On Thursday morning, the news reported that Northern factory workers were planning a protest march to the South in an attempt to make the country recognise their ordeal. It reported that fishermen were applying to the government for compensation for money lost due to the lack of fish. It also reported that the French Prime Minister was apparently very upset by certain accusations coming from Britain, and in the interests of their continued good relationship, would like those remarks to be withdrawn at once.
So far, no-one had withdrawn anything.
Then there was a report from outside Downing Street questioning just how long the current crisis could continue, and whether the Prime Minister needed to worry about being ousted by his own party. Votes of no confidence were mentioned, and anonymous Labour MPs were quoted as being "extremely concerned about whether their current leader can tackle the North".
Aziraphale, watching on the small colour television provided by the bed and breakfast, was also concerned.
"If they carry on like this, it won't just be a Civil War they start," he said worriedly.
"Nnngh," Crowley replied unhelpfully, and pulled a pillow over his head.
Aziraphale turned to look at him, and tsked. "Really, my dear, I did think you might be up by now. We have got a war to prevent after all."
"It's not yet nine o clock." Crowley complained from under the pillow. "And I haven't slept all night. You snore."
"Dear, it isn't possible for me to snore. For either of us to snore. We don't breathe, remember?" Aziraphale reasoned placidly.
"I know. I think you're doing it on purpose," Crowley accused. "Some kind of weird angelic revenge."
"I hardly think I would be focusing on such a thing when I have a potential war to focus on," Aziraphale said primly. "And neither should you be. There are more important things than sleep to think about."
Crowley's face appeared from under the pillow, bad-tempered and flushed with sleep. "You know it would be a lot less trouble to just let them get on with it," he complained. "Quick war, let them get the whole Empire thing out of their system again, and they'll wear themselves out enough to behave themselves for the next fifty years or so. They're going to end up having a war at some point anyway, so it might as well be now."
Aziraphale sighed. "And do you really fancy going back to London if they lose?"
"Don't be bloody stupid. They're the British Empire. They always win. More or less," Crowley retorted. "If only because they're too small and inconveniently placed for anyone to bother putting up the effort for a proper invasion." He sat up in bed, glancing over towards the television. "You watch. Someone will mention Blitz spirit in a moment."
On cue, the report switched to an interview with a fish and chip shop owner. "Well, it's hard of course, coping without any fish," he told the camera solemnly. "But the community's rallied around, and we've been doing the best we can, frying what we can get hold of. We've been trying chicken, as some people thought it tasted like some sorts of fish, and the pet shop donated some goldfish to keep us going. It's been good, like, everyone pulling together - having a bit of Blitz spirit around the place."
"See?" Crowley was triumphant. "Wonderfully predictable they are. The slightest bit of adversity, and it's Blitz spirit all the way."
Aziraphale pursed his lips disapprovingly. "Yes, well, if we don't calm things down, they'll be showing Blitz spirit in an actual Blitz again."
That was enough to make Crowley grimace. He hadn't thought of that and the memories were something completely different from what people invoked when they bandied around the term. "I remember that. Everyone being dragged out of bed in the freezing cold in the middle of the night to go stand in an air raid shelter."
Noticing his dislike of the memory, Aziraphale took the advantage. "Right. So, if you want any uninterrupted sleep over the next five years or so, perhaps it would be a good idea to get up?" he suggested patiently. "Come on now. I'll make us both a nice cup of tea to wake up with while you get up, there's a good chap."
It was one of the little amenities the bed and breakfast supplied to make things seem more homely - a tray with a kettle, and a small collection of teabags, disposable coffee sachets, sugar sachets and little cartons of UHT milk. Aziraphale highly approved, even if they did seem to have forgotten the teapot, milk-jug and sugar bowl that were needed for a proper civilized cup of tea. Still, one did what one could with what one had.
The kettle was already boiling before he realised something was missing. Several somethings in fact. "Crowley?"
"Mm?" Having been forced out of bed, Crowley had created his clothes for the day and was now taking ownership of the remote control, flicking through the television channels quickly.
"Where are the tea and coffee things?"
"Oh, uh..." Crowley looked a little sheepish. "In the drawer next to the beds."
Aziraphale opened it, and stared, slightly bemused, at the collection of sachets heaped in there. "Is there a reason we're hiding these?"
"They replace them every day if they think you've used them." Seeing Aziraphale's expression, Crowley became a little defensive. "Look, it's theft and lying. Those are perfectly demonic things to do."
Aziraphale looked at the sachets for a moment, then silently took out two teabags and a milk carton, and closed the door. He thought it best not to mention that since the Apocalypse these little acts of "being demonic" seemed to grow smaller and more symbolic every day, just in case Crowley got in the mood to prove him wrong. From instigator of Original Sin to pilferer of refreshments, Crowley's demonic attitude had taken a knock here or there through the millennia.
Frenzied channel-flicking had resulted in Crowley managing to find an episode of Jerry Springer. Satisfied, and ignoring the way Aziraphale winced at the sound of the two women on-screen screaming at each other, he set the remote back down and turned to look at the angel. "So," he asked, "what exactly did you have in mind?"
Aziraphale smiled, and sat back down on the bed, handing over a freshly brewed mug of tea. "Well," he said. "I thought it might be a good idea to head down to the beach..."
"All I'm saying is, I don't see why she gets to be the one in control," Pollution complained. "If anyone is going to lead us, it should be HIM."
"Yes, well, HE doesn't lead," Famine said firmly. "HE barely works with us at all really. HE just happens to be there when we have to work, most of the time. But I'm not sure how much that counts as technically he is everywhere."
"I've often wondered how that works," Pollution replied. "But I suppose it's a case of being more of everywhere here, and less everywhere there. I suppose it's that wave and particle thing again."
Famine looked at him. "Seriously, if you talk about that blasted cat again, I'll…well, everything was a lot simpler before it became all quantum."
The pair of them wandered down the shoreline together, a trail of litter following in their wake.
"Why are we even here really? I mean I know the sea warming up has nothing to do with me, regardless of what the humans are thinking. And pardon me for saying so, but I don't see anyone starving to death for lack of fish, for all they're complaining a lot about it. They're versatile things, humans. If you tell them they can't have fish and chips, they go get a pizza instead. Or a vindaloo. Or a Chinese. Nothing particularly British but that's the way it goes."
"Things will get better once the war starts," Famine reassured. "One of the plus-points about this place being an island. Once they annoy any neighbours they've got trading food with them, it soon starts running out. And you know some of the damage those weapons they have now can do. I'm sure you'll find plenty to keep you busy."
It wasn't enough to satisfy Pollution. "But why are we here, now?" he persisted. "I don't call you guys if I spill enough oil to kill off an entire population's food supply and cause a diplomatic incident. You don't call her if you think some nation's got hungry and desperate enough to attack the one next door. You just... know to turn up when you're needed. Why is she calling us before we're needed?"
Famine considered it carefully for a few minutes. "I don't know," he admitted. "Maybe she just wanted an audience?"
"An audience?" Pollution stared a little.
"Well, you know. Hardly good for the ego, being defeated by a little girl, is it? They do call it the theatre of war after all and maybe there is a little truth to that human metaphor. Maybe she just wants someone to pat her on the back a bit and say 'Jolly good war, well done you" - that kind of thing."
Pollution sighed. "If we said that now, do you think she would stop?"
The other personification eyed him curiously. "Would you want her to?"
"Not exactly but... I mean, well, maybe," Pollution admitted reluctantly. "Look, I've got my own projects out there which I was spending time on. There's some I was doing fantastically on - I had red kites nearly to extinction! But you know what humans are. You take your eyes off them for five minutes to work on something else, and they slap a protection order on the blasted things and work out how to get them to breed. I don't have time to waste on being here just because she wants attention!"
"I too have things which might be considered a better use of my time, there's been a few natural disasters that are very promising," Famine agreed. He looked straight at Pollution, meeting the pale eyes. "Will you tell her?"
Pollution sagged. "I was hoping you would," he said pleadingly. "You're more senior than me after all. "
"Ah, no." Famine shook his head. "Sorry my friend, but that's not how it works. You're old enough to do these things yourself."
The thought made Pollution wince. "She wouldn't take it well, would she? She'd argue."
"Fighting is something she's had rather a lot of practice at," Famine agreed. "Confrontation is practically her middle name even if it has too many syllables."
There was a pause as the two personifications contemplated the scene that would undoubtedly result from standing up to War.
"Maybe," Pollution said slowly, "I could let my personal projects wait just a little longer." He glanced sideways at Famine. "See if she gets it out of her system, you know."
"It'd take a few more months before even the Red Cross could make changes that would cause real issues with any of my work," Famine nodded. "People will starve to death a little more slowly but... I can afford a little more time."
"We wait then?"
Famine looked out over the ocean. The sun glinted on waves that were now empty of any life. A little further out, fishing boats lowered their nets with desperate optimism, hoping to come up with something, however paltry.
"Yes," he agreed. "We wait."
Elsewhere, further along the coastline, Crowley was staring into the same ocean. It looked, he thought, cold and grey and wet. And, this being where it was, probably radioactive as well.
"So," he said heavily, "you want us to turn into fish."
"It seems the best idea, don't you think?" Aziraphale agreed cheerfully. "To get a proper view of what's really going on down there."
Crowley stared into the water and tried hard to think of something better. "You know, just because there aren't any fish in there doesn't mean there isn't anything else in there," he warned. "It's going to cause real questions if we both need new bodies because we get eaten by a seal or a dolphin or something."
"We'll be careful," Aziraphale reassured. "And I don't think you get dolphins in this area. If we go deep enough, seals shouldn't be an issue."
"You couldn't just ask Upstairs what the problem is?" Crowley asked wistfully. "That whole omniscient thing has to be good for something."
Aziraphale's smile vanished so quickly that he wished he had kept quiet for once. "No," he said quietly. "They're not - I think they're still sulking after... well, you know."
Crowley nodded. He did know. Adam might have done something to prevent either of them actually being dragged home and dealt with for their actions, but that didn't mean they were back on friendly terms with their employers. Hell, thusfar, was keeping up a kind of surly silence. Considering what Hell was capable of, Crowley far preferred it to any alternative.
"Looks like we're on our own on this one then," he said, surrendering if only to get the smile back on Aziraphale's face. It was one thing to tease the angel, but quite another to have him looking miserable like that. "Fish it is."
Aziraphale beamed so easily in response that Crowley half-wondered if he had been faking the unhappy look. "I thought angel-fish might be appropriate."
There was such a thing as going too far. Crowley glared. "I do hope you're joking."
"Well, devil-fish in your case then," Aziraphale allowed.
Crowley looked thoughtful. Faint memories of programmes seen long ago on the Discovery Channel stirred. "Yeah, yeah... I think I can go with that."
Aziraphale relaxed. It was good to have some things that didn't have to be an argument. "There we go then. Devil fish it is."
"I mean, there's certainly not going to be any problems with seals or dolphins with one of those."
"I shouldn't expect there will be, no." Aziraphale agreed. He waded into the water a few steps, letting the waves wash around his ankles.
"Need to go further out though. Can't go changing into one of those here or I'd get beached, I expect."
"I don't think they really have that much of a problem with it," Aziraphale said doubtfully. "Still, I suppose you can go a bit further out if you're worried."
Crowley stared out to sea, trying to judge depth. "I thought out just past those fishing boats should do it."
"What?" Aziraphale glanced back over his shoulder, realising that their mental images didn't seem to be meeting up. "Crowley, what exactly do you think it is that you're turning into here?"
"Devil fish. Saw them on television." Crowley waved his arms, as though trying to indicate something of great size. "Great big whale things they are. Vicious bastards, too."
"Ah." Now the problem became clear. "I think you might have misunderstood me. There is in fact more than one type of devil fish."
This wasn't news that seemed to dissuade Crowley at all. "So I'll go for the whale kind," he said decisively. "Bound to get things done faster, being a massive great whale."
"Crowley," Aziraphale said gently. "Quite apart from the fact that I think the humans might notice if a grey whale suddenly popped up in the middle of the North Sea without warning, the type of whale you're thinking of is only called a devil fish when it is a female with young to protect. Somehow I believe you are lacking in certain qualities of motherhood. Being female for one, having offspring and any form of maternal instinct another."
Crowley's face fell. "Oh."
Aziraphale studied him. "Did you ever actually read that Encyclopedia of Animals I got you for Christmas a few years ago? I'm sure it detailed information like this."
The demon's expression took on the studied look of guilt of someone who had torn the paper off and then never looked at it again. "I... yes," he said defensively.
Aziraphale tsked disbelievingly. Angels were good at reading guilty expressions. "You were meant to use it to look for information that might help us with Dog," he scolded. "I suppose you don't even know where it is. I don't know why I bother, I really don't."
"Of course I know where it is," Crowley protested, carefully neglecting to mention that that location currently was propping open a door in his flat. "It's come in very useful. I just don't remember that part." Realising that he had perhaps better move the conversation on quickly before Aziraphale asked any more questions - mistreatment of books was one of the few things that seemed to make angelic patience vanish away to nothing - he said hastily, "so, what are these devil fish then?"
"They're a type of stingfish. It's a little hard to describe. Here..." Aziraphale frowned at him for a moment, and then snapped his fingers. Crowley found himself abruptly floundering about in the shallow water.
"Just thought I would help," Aziraphale said pleasantly, and joined him a moment later as a small yellow angel fish.
"I didn't ask you to help." Crowley swam in circles, trying to get a good look at his new body. It appeared to be spiky, weirdly ugly, and covered in stripes. "I look like something a whelk spit up," he said disbelievingly. " Or like someone with a terminal cold sneezed out the contents of their sinuses. I don't think there even are fish that look like this."
"You'd be amazed by the variety of God's creatures on this earth, dear," Aziraphale said, with perhaps just a touch of smugness. "And I did suggest angel fish first, if you'll recall."
"Are these stripes the closest you could get to tartan for a fish?" Crowley flapped a fin accusingly.
"You look perfectly lovely, dear," Aziraphale said firmly. Crowley did not, somehow, feel reassured. "Come along now. We need to find what's going on."
They swam in silence for a while - or at least Aziraphale did. Crowley discovered that his front fins were apparently designed to scuttle rather than swim, and managed to get up quite a good speed over the sand.
"Managed to get the humans to write a song about something like this once," he mused after a while.
Aziraphale winced. "Don't remind me. I had to unplug the radio after the first two weeks of it."
Crowley wriggled his spines in happy memory. "You weren't the only one. You'd be amazed how many humans tarnished their souls by wishing bad things on the singers, or shouting at their kids to turn it off after the hundredth play. Wonderful example of a bad job well done and spread all over the world."
"Life was much easier when you were tempting humans into adultery, rather than into making annoying songs," Aziraphale said glumly.
"Far less effective though." Crowley glanced sideways at him (something that fish eyes were well designed for) and started humming quietly under his breath. Two miles swum to "Help! I'm a fish!" seemed quite adequate revenge for being stuck in a stripy fish body.
"Are we nearly there yet?"
The catfish sighed. "I did warn you that you'd wished us rather a long way away."
"So I gathered the first five times you complained of it." He eyed the dogfish hopefully. "Don't fancy dying of starvation any time soon, do you? It could make this all a lot quicker."
"No." The dogfish gave an annoyed flick of his tail. "Though I'm sure you've got enough fins that you could spare just one to help a fellow out for a snack."
"Thank you, but I'm not so keen on the idea of swimming in circles for the rest of my life."
"I don't see why you're so against it. I think that's what we're doing anyway," the dogfish retorted. "I'm sure we've passed that piece of waterweed before."
"Well, perhaps if you'd bothered to wish one of us a sense of direction, rather than wasting wishes..." the catfish began angrily, then broke off. "Wait. I heard something."
For once the dogfish didn't argue, but froze in place, senses straining to catch any vibrations through the water. It was always wise to be careful around strange noises in the ocean, in case they were made by something that wanted to eat you.
This didn't sound like anything predatory though.
"I don't understand it. Even if the warm water had managed to kill off all the sealife, I would expect more bodies. It shouldn't just be empty," a voice complained, sounding frustrated.
"Maybe it was the French after all."
"They said they hadn't!"
"Yes, well, they're human. They would say that. You can't trust the buggers further than you can throw them. You should know that by now, angel."
"They shouldn't be able to empty the entire sea though. That's just odd whichever way you look at it."
The catfish and dogfish glanced at each other, and then stared with some fascination as a small yellow angel fish followed by a spiky waddling... thing came up over the sand dune sea bottom.
The angel fish and spiky thing stopped and stared back.
"Catfish," the angel fish said slowly as it vaned its wings and came to a standstill. "How very interesting. I could have sworn they were only freshwa-"
He didn't get to finish the sentence. It had been a long time since the dogfish's last meal, and now he had finally found food he wasn't going to have a conversation with it, or wonder where it had come from. He was going to eat it - and that was precisely what he did, swallowing Aziraphale down in one gulp.
There was a moment of shocked silence before the shouting started.
"For crying out loud, can't you see anything that might be useful to us without eating it?" the catfish snapped. "The first other fish we've seen in days, and you swallow it whole!"
"Never mind useful, that was my angel!" Crowley found, much to his surprise, that this fish-body seemed to want to bristle its spines when he was angry. He advanced on the startled dogfish threateningly. "I suggest you spit him out."
"I can't spit him out, I've swallowed him!" The dogfish backed off hastily, eying the spines with some concern. "Look, I'm very sorry, but it's a fish-eat-fish world, and I was hungry."
Crowley blessed furiously. "Do you know how much trouble he'll have to go to in order to get a new body?" he demanded. "And that's if his employers don't just decide he can be put to better use Up There."
"Uh... no?" The dogfish looked at the catfish, as though for help.
He got none. The catfish simply shrugged. "Don't look at me, mate. From my point of view, if he tears you limb from limb I get home a bit faster."
"That's a sense of apathy and self-interest that usually I would happily encourage, but on this occasion I would prefer to have Aziraphale back," Crowley's voice was a hiss, and the dogfish noted with some concern that his eyes seemed to have actually turned red and glowed. "I would suggest you work out how to throw him back up."
"Actually, I'm quite all right." A small polite voice disturbed the argument. "I don't think fish digestive juices actually have any effect on us."
"Aziraphale!" Crowley was a little relieved, but no less annoyed. He levelled his spines at the dogfish. "Get him out of there."
"I keep trying to tell you, I don't know how!" the dogfish protested.
"Much as letting you kill him might save me some hard swimming to get home, I feel I should probably point out that if your friend really is indigestible, he should come out the natural way in a few days time," the catfish commented. "It may not be pleasant, but I should think he'll be fine."
"Nice though it is to hear you're so concerned, Crowley, you need to calm down, dear," Aziraphale instructed from inside the dogfish's stomach. "I can get out of here when I'm ready, and I think I've located our problem. If you aren't careful with those spines, you'll have someone's eye out."
"I don't see any problem with that," Crowley muttered, but his spines settled back against his body much to the dogfish's relief.
"I haven't seen one of these in centuries," Aziraphale's voice continued. "Dear, dear, no wonder we were having issues."
"One of what?" Crowley demanded.
"A wishing ring - I thought the last of these was still over in Arabia somewhere. Of course, when things start getting wished different to the grand design it all starts to go wrong."
Crowley glared at the dogfish. "You ate a wishing ring?"
"It looked shiny," the dogfish said uncomfortably. "I didn't think much of it at the time."
"I tried to stop him," the catfish offered. "But really, have you ever tried to get a dogfish to do something it doesn't want to? They're not the brightest of fish."
"Fine, fine, you're both idiots - I get the idea," Crowley waved the excuses off with a fin. "Aziraphale, hurry up and wish yourself out here so we can wish things back to normal and go home."
"I'm not sure that would be right," Aziraphale sounded hesitant for the first time. "It is direct action after all, and I'm only really meant to act through a human agent. Otherwise, it's not really very ineffable."
Crowley closed his eyes for a moment. "Angel, do you want to stop this war or not?"
"Well, yes," Aziraphale admitted. "But there's right ways and wrong ways of doing things."
"Aziraphale, your choices right now are wishing things back to normal which would take all of five minutes, or trying to find a human to wish it back for you who will inevitably bugger it all up even worse because there isn't a human born yet who can look at a wishing ring and not suddenly see himself drowning in wealth or impossibly handsome or something," Crowley snapped.
"You don't know that," Aziraphale protested. "They might choose to make things right!"
"And they might choose to use all three wishes to create the world's first purple elephant or something. Aziraphale, I'm not sure how you haven't worked it out by now but humans are stupid!"
There was silence for a moment as Aziraphale considered this. "We could always try Them..." he suggested tentatively after a moment.
"Do you really think Adam would need a wishing ring to get things set straight? He could with a blink if he wanted to, but do you really want him mucking with that power? It might get him into the habit of interfering and if that happens, both your side and mine will take steps and it'll be all that serried ranks of hosts business again and this time, there won't be loopholes. Do you want that?"
"Well, no," Aziraphale admitted. "But there's the other three?"
"They're eleven year old children, angel. Saving the world doesn't suddenly mean they're responsible."
"Excuse me?" the dogfish said tentatively. "Is there any chance you two could continue this conversation outside of my stomach? You're starting to give me indigestion."
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry if eating me upset you." With Aziraphale sometimes it was difficult to tell whether he was being sincere or sarcastic. Nevertheless, a moment later he appeared a few inches away, still in angelfish form, clutching the ring in his mouth.
"One wish gone," he said looking a little worried. "I don't think that one can backfire though. You know how they have a tendency to."
"Not if you actually have a brain," Crowley said sharply. "But as you've started wishing, you might as well finish the job. The sooner it's over with, the sooner we can leave."
"Speaking of leaving," the catfish said. "Is there any chance you could see your way to wishing us back home? Or wishing me home at least. He was the one who got us here after all. I'm just an innocent spectator in all this."
Aziraphale looked uncomfortable. "There are only two wishes left, and I shouldn't really even use those..."
"What happened to not walking by on the other side, angel?" Crowley demanded. "Here, you take two wishes, I take three, that should be enough, shouldn't it?"
"You're tempting me again," Aziraphale protested. "And I'm definitely sure I shouldn't be letting you wish on it. You're a demon. You could wish for all kinds of twisted desires."
It should not have been possible for a fish - even a devilfish - to leer the way that Crowley did in response to that. "Do you really think I have to wish for twisted desires?"
Aziraphale's yellow hue seemed to glow a little brighter for a moment. "The point is that it would be irresponsible of me to hand over this kind of power to a demon."
"What are you afraid I'd wish for?" Crowley demanded. "It's hardly as though I'd wish for something like Hell winning after all we've done to stop that. Live a little for once, take a risk. I just want to get back to London, and out of this form. These spines itch."
"Fish like you come from London?" the dogfish asked with some surprise. The catfish and dogfish had been looking from one to the other as the argument went on, growing increasingly confused.
"We're not fish, we're-" Crowley started, and broke off. "Oh, there's no use explaining it. You've only got a memory ten seconds long, you'll have forgotten before I've even got to the end of the explanation."
"I think you'll find that's goldfish, Crowley," Aziraphale said mildly. He turned to their two observers. "Let's just say we're both more than what we seem."
"I think we'd gathered that," the catfish commented. "Look, forgive me if I'm suggesting something terribly obvious, but if you're so worried about what your friend their would wish, why don't you just save your last wish until he's had his three wishes? Then you can undo anything he's wished that would break things too much."
Aziraphale hesitated. "That would work?"
The catfish wiggled his tail authoritatively. "Trust me, I'm a catfish. There's no-one who knows how wishing rings work better than us."
"I'm up for it," Crowley offered. "Like I said, I just want to get out of here."
"Fine, fine," Aziraphale conceded with a sigh. "Just for the sake of the innocents affected then. Let me get my second wish over with first, and then I'll pass it to you."
He focused for a moment, gripping the ring in his mouth once more. The sea temperature dropped several degrees. Everyone shivered.
"Did you have to wish for that one first?" the dogfish complained.
"Well, dear bo- dear fish, it would hardly be any use if I wished the other fish back and they all died because the water was too warm, would it?" Aziraphale asked. He rolled the ring over the sand to Crowley, giving him a warning glare. "Be careful."
"Fine, fine, I'll resist the urge to have us surrounded by naked virgins." Crowley promised sourly. "Not that it would be much use anyway down here unless they had scuba diving equipment on. You worry too much, angel."
He hooked the ring easily onto a spine, and focused for a moment. The sea around them was suddenly a lot more crowded, fish appearing from nowhere - most of them looking very surprised. "There, you see? Nothing to it."
"Now wish us back please?" the catfish asked hopefully.
Another moment of deep concentration, and both catfish and dogfish vanished away. Aziraphale and Crowley looked at each other.
"There, you see? All fixed, and not even one naked virgin involved."
"You've got one more wish," Aziraphale said flatly.
"Yes," Crowley's tone turned thoughtful. "I have, haven't I?"
He jiggled the spine a little, feeling the ring rattle on it, and wondered for a moment just how powerful wishing rings were anyway? It would be so simple, so easy just to wish to be unFallen. Just to wish for a pardon, and make it as though there had never been that moment of hesitation, of letting himself get led astray by bad company...
No. No, because that choice would mean being someone else, wearing a different face, performing a different job to the one he had been used to for so long. No, because if he hadn't fallen, he wouldn't be Crowley.
Besides, Heaven wouldn't have any need for two agents on earth. Wish himself back to angelic form, and someone would have to go home.
He jiggled the ring a moment longer, then rolled it back over the sand to Aziraphale. The angelfish caught it, and stared at Crowley suspiciously. "Well? What was your third wish?"
"Oh, nothing," Crowley lied airily. "It's not as though I needed more than two."
"Right, right. Nothing to put right then is there?" Aziraphale asked, looking down at the ring.
"No," Crowley agreed. "So you could wish for anything you want." His voice dropped to a low murmur. "World peace, or an end to famine, or a lifetime supply of creamcakes, or a first edition of anything, anything at all..."
Aziraphale looked up sharply. "You're tempting again."
"Sorry," Crowley cleared his throat. "Force of habit. Good thwarting action though. Nice reflexes."
He watched as Aziraphale gripped the ring in his mouth tightly, and pressed it firmly into the loose sand. A few whisks of his tail and it was covered over, lost from view.
"So, what did you wish for?" he asked curiously.
"Oh, you know." Aziraphale wiggled his tail in a passable attempt at a shrug. "As you said, you only really need two wishes."
"Of course," Crowley agreed, not believing a word of it. Aziraphale couldn't lie for toffee or any other type of sweet. "No need to use the third if you don't have to."
"Come on then," Aziraphale turned back towards the beach quickly, before Crowley could ask any more. "This water really is chilly now."
Side by side, to the tune of "Help, I'm a fish!" the angel and devil swam back to Redcar.
"They're back." War stared into the water in disbelief. It teemed with life - indeed with more life than the North Sea was quite used to.
"That's humans for you," Pollution said more cheerfully than was perhaps appropriate. "I told you - turn your back on them for a moment and they're bringing species back from the brink of extinction. Constant job keeping up with them."
"You could get rid of them." She turned, looking from Pollution to Famine with desperate hope. "You - both of you! A breeding crisis among the fish, an oil spill to wipe them out again - it doesn't have to end here!"
The two looked at each other awkwardly. "Well, you see there's other work to be getting on with," Famine started uncomfortably.
"Rainforests to cut down, that kind of thing," Pollution agreed quickly. "I've had this wonderful project involving heavy metals…I really should check on it…"
"I've got a new fast food chain to launch over in America, and while it's been very nice being here for a little holiday, I really must be off..." Seeing that War was about to try and argue, Famine turned quickly and hurried away.
A few minutes later, he heard footsteps behind him. "This fast food chain?" Pollution asked, a little breathlessly. "Would it happen to have boxes and wrappings made of non-recyclable materials?"
Famine looked at his younger colleague, a slow smile beginning to blossom. "It could have," he agreed. "I don't see any reason why it shouldn't."
After all, while neither of them enjoyed playing second fiddle to other personifications, a partnership was quite a different affair.
"And while we of course wish to believe our French colleagues in this matter, the fact remains that our fish are still missing, and should they not be returned - or at least reparations given for their theft - then sanctions will almost certainly have-" the Prime Minister broke off from his speech as an aide scurried forward to whisper frantically in his ear.
A moment later, he reached to switch his microphone off. A murmured discussion ensued with several of his Cabinet members. The Opposition watched curiously. This was certainly an unusual approach to take.
It was a good five minutes before the microphone was switched back on, and gave the MPs on the benches opposite a beaming smile made mostly of pure relief.
"I am glad to inform my honourable colleagues that it would appear that the North Sea is once again brimming with cod. Also with dolphins, skate, er... ray, whitefish, goldfish... ah, quite a lot of fish in fact. That being the case, it would appear that no sanctions are necessary, and we apologise to our friends in France for any accusations that might have been made." He glanced at his aide, who gave a quick nod. "Also, it would appear that the North Sea is once again at normal temperature, and water testing has confirmed that it is as clean as it has ever been - uh, possibly cleaner considering the amount of fish that appear to be enjoying it. I can therefore reassure our friends in the North that it would seem whatever has been occurring over the past few days, it does not seem to be a side-effect of pollution, and they should be safe to return to work whenever they wish."
There was a cheer from the Labour benches, if a slightly confused one. The Prime Minister relaxed. At least until the next crisis or Prime Minister's Questiontime (whichever came first), his job was safe.
Aziraphale and Crowley leaned against the seal wall and watched the fishermen hard at work again, pulling struggling nets of fish into their boats. In the distance, the ICI chimneys were once more belching smoke, a sign that the factory workers strike had ended.
"You did realise, didn't you," Aziraphale said carefully, "that goldfish aren't actually native to the North Sea?"
Crowley feigned a look of innocence. "No?"
"And for that matter I'm not even sure they like saltwater at all. And as for dolphins... I'm almost sure they haven't been seen here before. And..." he stopped, squinting into the distance where a spout of water could be seen, "is that a whale over there?"
Crowley shrugged. "Guess I should have read that encyclopaedia a bit more carefully?" he offered. "Still, the humans seem to like it." He nodded to a group that had bunched together on the beach, excitably taking photos and notes. He smirked a little wondering how long it would be before they found out about the megalodon. He imagined that a 60ft prehistoric and supposedly extinct shark would probably make its presence felt soon enough. It wasn't his fault he could only remember the interesting things from the animal encyclopedia.
After all, as long as there was a bookshop in the area, it was almost certain that Aziraphale would find them reason to return at some point. He might as well make sure there was enough encouragement for tourism in the area to make it bearable next time.
"They just don't understand the overall vision," War said, frustrated. "I can set something up for them, and they just stand there as if they don't know what to do with it at all."
Death nodded politely. THAT MUST BE VERY TRYING, he offered.
"It was different when Pestilence was around, of course. I miss Pestilence. He understood about working together. Give him a battleground of soldiers and he'd have their feet turning green and falling off in no time."
HE CERTAINLY LOVED HIS WORK, Death agreed.
The pair stood together, looking out to sea. The sky was blue, and the air was full of shouts from the fishermen, cries from the gulls up above, and absolutely no sounds of anyone getting shot and killed. Really, War thought, it was most dissatisfactory.
Still, she wasn't quite alone.
"You know, there's been some fuss over in Africa. Just a scuffle yet, but it could turn out to be more." She looked up, giving her old, sharp smile. "At least, it could if I'm there. Do you want to come?"
Death smiled back, or at least gave as much of a smile as a skull could manage. I WILL BE THERE, OF COURSE, he agreed. YOU KNOW I ALWAYS AM.
And War laughed, confident in the knowledge that she had at least one partner who would be there no matter what jobs he had to do elsewhere. No matter that this one little war had failed. There would be other wars.
As long as humans around, there always were.
In Hell, administrators were surprised and vexed to see that they had made a note to give a certain demon a commendation "because he's a jolly good chap, always gets his work done in good order" and a directive from the highest authority to stay on earth for at least a few more millennia, and had never actually got around to actioning it until now. The turn around of the demon's standing considering his frontline part in the debacle of the Thing No-One Was Talking About was wildly considered in Hell's Administration Department as nothing short of 'miraculous', but as management frequently said one thing and then actioned something else the request was processed post-haste.
In Heaven, administrators discovered they had a similar memo concerning a certain angel, with an additional note that a computer with Windows Vista to assist him in his duties on earth might be a helpful gift. (Just because Crowley wanted the angel to stay around didn't mean he didn't also enjoy tormenting him. Besides, he could think of few better ways to ensure that Aziraphale would need to call on him for help at some point).
With a synchronicity that proved that the laws of Administration were at least as much natural forces as gravity or entropy, both actions were duly carried out under Jobsworth's Law, which meant that initiative was singularly lacking in its presence. No one asked any questions, they just rubberstamped it and moved on to the next task.
And if a certain angel and demon looked at each other and started wondering the next time they met, then that was just an unexpected and somewhat happy side effect.
Somewhere, in the middle of the ocean, a catfish and a dogfish looked around carefully.
"I don't remember those coral," the catfish said after a few moments.
"Those turtles are new," the dogfish agreed. He hesitated for a moment. "You know, did either of us actually get around to telling him where home was?"
"I don't think we did," the catfish admitted slowly. "We got a little distracted. They were such strange fish."
"Very strange fish. I can't think what kind of sea they have in London to produce fish like that," the dogfish said. He gave a testing wriggle and then set off, gliding through the waves. "Well, at least the water's warm this time. And there is food."
There was indeed food, as much as a catfish and a dogfish could wish for, and the pair feasted and lazed in the warm water, quite content to travel hopefully towards home, never quite arriving.
After all, Crowley had reasoned, someone should get to go to Barbados even if he couldn't.