing to trust the same Archangels who cast them out in the first place, and didn't they worry that it was all a trap, he knew by the slowly dawning 'uh-oh' looks on their faces that his subversion of the whole thing was a done deal.
For Aziraphale's part, it had begun with one subtly-placed comment about how bold the angels must be to take Gabriel's word, alone, that destroying one of Her most awe-inspiring works was God's own will.
"It does seem odd," Aziraphale had said, taking a careful sip of his tea, "that for something so important and paradigm-shifting, She wouldn't take it up with the host Herself." He could see the doubt encroaching after that, taking root in their minds as he lightly dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. "And to trust the demons enough to work together? My brother and sister angels are blessed with much more faith than I ever had, I'm afraid. It took me over six thousand years to trust one demon, for Heaven's sake, and they tried to put me to death for that."
Upon comparing notes later, they both agreed that the usual rumor mill nonsense among the angels and demons would do the rest of the work for them. That was all but confirmed later, when secret missives from Heaven and Hell began to arrive for Aziraphale and Crowley, passing them inside information about plans for the upcoming war.
Newt had turned out to be as good a hacker as he'd been represented by Anathema, and he'd gotten Adam and his crew into lots of private message boards, where they attempted to spread sanity. They'd even dipped into the Dark Web, with Crowley's help (who had not, in fact, been responsible for that particular cesspool, but had learned a lot about it after he'd taken credit for it in one of his reports.)
Warlock had proved extremely helpful on sites like Reddit, where he seemed to have an innate sense of exactly how to blend in with their particular brand of toxicity.
"Call 'em a wanker in the first line of your reply," he drawled lazily over Pepper's shoulder, then sprawled over a nearby chair like some sort of Insult Consultant.
"But...they're being completely reasonable." Pepper swiveled around, tilting her head in confusion.
"You want upvotes, or no one else will see your reply. That subreddit, people'll laugh if you insult him. Especially if it sounds British, because those idiots think anything British is fancy and smart. They'll upvote it for laughing, and then everyone will see it."
"This is awful," Pepper said, spinning back around and beginning to type. "I thought this voting system was supposed to be based on relevancy, not who can yell the loudest or be the most objectionable arsehole possible."
The answer from Warlock came a moment later, with a shrug and snorted laugh.
"On Reddit ?"
Bright and early on the day they'd been tipped off would be the beginning (and hopefully, end) of the war, the International Express delivery man rang the bell at the front door of Crowley and Aziraphale's cottage. There was no packaging to hide the nature of the item being delivered, just a sword being carefully held by the hilt as it was thrust toward Aziraphale.
With a heaviness on his shoulders that Crowley hated and hoped he'd never see again, Aziraphale took it, holding it in front of himself like it was the physical manifestation of his sacred duty—which is exactly what it was.
"You're sure it'll be here?" Aziraphale asked, without turning around.
"Yeah," Crowley answered, and he hadn't meant for so much of his grim dread to seep into his voice. "This feels...personal. Toward you 'n me. Or at least, it'll start that way."
Aziraphale faced him, the sword sparking to life for a moment before he put it out with a thought, and then he nodded.
"We sided with humanity to stop the apocalypse. You're right. They'll want to punish us."
"We're the only ones here with powers like theirs, too," Crowley added. "If they could get us out of the way early, they probably think humanity would fold without our help."
"They really don't know the humans very well, do they?"
Before Crowley could answer, Warlock's voice came from the doorway.
"Mind if I have a word with Crowley?" Warlock asked, clearly trying to sound as though he didn't care either way, but there was an undercurrent of something there, a vulnerability that Warlock almost seemed allergic to.
Crowley could see that Aziraphale wanted to dive right into all the emotions and conflict that were now infusing themselves into the air around them, but Crowley stopped him with a look and a subtle shake of his head.
"Of course. I should be speaking with Anathema and the others." Aziraphale ducked out to the sitting room, leaving Crowley and Warlock alone.
"What did you—" Crowley began, before Warlock broke in.
"I know you, don't I? From before," Warlock said, and Crowley's mind screeched to a stop.
Warlock wasn't supposed to remember. He'd washed a demonic miracle over the boy when he'd been sacked, blurring his memory of Nanny Ashtoreth. She'd looked different enough from the way he looked now that he'd doubted Warlock could have connected things even without that parting gesture. So Crowley went with the plan he found easiest to default to when he felt cornered: Deny, deny, deny.
"Really? I suppose it's possible," he said, tilting his head toward Warlock as though he didn't know every angle of his face, as though he hadn't considered him as good as his own son for the years he'd spent raising him. "Been around a long time, me, and I've crossed paths with a lot of humans."
"If you say so, I guess..." Warlock started, and Crowley could see the walls coming up, the protection sliding into place around him, and his heart broke a little before Warlock straightened up again. "No. I'm not wrong. I don't know how I can be so sure, but I know who you are."
"'Course you do. We introduced ourselves when you showed up here with Adam and the rest. I'm—"
"You're Nanny Ashtoreth ," Warlock spat, sounding angry now. "And you're about to deny it. You can, I guess, but I'm still gonna know who you are. Were. Whatever," he said, with an angry shrug, but Crowley could see it was all a front. Warlock wanted more than anything to be filled with rage, but Crowley could see the shape within of the little boy he'd raised. The set of his mouth was so similar to the way that child had looked when he'd scraped his knee and was trying not to cry that it took Crowley's breath away.
"I don't know what—" Crowley choked out, every word more painful than the last, and then his throat closed up entirely. His body was refusing to let him do this, to look this young man in the eyes and lie. "You're right. I was her. She was me."
"Why?" All the confusion of a boy who'd felt abandoned was poured into one torturous word, and Crowley wasn't sure how to answer.
"We...you know how you and Adam were born on the same day and in the same place? We knew one of you was going to be instrumental to the...well, it's hard to explain. I'm not even sure how much Adam remembers of it, and he was there."
"He remembers all of it," Warlock said, sitting heavily in a nearby chair, as though his legs couldn't hold him anymore. "You thought I was the Antichrist instead of him? And that's the only reason you...that you were there, working as my nanny?"
"It seems that way, I know," Crowley said, and he could hardly believe what he was about to say. "It seems like it was a big mistake, like we should have been watching over Adam instead." He could see Warlock closing off, so Crowley knelt down, looking right at him, and that got Warlock's attention back. "But Adam did fine without us. Better, really. He needed his human parents for us to succeed last time. I feel like...we were supposed to be there with you."
"The angel," Crowley said, a smile breaking through the seriousness of his expression. "He was Brother Francis."
"Right. Yeah," Warlock said, slowly. "Wow."
"We were supposed to be with you, Warlock. I think that's why you're here now, and I know we need you for this."
"This is crazy."
"Yeah," Crowley agreed, with a laugh. "Aziraphale would say the whole thing is part of the 'ineffable plan,' you know."
"He says a lot of weird stuff, your angel," Warlock said, and they both laughed.
"Don't tell him. I wouldn't want him to stop."
They stopped laughing, and a silence fell between them. Crowley would have made up something, reminded them both that they should be getting ready for the battle to come, but he could sense that Warlock wasn't done.
"I was so angry with you, you know," Warlock said, finally, his voice low. "One day, I have someone taking care of me. Listening to me. And the next, I had...two adults I shared a living space with. People who always seemed surprised I was there when we ran into each other somewhere in the house."
"Don't blame you for being angry." Crowley stood up again, and Warlock got to his feet as well. "I really did get sacked, though. I didn't make that happen. Your mum decided you were too old to need a nanny, especially when they were talking about sending you away to boarding school."
Warlock nodded, the slightest quiver in his bottom lip before it disappeared with a squaring of his shoulders.
"I know. I believe you."
"Doesn't mean you have to stop being angry with me, not if it makes things easier for you."
Crowley could see it in his eyes, how much Warlock wanted to take all of that loneliness and pain out on him. It would be safer to blame it all on someone who would forgive him, and someone he'd got used to being out of his life.
"Could I...no, never mind. We need to—"
"Did you want a hug?" Crowley was guessing, but it seemed right. It felt like what Warlock needed to begin to put this behind him.
"I'm not weak," Warlock protested. "Firm handshake," he insisted, and for the first time since Warlock had walked into the room, Crowley heard an echo of Warlock's dad there, the sound sour as it fitted itself over Warlock's voice.
Regardless, though, if this was what Warlock could allow himself, Crowley wouldn't deny him. He put his hand out, waiting for Warlock to take it. A moment passed, a grinding of Warlock's jaw, a twitch of his hand.
And then Warlock fell into Crowley's arms, squeezing the air from his lungs before Crowley could even reciprocate.
"There there, dear," he said, the words coming automatically. "Everything will be all right."
The hug was short—too brief for both of them, Crowley would wager—but Warlock looked much more settled and at ease when he pulled away.
"Thanks, Nanny," he said, and ducked out of the room before Crowley could respond.
The war was a shitshow from the beginning—a standoff, a pissing contest of hurled insults and threats.
The combined army of the angels and demons, along with their human reinforcements, had shown up (just as Crowley had predicted) in a large, open field not very far from Crowley and Aziraphale's cottage. Opposite them, there was only the impossibly small group of Aziraphale, Anathema, Newt, and the Them (plus Warlock).
Crowley had crept into a nearby grouping of trees, at Aziraphale's suggestion. He didn't like it, being so far away from the rest of them, but they both felt that positioning Crowley there might give them a tactical advantage later.
Aziraphale was in front of their group, waving that sword as though it could ever be enough to hold back the combined forces of Heaven and Hell. Crowley's heart stopped every time anyone made a move, and he wanted to rip out Gabriel's throat every time he hurled his scorn and contempt toward Aziraphale and the humans standing just behind him.
Crowley was watching intently from the shadows, wanting to be mobile the moment anyone made a move. He was able to master himself enough to examine the troops, and he could see the hesitance (and sometimes, outright defiance or revulsion) on the faces of the angelic soldiers. Very few of them seemed resolved or committed, though Gabriel was too much of a self-involved twat to have noticed it yet.
The demonic forces were hardly better. Most of them looked like they wanted to run away, throwing distrustful glances toward the heavenly forces, and none of them were listening to a word of the inspirational speech Dagon was shouting out to them. Beelzebub seemed unaware, though, Crowley noted with an angry satisfaction.
The human reinforcements on both sides had looked smug in the beginning, taking in how few beings were there to oppose the angelic and demonic hordes, but they seemed more and more unsure the longer the standoff continued without their leaders instructing them to begin the slaughter.
They just needed something, some sort of gesture to tip the scales, and Crowley felt certain that most of the forces would lay down their weapons and retreat.
As he was trying to think of something, Anathema ran forward, breaking out of Newt's grip as he tried to hold her back. They hadn't planned this, but Crowley was too far away to know whether this had been Aziraphale's own spur-of-the-moment idea or if Anathema was acting on her own. He'd just have to do his best to protect her, and improvise to go along with whatever she was about to do.
"You came here to kill humans, didn't you? Well, here I am!" she yelled, holding her arms out to her sides to show she wasn't even holding a weapon. "You know we aren't as strong as you are, that we can't do the things you can do. So if you're going to kill defenseless people, you might as well start with me."
Crowley panicked, knowing that very little of what Anathema had said would put off a demon who was just told they could murder a human for sport, so he did the only thing he could think of. He fell to his knees and reached for every bit of his strength, and he stopped time—but just for the demons, to keep their bloodlust from goading them to rip the throat out of a willing human victim.
Aziraphale reacted immediately and with all the brilliance that Crowley knew his amazing angel held within himself.
"My fellow, beloved angels," Aziraphale yelled, and when Gabriel started to protest, Aziraphale took several steps forward and brought out his bright white wings. They were exactly as they had been before he'd been on the outs with Heaven, proving to anyone who might have doubts that Aziraphale was still an angel.
"You shouldn't have those. You should have fallen. Traitor," Michael spat.
Aziraphale had a gleam in his eye that Crowley could see clearly even from his position, further away than he wished he was from his angel.
"Ah, but that isn't your decision, is it? It's Hers. Apparently, the Archangels don't have the power to banish anyone any longer, or I'd be a demon now, wouldn't I? Or dead, which is what they wanted." He paused for effect—every inch the theatrical old sod Crowley knew him to be—before he continued. "But I'm here, exactly as I was, after helping the humans to avert the last war the Archangels tried to wage here on one of Her greatest creations. This planet and these people," he said, gesturing widely behind himself, "must be very close to Her heart for Her to have blessed my actions to help protect them."
"It couldn't have been Her protection that saved you from hellfire," Gabriel yelled, his fair features contorted with rage. "We still don't know how you tricked us, but if you live through today, we're going to figure it out. And we're going to come for you."
"I'm sorry," Aziraphale said, laughing. "You don't know for certain if it was Her protection or not? It sounds as though you're guessing. I thought you consulted with Her to gain Her guidance before you act. Isn't that supposed to be the unique purview of an Archangel? You should have direct access to Her through Metatron, don't you?"
Crowley watched as Aziraphale paused again before going in for the kill, his heart racing in his chest and bursting with the eons-in-the-making, complex cocktail of emotions he had for his angel.
"Have you ceased to consult with Her? Or perhaps, you knew She would never support these plans of yours...your attempts to execute me for protecting humanity, and this war." Aziraphale said, boosting his voice even more with every drop of his own angelic power. "So you aren't acting, right now, with Her wishes made clear to you and with Her blessing. This is your own, private vendetta."
One of the angels near the front, the leader of one of the oldest battalions of Her warriors, laid down her sword and knelt, her head bowed. She began, in a cool, measured voice, to pray aloud for forgiveness. Her charges followed suit moments later, and the gesture spread haltingly through the rest of the troops, leaving the Archangels standing on their own.
Crowley called out to the loose band of humans interspersed throughout the kneeling angels, giving away his position at last, but sure that it was worth it. No demon or angel could speak to the inner motivations of a human the way he could. He hadn't been the original tempter for nothing.
"Oi, humans!" he called out, walking away from the copse of trees he'd secreted himself into. "Pretty sure you're all here on a promise from the Archangels that they'd make you a special place in the afterlife. Payment, you know, for betraying the rest of humanity. Doesn't look like that's panning out, does it? And those of you on the demonic side, you should know that Satan's insane. Bloody mad, has been for ages. Beelzebub doesn't have the power to create some utopia for you in Hell; it'd just be the same old torture and burning that everyone else gets." He grinned at Beelzebub, Dagon, and Hastur, standing there frozen in time, powerless to try to twist his words and get their human forces back on their side.
The humans on both sides laid down their weapons as well, folding their arms or kneeling on the ground. Their defiance was clear. There was nothing in it for them to betray humanity, and while that wasn't the best reason to get them to stand down, Crowley would take it.
"What have you done to Her, to keep Her from acting to oppose you?" Aziraphale said, taking over for the moment. "It's clear that you keep no counsel but your own. This can't be what She wants. She's a Creator, not a force for mindless, ugly destruction. I wish I had seen it earlier, instead of helping you to further your own goals for as long as I did."
With a gesture, Crowley restarted time, releasing the demons from their stasis. The angelic forces remained where they were, kneeling, the murmurs of their prayers like an earthquake shaking the ground beneath their feet.
Newt rushed forward to pull Anathema back and nestled her back in the group behind Aziraphale. With Aziraphale's gleaming white wings out and the flaming sword held aloft, his countenance shifted to something fearsome, terrifying enough that many of the demons recoiled.
Crowley took a few more steps forward, getting closer to the opposing forces than he'd felt comfortable before, but he knew it was a show of strength. Show no fear, don't betray the desperate pounding of his heart, and swagger forward. The fate of the world depended on it.
"My fellow demons," he said with a broad smile, shoving as many of his fingers as he could fit into the tiny pockets of his skinny jeans and letting his shoulders slump, carefree and unworried. "Take a look at Heaven's forces...and your own human reinforcements. Doesn't look like they're willing to fight. Looks to me like Gabriel made your lot a load of empty promises he can't deliver on, and Beelzebub was a fool to listen to him. We had a little chat while I froze you in time—sorry for that, by the way—and the angels who are kneeling here have no intention of allowing anything to happen to humanity today."
There was murmuring among the demonic troops, and Beelzebub looked murderous.
"In fact," Aziraphale added, smiling at Crowley across the too-far distance between them, "I feel certain that if any being of the demonic persuasion were to decide to go forward with this slaughtering of humanity without the promised alliance in place, the bulk of the angelic forces assembled here would feel certain that this is, in fact, against God's will." His smile turned positively devious. "And they would be willing to fight, but to protect humanity, instead."
At this, many of the angelic forces got to their feet and took up their weapons anew, facing the demonic hordes. Wings mantled and shoulders squared, they were a terrifying sight to behold. The demons dropped their weapons, many of them simply disappearing themselves back to Hell. It left their leadership standing nearly alone.
"You've lost," Aziraphale called out. "Even before you've started. This was a mistake. Leave this place, and do not threaten it again."
The human reinforcements on both sides scattered, their fear taking over. Crowley wondered if this would change any of them, or if they'd stay on the same detestable paths they'd been on before they'd been recruited for this sham of a war. (He privately hoped that some of them wouldn't. He was a demon, after all, and still valued the entertainment potential of a few horrible specimens remaining in the gene pool.)
As Aziraphale's sword flamed, he began to stalk toward the remaining demons, who drew back in fear and quickly found their own ways to leave. The last remaining were Hastur, Dagon and Beelzebub, both of whom were glaring at the Archangels.
"You meant to betray uzzz from the beginning, didn't you?" Beelzebub hissed, the buzz in zir tone so strong that it was almost impossible to make out the words. "We were foolzzz to truzzzzt you. We won't make the zzzzsame mizzztake again."
The ground opened into a fiery mass beneath them, and the remaining demons sunk into it before the rift closed again.
Aziraphale rounded on the Archangels, his sword brighter and the flames burning higher than they ever had before.
"You know I don't want to harm anyone," Aziraphale said, though he held the sword in a warrior's stance as he faced them. "I don't think She'll protect you now, though. Not unless you repent for your sins, and atone."
"We are Archangels," Gabriel's voice boomed, though it sounded weaker than it should, given the celestial anger Crowley knew he should have been able to bring to bear. "I refuse to believe that you understand Her will better than we do. I was created by Her hand to do what She could not."
Gabriel reached out, as though he meant to throw some sort of attack toward Aziraphale and the group he protected behind him...but nothing happened. He tried again, with the same result. He looked behind himself, noticing at the same moment Crowley did that all of the Archangels' wings had receded.
"Gabriel," Michael said, heavenly sword falling from his shaking hands. He gestured, as though trying to manifest a miracle, but nothing happened. "I...I can't..." he stammered, tears falling down his face.
The Archangels—save for Gabriel, who now stood on his own—huddled together, weeping and cradling each other. Crowley looked to Aziraphale when he heard him gasp, and his heart broke. After everything the Archangels had put him through and for as much as Crowley felt they richly deserved whatever was coming to them, he could see that being forced to watch as his fellow angels went through the unimaginable terror of whatever was happening to them was tearing Aziraphale apart.
Crowley began to run, trying to close the distance between them so he could hold Aziraphale and help him get through this, but Warlock darted out, his eyes wide.
"Nanny!" Warlock yelled, sounding panicked. "Behind you!"
Crowley could still hear the pounding of Warlock's feet when he turned to find Gabriel towering over him, holding aloft an opened flask.
"I don't know what's happened to me," Gabriel growled, his smile smug, "but I don't believe your immunity to holy water is real. Why don't we find out?"
Before Crowley could react, Gabriel flung the contents of the flask forward, spattering Crowley directly in the face. He had a moment of enraged disbelief that he'd come this far only to be severed from Aziraphale after he'd thought they were safe, but it quickly gave way to an odd, peaceful acceptance.
If this was the price that needed to be paid to end this once and for all, and to keep his angel safe, he would pay it. He braced himself for the burning to start, for the flesh of his corporation to liquify and his demonic soul to be banished away.
But nothing happened.
"Nanny!" Warlock screamed, finally making it across the field, inserting himself between the enraged Gabriel and Crowley.
"Get back, Warlock, please," Crowley said, finally allowing himself to reach up and touch the liquid that was dripping harmlessly from the features of his face. "It didn't do anything," he added, not believing it, himself, and he began to laugh. "I'm fine."
He whirled around, needing to reassure Aziraphale that he was all right, and realized a moment too late that he had foolishly turned his back on an enemy within striking distance. There was a scuffle behind him, and he whirled back around to behold a sight that hit him like a physical blow directly to his stomach, doubling him over and making him want to retch in horror.
Warlock lay on the ground in front of Crowley, a glowing, angelic blade piercing him through the abdomen. His lifeblood sluiced away from the wound, already staining the ground beneath him.
Crowley looked up, feral hatred giving him a strength he hadn't thought he possessed, but there was no one there. Gabriel was gone.
He rushed to Warlock's side instead, reaching toward the blade, but freezing when Aziraphale's voice called out.
"Don't touch it!" Aziraphale shouted as he ran toward them. "That's a heavenly blade. It could end you." Aziraphale knelt at Warlock's other side, carefully tracing the area where the sword had gone straight through. "I need time, he's bleeding out too quickly."
Crowley, his power still exhausted after freezing time for the demons, nevertheless reached within himself to do it again. With a pained cry, he fixed time in place, holding it at bay with sheer will. The seconds ticked by only for Aziraphale and himself, and he watched, prayers he'd thought he'd long forgotten rushing through his mind, as Aziraphale tended to the wound.
"I'm glad he can't feel this," Aziraphale murmured, as he took the hilt gently in his hands and pulled it free. The gash beneath glowed an angry white, the blood stilled for now, but looking no less gruesome for it. "I'll try to heal it."
"What d'you mean, try ?" Crowley asked, fear gripping him, choking all the air out of him.
"It's a supernatural weapon, and Warlock is human. This sword has the power to eradicate any celestial or demonic being from existence, far more powerful than what's required to kill a human." His worried eyes found Crowley's, and even before he spoke again, Crowley could see what Aziraphale was struggling to tell him. "I don't know if there's anything I'll be able to do."
"But you'll try," Crowley insisted, and he gasped several pained breaths as he watched Aziraphale begin to work.
The angel's hands moved over the young man lying motionless on the ground. Crowley could see the energy flowing between them, the blinding light of Aziraphale's power flickering around the rent flesh. Aziraphale cried out and squeezed his eyes shut, the light impossibly intensifying, until he fell back with a weak cry.
"I can't," Aziraphale sobbed. "I can't touch it. It's beyond my power to repair."
"No," Crowley said. "He was protecting me . This can't happen."
"I'll try again," Aziraphale said, blinking up at Crowley with tears streaming down his face. When he turned back to Warlock, his entire body shook with the effort, the glow returning even as he whimpered in pain.
The truth came to Crowley, a horrible acceptance that took root in him as he understood. There would be a price paid today, just as he'd thought moments before, but it was not to be exacted from Crowley. Humanity would have to offer up one of its own to end this.
"Stop, angel." Crowley reached forward, putting his hand on Aziraphale's shoulder and feeling the painful vibration of angelic energy thrumming through Aziraphale's body and into his. "You were right. You can't fix this. You’ll only put yourself at risk trying. I need you to stop."
"I'm so sorry," Aziraphale sobbed. "I'm so sorry, you beautifully flawed boy," he told Warlock's body, still frozen in time. "And Crowley...I failed you."
"You almost destroyed yourself trying to undo what Gabriel did. It's his fault, not yours." He took a deep breath. "And mine. I should never have turned my back on him."
"He saved you," Aziraphale said, his voice soft. "And he knew who you were. To him. He called you 'Nanny.'"
"He figured it out, confronted me with it when he asked to speak to me alone." Crowley clenched his jaw, then ground his next words out between gritted teeth. "I should have lied to him. Told him he was wrong. Then he would have stayed back, kept himself safe."
"It hurts so badly, Crowley, I know, but humanity deserves to have a choice. Warlock deserved to have a choice. He loved you, and he acted to protect you. The beauty of that decision..." Aziraphale murmured, then reached down to smooth Warlock's hair back from his face.
"I can't hold this any longer," Crowley said, fresh tears burning in his eyes. "Time's about to restart, with or without me."
Before Crowley could let go, everything around them went white. Aziraphale was still with him, but Warlock had disappeared. They were in a bright, open nothingness, but he could also sense that they weren't alone. It wasn't until Aziraphale fell to his knees next to him, his head bowed reverently, that Crowley realized who else was with them.
"My beautiful children," She said, Her voice ringing out in great chords, creating music as She spoke. "You have restored Me."
"But...Warlock," Crowley said, before he lost his wits with all the Heavenly power surrounding him.
"I've spoken to him," God said, moderating Her voice to ease its effect on Crowley and Aziraphale. "I can't bring him back to life. I'm sorry, Crowley. I know that's what you wish Me to do. The blade was imbued with My power, long ago, and the wound is irreparable, even by Me."
"Did you even try?" Crowley accused, not caring if his insolence would garner a punishment.
"I did," She said, Her face contorted with pain. "And then I spoke to him. He is a remarkable young man. A wonderful example of humanity, in his own way. Terribly flawed and carrying a pain I wish none of My creations would inflict on each other, but that is the nature of free will."
"Sod free will," Crowley said. "I invented free will, and it isn't worth it. It isn't worth this."
"It's worth everything, My child," She said, and Crowley recoiled from what She'd called him. "You were right. It is the essence of humanity, and it makes their time on Earth worthwhile. It takes the measure of them, every day, a constant challenge and gift. You were wise to create it."
"What will happen to him?" Aziraphale asked, apparently just finding his voice.
"He's agreed to help Me. The two of you, and your human helpers, have freed Me. I am reclaiming Earth and humanity, and also what happens to them when their time on Earth is done." She smiled, but it was a sad, pained smile. "There will be no more rewards or punishments. No Heaven and Hell. I will work with My children, angel and demon alike, to create a new afterlife for them. We will give them the opportunity to continue their growth without causing each other harm."
"And Warlock?" Aziraphale asked.
"Warlock understands humanity. His time here was brief, but he's seen so much, felt so much. I'll need him as I go forward, especially given how much I've missed. He's..." She paused, Her smile losing much of its sadness, "...hopeful, now." She looked to Crowley. "You'll be able to see him whenever you'd like. He'd like that. You can have eternity to catch up with each other."
It still seemed wrong, what had happened to Warlock, but Crowley considered Her words. Perhaps this is what he and Aziraphale had raised the boy to be—a strange amalgam of angel, demon, and human. A peace washed over him at the thought but was still tinged with the pain of all Warlock could have been, had he been able to live out the rest of his human lifetime.
If he could have made himself leave things there, perhaps Crowley could have been content. But another thought followed right behind, once he'd learned what would happen to Warlock.
"And Gabriel? Beelzebub? The rest of them who were responsible for this?"
Her eyes closed in anguish, long moments passing before She was able to answer.
"I've done the only thing I believe might have the power to change them. I've sent them to Earth to live human lifespans. They'll have no memory of their angelic or demonic identities, and Crowley, before you even consider it, you'll have no way of discovering who they are," She added with a knowing look. "They'll live out as many lifespans as it takes for them to re-learn who they should be. Then, and only then, will I consider bringing them back into the fold of My children."
As angry as Crowley was, he felt Aziraphale let out a sigh of relief next to him and realized that his angel might never have gotten over being party to the destruction of anyone, no matter how much they might have deserved it. If Crowley could be grateful for anything, easing Aziraphale's pain was foremost.
"I love you both," God told them, Her countenance glowing down upon them. "You are both welcome in My domain at any time, and you will have My ear if ever you need it."
Before they could blink, they were back on Earth, standing with their little band of humans. Crowley began to weep again as Aziraphale began to answer their questions, all of them breaking down when they heard what had happened to Warlock.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
One year later
Aziraphale blinked himself back to full consciousness, though he still allowed himself to luxuriate in the warmth of the bed and the demon wrapped around him. He hadn't slept, not really, but he had gone into a sort of floating trance while Crowley dreamed the early hours of the morning away.
He did want to get up soon, and he knew Crowley hadn't really meant to sleep this long. They had plans today, a gathering to attend. Humans did so tend to mark even single anniversaries of important events, a stark contrast to the way a handful of centuries could pass for Aziraphale before he turned his thoughts again to something that had happened in his past.
With a few exceptions.
His anniversaries revolved mostly around his love, marking the days when their relationship had evolved. Neither of them could remember exactly which day of which month in 1601 they'd met at the rehearsal for Hamlet and the Arrangement had been made explicit, but they'd chosen a day that was close, at any rate, and had celebrated it the past few years by eating grapes, getting terribly sloshed, and reading old Will's best lines out loud to each other.
They also, of course, marked the day they'd switched places and wiggled out of their respective death sentences, but that was really more about the moment they'd stopped lying to themselves and to each other, and they'd finally come together as the love of each other's lives. Their celebration for that...ah, well, that was traditionally a rather faithful re-enactment of how they'd spent the hours between meeting in the park to switch back and finally making it to the Ritz.
Perhaps Aziraphale understood this human tendency to celebrate anniversaries better than he'd thought.
"Angel?" Crowley said softly, mumbling the word into Aziraphale's collarbone.
"You should probably start to wake up," Aziraphale answered, holding Crowley closer and chuckling when all he got was a low, sad moan in response. "There's a lot to do today, my dear. People coming, and we have a trip to make, first."
At that, Crowley's eyes blinked open, coming rather alarmingly to full awareness.
"Right," he said, looking...guilty? "Wanted to talk to you about that."
"What is it?" Aziraphale waited, and then prodded Crowley a little in the shoulder when he didn't answer right away.
"I think we should visit Warlock separately, today." Crowley pulled away and sat up, looking down at the covers pooled in his lap. "He's seemed down, recently, though he denies it if I ask him about it. I think he's mourning all he's lost—his life here—but he doesn't think he can talk to me about it."
"You'd only blame yourself, my dear." Aziraphale frowned, feeling as though he'd made a terrible error in suggesting that Crowley make most of the visits to Warlock on his own. He'd thought that the two of them shared a unique bond that had never been forged between Warlock and Brother Francis, and they'd both benefit from some privacy, but perhaps he'd unwittingly shirked his duty to Warlock instead.
"It's my fault that he—"
"It is Gabriel's fault, what happened to Warlock. Warlock himself has been very clear with you about this."
"Nevertheless," Crowley said, waving his hands to change the subject, "if he's in pain because of what happened to him, he'll never open up to me about it."
"Ah," Aziraphale said, drawing out the sound as he came to a more complete understanding of what Crowley was trying to say. "You think he might be able to talk about it with me."
"Hoping. I'm hoping he can." Crowley leaned forward, putting their foreheads together. "I know you can help him. You know the proper things to say, how to help him. I'd only muck it up, anyway."
"You wouldn't," Aziraphale said. "You're lovely, and you've always been good with Warlock, but I think you're correct in this case. You should see him before Anathema and the others visit us later today, and I'll go see him after they've left. You can let me know, when you get back, how he seems to be feeling, and perhaps I'll be better prepared to help him."
Crowley tilted his head, bending down a bit, and brought their mouths together. The kiss was slow and lazy, exactly what a drowsy, languid snog should be. Aziraphale smiled into it, unable to stop himself, and desire pooled in his belly when Crowley whispered, "My sunshine angel," against his lips.
"That's all for now, my love," Aziraphale said, pulling back, "or we'll never get up, and we'll be running late the whole day."
"I could stop time," Crowley offered.
Aziraphale raised one eyebrow, then felt his face relax into the smile that usually made Crowley say something about Aziraphale being his "wonderful, bastard angel."
"Let's see how long you can last before I distract you too much to hold time in place."
Crowley made a noise like all the consonants of several languages trying to escape through his lips at once, and Aziraphale pulled him back in for a kiss.