The Crusades were a messy time for everyone.
In one of the many forts surrounding Jerusalem, the usual messiness was punctuated with a side order of the kind of gory bloodshed and impalement that comes when scores of armored men try to force their way past scores of spear-wielding men behind barricades by pretending to be something they're not, namely a giant, armored human centipede.
The barricade had already been broken through in some places. Up on a tower, a rather violent confrontation was taking place that nobody seemed to be paying much attention to.
In very short notice, the two figures both tipped over the edge, and although it seemed like gravity might look the other way just this once, a moment later there was a solid crunch down below.
Downy feathers exploded in a small mushroom cloud all around them.
For a long while, the night was silent but for the very loud screams and clanging of swords.
“You know,” Crowley rasped as he struggled to scrape himself off the ground, “I can't shake the feeling that there must be an easier way to go about this.”
“What... what do you mean?” Aziraphale gasped as he pulled himself into a sitting position with an audible cracking of ribs.
“Er... I dunno.” Crowley stopped. He was lying flat on his back in a shallow crater of the shape you get when someone decides to play 'snow angels' in mud and gravel, and the night sky above was a very strange mass of smoke and shifting twinkling. A numbing pain in his wings suggested he wouldn't be leaving the ground any time soon.
He lifted his head to see Aziraphale sitting in the dirt, looking around with a slightly dazed, vacant expression. The angel was similarly battered, wings and feathers bent out of shape, the white robes stained red in places.
“I think your sword landed in that ditch over there,” Crowley said absently with a vague jerk of his chin. His head was spinning and he let it drop against the ground again.
The angel looked at him blankly, then over to the ditch in question – which, judging by the smell, had not been constructed for defensive purposes, per se. A silvery hilt protruded slightly from where it was stuck in the slope.
“That is... rather far away,” Aziraphale said hesitantly. He looked back at Crowley. “Er. I think your scimitar is on the other side of the wall. Sorry,” he said sheepishly.
“Uh-huh,” Crowley said, not bothering to open his eyes.
The angel kept talking. “Don't you think we should be... er... getting on with it? I suppose I could lend you a dagger for, er, fairness's sake.... where did I put it...”
Crowley listened to the angel patting down his robes and armour and belt in search for the elusive dagger for a minute before saying, “Um. The one with the small ruby, was it? I couldn't help noticing. I think I, uh, stabbed you in the foot with it.”
There was a brief silence as the angel looked down at his outstretched legs, wiggled a toe. He whimpered in pain. “I see. And then what?”
“Must have dropped it.”
“Oh. Well, that's... We could do it without weapons, then, even if that is somewhat barbaric-”
Crowley lifted his head and fixed the angel with a look. “Can you stand?” he demanded.
Aziraphale's face twisted. “...Probably,” he said.
“Yeah, thought so. Just... give it a rest for a minute, will you?”
The angel frowned slightly and straightened up a bit. “You will not tempt me into complacency, demon.”
Crowley groaned in frustration and twisted in an effort to face away from him. “Whatever, angel.”
Eyes shut, he listened to the sounds of battle for a while. It was not a particularly comforting ambience.
“Say,” the angel said after a while, “Are you sure you don't remember where you dropped my dagger?”
Crowley frowned and briefly opened an eye to peek at the angel, who was peering at the ground around them listlessly. “I think it was up on that tower,” he said. “Could've fallen off, though, I suppose. Why?”
The angel hesitated. “It has... sentimental value.” At Crowley's lifted eyebrow, he specified, “A gift from the Pope a few years back for my assistance with some ancient scrolls and the bit of trouble he had with attempts on his life...”
“Don't you just have friends in high places,” Crowley whistled. “You do realise they're all just money-grabbing, kid-sodomising, corrupt bastards these days, don't you?” he grinned twistedly.
Aziraphale bristled. “They manage to do good work, many of them. In spite of your fiendish influence,” he added acidly.
Crowley snorted, “I think you'd be surprised at how little influence there is. They come up with all the really good stuff all by themselves, you know.”
Aziraphale sniffed skeptically.
“Demon's word,” Crowley insisted. “I mean, look at them right now. I'm not doing anything. Neither are you. They've got it all figured out.” As if to punctuate his words, a soldier fell off the tower with a scream, hitting the ground not far from them with a sickening crunch. Aziraphale shuddered.
“You started this,” the angel said.
“It takes at least two to start a war, angel.”
“I didn't do this,” Aziraphale huffed, affronted.
“No, probably not. They make their own messes. We just help a little,” Crowley muttered, pulling his arms up behind his head.
Aziraphale stared speculatively up at the fortress again. He could just spot somebody getting their head bashed in. He sighed.
“It all seems so rather pointless, doesn't it?” he mused quietly.
The demon gave him a curious look. “What does, angel?”
Aziraphale was silent for a while. Finally he spoke, “I should be putting an end to this, you know. All this needless bloodshed, and all because they are so caught up in their beliefs that they feel only hatred for others.”
The demon looked like he might say something but stayed silent, watching the angel unwaveringly.
“We could stop this,” Aziraphale continued. “It would perhaps be a tad too conspicuous, but it would be within our ability.”
“And by 'we' you mean...”
“My side,” the angel said absently.
“Oh,” Crowley said, something in his face closing up.
The angel kept talking. “Influence a few minds, calm a few hearts in decisive positions. We're supposed to care for humanity. Surely preventing such mass-scale slaughter would fall under that.”
Crowley snorted. “So what's sstopping you, angel?”
“Heaven,” Aziraphale said, then looked mortified. He lowered his voice to a guilty whisper. “They seem to... er.... prefer a little... clearing the air, as they call it. Resolving tension, that sort of thing.”
“Oh yeah, I'm sure living without global wars for decades is some real wear and tear on those poor human nerves,” Crowley drawled. “They could use the relaxation of some good old religious squabbling over whom Daddy loves best.”
Aziraphale looked at him sternly, forgoing comment. “They view it as something of a publicity stunt,” he admitted meekly. “Cultivating a more solemn, intimida-... er, awe-inspiring image. It is... confusing, sometimes,” his voice trailed off, growing more and more quiet, “I mean, not to question the ineffable plan or anything, but sometimes I wonder if I mightn't have missed a memo or two, what with everything that's going on nowadays..... Er. What?”
Crowley was staring at him unabashedly. “You're telling you've got orders to have these people keep fighting each other,” he finally said, shaking his head in exasperation.
“Er, I wouldn't put it quite like that, but I suppose s-”
“Would you like to hear what my orders are, angel?” Crowley's voice whined like a cheap fiddle.
Aziraphale looked at him blankly.
“My orders,” the demon began dramatically, then slipped into an overwrought baritone, “Good news, Crowley. You are to instigate as much conflict as possible up there, Crowley. This crusade shall give His followers a bad name and turn people away from him, Crowley. This is a great opportunity, Crowley.”
“Er.” Aziraphale sat back in discomfort. “Do they really talk like that?”
“Yes,” Crowley said flatly, dropping the tone. “Did you actually pay attention to what I said?”
“Well,” the angel looked away sheepishly. “I suppose it does sound a bit, er, similar-”
“It's the same bloody crap in a different package,” Crowley snapped. “If you can't see it, take a look around.”
Aziraphale did so, worriedly. Up on the fort and around them, Saracens and Christians alike were locked in bloody skirmishes. Occasionally someone would glance in the direction of the two winged figures sprawled in the dirt and very quickly dismiss the sight. A panicked scream from the walls above drew his gaze and he saw fire catch hold of the wooden scaffolding that supported the half-ruined guard tower hanging menacingly above them.
“Well...” he began, not knowing for certain what to say, when he looked back to Crowley and saw him struggling to his feet with a wince. “What are you doing?” he asked.
The demon shot him a look. “Getting out of here,” he said. “I've stuck around for a bit, done my part, I'm off to greener pastures for now. Ciao, aloha, and all that.”
“Wait,” the angel said impulsively, then paused in embarrassment as Crowley waited for him to continue, eyebrow raised. “Er. What are you... erm, where are you going?” he said lamely.
Crowley scratched his arm thoughtfully and slapped away the dirt on his clothes. “Not sure yet. Haven't really thought about it. Just... away from here.”
“I, er, I know a Christian monastery near here,” the angel volunteered. “They have quite good wine.”
Crowley stared at him.
“Well, I suppose, I just think, we've both done our part for the day, so to speak, and your people and mine are probably busy enough, what with everything going on, that they're not paying much attention to us anyway, and of course I'm not suggesting anything traitorous, as it were, but maybe we could... um... talk,” Aziraphale finished feebly.
The demon kept staring at him, dark eyebrows climbing higher and higher above his golden eyes. Aziraphale felt himself going red. “What?” he sputtered.
“...Talk,” Crowley repeated dully.
“You do remember what happened the last time we 'talked', angel?”
“Well.... Yes, but I thought-”
“And the time before?”
“Things are rather different right now, don't you think?” Aziraphale snapped indignantly. “We don't have conflicting orders, for one. There is no pressing reason to try to get the drop on each other right at this moment, is there?”
“And you know that by going off what I told you?” Crowley said with something like awe. “Have to admit, didn't really see that one coming.”
“Are you implying that you've lied to me?” Aziraphale frowned.
Crowley hesitated. “...No,” he said, shifting. “Not about that, anyway. Honest.”
Aziraphale looked suspicious but said, “In that case, I give you my solemn word that I shall not try to smite you in the immediate future unless given good cause. Will that do?”
Crowley grinned. “And I promise I won't try to bite through your neck or pluck out your wings without giving a healthy advance warning, yeah? Demon's word.”
“...Very well,” Aziraphale said hesitantly. He was beginning to doubt the wisdom of it, but backing out now after he'd been the one to suggest it would be most unseemly. He started to struggle to his feet, keeping his weight off his injured foot and propping himself up with his wings, and so missed the ominous creaking above him and Crowley's quiet 'Oh crap' and change in expression.
“Hurry up, you lazy- Move!” Crowley snapped, and half-shuffled, half-ran towards the angel, grabbed a handful of robes and hurled them both away just as the burning tower above them completed its ponderous acquiescence to gravity and crashed to the ground where they'd been moments before.
They hit the dirt, narrowly missing the undesirable ditch, and covered their heads with their arms as burning shafts of wood and dislodged slabs of stone rained down around them.
“Come on,” Crowley hissed, pulling them both back up again. They shuffled forward until the fortress was at a somewhat safer distance.
„Er, thank you,” Aziraphale said awkwardly. Crowley realised he still held a death-grip on the angel's robes and let go with a wince.
“Don't mention it,” he said flatly.
He waved a grimy finger clean, lifted it to his lips and whistled sharply, making the angel jump. In obedience to the universal laws of narrative convenience, two saddled, fit horses came cantering out of a nearby copse. The animals came to a stop in front of them, rolling their eyes warily at the two winged strangers, calmer than they suspected they ought to be.
Crowley approached the tall black one and whispered menacingly, “Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Either way, you are going to do your job and do it well , you overgrown sheep, is that clear? No funny business, or there will be, quite literally, Hell to pay.”
The horse nickered.
“I'm glad you see it that way,” Crowley said graciously and scrambled onto its back, awkwardly half-folding his injured wings around him. “Well, this is going to be just fun,” he muttered to himself, hissing in pain as he shifted his posture in the seat. He looked down at Aziraphale. “Coming, angel?”
Aziraphale frowned up at the intimidatingly tall bay gelding, who watched him with overly intelligent brown eyes. “...Yes,” he said meekly, and awkwardly climbed into the saddle after two attempts. He heard the demon sigh but ignored him.
Aziraphale sat in the saddle absent-mindedly, wincing and shifting his weight to reduce the strain on his injuries.
“Well?” Crowley asked.
“Er. What?” the angel peered at him quizically.
“The monastery, angel,” Crowley rolled his eyes in exasperation. “You were going to show me to the monastery, right? Or have you changed your mind already?”
“Oh, no, no, it's quite fine,” Aziraphale said primly. “This way,” he said, after getting his bearings for a moment, and took off toward a stripe of road on the horizon at an umcomfortably bumpy trot. The demon followed suit.
“Mind you,” Aziraphale mused some time later,” I'm really not sure I should be doing this, truth be told. You're not an altogether bad sort of fellow, Crowley-”
“-But you are, after all, a demon, and as such not to be trusted...”
“And you're an angel, and yet here I am, apparently, following you into holy ground like you're the bloody Pied Piper.”
“...Forget it. How much farther, angel?”
“It's about four hours' ride from here, at this pace, I would say.”
“You're kidding, right? I'm not drunk enough for four more hours of this.”
The angel looked vaguely affronted. “What are you implying, pray tell?”
“Why would I imply anything, angel?” Crowley asked irritably, his elbows flapping uncomfortably as the horse took the rough terrain. “I'm just saying, if I'm to spend any stretch of time with one of you winged sanctimonious gits – nothing personal, you understand – I'd damn better be well and truly drunk first.”
There was a silence.
“That was rather unnecessary,” the angel said coldly after a while, staring straight ahead.
There was another silence that might have seemed embarrassed if it weren't too busy trying to fold itself into a corner somewhere.
“....Maybe,” Crowley admitted uneasily.
Aziraphale gave him a hesitant, sideways look of appraisal. “You could always try to get intoxicated now, I suppose,” he said cautiously. “I imagine it might somewhat dull the discomfort of the injuries, as well,” he added with a very careful omission of any guilt from his voice.
The demon stared at the space between his horse's ears, hands clutching tightly at the reins. “Nah. Then I'd just be drunk and trying to stay in the saddle in the middle of nowhere, instead. I've all but burned myself up getting the horses, anyway. Wasn't too shabby, though. I mean, as ideas go,” he added, politely enough.
They rode in silence for a while. The moon emerged from the clouds, lighting their way, even as it crept ever closer to the horizon.
“The weather is nice,” Aziraphale said desperately, then caught Crowley's incredulous look. “Very clear,” he elaborated. “For this time of year, especially.”
Aziraphale looked at him in silence, then carefully steered his horse closer, close enough for him to reach out and tap the demon on the shoulder, so casually that he barely saw it coming.
“Ow!” Crowley flinched as Aziraphale's hand withdrew. “What did... you... Huh.” He looked down at himself, feeling, now that the unpleasant stab of divine heat was fading, a lot less pain than there used to be.
He turned sharply to Aziraphale, who had retreated to the usual distance and was watching him with a carefully innocent expression.
“It's only fair,” the angel said reasonably, before the demon could level an accusation. “You, er, did provide the horses, after all.”
Crowley looked at him, then turned away, resuming his contemplation of the patch of horizon between his horse's ears with even greater zeal than before. “Fine,” he ground out. “Just don't do it without warning, will you? Um,” he added snappishly, then stopped, mortified by how he'd made it sound like a habit.
“Oh, I'm sorry,” the angel's face clouded over, disquietingly sincere. “I didn't think...”
“Forget about it,” Crowley grumbled, feeling his face going red. “Where are we going, anyway?” he asked desperately.
Aziraphale's face lit up, eager for the distraction. “Oh yes, I don't suppose you've had cause to visit before. Which is, er, just as well, I suppose, if you'll pardon me. It's a reasonable little place on a hill, walls and such. Well-fortified, considering. Would you like to hear more about it?” he asked with the ill-conceived glee of enthusiasts and lecturers since time immemorable.
The demon gave a noncommittal hum and kept sulking, swearing under his breath at the horse every so often.
“The monastery is over six hundred years old,” Aziraphale continued in a bout of inspiration. “Built on the burial site of a saint, though it's been captured and passed along between different splinter factions and religions so often that no records have survived of which saint it had been, exactly. The current holders are a pleasant enough bunch, for fundamentalists. Scribing and meditating and retracing old manuscripts, and sometimes they come together at dawn, for prayer, and give their thanks to the Lord, and underneath there's the most wonderful caverns with wine cellars and great casks of this nice-smelling dark wood...”
Aziraphale rambled on and on, and Crowley listened, and if the horses found the ground beneath their hooves hurtling past somewhat faster than one would expect, they were in no position to complain.