Being able to admit his love for Aziraphale didn't mean that all his problems were fixed. He knew it didn't work like that, not to mention the looming threat of the Apocalypse, only a few years away, had a tendency to paint everything with a bit of a darker brush.
All this was to say that things were not all smooth sailing. Sometimes, and increasingly in the days leading up to the end of the world, loving Aziraphale would hurt him almost more than he could bear.
In the bandstand, when Aziraphale had told him it was over, it had caused Crowley such physical pain that he hadn't even been able to speak properly for several moments after. Even knowing that Aziraphale had only made that choice to protect Crowley, convinced that appealing to God directly was the only way to stop the Apocalypse and thus keep him safe, hadn't done much to lessen the blow.
In Tadfield, when Aziraphale had threatened to never speak to him again if he didn't find a way to avert the Apocalypse - an empty threat, and they both knew it, especially since it was entirely likely that Satan would just obliterate them both anyway - and Crowley had stopped time itself at the mere possibility. Then, when Gabriel and Beelzebub had shown up, and Crowley had had to pretend that so much as seeing the Archangel again didn't almost send him into a downward spiral of terror. In part, it had been to save face in front of the assembled humans and supernatural entities, but mostly because he didn't want to give Aziraphale a reason to pity him instead of being proud of him.
In the flat in Mayfair, when he and Aziraphale had shared what they both desperately hoped wouldn't be their last kiss, transferring their souls into each other's corporations, and the look of fear on the angel's borrowed face hadn't seemed strange, because it was mirrored exactly on his own.
In Heaven, when he'd worn the angel's body under the guidance of a centuries-old prophecy, and he'd been surrounded by the cold, indifferent gazes of the people who were supposed to love Aziraphale most. Gabriel had grinned smarmily as he'd told what he thought was Aziraphale to step into the hellfire, clearly thinking he'd weaselled his way out of abiding by the spirit of the Accord through twisting the letter of it instead, given that he hadn't technically laid a hand on either of them himself. Horrifyingly enough, Crowley was fairly sure it would have worked - the trial wasn't designed to separate Aziraphale from Crowley, but to punish him for his perceived crimes against Heaven, and would have happened with or without Gabriel's say-so. There hadn't been anything in the Accord about Gabriel preventing harm from coming to them, just that he couldn't cause it himself. By ordering Crowley-as-Aziraphale to step into the hellfire, he likely would have again circumvented the Accord, as technically Aziraphale would have been causing himself harm, rather than having it inflicted on him by Gabriel. Perhaps if Crowley had refused, forced the Archangels to toss him in, it would have been different, but the point was moot because the hellfire wouldn't have harmed him anyway.
So Crowley had stepped into the flames while wearing Aziraphale's body, breathed hellfire at the gathered Archangels, and smiled.
He'd thought that they'd finally have some peace, some time to recover. That it was the last time he'd ever have to set foot in Heaven.
He was wrong.
The night started off unremarkably enough. They hadn't really done all too much that day, aside from tossing around some half-baked ideas about moving to a cottage in the countryside, and generally trying to inconvenience any customers that wandered into the bookshop into leaving. Aziraphale had just flipped the 'closed' sign on the bookshop door, pouring himself and Crowley a glass of wine each, when the demon caught sight of a faint blue glow emanating from under the rug that covered Aziraphale's communing circle.
"Hey, angel? 'S it supposed to be doing that?" He nodded towards the rug. Aziraphale froze mid-sip and frowned.
"No, it's most definitely not," he replied, setting down his glass as a worried crease formed on his brow. "I… must be getting a call, they've never done that before. I've always called them."
They exchanged nervous glances.
"…You don't think they've figured out the ruse, do you?"
"Surely not," Aziraphale answered, a little uncertainly. "I doubt they'd bother with a courtesy call before getting to the smiting, if that were the case." The glow intensified and he bit his lip. "I suppose it would be rude, not to pick up," he murmured, flicking back the rug before Crowley could protest.
The spectral head of the Metatron coalesced above the circle, spilling light throughout the bookshop. Crowley surreptitiously picked up his sunglasses and put them back on.
Aziraphale cleared his throat, offering the Voice of God a feeble smile. "Um. Hello. How… how can I help you?"
"Hello, Aziraphale," the Metatron boomed, pausing a moment before sliding his gaze over to Crowley. "…The demon Crowley," he added politely, obviously struggling to keep any contempt out of his voice.
"'Sup," Crowley managed, instantly glad for the sunglasses.
"Was there something you needed?" Aziraphale prompted.
The Metatron grimaced. "You are being Summoned."
Aziraphale swallowed dryly. "Is- is this about Armageddon? Because I- well, I already had my trial for that, you see, it wasn't my fault the punishment didn't stick-"
"This is not about your punishment, Aziraphale, or the demon's, for that matter," the Metatron assured. "You have been… exonerated, as far as any of that goes."
"Oh," Aziraphale murmured faintly. "Well… good?"
"This Summons is directly from Her, Aziraphale."
The angel blanched a little. "Oh," he said again. "Well, I suppose I must attend, mustn't I?"
"Not just you," the Metatron corrected, glowing gaze shifting to Crowley again. "The Summons is for both of you."
Crowley made a choking noise. "What're you talking about? I've got no business being in Heaven."
The Metatron's lip curled. "Normally, I would agree. However, as I have said, this is a direct Summons from Her. I can assure you no harm will come to either of you, and you will be returned safely to this spot once the proceedings are complete. It won't take long." The angel and demon both just stared at him, and the Metatron huffed impatiently. "This is a Summons. It is not a request. I will expect you shortly." His face faded from view, leaving the circle glowing gently on the floor.
They both stared at it.
Crowley gulped. "Don't suppose you think She'd find us if we just ignored Her and ran off to Alpha Centauri?" he asked weakly.
"She's called the Almighty for a reason, Crowley," Aziraphale reminded him, voice equally faint. "At any rate, I'm still an angel. I can't disobey a direct Summoning from Her, I really can't."
Crowley groaned, sounding defeated. "And I can't let you go up there on your own."
"Well. I suppose that settles it," Aziraphale said, trying to inject some cheeriness into his tone. "The Metatron did promise we wouldn't come to any harm."
"No offence, angel, but I wouldn't trust anyone from Heaven as far as I could throw 'em," he replied bleakly.
"None- well, all right, a little offence taken. But perhaps if it's important enough for Her to Summon us directly, it would be in our best interests to just go, instead of being dragged up there kicking and screaming?"
"…Bless it, you've got a bit of a point there," Crowley admitted, chewing his bottom lip. Aziraphale offered him an outstretched hand and a nervous smile.
"Once more, unto the breach, then?"
"Urgh. I guess."
Crowley took his hand, squeezing it tight as they stepped into the portal.
They stepped into Heaven. Not one of the corporate-looking floors, but an endless plane of white. It was so bright that Crowley had to squint despite his sunglasses. Even the angel's eyes were narrowed slightly against the glare.
"What is this? And what are they doing here?"
They whirled at the sound of Gabriel's annoyed voice, Crowley unable to keep himself from flinching, but they very quickly stopped paying attention to the Archangel in favour of the figure occupying the space behind him.
Her true form was an amalgamation of blazing divinity and non-Euclidean geometry, so far beyond the confines of logical perception that any human who got within spitting distance would have been instantly vaporised. For the two angels and the demon, it just caused a mild buzzing under their skin and kept them from looking directly at Her. She ignored Gabriel's questions in favour of greeting the two Earthly operatives.
Hello, Crowley. It's been some time.
Crowley's mouth and brain both refused to function for a few moments, still trying to process the fact that he was back in Heaven in the first place - at least while wearing his own skin - let alone having a direct conversation with God. "Y-yeah, hi," he managed after a fashion, resisting the hysterical urge to call Her 'Big G' or something equally inane. "'S been a minute."
It's been substantially longer than that.
"…Right," Crowley muttered, somehow not surprised that hyperbole went over God's head (or, at least, whatever part of Her metaphysical presence was the equivalent of Her head). She wasn't exactly known for subtlety.
You have suffered so much, yet remain so strong. The words were as gentle as they could be when being directly blasted into his brain. I commend you for your fortitude in the face of adversity.
"Uh…" Crowley replied lamely. "Thanks."
She almost sounded amused, comforting warmth radiating from Her in waves. You are welcome.
Her not-quite-gaze moved on to the smaller of the two angels in the room.
Aziraphale. You have acted with true compassion. The liminal space they were occupying filled with the warm glow of Her pride. You are so full of love, my sweet child. Truly, a shining example of the benevolence becoming of an angel.
"Thank you, Lord," Aziraphale whispered, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Her attention shifted again, voice taking on a disapproving tone.
The Archangel gulped. "Yes, Lord?"
You are not.
The colour drained from Gabriel's face.
It would appear that I have been remiss in my duties the past few decades.
Crowley stifled a snort.
Her tone softened. I'm well aware of the pain my inaction has caused you, Crowley. I am sorry, and I don't expect you to forgive me. I know I'm often far crueller than I am kind.
"You'd almost think you were human, the way you carry on," Crowley agreed humourlessly. The two angels spared him a horrified look for speaking so candidly to their Creator, but Her voice remained gentle and conciliatory.
I did create humanity in my image, did I not? They are not perfect. That was not a mistake.
"So, is that what this is, then? You owning up to one of your mistakes?"
In a manner of speaking, yes. Her not-quite gaze moved to Gabriel, but her words were still directed at Aziraphale and Crowley. This is to be Gabriel's trial, She said. You are here as witnesses.
"But-" Gabriel spluttered, finding his voice. "You can't rely on them! They messed up your Plan!"
Where did you hear that? She asked, glib as anything. I did create them both, after all. Doesn't it stand to reason I did so for a specific purpose? A hint of steeliness crept into Her tone. You were the one that decided to take it upon yourself to punish the demon Crowley merely for existing in the vicinity of an angel. I don't suppose you have anything to say for yourself?
"This is- he's a demon!" Gabriel protested. "Whatever he might've been once, he's a servant of Lucifer now, he deserved it!" She said nothing, and Gabriel's voice grew more desperate. "I saw the way he reacted to what I was doing, there was part of him that wanted to be punished!"
Her response, when it finally came, was cold. I notice that not one word you've said comes in the form of an apology, Gabriel. I rather think that speaks for itself. Her focus shifted. Don't you agree, Crowley? When She was met with fraught silence, Her tone became more gentle, soft waves of reassurance drifting over the demon. You don't need to speak if you don't want to, She told him. But I think it would do you good.
Crowley's nails had bitten so hard into his palms that he'd started bleeding, ichor dissipating with a slight sizzle the moment it dripped from his clenched fists and hit Heaven's floor. He stared hard at Gabriel, trembling. "I didn't want any of what you did," he whispered. "I only let you do it in the first place because I thought you'd hurt Aziraphale if I didn't." He felt the hot sting of unshed tears against the corners of his eyes, words flowing out of him as an alternative to letting them fall. "The way I reacted? That was a defence mechanism, you arsehole. What you did wasn't punishment, it was cruelty. You used your power to abuse me because you thought I wasn't anyone important enough to matter. Because you thought you could get away with it. It wasn't ordained by God, or Heaven, just you. You only did it for yourself." He found himself breathing hard, having to blink fiercely to keep the tears from falling. Aziraphale's fingers interlaced with his own, sending out a burst of golden energy to heal the places where his nails had broken his skin.
"It's all right, my love," Aziraphale murmured gently, giving his hand a soft squeeze.
"No, it isn't," Crowley replied, eyes still locked with Gabriel's. He straightened his spine, mouth set in a determined line. "But I will be."
Thank you, Crowley. I've heard enough to make my judgement.
"Doesn't the Principality get a chance to speak, too?" Gabriel asked bitterly.
Her tone was slightly disappointed, but not surprised. That was for Crowley's benefit, not mine. I do not need to hear Aziraphale speak to know what he has to say.
"...Of course, Lord." Gabriel set his jaw, straightening his spine. "I'm ready for my sentencing."
You have not made this easy, Gabriel. But I feel I have found an apt resolution. Are you not fond of the phrase, 'the punishment should fit the crime'?
A pillar of hellfire erupted from the floor.
The Archangel stared, stoicism evaporating. "You- you can't be serious." He'd clearly been expecting to Fall.
Are you questioning my judgement, Gabriel?
Gabriel went almost the same shade of grey as his suit, trembling slightly, something nearly unfathomable lurking in the flames reflected in the purple of his eyes. Crowley instantly recognised it.
It was the same fear Crowley had felt at the prospect of Aziraphale being damned. He'd thought he would've relished the sight of the Archangel getting a taste of his own medicine, but Crowley just felt like his mouth was full of ashes.
He balled his fists at his side. "This isn't right."
All must be judged in the end. She lifted a metaphysical eyebrow at him. Are you questioning my judgement, Crowley?
"Just seems a little extreme," the demon muttered uncomfortably. "Don't I get a say in it? Being the maligned party and all?"
Forgiveness is well and good, She intoned, Her voice both a reprimand and a reassurance, but only when the one being forgiven is truly repentant. Don't forget, Crowley, he was complicit in plans to do exactly this to Aziraphale. Her approximation of a mouth set into a grim smile. I would have thought the opportunity for a bit of reciprocal punishment would have pleased you.
The demon swallowed painfully. "I haven't forgotten, believe me. I just… don't think two wrongs make a right."
She smiled, bright and genuine, filling the room with even more light, and Crowley had the creeping sense he'd just passed a test he didn't know he'd been taking. What would you suggest, then? How else would you ensure that he cannot abuse his powers again, as he has done with you?
Crowley picked out his words carefully, realising the test wasn't quite over yet. "Maybe the power's the problem," he said slowly. "He's never not had it, he doesn't know what it's like to be without it. Maybe spending some time being… normal, that would give him some perspective."
You know, I rather think you're right, She murmured. A low rumble of thunder rolled through the liminal space and Her voice boomed a little louder. Archangel Gabriel, receive this, my judgement. Her presence swelled, the endless plane they were occupying seeming to shrink. You are to be stripped of your angelic gifts, and will be sent to Earth to live out your corporation's natural lifespan as a mortal. You will be judged for your deeds on Earth upon death as they are, and be allowed back into the Heavenly fold, or consigned to punishment in Hell, accordingly.
"What?" Gabriel rasped, disbelieving. "You'd station me on Earth as a human? Have them watch over me?" He gestured roughly at Crowley and Aziraphale. "They'll just set me up to fail! It's a foregone conclusion, this'll just delay the inevitable!"
Her tone was flat. Your judgement will not come from them, it will come from me. I will not inflict your enduring presence on them any more than you already have yourself.
His gaze flicked between Her and the column of hellfire still blazing off to the side.
This offer is more mercy than you have shown, Gabriel. I suggest you take this gift.
Gabriel lifted his chin defiantly at God, then glared over at Crowley and Aziraphale.
"Keep your precious Earth," he sneered, then stepped into the flames and burned.