The sun rose slowly over Liège, in that yellowish, hay-fever way Crowley had come to associate with the Low Countries. He was perched rather precariously on the cobbled top of a gate tower appended to the city's sandstone fortifications, and, he imagined, if anyone were to look up at him just now, they'd be quite cowed indeed by the imposing figure he made cut out against the dawn sky in his long, dark mantle. (In actuality, what Crowley most resembled at the moment was a sooty rug blown free of a mat knocker and entangled in the battlements; but never being one to let actual appearances impinge on his self-image, of this Crowley was happily unaware.)
If Crowley leaned forward and squinted into the lightening horizon, he could just make out a little white splotch making its way down the merchant road and toward the town. He forced down what were really some stupidly fond feelings to be having for a little white splotch and clambered down the side of the tower to wait in the shadows for the angel to enter the city and pass him by. It wouldn't do for Aziraphale to realize that Crowley was here, too, after they'd gone and gambled for it.
Crowley had intended to stay in London, really he had. When he and the angel had both pulled assignments in the lowland region, he'd won the right to idle behind in virtue of having drank thirty-eight successive ales to Aziraphale's thirty-seven—a victory he'd rather been hoping to let his corporation sleep off while Aziraphale was off occulting for the both of them.
Crowley's London rooms were currently in the Jewish quarter. He rather liked the food, for one, and though he was seldom one for mortal entanglements, he had grown fond of some of his neighbors during the decade or so he'd been in residence. He'd often take meals with Aaron, the softspoken gem-cutter from whom he'd commissioned his most recent pair of smoky-lensed eyeglasses, and whose gentle manner reminded him quite a lot of Aziraphale in a way he'd absolutely never admit. And he had been a great admirer of the eldest daughter of the merchant next door ever since she scandalized the whole district by declaring that all she wanted to do was learn sums and keep the trading books and damned if she wouldn't run away with pirates if her father forced her to marry! Her father had more or less caved at that, and occasionally, on particularly muggy and fetid afternoons, Crowley would send a miracled sea breeze, salty and fresh, in through her narrow office window. In short, he felt as much at home as he ever did on Earth.
He hadn't seen any of his neighbors on his way back to his rooms from the tavern, it being unspeakably late, and he was thankful for it, as it allowed him to vomit quite unobserved behind a bucket of salted fish, and then to do so again in a little alley. As he rolled himself up into bed, he let himself have a bit of a cackle at the thought of Aziraphale in even worse condition than him and having to brave a boat in the morning, and then he let sleep take him.
When Crowley deigned to slumber, which was more and more these days, he typically arose precisely when he meant to. Five thousand years of temporally extended existence could do absolute wonders for your internal clock. This time he'd tried for about two weeks. When he awoke after what barely felt like a day to the thick smell of burning cedar, he'd be the first to admit that he panicked.
(Despite human lore, demons aren't generally tremendous fans of things being set on fire. To say it tended to stir up bad memories would be putting it very mildly indeed. Demons could wield all-devouring curséd flame, granted, but that was seen as a bit of a joke on the part of the Almighty, and one in poor taste at that, investing demons with occult powers whose use reminded them all too viscerally of the tumbling, traumatic investiture of said powers. Hell was damp by design. Unpleasantly damp, sure, they'd go in for that, it was Hell, but damp nonetheless.)
So when Crowley woke with stinging eyes in a smoke-filled room, the first thing he did was let out an instinctive, agonized yowl that no human vocal apparatus could possibly have produced. The second thing he did was manifest his wings and attempt to fly skywards, and the third thing he did was hit the ceiling at force.
When he finally staggered out into the streets, ichor streaming down his face, he couldn't even see Aaron's family home for the wall of flames before it. In desperation, he squeezed his eyes shut and felt for the familiar warmth of Aaron's desires, which tended to be happy, harmless things like wanting to make his wife smile or his son laugh. Perhaps the gem-cutter was trapped beneath a fallen lintel and Crowley would sense him desperately desiring aid; he had often rescued the Aziraphale from predicaments like that, and Aaron did remind him ever so much of the angel. But Crowley felt nothing from Aaron, nor from the merchant's daughter Adinah, nor from any of the other lambent hearts whose longings he'd grown so fondly accustomed to. What he did feel were darker desires stoked in unfamiliar breasts, burning hot and tall and angry, desires to burn, to kill, to excise. His stomach turned. He knew what a mob felt like, had run from that wave of emotion more than once in his time, in Canaan, in Sparta, in Flanders, sometimes alone and sometimes with others beside him (and, on one memorable occasion in Bethlehem, while clutching three infants to his chest, the first-born sons of parents who would rather their children flee with a demon than be sent prematurely to Heaven).
For the first time in his long life, Crowley experienced the horror of having overslept and missed something crucially important. He was too late. His luckiest neighbors had already fled, and he could smell the sickly, charred bodies of those who were too slow. With one last cry, he ran before the mob could catch sight of him, scrambling away under cover of darkness. Although he did not consciously intend to curse those from whom he fled, some of the men holding torches spend the rest of their lives waking from nightmares of that unearthly and echoing scream.
Crowley prowled the streets of the city until he could piece together what had happened. Apparently the English Jewry had committed the terrible offense of wishing the new King Richard well at his coronation. Crowley stared into the depths of the quiet Thames, mirrored stars dancing on its surface, and where once he might have found it a pretty sight, that night it did nothing for his sick heart, and he knew he must be rid of London for a time.
But where did one go when one had to quit the closest thing one had to a home? Crowley decided not to overthink it. He went where the angel had gone. He went to Liège.
It wasn't too hard to watch Aziraphale working the miracle, given that he went at it right in the public square as shamelessly as you please. The target was a rather dishy young Archdeacon named Albert de Louvain who practically reeked of holy portent. Crowley didn't scent a tremendous amount of piety from the man, but the cloying miasma of future sainthood was certainly there, coming off him in great sickening waves, along with a whiff of ozone Crowley thought was probably a causal backtrace from some violent martyrdom waiting in the docket. He winced. They always did like a lamb, Heaven.
De Louvain had slowed to watch a brace of acrobats, and Crowley rolled his eyes irritably as he felt shimmers of longing stirring in the man as he eyed the youths holding each other aloft with trembling arms. Leave it to a human to smut up his own moment of divine deliverance. It was a good thing Aziraphale couldn't sense these things, but Crowley felt embarrassed on the angel's behalf all the same.
Speaking of the angel, Crowley could see him drawing closer to de Louvain in the crowd that had gathered around the performers. He was trying very earnestly (and unconvincingly) to look casual as he crept toward the man. Even in as black a mood as Crowley was in, he had to batten down a helpless smile when he noticed that, though the fingers of the angel's right hand were curled into a symbol of holy benediction, in his left hand he grasped what looked to Crowley like a bag of salted nuts.
From the shadow of a melon cart, he drank in the sight the angel. Looking at Aziraphale, he felt as if he were something small and moist and grey, cowering in the tidal pools of the angel's eyes, or perhaps dashed against the shore by the waves of the angel's foam-white hair. He wasn't the kind of being made for gazing at angels. Even as his eyes lingered on Aziraphale's lips—pink as soft coral, as innermost shell—he warred with the hereditary instinct to cringe away, which rose steadily within him the longer he looked. He was an old hand at ignoring that impulse, but he never quite managed to make it go away. In this way, it always felt like a kind of madness to stare too long at Aziraphale. A purifying madness, maybe, but madness all the same.
Aziraphale was mouthing soft words now, and as pain lanced Crowley's ears even from several strides away, he knew the angel had to be speaking Enochian. Knowledge of that holiest language had burned from Crowley as he Fell, and its syllables, once melodic, now cut like pieces of glass. Crowley felt a trickle of moisture slide down the side of his neck and hoped it was ichor rather than the cerebrospinal fluid that would hearken discorporation.
Even so, it sounded dreadfully pretty beneath the wrongness of how it felt in his ears. It had been ages since he'd heard it last, booming from a manifestation of Michael that was doing its damnedest to smite him. Aziraphale had always prudently forbore from speaking Enochian in Crowley's presence just as Crowley himself refrained from Abyssal. But of course Aziraphale thought Crowley was back in London, and he couldn't blame the angel for wanting to flex his divine powers a bit in his absence.
The soft chanting had either ended or Crowley had gone numb to the pain of it; he couldn't be sure, as his ears were still ringing from the initial onslaught and would probably continue to do so for some hours hence. De Louvain hadn't noticed Aziraphale yet. Nobody had but Crowley. Enochian was quite outside the range of human hearing.
The angel did, however, draw eyes when he slowly raised his right arm behind de Louvain's head. Glowing shocks of light began to rapidly spark from the angel's extended hand onto the Archdeacon. Certainly taking it past jocular little finger-snaps today, that was for sure. De Louvain shivered and furrowed his brow, clearly feeling the momentum building and locating it behind him. Had he been quicker to turn around, he may have even gotten a good look at Aziraphale's face. But in the next moment Crowley saw the angel's eyes flick skyward and the details of the scene dissolved under a hot flash of light. The immaterial plane seemed to rupture, holy energy veritably sloshing out, crashing over De Louvain with the force of the wave. The man crumpled under the rush of divine ecstasy, moaning weakly. The rest of the crowd, too, was getting some splash-back, judging from the cries ringing out, the sudden gasps. It wasn't a literal wave, of course, but all the same Crowley reckoned he'd better get farther away before he was spattered up to the shins with it. He was just leaping back when it hit him, just the edges and atomized traces of it. Internally, he cycled rapidly between awe, fear, pain, and rapture. He honestly thought he might throw up. Instead, he ended up biting straight through his lower lip, having overlooked the sudden sharpening of his teeth into fangs.
"G— Sat— somebody," the demon blessed from his hiding place behind the melon cart as the bottom-most acrobat promptly dropped his sister onto her face.
Crowley thought that De Louvain must have been pretty low on divine grace for a predestined saint if he needed such a whopper of an angelic booster shot. Aziraphale wasn't usually the type to bring a cannon to a gunfight. Just Crowley's luck that the one time the angel did, there Crowley had been, playing voyeur in the fresh produce section.
Crowley spent the bulk of the next couple of days in recovery, so to speak. He had shifted into his snake form almost immediately after Aziraphale's doozy of a miracle and slithered up a drain pipe onto a roof of burnished copper. There, he waited in the warmth of the sun for the ringing to dissipate, the spots in his vision to subside. He had the alarming sensation that he was fizzling apart particle by particle. He decided to sleep on it. He hoped he wouldn't wake up as half-evaporated arcane smudge, sure, but if that was what was happening then he definitely didn't plan to be conscious for it.
After the first night his sensory organs seemed to have stuttered back to more or less working order. He was also tentatively of the belief that his ears had stopped bleeding, although snakes didn't properly have ears, did they, so he'd have to change back to be certain. He gave it another twelve hours or so to be on the safe side and then reverted to his normal, bipedal corporation. He still felt damnably tingly, but from what he could tell everything was intact and in the right place.
He thought he may as well catch Aziraphale's temptation while he was here shadowing him like some kind of lunatic stalker. He was sure he hadn't missed it while convalescing; Aziraphale always liked to pad out these trips with hunting for antiques, books, and other mundane little knick-knacks. It was a proper part of the routine for Aziraphale, from what he'd told Crowley. He'd do one intervention, ethereal or occult, have a bit of a holiday, and finish off with the other before popping back to England for tea.
Crowley had decided that, if you thought about it, it probably counted as due diligence on his part to chase down Aziraphale and spy on the temptation. He had to make sure the angel made a proper go at it, didn't he? Didn't cut corners just because it wasn't going into his side's ledger book. Right smart idea, really, checking up on the angel, when you thought about it like that.
When he needed to find a particular human, Crowley went about it by sifting through the ambient desires until he landed on one with their particular, well, themness attached to it. When he needed to find Aziraphale, he did sort of the opposite. He projected himself across the geography of human want and looked for an absence. The angel appeared as a very distinctive lacuna in his demonic senses, a region of space that he couldn't canvass. Perhaps one that he wasn't allowed to. Whatever it was, it made finding him easy, at least, and anyway, who wanted to hear Aziraphale endlessly desiring snuffboxes and little cakes? (And if sometimes the angel looked at him like he was a little cake? And if sometimes that did make Crowley hungry for just a tad more insight into the content of the angel's desires? Nothing for it, really.)
So Crowley drifted his mind across the streets of Liège until he hit upon the blip of Retricted Access, Employees Only. And then he sought it out. He was rather eager, after having been practically flayed apart by the angel's goodness, to see what evil Aziraphale might now do in turn.
He found Aziraphale striding across the well-kept grounds of a large estate, clearly one that belonged to a family of considerable means. He wrung himself back into the body of a snake, purposely going for a rather small one, and kept to the cover of the larger plants as he followed the angel. Birds, mice, and insects fled the grounds as one in his wake, flying, skittering, and swarming towards the neighboring estates in the manner to which their respective forms were best suited. Several nearby groundskeepers endured palpitations, but Aziraphale, bless him, remained unaware. He was always fussing over human things, the angel, never noticing the natural. Crowley had 'forgotten' a particularly lovely potted orchid in a prominent place in Aziraphale's lodgings once and the plant had died before the angel had even properly noticed it was there. Crowley found Aziraphale's obliviousness to the natural world exasperating (although he was sure Aziraphale felt the same way about his own antipathy for the written word). But frustrating though Aziraphale could be in this respect, if it meant he didn't notice as the creatures of the Earth escaped his demonic vicinity, he'd gladly press the advantage.
Things got a bit more complicated when Aziraphale entered the home proper, where Crowley suspected even a modest snake might easily draw unwelcome notice from the household staff. Nonetheless, he followed, keeping to the shadows as he pursued the angel through the halls.
There were a great many people in the large house and Crowley wasn't sure which one of them Aziraphale was here to tempt.
You see, Crowley tended not to actually read his own infernal assignments (beyond their designated locations) until he knew for sure he'd be carrying them out rather than trading them off to the angel under the auspices of the Arrangement. This had been standing operating practice since he'd sent Aziraphale off to perform a spot of lust in the ninth century and found himself rather sick over the whole thing, or at least unpleasantly preoccupied with it. On Aziraphale's return, he'd asked if they might adopt a policy of "don't tempt and tell" for future missions, not that he cared, really, but the angel probably didn't want to hear about all of the salacious things Crowley did, did he, so best they just—
"But, my dear boy!" Aziraphale had wailed. "I quite enjoy us trading tales, really I do! It's helpful, is what it is. That caper of yours with the veil dance and the carpet viper, for instance? I found that one jolly inspiring starting out. Although I dare say you're a touch better at moving your—"
"No, no," Crowley moved frantically to cut him off. "Angel, I absolutely insist." His face felt quite hot.
Aziraphale gave him a wry look. "On second thought, perhaps you're right, my dear. Best I guard my virtue. Quite right. Some luncheon?"
Fresh fish and cool wine had fast smoothed over any lingering awkwardness over the ordeal. And if Ivar Ragnar'son later became known as Ivar the Boneless due to the mysteriously sudden onset of impotence? Well. Aziraphale didn't need to know that.
In the halls of the mansion, Crowley saw Aziraphale slow his pace. The angel shouldered open a large door, which, as it was carved with all the Stations of the Cross, Crowley was sure he wouldn't have been able to touch.
His ambition to slither stealthily into the room was hastily discarded when he realized the damned place was a chapel of all things, which at least explained the door. Crowley decided not to opt for ringside seats at this particular working. Best not to push his luck after the whole bleeding ears thing.
Thankfully, the door's clearance was such that he could just manage to slip his tiny snout under the door frame, both without touching the underside of the actual door—which would have burned—and without pushing his head far enough to count as being within the room proper—which would also have burned.
He expected the chapel would be opulent, but it was rather dingy, not at all like the rest of the grand house. There were some conspicuously empty places on the wall where religious iconography had likely been recently pulled down, which hinted at the presence of some genuine ascetic zeal. Indeed, the overall impression Crowley got was of a monk's cell, and not one of those cushy Benedictine jobs either. No, this was a cell with gravitas, somewhere even the grumpiest Cistercian would have been well pleased to scratch his lice and go without dinner.
Crowley's immediate assumption was that the house had its own live-in hermit, which was a fashionable form of patronage in some quarters, being particularly popular with those who weren't keen to do much religious contemplation themselves and preferred to score partial credit by outsourcing. A kept hermit was a plausible target for a temptation, and perhaps even a just one. As far as Crowley was concerned, they were mostly great phonies, the hermits who kitted up in comfortable manors. Perhaps the angel would enjoy exposing that kind of hypocrite. (On the other hand, Crowley sometimes thought that the angel veered a little too closely to being that kind of hypocrite himself, so perhaps the angel would not.)
Crowley indulged in a little fantasy of Aziraphale and the sham hermit robbing the lord's wine cellar of its best vintages, which quickly morphed into a fantasy about him and Aziraphale enjoying said vintages, the hermit now relegated offstage to occupy himself with some of the inferior bottles. But he was shaken from his reverie as his eyes further adjusted to the darkness and he made out who Aziraphale had come here to meet.
What was a— a barely prepubescent girl doing in sackcloth of all things? The girl was so pale and underfed she looked like a specter. Crowley reached out to her with his infernal senses and recoiled. The girl was absolutely wrecked with a hunger for bread that was only surpassed by an even more piercing desire for heavenly grace. What the absolute fuck? Was this what parenting in the Low Countries was coming to? He grimaced.