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Strange and Terrible Comforts

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Strange and Terrible Comforts

“All strange and terrible events are welcome, but comforts we despise.”

- Cleopatra

            Aziraphale will never forget when the Library of Alexandria burned. He remembers the smell of the smoke, the taste of ash in his mouth and the sudden, strange knowledge that the end of an era was fast approaching and nothing would ever be the same.

            He remembers speaking to Cleopatra later. (He wasn’t prone to speaking to Historically Significant types, not after what happened with Adam and Eve and the flaming sword bit). But he liked this Cleopatra, with her sharp wit and ready mind and how she could sit and talk with him for hours about books and knowledge and the fragile state of humanity. He doesn’t know who or what she thought he was, but she always greeted him wryly, as if she imagined there was more to him than appeared. Perhaps she thought him a demi-god or a prophet. He really couldn’t say.

            After centuries of obnoxiously decadent, inbred, needlessly violent Ptolemies Aziraphale found something wry and poignant in the fact that this Cleopatra had risen from the snake pit of her family line only to face the end of her empire with defiant pride.

            “Don’t cry, Aziraphale,” Cleopatra had said, brushing a tear from his cheek, “All isn’t lost.”

            “I know, I know,” Aziraphale had tried to put on a brave face for her, his friend, whose tragic end he could feel just around the corner like crocodiles lurking on the banks of the Nile.

            She took his chin in one firm, calloused hand and gave it a little shake, “We will endure and we will reinvent ourselves.”

            He’d given her a sad smile, “I don’t doubt that, dear child.”

            “That’s what humans do best,” she gave his cheek a firm pat before pulling away, “All that knowledge is lost for now and it’s a terrible waste. But we can learn again and we can rise again.”

            He could see in the lines of her face that this wasn’t simply something she believed but something she felt she had to believe or crumble in the face on reality.

            “Of course,” he’d said and let it go at that.

...

            Crowley never could understand the angel’s fascination with books, of all things. He’d liked hieroglyphs well enough. They were twisty and tricky and could be read so many different ways, not to mention the pictures were funny and the mythology always bloody and a bit absurd, just like everything should be, really. Not to mention all the snakes. Very flattering, all the snakes.

            Crowley takes responsibility for that one. He’d spent much of his time in Egypt in serpent form. It was just so delicious to feel the sun on his scales as he scared the wigs off the occasional high priest.

            But when the Library of Alexandria burned he hadn’t really felt all that torn up about it. He’d slithered up to Aziraphale and hissed, “Ssssso what’s so important about thissss one?”

            Aziraphale extended an arm for him to crawl up and Crowley does so, twisting his body around and around the angel’s torso until he can rest his head on a heavenly shoulder and look out at the city. “It’s all that knowledge. All those beautiful, creative possibilities squandered for petty, stupid reasons.”

            “You assssume the bessst of people.”

            “Yes. And I’m always disappointed when some violent egoists take it into their heads to crush hopeful futures for a bloody, pointless pseudo-victory.”

            Crowley did not bring up Gabriel and the more pompous members of the Heavenly Host because he may be a demon, but something in Aziraphale’s stricken facial expression hurt deep down in the pit the angel charitably calls his soul. Instead he simply tucked his head into the crook of Aziraphale’s shoulder and squeezed the angel’s middle a little more firmly than usual.

            “Is that a hug, Crawly?”

            “It’s Crowley and no. I’m softening you up for when I inevitably destroy you.”

            “Mmm yes. It’s rather comforting, though. Even if you’re only tenderizing me.”

            Crowley knows that it was not an asp that killed Cleopatra. He liked her, he really did. She was braver, bolder, and more brilliant than half those Roman morons and he can’t tell if she’s destined for heaven or hell but she was bloody brilliant on earth.

            “There is a story,” she’d told him as her city burned before her, “That in order to gain all of Ra’s wisdom, the goddess Isis created a snake out of his essence and sent it to bite him. The dying god could not be cured by anyone other than a doctor in possession of his True Name. The True Name is part of the soul, you see. And only part of his soul could cure what part of his body had begun to destroy. Isis told him this and after much deception and trickery he finally told her his True Name and she healed him, taking on wisdom and power to match his as she did so.”

            “Why are you telling me this?” Crowley had hissed at her.

            She’d given him a look. She was never traditionally beautiful. She had the strong, classical sort of face that would have been plain had it not been for the intelligence, wit, and graciousness touched with ruthlessness that gave it character and drew people in.

            “I used to think I was Isis. But maybe I am Ra after all and it is now time to leave this world to those who have seized it,” a for a moment she looked utterly stricken and stonily resolute in the same instant, “And I will not be stripped naked and paraded through the streets like a trophy to be thrown at Octavian’s feet.” She looked at him, all the dignity and despair in the world in her eyes, “Will you help me?”

            Crowley nodded and did as she asked. When questioned he told them he’d engineered the whole thing, set Rome on track for all its centuries of decadence and violence.

            Really it was simply a favor to a friend.

            Aziraphale has loved Crowley since the very beginning. Since their chat on the wall of the garden, as they watched the original Adam thrash around with the flaming sword Aziraphale gave him.

            Loving is easy. Aziraphale is made to love.

            Hiding it not so easy.

            So when Crowley slinks into Aziraphale’s rooms after the fall of Egypt, in human form this time, it’s easy to look up at him with soft eyes. It’s not so easy not to draw him into a gentle embrace when he sees the lines of pain etched onto his face.

            “I helped her die,” Crowley says.

            “Did they tell you to do it?” Aziraphale asks, voice hardening. He’s a creature made of contradictions, full of all-encompassing forgiveness and petty grudges. He doesn’t think he could ever hate Crowley for anything, but his heart hurts at the thought of Crowley extinguishing such a bright light on the orders of such a dark place. 

            “No,” Crowley shakes his head, “she asked for my help.”

            And that’s all Aziraphale needs to hear. “Come here, then, let me get you something to eat and you can rest up. There’s a good fellow.”

            They don’t see each other until Rome, a century or so later, they’re both a little too raw from that night, mourning their friend as the tide of history turns and an angel teeters on the edge of embracing a demon and a demon nearly topples into that soft shoulder and weeps and screams his sadness and loss.

            Crowley hates both World Wars. He spends the first one slinking through the jungles of South America because while there’s no one to tempt down there, there’s also no bombs going off and no pointless death clogging up the metaphysical atmosphere. It’s only four years. The Home Office barely understands time as it is; they don’t check up on him until things have settled down.

            (He sees Aziraphale later, in London, looking haggard in the aftermath, handing out tea and soup to workers trying to clear away some of the rubble from the bombs. They nod to each other and Crowley’s potentially-non-existent heart aches at the shadows in the angel’s eyes).

            The Second World War was heinous and Crowley loathed it. He turned up at Aziraphale’s flat in the 1930s screaming about Nazis in Germany and fascists in Italy and the pile of rubble the Japanese military had turned Nanjing into.

            “I HATE IT, ANGEL, I HATE, HATE, HATE IT!”

            “Crowley…”

            “They do this to themselves, don’t you bloody see? They’re nasty, cruel, pointless little insects and nothing so-called ‘True Evil’ musters up can TOP the horrible things they do TO EACH OTHER. I'm sick of it, I'm sick of seeing all this POINTLESS AGONY they inflict on one another!” He was spitting and snarling, pacing Aziraphale’s flat, trembling like a live wire.

            He wanted to start screaming again but he had nothing else to say so he ripped the sunglasses off his face and flung them at the wall. They shattered into a million pieces, and when they saw that bit of destruction didn’t satisfy him, they shattered into a million more.

            Aziraphale approached him like he was feral, like he might bite or burst into flame.

            “I know, darling,” Aziraphale said, eyes brimming, “I know. I hate it too.”

            And Crowley didn’t know what to do with that so he curled his lip, conjured up a new pair of shades and stormed off.

            Aziraphale never knew if Crowley loved anything. He knew the demon liked things. Fashionable clothes (in all black), looking sharp enough to cut glass, good wine, good food, being admired, being listened to. He liked attention if it was the right kind and he liked control, but not so much control that he looked neurotic instead of effortlessly cool.

            In short, Crowley liked to put on a show and Aziraphale never knew if anything managed to slip under that slick veneer or if it all just slid off like water on oiled canvas.

            Aziraphale has loved Crowley for over five thousand years and he’s never really known if the other being loved him back. He rather doubted it. But that was fine. Because Aziraphale loved Crowley as Crowley was, even when that was insufferable, pig-headed, deliberately infuriating, and obtuse.

            Crowley liked to be admired and Aziraphale, no matter how annoyed he got, always admired him.

            He rather doubted Crowley thought of him as anything more than occasional entertainment and a free sounding board/punching bag/dueling partner.

            (Most of those duels were clashes of wits, but on one memorable occasion in Renaissance Spain before the Inquisition ruined everything, they actually did go at it with sabers).

            So he was surprised when Crowley intervened at the church during the Blitz. Aziraphale didn’t bother to hide the light that suddenly suffused his heart at the hopping shuffle of Crowley’s expensive shoes on consecrated ground.

            Something in his head was singing ‘he came back for me, he came back, he came back for me.’on loop. And he knew, or thought he knew, that Crowley didn’t love like he does, but just like at the Bastille he felt, like the sky suddenly clearing and the sun trickling down after a summer storm, that maybe, just maybe, something about him mattered to Crowley.

            And then the bomb.

            And then the books.

            And Aziraphale was left staring at that sharply dressed back as it tries to walk away, heart in his throat, suddenly thinking, “Maybe I was wrong.”

Staring at the flask Crowley wondered what changed the angel’s mind, when Aziraphale was so clearly convinced that giving him the holy water would be like giving someone an active hand grenade. He thought in circles about Cleopatra and the fruit of knowledge and serpents and death and wisdom. He’d never been wise, he thought, just clever and bloody-minded. He thought the angle was probably the same way, which is why the bottle of holy water sitting in his hand is so perplexing.

“Why did you give it to me, then? Really?” he asked later, at a discotech of all places.

Aziraphale sipped his violently pink drink thoughtfully, “It was about trust. I had to trust you wouldn’t do anything…untoward with it.”

“Untoward?” Crowley had raised an eyebrow over the rim of his sunglasses.

“Yes,” Aziraphale had said simply, one hand coming up to grip Crowley’s wrist.

The contact was shocking. A bit like static electricity, but pleasant. Crowley’s instincts told him to pull away, that wasn’t for him. But his selfishness let him linger.

Aziraphale smiled at him, “Please, dear boy, take care of yourself.” And it didn’t sound like a dismissive turn of phrase coming from the angel. From him it felt like a genuine plea.

Crowley found himself nodding and looking away before the angel’s smile could do things to his self-composure.

            After everything is over and they’re behind closed doors, alone again, as they’d always been through the beginning and now the almost-end of the world, Crowley spins around, jacket flaring, grabs Aziraphale and crushes him in an embrace as only a snake can crush someone. His fingers are tight bands digging into Aziraphale’s body as if sheer force can keep the angel in one piece, part of this reality and no other.

            “What’s all this about?” Aziraphale asks.

            “You,” Crowley hisses, “Are not allowedto disappear where I can’t follow.” 

            “What? Crowley?” Aziraphale is flustered and a little confused, but something inside him is soft and squishy and he absently ponders what Crowley said all the way back in Egypt about not embracing but tenderizing him.

            Of if Crowley only knew.

            “Ineedyou, angel,” Crowley spits, “No, that’s not right. I want you – no. I don’t know what this feeling is but it’s been unsettling me for six thousand years and it’s all to do with you being safe.”

            Aziraphale’s heart is doing some kind of absurd flip-flop wriggling thing. He absently ponders how it’s convenient that he doesn’t technically need his heart to beat because the little guy seems to have completely lost control of itself.

            “Crowley,” Aziraphale says softly, “What do you want from me?”

            “I want you safe and contentand with me.”

            “Why?” Aziraphale has loved Crowley for a very long time. He’s always assumed Crowley simply…didn’t process things that way. That he was convenient for the old serpent, amusing even. It didn’t hurt, really, it just felt like the most reasonable explanation. And then Crowley comforted him after Alexandria, and came to him to weep about Cleopatra, and saved the bloody books, and trusted anangel, specifically him, Aziraphale, with procuring something that could easily destroy him down to his very essence. 

            Aziraphale had told him that he had had to trust Crowley to take care of himself in order to hand over the holy water. Now he’s rapidly realizing that they’ve been trusting one another with each other for a very, very long time and perhaps things are simultaneously a lot simpler and a lot more complex than he ever expected.

            “Darling…” Aziraphale attempts, “I think what you mean is love.”

            “What?” Crowley asks.

            “I love you. And I think…possibly…so sorry…but you might love me back.”

            Crowley’s grip tightens then slackens as if he’s been stuck over the head. His face is still buried in Aziraphale’s lapel so the angel can’t check. “Oh. Oh. I hadn’t…that’s not the done thing…bloody hell. I’m in love with an angel.”

            “You love me back,” Aziraphale whispers. It’s a novel feeling, surprised and elation mixed together. Like the first bite of your two favorite ice cream flavors on hot, sticky day.

            “I’ve been in love with you for six thousand years.”

            “Oh. Well then, we’ve wasted a lot of human history, haven’t we?” is the only thing Aziraphale can think to say.

            “Good thing there’s so much more of it up for grabs,” Crowley says, raising his head just to press their foreheads together. Somewhere along the line black wings manifested behind him, and now they come up to wrap around Aziraphale, sheltering him just like Aziraphale did for him during the first thunderstorm.

            It’s a different sort of beginning, but all things considered, Aziraphale things it’s rather nice.