Aziraphael stood outside the Babylonian camp wearing Judean armor of polished bronze. The fires of the city below flickered and reflected on it so that he seemed to glow. Out here in the desert the night was achingly cold, with only a bare sliver of moon illuminating the shrub brush. Behind him there was the light and smoke of campfires, the scent of lamb fat sizzling on the embers, the laughter of men, but Aziraphale declined to join the camp. It was loud. He preferred to wait here in the dark and the quiet, where he could watch the city.
Somewhere in there, the demon was waiting too.
Aziraphale felt again in memory the warm puff of breath against his ear, the heat of a slender hand grasping his shoulder and playing along his collar bone, a voice shivery and low in the dark whispering "Hello, angel." The wet brush of opening lips against the pulse in his throat and the sudden penetration of fangs. The venom that had coursed through his body in seconds, burning in his blood and holding him pinioned and breathless with fury as his body died all around him. The totally unnecessary caress of clever fingers through his hair as the world went black. Standing in the desert, he curled his fingers into fists and listened to the hammering of this new body's heart.
Behind him there was the unsubtle crunch of gravel and dry grasses. Aziraphale half turned as the old soldier Shuma moved to stand beside him. "Malka Nabopollasar intends to attack the city before dawn," he said without looking at Aziraphale. "The river will force open the gate, but I cannot tell whether we can make use of it. Ninevah is strong even now."
Aziraphale glared down at the lights. "The LORD revengeth, and is furious;" he quoted, voice hard and clipped. "The LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies."
Shuma gave a gravelly chuckle. "I seem to recall you telling me not to fear your Lord, back when I was a child."
Aziraphale frowned. "You were throwing rocks at me at the time," he grumped.
"You stole one of our lambs," Shuma argued with a little smile. It had the air of an objection he'd made a hundred times.
Aziraphale finally turned away from the city. "It had been dragged into a canyon and I healed it for you," he said, looking over at his friend. Shuma was almost forty now, bore the scars of many battles. It was a far cry from the skinny ten year old he'd saved from wolves. Aziraphale summoned a small smile for him. "Ninevah will fall," he said quietly. "Its already been decided." He turned back to face the fires in the distance. "Sleep now, I'll keep watch."
A callused hand clasped Aziraphale's shoulder briefly, and he listened again to the sound of footsteps retreating back towards the camp. He let out a soft breath and settled in to wait. By and by the laughter behind him fell silent and the campfires burned low. Down in the city lights like stars flickered out one by one. The wind blew cold and clear across the fields.
Just as the first faint light bled into the eastern sky there was a sound like thunder and a great wave rushing along the whole length of the river. It flooded through the city, and Aziraphale watched as the Chaldean and Scythian armies poured through the broken gates after it passed. Behind him someone was shouting and there was the clang and clatter of men donning armor, taking up swords. Down on the field Persians on horseback and Cimmerians in glittering chariots followed, galloping across the plain. And then it was their own turn to move, marching with measured steps down the hill and towards the city.
Inside the high brick walls, the city was in chaos already. The men of the army scattered in small groups, fanning out through the narrow streets. Aziraphale stepped over corpses everywhere he went, some stabbed or cut down, some merely trampled, bearing the purple crescents of hoof-prints.
He couldn't concern himself with the inhabitants of the city. He searched instead only for his adversary, watching and listening and straining his innate sense of the natural order of the world, feeling for occult interference. It was not a trivial task. The fighting was thick in every street, blood and bodies and screams of men and metal alike blocking every path. Finally Aziraphale took to the rooftops, jumping easily from one close-built flat roof to the next. When he found the snake at last, he was leaning against a wall near the northern gates, hidden in the shadowed space between two houses. His long hair was tied back in the Assyrian style, elegant as a lord of men, but his fine tunic was torn and stained with blood.
With a scream of battle-lust Aziraphale jumped down and tackled his opponent. He landed hard with a knee planted firmly on the demon's chest and his sword barely turned aside by the cedar spear the demon brought up to meet him. The demon pushed up from flat on his back, forcing Aziraphale to ease off his ribs enough for a deep gasping breath. Aziraphale hooked a foot behind his knee to take away the leverage and pushed him back to the ground. His sword bit more deeply into the wood of the spear with the movement and stuck; Aziraphale abandoned it and instead grabbed the demon's slender wrists, twisting the delicate bones until the demon had to drop the spear or break them. The two weapons clattered to the ground locked together and forgotten as Aziraphale leaned all his weight into pinning the demon's wrists to the ground. Their faces were so close he could feel the heat of the demon's breath with every desperate gasp.
"Nice to see you again," the demon hissed from inches away, and Aziraphale wanted to bite him, tear out his lying throat for daring to take that casual tone, to pretend they could possibly be friends. "Amazing party you lot are throwing." A twist of bitterness then in those full lips, and the demon gave a sinuous roll of his spine that almost dislodged Aziraphale. He braced the inside of his knees against the sharp protrusions of the demon's hip bones and rode out the motion, fighting to keep the demon in place. "I like the decorations," the snake spit, jerking his head back towards the street where the bodies almost made the way impassable.
Aziraphale swallowed hard at the brief flash of bare throat, offered up like a sacrifice in the temple. "And all for the countless whorings of that harlot, graceful and of deadly charms," he snarled in furious quotation, "who betrays nations with her fornication, and peoples with her enchantments." He needed a weapon, his sword, a stone, anything. But the instant he let go he knew the snake would roll them and he'd be lost. "You've been busy, haven't you?"
The demon looked up at him measuringly for several heartbeats, yellow eyes glinting in the darkness. Deliberate and slow, he relaxed all his straining muscles until he lay pliant and unresisting between Aziraphale's thighs. "Less than you might think," he replied, voice low and wrecked, "though I'll thank you for the compliment."
Aziraphale tensed, waiting for the trick. "It's your job to tempt men to their ruin," he accused, tightening his grip on the strong wrists. The demon winced as his bones ground together painfully, and his helpless jerk made the hunger for violence pound anew in Aziraphale's blood.
The demon panted roughly, clearly fighting to stay relaxed. "They come up with more petty cruelties in a week than I could in a century," he insisted. Aziraphale sneered and the demon cocked an eyebrow at him. "Their best charities and most faithful loves always come from you lot then, do they?"
That gave Aziraphale pause. He couldn't deny there was a grace in the humans he'd never seen replicated by heaven, much as it galled him to admit the demon might be right. Worse, the snake could clearly see the doubt crossing Aziraphale's face. He let a slow sensuous smile start to take hold.
"Let me ask you something, angel. We could go on killing each other whenever we cross paths, and I'll admit that could be fun," he said, tilting his head back in a challenge that bared that long throat again. "But really, what good would it do?"
"It would make me feel better," Aziraphale snapped without thinking, eyes fixed on a bead of sweat trickling down to pool in the hollow of Crowley's collarbones. The demon laughed, surprisingly rich and sweet.
"Well, that it might, but it doesn't sound a very angelic reason for murder," he said with a teasing smile. His eyes had gone very dark. "The city's fallen. Let me go. At least then the next time we fight you'll know what I look like when you're searching for me."
"I shouldn't," Aziraphale said, but he heard the lie in his own words even as he spoke them. He didn't want to. He let out a rough sigh and forced himself to let go of the demon's wrists, sitting back to kneel over his bare thighs. "You'll leave this place," he warned pointlessly. "Its going to be razed to the ground and never rebuilt in a hundred centuries."
The demon had drawn his arms down from above his head and was rubbing distractedly at where his knuckles had been scraped raw against the paving stones. Aziraphale watched, hardly breathing, as the first purple stains of a ring of bruises started to show around his wrists. "Fair enough," the demon agreed, nodding towards the view over Aziraphale's shoulder. "Probably ought to get out while you can yourself, angel. I think she's got it well in hand."
Aziraphale turned to look where the demon had indicated and saw a woman with long dark red hair and bared breasts lift a sword in one hand and a burning brand in the other, grinning wildly. Even as he watched, she brought the sword sweeping down and stabbed through the side of a Babylonian soldier's breastplate, piercing the man's lung. Aziraphale lurched awkwardly to his feet--it was Shuma. He stumbled two steps towards the street and watched in horror as the woman laughed. The old soldier slid with glazed and staring eyes off her blade and she didn't even look as she turned to thrust the brand into the first of the houses.
The building was ablaze. Shuma was dead before Aziraphale could even reach him, blinded by thick smoke and tears alike. When he turned to look back at the demon the alleyway was empty. Aziraphale looked back and forth between where his opponent had been and where his friend now lay and felt something sick and hollow and unsatisfied surface behind his ribs like a leviathan rising from the depths. They were both gone.
"Fine," he whispered bitterly and turned his own footsteps towards the gate. Perhaps Ethiopia needed guidance. He'd have to find out.
Behind him Ninevah burned.
Aziraphale stood on the peripatos walk and watched as the Great Library spouted flames from every doorway. Everywhere there was the stink of burning papyrus and human flesh. Aziraphale told his body not to breathe so he wouldn't have to cough.
Humans just died so fast, that was the basic problem. They grew up and then grew old just slowly enough that you could come to love them fiercely before suddenly they were gone. And it never got easier, no matter how many times he went through it.
But then they'd started carving the first records into clay tablets and he'd been breathless with wonder at the implications. No matter how short their lives, he'd realized that now their words at least would not be lost. There was a sort of immortality to it. Any time he could open one of their clever scrolls and hear again their voices speaking to him again across the centuries. As long as their thoughts remained speaking silently from their books, they'd never be totally lost to him.
He'd walked through those marble halls in front of him with a giddy joy, holding every volume like a treasure stolen at great cost from Death himself. The Histories of Heroditus and Barosus. The plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, Homer and Euripides. Ptolemy's astronomical observations. Euclid's mathematical proofs.
Now though Death had taken back his own. The fire belched thick clouds of suffocating smoke over all the street. It burned in his eyes and clung to the tracks of soot and tears on his face. So many friends lost a second time. So many voices that would never speak to him again. The sounds of the city echoed far away and unreal as men shouted and wagons dragged looted statues or buckets of futile water. Smoke blotted out the stars.
And then strong hands were clasping at his elbows and pulling him back away from the blaze. "Come on, angel," a ferociously, intensely alive voice demanded and Aziraphale clung to it. He wanted that voice to drown out the terrible echoing silence the flames had left behind. He stumbled blindly along wherever those hands cared to lead him and would be grateful whether or not it turned out to be a trap.
No matter how many times Crowley died he always turned up again, sooner or later, sure as the sunrise.
It was a vague surprise that Crowley didn't lead him somewhere deserted where they could fight, but instead into a tiny inn, packed with humans murmuring low and fearful in dim candlelight. They slipped through the crowd to a little table in the back corner where long benches lay strewn with crimson pillows, and Crowley said something to a young woman that made her duck away and return with a pitcher and two small ceramic cups.
Aziraphale sat in silence and looked at his erstwhile adversary. Crowley had clipped his hair short like a Roman, and the fringe swept down just long enough to hide his inhuman eyes. It suited him, though it made Aziraphale's fingers itch to brush it back from his face. He was not as darkly tanned as he'd been the last time either. Aziraphale wondered if he'd started spending more time inside as well. It seemed to fit the times. Across the low table Crowley was studying his face in return and Aziraphale wondered briefly what he saw there before Crowley pressed a cup of something that smelled strongly alcoholic into his hands.
It burned in Aziraphale's throat going down, but it washed away a bit of the taste of ashes from his mouth and that was enough to encourage another sip. Crowley quirked the ghost of a smile and held out the carafe to refill his cup. Strange how soft and full those lips were against the knife edge of his jaw and the sharp lines of his cheekbones, red as ripe apples as they wrapped around the mouth of his own cup.
Aziraphale took another long drink and tried to look away.
"They're vicious buggers," Crowley said, not meeting his eyes, "you've got to give them credit for that much." Aziraphale made a noncommittal noise. "They murdered her with tiles. You know, those sharp-edged jobs they use for layering roofs? Every man in the crowd had one, they cut off her robes and then took her skin off too while she screamed." Crowley threw back a burning swallow of whatever this drink was and grimaced. "I could hate them sometimes," he said, barely above a whisper.
Between them the little flame of a candle guttered and flickered. Aziraphale knew what he meant.
"I taught her geometry, you know, when she was a girl," Aziraphale offered. She'd been a tenacious student and a determined child; he hadn't been close to her as an adult but he gathered she hadn't, in those respects at least, changed much. He'd watched without rancor as she appeared at the theater modestly veiled at Crowley's side, escorted properly by her father's friend but beholden to no man. "She was brilliant," he said, and what he meant was 'I know you loved her,' and 'I'm so sorry.'
"Damn shame about the books," Crowley said after a little while, and Aziraphale knew he meant the same thing. He watched the candle burn down as they talked in a low murmur about others they'd lost, between sharp-eyed Eve and fierce, lovely Hypatia. The wine was strong, and Aziraphale didn't stop bringing his cup back to his lips until the room spun and he couldn't lift his head to drink.
"You're drunk," the demon said finally, low and laughing as the candle struggled to stay lit in a shallow pool of wax.
"I, I do belief--belieeeeevvvvee," he got rather stuck on the buzzing feeling of the 'v' on his numb lips. "I do believe I may be," he managed finally, carefully enunciating every word. "I think, I think I, I'll go ahead and sleep for just a little while, just here, just until, you know, the room decides to be a bit steadier. 'S not quite on, swaying like that. Not fair."
"Can't sleep here, 's closing," Crowley said, leaning down to peer into Aziraphale's face where it was smooshed against the tabletop.
"Welp," Aziraphale slurred, and turned his face further towards the cool wood.
Crowley laughed again and got up. Aziraphale watched him stagger unsteadily through the emptying room and speak to the house's mistress. She pointed towards the stairs near where Aziraphale lay and gold caught the firelight as it changed hands.
And then Crowley came back, hooking long fingers in the neck of Aziraphale's tunic to lift his head. The world swung in a crazy nauseating spin and Aziraphale found himself cradled in strong slender arms, lifted as much by will as by muscle.
"'S girls," he objected, batting vaguely at Crowley's chin. "Y'carry girls across the thr-thresh...the thing. Doorways."
"Girls and drunk friends, angel," Crowley laughed. "Quit hitting me, you great pillock, its distracting."
The door thumped closed behind them and Aziraphale found himself dumped surprisingly gently onto a low soft pallet. Crowley rubbed his hands over his flushed face in the moonlight. "'M too drunk for this. Shift over," he said.
Aziraphale didn't. He lay right where Crowley had put him and watched the pale curve of Crowley's bare shoulder peak out from his tunic's wide fashionable neck as he unbelted his toga.
If he wrote out their history on that skin, Aziraphale thought, he really could keep it forever. He imagined laying the sharp metal nib of his pen, wet with ink like old blood, against the delicate surface of Crowley's collarbone. Eve, he'd write there, scratching the harsh lines of roman letters. Miriam, along the slight rise of the right pectoral, and perhaps Delilah over the heart. Hammurabi over the shallow curve of a bicep. Shuma and Azir-nahr-Olam and Amenhotep like shackles around the delicate bones of the wrist. Aristotle along the back of the hand perhaps, and his students down each long clever finger. Aristarchus in the curl of the palm. Jacob in the spaces between his narrow ribs, David and Jonathan side by side low across the hollow of his belly. And perhaps eventually his own name...
Crowley's face was too close to his own. "Move, I said. Y're not that drunk, stop woolgathering. I wanna lay down." Aziraphale blinked. This time he rolled over obediently and stared at the ceiling as Crowley flopped awkwardly down beside him. "Don't kick me," he mumbled, eyes already falling closed.
Aziraphale lay in the dark and watched the faint rise and fall of Crowley's chest as he breathed. Once he felt steady enough to stand, he pulled his toga back together in the dark and left while Crowley was still asleep.
Perhaps Gaul, this time.
Sister Teresa had been kneeling in her cell since dawn, consumed in passionate contemplation of God in expectation of a visitation of Divine ecstasy. Aziraphale hadn't thought he'd be able to visit her, though Crowley had told him not to worry. "I'll pop over after I tempt the friar," he'd said with a smile, chucking Aziraphale under the chin. "You can just owe me." But the healing down in Istan had gone more quickly than expected, and he'd hurried back to take care of it himself.
When he arrived, Crowley was already there.
The pretty twenty year old nun lay swooned against his chest, and he was cradling her as tenderly as a mother holds a child, floating effortlessly a few feet above the ground. His eyes were lidded and dark, his hair moving slowly in an unseen breeze. A soft golden glow made his form radiant in the little room. In every respect he looked a vision of Heavenly passion.
Aziraphale's breath caught in his chest.
He hadn't known Crowley before the Fall; they'd run, as it were, in different circles. The Ashim of Malkuth had always been rather smart, though. Fashionable, if that was a thing you could say about the time before time was. Aziraphale had rather gotten the impression that they'd considered the warlike cherubs rather stuffy. He wondered for a moment what Crowley might think of him now if he'd still been an angel, if the two of them might not have worked side by side for the redemption of mankind. Crowley's tireless fascination with the ways of humans and his innate knack for understanding them, bent to good use, helping him reach them, helping him understand...
They were certainly being put to good use now. Aziraphale watched as Crowley traced long delicate fingers up the curve of the girl's hip and she moaned as if they burned. Her eyes fluttered blankly as Crowley bent low to whisper something Aziraphale couldn't hear, his lips tracing the shell of the girl's ear. He held her firm as her head lolled back against his shoulder and her spine arched. Placing a hand flat against her breastbone, he pressed hard and held it perfectly still as she writhed and thrashed beneath the touch, her hair falling loose and wild around them both. Her childish softness only made the strong clean lines Crowley made caging her body more obvious.
Aziraphale's fingers clenched white-knuckled at the windowsill. This was a far cry from how he usually gifted ecstasy.
The nun hid her face against Crowley's neck, lips open and gasping as he closed his fingers around her throat. Aziraphale remembered with sudden terrible clarity a time in Akkadia when Crowley had wrapped those fingers around his neck in just that way as they had fought: the heavy crushing pain and the fire in lungs that wanted air, they way it made every part of the body strain for release, the animal terror of death. He'd been angry at himself for feeling it at the time. Now he wasn't sure. The body had its own mysteries.
In the little room the light grew to a feverish brightness. Crowley let his hand relax and sister Teresa drew a ragged breath that she immediately lost again in a hoarse cry, face contorted as if in unbearable agony. Aziraphale drew a harsh breath in sympathy, and as the girl fell back in a limp sprawl Crowley's eyes flashed open and caught his.
For several long heartbeats none of them moved.
Then Crowley broke eye-contact and turned to lay the nun down, insensate and with tears streaming down her slack face, with infinite gentleness. Aziraphale ducked away from the window, pressing his feverish face against the cool stone as he waited for the rustling in the bare little room to stop. His heart was hammering like a caged bird in his chest. When he heard the amused cough behind him though, he forced himself to look up.
Crowley was leaning against an old oak tree a few feet away, now clothed in his preferred form with sleek modern clothes and his dark Moorish skin glowing only with a faint sheen of sweat. Aziraphale considered that he didn't suffer an ounce for lack of flowing robes or heavenly light. Crowley was never less than stunning, the vain creature. He braced a hand on his hip and began to smirk. "I take it you enjoyed the show?"
Aziraphale felt his face go hot and flushed all over again. "You did...perfectly well, my dear. Quite...quite sufficient. Thank you ever so."
Something sharp and predatory flashed behind Crowley's eyes and then was swallowed up in a forced smile. "Lets talk about payback," he purred.
"I had better go," Aziraphale blurted out and started backing away. He was strangely disappointed when Crowley let him leave.
"Did you do this?" he'd asked Crowley, watching his haggard face with a need to know that was almost cruel in its intensity. But he couldn't let it go; had to know for sure whether someone he'd helped, trusted, even begun to care for was capable of begetting the horrors all around them. Crowley had tried to put him off, but he'd pressed.
"Did you do this," he'd insisted, barely more than a whisper, and finally Crowley had closed his eyes and told him "No."
The relief had been like a hundred thousand shards of glass inside his chest, and he'd sank down onto the unmade bed as though ever tendon had been cut. Wordlessly, Crowley had passed him an unmarked bottle and he'd taken a long pull of terrible homemade wine. That had been three days ago.
"This is disgusting," Crowley said, pushing himself up from his boneless hungover sprawl. Aziraphale made a noise of agreement and tried not to think about the sounds bones made as they broke beneath two dozen heavy stones. But Crowley shook his head.
"No, I mean this room," he clarified. Aziraphale blinked.
The blankets they lay on stank of shut up rooms and vinegary liquor and stale sweat. The curtains were heavy and limp against the oppressive heat of the afternoon, shutting out light and air both. Crowley's shirt was stained with wine; Aziraphale's with both wine and blood. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had the stomach to try eating anything. Crowley's hair hung limp and greasy over bloodshot eyes.
Outside the window the streets had gone quiet; siesta time. The thought of leaving the room and facing humans again made Aziraphale want to retch. At least in here the stink covered up the smell of the constant bonfires.
Crowley rolled off the bed in a long serpentine twist ending in a crouch instead of actually having to sit up. It bared a strip of brown skin above the low waist of his breeches. Aziraphale closed his eyes. "Come on then, I'm not staying here. This place smells like depression."
Aziraphale turned his head to face the wall. Behind him he heard the muffled sounds of fabric being bundled up and bottles clinking together.
"So help me, angel, if you do not get out of my bed right now I will go straight to Isabella and start talking to her about heretical books."
Aziraphale gasped and shot up. "You wouldn't."
Crowley smirked like knives. "Who's going to stop me?"
Aziraphale actually growled, scrambling off the bed as Crowley held open the door. The mistress of the house eyed them coldly as they left, though Crowley left her with a handful of gold coins Aziraphale personally found rather excessive.
"Where are we going?" he asked as Crowley bundled him out into the street. He was hyper-aware that he was in his bare shirtsleeves, even though the streets were largely deserted at this hour.
Crowley pushed his long hair back away from his face with one hand. "The baths," he said distractedly, leading the way through the narrow cobbled streets.
"I thought she had them closed?" Aziraphale slipped past a loaded cart covered with a tarp, hurrying to keep up. "The pope was certainly against them."
Crowley grinned over his shoulder. "The nobles had fits, she reversed the decree within a week. No more women now though, they have to have their own baths elsewhere." He patted a donkey in passing and it took a bite at his fingers as he pulled them away. "Try not to be too disappointed."
Aziraphale glared. "The beauty of women is best adorned by modesty," he said primly, almost walking into Crowley's back as he stopped abruptly. The building rising in front of them was tiled in the bright geometric patterns the Arabs loved and surrounded by a shady arcade.
Inside it was even more beautiful. Green and blue stained glass gave a light like sunbeams through ocean waves, gently moving as the trees outside shifted in the wind. The wide entry hall where the host waited was tiled in mosaic glass and tiny round stones arranged like flowers and vines. Aziraphale handed over his coins in a daze, and only Crowley shoving at his shoulder blades kept him from stopping to examine them.
The inner rooms were smaller. The little antechamber where they were to leave their clothes held large woven baskets; Aziraphale faced the wall and focused intently on unlacing his shirt and hose. "Don't bother," Crowley told him when he went to fold them neatly for the basket. "They were hideous anyway, just burn them. I brought clean things."
Aziraphale made the mistake of looking up to argue. Crowley was standing straight and shameless beside him, naked as Adam in the Garden. "This was a terrible idea," he said, mouth suddenly dry.
Crowley smirked. "This was the best idea," he disagreed, herding Aziraphale out into the shallow-basined washing room. Heated rocks placed in low pools throughout sent herb-scented steam all through the air. They sat on low benches and Aziraphale suffered Crowley to force soap as fine as a lady's on him, and then scented oils besides. Aziraphale kept his eyes fixed on his own broken and ragged nails as Crowley dumped buckets of clear water over both their heads so they could work soap through their hair.
Even Aziraphale's was growing long: not the fashionable curls of the court but the uneven tangled locks of a hermit. He grimaced as he tried to slide his fingers through the worst of the knots. Crowley arched an eyebrow at him like he was being stupid and gestured pointedly towards the side room where attendants waited with combs and scissors. Aziraphale meekly allowed the young man to trim his hair to something that could at least be kept tidy, even if it was a bit old-fashioned. And they cleaned back his nails, too. He hadn't realized how much it bothered him that they should be unkempt.
When he came back Crowley was waiting for him, body bronze and trim, shining with both sweat and oil. Aziraphale swallowed hard and looked towards the door. "Come on," Crowley said, leading the way through the archway to where the deeper soaking pools were. "I've ordered us some food."
It was already laid out on a tall table beside the three-person tub; a plate of sliced beef and grilled chicken, bunches of cold grapes and brined cheese and soft warm fresh bread. The glass carafe of water was packed in ice and sweating in the room's heat. Aziraphale felt his stomach twisting at the scent. They hadn't bothered feeding the unfortunates they hauled in for torture; it had seemed vaguely obscene for him to eat in those circumstances.
Crowley settled in to the hot mineral-clouded water and leaned back with a groan of pure pleasure, wet hair clinging to his bare shoulders. Aziraphale stood awkward and cold dripping on the tiles. "I think perhaps I ought to leave," he said, looking at the decadent scene.
"Don't make me blackmail you, angel," Crowley said, lifting a bunch of grapes carelessly to his lips. "I can still start on your precious books. Get in. Also eat something; its weird seeing you so thin. Doesn't suit you."
Aziraphale took a deep breath of the mint-scented steam. He knew what Crowley was doing. He always seemed to push when Aziraphale wanted to give up. Aziraphale didn't want to take care of himself now either, but he knew the demon would badger and threaten and cajole until he did. He climbed into the brilliantly hot water and pulled his knees up on the bench.
Crowley's smile across the little tub was soft and genuine as Aziraphale broke off a piece of the bread. "Lets go to England next," he said, and Aziraphale didn't argue.
Aziraphale sat in a soft arm chair in the front room of a modest house in the Hamm-sud area of Hamburg, trying to read a tattered and badly-preserved copy of Catullus's poetry. With tired eyes he read the line of text for a third time. Mellitos oculos tuos, Iuventi, si quis me sinat usque basiare, usque ad milia basiem trecenta, nec numquam videar satur futurus, he read, seeing in his mind the cats-eye shine of golden eyes in the dark. Every time he heard a muffled thump or faint whispering from behind his walls he lost track of his thoughts and had to begin again.
The Reichssicherheitshauptamthad just officially dissolved the Reichsvereinigung that morning. He was glad again that this body had been issued fair-skinned and blond, grateful for the eyes that had always been blue no matter what aspect the rest of his human forms took. He had, after all, no grandparents on record of any religion, and a suspicious familiarity with the ancient Hebrew texts. There was only so much that could do though. Every house, every train, every ship was being monitored, and in any case the children couldn't stay hidden here forever. Things could not continue how they were.
He startled badly enough to drop his book when he heard the faint tapping at his window. When he looked up, expecting the shine of a torch and the intrusion of the SS officers, there was instead a pale grey dove beating its wings weakly against the panes. He stared at it in total bewilderment for a long moment. Then he scrambled to open the window and let the half-dead thing in.
It dropped heavily into his hands as soon as the window opened, indifferently allowing him to open the case carefully attached to its leg so long as it got to rest. Distractedly he passed a healing hand over it and let it peck at the remainder of the toast he hadn't been able to bring himself to finish.
The tiny slip of paper held writing Aziraphale hadn't seen used in two and a half thousand years. It didn't matter; he could still recognize the hand. The full curve of ovals like ripe fruit, the strong sweeps of parallels always leaning slightly towards each other, the delicate flicks of the serifs. Crowley.
The message itself was more of a puzzle. Something was awful in this season, and something else had been reserved on--he mentally calculated the equivalence in calendars--the 24th of this month. And then an injunction in the tender familiar form: return to the place you belong. He let his fingertips trace the beautiful lines of the words and puzzled on the missing bits at the beginning.
After a few moments he recognized the first symbol-set as an obscure glyph for a type of baked pig meat followed by the symbol for a trading camp. He laughed out loud, brittle and true. Hamburg. The other... the sound of a thing glittering in the light? He didn't know.
In any case, it was clear that Crowley wanted him out of Hamburg by the end of two weeks time, and that he should preferably return to London, if this wasn't hope causing him to misread the letter's intent. He spared a thought to the idea that it might be some trick, that Crowley might be luring him away from some desperately needed work here in the city, but he couldn't bring himself to actually believe it.
He imagined instead going back to London, where the Jews and the leftists and the homosexuals walked free and unmarked. Where he could sit in his bookshop and revel in the little beam of sunlight the high windows let in late in the afternoon that always made the dusty air shimmer, and where he never had to listen to the terrified sobbing of children he couldn't go to in the middle of the night. London, where Crowley was waiting for him.
He wanted it with a fierceness he'd never before weathered.
But he'd never be able to smuggle the children directly into England from here. The borders were watched too assiduously, and the travel south through Germany presented its own dangers. He bit his lip against the wave of longing and regret and then made himself stand and look for an inkpen.
He'd heard that Denmark was less obedient than the propaganda of a model Aryan nation made it out to be. He could believe Crowley's warning, if nothing else, and perhaps in the north he could do more good than he'd managed here.
"What do you make of the clue 'a mighty feline'?" Aziraphale asked, tapping the pencil's eraser against his lips with a frown of concentration. "Eight letters, fifth one is 'm'."
No answer seemed to be forthcoming besides the instrumental music of the television show's credits. Aziraphale looked up. Crowley was curled in an elegant little twist at the other end of the couch, head pillowed on the armrest and hair spilling dark over the white leather. His sunglasses had fallen off to lay half-folded on the carpet below, but his eyes were closed and his face slack and unguarded.
Aziraphale was struck by the sudden thought that he could do anything to Crowley right now; the demon was laying there utterly defenseless. He'd killed Crowley before while he'd been less vulnerable. Aziraphale bit his lip and stared down at his friend. Finally he lifted a hand to trace feather-light over the sleek fall of black hair. He'd always wondered what it would feel like, ever since Crowley had seemed to enjoy touching his so long ago. He'd had dark hair then too, he thought. But where his had been wild bushy curls, Crowley's was as fine and straight as silk, cool and soft against the leather of the couch.
Crowley really oughtn't sleep like that, he thought vaguely as he watched his fingers tracing the shape of Crowley's skull. It'd give him a crick in the neck and he'd wake up in a filthy temper that wouldn't pass until one of them healed it. He ought to...probably he ought to wake Crowley and say good night; it was late enough practically to be early by now. Or perhaps...well, Crowley had never hesitated to do it to him, and there was no reason to be awkward about things... Very carefully to avoid jostling him, Aziraphale slid the hand that had been touching Crowley's hair behind his neck instead and set the other arm below his knees. It was rather more difficult to manage than he'd thought it would be, more for the sheer length of Crowley's lanky body than for the weight. Crowley sleepily turned his head towards Aziraphale's chest as he was lifted and his breath was warm and damp against Aziraphale's shoulder.
Luckily the door to Crowley's bedroom was slightly open. Aziraphale wasn't sure what he'd have done if it hadn't been. The room was as clean and minimal as the rest of the flat; the large bed low to the ground like a Japanese futon and foregoing either headboard or foot. But the blankets were very soft--this new microfiber perhaps, or fleece--and there were great drifts of pillows over the head. As gently as he could, he laid Crowley's limp figure down in the soft pile.
Was there anything else? He thought of Crowley in an unlaced akkadian tunic, an unbelted toga loose over his shoulders, a linen shirt left unbuttoned at throat and cuff. And that tie didn't after all look very comfortable sleeping wear... Slowly, barely touching Crowley's chin, he coaxed it up enough to allow him access to the knot at his throat. The material was some sort of silken gold; he'd admired it briefly when Crowley had first picked him up back at the bookshop. Carefully he undid the knot and slipped it by the wide end from beneath Crowley's collar. Then for good measure he unfastened the top button of Crowley's shirt. And then the next.
He was working on the third when he realized that open amber eyes were watching him from the pillows. He startled back guiltily and then told himself he was being silly. "Ah--I woke you," he said, very quiet, patting Crowley's hand over the bedspread. "I'm sorry, my dear. Go back to sleep, and I'll be off--"
Crowley's strong fingers had closed firmly around his hand. "Don't go," Crowley said, curiously flat and intent. Aziraphale wished he could see his expression better in the dark. "Stop leaving," he demanded, low and rough and a little petulant. "I hate it." He tugged lightly at Aziraphale's hand, pulling him towards the bed. The hall light caught on the wet flick of Crowley's tongue as he licked his lips.
Aziraphale groaned like a man pushed beyond any sense of reason and leaned over Crowley's prone body to press their lips together hard. It was a little awkward--kissing wasn't as straightforward apparently as the humans made it seem. But then Crowley's lips parted for him and that long tongue was teasing his own lips open to receive it, hot and slick and filling his mouth with quick in-and-out thrusts that made Aziraphale's heartbeat pound in his ears. Long fingers tangled and clenched in his hair, keeping him from being able to pull away. But Aziraphale didn't want to. Instead he laced his fingers with the ones holding his hand and used his better leverage to pin it to the mattress. Crowley moaned into Aziraphale's mouth and let his other hand fall down beside it. Aziraphale gripped it obligingly and worried Crowley's lower lip between his teeth. He let them scrape gently over the tender flesh as he pulled back.
Crowley looked up at him with a stunned expression that faded into a rather foolish grin. "Took you long enough," he said, husky and rough. Aziraphale felt his own face stretch in an answering smile.
"I'm sorry for making you wait," he said, ducking down to rub the tip of his nose against Crowley's just because he could and it would embarrass him. "I'll have to find some way to make it up to you," he said, teasing and fond.
"I think I could think of some ways, if you need suggestions," Crowley growled, though the way he rolled his body in a long arc of spine and hips and knees against Aziraphale was a host of suggestions in itself.
Aziraphale bent to kiss him again. "I think I could too."