Aziraphale threaded through the crowds, smiling at the happy faces, the cheering citizens and metics, the slaves and other lower orders taking a well-deserved day off for once. He even smiled at the procession of men carrying large gilded – and extremely detailed – painted images, though that was mostly because he was trying not to laugh. I probably could, he thought. General merriment does seem to be the order of the day. Goodness, there's an impressive one.
"Hello, Aziraphale," a cheerful amused voice said behind him. "I can see why you like this place. How very, ah, quaint."
"Oh, don't be so condescending," he said. "It's a sincere expression of religious feeling."
"It's a procession of men proudly carrying enormous models of dicks in gratitude for the entire male citizenry being cured of the clap," Crowley said. "Just look at that one." He pointed at the one Aziraphale had previously noted being carried in pride of place on a ox-drawn cart decked out with garlands of flowers. "You wouldn't be able to fit many of those easily under a chiton."
"I'm not going to discuss relative sizes of genitalia with you, not on a holiday," Aziraphale said, turning around. Crowley had changed his hair again. Respectable human males had short hair at the moment here, not long soft waves. Really. Although he had to admit, the style did set off Crowley's narrow features nicely. "Just enjoy the experience, Crowley."
"As the hetaira said to the general," Crowley shot back, smoothing down his freshly-fulled chiton as if to emphasize that he'd be the victor in any relative size competition. He sniggered at Aziraphale's long-suffering expression. "Come on, come on, let's get out of the crowd and you can buy me some wine. You owe me a large jug from last time."
"I do not."
"Ecbatana, height of summer, sixty-five years ago."
"Oh, that. All right. Are we going to discuss it?"
"Absolutely not. What happened in Ecbatana stays in Ecbatana."
They worked their way back out of the crowd, a little space always opening up just in front of them. Aziraphale blinked as Crowley's arm shot out and he grabbed a skinny girl on the cusp of adolescence who had been about to step out of the angel's way. She wavered for a moment, clearly wondering whether to scream or to try to bite Crowley's hand, before discovering that she could not move his arm no matter how she tried.
"I quite like thieves," Crowley said conversationally. "But don't steal from me or my friend. Understand, little girl?"
She drew breath to scream and he bent over so their eyes were on a level.
She wordlessly, breathlessly jerked her chin up, Yes, and shakily held out Aziraphale's pouch of coins.
"Good girl," Crowley said, rescuing it; he produced two obols from nowhere to press into her hand. "Enjoy the festival."
"Should you have done that?"
"What's she likely to say? She'll be claiming she saw Dionysus himself come to his own festival before the day is out."
"I meant rewarding her for being a pickpocket."
Crowley looked at him like he was speaking a foreign language that the demon somehow couldn't understand, and tossed the pouch over. "She's pretty good, angel. That level of commitment should be encouraged, don't you think?"
* * *
"I know at least one of the playwrights whose works are to be performed this year, it's a friend of mine," Aziraphale said proudly.
"Oh yeah? I thought the list hadn't been announced yet?"
Aziraphale tried to tap the side of his nose and poked himself in the eye instead. "S'Euripides! He's so clever! A little thing like being recently dead isn't stopping him!"
"Now that's commitment, writing plays when you're dead," Crowley hissed cheerily.
"Yes," Aziraphale said in sheer delight, then paused. "Though I'm not sure that's how even really talented humans work. He probably finished them while he was alive. Terrible place, Macedon, must have been like being dead in a way. I visited him there once." He shuddered at the memory. "I suppose he really didn't have anything to do but write ever since he moved there. I can't imagine the place will ever produce anything interesting by itself. Anyway, his son is the director. Crowley, you will come tomorrow with me, won't you? It's the last chance to ever see one of his plays."
"Oh," Crowley said, looking greatly surprised, rather like one who diggeth a pit and falls therein. "I don't know. It sounds a bit – worthy. I mean, I'm supposed to be inventing new forms of licentiousness and things like the clap running riot through respectable populations, and then taking credit for curing the clap, not indulging in personal growth and bettering myself through educational encounters with the En- um. Sorry."
"Don't be silly, you didn't invent the clap, it's one of the wonders of Creation," Aziraphale said, and drunkenly dropped an olive into Crowley's wine. "Oh look, I've invented the martini. Now that really is a wonder."
Crowley fished the olive out and glared at it, then cautiously nibbled a tiny amount, dropping most of it back into the bowl with its companions.
"I'll invent all kinds of drinks if you come! And, and – I'll tell you how much I like your hair."
Crowley froze mid-way through cutting himself a leaf-thin sliver of cheese and looked up. He said nothing for a long, long moment, then,
"Yes, tell you what, yes. I could do with seeing something funny."
"Oh, good," Aziraphale beamed. "You'll really like Euripides then," he lied, nose deep into his shallow cup of wine.
* * *
"Excuse me?" Crowley said, gesturing for a cart to stop and not run over the angel uselessly wringing his hands in the middle of the track. "I did no such thing. I seem to remember a lot of singing of dirty songs followed by you needing my help to stagger back and then you sort of spun around and collapsed face down onto your bed. I wasn't even the one singing."
"I don't know any dirty songs! I'm an angel!"
"There once was a young lad from Sparta, Who when fucked was a terrible farter –" Crowley started.
"All right. Let's just get a wiggle on."
They hurried along the path, heading up the hill with the other latecomers. The Theatre of Dionysus, when they finally reached it, was packed. The newer stone seats lower down had long since been claimed, the front row filled with the competition judges and city officials, and the rows behind stuffed with men who had got up in time to get decent seats. Aziraphale looked round in despair. There were very few seats left, just some on the older rickety wooden benches further up, near the women.
"Look, there are some spaces there," he said, pointing to seats a row beneath a group of women and girls, their himations draped modestly over their heads and shoulders. They huddled together, looking as if they were ready to repel any man who dared to sit within a ten-foot radius. Aziraphale prepared to look extremely harmless indeed.
"Why don't we just take the spaces down there that are miraculously opening up?" Crowley said, indicating seats just three rows back from the stage. "They even have cushions on them."
"That's awfully nice of you," Aziraphale said, and headed for the space.
They were beaten to the seats by a good four seconds by a couple of sharp-elbowed philosophers.
"I say," Aziraphale said. "That's not very sporting. Um. Oh, look Crowley, how incredibly lucky. It seems that there are seats just over there -"
This time some rather tough-looking young aristocrats got there first by means of leaping over other seated theatregoers' heads into the space. It was good to see, Aziraphale thought sourly, that all that training and posing in the gymnasium could be put to practical use.
"Third time lucky," Crowley said with a somewhat forced cheer. "I think I see a seat – here?" He indicated the currently occupied seats right beside them.
"Oh no, too near the steps. People will be traipsing up and down all day. It would be very distracting. I want to sit further in."
"Fine. Though if I see one blessed human heading for the spot I'm flying over. There! Run!"
They got to the free seats to find them still gloriously empty.
"Hello, Aziraphale," the elderly man sitting beside the empty seats said. "What a beautiful day to see our lost friend's last works! If only he could have lived to direct the plays himself."
"Yes, such a pity," Aziraphale said, starting to sit. "Poor old Euripides, what a loss to literature. I wish he could have passed his last days in his friends' company."
"Yes, letters just weren't the same as a proper conversation. My friend, if it isn't an imposition," the man said, "could I ask you to leave these seats for me? Two of my young friends aren't here yet and they expressed a desire to sit with me today. " The young men - more of the tough young aristocratic sort - clustered on the other side of him clearly wanted to chime in, but settled for looking hopeful and more-or-less respectful and generally indicating via their body language that Aziraphale really should pay attention to what their older friend was saying. Or else.
"What?" Crowley said, as Aziraphale failed to complete his sitting manoeuvre. "Aziraphale –"
"We've been looking for a seat for a while," Aziraphale said plaintively.
"I know it's a difficult thing to ask of one who loves Euripides' work so much, but it would bring a lot of pleasure to the young men who for some reason see this old fool as their teacher," the man said.
"Yes, all right."
"What?" Crowley hissed behind him. "Are you kidding me?"
"Take care, Socrates," Aziraphale said, "We must have dinner soon." He shoved Crowley back to the steps, protesting all the way.
"I'm not making a fool of myself running backwards and forwards if you're just going to give our seats away," Crowley said, narrowing his eyes. "What do you care if his students are late?"
"Some of them have rather difficult circumstances in life," Aziraphale said. "It's kinder to –"
"What do I care about kind? It's getting hot, I'm getting thirsty and I want to sit down."
"Let's just go back up and sit near the ladies," Aziraphale said, defeated. "There are still seats there."
"Isn't that a better spot?" Crowley said, "We'd get a better view, wouldn't we?"
He pointed to a space right in the centre row of seats at the top, beneath the women's seating. The brightly-dressed trio of women sitting there were not modestly covering their hair, but were showing it off in all its bleached glory. They were showing off as much as they could of the rest of themselves as well, and were not sitting quietly like respectable women, but were laughing amongst themselves and waving to men friends sitting further down.
"Crowley, those are ladies of well, negotiable virtue," Aziraphale said. "They'll distract us from the play."
"Oh, will they?" Crowley said with an evil grin. "A regular client, are you? Anyway, they're well off working girls, as is evidenced by the fact that they can take the day off to go to the theatre, so your virtue probably won't be negotiated. And they're trying to improve themselves, you should like that. But really, we'll just have more fun sitting next to them."
He grabbed Aziraphale's elbow and towed him up to the open spaces, shoving a respectable cartwright down the steps when it looked like he was about to head for their desired seats. He pressed Aziraphale down onto the somewhat rickety wooden bench and sat beside him. Aziraphale looked around with interest. He had never sat this high up before, and hoped that they would be able to follow the action.
"Morning, ladies," Crowley said, kicking Aziraphale's ankle in a way that said, See, I'm out to annoy you, I am.
"Morning, gents," one of the hetairai replied. "Do you often accost respectable womenfolk like this?"
They all sniggered, including Crowley, as Aziraphale tried to ignore them.
"I hope we'll be able to hear the lines properly," he said as Crowley lounged across as much space on the bench as possible.
"Oh, you will, dear," another hetaira said. "It's well built, this old theatre. Every word'll be clear as day."
Crowley signaled a wine seller and demanded that he reserve an entire amphora for them.
"I'll want regular deliveries up here," he said, producing a couple of staters that vanished into the man's hand. "And bring bread, olives and cheese as well."
"Are you hungry?" Aziraphale said as the man scampered eagerly back to his provisions. Crowley rarely seemed to be, unless something new and exciting was on the menu.
"No, but you probably will be."
"How awfully kind!"
"Oh, give over. I told you, I'm no such thing."
"Well, awfully considerate then."
Crowley gave him a look of pure exasperation that faded into pleasure as the wine seller came back with the first two jugs of wine and a bag containing a fresh loaf of bread and a hunk of salty cheese.
"Will you be wanting cups as well, gentlemen? There's a deposit –"
"Yes, we want the blessed cups," Crowley said, grabbing them. "Aziraphale, make yourself useful and pour the wine. Make sure it's cold." He passed the plain pottery cups over and took the food, tossing the man a few extra obols. "Come back later with dessert. And later yet to start all over again." He looked at the deep amber colour of the wine and added, "That'd better not be a sweet wine. I want something drinkable by the gallon."
Aziraphale gave him a cup of what was now perfectly dry wine and smiled as Crowley coughed a little in surprise at the first mouthful.
"I told you I'd invent new drinks if you came. I watered the wine with sparkling water. It's a spritzer."
"I don't know why I put up with you," Crowley muttered, and cautiously sipped again. "It's very refreshing. I actually sort of like it."
"If you're in the mood for spending money, gents," one of the women behind them said, "can any of us offer you anything? Anything at all? We can explain the plots of the plays to you if you like, given their titles, tell jokes your wives won't understand, wipe down your overheated brows – and so on." She smiled a professionally charming smile. "Before the play starts of course. We don't want to miss any of Euripides' last poetry."
"Ah, no. Thank you, ladies, but no," Aziraphale said.
Behind him Crowley made a lazy gesture that the gathered hetairai all interpreted as, He's with me. He turned his attention onto Aziraphale again as he drank and smiled slyly over the top of the cup. "And the rest of the bargain?"
Aziraphale wondered if he could blame the feel of his cheeks reddening on the summer heat, the forwardness of some ladies he actually couldn't name or the fizzy wine. He met Crowley's eyes and looked back down into his own cup.
"Your hair suits you," he said. "The waviness - it's really quite, er, fetching."
"That's awfully considerate of you."
"Why must you always tease me?" Aziraphale said, pouring a rather less watered but just as fizzy next round.
"You understand my sense of humour," Crowley said comfortably.
This made Aziraphale rather uncomfortable, as demonic comedy was often sharp and cutting in the most literal sense. He was also somewhat uncomfortable to realize that the hetairai on the women's benches were now whispering loudly about them.
" – must have met in Macedon or some other semi-barbarian place," one said. "I mean, men get up to all sorts up there, with fellows their own age. Macedonians don't understand you're not supposed to be with someone your own age."
"Nah, they're just friends," another said. "You've got a dirty mind, Doricha."
"I'm telling you, Theokleia, where else would an Athenian get to be friends with a Thracian?" Doricha replied. "And let's face it, the Thracians make the Macedonians look like a commune of clean-living Pythagoreans."
They must be talking about someone else, Aziraphale thought, just as Crowley elbowed him and signalled with a roll of his eyes that he should pay attention to what the women were saying. Oh dear. Crowley was grinning widely.
"Would you like some bread, Aziraphale?" he asked, and his accent was a lot more – well, Thracian, Aziraphale supposed. Blast his sense of humour. He took a hunk of bread and chewed it in a manner to express his irritation.
"Doricha's right, he really does sound from way up north - " another one said.
"Thank you, Thallusa."
" – but there's so many nice looking Athenian boys around! Why would a nice Athenian man want a red-haired Thracian eremenos?"
Crowley nearly choked on his wine as he tried not to laugh too loudly. He looked round and winked. "Oh, I'm not his eremenos, ladies."
"Well, I'm glad you've cleared that up," Aziraphale said. It was only at the sight of Crowley laughing helplessly beside him and the sound of laughter behind him that he registered what he'd said. "You are so childish," he muttered to Crowley who was now leaning back against Thallusa's knees, weeping with laughter.
"He does have nice hair, though," she said, petting Crowley's hair. "You're right about that. Don't you worry, dear; we're not as stuffy-minded as some. Doricha might have some views about things, but the rest of us are very broad-minded."
"I just think Macedonians are a bit odd, that's all," a rather flashy looking girl who, Aziraphale thought, presumably was Doricha said. "And Thracians are odder. No offense."
"Oh, none taken, I assure you," Crowley said. He slithered upright again and closer to Aziraphale in a boneless easy movement. "You don't have to be offended either, dearest." He patted Aziraphale's knee, sliding his hand up his thigh in a way that had the hetairai all leaning forward, offering suggestions.
Aziraphale held up the jug. "More wine?" he said in a Or a smiting? sort of tone.
On the stage below the chorus trooped out, dressed and masked as Maenads, and the actor playing Dionysus began to proclaim his opening lines. Everyone in the theatre stared avidly down at the stage. Aziraphale was relieved that every word was as clear as the hetairai had promised, but he found himself picking at the edge of his chiton in some agitation.
"I do wish you hadn't given the impression that you're my erastes," he whispered to Crowley. "You're not. The situation really would be rather – unusual – according to the social norms of Athens at this time, you know."
"Just watch the play, Aziraphale," Crowley said, a smile in his voice.
The play was very engaging. The audience cried out and groaned as one at dramatic points.
"Come on, Pentheus!" Aziraphale called out as the young king of Thebes got madder and madder on stage, led inexorably to his doom by Dionysus. "Buck up!"
"This isn't actually a comedy, is it?" Crowley said, staring raptly down as Pentheus in his god-induced delirium decided it would be a good idea to go to spy on the women's secret rites on the mountainside. "I mean, things are going wrong with a capital Argh."
When the Messenger came on to describe the terrible manner of Pentheus' death at the hands of his mother and his aunts the entire theatre rang out with horrified groans, and from all across the women's benches in the top rows came the sound of weeping. Aziraphale felt a pang of pure horror and pity, and found he was grasping Crowley's hand tight in his own.
"Sorry," he whispered.
The description went on and on, getting worse and worse. Crowley's eyes were wide and horrified, white showing all around the yellow. When Aziraphale tried to free his hand he found he couldn't; he wasn't the only one holding on.
"It's ok," Crowley said in a faraway voice. "Glad to be of comfort."
Agave came on, holding up her son's head, and Crowley's fingers tightened in shock as everyone in the theatre drew a sharp breath. The thing to do, Aziraphale thought, was to focus on the actors' craft. Agave's mask, he thought, trying not to look at the all too realistic example of stagecraft in the actor's hand, yes, the mask certainly gave the impression of a woman driven mad by proximity to the divine. Oh dear, he couldn't keep himself safely apart – Euripides had always been too good a poet for that. The moment he started listening again he forgot he was watching men wearing masks and saw the women driven mad and the awful thing Agave tossed from hand to hand, just like everyone else in the audience. When it was finally over and everyone had received their just desserts – the Greek gods really weren't much on mercy and loving kindness, Aziraphale thought professionally – he felt wrung out and oddly light.
"That was quite something," he said faintly. "How do humans produce this sort of thing?"
"I think I really do prefer comedies," Crowley said. "I mean, it was powerful stuff –" He shivered. "I could do with a bit of a laugh, though."
"But hasn't the emotion of it left you feeling sort of, well, purified?"
Crowley looked at him silently, then a grin spread slowly over his face. "Me?" He looked a lot less peaky. "Good joke, Aziraphale. More wine? What's the next play anyway?" he asked as he refilled the cups with wine that came out in a clear cold stream, despite the heat of the sun beating down and reflecting back from the stage and the newer stone seats.
"Iphigenia in Aulis," Thallusa said, leaning forward to brush a fly from Crowley's hair. "I wonder if I could get mine this colour?" she mused.
"The next one's not a comedy either, I'm guessing," Crowley sighed.
"You Thracians don't know much about civilized literature or history, do you?"
"It looks like I'm getting the chance to learn," Crowley said, drinking down his cup in one and pouring himself another.
Aziraphale closed his eyes for a moment. He'd had one play; that should be enough. The trouble was that they'd both been awfully fond of Iphigenia; she'd been a sweet child with terrible parents. Too innocent for her own good, really, and they'd both been too bloody stupid to see what was in front of their noses. Neither of them had felt like giving a human the benefit of the doubt for decades afterwards.
"We don't have to stay," he whispered. "We can go if you like. Whatever you want, Crowley. Really."
Crowley gave him a rueful smile, then signaled the approaching wine seller to hurry up with the next jugs of wine and more food. The man had brought fat, gleaming olives and fresh-fried fish wrapped in still warm flat bread, as well as sweet cakes stuffed with figs.
"It looks like lunch is here," Crowley said. "We can't go yet." He passed over the fish to Aziraphale and watched him eat. "Anyway, it's the last chance for you to see a new play by your friend. We should stay."
Aziraphale swallowed hastily. "Are you sure?"
"Don't make a song and dance about it. Your people aren't so good at that."
"That's terribly kin- well, I appreciate it, Crowley."
"Oh, I know," Crowley said dryly. "I'm awfully considerate. That fish doesn't look too bad," he added, dragging Aziraphale's attention back to other matters. "I might try that." He picked a little bit of fish out of the bread and ate it slowly, nodding appreciatively. "It's good."
"You should do that more often, food is nice," Aziraphale said, glad of the change of subject. He passed some of the olives back to the hetairai, who accepted them graciously as their due.
"I'd only get used to it and wouldn't appreciate it," Crowley said. "Look, the musicians are coming out. Get ready to be horrified by poetry." On the stage the troupe's leading man, robed and masked as a king, took centre stage. Crowley slid a sly glance sideways. "If you get too scared you can hold my hand again."
"I'll bear that in mind," Aziraphale said with dignity, as Agamemnon's actor stepped forwards and the audience fell quiet as he regarded them silently from behind the mask until the whole seventeen thousand of them were making no noise at all.
"Leda, the daughter of Thestius, had three children, maidens," Agamemnon said, and events started on their terrible course.
Everyone in the theatre, respectable or outside the bounds of social propriety, human or not, watched the onrushing tragedy unfold, caught up in the words of the lost, mourned poet.