Chapter 1: a prologue of sorts
It started, as many things do, near the Beginning, and it was, as it often is, a dark and stormy night. A serpent and an angel stood in the rain, trying not to acknowledge how close they were to touching, or how right it felt. They had long since given up conversation, and they stood in silence, each thinking their thoughts about what had happened and what would happen next.
The serpent thought, What a fitting end to this fine day. That God sure is an unbelievable twat, what kind of Heavenly Grace is that? Hope those two are okay out there, anyway, they’ve got that sword, at least. I should definitely change my name. Snakes don’t even crawl, and it’s not very sophisticated, is it? Maybe I’ll be called Mortimer. Or Ginger, or Yitzhak. It’s not important right now. I wonder what will happen next.
The angel thought, Oh dear, oh dear. That all fell to pieces rather quickly. I do hope it won’t be like that every time. I really don’t know why the apple is such a – but it’s not my place to question. There must have been a good reason, or it wouldn’t have happened like that. I suppose all is as it should be, and we all must move forward as best we can. This snake certainly is wildly unpredictable – not to Him, of course, but to me. I wonder what will happen next.
They had both been having a rather rough time of it, so far. Having been on earth for only a short time, the serpent had already found himself making far more trouble than he’d intended, even given that making trouble was his raison d'être . He’d chosen to channel his anxiety about the mishap into ire at Heaven, at God, at the whole damn system. The angel, on the other hand, was yet incapable of expressing such sentiments, and so dedicated his energies to fortifying his faith in the whole blessed system. He truly wanted to believe that whatever happened next would be for the best.
What happened next was two humans, exiled from Eden, went forth and multiplied. And multiplied, and multiplied. The serpent changed his name to Crowley, deciding that keeping it close to the original was probably best. The angel, Aziraphale, kept his name, although he didn’t always give it out as such. The two of them kept an eye on the humans as they peopled the Earth, got the hang of agriculture and written language and empire, and altogether messed about for several millennia.
Of course, they couldn’t really be too upset about the humans messing about; it would be a bit hypocritical of them. Besides, they enjoyed watching how it played out.
“Like setting up a chess game with sentient pawns,” Crowley said once. “And we can only give suggestions as to where they should move.” It was sometime in the second millennium BCE, and they were hanging around Babylon, hoping for nothing exciting to happen anytime soon.
Aziraphale thought on that for a while. “I suppose that’s accurate,” he replied. “Although I don’t particularly like thinking of them as pawns.”
“Me neither,” Crowley agreed. “But not saying it won’t make it less true.”
Aziraphale frowned. Crowley frowned, as well, but not for the same reason. Aziraphale was frowning as he contemplated the veracity of Crowley’s statement, trying desperately to come up with a counterpoint, as it would have made him feel very good about himself to be able to prove Crowley wrong on this specific point. Crowley, on the other hand, was frowning because he knew exactly how right he was, and how powerless he was to change it.
Neither asked the other why he was frowning. Neither divulged that information voluntarily. Both continued drinking.
They drank a lot, over the years, both together and apart. Aziraphale was a social drinker, although not a particularly social person, and so tended to drink more in Crowley’s company than otherwise. Crowley had a pathological need for attention, which necessitated a certain level of social interaction; he drank with friends, at parties, with Aziraphale, and quite a bit by himself.
They drank in Babylon, they drank in Rome, they drank in China, they drank in Brazil, they drank in France, and they drank in Egypt. On one ill-advised occasion, Crowley even drank in Ohio. That was one disaster that he’d really, really wished the angel could have seen.
Crowley didn’t like to analyze why he felt like a piece of him was missing whenever something noteworthy happened and Aziraphale wasn’t around to experience it with him, or to laugh at him, or to bail him out of jail. No, Crowley preferred to think of Aziraphale as a ship in the night thinks of another ship in the night, provided the second ship is bright and warm and witty and the only thing that breaks up the vast monotony of the cold, harsh sea. Sometimes they crossed paths, sometimes they didn’t, is what he told himself. And if he occasionally went out of his way to be closer to Aziraphale’s path than might have been entirely necessary, nobody needed to know.
The fact was, every time they connected, it resulted in a confusing and altogether undesirable mix of feelings and realizations for the both of them. Aziraphale tended to obstinately ignore the swirling thoughts in his head, whereas Crowley was partial to explaining them away with stunning feats of mental gymnastics. Had they taken the time to work through it, however, they may have discovered that they were feeling rather the same things, every time. Not exactly the same, mind, but their own unique flavors of the same brand of emotion.
Were Crowley in touch with his inner depths enough to put it into words, he might have described it as a sickly combination of warmth and smallness, the sunburned feeling of being truly seen and understood. He might have said that every time Aziraphale looked at him, his blue eyes searching and full of sparks, a devastating cyclone formed in his chest and he forgot what it felt like to be sure of himself. He might even have said, if he dug to the bedrock of his soul, that he thought himself entirely undeserving of the angel’s attention and continued companionship, that he felt guilty for selfishly taking up so much of his time over the years, and that he would never, ever give it up for anything.
And were Aziraphale honest enough with himself to describe his own feelings, he might have described the sensation of being pulled slowly, like saltwater taffy, or of being viewed under a microscope by a scientist who never observed his faults. He might have said that whenever Crowley smiled, too-sharp teeth gleaming in whatever light they could catch, it made him want to question everything in exactly the way he’d always tried not to. If he turned off the safety inside himself and pulled the trigger, the bullet might have been shaped like shame – shame at letting Crowley in so easily, shame at the absolute, firm knowledge that it was the right decision, shame at his complete lack of shame.
And if either or both of them tried to somehow condense all of those emotions down to one word, it might possibly take them six thousand years of combined effort and conflict just to come up with love .
Chapter 2: sumer, circa 3000 bce
Aziraphale was in the city. He didn’t particularly relish the fact that he was in the city, but he was able to appreciate certain aspects of it. The food, for one, and the architecture, and the art. But he thought there must be something about the city, something about all those people being crammed into such a small space, something about the density of manmade structures that obscured the grace of Heaven. Blocked the signal, as it were.
Of course, that was why he was there: to shine light where urban development had cast a long, dark shadow, to offer divine mercy and inspiration, to spread love and peace. Whatever good he was able to achieve, though, was little comfort on his worst days, the days that involved court proceedings, or domestic distress, or grimy alleys. He was tired. And he knew he didn't have a right to be tired, it had only been a thousand years, this was his job, so he tried to think positively.
It was hard, thinking positively, when he knew Crowley was in the city as well. Aziraphale didn't hate Crowley, by any means, but the demon did make his job much harder, and when his job was harder, he had a lot less free time to spend doing the things he actually enjoyed doing in the city. Still, he tried to do the bidding of Heaven to the best of his ability, and he thought he did a pretty decent job of it, usually.
Problem was, lately, he’d been getting distracted. Aziraphale had been stationed here for six and a half years now, and he was getting along just fine until ninety-four days ago. Ninety-four days ago, he felt the earth shift under his feet, saw the air get just the slightest bit heavier, and he knew that Crowley was near. He knew that Crowley was near, and yet he hadn’t seen him, not once in ninety-four days.
He didn’t want to see him, certainly, he just thought it was highly suspicious that they hadn’t run into each other, and he was positive that Crowley was avoiding him on purpose, and he couldn’t figure out why. It was a professional curiosity. He merely thought that if the demon was in the city, actively committing wiles, he should probably keep tabs on him. But he couldn’t keep tabs on a vague knowledge of Crowley’s proximity.
Aziraphale watched a small lizard skitter across the dusty road underfoot. For the most fleeting moment, he could have sworn it was a snake. He was not about to go looking for Crowley. And then he was about to go looking for Crowley. And then he went looking for Crowley. The whole turnaround took about three minutes.
It didn’t take long to find the demon; his energy stuck out in the city like a screaming neon sign. When Aziraphale found him, Crowley already had two cups in front of him, and he wordlessly pushed one of them toward the angel as he sat down across the table.
“Hey, angel,” Crowley drawled, looking smug. “I was wondering when you were going to come around.”
Aziraphale took a long sip of the drink Crowley had given him. It tasted magnificent, and he felt a sharp pang of indignation and annoyance at the fact that the demon knew his tastes so precisely. He rolled his eyes. “Seems like you had a fairly good idea when I was going to come around.”
“Oh, I always buy an extra drink, just in case you show up.”
“No,” Crowley said with a short laugh. “I felt you getting closer.”
“Ah, right.” Aziraphale frowned, staring at the table. “Anyway, why’s it my job to come around, all of a sudden? Never had to go to this much trouble before, to run into you. You always find me first.”
“Well, I thank you for your pains,” said Crowley, his words dripping with sarcasm. “Maybe I had more important things to worry about.”
Aziraphale furrowed his brow, jerking his head up to look at the demon. “Like what? Why are you here?”
Crowley tried to look nonchalant, examining his cuticles. He’d been up to some pretty big wiles lately, and he was rather proud of himself. “You know, fear-mongering about floods, stoking urban macrocephaly, no big deal, really.”
“What’s urban macrocephaly?”
“I don’t know, but aren’t you excited to find out?”
Aziraphale smiled, an involuntary response to the giddy, conspiratorial grin spreading across Crowley’s face. He knew he shouldn’t be smiling, shouldn’t be playing along with the joke, shouldn’t be inexplicably entranced by the way Crowley’s mouth moved when he spoke, but he couldn’t help being hooked by the demon’s charm. He tended to simply ooze a contagious sort of glee.
“So,” Crowley continued, encouraged by the angel’s positive attention, “what have you been up to?”
Aziraphale’s playful energy snapped back like a rubber band, and he leaned back in his seat, folding his arms tight across his chest. “If I told you, you’d just ruin it.”
“Would not,” Crowley protested.
“Of course you would,” said the angel, “it’s what you do.”
Crowley looked away for a moment. “Of course,” he echoed, his voice heavy, then he abruptly brightened. “Whatever it is you're working on, guarantee it doesn't hold a candle to what I've done so far.”
The angel glared at him. “It's not a competition.”
“It sort of is,” Crowley reminded him. “Who can win the most souls? Place your bets now. I've got odds, angel.”
“Alright,” Aziraphale conceded with a noise of disgust from the back of his throat. “It is a competition, but it's not a game. And you do not have odds.”
Crowley raised one elegant eyebrow. “You don't think? Here? In the city?”
“Good always triumphs over evil.” Aziraphale's jaw was set and he averted his eyes from Crowley's arrogant smirk.
Crowley shrugged, shaking his head. “Sure, if you say so. But that's in the long run. Short term, I bet at least three-quarters of the people in this city right now end up in Hell.”
Taking quick stock in his mind of the sixty thousand citizens of Uruk, Aziraphale gave a determined nod. “I'd take that bet.”
“Well,” the angel hedged, “it depends on the stakes, I suppose.” He rubbed his chin in thought for a moment. “Money is meaningless, of course. And I won’t risk anything to do with my job.”
Crowley furrowed his brow and laughed in disbelief. “What else is there?”
“I don’t know. Isn’t there anything you’d want from me?”
“Erm. I think – it’s just that – well,” Crowley stammered. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “I mean. No, I don’t think there is.”
Aziraphale nodded slowly, drummed his fingers on the table, and smiled. “Very well, then,” he said at length, extending a hand across the table, “for the satisfaction of victory.”
“For the satisfaction of victory,” Crowley echoed, returning the angel’s smile and shaking his hand. “You realize,” he added as his smile blossomed into a sly grin, “this means we’ll both have to stay in the area for the next several decades.”
This had not occurred to Aziraphale, and now that it had been pointed out, he was not sure how he felt about it. It was a daunting prospect, surely; in the past millennium, the two of them had not been near each other for more than five or ten years at a time. But that was not by design, at least not consciously, and the angel was even more unhappy about the possibility that he would enjoy being around the demon for longer stretches of time.
“Yes, of course,” he said coolly.
Crowley leaned forward, his elbows on the table, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “I’m just saying, that’s an awful lot of putting up with each other.”
Aziraphale frowned, blinked a few times, then hid behind the haughtiest expression he could muster up. “It’ll be worth it,” he replied, “when I win.”
“Sure, angel,” Crowley said, and his tone was something unfathomable, warm and thick and soft. “It’ll be worth it.”
Aziraphale noted with mild surprise that he had leaned in unconsciously at some point, mirroring Crowley’s posture, and he was close enough to count the demon’s eyelashes. Not that he wanted to. He pulled back abruptly, grabbed for his drink, and drained the cup in a few seconds. Standing to leave, he squared his shoulders and fixed Crowley with a hard, stern look.
“You’d best play fair,” he warned.
The demon looked up at him through those eyelashes – unfairly long and thick eyelashes, they were, and obscuring such warm eyes. Aziraphale was almost too distracted to hear Crowley’s murmured response. “Demons don’t play fair.”
Aziraphale paused for a moment in thought. “Right,” he said, speaking slowly and with caution, “but you do, sometimes.”
“Just stay out of my hair,” the angel snapped, and then he was gone.
It took sixty-eight years for the verdict to come in, when the last human being who was alive in the city at the time the bet was made had died. Aziraphale and Crowley met, tallied up the scores, made concessions and qualifications, and drank quite a lot. In the end, the win went to the angel, who had been able to valiantly save nearly half of the souls in question. He credited his success to an overall increase in quality of life, aided by a crop surplus and a new king.
Crowley didn’t get the satisfaction of victory, but he was able to get an entirely different kind of satisfaction as he sat until sunrise across from a jovial and red-faced Aziraphale, listening to him recount stories he’d never had a chance to tell anybody else.
Chapter 3: egypt, circa 1346 bce
Crowley sat atop a short wall that divided one room of the temple from the next, admiring the fruits of his labor. Well, other people's labor, but his idea. He was rather excited about all the fuss, although it had been a long process and he was beginning to crave a nap. He yawned, just for show, and then turned his head when he heard soft sandaled footsteps approaching.
“Oh. It's just you,” he said.
Aziraphale couldn’t quite parse whether the demon sounded relieved or disappointed. “Yes,” he drawled, “just me.”
Crowley patted the spot next to him invitingly, but the angel simply leaned on the wall, hovering a few feet further away than Crowley would have preferred. It was a bit cold in here, was all, not to mention if one spoke too loud, it got to echoing. Crowley just thought it would make sense to be in closer proximity if they were going to have a proper conversation. He scooted over a bit, trying not to draw too much attention to the movement.
“Stopping by to see the finished product?” Crowley asked, indicating with a sweeping gesture the building at large – the Great Temple of the Aten, as he had artfully named it.
“Crowley,” the angel said testily, “what in the name of Ra have you been getting yourself into?”
A smug, playful smile spread across the demon’s face. “Not much, in the name of Ra,” he teased. “A whole lot in the name of the glorious sun disk, though.”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes and huffed out a breath. “You're irritating, you know that? You irritate me.”
“Hey, it's monotheism, angel,” Crowley said with a grin. “Isn't that what your lot go in for?”
Aziraphale fixed him with a glare that could have turned him to stone, had the angel wished it. Granted, he also could have done so without a glare, but the glare was the important part. “It's not the same thing, and you know it,” he said, bristling.
“I know it's not the same thing,” Crowley conceded, “but it's so funny. Have you seen how people are acting out there?”
“You'll have to forgive me if I don't see the humor in this.”
“Of course you don't,” the demon said meaningfully, “you're an angel. Can't expect you to see the value in such delicious unrest.”
Aziraphale gave a noncommittal hum, looking at the floor, silent for a few long moments. “What I don't understand,” he said thoughtfully, “is how you even manage to pull something like this off.”
“Oh, I have ways, angel, believe me.”
“How?” Aziraphale shook his head, bewildered. He attempted to quash it, and would never admit it aloud, but a small part of him was impressed at Crowley’s finesse, his ability to incite chaos on such a large scale while hardly lifting a finger. On some level, he was maybe hoping to learn something from the demon. “What tactics could you possibly have used to make something like this happen?”
Crowley mulled it over, fixed a scrutinizing gaze on Aziraphale’s expression before looking up and down his body in a way that made the angel’s skin itch, but not entirely uncomfortably. The demon leaned almost imperceptibly closer, and Aziraphale mirrored the movement. He watched, confused and entranced, as Crowley studied him, until a sly smile slowly asserted itself on the demon’s face.
“Want me to show you?” Crowley asked, a spark in his eye that spelled trouble.
Aziraphale blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Would you like me to show you,” Crowley repeated, lowering his voice, “how I did it?”
Aziraphale furrowed his brow and cocked his head to the side, his mouth hanging open slightly. He thought it best not to say yes, thought it was a dangerous road to go down, thought he ought not to be so eager to find out a demon’s tricks. He thought if this was something Crowley needed to show him, rather than tell him, it was almost definitely going to be unpleasant. Then he thought about the fact that, for the past two and a half millennia, Crowley had been an occasional thorn in his side, but had never, not once, done anything to actually hurt him. He hadn’t even really done much to upset him, beyond the mild annoyance of making it harder for Aziraphale to do his job.
“Very well, then,” he replied, his voice coming out a bit hoarse even as he tried to seem detached. “If you must.”
Crowley’s smile widened into something almost gleeful. He moved smoothly, gracefully, to stretch out his lithe body across the top of the wall until he was lying on his stomach, chin in his hands, his face inches from Aziraphale’s. The angel lost his breath for a moment at the slight pout of Crowley’s lips and the flutter of his eyelashes, before the demon spoke.
“Please, pharaoh,” he whined in a tone bordering on obscene. “Please, it would mean ever so much to me. The sun disk is my favorite deity.”
Aziraphale pursed his lips, suppressing a laugh, among several other unwanted reactions. “I don’t believe you,” he said, his voice curt.
“Surely, the pharaoh can resist such… cheap temptation.”
The demon shook his head slowly. “Nobody can resist me.”
A small chuckle did escape, at that. “You think?” Aziraphale asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
“Oh, I know,” the demon said lightly, “and I can prove it.”
“Do your worst,” said Aziraphale without thinking, and immediately regretted it. Dread began to settle in his gut at the prospect of what Crowley’s worst would look like, but he was still running primarily on curiosity. The demon had nearly made the cult of the Aten into the state religion, helped found an entire city dedicated to the deity, and rumors were abound that the pharaoh planned to make Akhetaten the new capital, once construction had finished. It was excruciating, seeing it all happen, knowing Crowley was behind it, and not knowing how.
Crowley half-rolled, half-hopped down from his perch, landing toe-to-toe with Aziraphale. His tongue flickered out to wet his lips and taste the air as he considered his next move. He felt a small thrill of satisfaction at the excitement coming off the angel in waves; it was a nervous energy, but not a negative one, and it tasted electric, sending vibrations down to the bottom of Crowley's spine.
“You know what,” the demon said abruptly, “this works better with you sitting down.” He snapped his fingers and there was a chair, roughly the size of the pharaoh's throne but not quite as extravagant. Establishing a loose grip on Aziraphale's shoulders, he gently guided the angel to sit, as if he were a director explaining a scene's blocking to an actor. Aziraphale hesitated, but he didn't resist.
“What are you doing?” The angel spoke low and sounded thoroughly unconcerned.
“You're the pharaoh,” Crowley explained, “and this is how I convince you to abandon an entire pantheon and devote your life and kingdom to the sun disk.”
“I'm feeling unconvinced.”
“Well, shut up and let me show you.”
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows in a mockery of scandal. “Do you tell the pharaoh to shut up?”
“No,” Crowley said testily, “I don't have to. He listens to me.”
“Go on, then,” said Aziraphale, folding his hands in his lap and looking up at Crowley like a student prepared for his lesson.
In a fluid, sensual movement, Crowley kneeled at Aziraphale's feet, plastered himself against his calf, and rested his chin on the angel's thigh. “It usually starts something like this,” he murmured, looking up through his eyelashes at the angel's reddening cheeks. “You've got so many more important things to worry about, of course, and you don't want to be distracted by a pretty face right now.”
“You've got that right,” Aziraphale muttered.
Crowley frowned. “Hey, you asked for this.”
“Fine, fine, continue.”
“So then I say something like,” Crowley fluttered his eyelashes and shifted his voice to an affect expertly designed for his preferred style of manipulation, “Oh, my liege, is it not just too stifling in here?”
Aziraphale twitched slightly, unsure what to do with his body. Crowley's head was agonizingly close to his clasped hands, and he resisted an almost animalistic urge to run his fingers through the demon's hair. Human bodies and their impulses, he told himself.
He cleared his throat. “It's, er. A bit cool, actually, I was thinking.”
“I know that,” Crowley said, rolling his eyes. “I'm acting, angel, could you play along?” The demon made a small gesture and the air around them suddenly thought it best to be a few degrees warmer. Crowley could act with the best of them, but he had not yet found how to make his cold-blooded body cooperate with his dramatic talent when, say, he needed to act like he wasn't freezing his ass off.
“Oh, okay,” Aziraphale said, slightly embarrassed, unsure if he had raised the temperature with a subconscious thought. “Yes, it is rather warm, now that you mention it.”
Crowley perked up, his expression brightening. “Positively sweltering, don’t you think?” He shrugged off his linen robe, revealing bare shoulders, the expanses of his chest and back, his legs, thin but sturdy, his dark skin marked with freckles everywhere.
Everywhere… Aziraphale’s eyes gravitated toward the triangular piece of cloth tied and tucked at the demon’s waist, covering only what needed covering, leaving very little to the imagination. Not that Aziraphale was imagining anything at all.
He tore his gaze from Crowley’s waist, and then realized he ought to stop looking at Crowley altogether, if that was going to be an issue for him. And it was. The loincloth, the freckles, the smoothness of his body – Aziraphale couldn’t help noticing that Crowley’s arms and legs and chest were entirely hairless, though he kept the curls on his head in their natural state. He imagined the demon taking sugar wax to every inch of his body, grooming in the fashion of a woman of wealth, and then refusing to shave his head, refusing to wear a wig, just to upset the status quo. It was very Crowley, he thought.
“See,” Crowley said after a long period of simply letting the angel look at him, “that usually works for him. But I imagine for you, it’ll take a bit more effort.”
“Oh?” Aziraphale breathed.
“Yeah. I mean, because the pharaoh, he’s already into me, so the temptation is easier now than it was at the beginning.” Crowley spoke casual as you please, as if he were explaining why he chose one beer over another. “You’re an angel, and much more resilient than some silly old pharaoh.”
Aziraphale nodded, sniffed, cleared his throat again. “Of course I am.”
“Of course you are,” Crowley echoed, injecting the words with every ounce of sickly sincerity he could muster. He moved to place one hand on the angel’s leg, just above the knee, near where his chin still rested. “I’ll have to work much harder to tempt you, angel. You’re simply too good.”
“Yes, precisely,” Aziraphale said, preening.
“I’ll bet you wouldn’t even… oh, definitely not.”
“Wouldn’t even what?”
Crowley cocked his head to the side, studying the angel’s face with a careful intensity. “I was just thinking, I don’t think you’d fall for my wiles, even if you allowed me to touch you.”
Aziraphale tensed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, if I were to put my hands on you, or my mouth, the way I do him.” Crowley flicked his tongue out for the briefest of moments, looking up at Aziraphale through half-shut eyes, and slid his hand up the inside of his thigh. “More cheap temptation,” he said offhand.
“Oh,” said the angel, swallowing nervously. “No, I certainly would not fall for that.”
“But you’re not telling me to stop,” Crowley noted.
A shiver went down Aziraphale’s spine at the words, the tenor of the demon’s voice, the feeling of long, slender fingers pressing in against the flesh of his thigh; even with a layer of fabric separating their skin, the sensation was intoxicating. He inhaled deeply to steady himself, to center his thoughts, and was hit with a realization that had escaped him up until this point.
“Maybe I want you to keep trying,” he murmured. “Maybe I want to really, truly prove to you that you can’t manipulate me.” The last few words were spoken slowly and deliberately, piercing straight through Crowley’s game.
The demon retracted his hand immediately, sat back on his heels so he wasn’t leaning his entire body weight on the angel anymore. “I’m not trying to manipulate you,” he said cautiously, “I’m trying to seduce you.”
“No, you’re not,” Aziraphale snapped. “You’re trying to prove you can. It’s a dirty trick.”
“Well, one would hope it’s dirty.”
Aziraphale clenched his jaw and gave the demon an icy glare. “You’re not funny,” he muttered.
Crowley looked momentarily hurt. “The pharaoh never complains,” he said defensively.
“Yes, well, you actually sleep with the pharaoh, don’t you.”
“Wait, do you want to sleep with me?”
“No!” Aziraphale leaned back into his seat, shrinking away from the urge to touch Crowley again. “No, that’s not the point. It’s just – when you’re with him, that’s your intention. But here, your only intention is what? To humiliate me? To wear me down until I admit that you’ve won? It’s not fair.”
“You asked me to do it!” Crowley attempted to recover from the angel’s inexplicable shift in tone, tried to catch up with the thought process, and found himself completely lost. “I don’t know – I mean – listen, when I’m with the pharaoh, that’s when I’m manipulating. This was just – I thought we were just having fun.”
Aziraphale let out a long breath and closed his eyes gently, but said nothing. Crowley watched the angel’s body deflate slightly, all of his muscles relaxing as he systematically released his tension.
“I’m sorry,” the demon said, nearly a whisper. “I mean, I did, er… I know you and your weaknesses very well, angel, and I should have… I could have pulled some punches, there.”
Opening his eyes, the angel looked down at Crowley. “Yes, well. I know you and your weaknesses just as well, so I know how much it must kill you that your charms don’t work on me.” He gave the demon a soft, tentative smile. “We’ll call it even, for now.”
“Alright,” Crowley said, smiling back up at Aziraphale. “Can I show you around the temple? I know…” He hesitated, chewing on his lip for a few moments. “I know you don’t approve of everything that’s going on here, but it really is a beautiful work of architecture, I think you’ll like it.”
Aziraphale hadn’t paid much attention to the architecture on the way in. He took a quick glance around and nodded his head, brightening up more by the second. As Crowley stood, Aziraphale did the same, instantaneously vanishing the chair that the demon had materialized for him, and watched as he began to walk and talk. “You do know my tastes,” he murmured, and followed Crowley’s lead.
The moon hung low in the sky, shining with a painful intensity through a window and directly into Crowley’s eyes. He squinted and turned away, sitting askew on a large cushion in the common area of his home, though it was common only to him. He always lived alone, no matter where he went: he preferred it that way. Or he told himself he preferred it that way. It was distinctly possible that he occasionally felt a pang of loneliness, but he would never admit to it out loud, nor would he admit, even to himself, that it was a loneliness that could not be ameliorated by keeping company with humans in the towns he passed through.
Humans never really got Crowley, on the whole – not that he tried too terribly hard to make himself accessible to them, but when he did spend time around them, their primary reaction tended to be confusion and a vague sense of unease. He spent time with them, because he couldn't stand to be alone all the time, but it was a superficial association. Occasionally, he would get close to one of them, one of the special ones, form a bond. That never ended well for him.
Crowley had lived in Ecbatana long enough now that he could have connected with any number of people, had he chosen to do so, but he hadn’t. And although he would not say he was lonely, he would readily admit to a deep, ever-present, throbbing boredom. He got his fleeting kicks from temptations and corruptions, and he occupied the rest of his time with drama and art and booze and any number of things that could serve as entertainment, but at the end of the day, he was thoroughly unfulfilled.
He looked up from the poetry he was reading, up at the moon again, cocking his head to the side, studying it with fierce concentration. “Its light is spread alike over salt sea and fields of many flowers,” he murmured softly to himself. It was a reassuring thought, to consider that this was the same moon that had stood like a beacon in the sky over Eden, the same moon that had lit the way for every sleepless stroll he’d taken in his long life, the same moon that, right at this moment, so many other beings on Earth could be watching and admiring, the same way he was.
Crowley only really cared about one other being on Earth, and he did appreciate the tenuous connection between them that the rosy-fingered moon provided, but it was never enough for him. Knowing that Aziraphale could be looking up as well was comforting. Knowing that Aziraphale could be looking up and thinking of him was… well, it meant something to him, though he couldn’t articulate it. But it was no replacement for the conversations they had, the drinks and the laughs, when they were properly together.
It hadn’t been too long since the last time, but not too long was still too long. He didn’t even know where the angel was these days; he couldn’t bring himself to keep tabs on him, couldn’t allow that level of dependence to surface from within him. They always found each other, regardless.
When the cold, empty air around him rather suddenly felt brimming with life, Crowley was unsurprised. Pleased, but unsurprised. He had been anticipating it for a long time, now, knowing it was bound to happen. The surprise came after he leapt to his feet, smoothed down his hair, and strode almost too casually toward the door, only to find that Aziraphale was already inside his home.
“You usually knock,” he said lamely, after he had caught his breath.
Aziraphale trembled slightly, dripping water from his hair and clothes onto Crowley’s favorite rug. He took a shaky inhale through clenched teeth, taking a slow look at his surroundings. “I do, yes. Er – sorry,” he muttered.
“Why are you wet?” Crowley asked, glancing out once more at the cloudless night sky.
“I, erm.” Opening and closing his fists like fireworks, the angel screwed his eyes shut tight to collect his thoughts. “S’raining in Egypt,” he finished.
“Oh,” said Crowley, as if it should have been obvious. “Have you just come from Egypt?”
Aziraphale nodded, still shaking profusely, but said nothing.
Crowley took a step closer, trying to get a better look at him, before speaking again. “Ah, well,” he said, keeping his tone quiet and amiable. “What business is going on in Egypt?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” the angel grumbled miserably. “What have you got to drink around here?”
“I’ve got wine,” Crowley said, subtly raising the lights as he spoke, examining the angel for any sign of what was going on with him. He didn't see any wounds or marks, nothing obviously physically wrong. It was just Aziraphale, wet and shaking and glowing with suppressed emotion, and he was beautiful. Once he got a proper look at the angel, Crowley lost his train of thought entirely.
Aziraphale stood still and silent for a long moment, then rubbed aggressively at his eyes and let out a low groan. “It's a disaster,” he said wretchedly, his face collapsing from its mostly neutral expression into a mask of anguish. “It's all a disaster.”
Shaking his head, Crowley forced himself to stop thinking about the angel’s quivering lips and his robes soaked through with rain, to attempt a conversation with him. “What’s a disaster?”
“Politics is a disaster,” Aziraphale replied, throwing his hands in the air, and Crowley bit back a laugh. “It’s all falling to pieces,” the angel continued. “Cambyses is dead, you know. He stabbed himself in the leg, like a child.”
Crowley stared at him. Aziraphale was definitely not in the mood to hear anything that he was thinking, so he chose to say nothing, to let him keep talking until he’d run the course of this most recent upset. If he pitched in with his opinions, if he told the angel that kings die all the time, that Cambyses had always behaved like a child, if he mumbled “Good riddance” under his breath like he really wanted to, then Aziraphale might leave, and he just couldn’t have that. Luckily, Aziraphale did not need any audience participation in order to talk through this issue.
The angel kept talking, kept ranting about the dead king, his brother who may or may not have been dead, and the man currently on the throne who may or may not have been an impostor, depending on who told the story. The whole ordeal was difficult for Aziraphale, he said, because he had so much more information than any of the humans involved, and he couldn’t just tell them, no matter how much he wanted to. He knew that the real Bardiya was dead, that the man ruling over the empire was not who he said he was, but revealing that fact would have been an abuse of his angelic power.
Crowley listened, and listened, and listened. At some point, he nodded his head and Aziraphale’s clothes and hair were dry, and the angel visibly relaxed somewhat, but did not stop talking. Crowley led him to the other room, grabbed him a warm blanket, wrapped it around him, guided him to sit in front of the fire, all while Aziraphale went on. He had been drinking; Crowley could only tell because his lips were stained purple from the wine, and it was a breathtaking sight, that color pressed into his skin like a memory as he spoke.
Eventually, after what might have been several minutes or possibly hours, Aziraphale stopped. He looked up at Crowley, his purple lips twisted into a frown, peering into the demon’s yellow eyes as if seeing him for the first time.
It took Crowley a good few seconds to realize the angel had stopped talking. He had been entranced by Aziraphale’s eyes and mouth and hair, the way his throat rippled when he swallowed a sip of tea, the way his round cheeks flushed red from his passionate diatribe, and he surfaced from those thoughts only after a lengthy silence, realizing that he was being observed in much the same way as he was observing.
He brought a hand to his own cheek self-consciously, seeing the way that Aziraphale was looking at him expectantly. “What?” he asked, furrowing his brow.
Aziraphale made a flailing gesture with his hands, wearing an expression that could only be described as a pout, and exhaled with a huff. “Well, what do you think I should do?”
Eyebrows shooting up, breath coming to a stuttering halt, mouth hanging open like a dead fish, Crowley found himself entirely speechless. He didn’t quite know why – something about the circumstance, the intimate vulnerability of the angel in his home, wrapped up in his blanket, sitting before his fire and sipping his tea, asking for his opinion, his advice, his help – but something clicked into place inside him, in that moment, something that had been trying to slide home for quite some time now. He focused his attention on a slow and deliberate inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
“I don’t know,” he murmured after a long silence. He looked up, thoughtful, trying to balance his inner feelings with the actual issue at hand. “I would… I would tell everyone the truth, but that’s – that’s not you, is it. You can’t do that.”
“No,” Aziraphale replied flatly, oblivious to Crowley’s state. “No, I can’t do that.”
Crowley chewed on his lip. “Maybe,” he said, speaking hesitantly, “maybe you talk to Prexaspes? Or… or don’t talk to him, maybe just – influence him, somehow?”
Aziraphale frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you…” Crowley floundered, searching for the words he needed to say, buried underneath a mountain of words he wanted to say. “He’s the only one who knows that Bardiya is dead, yeah? So you… you encourage him, maybe, subtly, to tell the truth himself?”
“That… that could work,” Aziraphale murmured, brightening slowly and tentatively as he came to terms with the plan that was forming. “That could really work,” he repeated.
Crowley pressed his lips together hard, suppressing a giddy smile. “I hope so,” he said, as nonchalantly as he could manage.
Aziraphale stood. Crowley hadn’t considered that – that as soon as he helped the angel work out his political mishap, he would leave again. He hadn’t thought that far ahead, because he had never expected Aziraphale to ask for his help in the first place. It had not occurred to him that if he solved Aziraphale’s problem, he would no longer be a necessary part of the equation. He watched sadly from his seat on the floor as the angel folded up the thick blanket he had borrowed, setting it down on a nearby cushion.
He was smiling now, a serene little quirk of his lips, infused ever so slightly with divine warmth, and he directed that smile at Crowley, disarming him completely. “Oh, Crowley – thank you,” he said, his wide blue eyes boring deep into Crowley’s yellow ones. “I don’t know what I would have done, if you hadn’t – I’d better be going, but I… if I can work this out, we shall have to celebrate.”
Crowley’s breath hitched, and he cocked his head to the side, trying against all forces of the universe to maintain his cool and casual fa ç ade. He smiled up at the angel. “And if not?”
“If not…” Aziraphale said, a look of resolute determination on his face, tinged with just a hint of wistfulness, near the edges. “If not, I can think of few places in the empire that have quite the selection of wine in which to drown my sorrows as you’ve got here.”
A warmth spread within Crowley’s gut, a blooming, liquid thing that felt natural and entirely alien at the same time. He didn’t think about it too hard, didn’t want to ruin whatever it was with introspection and self-consciousness. Instead, he just felt it seep into every corner of him, warming his fingers and toes, as Aziraphale shot him one last smile and made his way back toward the door.
“I’ll see you soon,” the angel called over his shoulder, just as he was leaving.
When he was gone, Crowley lay in front of the fire, curled in upon himself in the most serpentine manner possible, soaking up the heat. He was alone again, alone like usual, but he was not lonely, not this time. Because Aziraphale was coming back. Because Aziraphale wanted to come back, wanted to see him again after trying to follow his advice, wanted to talk to him in times of crisis. Because Aziraphale was coming back.
He always came back.
this chapter is inspired by the reference in odd little waiters to the moment when crowley first realized he was in love with aziraphale, but that does not imply any threads of continuity or any other similarities. the stories are not part of the same universe, this scene just happened to exist in both.
Chapter 5: athens, 399 bce
“Did you know him?” Aziraphale placed a gentle hand at Crowley's elbow.
The demon startled at the soft voice. “Oh,” he breathed when he realized whose voice it was, relieved for reasons he couldn’t describe. “A little. A lot.”
He looked at the image before him, a decently rendered sketch of an old man. Decent, in that it captured his features accurately, but not his spirit. His round face, his flat nose, his long beard, his severe browridge were all present; but the curious spark in his eye, his innocent, lopsided smile, the mischievous tone of his voice were missing.
“We were... friends,” Crowley said, after a lengthy silence. “Good friends.”
“Ah,” said Aziraphale, in the awkward tone of one who has never had to console a grieving man before. “I'm sorry.”
Crowley replied with a weak sigh, unable to say anything to make the angel feel better about his inability to make Crowley feel better.
“He was a great man,” Aziraphale tried. “Always heard a lot of amazing things about old Socrates.”
“He was a stupid man. Stupid and selfish.” Crowley sniffed, turning his face away from the angel.
Aziraphale wrinkled his brow, exhaled a deep breath. “I didn't know him personally,” he said diplomatically, “but… everything I ever heard about him made me admire him more.”
“It’s the knowing him personally that gets you,” Crowley muttered.
“He was brilliant, from what I’ve been told,” Aziraphale reassured him gently. “Brilliant and humble about it, which is rare. And bold, determined. I would have liked to know him, I think.”
Crowley made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “Sure, the man was a genius. He just went and got himself executed,” he said, his tone injected with venom, “without an ounce of consideration for the people he left behind.”
Aziraphale cocked his head and narrowed his eyes, almost completely lost by this point in the conversation, floundering for a response. “He didn't really have a choice in the matter,” he said cautiously.
“He did,” Crowley snapped, then shook his head to level himself slightly, before continuing in a wavering voice. “He could have admitted his guilt and accepted exile. He could have escaped when I bribed the guards to leave his cell unlocked. He chose not to.”
“Ah,” said the angel. He did not say that this fact actually strengthened his respect for the philosopher, that the man’s honor and pride were the best parts of him, that slinking away with his tail between his legs would have been no kind of life at all. That was not what Crowley wanted to hear. Aziraphale also did not give in to the odd instinct telling him to give the demon a pat on the back, or a squeeze of the shoulder, or some other small, reassuring touch.
Crowley surreptitiously wiped a hot tear from his cheek, turning further away to obscure his face. “It’s silly,” he said thickly. “He was old, so old. Had to go eventually, you know.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale agreed. “But I don’t suppose it ever gets easier.”
“It’d be easier to not get close to them at all,” muttered the demon, his tone hovering somewhere between bitter and pensive.
Aziraphale approached with caution. “What do you mean?”
Crowley sighed, sniffed, bit his lip. “It’s too easy to get attached to them, and then they’re gone in the blink of an eye. As a species, on the whole, I think I’m a fan, but on the individual level, I really don’t think it’s worth it.” He rubbed his eyes aggressively with the heels of his hands, pausing for a sharp inhale. “It’s just exhausting.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale furrowed his brow. “I didn’t think you would feel that way.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow and managed a scalding, dry tone in spite of his precarious position right on the precipice of sobbing. “I’ve got feelings, angel. Demons don’t lose the ability to feel.”
“No, of course not, it’s just… it’s been nearly four thousand years.” Aziraphale fidgeted guiltily with his fingers, embarrassed and afraid he might be overstepping his bounds, but he continued speaking. “We’ve seen so many human lives begin and end; why is it this one that makes you want to give it up altogether?”
“I don’t know.” Crowley shook his head. He didn’t know, that was the worst part. Here he was, reminiscing about a dead man with one of his closest enemies, trying to hide the tears rolling silently down his cheeks, and he couldn’t for the life of him explain why he was so affected.
Maybe it was the unfairness of it all, he thought, the absolute lack of reason, the utter senselessness of the man's death. He hadn't done anything wrong . He hadn't done anything wrong. Crowley had taken a look at the jury, the fine selection of Athenian men who would determine his friend's life or death, and seen the jealousy and egoism among them, and recognized it from a time long past.
There was always such an air of superiority surrounding them, the citizens of Athens who made up the juries. Perhaps, as Crowley had watched the trial proceed, he was thinking of himself, of the unfairness of his lot in life, of the memories he couldn’t grasp and the paths he couldn’t follow. A small part of him, at least.
A small part of him was looking at the jury and seeing the Almighty, watching Socrates be condemned and seeing himself Falling. He'd wanted to scream, to tell these hundreds of men exactly where they could stick their charges of impiety. He'd wanted to cry, but he saved that for after Socrates was dead, when he could no longer give Crowley that dry smile and that arched eyebrow and say “Young man, what are you accomplishing?” in the way he always did when Crowley got emotional.
Crowley had always considered the philosopher a kindred spirit. He was a man who asked questions and who did not back down without an answer. He was a man who intimidated lesser men, but only the kind of lesser men who liked to pretend they were greater men. He was a man with an insatiable lust for knowledge, and shameless tactics for acquiring it. He was exactly the type of man, Crowley thought, who would have gotten himself kicked out of the Heavenly Father's graces swiftly and without regret. Crowley envied and adored him.
The sad fact was that Socrates held a mirror, and when weak men engaged with him, they saw a window. They showed themselves for who they were and then decided they didn't like what they saw, and they blamed him for it. Often, those weak men were men like Meletus, who held enough sway to bring a phony case against a man in court, to end his life, simply for daring to ask questions, to speak the truth.
It made Crowley positively sick. The pride, the lies, the corruption. He had, of course, never been one to insist that every human life was sacred, but he did believe that some were. He did believe that this one was. And he couldn’t even be angry about it; he could hardly be angry about anything, ever, and this loss did not spark fury in the depths of him, it just made him feel empty.
Aziraphale was right: they had both gotten close to humans before, and lost them, and they both would again. They both knew this feeling all too well, and they shared a tacit understanding that it was worth it, in the end, to have known a man like Socrates at all. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, thought Crowley, swallowing down a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Let's go get a drink.” Aziraphale's voice pierced the thin skin of silence, reminding Crowley that he was not alone. He spoke gently, as if trying not to scare Crowley, like he was an injured baby bird, and somehow, it felt warm and right, rather than condescending.
Crowley swiped at his eyes once more with the back of his hand, hoping that the angel would continue pretending that he didn't notice the red, puffy skin or the intermittent sniffles. “Why?”
“Because you need it,” Aziraphale stated matter-of-factly.
“But you don't,” Crowley replied, sounding for all the world as if all the energy had been drained from him, as if words were almost beyond his capacity and he was using all of his power simply to remain standing.
“I don’t, but…” Aziraphale shot him a look, a furrowed brow and narrowed eye, and gnawed at his lip. “But who else is going to stay with you?”
“Nobody,” the demon replied candidly, “but that doesn't mean you've got to. You haven't got some sort of angelic obligation to stick around.”
There was a beat, a moment’s hesitation on Aziraphale’s part, before he spoke in a soft, small voice. “Aren't friends supposed to stick around?”
Crowley blinked, jerking his head back. “I think so.”
“Yes, well.” The angel looked down, shuffled his feet. “We’re sort of friends.”
Crowley couldn’t quite pinpoint the tone in Aziraphale's statement. He might have been hopeful, but sardonic was equally likely. It was a hard task, reading the angel's meaning, when he always spoke through so many layers. Crowley responded carefully. “Are we?”
“You're the closest I've got right now,” Aziraphale said, and his subtle smile would have given him away, had Crowley been looking at his face rather than fervently avoiding eye contact. “And I think I'm the closest you've got.”
“You are.” Crowley didn't think about whether his answer was too quick or too sure. It was the truth, and he needed more of that in his life, right about now. Plus, he thought to himself, the angel couldn't fault him for agreeing with him.
“Then I'm sticking around,” Aziraphale murmured. “Let's go get a drink.”
He reached over and wrapped his fingers around Crowley's forearm, not tight, not hard, just enough to guide him. Crowley didn't fight the angel's grip, allowed him to lead the way, allowed him to buy the drinks, allowed him to talk and laugh and try his best to distract Crowley from his melancholy. And it almost worked: for a few fleeting moments here and there, when Aziraphale wove a story that caught his interest, when his glass was filled, when the light from the setting sun through the window hit the angel’s hair just right, Crowley almost forgot why he was upset.
Later, when he was alone, Crowley couldn’t sleep. He spent hours staring at the sun-toughened skin of his arm, the contrast of his delicate wrist, searching for a bruise or a burn or any physical reminder that the angel had touched him. It was difficult to parse out why he wanted that kind of proof, why he needed so badly to remember Aziraphale’s skin on his skin, why he needed so badly to feel it again. It was difficult, and it was in the realm of things that Crowley preferred not to think about, if he could help it.
So, rather than driving himself insane attempting to get to the bottom of his psyche, Crowley decided for once to just do what he wanted. He was in mourning still, and the angel’s company made him feel better, and was it not a sort of demonic selfishness, to chase that feeling? Was it not covetous of him, and greedy, and gluttonous, to crave that connection? To forgo all of the carefully-constructed pretenses of the past four millennia and seek out companionship that he shouldn’t need, and to find it in someone he should hate?
When Crowley showed up on Aziraphale’s doorstep and saw the look of surprise on the angel’s face, he gave a nervous smile. “Could I tempt you to join me for a walk?” His voice was small, and it was even smaller when he added, “Please?”
Aziraphale stared at him for a long time, studied the demon closely with an indecipherable look in his eyes, before he answered. “Friends don’t need to tempt,” he said bluntly as he stepped outside. “Friends can just ask.”
Chapter 6: rome, circa 44 bce
There had been rumors floating around in the streets for a few weeks now, furtive and uncertain, and Aziraphale was beginning to worry. He was sure he wasn’t meant to hear the rumors, but hear them he did, and he did not like what he heard, and the more he heard, the less he liked it. It was all secret plots and horrid betrayal and, well. Murder. He especially wasn’t a fan of that part.
He also wasn’t a fan of the way each whisper in the air brought thoughts to the surface of his mind that he had been trying rather hard to drown. It was absurd on every level to think that what he had been hearing could have anything to do with Crowley, but absurdity had never stopped Aziraphale before, and he certainly was not about to let it stop him now.
Not that he had a choice, really. It was an automatic association that his mind made of its own accord and without his permission: where there was mischief afoot, there would be Crowley. Each time it occurred to him, he attempted to discard the thought immediately; he knew Crowley, knew how he operated, knew this wasn’t his style. Once the suspicion was mostly gone, though, all that was under it were thoughts about Crowley’s style, his finesse and his charm and his wit and his goodness and his warmth.
Still, Aziraphale couldn’t help but wonder.
It was alright to doubt sometimes, wasn’t it? It had to be alright to doubt a demon, even if he was Crowley. It would be immensely stupid to take him at face value, to trust him completely, to truly, deeply believe that he simply couldn’t do something so horrid as assassinate a politician. Aziraphale was not stupid, so he allowed himself his doubts, and he could never work out why those thoughts filled him with such a dreadful, heavy guilt.
He asked around, when he could do so discreetly, despite every part of his rational mind telling him it was a terrible idea. He listened for the whispers and he tried to subtly pry information from the whisperers, the conspirators or their friends or their allies, men without faces or names. Subtlety had never exactly been Aziraphale’s strong suit, and there were no answers to be found, not until one day in late January
It was cold, and Aziraphale was tucked away in the back corner of a small tavern, trying not to think about Crowley, trying not to worry about him being out there in the cold. Then, suddenly, he no longer had to worry about that because Crowley was in front of him, very clearly not out there in the cold. Of course, this raised a whole new set of worries for Aziraphale, not the least of which being that he was staring, and he was frightfully aware of the fact that he was staring, and he could not stop staring.
And Crowley was staring back at him.
His eyes were uncovered, golden and round and staring, and Aziraphale couldn’t bear to look away, couldn’t say anything, couldn’t move. Thankfully, Crowley took the seat across from him without the need for an invitation, offering him a grin that screamed mischief, and all Aziraphale could think was that he couldn’t wait to find out what kind of mischief it was.
“Long time, no see,” the demon drawled, pulling a drink out of thin air, a hot spiced wine that gave off the most comforting smell. He took a sip, studying Aziraphale’s face over the rim of his cup, and then slid the drink across the table to the angel. “Have a drink, you’ll like it.”
Crowley was right on both counts: it had been a long while since they had run into each other, and Aziraphale did rather enjoy the drink, letting out a small sigh of satisfaction as it warmed him from the inside out. He didn’t have the wherewithal to be annoyed at Crowley’s smug aura. They had known each other for millennia, and Crowley had shown time and time again that he paid attention, that he understood Aziraphale and his tastes better than anyone, and Aziraphale was finally beginning to settle into that fact, to accept it the way he accepted Crowley’s inevitable presence in his life. He kept the drink, and Crowley said nothing about it.
It was a few quiet, comfortable minutes later when Aziraphale recovered his wits enough to level a glare at the demon, narrowing his eyes, giving him a scathing once-over. “Why are you here?”
“Been hearing some things,” Crowley shrugged, stretching his legs out underneath the table, brushing Aziraphale’s foot with his own, just lightly enough that he could claim it was an accident. “Thought I’d drop in and see what’s happening.”
Crowley had always been an expert in the art of manipulating language so that he wasn’t technically lying, but he knew Aziraphale would interpret his words in an entirely erroneous direction. He could see the gears turning in the angel’s head, picturing Crowley hearing about the same things he’d been hearing for himself, imagining Crowley swooping in to enjoy the discord and dismay surrounding the conspiracy, possibly even to take credit for it. It was fine for Aziraphale to think that. It was what Crowley wanted him to think, but it wasn’t the truth.
The things he had been hearing from a few towns over were, in fact, rumors that someone with serious contacts in Rome was asking around about him. This was concerning at first, because Crowley couldn’t remember what he could have done to draw the ire of a senator or some such person, but as the stories became more detailed, he relaxed warmly into the knowledge that Aziraphale was missing him.
Or, perhaps not missing him, but wondering about him, for some reason. And when Crowley dug to find out what the reason was, it was only a slight disappointment to find that it was on suspicion of his involvement in an assassination conspiracy. In any case, it gave him an excuse to visit Rome, to visit Aziraphale, without admitting that he wanted to visit him.
The angel looked at him now, his eyes softening but still dubious. “You mean to tell me you’ve had nothing to do with this?”
“Nothing at all,” Crowley confirmed. “Not that I entirely disagree with them, mind.”
“What do you mean? How could you support something like this?”
“I didn’t say support, angel.” Crowley’s tone was deadpan and dry as he rolled his eyes conspicuously. “Murder isn’t really my thing, a bit brutish if you ask me, but it’s just humans being humans. And I’m not crying for Julius, he’s a prick.”
“Of course not,” Aziraphale said, and there was no malice in his voice, only resignation. “You’re a demon, why should you care?”
Crowley decided it would be best to take that comment and the hurt that sprung up inside him and shove them both to the side for the time being. “You don’t even know if it’s a real plot,” he pointed out. “It’s just a rumor.”
Hesitating for a second to consider it, Aziraphale huffed out an irritated breath, forced to admit that the demon was right. “I guess that’s true,” he said reluctantly, “but I don’t like the idea of just letting it be.”
In a moment of unthinking honesty, Crowley leaned closer across the table, lowered his voice, looked openly into the angel’s face. “Does Heaven care if you do something about it or not? Really? Where’s Julius going when his lights go out – whether he gets stabbed in a month or his appendix bursts in his sleep, it doesn’t matter, where’s he going?”
Crowley raised his eyebrows expectantly at Aziraphale, knowing he wouldn’t venture to answer the question, knowing just as well that they both knew the answer. “That’s right, he’s one of ours,” the demon continued, sounding more fatalistic than self-satisfied. “All the alleged conspirators, too, regardless. You’re not saving anyone in the long run.”
It was hurtful, Crowley knew, and he felt bad for it, but it was also the truth, which made Aziraphale hurt even more. The angel always wanted to believe that things turned out for the best in the end, and he had never been one to give up so easily, not after one painful truth; he wouldn’t sit back and accept that Crowley’s view of the world was accurate, because it wasn’t, he was sure of it.
“That’s cruel,” he snapped, tensing his jaw. “Cruel and cynical and awful. Is that what you truly think? That nothing we do matters?”
Recoiling slightly at the venom in the angel’s voice, Crowley frowned. “They all die, Aziraphale, before you can even take a breath. If they go Up or Down, does it really change anything? Does it mean anything?”
Aziraphale sniffed, averted his gaze, stayed silent, and Crowley continued talking. “At the end of the day, it’s just you and me, isn’t it?” The demon’s voice was softer now, an approximation of a comforting tone. “Everyone Downstairs, everyone Up There, every fleeting human life – it all goes on around us and above us and below us, and the only constant is you and me.”
“I don’t believe that,” Aziraphale said, determined and fierce. He knew it was silly, immature, to so firmly need to prove Crowley wrong, but it was important to him that he did something that mattered. He stood abruptly, the screech of his chair on the stone floor causing the demon to flinch back. “I’m going to do something about this,” Aziraphale declared, his eyes boring into Crowley’s for a long moment, and then he stormed off without so much as a farewell.
In the stinging silence that permeated the air when the angel was gone, Crowley could do nothing but pity him. He hoped that Aziraphale might be able to achieve this goal, he wanted him to feel accomplished, to feel like something was going his way, for once. Things had been downhill for a while around the area, and Crowley felt Aziraphale needed the win.
Truthfully, it wasn’t cynicism that colored and informed Crowley’s feelings on the matter. He wasn’t a cynical person, not at all; he had always been rather optimistic about his own future, and secure and content with the certainty that Aziraphale would be there, too. It was one of few certainties in Crowley’s life, one of few things that made him feel held, on those occasions when he did lose a bit of hope for the world around him. He thought, in his semi-stupor after he was left alone, that he should have expected that Aziraphale wouldn’t look at it in quite the same way. He should have known that the permanent and irrevocable sameness of them wouldn’t be a comfort to the angel the way it was to him, but he’d unknowingly dug himself a hole and now had to sit in it.
They hadn’t seen each other for decades before today, and he had managed to blow it in record time. Being apart, being alone, was always different when he was being left. Regardless of what happened with Julius Caesar and this potential assassination plot, Crowley knew Aziraphale would move past it eventually, that he wouldn’t be upset with him forever. Still, a cold, empty feeling sank into the pit of his stomach, a heavy loneliness deep in his bones, as he heaved an earth-shattering sigh and leaned back in his seat, not particularly wanting to stay but not having anywhere else to go.
Chapter 7: antioch, 387 ce
One of Crowley’s qualms with demonhood, and he really didn’t have very many of them, was that his job often required him to blend in with a crowd of people that he would have preferred to avoid. He could appreciate the ingenuity and creativity of mankind's worst, could respect their propensity for a kind of evil that nobody in Hell could even begin to approach, but he rather wished he could do all his admiring from afar. Being too immersed in these groups for too long tended to become tiresome and often downright uncomfortable.
Currently, he was closer to infuriated than merely uncomfortable, but anger wasn't usually his style, so he kept it tamped down. Mostly.
“When brute animals feed from a full manger, they grow plump and become more obstinate and hard to hold in check; they endure neither the yoke, the reins, nor the hand of the charioteer,” said the man holding everyone’s attention.
Crowley looked up at the speaker, a nauseous lump rising in his throat. There were a great many reasons to hate this man, and Crowley could have listed them alphabetically, chronologically, or ranked by severity, if needed. Currently, though, his main complaint was that with all of his grandstanding and fearmongering, John Chrysostom didn’t even have the decency to preach in a church.
If he preached in a church, then Crowley wouldn’t have had to attend this sermon; he could simply have sent a memo to Hell saying Sorry guys, consecrated ground, looks like I’ll have to sit this one out. Real bummer, that. But he delivered this homily in the open, in a market square, and so Crowley was required to attend. The man had been getting some lip service Downstairs recently, and they had tasked Crowley with checking him out.
He had arrived late, because he didn’t want to be there, and slipped into the back of the crowd just in time for the first impatient listeners to begin separating from the group. The movement out of the corner of his eye gave him an excuse to not pay attention, so he turned to watch the people leaving, and it was then that his eyes landed on a familiar face and he realized that this assignment would not be a complete loss, after all.
He tried to stay quiet, to avoid attracting too much attention or causing a scene, but a jerk of his head or a wave of his hand was not enough. He sighed, maneuvering himself between a few people with a stage-whispered, “Oi, angel.”
It was satisfying, how fast the angel’s head turned at the sound of his voice. It was – well, Crowley liked when the right people paid attention to him. He liked to be recognized and he liked to feel important; he liked that he took precedence over the drivel that Chrysostom was preaching. That was what he told himself to explain the pleasant sort of tightness that gripped his chest when he met Aziraphale’s eyes.
“Hello, Crowley.” The angel's tone was unfathomable, not flat or emotionless but entirely unreadable.
"Hi," Crowley replied lamely. "Fancy seeing you here."
Aziraphale laughed out loud, drawing reproachful glares from a few people nearby in the crowd. Crowley laughed as well, asking a question with a nod of his head. Do you want to get out of here?
He received a nod in response. Aziraphale began walking away, leaving Crowley to follow him, which the demon did willingly. As soon as they were out of earshot of the crowd, Aziraphale asked, "Why are you here?"
"Right. Good to see you, too," Crowley replied, hoping the levity in his tone outweighed the bitterness. "I'm watching him," he added with a vague gesture toward the speaker they'd left behind.
"Well, so am I," the angel said, as if it were such a simple fact as to be hardly worth saying.
"For business or pleasure?"
Aziraphale's brows drew together. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Attempting to remain casual and friendly, Crowley looked vaguely off to the side. "Exactly what it means," he explained. "Were you told to come here today or did you just decide it would be a nice way to spend an afternoon?"
"Don't insult me, Crowley."
"Didn't mean to."
"Really?" Aziraphale snapped, bringing Crowley's gaze back to his face like a rubber band returning to its natural shape. "So you didn't mean to imply that I would choose to be here willingly? That I might enjoy or appreciate that – that vitriolic, narrow-minded hogwash?”
Crowley blinked rapidly, taken aback by the angel's outburst, even as the corners of his lips quirked up into a smile that rode the line between smug and impressed. "I get the feeling you’re not a fan," he said dryly.
The angel adjusted his sleeve before replying, somehow managing to make the gesture pointed and scathing. “Not in the least,” he said at last. “In fact, I’ve been trying to – well, I shouldn’t tell you what I’ve been trying to do.”
“Probably not,” Crowley agreed. “Good to know, though.”
“Nothing, just…” Crowley shrugged, shaking his head and huffing out a breath. “That he’s not one of yours, you know.”
It hadn’t been too long since they’d seen each other, a few years maybe, and Crowley hadn’t had time to forget how carefully he had to tread. He didn’t dare say anything along the lines of It’s good to know you’re on my side, or It’s good to be reminded I was right about you. The answer he settled on was just ambiguous enough that he could feasibly claim, if questioned, that there was nothing personal about it.
Aziraphale stared at him, his brow furrowed. “I don’t see why it should matter to you,” he said, and then he straightened his back as a thought rushed to the forefront of his mind. “You mean he isn’t one of yours?”
Crowley narrowed his eyes, pursed his lips, thought about it for a moment. “Don’t think so. Certainly not mine, personally. Could be ours, from Down There I mean, but not that I know of.” He glanced back toward the spot where the man was preaching, shook his head in disgust. “Such a perfectly, uniquely human combination of cruel and stupid.”
“Honestly,” the angel chided, rolling his eyes at Crowley.
“What? What’d I do?” Crowley set his hands on his hips, drumming his slender fingers against the jut of his hipbone. “Thought we were on the same page here.”
“Perhaps,” Aziraphale muttered, a flush rising to his cheeks. “You don’t have to be rude about it, in any case.”
A disbelieving laugh pushed its way out of Crowley’s mouth before he could stop it, earning him another admonishing look from Aziraphale. “Sorry,” the demon said quickly, “it’s just – would think you’d concern yourself more with the guy who’s spreading lies and inciting violence in the name of your Almighty, but sure, I’ll stop being rude.”
Setting his jaw in a stubborn show of disapproval, Aziraphale heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Of course I’m concerned with that, but I can be concerned with both simultaneously. There are more civil ways to approach the issue.”
“Civil’s not my style, angel. Not with these types, anyway.”
“It is awful,” Aziraphale conceded, wringing his hands, his eyes flitting nervously around as if someone nearby might catch him agreeing with Crowley and call him out for being a bad angel. “The things he says. All that hate, preaching about keeping Christianity pure, as if the Jews haven’t been around forever.”
Crowley nodded. “As long as us, seems like. And somehow, they’re always at the sharp end of someone’s sword.”
He shuddered at the thought of all the senseless violence he’d seen throughout the years, and the Jews – not always or only victims, but often enough that it garnered attention. Often enough that Crowley had looked into it once or twice, to see what they had done to warrant the venom and the bloodshed, but he always turned up empty-handed. It was always the same tune, really: they were isolated, they were different, they were an easy target.
“That is curious,” Aziraphale agreed, his pensive voice cutting through Crowley’s thoughts. “Really, I don’t know what his problem is with them.”
“He doesn’t have a problem with them, angel,” Crowley answered tiredly. “He has a problem, and they’re the solution.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s just trying to unite his followers against a common enemy, so they’ll follow him blindly out of fear.” Crowley saw the stirrings of an objection in Aziraphale’s face, the twitch of his lip and the hardness in his eyes, and pressed on without thinking. “It’s the same thing your people do; you should be used to it by now.”
Aziraphale froze stock still, his limbs rigid and his face cold. He closed his eyes slowly and stood silent for several long moments, until Crowley opened his mouth to speak again, at which point the angel interrupted him before he started, shooting him down with a voice sharp enough to cut glass.
“Don’t.” Aziraphale’s eyes snapped open again, his steely gaze turned on Crowley in full force. “That’s awful. Why would you say something like that?”
“You know it’s the truth,” the demon replied defensively, even as a voice in his head was begging Shut up, stop pushing, don't make him leave. “They feed you lies and stories so that you’ll come down here and do their dirty work.”
Almost as if in slow motion, Crowley saw Aziraphale's feelings teeter on a precipice and then fall to the wrong side. He saw the angel's eyes darken, his teeth digging into his lower lip, the slight strain of his body trying to maintain perfect stillness while his muscles were shaking with suppressed anger.
Eventually, the feelings surpassed the bounds of body language, and Aziraphale spoke. "You're wrong," he said with a voice of stone. "And you’re being horrid."
Pressing his lips together in a tight line, Crowley shook his head and blew a breath out through his teeth. "I'm not trying to."
"Well then," Aziraphale said stiffly, "it seems you have a natural talent for it. You may have to put some effort into not being horrid."
Crowley bit back the impulse to ask Are you mad at me? because it was obvious that he was, and it shouldn't have mattered to Crowley one way or the other. He was a demon, after all; shouldn't it be a point of pride to upset an angel? Even if it was Aziraphale?
He didn't feel proud or particularly demonic. He felt rotten, and desperate to make the angel stay.
"I'm sorry,” Crowley blurted out without thinking. It was one thing to get under the angel’s skin, he had spent millennia perfecting that skill, but the way Aziraphale was looking at him was beginning to hurt. “Sorry. I’m just – tired, is all.”
Aziraphale glared at him for a long moment, and Crowley hoped he wasn’t imagining the way his eyes softened slightly. “Perhaps you should get some rest,” the angel suggested, his voice still overlaid with protective glass even as his wrinkled brow smoothed out.
“Nuh,” Crowley mumbled, shaking his head. “S’different kind of tired. Not sleepy, just… need a break, I think. Been a bit of a drag lately, what with all the Jesus business, just makes everything more confusing.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Aziraphale didn’t smile, in much the same way that the sun hasn’t risen early in the morning, when the sky begins to brighten just from the almost-there of it. “It gets rather difficult to tell who’s on what side these days.”
Crowley gave a noncommittal hum, not wanting to screw up and upset him again. “Just out of curiosity,” the demon asked idly, avoiding eye contact. “Was Jesus one of yours? I mean, was he really…” He sniffed and bit the inside of his cheek, not willing to finish the question.
Blinking slowly, the angel frowned in thought. “You know, I don’t think he was,” he said in a voice that sounded like a dawning realization. “I think I’d know if he were, you know, because of my proximity. They’d have told me, I think.”
“Right.” Crowley nodded in agreement, letting a snide remark about ineffability dissolve on his tongue, swallowing it down. “Figures. All that fighting, a whole new world religion, all over an ordinary human.” A thought flitted across the surface of the demon’s mind, and he barked out a laugh before voicing it, jerking his head back toward the preacher and his followers. “Who’s going to tell Piss Mouth that his savior was a Jew?”
Aziraphale laughed with him, a full and bright and warm sound, the kind of laugh that Crowley had seen only rarely, usually when Aziraphale was drunk. He wasn’t drunk this time, which was why he caught himself after a moment and forcibly suppressed the rest of his laughter, putting on a disapproving mask, an unconvincing frown. “Don’t be crude,” he said, aiming for his trademark sternness and landing somewhere in the realm of a child doing an impression of an adult.
Crowley lifted his eyebrows, once again biting back the urge to tell the truth. He gave himself a serious lecture inside his head, something along the lines of Don’t piss him off again, don’t make him leave. Please don’t make him leave. It was a struggle to say the right things when everything he believed was the opposite of what the angel had been told, and when he knew that Aziraphale agreed with him on some level. It took a lot of effort not to push, not to wheedle and prod the angel in an effort to pull a sense of camaraderie out of him, but it was effort Crowley was more than willing to expend to keep him around. So he lied, just a bit, and he couldn’t really be blamed for it, being a demon and all.
For his part, Aziraphale recognized that Crowley was holding back, and he appreciated it even as the guilt ate away at him, hollowing out an aching pit in his chest. He liked being around Crowley, liked spending time with him, but it was only sustainable so long as this delicate balance was maintained. Aziraphale spared a laugh for a crude joke before cutting himself off and he allowed himself to admit that Crowley was right about John Chrysostom, even if he disagreed with the verbiage the demon employed.
The way he looked at it, it wasn’t impossible for Crowley to stumble across a little bit of good in his dealings with the world; it was statistically unlikely for anyone who lived on Earth to be bad and wrong all of the time. It was unreasonable to expect that from anyone, even a demon, even Crowley. Aziraphale simply had to admit that there were certain areas where Heaven and Hell had a similar opinion, and other areas where he and Crowley might do the same. And that was okay, sometimes.
Once, several centuries ago, they had called each other friends. The word burned in the angel’s mind, a fresh flame each time the demon laughed or smiled or spoke. It wasn’t feasible in the long run, not really, and Aziraphale knew it; he knew he wouldn’t say it aloud again barring extreme unforeseen circumstances, but he wanted to, more than anything.
They walked and talked past sundown, strolling lazily around the market, catching up on the years they’d been apart. Crowley didn’t mention how Aziraphale’s hair was longer than the last time they’d seen each other, didn’t think it was the sort of thing he should notice. Aziraphale didn’t mention that Crowley seemed sadder than before, didn’t ask what was wrong, didn’t offer his comfort or his help; no matter how he twisted it in his mind, he couldn’t convince himself that it was the right thing to do.
But it was alright to stand close enough to feel the sun-baked air reflecting off the demon’s black robes, and it was alright to accidentally brush his hand with a feather-light touch as they reached for the same piece of jewelry at a market stall. When Crowley’s face reddened and he looked away, embarrassed, Aziraphale took the opportunity to buy it – a small turquoise stone set in a gold ring – and slip it into Crowley’s pocket without being seen.
A good deed was a good deed, he reasoned, regardless of who benefited from it. And the stone went so nicely with Crowley’s eyes.