Acre. The air was thick with the stench of death and desperation. Black smoke curled upwards to the sky, the stifling heat making the besieged city feel like a small part of hell.
It definitely wasn't the way Aziraphale had imagined it.
It wasn't as if he had had any good expectations, the first and second Crusade almost robbing Aziraphale of any faith he still had in humanity. But this--this was beyond the pale. He looked around, pursing his lips at the senseless destruction and death covering every available inch of the terrain. This madness had to be the work of someone from below. Aziraphale was going to find them, thwart them, and then drive some much needed sense into the thick head of King Richard.
He flew undetected over the main boroughs of the city. He outstretched his senses trying to find any demonic influence. It shouldn't be too difficult: considering the scale of rampant evil around the place he wouldn't be surprised to find a Duke of Hell feasting on souls. Indeed, even the presence of The Adversary wouldn't be much of a shock.
What he found instead was only a low grade wave of resentment and annoyance, almost drowned under a mix of disgust and bafflement. Aziraphale recognized both such feelings and their source, although it was difficult to believe he was the cause of this mayhem. This was simply too big for him.
And yet, he was one of their operatives, and he was here.
Aziraphale swept down in a rustle of wings, landed at the back of a low building and made his way to the door. The room was a tavern of sorts, and the faces of those drinking inside were grim and tinged with the same desperation as the ones outside.
At the back, drinking alone with single-minded intensity, was the being Aziraphale was looking for. Crowley.
"I knew this travesty could be nothing but the work of hell," Aziraphale said ponderously, his face settled in a scowl.
Crowley looked up from his drink, eyes unfocused, and blinked once. "Ungh?" he slurred eloquently.
Aziraphale's certainty of Crowley's involvement diminished at the sight of his face. He didn't look like someone celebrating a job well done, or even like somebody enjoying himself. In fact, Crowley looked like there wasn't enough alcohol on Earth to make him forget what he had seen.
Aziraphale knew the expression. It had been on his face less than a minute ago.
"You've been corrupting the minds of the crusaders, demon," Aziraphale continued doggedly, because, in all honesty, the alternative was far too terrifying to even consider.
"Not me," Crowley said, the words coming out mangled and barely intelligible. He signalled at the empty seat in front of him and another glass appeared on the table.
Aziraphale knew he shouldn't sit down and accept the drink, he really shouldn't. But he could still smell the charred meat and the decay permeating the city, could still see the disembodied heads on pikes and the atrocities being committed in name of God.
"They did a good job of corrupting themselves. I don't have anything to do with--with--this." Crowley made an all-encompassing gesture, almost knocking his glass over and tilting precariously to the side. He righted himself in the last second and Aziraphale winced at the implications.
Whatever it was inside the glass, it clearly wasn't strong enough.
"Who did, then?" Aziraphale sat down, picking up his glass and downing it in one go.
Crowley shrugged. He grabbed his glass and drank deeply. Aziraphale's eyes followed the progress of a stray dark drop as it rolled down the corner of Crowley's mouth and all the way to his chin, up until Crowley stopped it with the back of his hand.
"King Richard," Crowley spat, the name uttered as an insult.
Aziraphale shook his head incredulously, glaring at his glass until it refilled only to down it again. "You must be wrong, there has to be someone else from below here," he insisted. "King Richard is only a man, he's just been influenced."
Aziraphale had been hearing all sort of rumours about King Richard and his crusade back in England, which was the very reason he had decided to see the truth for himself. King Richard was considered a hero and a warrior of God, but Aziraphale knew such considerations never bode well for the actual goodness of a man.
"There's no one, I'd know. I'm too drunk for this," Crowley slurred, and then he straightened up, shuddering. "I heard about the siege and came to see just in case. I got here yesterday. There's been no interference from below, what you're witnessing here is entirely the work of humans." His speech had become clearer and his eyes more focused, and Aziraphale detected in his tone a tiny bit of grudging admiration and a huge lot of disgust.
He could relate to the latter.
"I'm not drunk enough," Aziraphale countered, and proceeded to try and remedy that by taking another sip. "If you're not involved, then--"
"Yes, it means your man is going to find himself in a very interesting place when he dies." Crowley smiled for the first time, his face twisting in a very unpleasant way. Aziraphale sometimes forgot how they had met, but right now he could see the snake in the curl of Crowley's lips. "Funny he's bought himself a place in Hell doing God's work."
Aziraphale scowled at him, feeling for the first time in the last couple of centuries the urge to smite Crowley. He drank instead. Crowley being right didn't make it easier to bear.
"'S not funny, Crowley," he said, his voice not as steady as before. "All this--this--nastiness--and death--"
"Yeah, I've seen him," Crowley interrupted him, his grin disappearing as if it had never been there. "He looked overworked."
Aziraphale blinked and shuddered. Death always made him feel uneasy, even while still in Heaven Azazel had been a bit… odd.
"It just--it can't be entirely human," Aziraphale continued, because deep down he didn't want to believe men were capable of such cruelty. He had been on Earth long enough to know better, but he still wanted to believe that there was something good inside each person, even when confronted by the reality of their deeds.
"Admit it, Angel," Crowley said in a voice that sounded oddly flat. "They give us demons a run for our money with the things they can do to each other. They have imagination."
Aziraphale nodded sadly. "I've seen."
It was the knowledge that they could also teach a few lessons in Heaven about goodness and love that got to Aziraphale. It would always get to him, but he guessed that was what free will was all about. It wasn't as if humans actually had to act on those impulses. They just chose to.
"Don't think about it, Angel," Crowley said, snapping Aziraphale out of his brooding. "If you'd got here a bit earlier you'd have seen a couple of crusaders helping a prisoner escape, and another one rescuing a girl from an unpleasant situation."
Aziraphale looked at Crowley, surprised. "Are you trying to cheer me up, my dear?"
Crowley scowled down at the table. "No. It was just--so much evil in this place. There was a bit of balance needed."
That shocked Aziraphale, what little he could read between the lines. He knew Crowley wasn't like most of Hell's demons, but he was a demon nonetheless. And yet, as in the case of men, Aziraphale wanted to believe that deep down there was a bit of goodness in him.
He was glad to see he was right, at least in this particular case.
"Did you have anything to do with that, Crowley?" he asked, a bit of the gloominess he had been feeling lifting.
Crowley's eyes shifted guiltily, which was all the answer Aziraphale needed. "Of course not," Crowley lied, grabbing his glass and drinking from it.
"Of course," Aziraphale agreed, a little smile tugging at his lips. "You're a demon; you'd never do anything like that."
"As long as we're clear." Crowley suddenly stood up, knocking his chair backwards. "I have to go, nice bumping into you in this place."
Aziraphale had no desire to stay either. He stood up as well and followed Crowley outside.
"You know Crowley, we should do this more often," he looked around as the circumstances surrounding them made themselves present again. He scrunched his nose; all of a sudden he couldn't wait to be somewhere else, anywhere else. "Only, without the massacre."
"What do you mean?" Crowley looked at him uncomprehendingly.
"Drink," Aziraphale clarified.
"Oh, yes; that."
They stared at each other until the silence became uncomfortable.
"I need to get going," Crowley fidgeted, unfolding his wings. He shot Aziraphale a sly look. "I've heard they have a good wine in southern Italy," he said before taking flight.
Aziraphale stared after him until Crowley wasn't more than a dot in the sky and then unfolded his own wings.
Southern Italy. It had been a long time since the last time he had been around the place.
Maybe it was time for another visit.