Why a serpent? Crawly thinks. In the Garden, the ground feels cold and damp against his belly where he hides in the underbrush. His tongue darts out to find chlorophyll and the cloying taste of roses and something he’d never smelled before. Decay. He slithers over the rich soil, fine silt held together by the deep roots of vegetation, following the rotting stench. It’s at once frightening and new, and the curiosity which sparked his fall guides his writhing body through the Garden.
He finds a mouse, eyes bloated and belly turned skyward, the maggots and flies feasting. The fur is matted and grayed. A yawning desire rears from his belly like a gaping wound, at once revolted by the stink of death and yet panged and hungry. It’s a new sensation, this gluttony which sweeps over him. He hisses and twists away.
The dead mouse lies in the shade of a leaf heavy with dew. It doesn’t rain in the Garden of Eden, not yet, but the trees still find nourishment from water and the soil. Above, where Crawly dares not look, a part in the trees lets sun filter through in thin beams. It’s God’s touch, and yet something is already rotting in Eden.
Crawly circles for some days around the mouse, torn between hunger and disgust. Over time, he watches with interest as maggots, flies, and worms make quick work of the flesh. The bones are revealed, picked clean like the soft white color of angels’ wings, the rotted fur and skin dissolved into something small, fragile, and hollow. He refrains from touching the thing. Time has just begun in its infancy and still it changes, consumed by the bugs and other living creatures before succumbing to the earth itself.
He’s been given a job, he knows. Make some trouble , they said. From the mouse bones sprout a small green shoot, leaves curling out as it grows. Its fresh scent cleanses the decay, and from the corpse of the dead rises a yellow flower, it’s center like a cup collecting dew.
Time passes, now weeks since Crawly’s ascent from Hell where he’s hidden beneath the brush, cold and sluggish in the shadows. Why a serpent? he wonders, until a soft buzzing snaps him from listlessness. The daffodil has grown a foot high by now, and around it flirts an insect. With acute eyes, he sees the soft striped body, the pollen collecting at its feet. He darts after it as it flits away, carving an ambling path through the Garden. It stops at several more flowers before rising higher to greet the budding flowers on a tree.
Crawly looks up then for the first time and sees the bright sun slicing through clouds and leaves. An ache sears through him, his eyes burn unused to and undeserving of the harsh light. It’s like looking into the heavens. The memory rips through him then, standing in the golden light, feeling Grace and warmth. It’s a distant echo, like a warm breeze passing through before carrying on its way. He remembers the questions, What is God’s plan? Where are we from? What is my purpose? The other angels had surrounded him then; faceless, glittering as bright as scales with their thousand eyes, wings sharp as fish fins. They did not answer his questions, merely tilted their amorphous heads, stepping forward around him until he stepped so far back he slipped off the edge.
He hisses and snaps his head from the sunlight, pain lancing through him down his scales quick like a shock of electricity. He’ll never forget the memory of the shock of freefall, pungent sulfur burning his wings and skin, and his first coppery taste of fear. It hits him and frightens him anew.
Instead he looks up but away. He’s never looked up before. He sees the buzzing yellow insect flitting between flowers on the tree. A small but ripe fruit hangs from the branches, golden like the sun but subdued as not to burn. Crawly flicks his tongue out and tastes sweetness and feels the wounding hunger reverberate inside him. It terrifies him and reminds him of the mouse with its bloated eyes and angel-white bones.
He dreads devouring the fruit despite his yearning and makes to turn away but stops at the sound of voices, the smell of humans and the ringing of laughter. The woman, scraped from the flesh of her partner, stands under the tree. She shows no fear, no longing. She’s a being of God’s creation, not God’s wrath. Crawly wonders then if she’s invincible to the things now haunting him, desire and hunger. So much hunger. If he could not feast, then perhaps she could. Decided, he slithers towards her, climbing the tree into the light.
Besides the Guardian of the Eastern Gate, Crawly has not met another miracle-maker on Earth, not until he finds himself drunk on wine in Bethany. He’s paid little attention to ongoings of humankind. He’s alive and sloughing through the centuries, and it’s difficult to muster any interest in the ongoings around him. He’s heard of a heretic walking the streets with 12 men following him, spreading the Word. Hell’s sent him to investigate, but Crawly takes little interest. There will always be more heretics and prophets scamming the streets. He’s gotten a few commendations already without having to lift a finger. People are their own devils, he finds.
When they do finally meet, it’s not what he expects. Crawly rests on the side of the road, contemplating which direction to take next. He continuously refills the flask of wine beside him, but with frustration has yet to find himself drunk when the stranger approaches. The miracle-maker has hard callused hands and tanned shoulders from the sun. He wears rough-woven robes when Crawly’s certain he could magic up the most decadent of fibers. The miracle-maker wears his hair in long, snarled waves, and the leather straps of his sandals are frayed. Still, he offers up some fruit and bread when they cross paths on the same road, taking pity on Crawly, two men lingering behind him with ill-disguised scowls.
The miracle-maker--and he knows he makes miracles by shine of God’s light around him- follows Crawly’s eyes when he tries to look away. This is the heretic, he knows, though he’s no heretic at all. Crawly averts his eyes. Looking at the man head on is a bit like being filled with Grace. It’s encompassing and burning and underneath it all is the singed and rotten smell of sulfur to remind him he cannot look. He does not deserve to look.
He lets out a low hollow laugh instead when he sees what’s in the miracle-maker’s hands. An apple. This strange being of light--who looks into him and does not fear his serpent eyes--has proffered him an apple along with a slice of bread.
He swallows around the dry lump in his throat. Crawly has resisted temptation to eat thus far despite the well of yawning hunger within him. “Good man,” he says, “I cannot accept these gifts.”
The miracle-maker whisks them away, a knowing look to his face and posture. “Come then. Join us. We’re traveling to Bethphage in search of a donkey.”
One of the followers scoffs in protest. “Yeshua, is that wise?”
“This man bears the eyes of the Devil,” the other man says. He’s a bit sullen looking, dirty, and smells like fish. Crawly scowls and pulls the hood to his robe further over his face.
A hand appears in his line of vision, a gesture of good will. “No matter,” the miracle-maker says. “No harm will come to us. Stranger, you are more than welcome to join us.”
Even without looking, Crawly can feel the light emanating from him. He wonders if the two men can also sense it. It burns differently than looking at the angel. It’s muted, warm, like curling in the sun. He takes the stranger’s hand.
The walk from Bethany to Bethphage is uneventful. An uncertain silence falls upon the four of them, and Crawly bites his tongue from complaining about sand in his sandals and the dust in his eyes. Instead he keeps his head down and makes an effort to remember to blink, though he knows the miracle-man, Yeshua, sees through him.
They make it halfway before night falls and they set up camp. Then Crawly finds himself alone with the miracle-maker after the other two are dismissed to sleep. Most times he despises the chilling creep of night. Without a fire, Crawly struggles to keep his cold blood warm. It’s different in the presence of this man who exudes heat and warmth and Grace. It’s a bit like lying on a rock in the sun or standing under the wing of an angel.
Crawly finds himself filled with temptation and hunger. He wants to show this man things, but what he isn’t sure. What does the Son of God desire? Hunger for? Yeshua remains mostly quiet except for the rise and fall of his breath, an astute observer in the dark night and glimmer of stars, and Crawly is his subject. He would subject to him if God and Satan would allow it (they won’t).
“There’s a lovely wine from Jerusalem,” he says instead. “The vineyards are irrigated by the Jordan River.” He passes his sheepskin flask to the stranger, hands shaking. When Yeshua wraps his fingers around the skein but does not drink, he rambles. “And the family working the vines have made home their for some generations. There’s a son and two daughters. You’d like them, I think. They could have all the wealth in the world with a plantation like that, but they’re always giving to Temple. Charity, isn’t that what you preach?” They had taken pity on him as he passed through and gave him food and drink. Crawly took the drink and dismissed the food. He had an air about him, he supposed, of a drunkard or a beggar in need of pity. Why else would good people stop to help a devil?
“And there’s a great monument made of stone some ways to the West your lot built. It’s bigger than anything and a sight to see.”
“My lot?” the miracle-maker asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, maybe not your lot. I could take you to see it. We’d be back before those two idiots even wake.”
A silence follows, still and full and cloying. Crawly’s body rattles from the tension. The miracle-maker contemplates before resting a hand on his knee. “Is all this worth saving?” He gestures with a broad hand at the empty road, his sleeping disciples, the starlit sky.
Crawly balks. “What sort of question is that?”
“Isn’t that why you’re here, Serpent? You’re the question-asker and the answer-seeker, are you not?”
“I’m certainly not the answer-haver or giver, if that’s what you mean. You’d better go find another. There’s an angel ‘round here doing miracles. That’s who you should ask.”
“If I wanted to know what the sword-bearer thought, I’d be with him instead,” Yeshua says. He turns his hand, palm upwards, and Crawly, who has been so hungry for so long, takes it.
He jolts, startled by the warmth and brightness, washing out his vision until all he sees is white. His mind, no longer his own, begins to offer up memories to the miracle-maker: the sickening sweet smell of fetid flesh, laughter from a woman under a golden tree, a grand and sturdy ark held together through sheer will of one man and his sons, the parting of waters, people in chains being set free. Children laughing, red wine and grapes staining fingers, wool being spun into fibers, kissing chastely then with passion spied upon from the shadows. The glimpse of something white, feathers, an impish smile, and a flaming sword. Then longing, aching, plummeting. Crawly smells rotten eggs, decay, and sorrow, feels his clean, bright flesh peel from his body in searing agony, every nerve alight with hellfire.
He rears back, jerking his hand away. He can never go back to that place. Earth has been his ill-fitting home for thousands of years already. His eyes burn from salt and tears--how human of him. He wipes at his face with the back of his hand. “It’s worth it; it’s worth saving,” he says, his voice choking, hollowed. “And it certainly can’t be me who does it.”
The miracle-maker considers him, appraises him with an impenetrable look. He retracts his extended hand, folding it in his lap and then smiles. “All right, I will save this place, but there’s something you must do for me in return.”
Crawly looks at him, raw and cold now without the miracle-maker’s touch. “Anything.”
“In two days time there will be a procession into Jerusalem. Then a trial and a sentence. There’s another of my men who loves me dearly. You must convince him to betray me.”
“Because he would otherwise die trying to protect me, and it’s not his sacrifice to save this earth. Meet me in the Garden of Gethsemane in a week’s time.”
Crawly nods, slow but certain, turning the miracle-maker’s words over in his mind. “All right.”
“I’d invite you to sup with us, but I fear my men are not ready to accept the likes of you, Serpent. And I know you would decline to eat anyway.” He pauses, opens his mouth, and shuts it again. He looks at Crawly. “You should change your name,” he says after a moment, “for you do not bear the likes of those who named you. You’re different.”
“I’ll consider it.”
“Good.” Yeshua reaches then with both hands on his face. He leans forward and presses his lips to Crawly’s forehead. It makes him flinch, wary of the Holy light seeping from his skin. “One week’s time,” the miracle-maker says. “Remember that.”
Crawly’s body feels heavy and goes limp. Warmth encapsulates him and his eyes slip shut. He has avoided sleeping for so long, like those other mortal temptations food and lust. Still, he gives into the weariness and succumbs to darkness.
He wakes sometime later on the side of the road to Bethphage, the remnants of the camp around him. Sleep leaves him stages, delirium first followed by slow clarity. The persistent, cleave within him seems soothed for the moment. He walks the long miles to Gethsemane and skirts around Jerusalem and Mount Olive.
Later, he will stand behind Aziraphale to witness a crucifixion. He will be glib and so will the angel, but the comfort of being beside a being of God will soothe his aching soul like cool water over an infected wound, barely at all.
Now, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he does not want to be seen and so slithers across the branches of a tree to hide in the dark. In the end, he finds he’s not meant to be seen at all but to see, bear witness as the disciple--the traitor--kisses the miracle-maker’s cheek before an army of guards descend upon him. The miracle-maker could miracle them all away, but he lets them take him by the shoulders and wrists. He does not resist, but still they rough him. Yeshua looks at him through the trees one last time, resolute. Is all this worth saving?
“I may be a painter, Antonio, but I also need to eat.” The aging man glares from under his fringe spilling from under his cap. Wood chips and lead shavings cling to his doublet and stockings and rough cut parchment lay scattered across the worktop. Leonardo is at once sketching the outline of a woman of undetermined mortality, mixing oils, and gluing down the batten of a model ballista.
The real ballista will span twenty-seven yards, and for it the highest bidder will pay a hefty sum. “I rather like the paintings more,” Crowley says. He maneuvers an empty cask with his foot and sits upon it, his back against the wall and his feet on the worktop. “If you’re never going to finish that portrait, at least let me keep the rough draft.”
“I’ll finish it, Antonio, per favore. And anyway, this mechanism intrigues me. It’s spring-loaded, but I’m wondering if perhaps I could improve it using hydraulics.” He gestures at the model. When it’s complete, it will fire a ray of large stones, damaging firmaments and collapsing cities’ defense walls for foot soldiers to storm through.
“It will kill people. Aren’t you a pacifist?”
“Disease kills people. Age kills people. The Papacy kills people.” Leonardo scoffs, straightening his spine. “What’s one more in the cog?”
Crowley senses tension in the thin press of his lips. Leonardo has aged in the year Crowley spent abroad. He no longer greets the demon the way he used to in his youth. It’s quieter now without a slew of apprentices and students marching through at all hours of the day. “Where’s Salai off to then?” he asks.
Leonardo exhales a long exasperated breath. Without looking up he says, “He’s left.”
“To the market? To the docks? Running errands?”
“He left left,” Leonardo says with a pointed look.
Crowley stops, surprised. “Ah,” he says. “I see.” He finds himself smacking his lips in lieu of nothing to say and shifts to sit on his fidgeting hands.
Leonardo swats at his feet on the worktop. “Why are you here anyway? You said you were off to Milan to make mischief.”
“And so I have returned. I was gone for a whole year, you know.”
“Were you? Funny you look the same while all around me everything changes and ages.” It isn’t the first time Leonardo has made such comments about Crowley’s lack of aging, though over the years they’ve made an unwritten rule to let it lie. “My most famous fresco is falling apart even as we speak.”
“Your only fresco.”
The fresco in question is displayed in the Santa Maria delle Grazi in Milan where Crowley had in fact spent the past year. It isn’t why he went though he’d figured out some time ago if he could get in an out with speed, the sanctified stone of the monastery would only leave blisters on his feet. 15 years ago he’d heard the famous Leonardo da Vinci was painting The Last Supper. If anyone could come close to the feeling Crowley had felt on the road to Bethphage, it had to be the great da Vinci.The whole dining hall of the monastery had been closed except to the artist and his apprentices; not even the monks could enter, yet Crowley managed to sneak in daily for minutes at a time to watch the artwork unfold. He was also treated to hearing Leonardo--whom he had presumed was a pious, good man up until that point--curse in a holy house of god while painting the face of Jesus Christ.
“Dio cane! The plaster is flaking. Pezzo di merda.” Leonardo had spun around in search of assistance and found himself wanting in the presence of Crowley. “You there, find me more lead and egg for the tempera.”
Crowley, who was almost at his five minute limit for withstanding the searing pain of sanctified ground, nodded and danced out of the monastery with speed. He did not return for three days. How could he conjure something when he didn’t know what it was or meant for? He spent the time cursing his blistered feet while begging someone, anyone to tell him what the hell tempera was and why it needed eggs.
He’d run into Salai then, Leonardo’s apprentice, carrying a crate full of sealed glass jars, pigments of all colors, oil, and the makings for plaster. “Yes, this! Thank you!” Crowley had said, snatching the crate from the younger man’s hands before sprinting into the monastery. He hissed as the stone floors burned through his sandals, skidding to a halt moments before crashing into the scaffolding.
Leonardo looked down at him from above and sighed. “You’re late.”
“You didn’t really give me a time limit,” Crowley said, dropping the crate on the ground. “Anyway, here’s your stuff.”
Down the hall, the echo of sprinting footfalls and shouts spirited towards them led by Salai and two guards. “That man stole property of the great Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci!”
“I hate when he invokes my full name,” Leonardo said, put upon. “I have a feeling you’re not meant to be here. The true question is why are you here?”
Crowley pushed his crooked glasses up and shrugged. His face twisted into a facsimile of a smile before he skipped into a run out the opposite entrance to the dining hall and over the low garden wall into the back street.
How could he tell the painter his fresco of Gesù Cristo was the closest thing he’d seen to the miracle-maker himself? Granted, the skin tone was all wrong and the hands were too soft. The men were dressed in too fine of linens and there was an air about the painting which suggested they didn’t all smell of fish. All of their faces were too pale, too sculpted, too regal to be real. Still, Leonardo had captured the light and the stillness of the singular man amongst the chaos of men. He’d captured the weariness too, Crowley thought. It filled a little bit of the void just to look at it.
He circled around once, twice, three times to peek at its progress again. He caught Leonardo’s eyes as well. There was a spark of interest in his eyes, though Crowley would not be able to name it for some centuries more.
Leonardo later had found him lurking in an alley behind the monastery and invited him to dine. Crowley accepted the drink and declined the food, content to watch the painter surrounded by his apprentices unwind bit by bit with each sip.
It'd taken Salai much longer to warm to Crowley. He was a wry little thing with a round face and fair skin like all the painted cherubs in renaissance art combined into one. Beneath his soft looks he possessed a cunning wit and a mistrust for the many who called upon Leonardo and commissioned his works. He didn’t age well, however. Over time, his angelic face twisted with scorn and jealousy the more apprentices and favors Leonardo took on. They were both spread so thin, and in the year 1518 when Crowley returned to Milan, the once-young apprentice to the greatest painter and inventor of their time had washed his hands of turpentine and oil and wood shavings and the cool chips of marble, the rough and calloused hands of his lover, and the bright curiosity that drove him to Leonardo as a boy in the first place.
Leonardo is worse for wear for it now, Crowley thinks. I shouldn’t have left. This man too has aged, his once reddish brown hair a shock of white spilling down his back unkempt, while Crowley remains unchanged. The excitement he once possessed while studying hydraulics and flying machines are replaced with a weary exhaustion from taking those wonders and applying them to war instead.
“I’m leaving for France in two days’ time,” Leonardo says.
“For how long?”
Leonardo lifts his head from the batten he’s glued and clamped to the model ballista. “I’ve been commissioned to complete a painting for King Francis I. I’m taking my assistant Francesco and we are being put up in a chateau. I daresay in my old age I will not be returning. You could come with us, Antonio.”
The offer is tempting, but he’s heard rumors the angel is about in Florence doing good, influencing Leonardo’s archrival no less. He remembers once stepping on the heels of Leonardo’s feet through the markets of Florence for a summer sometime after he’d completed The Last Supper. Things were good then, when Salai was witty and charming and Leonardo coy but receptive to the teasing, Crowley looking on with an unknown tightness in his chest whenever he watched them.
Florence is beautiful this time of year in the fall before Ognissanti, and it would be good to see Aziraphale in his cream-colored silk doublets and matching gloves, good to foil him too. “France has no place for a man like me,” Crowley says, a wry twist to his lips. “Perhaps I’ll return to Florence.”
“For your friend,” Leonardo says, certain. He passes Crowley a knowing look, though Crowley cannot decipher what it means.
He swallows around the strangeness in his throat. “For my… friend, yes.”
Leonardo abandons the ballista, straightening his back with a crick. He moves to the sketch of the madonna and rolls it up in sheeps-leather for protection before handing it to Crowley. “Take this to remember me by, then.”
Crowley takes it with care. Leonardo’s never just given him something before. “I can’t accept this. Don’t you need it?”
He gets waved away. “No, I’m already on the fourth iteration of the painting. I had it shipped to France in advance. The Mona Lisa, I’ll call it, should I ever finish it.”
“I didn’t get you anything. I should have, returning from Milan. I didn’t think--”
Leonardo takes his hands then, gnarled from use, the skin paper-thin. “Your companionship and the wine has been good enough for me,” he says, cutting him off. “Go, before I say anything more I might regret.”
Later, in the back of a horse-drawn carriage to Florence, Crowley unfolds his only worldly possession. The sketch bears a cherubic familiarity, lips pressed into a knowing smirk, the flat forehead careening into the sharp descent of that greek nose. Without the dressings and veil of a noblewoman, it looks a bit like Salai who often posed as a stand-in for Leonardo’s paintings. He turns it over and inhales a sharp breath.
He expects to find a note or a date on the back. Instead, he finds another sketch, Leonardo’s interest in flight shining through. He’d once spent hours bird watching, sketching wings in flight, dissecting the small hollow skeletons before attempting his own flight machines. It doesn’t surprise Crowley to find his quick sketches on the back of any parchment he could get his hands on.
But these wings are different, shaded black, tips swept upward capturing the moment of a fall. They are wide and magnificent, spanning twice the length of a man’s arm span. He knows because they are attached to that of a man, not an eagle or a sparrow. Crowley can see motion in the picture, feel the wind gushing around him, plummeting downward. Angel descending downward , it reads, to Earth .
Crowley feels the panic, smells sulfur in the back of his throat, sweat gathering under his arms and behind his neck. Demons aren’t meant to be so human, so afraid, but he cannot stop the swelling cacophony surging within him. He crushes the corner of the parchment with damp hands and wants to scream. Throw it out, throw it out, throw it out, his brain chants. Be rid of it, don’t look. He scrambles to wrap it again in the sheepskin and squeezes the roll tight in his hands.
It’s not often Crowley has taken on humans, befriended them and slithered into their lives. Leonardo has been an exception to his rule, so difficult to keep at a distance when he radiated so much energy and life. He looks down at the scroll in his hands, wrapped tight to hide its secrets. He’ll hang on to it, for just a little while, he thinks. For his friend.
The commendation comes on a Wednesday. Crowley misses it. He sleeps face down, limbs tucked tight to his body, buried under the duvet he dragged to the couch.
It’s the end of 1918, and Christmas is coming. He is tired.
He’d listened to the broadcast of the Treaty of Versailles, sat on a barstool in a pub in a crowd of fifty other people. They cried and shouted when they officially announced an end to the Great War. They ran into the streets, throwing their hats into the air. Crowley watched them, a bit raw and shellshocked, the ghost of a smile tugging at his lips. The people around him drank until the taps ran dry before teetering home to continue the celebrations. But Crowley drank in silence, jaw set, one hand shoved in his pocket. He kept one ear tuned to the radio but the reporter’s voice was lost over the roar of cheers. He called for one more shot of Glenturret before setting off for home.
The whole thing had still felt a bit surreal, like a long nightmare spanning years. He’d seen war. He knew what humans were capable of--or so he thought--and he wanted nothing to do with it. He’d go out to pubs and have a drink, walk through St. James Park. Aziraphale had been absent for some years since the angel had refused his request for insurance , and his life had almost been peaceful if uneventful. It was as if the fog from his century long nap had yet to be lifted and everything was muted in gray tones.
He wanted to wake up, to be woken, so he traveled to Constantinople in the middle of the Gallipoli campaign, drawn like a moth to flame after he received the first of many commendations to come. The war was still in its infancy then. In Constantinople, the two sides dug long, deep trenches and lobbied shellfire and grenades. They used machine guns which sprayed bodies across the fields between them. The Turkish forces had mortars by way of the Germans which sprayed metal across 1200 yards. The French had artillery. Crowley thought he understood war up until that point. He knew about rifles and pistols and the searing agony of a rapier through the waist by experience. He knew the fear and weariness that came from long hauls trekking across countries and cities.
He did not know the loud raging sounds of explosions, grenades kicking dirt and mud in wide arcs which interrupted the line of sight for seconds that could cost a discorporation--or worse--a life. He did not know about the searing heat of summer and the smell of rotted corpses which festered because there were not enough men to move them and there were more dying every minute. From the dead followed disease and agony. And it was all for a strip of water to control the flow of goods and resources.
In the end, the British and French retreated, and nothing was gained for it, just a thousand bloodied and diseased bodies to be sent home. Crowley retreated to Crete. He wanted to get drunk and sleep for another hundred years, sail off to somewhere untouched by warfare, places few and far between. Aziraphale got to him first.
“This is your doing, then, I suppose,” the angel said, accosting him in the foyer of a hostel. They’d met here once before centuries ago.
Crowley turned to look at him. Aziraphale had dressed himself like an ex-patriot on vacation. He’d traded his heavy wool suit for a lighter tweed to match his straw hat and waistcoat. Underneath, his dress shirt was the cool seafoam green of the Sea of Crete. His usual becoming expression had pursed as he chewed the inside of his lip. He looked as tired as Crowley felt.
“Eh, all that… blood and… innards. Not really my type, angel,” he said with a flippant hand wave.
“No, I suppose not.”
“Yours was the Crusades,” Crowley pointed out.
Aziraphale scowled. “Not me personally ,” he said, affronted.
“And the witch hunts, and the 80 Years War, and the Inquisition. I got credit for that--”
“And was Ireland yours? I can’t remember.”
“Stop it, Crowley,” Aziraphale said, flustered. He’d taken off his straw hat and mangled the brim. “If it wasn’t you nor me, then whose was it?”
“The humans, I suppose. You’ve seen what they’re capable of.” Crowley felt the tension between them. Things had gone… off the last time they interacted, and they hadn’t seen each other since. He wondered if Aziraphale would mention the holy water at all. “Why are you here then?”
Aziraphale smoothed the edge of his hat, the crease disappearing, as he sat across from Crowley. “I thought I could come and--and help somehow.”
“Well, you saw it, didn’t you? I played medic for the British, but there was only so much I could do, you know, and I-I needed to find some peace now that it’s over.” He didn’t look peaceful, however. Despite once being a Being of War, his soft face and translucent skin lent itself more to being a wallflower in the corner of a social club or curled up with a book to read in his shop. “What about you then?”
Crowley leaned back in his armchair and tucked his chin to his chest. He worked his mouth for a bit before saying, “I’d received a commendation. Had to come see what all the fuss was about.”
Crowley knew Aziraphale understood the unexpected commendations were the worst of the lot. They’d never spoken out loud about them, but the angel had found him after the Spanish Inquisition drunk on the floor between barstools, wiping at his face with the back of his hand. It was good fun to lie to Hell and take credit for the deviousness of humans, their trysts and underhanded political games. It was another to watch it unfurl in the union of gunpowder, mortar, and organs.
“You could come with me. I’ve heard tell the Germans are attacking France.”
Crowley looked at Aziraphale. “You mean to go and… fight?”
The angel’s hands worried at the cuffs of his suit, but his jaw was set. “I might not wield a gun, but I have connections still in France. There will be breadlines, people in need of food and water, wives and children widowed and orphaned.”
“I can’t be seen doing good, angel,” he said. “I think that’s frowned upon by my lot.”
“With all that’s going on, Crowley, I don’t think anyone will be looking at you too closely. They think this whole ordeal is your doing anyway. I’m sure they’re practically singing your praises down there.”
The thing was, Crowley hated war. Other demons--good--bad--true demons loved war, thrived in its agony, ruthlessness, and futility. Angels loved it too. They were the ones who cast the Fallen out. Crowley had dared to ask the question why and found himself tripping downwards into a freefall without so much as a warning.
What was it all for? What was the Great War for, really? And what was this accumulation of humanity, a never ending cycle of bloodshed more horrific than the last?
“Come with me, Crowley. Think of it as part of the Arrangement. I need you to lend a hand because I can’t do all of this alone,” Aziraphale said. He gestured in a wide sweeping motion.
“All right,” Crowley said.
The Germans invented chlorine gas first. It was greenish-gray, a sinister cloud breaking rank and fire. It could clear whole platoons of men in a matter of minutes--minutes that felt like hours of burning, clawing asphyxiation. The French created phosgene afterwards which was worse, more immediate, and deadlier. Then they started combining the two for even greater effect.
Crowley thought of Leonardo bent over his ballista and wondered what the man would have said about these new inventions. He’d invented powerful and devastating catapults, siege machines, and the first machine guns.
“I gave them the first weapon,” Aziraphale said one night. They were shoulder to shoulder in a hostel in Paris. “My sword.”
They were empty-handed, and Crowley longed for a drink. “Yes, well, they would have been eaten otherwise. That would have been it. Boom! All of humanity wasted.”
“What if I made the wrong decision? It’s been bothering me.”
“It happened millennia ago.”
“Yes, and it’s been bothering me ever since.”
Crowley made a noise, mouth working a facsimile of words though nothing intelligible came out. He fell silent. After a moment he said, “Well, you wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t done what I did.”
“The apple you mean,” Aziraphale asked.
“Yes, angel, the apple.” There was a bite to his words. He flexed his fingers in the dark. Above them, the stone of their shelter rattled under bomb fire, dust showering them.
In the day time, Aziraphale left to volunteer in food lines while Crowley wandered the streets. He traveled miles up and down the Seine sometimes miracling up fruit for children whose wheat and potatoes had been rationed, and who were left cold from lack of coal. Sometimes in the dead of night, he’d magic up small loaves of brioche which had also been banned by the Parisian government due to rationing, and he’d tear little pieces off for Aziraphale.
The men went to war and the women and children went to work, and the young ones--no bigger than age four--roamed the streets like they were feral. Sometimes he took Aziraphale to a show or a dance hall where the energy was frenetic and aching. He found the music too loud and the lights too bright. The alcohol stung like bleach poured on open wounds. They walked out a little shell shocked and hollow, purified. The humans prayed to God but clung to each other.
Crowley buzzed inside all the time, like a spark moments before touching gasoline.
Aziraphale healed people, fed them, blessed them, and Crowley fortified Aziraphale. That was his job. He gave up sleep to stay up with him all night, distracting him with little stories, watered down versions of some of his best temptations and worst cock-ups like they were fairy tales. It won him distracted smiles and lilted, stifled laughter. It left him feeling as if he’d won back Heaven while reinventing sin.
In 1917, Crowley earned the ear of Georges Clemenceau who ran the L'Homme enchaîné . He was a round man with white hair, fine suits, and a tall tophat. In his newspapers, he criticized the government for their lack of action, their begging for peace when the Germans were obvious in their intentions not to relent. He was charismatic and angry with a voice needing hearing. Crowley took to disseminating his newspaper in the streets, sending children off with stacks of papers--an apple and some bread as payment, miracling their voices to project just a little louder from where they stood on street corners shouting the headlines.
“We should be calling for peace, not increased fire,” Aziraphale argued.
Crowley shook his head. “Peace is all well and good if both sides are willing, but the Germans won’t retreat.”
“They’ve been negotiating retroceding the Alsace-Lorraine territory, giving that land back to France.”
“To what benefit?” Crowley asked. “It’s just talk. Germany has nothing to gain by returning that land, and they have the upperhand on France. Sometimes you need fire to fight fire, angel.”
By November, Clemenceau had won the favor of the people and became the new French prime minister. The city lit up in a way it hadn’t the past year, weighed down by hunger and bomb fire. Paris was at its tethers, but somehow they fortified under new leadership when he left to the front lines to rally the troops. “We should go, just to see,” Aziraphale said, so they went.
Crowley had avoided the front lines since Constantinople, but Aziraphale had said, ‘Jump!’ and he jumped as high as he could. He hadn’t ever really mastered the landing, however. Falling, however, he was good at.
Paris had bombings. They had exploded buildings and rubble in the street, civilians with missing limbs and sirens wailing through the night. But Paris also had hospitals and community and theaters and restaurants. The frontlines had ambushes and machine gun fire, grenades, and death sentences. They had graveyards fronting as medic tents.
Crowley had seen a lot of horrors throughout history, had participated in some and reviled others. The Great War had shown him more atrocities in one go combined.
It was mustard gas, in the end, that did him in. It was the shouts, “Gas, gas! Quick boys--” as only half the men got their masks on in time. It was standing in the medic tent like a ghost, invisible and haunted, staring down at the faces of mottled men whose skin had gone yellow and blistered, whose eyes and throats were swollen shut. It was the smell of sulfur combined with the heat of gunfire and screaming. It was plunging head first into a boiling lake of sulfur from Heaven above.
Dutiful Aziraphale stayed with the men. He clasped their hands and knelt beside them while giving their last rights. He blessed them. Crowley hadn’t gotten blessings. Crowley hadn’t asked for War but the angels had punished him anyway. He wanted, for one long moment, to take Aziraphale’s hand and be burned by his benedictions.
Instead, he slipped from the medic tent, stowed away in the nearest supply truck and rode back to Paris. He got on a train across the continent, and boarded a ferry back to England. He took the Underground to Mayfair and climbed the two flights of stairs to his flat, stepping over the mountain of mail that had gathered just inside his door. He pulled back the duvet and sheets on his bed and undressed button-by-button until he was naked, undone, and untethered. The bed smelled dusty, neutral. It did not smell like the communal hostel they had stayed in together in France; it did not smell like Aziraphale nor brimstone. He slept.
Later after the bar, he wakes to the alert of his wards being disturbed, like an electric shock down his spine. His eyes open, unblinking into the darkness. Night has fallen. There’s only one person who could penetrate his wards, and he’s not seen him for over a year.
Aziraphale steps over the pile of telegrams collecting in front of the door. “It’s the twentieth of November, my dear,” he says, voice low. His outline can be just made out by the light of the streetlamps creeping in. “How long have you been asleep?”
Crowley thinks about it for a moment. “9 days.”
“Not your worst, I suppose. At least this time I knew where to find you.” He tucks something under his arm and reaches down to gather the mail. “Budge up. I thought we could celebrate.” He does not mention the missing year between 1917 to 1918 when Crowley left him in France.
He seats himself on the end of the sofa next to Crowley’s feet before procuring two tumblers from the pocket of his great coat. He has the bottle of scotch under his arm which he sets on the coffee table. “Pour us one, then,” he says before flipping through Crowley’s letters.
It feels… intimate sitting like this in the dark. Crowley swallows, his throat dry from sleep, his muscles sore and disused. He drags himself upward like the dead from a grave and searches the blankets for his glasses. When he can’t find them, he huffs. Great. He reaches for the scotch.
Aziraphale flips through a hundred telegrams, all commendations from down below. It’s silent while he reads. Crowley doesn’t even know what they say. He learned early on not to look.
“I’m sorry, Crowley,” the angel says after a while. He’s gentle, like handling the thin parchment of his old books or scritta paper. It sets Crowley on edge, and he tightens the duvet around his shoulders, cradling his tumbler of scotch to his chest. There are no boundaries during the witching hour, no rules. He has no protection against this, whatever it is, that Aziraphale has imposed upon him by being here. It’s a parody of their nights in the hostel in France, sipping cheap wine to fight the cold during the coal rationing, their shoulders touching.
“I don’t need pity,” he says, waspish.
“No, I know. It’s not--I don’t--” He pauses and purses his lips together, inhaling. “I’m not pitying you.”
“Then what are you doing?”
Aziraphale sits in silence for a moment. “I’m not sure,” he says, “but may I stay anyway?”
As much as Crowley wants him to leave, wants whatever this midnight meeting is to end, he needs something else too. It’s unknown and unnameable. “Yeah, sure,” he says, pouring two fingers for him. He could turn on a lamp or maybe light a candle, procure fire in the palm of his hands. He doesn’t, and they sit in the dark. They keep vigil more than celebrate until Crowley falls asleep again, and then Aziraphale stays just a bit longer, keeping on all the same for them both.
“You can stay at my place, if you’d like.”
While the bookshop has mostly stayed the same over the past century (sans the addition of a computer and the little old CRT TV), Crowley’s place has evolved numerous times over the decades. He’s always apprehensive when Aziraphale steps inside after a long absence despite knowing their aesthetics are misaligned, sprouting in perpendicular directions.
“The ceilings are higher than before,” Aziraphale says. “It’s very gray.”
“It’s neutral,” Crowley states. “Wine?”
“Oh yes.” He gives an emphatic nod, his eyebrows skyrocketing upwards. Neither are drunk enough for the day they've had.
Crowley busies himself in the kitchen, a granite and stainless steel affair from an HGTV advert. He owns every possible kitchen accoutrement known to humankind, but only the bottle wine cooler installed in the island gets any real use. He purses his lips as he wrestles with uncorking a bottle, ignoring the studious frown on Aziraphale’s face as he inspects the flat. He could miracle up the wine, but he likes the uncorking process, a slow and careful ritual in etiquette, hedonism wrapped in finery. He peels back the capsule and twists into the cork, like soft flesh, opening with a satisfactory pop.
He ignores the look on Aziraphale’s face as he investigates the statue of the angel and demon wrestling, shoving a glass into his hands. “I’m knackered.”
“We have much to discuss about this prophecy,” Aziraphale says, alarmed.
“In the morning. It can wait. Take the bed?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly put you out. I won’t sleep anyway.”
Crowley shrugs and gestures towards the kitchen. “There’s more wine so knock yourself out. You might need to wake me in the morning, but at least wait ‘till the sun comes up, yeah?” He tips back his wine, drinking it all in one go before dropping the glass onto the island with a heavy hand. “G’night, angel.”
He staggers into his bedroom, laden with exhaustion. His will to stay upright--through burning bookshops, burning motorways, and cars--has run out. He whisks away his clothes with a wave of a hand and slides between his sheets.
Not often, he thinks about his first foray into sleep. The miracle-maker’s lips were chapped but warm, gentle like benediction when he kissed Crowley’s forehead. The ground had risen to meet him and the stars winked out in total darkness. It had quieted him in a way sleep has failed to do so ever since, yet he craves and chases it.
He’s out in an instant.
Heaven, as Aziraphale describes it, is the top floor of a skyscraper, empty except for the echo of voices bounding around the vacant space. Industrial tile covers the floor, and the windows go from floor to ceiling looking over earth. The angels all wear mish-mashed assortments of clothes from human history, fabrics pressed into crisp lines but sometimes buttoned up wrong, playing pretend. It’s cold, accented by the faint hum of an HVAC system and a cool breeze with no vents, like standing in a corporate office in the middle of August in need of a sweater.
The heaven of Crowley’s dreams is very different. He can’t quite remember it as it was before he Fell. It’s a bit like looking through a magnifying glass or a peephole, a distorted vision honing in on a single moment in time. It’s hot and bright. The angels are without bodies for there are no humans yet to emulate. Instead, they have a multitude of eyes with burning rings of fire and disembodied wings which propel the dry heat in all directions. Even in his dreams, Crowley looks different from the angels. He bears the body he would later corporate, thin like a whipcord and a bit elastic. His wings stretch out behind him, mantled against the hungry stares, patches of scales flaring on his skin.
The dream is always the same. It starts with a question. If they’ve already fallen, why must we fight them? Why do we go to War? It spirals from there. If they were made in God’s light, then how could they do wrong? Why were they punished? Sometimes, Crowley wishes he could cut out his own tongue like Philomela, seal shut his lips, undo his curiosity, but he’s the question-asker and the answer-seeker, the Serpent entwined around the Tree of Knowledge. He is Ouroboros swallowing his own tail.
The eyes push forward, the heat flares around him and licks at his feet. They blister, like standing in the Santa Maria delle Grazi or before Aziraphale in a church while the sirens howl.
The ground falls away from under him, and the sulfur rises to meet him. He tips backwards into damnation, the beating wings propelling him downward. He reaches upwards, grasping at air, the sensation of fingers brushing his own just before God turns out the light.
He startles awake with a lurch. His brain whirs to life in a rise of panic, his thoughts unraveling, untamed:
A myoclonic jerk simulates the sensation of falling. When they cut out Philomela’s tongue she turned into a nightingale, and Leonardo once sketched pages of one in flight, the ruffle of feathers and its soft round body, voiceless and without song. He had wanted to fly. The last time Crowley flew, he was falling.
His chest heaves. He digs his fingers into the duvet, trapped in paralysis and unable to pull himself upright. Then a cool hand reaches for him, resting on his jutting collarbones. “Crowley?”
It takes him some time to calm himself. He turns his head, his vision spinning to catch up. “Why are you in my bed?” he asks. His voice cracks and his throat feels tender. He thinks he may have been screaming.
Aziraphale sits on the right side of the opulent bed. He looks discongruent against the black duvet, and he still has his shoes on, dangling over the edge. “Your couch is dreadfully uncomfortable,” he says. Then like an afterthought, he says, “You were dreaming.”
He removes his hand from Crowley’s chest, and it startles something inside him. It’s an electric shock, a memory on the tip of his tongue, fuzzy and faint. “You were in my dream, right at the end.”
Crowley props himself up. An idea begins to take shape in his mind. “You reached for me,” he says. The words come out in a trickle as he breathes through the last of the hysteria. “Just before I fell. I would have pulled you down with me.”
Aziraphale inhales, sharp and harsh against the quiet surrounding them. “I didn’t know you then. I wasn’t there I don’t think.”
“No,” Crowley agrees. “I remember very little about it, but this was different, not so much a memory but something else. A premonition, if you will.”
“Tell me,” Aziraphale says.
He looks at Aziraphale, grabs his wrist. His thin, wiry fingers dig into his skin. They used to sit like this in the dark on a bed in a hostel in Paris, 1916. Through all the temptations and blessings, hemming and hawing, discorporations and celebrations, they’d never felt more human or more unified than they had those long nights when both sides were too distracted to pay them any mind. Now all eyes are on them, and they’re no longer fighting the enemy. They are the enemy.
“I won’t let you fall,” Crowley says. “They’ll strip you of your grace, no warnings, just punishment, just like in the Garden. You’ve never inhaled sulfur. It’ll burn you from the inside out and make your eyes bleed and ooze yellow pus, eat at your feathers and fester in your wounds. It’ll take decades--centuries--for your wings to grow back.
“I didn’t mean to fall,” he says, fingers tightening as he picks at the duvet. “I just wanted to understand God’s ineffable plan. I’ve learned there is no love or mercy anymore, angel, just God’s judgment.”
Aziraphale swallows hard around a knot in his throat, the sound audible besides their breaths. His face twists, so expressive, into something like fear and sadness. “What would you have me do? Heaven and Hell are coming for us.”
Crowley hisses. “You’ll fall. If you go to Heaven, you’ll fall. But I won’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Aziraphale, I’ve already fallen. What more could they do to me? I’ll go in your place.”
Aziraphale wrings his hands. “I don’t think they’ll give us much choice in the matter.” He pauses, then pats the pocket of his waistcoat. “Unless... “ He pulls out a torn scrap of paper, burnt around the edges. He reads it in silence, mouthing the words as he goes, then proffers the prophecy to Crowley. “Choose your faces wisely.”
Crowley’s eyes slit, the beginning of a grin twisting around his mouth, pushing away the remnants of his dream. Aziraphale’s eyes are nothing like the other angels, neither burning nor judging. They’re gray, a bit red around the edges from exhaustion, the corners creasing in what might be hope. They study Crowley, and Crowley looks back in return, something infectious bubbling up within him. Soon, they start laughing in tight, strained giggles which devolve into full out roars, a tint of mania to their edges.
He thinks of a tree in a garden, the corpse of a mouse who fed the flies but also sprouted daffodils. There was a woman who laughed as she ran, taking shade under the branches. Above her, a bee pollinated the flowers which would later propagate temptation but would also sustain and glean knowledge. There was an angel who stood on the eastern wall where the sun rose in the mornings, whose laughter still brings warmth even in the face of destruction. Crowley once stood in the shadow of a miracle-maker cast by firelight, once bore blisters on his feet just to witness a mere human and his genius. Like all things, these moments passed.
Aziraphale hiccups and dabs at the corners of his eyes. He frees his wrist from Crowley’s grip and turns his hand over, intertwining their fingers. Crowley’s instinct is to squash the feeling crawling unbidden up inside him, but he tamps it down. Can I keep this? he asks. Is this all worth saving?
For once he feels certain in his answer. Yes, he thinks. Yes.