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Crowley Inadvertently Sets a Precedent

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Crowley slipped through streets lit by gas lamps, counting the steps from Saint Mary's Chapel as he went.  Ordinary looking houses and store fronts stood watchmen to this figure, clad in black, casually strolling through the night, his boots somehow soundless on the cobblestones.  Two hundred and forty nine casual looking steps later, he reached the mouth of a wide alleyway and turned in.  It was dark in here, for nobody lit alleyways with gas fixtures...and the dealings in this part of the city weren’t necessarily best viewed in light, however sallow.

Crowley didn’t mind the darkness, preferred it in fact.  He turned his gaze upward and took in the stars.  A view of the sky unmarred by cloud cover was a rarity this time of year, and he never tired of studying those far-flung points of light.  They shimmered in the heavens, some right where he’d placed them; relics of a long distant life.

Long distant indeed.  He turned his attention back to the wet, stinking alley and walked on.  What he was looking for was about halfway down, and only picked out because it glowed very faintly through the darkness.  So there was something here after all.  Crowley reached the glowing entrance to a little known warehouse and crept inside. Time to see if the rumors were true.  

A few moments later he was lifting the lid of a wooden box so newly constructed it still smelled of the forest.  And the old man had been right.  “Never seen anythin' like it.  When I didn’t run from him he flipped the damn thing around and tried ta hit me with it, so he did.” Crowley had been confused before, but not now....no, now he was grudgingly impressed. 

Look at that, they’ve been smelting metal for millennia already, but here’s yet another new thing they’ve come up with.  His finger slid along the length of cold steel, pausing only to marvel at the tiny imperfections in the surface.  Humans.  Constant innovators who strove for perfection and yet still produced imperfect work.  That they accepted this work despite its flaws was one of the fascinating things about them.  

The light in here was exceptionally dim.  Crowley hadn’t much use for conventional light anyway, preferring to miracle it when necessary, although it was hardly necessary anymore as he spent increasingly frequent nights in a cozily lit shop in Westminster.  Now, his mind on cocoa and the dry, acrid smell of ancient parchment, Crowley snapped his fingers.  A globe of muted light faded up from the darkness and hovered behind his head - where a halo might once have been.  He could immediately see that the object he’d been admiring was not alone, nor was it the only one with faults.  There were many wooden boxes here, filled with straw and these metal things, stacked on wooden shelves as tall as a man that ran in rows through the cramped warehouse.  

He hadn’t dared make the light as bright as it could have been, and so he couldn’t be sure just how far these shelves went.  Crowley browsed row after row of boxes, the light bobbing gently behind his head as he went.  Some of the objects inside, which he’d heard whispered to be named ‘guns,’ where very long.  Crowley looked these over and thought you could just as easily run the end of one of these through a man as anything else.  Others were small, stubby little things.  The rounded end of the smaller ones looked to be comfortable to hold.  That was also like humans - designing monstrous things to damage the world around them, and the other people in it, while affording the one wielding such atrocious weapons as much comfort as possible.  

Crowley lifted one of the smallest ones out of its box.  As expected, his palm molded itself around the grip, but he didn’t much care for the feel of it.  It was heavy and cold ... and strange.  He tried to get around this perception by reminding himself that gas lighting had also seemed strange, the steam engine had seemed to be a gift directly from God herself to humanity; only one born of infinite wisdom could have fitted it together.  A voice, not unlike an aristocratic bookshop owner, pipped up and offered  what about that genius paper-making machine?  All of these within this century, and all good examples, even if they had slightly differing impact on the human race individually.  Still, he thought, turning the gun over in his hands, this feels .... bigger than all of those somehow.

In the dim-dark, another door opened. Crowley dropped the gun and snapped his light out of existence, but he’d been spotted. “Oi there! So you think you can steal from us?” The tone was angry, his voice loud and gruff. “Fuckin’ brats comin’ in ‘ere, takin’ the sweat and blood we’ve given right out from under us.”

Crowley slipped back through the rows of wooden boxes, using the gruf speech as cover for his movement. “Make you lot pay, so I will. You’ll never steal so much as a bloody apple again when I’m done with you!”

Such a lot of noise coming from one person!  Although it made his progress through the warehouse easy to track, Crowley wondered what use such constant chatter was. He had always preferred to quietly stalk his prey and then strike.  Although, he reflected, carefully ducking his head to evade notice as he rounded another corner, his ‘prey’ these days consisted mainly of Aziraphale, and the ‘quick strike’ was more like his sudden appearance at the doorstep of the bookshop with an invitation to lunch, often just as Aziraphale was flipping the sign to ‘closed.’  

Maybe ‘strike’ is the wrong word, he contemplated while looking around the next box to gauge his stalker’s position.  Perhaps ‘stealthy slither’ would be a better turn of phrase. The sheer number of times he’d appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the angel’s life, whether to rescue or invite out for a meal, could only be attributed to living a bit of his own intentionally in Aziraphale’s periphery.

A loud, dull clacking snapped his attention solidly back to the present.  Crowley couldn’t recall hearing such a sound before and, while curious, he instinctively felt that anything new in this particular situation could only mean trouble.  He’d managed to slip all the way to the end of the last row of boxes and now the door he’d casually ducked through was in sight, not ten feet away.  Aziraphale’s voice sounded in his head, as it usually did when he was faced with an impossible choice.  Patience, dear boy, it said, just a whisper and then gone, but he was eager to slip back into the waiting night, and stepped out from the cover of boxes toward the door.  

Of course he didn’t have much trouble believing he would make it, what could the sweary guard do to him after all...shout him to death?  And so Crowley, although cautious, was not as stealthy as he should have been.  Perhaps ten feet from the door, the darkness of the small hours reaching to claim him from the odd brick and mortar building like a welcome friend, a loud noise rang throughout the building.  For a moment he swore he could feel heads below and above turn in his direction.  Something hot tugged at his palm and Crowley spun on the spot in shock and looked down.  Where there had been an ordinary, human shaped hand there was now a human shaped hand with an extraordinary, jaggedly shaped hole through it.  What the heaven...?  

He could hear almost nothing, like his ears had been wrapped in layers of cotton.  His hand appeared to have been dipped in paint, or at least that was the only thought that registered.  Through the muzzy auditory haze came a voice, “Right, then.” Crowley looked around and spied his adversary fiddling with a gun.  His hands performed a practiced action and then came the dull clacking once more, the alien language of gunmetal.  Crowley’s hand began to throb.  So that’s what they do, he thought.   “On yer way,” the guard finished, leveling the weapon at the intruder’s chest.   

There was nothing angry about the way he said it.  In fact he sounded oddly calm, like he’d simply been reciting a meditative phrase and not pronouncing death on another living creature. Some primal eons-old instinct stirred awake, standing the hairs at the back of Crowley’s neck on end. 

Run

The cold lightning of what might have been terror flashed down his back. He turned for the door and raced madly at it.  Every step felt like an eternity, perhaps one of God’s long days during creation, but he could feel the safety of night within reach.  

And then, oddly, that boom reverberated throughout the warehouse again - the shock of it thrilled through him.  The door he had been only steps away from now lurched violently in his vision.  Somewhere below his ribs pain erupted like a newly forming star.  The color of pain was red, for great quantities of redness leaked from him in time to the horrific stabbing ache.  What do I call this downstairs?  How the fuck do I fill out the ‘cause of death’ space on my 1756-B?  And then the pain spiraled out from his stomach in great waves.  They crashed over him like an ocean of deadly light, each breaker blinding him in time to his own heartbeat.  He felt divided by the relentless pounding of pain, first ripped from reality as each great swell landed, and then shoved violently back together again on receding.  

Between this intense shattering of self he could just glimpse the door, now at what seemed an impossible distance.  With the next wave of pain the opening didn’t so much grow as pop into a space three times as big.  In a last ditch effort at self preservation he’d reverted, instinctively, to snake form.  He tried a slither and gained marginal distance, a few inches at best.

Crowley pulled his muscles together then lengthened them, in defiance of the pain.   Progress came but the world around him dimmed with each inch gained.  Some still intact sense of awareness told him that the man was closing on him.  Every moment threatened to be his last conscious second on this earth, yet he struggled on toward the darkness.  The thought that he could miracle himself back together in the safety of some darkened doorway beyond beat him back into awareness each time the darkness crept in around him.

He finally pulled most of himself over the threshold of the warehouse door, almost broken. Chilled to his snake skeleton and shaking, Crowley prepared to drag his tail onto the cold Birmingham cobblestones.  One last, great effort to pull himself into a coil and he would be free.

Without warning the wide door slammed closed, the latch thrown down heavily ... but the door sat crookedly in its frame.  The last foot of his tail was firmly stuck.  The pain of a fractured spine, while excruciating, still could not eclipse all of his previous injuries.  Crowley closed his eyes.  

Trapped.

The word blazed to life, branded itself onto the backs of his eyelids - a great big sign marked in his hearts blood.  It flashed bright red with every strangled, flickering beat.

Panic began to unravel things inside of him wholly involuntarily.  Something nearing physical manifestation that ached;  a stitch, thick and stubborn, in the deepest part of him being torn away and flung into the encroaching dark.  All of the memories (white feathers flashing in a brand new sun), the feelings (the way grey green eyes had softened in Greece and had never seemed quite as uncompromisingly pious since), all of it, the life in him, being slowly crowded out by the nothing of death.

Later, much later when he can stand to look at it properly, he will find some comfort at having limited the panic to such a small portion of the experience. He will realize that this was largely down to reminding himself just as it was getting away from him that he is an immortal being, that this physical death would be temporary. 

But he still didn’t like it.. Oh he really didn’t like it at all

And then it began to fade. The panic seemed to grab the pain with one cold hand and the surprise with the other and retreat, bosom buddies at the last of it all. Crowley felt the weight of his being lessen.  

He seemed to flow away from his body and then... another surprise.  The steadfast belief that he would be drawn upward, toward the heavens, asserted itself.  But a heaviness wound its way around the middle of him and tugged, ever so slightly at first, downward.  

His last thought was brilliantly still, the cold bright light of the stars shining down on him. Make them and then never get to touch them again, is that it?  A few of them seemed to twinkle, as if recognizing their creator, but he was falling again already and their light stretched far out of sight.

For a while, perhaps a second, perhaps a century, nothing became everything.

Chapter Text

Fluorescent lights, bare and poorly fitted, flickered overhead.  The grueling gathering of contemporaries had slowly filed out of the meeting room, disbursing to unmentionable dark corners in the windowless office building that was Hell, save one. This figure now spoke clearly.

“This happened in Birmingham?”  The question echoed around the room. It was not intended to provoke, rather one of genuine curiosity.  

“Birmingham,” Crowley confirmed, folding long arms across his chest and leaning back against the wall.  He did not like being held after meetings, especially not post-discorporation debriefings, and particularly did not enjoy this extra scrutiny from a prince of hell.  All he wondered about since being ..well...re-incorporated...was whether his new nerve endings would translate the particular softness of the skin of Aziraphale’s palms the same way the old had.  

Not that the old suit had had many goes at it.  His fingers tingled.

Beelzebub sniffed.  “Gun quarter, you said?”  Air quotes were heavily implied.  Crowley nodded, choking on ‘hey, I didn’t name it...’ as it crawled up his throat.  It was not a small panic but he did his best to hide it.   

Beelzebub flicked a thin wing in an attempt to shake off her irritation with this whole situation. Guns felt too modern, too quick a way for humans to kill one another. How could one guarantee the dead would be damned? The prince didn’t see a future in it, but the plan to further introduce guns to humans had been granted instant approval.  The unearned favoritism stuck in her craw.  She did her best to reign in a sneer, reminding herself that even the best laid plans were not without risk.  After all if Crowley fucked it up it’d be his own wings on the chopping block.  This thought cheered her a little, although not overly much...she was still a prince of hell, after all.

The silence stretched out between them as Beelzebub reckoned with all she had heard.  “Gotta admit though,” Crowley smiled and rocked himself forward off the wall, starting toward the door.  “Quite efficient.”   Beelzebub narrowed her eyes.  

But he wasn’t phased by her ire, adopting an lilting, carefree tone as he strolled.  “Anyway, I don’t see what you’re worried about - eventually they’ll all be wiped off the face of the earth, won’t they?” His hand gripped the dirty metal doorknob and he murmured low, hoping she didn’t hear, “one way or another.”

“Quite convincing, you know…this little show you gave us.”  Her confident voice froze him to the spot.  He didn’t dare to turn and look at her.  Careful now, dear boy.  Oh good, so that hadn’t gone then.  “Not quite sure what you mean Lord Beelzebub.”  His tone was neutral.

“I’m supposed to believe this...’gun quarter’ was your idea?  That you organized it?  You?” She snorted derisively.  “Not bloody likely.”  The doorknob warmed under a palm suddenly slick with sweat. 

Her tone softened a little bit, a cat releasing its prey for one last run at the hole in the wall, and Crowley felt the dark presence shift behind him.  “Still…you made a convincing argument.  Well,”  here she paused for a second, eyes searching his back for any sign of stress,  “convincing enough to win back that body and your post on Earth anyway.”  His shoulders seemed to relax a little bit.  She hated him for the way he’d ingratiated himself to Satan, hated the fact that he didn’t even try to get in His good graces.  There was something infuriating about the ease with which he’d slithered up through the hierarchy of Hell.  But she did have to concede one point, the one point that perhaps impressed her and annoyed her the most.  “That tongue of yours, Crowley, could pick any moral lock, in Hell or up above, and I suppose that’s worth ...something, after all.”  

Crowley looked around, incredulous, but she had vanished.   The lights sputtered a final time and then finally, as the saying goes, gave up the ghost. 

As he rode the crowded lift back up to the ground floor he contemplated the privileges afforded Satan’s mouthpiece.  He wasn’t altogether sure being able to poof in and out of space was the best mode of travel, but it sure as hell beat suffering through mandatory stops at every floor.  Built in feature or flaw?  Well.  Who could tell the difference in hell anyway?

Back on the dismal London sidewalk, Crowley turned his boots in the direction of the bookshop.  As he walked, he thought long and hard about the introduction of guns into human society and whether or not they were ready to handle such things.  Sure the guard at the warehouse had only been able to get off two shots the whole time he’d given chase, but one of them had told.  He shook his head at the memory of it ripping through the meat of him.  The weight of it pushing him forward through space.

“For the love of Satan,” he growled, startling an elderly woman as he passed a bus stop, “you’d think they would have found a way to at least wipe your memory after discorporation!”

He willed the visions away, at considerable effort.  It felt a little like playing the events in fast motion...but at least he could skip the feeling of abandonment at the end.  He hadn’t felt such abject desolation since Falling and he wasn’t keen on reliving that particular emotion. The overwhelming feeling left was exhaustion.  He could, and probably should, intervene - ensure every gun manufactured had an inherent default making it incapable of firing.  Realistically however, that was a lot of effort for such a clunky weapon capable of such instant brutality.  It would likely render itself obsolete within a generation or two.  

Surely humans couldn’t go around ending lives so haphazardly, with such little thought or effort.

Surely they would see for themselves how immoral such an act could be.

Surely.

Aziraphale’s face was unreadable, or would have been to someone not acutely aware of the effort it cost the angel not to emote.  He carefully replaced a parchment manuscript with ‘The Modern Prometheus’ hand lettered across the front in fading ink on his desk before replying.   “There’s nothing sure about humans, what on Earth would make you think there would be?”

“Oh angel, I don’t know.” Crowley intoned, his body visibly sagging at the thought of rehashing this old argument again.  Humans and their free will.  He regretted very much bringing up the subject.  Sliding from the sofa arm down onto the couch proper, he attempted to make himself look as small as possible.  He was tired, and Aziraphale’s back room was warm.  As he sank further into the cushions he couldn’t help but imagine stretching out and closing his eyes.  A few minutes passed and he could feel himself drifting away, hardly believing his counterpart was letting him doze off but internally grateful at the unusual silence.

“At any rate,” Crowley cracked one eye in exasperation as Aziraphale sat down  across from him in a comfy looking armchair.  “I’ll have to report the invention of such nonsense…unless–Oh!” he finally noticed how relaxed his companion had become.  “Are you tired dear boy?”  Crowley made an indifferent noise low in his throat, but this didn’t fool the angel in the slightest. 

 “Yes, well,” Aziraphale continued in much more subdued, if slightly sardonic, tones, “as I was saying, I’ll have to make a report on this technological advancement.” Here the angel paused, uncertain for once how to phrase his question. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you had nothing to do with it?” He tried, carefully holding back the hope that wanted to creep into his voice.

Crowley’s eye slid slowly shut. Lying to hell was one thing, but ever since that moment on the wall at Eden, he had made a point of never lying to Aziraphale.  Outright, anyway.  “Well, I wouldn’t say I had nothing to do with it…” he mumbled.

His his body ached. That was the real lie; the physical pain was impossible and yet it persisted.

Aziraphale gave a small resigned sigh, as if to say that was all he’d expected, and reached for a well worn copy of Daphnaïda.  After several minutes spent trying to grasp Spenser’s words, which usually wasn’t a problem, Aziraphale laid the missive aside.  Crowley had, quite silently, wriggled himself flat on the couch, and might have been regarded as sleeping by anyone else.  The angel knew he was probably close to unconsciousness by now, but…well.  He thought if he didn’t muse on this now he might never at all.

“We’ve seen them rip each other to shreds slowly for millennia, Crowley.  You’ve said it yourself; they are experts at hurting one another all on their own.  They invented the spear and the knife for hunting, but how quickly those lent themselves to bloodshed.”  Crowley made a small, half audible noise of assent to show that he was listening, but his mind was only half aware.  Images of wars fought and lost (or sometimes won) over the last four thousand years floated through his mind, each more gruesome than the last.

“And yet it seems strange to me, this cold manner of dispatching one’s enemy.  Think of it, they now have the potential to end another life in the blink of an eye.  And at such great velocity, too.”  Aziraphale drummed his fingers thoughtfully against his leg for a moment, keenly aware that Crowley had ceased to breathe.

“Mind you, I was never a fan of arrows or spears either,” he continued carefully, not knowing exactly the source of the stress he was needling in the demon but trying to provoke him into revealing it all the same.  “Those always felt like such clean ways of committing murder, relatively speaking, but this is something altogether different.  Archers and infantry were at least skilled.  The way you’ve described this weapon it seems to require very little mastery to inflict great pain or indeed…” His eyes traced the hard lines of Crowley’s body.  No longer a relaxed shape on his couch, the demon was wooden, all his edges picked out in fine, “to end a life.” He finished pointedly.

Crowley abruptly rolled off the couch and stood, this fluidity of motion perhaps enhanced by stress, and looked down on Aziraphale for a long moment.  He seemed to be deciding something.

And then he turned and walked toward the front of the shop.  Aziraphale wanted to call after him, but what exactly could he say?  He was trying to rework ‘please stop, talk to me…I’m worried for you,’  into a phrase that would pass for polite inquiry between colleagues, but by the time he managed to call out “ What’s happened?  What have you seen that has you so upset?” Crowley had already closed the door of the shop behind him, and either didn’t hear or pretended not to.

---

Crowley walked for several blocks before he let Aziraphale’s last words to him really register.  What have you seen that has you so upset?  The fragility of life, Angel...and the violence in losing it.   And how he wondered at what expression he would find dancing around those ancient eyes if he ever spoke a word of his time drifting between planes.  

He turned down an abandoned alleyway, flexed his wings into existence, and leapt skyward.  Every savage beat of the massive black wings sent currents of cold London air swirling through even the down nestled close to his skin.  It felt good to burn the nerves away and lose himself in the dense, wet cloud cover.

By the time he was high enough in the atmosphere to break through the clouds, the weariness had settled in again.  The setting sun turned black feathers to burnished gold, warming the sinews and joints.  Crowley felt the pull and tug of air around every last feather acutely now, almost painfully.  Vortex drag, my dear.  Words in his head again...facts supplied in one voice only, but this time it was a remembered phrase rather than the translation of inner thought.  

Before airplanes and high powered telescopes, drones and satellites, the two of them had been the only beings to regularly gaze on the curvature of the earth.  They rarely flew as a pair, but it was not totally unheard of for them to enjoy the sun properly rising on virtually an entire planet together.  They’d climbed as high as they dared, and every flap had seemed to add weight until Crowley simply couldn’t go any further.   Aziraphale had looped around him and started in with a physics lesson, which Crowley had rushed to shut down, but not quickly enough.  He had learned something after all.  A lesson applied as equally now among the pale stars which had begun to appear through the gloaming as it had been centuries ago, the sun cresting the earth and gilding the edges of white wings with fire.  

Truly nothing was free of cost in this world, not even flight.  

He decided it was about time for a rest.  He needed a break from the madness of human kind.  

The color faded from the sky altogether as Crowley folded his wings in and let himself fall toward Hyde Park.  The ducks were never happy when he missed his landing and splashed down among them, but then...were ducks ever happy to begin with?  Crowley suspected not, not with all that self important quacking going on.  He closed his eyes and braced for the splash.