They settled into the caldarium. Crowley hadn’t been so comfortable in two thousand years: replete with oysters (“These, and these, I think, you should be able to taste well enough.”), buzzed with wine and conversation (“The smoked lenses are so ingenious! Tell me all about the human who made them for you!”), skin and muscles stretched and scraped and kneaded to within an inch of falling off (“You won’t believe the relief from skin hunger you didn’t know you’d accumulated!”), enough humans around to shield a bubble of intimacy from the wandering eyes of Hell; and, most of all, Aziraphale, doing things he actively wanted to do, relaxed and bright-eyed and chirpy as he had been in the youth of the world. As if the Flood and Sodom; centuries of estrangement and avoidance; the long dance they’d woven through Europe, never quite meeting and yet never losing touch; the exhausted horror of meeting again, at last, at a crucifixion, had been nothing more than fitful nightmares.
The humid heat twisted Aziraphale’s hair into tight curls and seemed to coax heavenly radiance to the verge of bursting through his skin. The blue eyes that haunted Crowley’s best dreams gained new smile lines as they met his gaze. The Do Not Cross Line, which sometimes extended to a radius of a mile or more, had shrunk like a wool garment, to a hand’s breadth. Less. He should stretch out in the sunshine of this meeting, bask in it, not risk cutting it short. Keep his mouth shut.
“You’re looking good,” Crowley said, in the fluid amalgam of Gallic dialects they’d spontaneously developed to maintain privacy amid the polyglot crowds of Rome.
“Really? Thank you! You’re the only one who approves of this corpus.”
“Look around you, angel. At least three of these humans are wishing me to the outer reaches of the Empire so they could move in on you.” That one over there, in particular; Crowley gave him a shot of the old Evil Yellow Eye and shifted to block his view. He’d already gotten used to the smoked lenses, and usually felt a little vulnerable without them; but right now this did not trouble him compared to the satisfaction of seeing that patrician pretty boy flinch.
“Oh, you base flatterer! They’re more likely to be wishing me away to clear the road to you.” Crowley nearly choked on that one, but Aziraphale didn’t seem to notice. “Sandalphon says I’m the only being in creation who could spend centuries traipsing from the Urals to the Pyrenees and still look like a second-rate merchant’s clerk.”
“Sandalphon has a mouth on him.”
“He does rather. I told him the exercise has nothing to do with anything. This body’s flexible enough, I could lie abed eating three roast pigs a day, and still look like one of those Greek athlete statues, but what would be the point? A modest corporation does the job so much better.”
“Modest is as modest does. You look prosperous enough when you’re dressed.”
Blue eyes rolled. “That’s Gabriel, pushing us to Look Our Best. I admit it’s nice not to be actively shabby unless I need to. And nobody pays attention to how much I eat when I have a belly to match. If I went around looking all skin and bones like you do, everybody’d wonder where I was putting it.”
“News for you, those three? Are wondering where you’re putting it, but they don’t mean food.”
That made Aziraphale flush, but he was also laughing. “I have not made nearly enough of an Effort to interest anyone here! You, on the other hand -“
“Shut up! I have not! Why are we talking about our corporations anyway? It’s no business of yours.”
“Oh, I like that, when you started it!”
“No, I didn’t! I only meant to say you were looking chipper for once and you went and took it wrong. Not that I’m not happy to see you in the same old corporation and all.”
“Well. I have you to thank -“
“Shut it! You don’t.”
“Do you think I don’t know when you’re around?” He lowered volume and pitch. Amid the voices and splashing echoing off the tile, he would have been inaudible to any but demonic ears. “Do you think I don’t know how differently things might’ve gone in the Alps, or on the Danube, or -“
“All right, all right, but it doesn’t do to say so!”
“No one’s here but humans and they can’t possibly make sense of this butchered hash of a language. The risk was in the doing, not in my speaking of it.”
“Yeah, well, they’re both rissks, only one is a rissk I choose and the other issn’t.”
That went home. Crowley was terrified that he’d ruined things (only a matter of time), but Aziraphale said: “Ah. I beg your pardon. It was rude of me to press.”
Crowley waved that aside. Let me see more of this ‘doing what I can see you want to do’ business and we’ll call it even. “S’all right, just - keep your perfect manners away from me, yeah?”
“As you wish.” Aziraphale leaned against the pool’s edge, letting his feet float till the toes peeked above the surface. “If I’m chipper, you seemed a tad morose when we met. I would be interested to hear why, if you need a sympathetic ear.”
“I’m always morose.”
“You are not. And as far as I can tell, today has been a perfectly ordinary day in Rome, if you don’t mind some rain. No divine wrath as far as the eye can see. A fair amount of human-on-human nastiness, including some horrific systematized cruelties which I don’t expect you enjoy, but it doesn’t normally bother you to see that your work is proceeding well.”
“My work!” Crowley barked a mirthless laugh. “My work’s going nowhere! I’m here on a specific assignment. Getting a lot of them lately. Ooh, Crawly - they keep calling me Crawly; I need to break some heads open and cut my new name into them - here’s a plum deal, lots of demons panting after it. Go tempt the Emperor of Rome. Work your magic and come up with something that’ll make the angels weep. So I was all night last night at that never-ending orgy of an Imperial Palace, and you know what I found?”
“Well. I presume you found Caligula.”
“Damn straight I did! The man would make Ligur weep! Probably not Hastur. Hastur wouldn’t be able to wrap his head around most of it. Dagon, though, she’d have a panic attack. And Beelzebub’d have some choice words about his administrative practices, let me tell you! I’m supposed to be the greatest tempter the earth has ever seen and I am completely redundant in the Imperial Palace!”
Aziraphale pondered this rant in a winelike glow of Wanting to be Helpful, gazing at the mosaic on the ceiling and thrusting out his lower lip. Crowley watched the process in sybaritic delight; and then the eyes came down to meet his. “But surely that means you can spend the next year or so enjoying yourself and ignoring the assignment? Possibly take one of your long naps?”
Crowley ran the speech through his head again. “Angel. Did you just Tempt me to Sloth?”
“Don’t be silly. You’re already slothful. You can hardly Fall further.” A look of alarm. “You can’t, can you?”
“Well, then. My job is guarding the humans. You can’t tempt them if you’re asleep. I don’t see a down side for you. Even if Hell checks up, tell them you were resting from your labors and take them over to the Palace to see for themselves.”
Crowley thought he might die of enjoyment. “Look at you, all wide-eyed innocence! I swear butter wouldn’t melt in that mouth!” It was the only thing that wouldn’t. “You want me to slack off my job so you can slack off yours.”
“Nonsense. You’ll wake up with a head full of new ideas. I always have to work twice as hard for a year or two after you’ve been asleep. Anyway, sleep’s only one thing you can do. Rome’s a big city. Always something going on.”
Don’t push it, don’t push - “So is this an invitation?”
“No! Not - exactly. I mean, not at all, not as such, only -“ He made a helpless gesture. “Why did you walk into that tavern?”
Because you were in it and I felt so low, eviscerating myself on the sight of you leaving when you saw me felt like an improvement. “Since when do I need a reason?”
Aziraphale Looked at him.
All right, all right, bring out a partial truth. “I was in a bad mood and wanted to get terribly drunk on something terrible.”
“Every alternate business on that street is a tavern and most of them sell even worse alcohol. So how did you wind up in the one where I’d just finished up a blessing?”
“Not with us. Not since Jerusalem. You always know where I am.”
“What, you think I didn’t notice that our dance across Europe was as much you following me as it was me being assigned to keep you in order?” Aziraphale’s eyes darted around the room, although no whiff of supernatural presence, outside their own, troubled the air. “You were admirably discreet, but I know you.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t exactly go around hiding your light under a bushel, do you?” Crowley licked his lips, but they were still dry. “I don’t know what you want me to say here.”
“The truth is always best.”
Not in this case. He might not be able to let well alone, but he knew better than to speak his heart aloud and get it swamped by the outflow of disbelief, horror, pity - each possible reaction worse than the others. He shrugged.
“You’ve managed to avoid being in the same room with me in places that only contained one room, yet we happen to run into each other casually in Rome. I want to know. What’s different today?”
Great, he’s turning mulish. “I was just - sick of it all, today. Got half-blinded by your blasted radiance from out on the street and thought, You know, he doesn’t own the whole damn Earth, he can avoid me for once. And then - you didn’t.” He cocked his head, refusing to be the first to look away. If he wrecked this, he wrecked it, that was his nature, and the desire on Aziraphale was so, so - he wanted to fix something, something that lay between them, but what could he imagine was fixable? “I should be the one asking you. What’s different today?”
“Don’t you think I might be sick of it, too?”
“You’ve bulled your way through plenty of things you were sick of.”
“Well, this time, I didn’t.”
I won’t start babbling. I will not.
When Aziraphale eventually continued, it was in a tone suitable for discussing the weather. “Do you remember, you asked me once, who took care of me?”
Crowley swallowed. He had reviewed that conversation many times in the light of his accession of self-knowledge in Jerusalem, and wished each time that he had not. “I say a lot of things.”
“I recall it vividly. I replied that God and the other angels did, and you committed some cutting blasphemy that - look.” For the first time since they settled into oysters, Aziraphale started talking with his hands. “Obviously, God takes care of me and everybody else.” Crowley bit his tongue to keep it still. “But it’s a huge part of Her plan that we all take care of each other. And, without any malice and with, with all the best intentions and in complete confidence that they were doing what was best for everyone, including me - head office has sent me, since Jerusalem, on 1,372 assignments on which there was a measurable chance of discorporation.” Crowley tasted blood. “During that time, my miracle budget -“
“You didn’t think I got by on my own personal reserve, did you? We all have miracle budgets, dependent on - oh, all sorts of factors. I’ve never had a chance to study the math. That’s all done in Accounting. All I know is that the amount of power I can access has been reduced twice during this period. Nor have I ever received assistance in the form of personnel during a dangerous mission, though to be fair I never requested it except during that pestilence in the Lowlands.”
“You didn’t get it then, either.”
“No, I - no. For perfectly sound reasons.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so and I don’t want to hear any of your slick arguments on the subject.” His hand splatted against water.
Crowley held up his own hands in surrender. “Not arguing. Just waiting for the point.”
“The point is, one of the points, the fact - I recently, some years ago, I learned that there’s a betting pool. I understand it’s, it builds camaraderie and releases tensions and is, is a great compliment.”
He’d have to bite his tongue right off! “On when -“
“When and how I’ll finally discorporate, yes. Sandalphon holds the stakes.” Aziraphale’s smile was shaky. “I’m, I’m happy to report that the number of punters on ‘the end of the world’ is not negligible. However, a practical side effect of this, this -“
“Yes, thank you, don’t know what’s the matter with my tongue, couldn’t find the word again. If someone answers a distress call concerning a prospect of my discorporation, rather than, than actual destruction or some clear and present threat to Heaven, that would be, in effect, cheating on the pool. So there’s not any real point to my calling. Except that, well, you know.”
That I would hear it too.
“Nobody else understands, you see. They’re, they’re proud of me. I think a lot of them know - not officially, but in a general way - about the prospect of getting the wings back, and they want me to have that reward and - there’s not anything I can say to that. They’re not capable of understanding and that’s, that’s not their fault.” He laughed a nervous little laugh. “While you, well, it’s the opposite with you, isn’t it?”
One thousand three hundred seventy-two. Those bastards had tried to murder him one thousand three hundred seventy-two times in the last thousand years and he was making excuses for them! Crowley hadn’t helped him out anything like that many times - a dozen, two dozen, who was counting? The rest Aziraphale had sidestepped or gotten himself out of one way or another, and no more harm done than the grinding wear of knowing that his so-called friends were on the sidelines cheering for him to lose.
“And this is, I can’t - we can’t be friends, but we’re also not - there’s a business level and a personal level and we can’t afford to mix them up but, but pretending only one level exists, that’s not, not viable in the long run and -“ Aziraphale shrugged, a helpless gesture almost intolerable in someone so patently the opposite of helpless. “I’ve missed you. And I have to ask - who takes care of you?”
Oh, no you don’t. Shut this one down. “I do. That’s enough.”
“Has to be.”
“You wouldn’t accept that answer from me, so I don’t see why I should accept it from you.” Aziraphale folded his arms and jerked his chin, certain of his ground.
“Try, because I’m a demon and that’s how demons are. Nobody takes care of anybody. It’s one big status contest down there.”
“Oh? Who are you in competition with?”
“I don’t have to compete. I’m Satan’s little pet snake, up here running around loose with all the plum assignments.” Damn, that was supposed to sound breezy, and it...really didn’t.
Aziraphale caught the misstep, and pressed his advantage. “So you’ve got the back with the biggest target on it?”
Time to shift the ground. “You still haven’t told me why you’re in such a good mood. Heaven’s out for your hide, you’re stationed in a city ruled by what I sincerely hope is the most sinful human on Earth, and the last time I saw you - which wasn’t that long ago - you were wretched. But today you’ve been twinkling.”
“The last time you saw me, we were both wretched. But three days later - everything changed, didn’t it?”
Crowley grimaced, partly to cover the weird fluttery thing that happened inside him as Aziraphale leaned forward, arms loose again, looking like the first flush of dawn. “If you mean the rules changing on us, without any warning - it’ll take a long time for Hell to get over that.”
“Not entirely without warning. You met him. You knew what he was like.”
“Yes, but I didn’t have any context, did I? You might’ve given me a head’s up.”
“I didn’t know!” He was beyond twinkling, a damp miniature sun with a penumbra of white-hot curls. “Even Gabriel didn’t! This one was played incredibly close to the vest! We knew something was up, something big, but almost all the instructions we got were so last minute! Gabriel made a complete hash of announcing the coming birth of the Baptist, and he’s still cross about it!”
Put away that dimple, do you want to kill me? Be cool, be cool, be cool. “What happened with that? All I heard was he struck some poor sod dumb for nine months.”
Aziraphale covered a giggle. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t - you see, he was told - directly by God, by the way, first time that’s happened in centuries - to deliver a message to a certain priest of the Temple, so he shows up, in the Temple, dressed in the most impressive, authoritative robes he could envision - which happened to be a toga that matched his preferred corporation’s eyes. Which are violet.”
Crowley slapped his forehead and burst out laughing. “An Imperial toga? In the Temple? Oh. Oh, that is so - I’m sorry, I cannot keep that one to myself, it’ll be all over Hell in a week!”
“Just so you don’t say where you heard it! Never mind, I know you wouldn’t. Well, naturally Zacharias - the priest - was skeptical, and a bit hostile, and had all sorts of questions, which Gabriel simply didn’t have the answers to. But he was afraid if he vanished without convincing Zacharias of the truth of the message, everything would go wrong. So he struck the poor man dumb till the child was born.”
“So he couldn’t ask questions, yeah, I get it. What an idiot!”
“Please don’t talk about my boss that way,” said Aziraphale, trying to contain his own laughter. “Then Sandalphon, who’d tried to talk him out of the toga, was so much at his wits end, when the instructions came to tell poor Mary what she was in for, and Gabriel was all set to make the same mistake all over -“
“He absolutely refused to admit that the problem was the outfit! He kept saying: But it’s the garb of Authority down there! Even Uriel couldn’t talk him round. Raphael kept saying it was none of her business, Michael wasn’t - well, let’s just say they have far too many interdepartmental disagreements for her to be the best person to persuade him of anything. And very few angels of any rank are willing to contradict him. Sandalphon was in a tizzy, which is why he personally snatched me out of Trier in the middle of breakfast.”
“Why you?” Because Gabriel fancies him, hissed Crowley’s own voice in his own ear; but it didn’t matter, because Aziraphale didn’t fancy Gabriel, at all. “You were centuries behind on Judean fashion by then.”
“Desperation, I think. Couldn’t think of anybody else who had a shot. Gabriel is apparently ready to assume I’m the expert on Earthly minutiae. And having fresh eyes on the problem must’ve given me the edge, because when he made that ‘garb of authority’ argument I countered, ‘But it’s the garb of secular authority, and you’re bringing a religious message.’ That got through to him, and we did him up as a rabbi. A very (giggle) stylish rabbi! And he still scared the poor girl half to death. She didn’t calm down till I managed to approach her in a female aspect and suggest she go visit her cousin - Zacharias’s wife - and talk to somebody else who was having an unexpected pregnancy, and that, thank goodness, turned out to be the right thing to do.”
Of course it was. “If Gabriel had the sense God gave a goat’s bladder he’d have put you in charge.”
“Nonsense. Announcements have always been his responsibility. Naturally he didn’t delegate this one.”
“Big flashy jobs, wouldn’t miss them.”
“Must you always think the worst of everyone?”
Not of everyone. Crowley pointed to his own eyes. “Yup. In the job description.”
“You’re off the clock!” Aziraphale wiggled. “Anyway, after that I became the official Angel on the Ground for the project, not that any of us had any but the vaguest idea of what the project was, till we got the instructions for the birth announcement. I didn’t do much, just kept eyes on things, you know. And I was explicitly pulled off during the sojourn in the wilderness, which would be when you took him on your tour of the kingdoms of the world. Hell needed a fair shot at him, apparently.”
“Bastard move, if you ask me. I could’ve killed him.”
“But you didn’t. You wouldn’t.”
“Not directly, no, but - I tempted him to some dangerous things while he lacked angelic backup. Hell didn’t know what it was about, but the pressure was on. I was told to do my worst, and if I didn’t, all the worse for me.”
“Was it all the worse for you?” Aziraphale fluttered his eyes in concern, which made Crowley’s stupid heart do stupid melty things all over his sternum.
Crowley shrugged. “Nothing out of the ordinary.” What, after all, are a few layers of skin, to a serpent? “I felt bad for the kid, even then, though. Something smelled off about the whole setup.”
“We all vaguely expected revolution and holy kingship, so you can imagine what a shock it was to be told not to interfere with the betrayal and crucifixion. Which is why I was so glum when I ran into you.” He deflated a bit. “I’m sorry I was short with you.”
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t the soul of politeness myself, was I? I figured it was more of the same cruel unreasonable ineffable crap, right up there with, with - well, never mind.” And it broke my heart to see it breaking your heart and you not lifting a finger to do anything about it!
“Yes, your opinions on the subject are well-known. But then - well, then!” Here comes the sun again. “Resurrection, and and all the rules are changed! Redemption’s an option on the table now! No more number-crunching and cutting our losses and, and all the accounting nonsense that led to the destruction of Sodom! Anybody can be saved, right up to the eleventh hour! Anybody!”
Crowley felt uneasy, and didn’t know why. “Theoretically! In practice, you don’t live like Caligula for ten twelfths of your life and then decide, Naw, changed my mind, virtue’s better.”
“No, my dear, but very few people are Caligula, thank goodness! And the waves from the event are still rippling out there!” He splashed the surface of the pool, illustratively. “The world as we know it is still in the process of changing! We have no idea what could happen, what could become possible!”
Still a demon, then? Aziraphale’s clumsy greeting echoed in Crowley’s head and that desire to help, to fix something, radiated from his angel’s glorious face. Crowley, half in hot water and half in hot air, felt cold and sick. “Anything.”
“Yes! Absolutely anything could be revealed as possible now!” Incandescent with well-meaning, all-loving, smug, Heavenly purpose, every shiny bit of it directed at Crowley, fix fix fix, it would burn his eyes out, it would burn his heart out -
“Maybe even sssaving a demon, eh? Maybe even fixxxing broken angels?” For the first time since that night in Jerusalem, Crowley crossed the Do Not Cross line, leaning into the suddenly bewildered face, close enough to bite with the fangs asserting themselves in his mouth. “Well I’ve got news for you, angel. I’m not broken. You can’t fixxxx me. I don’t need sssaving.”
Aziraphale’s expression changed from bewilderment to exasperation. “That’s not what I -“
“Don’t chop logic with me! I know what you meant! I can sssee what you want, you sssanctimoniouss git! And I’m ssso sssorry to have put you to the inconvenienccce of feeling indebted to sssssssomebody sssssso far beneath you -“
“You’re not -“
“But as you ssssaid yoursssself a long, long time ago, we don’t owe each other anything! Which is good for you because you don’t have a ssssssingle thing I need! You’re the one sssstruggling in a Heavenly trap you can’t even ssssseee!”
“Crowley, you’re making a scene.” Aziraphale, who should have been in panic mode by now, brought up a soft, strong, hand and placed it on Crowley’s sternum, and Crowley’s treacherous heart leaped to meet it even while the rest of him recoiled like a sensible injured snake.
“I don’t care!” He slapped the hand away, surged out of the pool, and strode to the door of the frigidarium regardless of who was in his way, ignoring the sound of Aziraphale indignantly (oh he had a nerve, being indignant!) scrambling and splashing after him, ignoring the attendant, slamming through into the next room, shoving some patriarch aside, plunging into the cold pool, and shifting, for the first time in years, to serpent.
It hurt to stretch those dormant muscles, but the physical pain and the shock of cold water made a welcome distraction from internal pain, and the terror in his wake sounded highly satisfying in the instant before the water cut it off. Shadows and roils of bubbles and absurd scrambling human legs gave way before him as he followed the water to the drain, shrinking all the way, till he was small enough to slip through the bars and into the lead pipe.
Aziraphale could follow, if he tried hard enough; but he was far too conscientious to do any such thing. He’d be occupied for half an hour or more, calming panicked humans, persuading them that no one had transformed into a snake in front of their eyes and then vanished. Which was good. The last thing he needed was an angel chasing him as a, as a fish or something, babbling reproaches or pleas or apologies or whatever he’d be babbling in the wake of his fleeing charity case -
Crowley hauled himself up a different pipe (startling an unfortunate slave) and slithered out to the street, rebuilding his standard male corpus to merge into the restless hordes of citizens, subjects, visitors, slaves, women, and children without fuss. He could go back and claim his lenses and brooch tomorrow, or miracle them to his hand, or something. They did not constitute reasons to go crawling back all squirming at your feetish and risk recapture in the gravity well of those damn eyes. He’d forgotten, in all the years of orbiting each other, how weak the eyes made him, how vulnerable to knives the angel - not his angel, never his angel - didn’t even know he wielded.
Fury carried him through jostling crowds like pumice on his nerves, all the way to the domus he’d rented in preparation for a term as Imperial Tempter. Fury got him through the door and across the courtyard, where the family of slaves he’d basically stolen from the market froze in the middle of miscellaneous mundane tasks, watching with the wary attention of people who do not yet know what a master’s foul mood means for them. He wanted to hole up in the storeroom and drink himself stupid, but he was a householder now and he had dignity dammit, so he pointed at the adult man - Gaius? - and snapped: “That wine that arrived yesterday. In the dining room. Now. All of it!”
Gaius bowed. “At once, sir.”
The dining room was barely furnished, a couple of couches and a low table and - soon - three amphorae of the most expensive vintage he could stomach. Gaius’s son brought in the paraphernalia of wine mixing, cups and water jars and a tray, and Crowley waved him away. “I’ve been mixing my own drinks since before Bacchus learned to dance. Dump it and go.” Looking relieved, the boy backed out of the room, leaving Crowley to unseal his own wine and dip it straight out with his cup. Mixing was for amateurs with livers.
He paced at first, wearing out the furious energy and getting down to the pain of knowing what Aziraphale thought of him. He’d sustained himself for centuries on “the best enemy an angel could hope for” and “the respect you deserve,” with “we know each other better than, than anyone else can,” but all the time, the angel’d been remembering Crowley as some poor broken crippled thing and now he had hope of raising him up, restoring him -
Restoring him to Heaven, of all places! To that bright cruel place full of bright cruel murderers, to the ranks of those who blithely plotted the death of their own most faithful drudge so they could graciously forgive him for the offense he hadn’t committed and magnanimously make him whole again so he could stop doing the work he loved - “He doesn’t want it done to him, so why why why does he want to do it to me?”
Because he’s whole and you’re broken, Crawly. Because he knows you better than you know yourself, but can’t accept that you’ll always be this hopeless worthless wreck of a halfhearted demon, this imposter, this lovesick mess -
“Shut up!” He yelled at himself, and got more wine.
He tried to sleep on a dining couch, but he’d slept too recently, going to ground straight from leaving Aziraphale to his dreadful duty of watching his divine charge die. He hadn’t expected the death to be so quick; had lain down for a quick nap and woken to pandemonium in Hell, a new set of rules, and the decision of his superiors to scapegoat him on the grounds of his failure to tempt a demigod. They didn’t care about the elapsed time, or the technical challenge presented by someone whose primary desire was to reconcile God and Creation. Half his time in the wilderness had been spent trying desperately to explain to the kid why it wouldn’t work; but Beelzebub and the Dark Council had simple tastes. Success, failure, that was all they cared about; and the envious hordes of Hell had taken all too much pleasure in the Serpent of Eden’s very first big failure.
Good thing he’d never let on that it was during those forty frustrating days he’d determined on his name change. It was hard enough enforcing that, without a bunch of baptism jokes.
He’d considered telling Aziraphale...good thing he hadn’t. Poor deluded angel’d probably interpret it as a sign of him wanting redemption. A thought which goaded him to fury all over again.
Fury was exhausting, though, and Wrath not a sin for which he had much affinity. By the time he finished the second amphora, he had worked all the way down through anger to self-pity and thence, naturally as breathing, to aching for Aziraphale’s coming disappointment. Crowley might be broken, but he knew how the world worked. How long would it take for that pigheaded angel to realize that the changes that excited him so were illusory? Humans would continue to sin because they wanted to, and the number rescued from Hell at the eleventh hour would never make up for the ones who didn’t see the point of repenting behaviors that had worked for them. Gradually the twinkle would fade from the blue eyes, and he would return to slogging away at blessing and thwarting, wearing himself out, alone in the world.
As Crowley was alone. What was he doing, eating Pride by himself in the dark, when his angel - yes, always his angel, though he would never be able to hold him - was actually willing to share space with him? Who cared about ulterior motives? They’d been having fun! Oysters, company, massages, lounging in baths - he’d been allowed to give Aziraphale what he wanted for a change, instead of watching him want all the simple natural things he wouldn’t let himself have, and been rewarded with multiple instances of a Smile that could compensate for any amount of trouble and pain. But no, Crowley had to dig too deep and throw everything away when he didn’t like what he dug up! Because he spoiled everything he approached.
The sun was high in the sky, and he was in the process of sobering up, when Gaius crept to the door of the dining room carrying something. Crowley waved him in. “Stop hovering! I don’t bite! What’s that, then?”
“A boy came to the door with a letter, and these,” said Gaius, holding out hands holding the smoked lenses, the snake brooch, and a scroll sealed in bright blue wax. “He’s waiting to see whether there’s a reply.”
“Jupiter’s left nut,” swore Crowley. “I’ve only lived here three days! How does he know my address already? Give it.” He took the items, donned the lenses (to Gaius’s visible relief, though Romans weren’t as antsy about snakes as Mesopotamians were), pinned the brooch, broke the seal, and unrolled the scroll.
And unrolled it. And unrolled it some more. Dang. Nobody wrote letters this long! The neat strokes of Aziraphale’s scribal hand marched in impenetrable columns across the parchment as he tried to absorb the gist, but messages and meanings jostled each other on their way to his mind: Listen. Let me help. Listen. My dear exasperating demon! Listen! I miss you. Listen! Listen! I needed you and you didn’t come. Listen! I’m afraid! Listen! I’m hopeful. Listen listen listen listen -
I needed you and you didn’t come? Crowley snarled to cover the fact that he was choking on his own heart, and let the scroll roll shut with a snap. “All right, take me to this boy.”
“I can bring him in.”
“No, I’m going out again. No telling when I’ll be back. Just - do what needs doing while I’m gone, hey?” You couldn’t live alone in this world, had to have servants or family or something, or people’d notice, but what exactly he was supposed to do with them if he wasn’t having a party he had no idea.
The boy waiting at the door was cleaner than boys often are, with dark brown skin that gleamed in the sun and big sloe eyes braced to defy anything from condescension to anger. “The man who gave you these things. Take me to him,” Crowley snapped.
“I’m supposed to wait to see if there’s an answer,” said the boy.
“There is, and it’s me going to see him. I’ll find him whether you take me or not, but if I do it on my own you don’t get paid again. Which wouldn’t be a hardship. He paid you twice what the errand’s worth, didn’t he?”
The boy grinned, showing off a missing tooth. “Dominus Aziraphale is a very nice man.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not, so look snippy.”
“He says you’re nice but don’t like to admit it and I am not to show fear. This will be easy, because I do not feel fear! It is an utter stranger to me! Let’s go!”
The boy set a stiff pace, and might have lost a being less accustomed to weaving through crowds, but Crowley kept up without breaking a sweat. “Aziraphale send you on many errands, does he?”
“Oh, yes! He knows I am trustworthy.”
“And how does he know that?”
“He owns the insula where we live! But he lives at the top, and lets my mother and sisters and me live on the ground floor, and pay as if we rented the room he lives in. So we are all grateful and would do anything he asks, even if he did not pay. But he always pays. My mother cooks for him and will make his clothes if he ever wears his out, but she says he’s so careful, she thinks she will die of old age before he does.”
“She might at that. Does he say why he lives on the top floor?”
“He says the light is better there, and it is silly for one man to live in three rooms when one will do, or for a family to live in one room, when three are available.” The boy side-eyed Crowley, and went on a fishing expedition. “We don’t know what happened to his family. My mother thinks he has lost them all, but I think he’s too cheerful for that.”
“Hmm. Your mother’s a widow, isn’t she?”
“Yes, and we have all been sad for a long time; only I’m cheerful, because I was so small when my father died.”
Crowley shook his head. “You tell your mother, Aziraphale has been chased by widows before, and it won’t work this time either.”
“She doesn’t chase him! She only feeds him!”
“I understand why she thinks that’s a good tactic, but it won’t work all the same.” They were passing through a market, so Crowley scooped up some fat dewy figs, still oozing thick white juice from their broken stems, and tossed money at the vendor.
The kid watched, noting the careless handling of cash. “You don’t have a family. Would cooking work on you?”
“Nope.” Crowley miracled up a napkin from his sleeve.
“Are you from the same country?”
“Nope.” He wrapped the figs.
“Are you in the same business?” The boy, seeing he had his purchase secure, led the way again.
“What business does he say he’s in?”
“He doesn’t say. But he has a lot of scrolls.”
“That tracks. Let’s say, we’re business rivals.”
“Will he be angry that I brought you instead of an answer?”
“Not at you.”
That seemed to satisfy the kid; at any rate he didn’t produce any more questions before stopping at an insula, four stories high and less rickety than its neighbors. Crowley stopped at the door. “I’m not climbing all that. Tell him I’ll be at that tavern across the way, there.”
The boy accepted the proffered half-denarius, nodding sagely. “My sister can’t walk straight, either, and she is always tired. It annoys her.”
“It’s an annoying thing,” agreed Crowley, going to sprawl in the open front of the tavern and order a jug and two cups. He spread the napkin in the middle of the little table, and stacked the figs on it. Temptingly. The scroll lay beside them.
He waited long enough for the nagging voice in his head to start in on what a fool he was; but then his angel trotted out the door of the insula with a smile so dazzling that the voice slunk away in shame. Aziraphale glanced up, then down, then darted across the street to give Crowley a kiss of greeting, and said, as he slid onto the waiting stool: “Figs, how thoughtful! Oh, dear, that scroll was supposed to burn itself up after being read.”
Crowley recovered from his sudden fugue of happiness enough to say: “I can’t read, angel.”
No one could look shocked and dismayed as adorably as Aziraphale. “Can’t - but that’s terrible! You should have told me!”
“We haven’t exactly been chummy since literacy became a thing.” Crowley pushed the scroll over to him. “Read it to me so I can decide whether I’m still mad at you or not.”
Aziraphale took his time eating a fig and letting his eyes say We both know the answer to that before unrolling the scroll. Crowley put up a bubble muffling the sound of the street and reducing their voices to a murmur to all ears but their own. “I could tell you -“
“Or, you could read it to my face like I asked.”
“All right, but be aware, I was feeling a bit stroppy myself as I wrote it. I’ve been fretting about that since it left my hands.”
Crowley, secure behind his lenses and aware that his angel never, ever allowed himself to be stroppy at anyone who wasn’t Crowley, grinned at him. Aziraphale tried to look stern, failed, cleared his throat, licked his lips, and read:
My esteemed exasperating adversary, stop being ridiculous and listen to me. Of course I know you’re not broken. You’re the only unbroken demon I’ve met! Though to be fair to demons, the only other ones I’ve met to speak to have been those I’ve exorcised, and one must be badly broken to go around possessing humans, much less bears. Those poor creatures have forgotten any higher purpose than tormenting others as they are tormented, and anything more pitiful is hard to imagine; whereas I would as soon pity a stalking lioness as you. Despite the sufferings heaped upon your head - and yes, I do know that you suffer in truth, when you are not violently overreacting to supposed slights - “Yes? Did you say something?”
Crowley gestured at him to go on.
- when you are not violently overreacting to supposed slights - you have never lost sight of the importance of your work in the overall scheme of things, nor allowed any amount of misery to lower you to cruelty. Your trials have not broken you. Mine, however, broke me.
Crowley choked on his drink. Aziraphale did not look up, staring down at the scroll and reading his own words as if they were someone else’s.
On the night of the day of which we spoke, I found myself alone outside the tomb where the charge I had been forbidden to help was, essentially, stored until his people could put him away properly. It was almost the Sabbath when he died, and there was no time to prepare the body beyond wrapping it up and tucking it away. Sabbath laws not applying to me, I considered performing that office myself, but I had no instructions, and recent frequent interactions with head office had left me reluctant, even frightened, to move without them. So I leaned against the stone blocking the tomb and worried all the events of the past three decades like a dog worrying a bone. My Grace felt small and cold within me. After a time I realized that I was waiting for you. But you - you didn’t come.
The falter shocked words out of Crowley’s throat. “I’m sorry! I was asleep. I didn’t know -“
Aziraphale plowed ahead.
You had no reason to. I was in no danger of discorporation and I was the one who discouraged personal contact to begin with. Blaming you would be a gross injustice, so you can stop that right now. (Aziraphale looked up pointedly.) The problem was not that you were not there, but that at some point during those centuries of crossing and recrossing Europe, working harder on exterior problems became my solution to all my interior problems, and the knowledge that you were out there caring about what happened to me became a comfort I didn’t realize I relied upon. But that night, I had no work to do and you weren’t there.
Crowley gripped the edge of the table. “If I had known, I would have been.”
Aziraphale raised his eyes, and Smiled. “I know that. It’s all right, truly. That Sabbath was very bad, but you must remember that I came out the other side.”
No thanks to me. I should have been there. I should have known he needed me, and been there. After a couple of false starts, he said: “Go on then.”
And so, I broke. A peculiar feeling, distinct and pervasive, involving organs I didn’t even have at the time. You are about to snort ungraciously, but it can only be by the grace of God that I didn’t Fall.
Crowley snorted ungraciously. She wasn’t paying attention, more like!
If there is a greater despair than what I felt that night, and in particular if you are walking around in such despair daily, then I can only be grateful I didn’t sink any further, and hope to occasionally be the instrument of alleviating it in you.
“I’m not walking around in despair! Make your mind easy. Cynicism is much pleasanter.”
I felt continually that I couldn’t bear another moment of existence, and yet the moments kept coming. Nor did there seem to be any reason for anything to change. But the great thing about Earth is - eventually, something always changes. In this case, I heard movement inside the tomb, and a voice asking if anyone was there. So I rolled the stone aside, and there he was! Alive and well! Give or take a wound, which didn’t trouble him. Gabriel was supposed to be with him, which would have rendered me superfluous; but he’d been giving a speech about the new rules, so my charge, bored, had come on ahead. And he was glad to see me! He’d noticed my presence for years without having a good chance to speak. He also saw how shattered I was, and having been similarly shattered himself not long before, and being now flush with joy at having carried his point with his Mother, he knew exactly how to start putting me back together.
We talked about you, too. He liked you. Sneer all you wish -
“I’m not sneering, just got something in my teeth.”
“What, wine fumes? You haven’t eaten a bite today, have you?”
“I ate enough oysters yesterday to last me a year! You can skip the sanctimonious parts of the letter, if you like.”
“How would I ever know I was being sanctimonious, if you didn’t tell me?” The Smile had a mischievous edge this time. Crowley snarled at him, unconvincingly, to get on with it.
Sneer all you wish, but he could tell you’d worried about him during the temptation. That in your own way, given your premises, you tried to help. Never fear, this letter will burn within moments of you finishing it. I would never forgive myself if anything I said or did led Hell to take out its wrath on you. Fear of being a cause of suffering to you has been, from the moment I first attempted our separation, as much a motivating factor for me as the fear that your influence would make me a less effective angel. These are both legitimate fears. But there are legitimate results to fear from not associating with you, too. I am always frightened for you.
I broke because I had given myself away till I had nothing left but bare existence. Because I didn’t take care of myself, and held myself aloof from the only other being equipped to help me. Though your work is fundamentally different from mine, and in many ways you are stronger as well as more clever --
Crowley shifted uncomfortably. “Laying it on a bit thick, there. This is all news to me.”
- and better at taking care of yourself, deep reserves are not inexhaustible. Should you exhaust yours, the likelihood that a newly-resurrected demigod will be on hand to help you is small at best. Short of treason to Heaven and my own nature, I would do anything in my, still rather fragile, power to preserve you unbroken. For what that’s worth! I’m still learning to take care of myself, and don’t delude myself that my experience with humans will translate well to you. But if you need me - please. Let me help. Don’t presume I can’t or won’t or that you will always be strong enough not to need anything from me. No one is that strong, forever.
That we cannot, ultimately, be friends in any usual sense, and that we cannot expect anyone on either of our sides to condone our association, makes everything exponentially harder. But we also cannot, except in the broadest strokes, know what’s going to happen. Some day, per the Great Plan, the Great War will resume, with us on opposite sides, and on that day we will each do our duty. But it is not necessarily true that our duty will, on that day, be what we now expect. I don’t know what you see when you look at me, but if your demonic senses show me wanting to change you, they lie. The reason I brought up Redemption was not that I want to make you fit for Heaven again, as if you could ever be happy there; but that if rules can change for humans, they can change for demons, or for angels, and Heaven can change, and maybe Hell can, too. If we can only sustain each other, long enough, who knows where that would leave us?
Crowley heard the hopeful quaver in the voice, and groaned. “That won’t happen!”
“Then maybe something even better will.”
“If you say it’s ineffable I’m going straight home.”
“I have no intention of saying any such thing. I know better. I also know you never went straight anywhere in your existence.”
“Making fun of my corporation’s limitations now, are we?”
“Making fun of you is an important part of taking care of myself.” Aziraphale paused, long enough for Crowley to pretend to be disgusted at him, to eat another fig. “Some things we must agree to disagree on, and that’s fine. We’re almost done with this now.”
“All right, finish it. The sooner it burns, the better.”
That’s what I was trying to lead up to when you overreacted and left such a mess for me to clean up. I had forgotten how dramatic you can be. You’ll be pleased to know you were right about one of our fellows in the caldarium, by the way. He thought he’d witnessed a lovers’ quarrel and swooped in hoping to take advantage of it. I’m afraid he made such a pest of himself I threw him into the frigidarium. Anyway, I have no intention of leaving things between us in this state, but showing up at your domus would be asking for trouble.
I do not want to keep avoiding each other. If you are willing, we could work out rules of engagement, in some neutral and public place, soon. A playwright of my acquaintance has a show opening next week at the Theater Marcellus, if that sounds suitable to you? But you can always find me, in any case, and I rely on your discretion, so whatever you think best, o my most wily Serpent.
Aziraphale’s voice had barely ceased when the scroll went up in a quick, smokeless flame that caused a number of people to glance in their direction, shake their heads, and decide they’d caught the reflection of sunlight off the angel’s ring as he reached for another fig.
Crowley felt soft behind his lenses, processing this avalanche of information. Aziraphale waiting for him, in vain, as his soul bled out -! But it wouldn’t do to say - so many things. So he blurted out the first articulable thought that came to mind. “You know someone with a play at the Theater Marcellus? Isn’t that a big deal?”
Aziraphale wiggled. “He certainly feels it is, and hopes it will be the beginning of great things. There’s more to Rome than sinful emperors, you know.”
He did know. “Then lets just happen to both go to the same theater at the same time next week.”
“Very good, but first thing’s first!” Aziraphale leaned earnestly across the cups and figs, the light of purpose in his eyes, and Crowley knew that, whatever his angel was about to propose, from another trip to the baths to arranging escapes to Gaul for all of Caligula’s enemies, Crowley was about to agree to it. “When and where do I start teaching you to read?”