Crusades, Crowley has decided, are not to his liking. The orders to make his way to Antioch had come at a particularly inconvenient time, when he had ingratiated himself among some particularly rich Syriac Orthodox Christians and had been working to tempt them into such classic acts as scrabbling for more money instead of doing good works. Hanging around rich people is a good time, you get to live in luxury.
Sieges, now. Nothing luxurious about a siege, no matter which side of the wall you sit on. Crowley's been outside, trying to convince the soldiery that their mission is useless and that God has abandoned them, the usual stuff. Posing alternately as a soldier himself, an enemy messenger, and a trader fleeing from reinforcements marching from the east is a mere trifle to a demon of resources and tact. Still, he doesn't have to like it...
Crowley is sitting in a dimly-lit tent and watching an angel drink wine-and-water and look at his hands nervously. He looks richly-coloured, with olive skin and bronze-golden hair, and he doesn't fit here, somehow. Like all angels, he glows very faintly to the eye of a demon. Unlike most angels, he doesn't look completely at ease with this.
The last time Crowley had seen Aziraphale, in Alexandria, he'd been black-haired and dark-eyed, small and plump. Now he's a little taller, leaner, his face has changed, but Crowley still knows him. It's the aura. Or posture. The very faint look of discomfort.
Crowley drinks his own wine, listening to the babble of voices around him, and wonders if he should say: hello, haven't seen you in fifty years or so. It's been a good few decades in the Orthodox Church and Aziraphale has, he thinks, been in France or Italy, something to do with monasteries. He's speaking French now, Crowley notices, and quietly murmuring encouragement to one of the soldiers beside him.
What had they been discussing in the 1020s when they'd reached the arrangement? Finishing the problem of evil? Starting everyone out the same? Something like that. Holy Roman Empire, eating shellfish and discussing free will. Odd, for an angel and a demon.
Aziraphale looks over in Crowley's direction and does a discreet doubletake. Crowley waves just the fingers of one hand at him, equally discreetly. Aziraphale looks away quickly and returns to his drink.
He keeps glancing at Crowley out of the corner of his eye as he drinks, though. It seems half-nervous and half-eager. Maybe he's finally thought of a good additional point to bring up. "It's ineffable" is, in Crowley's opinion, a terrible argument.
Crowley finishes his drink and nods at Aziraphale. He's sure Aziraphale is a resourceful being, and can find Crowley's tent if he needs to.
The sun is well down on the horizon before Aziraphale makes his move. Crowley is sitting in his tent, wondering if he ought after all to do some work and crossly thinking can't trust angels to do anything right. It's not as though he wants to see Aziraphale that badly anyway. It's just...the waiting, that's all. He'd intended to be polite, as befits a worthy adversary. He's just thinking of breaking into the dry ship's biscuits he's still got left over when Aziraphale ducks into his tent.
"Hello," says Crowley. He succeeds in making this appropriately casual.
Aziraphale gives him a slight nod and sits himself awkwardly on the ground. "I haven't seen you in quite some time."
"I know, I was torn away from my duty as your sinister half and got assigned to Syria for a couple of decades, just to watch. Heard something was going to be breaking out in this area, ish. Surprised they didn't send you along to dog my footsteps."
"Same basic rationale, I think," says Aziraphale. "Preparing for...this."
They both look around, although the listless fabric of the tent prevents either of them from seeing the machinery of the siege around them.
"Glamorous, isn't it," says Crowley with a grimace.
"I...am not supposed to judge," says Aziraphale.
"Yeah, but you do though." This is, after all, what their little Arrangement is, at present, about: having someone to complain about upper management to.
Aziraphale makes a glum noise. "It's all just so messy . We could surely have done without all the bloodshed."
"Not the first time."
"No," says Aziraphale with a sigh.
"Have some arak," says Crowley. "I brought it with me."
Aziraphale makes some noise about temptation, but takes the drink anyway. He scuffs a foot vaguely into the dirt and hunches in on himself.
"I suppose you've been sowing despondency," he says without looking at Crowley.
Aziraphale sighs. "Have you done any of it on me?"
"Looks like someone already has," says Crowley, eyeing him.
"I just don't enjoy this sort of thing. I wish they'd reassign me. I like a quiet community, plenty of opportunities for subtle blessings." He takes a sip of his drink and grimaces. "I'm not a soldier, I don't even have my sword anymore."
"I wouldn't call it my preference, either. I'm not so much on the creating alarm and defeatism in wartime. Pointless, humans are much better at doing it to themselves."
They sit in contemplative silence for a minute. "It can't last long, anyhow," says Aziraphale after a while.
"Ha," says Crowley.
"About our arrangement," says Aziraphale, looking nervously over his shoulder.
"Yes?" Crowley's stomach freezes for a moment. Aziraphale doesn't want to stop, does he? Surely it's not all that incriminating. They're just meeting to talk. That's not that suspicious. Admittedly enemy agents are not supposed to do that but after all they could be trying to get information from each other--
"I feel we'll have to be rather more discreet here than we were in Egypt," says Aziraphale. He runs a nervous hand over the deep blue fabric of his sleeve. "Eyes everywhere, and all that. This is a holy war, and I expect my people will want me to be exceptionally holy, as an example."
"Fraternizing with a demon doesn't count," agrees Crowley, and plunges into bluff he's only about 50% sure will work. "I can, of course, do without your company for another few decades--"
"No," says Aziraphale quickly.
They blink at each other.
"That is," says Aziraphale, "I find our discussions remarkably...clarifying. They...make me a better soldier. Remind me of what I am fighting for."
Right , thinks Crowley, as if you've ever known. As if you think of yourself as a soldier . He doesn't say anything, just lets Aziraphale think. And tries to squash down his own inexplicably wild feelings.
Minutes pass. Aziraphale finishes his arak and sets the cup aside, refuses another drink. Crowley expects him to get up and leave. This is the first time they've seen each other since they came up with the arrangement. Crowley was half-expecting a backlash while Aziraphale settled into the idea of an unholy alliance. Hell, he was half-expecting a backlash where he himself rethought the whole idea of willingly fraternizing with an angel. Most of them are boring and self-righteous, but...
Is Aziraphale going to leave? He keeps glancing up at Crowley and then back down. Probably he's lonely. Well, Crowley is lonely. Should he be? It's just normal, isn't it, when you're on this kind of mission. Just a bit. And shouldn't Aziraphale be? Do angels get lonely? Maybe they do a great line in providing holy experiences of ecstacy and people love them. Ha ! thinks Crowley bitterly. Serve him right if I seduce him and ruin his whole Goodness act!
Crowley presses the instant replay on that thought.
Well, it would serve him right. Show him. Teach him. Something.
He's never done a good line in seduction, Crowley. Not the actual sort. It's not actually entirely easy to consider what humans will find sexually appealing, especially since it changes so often. One century people want one thing...easier to just urge them towards what they're already thinking. It might be different with angels, maybe.
Maybe that's what Aziraphale wants. Maybe that's what the arrangement was really about. Anyway, it would be good, technically, for His Side.
He realizes Aziraphale has said something. "What?"
"I said they're supposed to be bringing reinforcements. The Seljuqs, you know. Good news for you, I suppose, on the despondency front."
"Yeah," says Crowley, "Look at you already." It comes out less sarcastic than he meant it to, and Aziraphale looks up and frowns a little.
"I suppose I need to focus on the fight to hand now, and not the one that will be here soon," he says, running his hands through his hair.
"Wasn't really what I meant."
"You're...not at your best. Take a break, maybe. Do something for yourself."
Aziraphale gives him an odd look. "Like what? I'm an angel."
"I don't know. Eat? Sleep? Have another drink?"
"Waste of time," says Aziraphale, making as if to get up.
"Take comfort in another person, then," says Crowley, moving a little closer. "Two for one, cheer you both up."
Aziraphale gapes at him. "I can't do that! That's fornication!"
"Is it, when you're technically not a fleshly being?" says Crowley cheerfully. "If you're working to undermine my alarm and despondency, it's practically a holy act."
"I couldn't with a human," says Aziraphale. "Absolutely not, they're all--fleshy."
This gets him an even more shocked look. "They would never!"
"Bet they would," says Crowley.
"They wouldn't ."
"Well, there's always me, then," says Crowley, with false bravado, heart in his throat. This is much less seductive-and-smooth than he'd been hoping for, but...he moves closer and puts a hand on Aziraphale's arm, gently.
Aziraphale, to his surprise, does not move away. Maybe it's the shock. His eyes are wide but drifting down Crowley's face, his lips parted a little, shoulders tensed for motion that hasn't come yet.
Crowley leans in a little more, and still, still, there is no movement and no denial. Very, very carefully, he leans forward and places a single gentle kiss on Aziraphale's lips.
He thinks, as he pulls back, that this is really not much for all humans put on it. And then Aziraphale kisses him, mirroring the care of Crowley's, and then Crowley kisses him a little more intently, and thinks, oh, well, this is getting there--
They pull back and stare at each other.
Crowley says "Huh," and leans forward for another kiss. It's strange how warm Aziraphale is against him, how mortal they feel, how human. Crowley can feel Aziraphale's heart beating, which is absurd, because the heart and its beating are just there because they have to be for the body to work. The real Aziraphale doesn't look like this, he's or really they're a cosmic being of no true corporeality, and yet here they both are. Their hands are touching, as if they are really alive and as if they could die, and be gone. Crowley feels suddenly, aching present, presses in to feel the warmth and the heartbeat closer. He reaches up and runs his hands through Aziraphale's hair, but Aziraphale jolts as if he's just been shocked and jerks back.
"Not good?" says Crowley.
"it's not that, I, I shouldn't be doing this."
"Hey," says Crowley, "Do now, regret later," and goes for another kiss.
"No," says Aziraphale, pushing Crowley away. "No, this is wrong. How could I let myself--"
"It's just one night," says Crowley. His chest feels tight with the sudden whiplash of the shift in atmosphere. "No one will ever know."
"You're supposed to tempt them, not us."
"I'm not tempting you to do anything you don't want to," says Crowley.
"That's the point, I'm not supposed to want." Aziraphale's eyes, rich brown and wild with fear, tear away from Crowley's face. "I have to go. I--"
Crowley catches ahold of Aziraphale's sleeve. "Please--"
Aziraphale tears away and stares at him. "That's not what you're supposed to say."
It's not. It's not at all alluring or tempting. He backs away a little, trying to understand what the hell -- heaven -- what he's doing . "You don't have to go, look, I'll--"
"I thought we were--well--I thought we had an understanding, I didn't think you'd try to compromise me."
"I'm not trying to," says Crowley, helplessly. Which is false. Or not? Hadn't that been what he was trying to do? Had he even thought about what he was risking here? He reaches again for Aziraphale's sleeve, but Aziraphale snatches his hand away and ducks out of the tent without even saying goodbye.
Crowley sits on the ground with a thump. The darkness of night closes over him slowly, alone.
Aziraphale avoids him for the next couple of months, which Crowley spends cursing himself and mostly sulking rather than doing any definitive, proper tempting. This is very undemonic activity, he reminds himself. He finally gathers himself up in what turns out to be the last couple of months of the siege, but Aziraphale is far too busy to stop by. Or, probably, that's why he's not stopping by. Or maybe he's still furious with Crowley. Or maybe Crowley has irrevocably damaged their budding...cordial enemyship and Crowley will never see him again.
But he does see him again. After Antioch falls, he comes into Crowley's tent again and, without speaking a word, pours himself a drink. Crowley figures he owes him that much, and lets him drink in silence.
"It's very messy," says Aziraphale, finally.
"Yeah," says Crowley.
"We won, you know," he says. "Victory for the Christians. For God." He looks vaguely ill, but Crowley doesn't comment on that.
Crowley makes a noncommittal noise.
"What, surely you're not claiming it for your side."
"Not the actual victory," says Crowley, "But you know, not a defeat, either. You've done a lot of marvelously inventive horrible things in the name of holiness."
"Not you personally," says Crowley vaguely. "Your side."
"If war can be holy, I suppose anything else can too," says Aziraphale. "Anyway, the city is ours now."
"And still got the rest of the Crusade to see through. I assume there will be more."
"Yes, but they've decided not to force me to see it through." Aziraphale gives a prim, pained flash of a smile. "I am to return to Europe. England, I believe. There are supposed to be some portentous events coming up that they'll need someone to watch over."
"There are always portentous events," says Crowley absently. "Anyway, I'll see you there, I suppose."
"You've been reassigned too then, I take it."
A bitter little smile creeps up Crowley's lips. "Ne adverseris mihi ut relinquam te et abeam quocumque perrexeris pergam, and so on." Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go...
Aziraphale recoils. Crowley almost says 'sorry' but he can't quite make himself. Damn. This was supposed to fix things.
"I'll...see you," he says. "And we can finish that conversation. You know. About humans, and free will."
"Yes," says Aziraphale, "I'd like that."
And they do, and it's fine, and Aziraphale doesn't say anything about the incident, and Crowley resolves not to bring it up again. Except sometimes when they're drunk, when Aziraphale is a little bit too hands-on. Which could absolutely be nothing. And probably means nothing. And is definitely just a coincidence. And shouldn't be thought about, especially not when Crowley is traveling and sore all over from falling off of horses. Or when he's sitting in a crowded tavern feeling sorry for himself because he has no one to drink with. Or when he's alone in his cramped but convenient townhouse and--
He gives it a couple of goes with humans. In the name of tempting. It's good business and really his duty and he's not chasing that odd feeling of aliveness again, he's not, which is just as well because he doesn't find it.
It's...unsatisfying. Aziraphale was right. Humans are fleshy, and very bad at understanding exactly how odd it is that they're inhabiting a physical body at any given moment. They're...strapped down to their own time and place, usually.
And in the meantime he goes all over Europe and a little bit over Asia and he talks about free will with Aziraphale and they start eating lunch in fascinating little taverns and then in cafes, which are a wonderfully inventive concept that humans came up with, all by themselves, with no help from Heaven or Hell.
"Pretty remarkable," says Crowley as they sit down in France to try a new beverage called coffee. Crowley, who had tried it in the 16th century on a trip to Turkey, is skeptical of the claims of newness, but Europe will import anything and call it new no matter how long ago someone else discovered it.
"I don't know, it's a little bitter," says Aziraphale.
"I meant the whole--" Crowley gestures. "You give them free reign and they go around making up things like this. Coffee houses, and so on."
Aziraphale makes a noncommittal noise and takes another sip. "I suppose it's all part of the Divine Plan."
"What, coffee? Nah, they came up with that one on their own."
"It's a good enough world," says Aziraphale, reflecting. "One does regret that it will eventually have to be destroyed."
"Oh, come on. You don't think they'll get around to all that final battleground stuff, do you? Really?"
They get more and more settled and comfortable and the arrangement starts to take on a capital letter. It's a simple as it ever was, but expanded. Now they're doing a little bit of each other's jobs, which means spending more time together under at least the guise of coordinating their activities.
It's easier this way. Talking to Aziraphale more is just...a side effect, not a bonus.
After the world doesn't end, they go home.
Home, that is, to London, although Crowley doesn't want to go back to his flat right now and of course there's Aziraphale. Who keeps looking down at his hands, as if remembering the sword in them. Crowley himself has that uneasy feeling he always gets when he lets his wings out and pulls them back in, a sort of itch in the back of his head that a body part is suddenly missing. They're both silent the whole way home, lost in their own thoughts.
By silent mutual agreement, they wind up at the Ritz, not to eat but to sleep. Sleep is not supposed to be necessary for either of them, of course, but somehow after tonight...
"One feels that the world needs a chance to reset itself," says Aziraphale.
"Yeah," says Crowley glumly, thinking that he probably won't, and what is he supposed to drive now? And what is Aziraphale going to do without his bookshop? Places to live are really no hardship for angels and demons to come by, but that shop was his Occupation.
He sighs, and they check into their suites. They had not, of course, bothered calling ahead for reservations. The fact that the two have a through door is not Crowley's doing, so maybe it's Aziraphale's. Crowley is grateful for this.
"Come in for a drink?" says Aziraphale, when they reach their hallway, just as if they're standing outside his shop.
"I need one about now," says Crowley.
They raid the minibar and sit side by side on the large and comfortable couch. For two drinks, the first consumed rapidly and the second rather more slowly, they are silent again.
When Crowley has finished his second, he stands up a little unsteadily. "I'll leave you to get some rest, then--"
"I'd rather you didn't," says Aziraphale very quietly, "I don't feel much like being alone right now. If you don't mind."
Crowley sits back down so fast he nearly falls into the couch.
"Perhaps we ought to have some food," says Aziraphale. "As much as I'd like to get thoroughly drunk and forget everything that happened today, I'm not sure it's going to work."
So they order room service, and sit for a while. Crowley turns on the TV and turns it back off, seeing nothing that he wants to be aware of. Their food comes, and they pick at it slowly, stealing bits off each other's plates, and slowly, slowly, they relax.
"It was certainly an adventure," says Aziraphale. "Not one I'd like to repeat again, although, alas, I fear we may one day have to."
"I hope they don't move us," says Crowley. "I mean, reassign us. Apart. If they try this shit again, we need to be together. It was bad enough with both of us, imagine how incompetent we'd be apart."
Aziraphale laughs, the first time he's done so for what feels to Crowley like a long time. "I'm sure they won't. We can't have you doing demonic things without someone to thwart you. 'Ne adverseris mihi ut relinquam te et abeam quocumque perrexeris pergam and so on', didn't you say once?"
Crowley goes very still. He feels his strange human heart thumping within him, radiating outward, making his hands shake. Whither thou goest I will go. In a smooth movement driven by pure impulse, he presses himself up tight against Aziraphale, grabs him by the collar, and kisses him.
He's much more than half expecting to be pushed away again, faster this time, but when Aziraphale's hands find his jacket they just pull him closer. Crowley slides his hands up to Aziraphale's hair. It's a different texture than it was, more coily. He's grown it out longer now too, so there's more to run his fingers through. Crowley feels Aziraphale's breathing, and the smoothness of his skin, and he thinks in shock, is this what it's like for people all the time? Does it remind them that they're alive? That the world has not yet stopped moving? It's not so much the physical sensation of lips together and hands in hair as the vivid realization that they are here, now, with each other. The boundaries are greyed out. Where one ends, the other begins.
"You remembered," he mumbles against Azirapale's skin.
"Of course I remembered," says Aziraphale.
"I thought you'd...tried to put it out of your mind. You never said anything," says Crowley, leaning back a little to see Aziraphale's face.
"I thought you were trying to tempt me." Aziraphale frowns. "I was very upset with myself for giving in for as long as I had. I couldn't understand why, so I tried not to think about it."
"I wasn't. Honest. I mean I was supposed to, I should have been, but I wasn't."
"I think," says Aziraphale softly, "I understand that now."
"It's probably dangerous," says Crowley. "Down Below might not like it. Though I don't know if they're going to be paying attention for a while, what with the embarrassment."
"Why'd you risk it, then?"
Crowley makes a helpless noise and shrugs his shoulders.
Aziraphale reaches over and very, very carefully takes Crowley's hand. "Me too," he says.
Crowley laces their fingers, without speaking.
"I think perhaps," says Aziraphale, "We might not need that other room after all."
And the next morning it's Sunday. The first Sunday of the rest of their lives.
It is a nice day.