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When in Rome

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"Silently, one by one

in the infinite meadows of heaven

blossomed the lovely stars

the forget-me-nots of angels."

- Henry Longfellow




            "Oh, no. No, that's- that's your job, isn't it?"

            Crowley tracked his eyes over the angel that had so easily taken a seat beside him, pushing through Crowley's prickly defenses with a gentle toast. Though he was indeed a demon, Crowley had never felt like fighting things without defenses. Some part of him knew that the angel was far from defenseless, but it was one thing not to have them and another entirely to never raise them. Crowley, who lived with his own up at all times, grudgingly admired the bravery in purposeful vulnerability.

            The nature of the angel's offer didn't escape him, either. Far from being a slip of the tongue, it was a sideways invitation.

            An invitation, curiously enough, to temptation.

            A pleased smile curled the corners of his lips despite his best attempts to keep it contained. "Should I be doing my job now, then?" he asked, no weight behind the words.

            He did not miss the flick of Aziraphale's eyes, quickly taking stock of their surroundings, as though someone might be watching. "It seems fair," he said carefully, refocusing on Crowley, "considering how often you've shown up to see me do mine."

            "Awh," Crowley drawled, letting his grin out to play. "Coincidence, that was. Not a whole lot of places to be, until recently."

            "And have you?" Aziraphale asked. "Anywhere to be, that is?"

            "I don't suppose I do," Crowley said. "Would you like to go to dinner?"

            "With a demon?" Aziraphale replied, tipping his head a little, his smile still hiding in his eyes. "I probably shouldn't."

            Crowley leaned in a little closer, playing the game. "I hear there's a new restaurant in town," he suggested, eyes never leaving Aziraphale's, tongue curling around each word. "Does amazing things to oysters, they say."

            "Do they?" Aziraphale answered. "Well, how could I refuse?"

            Crowley ignored the warm flicker in his chest, the same that always flared up like a war wound when Aziraphale smiled at him. What an indulgent creature he was, imbibing spirits and seeking out delicacies and enticing a demon who'd had a rough day to come play, giving Crowley the reins to control something, anything,the way he very badly needed in that moment.

            "Perhaps you shouldn't," Crowley said without inflection, thinking he'd enjoy the momentary flicker of uncertainty in the angel's eyes. He didn't. He didn't enjoy it at all. "Refuse, that is," he added, a touch too quickly to be smooth, relaxing only when the sudden tension in Aziraphale's shoulders dissipated.

            Oh, Crowley was in trouble.

            If anyone shouldn't be going to dinner with the other, it was him.

            Still, he downed the rest of his mug, determined that Aziraphale would not likely want another, and then slid the jug along the table to a nearby patron. Aziraphale took one last gulp of his own drink before setting the leftover on the table in a manner congruent with any eager human that had ever been invited back to someone's bed. Which was, Crowley thought not a little desperately, absolutely ridiculous. It was just food- mortal food, at that. It couldn't be worth that kind of scramble. There shouldn't be anything an angel scrambled for like that.

            Still... it was nice to be in the company of someone who seemed to want to be in his company as well. He'd completely botched his temptation, resulting in his removal from a party he'd been otherwise enjoying quite a bit. Parties were always a good place to nudge a few inclinations in the right – or rather, wrong – direction. Unfortunately, Crowley had nudged just a little too hard at just the wrong person. He hadn't even made it all the way to Caligula's side, which should teach him a lesson for the future about doing his work first and attending his pleasure later, but it wouldn't.

            He followed Aziraphale through the streets, then, listening to his chatter about which establishments had the best food or drink. Crowley even retained some of it because he would want a drink later. They finally wound their way to a noisy part of the city with throngs of humans milling and idling and sitting on every horizontal surface. Some of them had food, most of them had drink. It had gotten to the time of night where people settled in before dark and made connections. It was Crowley's favorite time of night to slink around and spread a little chaos.

            Instead, when Aziraphale ducked through a doorway, Crowley hurried to catch up before he lost sight of him. They weaved through the gathered until they reached what appeared to be a rather arbitrary location within the shop until Crowley realized Aziraphale had grabbed the attention of a young boy. Some kind of server, Crowley surmised. The two spoke too low for Crowley to hear over the noise of the restaurant, and then the boy disappeared so quickly Crowley worried for a second that Aziraphale had miracled him away.

            "I hope you don't mind," Aziraphale said, slotting himself into Crowley's personal space as though he belonged there. "But I got a quiet room."

            Crowley swallowed and managed to nod. A quiet room. They could have eaten oysters at any volume. For that matter, they could have emptied this place within half an hour if they wanted, and eaten by themselves right in the middle of it. He didn't say anything else until after the boy returned to lead them to a room, had taken instructions from Aziraphale, and left.

            "Private room?" he asked, dropping unceremoniously onto one of the very fine, soft benches.

            Aziraphale's chin rose a little at the snipe. "Would you prefer we join the masses?"

            Raising both hands, Crowley surrendered to that logic. "By all means."

            Lips pursed a little, Aziraphale considered him just long enough, and then relaxed. "Besides," he said warmly, taking a seat on the second bench, "I thought perhaps we might- ah, stretch out a bit."

            As he spoke, he unfurled his wings, his primaries easily touching the walls in the small space. There wasn't nearly enough room to actually spread their wings properly, but there was enough to keep from being quite so cramped into mortal boundaries. Crowley traced his eyes over the soft, white feathers, messy but clean, and resisted the urge to reach out to touch. It had been a long time since he'd let his own wings out like that, where someone could walk in at any moment.

            "The boy will be back soon," he said, voice a bit scratchy. He could fix every single one of Aziraphale's messy feathers. He could only imagine how beautiful the angel's wings would be with a bit of care.

            "Not for a bit," Aziraphale said, settling with his wings slacked open. He looked expectantly at Crowley, who belatedly realized what he wanted.

            With a bit of a frown he didn't really mean, Crowley sat up just enough to manifest his wings comfortably, flaring them out as far as they could go within the bounds of the room. They were beautiful, he knew, the sleek black feathers painted in green and purple iridescence and tipped with—

            "White," Aziraphale murmured, eyes wide and curious. He reached out one hand at the same time Crowley realized what he had said, and snapped his wings closed out of view. "Oh. Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"

            "It's fine," Crowley said, even though it wasn't. He'd been so stupid. He'd been so careful to keep them hidden, he'd forgotten quite why he was hiding them.

            Aziraphale's face twisted up with something that looked a bit like sympathy, and Crowley's next breath turned into an irritated hiss. This was not going how he had pictured. "Why do your-" the angel began.

            "Don't," Crowley said, quietly but sharply enough to be clear he would not discuss this.

            Aziraphale opened his mouth as if he might do anyway, and then he glanced toward the door and his wings furled back into the ether, out of sight again. A moment later the boy pulled aside the room's curtain and began setting things down for them- a jug of mulsum and mugs to go with it, and a platter with oysters and bread and fruit. Aziraphale thanked him and paid him and then they were left alone.

            "Please," Aziraphale said softly, gesturing to the food broadly. "We can speak on other things, if you'll stay."

            Something in Crowley uncoiled a little at how readily Aziraphale backed off from the sensitive subject. He swallowed down his apprehension, and reached forward to pluck one of the oysters from the platter. It was hot and rough and smelled not-quite-like fish and cooked stone. He looked over at Aziraphale, a little uncertain, and Aziraphale jumped to lift one for himself, demonstrating how to eat it.

            Briefly, Crowley considered tossing the whole oyster, shell and all, into his mouth, just to scandalize the angel, but he followed suit, tipping the shell to get just the innards. It tasted... well, like mortal foods tasted, generally speaking. Mostly the burned-atom taste of matter and the sharp, life-spiced tang of Earth itself. Crowley could taste the salt of the ocean it had come from, and the sand in which it had grown, and the stardust from which its atoms had originally been made. It left a pleasant aftertaste once he'd swallowed, the echo of the care that had been put into cooking it.

            "Not bad," he remarked, setting down the shell. He wondered if angels tasted mortal food differently, if they could purposely taste things the way humans did. Demons couldn't. Crowley, at least, tasted more than ash. He knew he wasn't supposed to, but he'd never reported it.

            He took another, to be polite, and a couple of grapes because he enjoyed the damp-soil flavor of vineyards, but he mostly stuck to the mulsum, opting to listen to Aziraphale talk about the food and the city and the folks. He had never seen an angel so wrapped up in the affairs of humans, so interested in their creations and their socializations. Demons weren't much interested in them, either, except for how they could corrupt them.

            This was... different.

            Aziraphale seemed genuinely interested in the humans he had been sent to aid. He knew their names, and the names of their family members. He had heard of this very restaurant on their recommendation, and had plans to visit a library looking for scrolls to read.

            "Petronius writes, you know," Aziraphale told him, when the platter was empty and the mulsum jug was running low. His wings lay slacked open, at ease to either side of him. "In fact I think he prefers it to other things, though I think other things make him more money."

            "Haven't read anything," Crowley admitted.

            "Oh, well you- If you wanted to come along to the library...?" He let the invitation trail, and Crowley tried to keep the grimace off his face.

            "No, I- I never learned how to read human script," Crowley said. "Well, I don't mean not ever, but not-" he waved his hand to encompass all around them. "They're always changing it."

            "I could teach you," Aziraphale offered, tentative and nearly lost in the quick draw of breath that followed, like he was just as surprised as Crowley that he'd said it. "I do have a few scrolls, back in my room. You could- if you wanted..."

            Crowley blinked. "Go back to your place?" The words slinked off his tongue, not quite a hiss.

            Aziraphale's cheeks colored prettily, and Crowley knew there was no way he'd refuse the offer. "To read," Aziraphale said, almost like a protest. Almost.

            "Of course," Crowley acknowledged, setting down his empty mug. "I've got nowhere to be until morning. I'm sure you could teach a demon a thing or two between now and then. About reading, that is."

            Wings folding into the ether once more, Aziraphale gave him a stern look and climbed to his feet. Crowley left a coin for whomever would clean the room after they left, and they exited into the thinning crowd of humans in the main section of the restaurant. Dark had fallen at some point, coaxing humans back to their homes, or to the homes of their soon-to-be lovers, and flames began to lick at the night from sconces and candles.

            When they reached outside, Crowley couldn't help but cast his eyes upward, over the top rim of his small glasses. He was made to see better at night, to soak up any available light, and it brought the stars to life in the pitch sky. He folded his wings a little closer to himself, protective, and again hurried to catch up to where Aziraphale had slowed to wait for him.

            The inn where Aziraphale was staying turned out to be across town, but the evening air was pleasantly cool and the breeze brought with it the scent of flame and spices and humanity. Crowley kept a little bit of distance between them as they walked, and Aziraphale pointed out various pieces of architecture to him this time, reading aloud the signs marked in doorways and sitting outside of shops.

            Crowley ached.

            This was the sort of kindness he had thought permanently banished from his life. This was kindness for the sake of kindness, for the warm reward of shared happiness. This kindness sought nothing from him in recompense, asked for no part of him to be forsaken for the indulgence.

            It was the sort of kindness that demons didn't deserve from anyone, much less from angels.

            They climbed the stairs to the top floor of the inn, and Aziraphale led him to an actual door this time. It clicked shut behind them, but not so ominously as Crowley might have thought an angel closing a door behind him should sound. He turned in time to see Aziraphale's wings unfurl into existence again, and to see Aziraphale hesitate, frozen.

            "Is it alright? If I- you haven't got to, of course," Aziraphale rushed to explain.

            "It's fine," Crowley assured him.

            Aziraphale's pleased smile was worth the small twinge of guilt. The angel crossed the room and opened a small box, pulling forth a couple of parchment sheafs, which he brought to the only bed in the room. He settled himself gracefully upon it, and looked up expectantly at Crowley.

            Crowley hesitated. He didn't really care to learn to read in any language – focusing on letters was difficult for his motion-based sight – but he did very much want to sit beside Aziraphale. He shouldn't. He knew that much. But, he reasoned, there was no point in being a demon if he followed all the rules, so he closed the distance between them and took a seat on the bed as well.

            Aziraphale passed him the first piece of paper, and Crowley took it without question. It was covered in ink scratches that all kind of blurred together if he looked at it for more than a second or two. A sharp spike of frustration lanced through his chest. He passed the paper back.

            "Yeah, I don't think this will work," he said, trying to keep the hurt out of his voice as he started to get to his feet.

            "You haven't even tried," Aziraphale admonished, and anger chased hot on the heels of Crowley's embarrassment.

            "I have done before, and I can't-" His jaw snapped shut on the admission, and he clenched his fists at his sides. Aziraphale had been kind to him. He was trying to help. Crowley wrapped his anger up in his hurt and tossed them both out the window, but he couldn't muster the strength to face Aziraphale. "Look, I appreciate the... effort," he said, because he couldn't choke out the word kindness. "But I can't see the words like you can. If it's not moving, it's hard for me to..."

            "Oh," Aziraphale said quietly. Crowley heard a rustle of wings behind him, and then Aziraphale was close enough that Crowley feel his warmth before soft fingers circled his wrist. "Come back," Aziraphale told him softly. "Let me try again."

            Crowley wanted to tell him no. Had it been anyone else in the universe, he would have yelled. Instead, he surrendered, letting Aziraphale lead him gently back to the bed and settle him at the head of it while Aziraphale sat toward the foot, facing him. The parchments remained where they'd been set, and Crowley gave Aziraphale a puzzled look when he made no move to touch them again.

            Instead, he raised a finger and drew a mark in the air that hung there, glowing softly, the edges of it wavering like sunlight through water. Crowley traced his eyes over the symbol, before he realized what he was doing.

            He could read it.

            Aziraphale smiled. "First letter," he said softly.

            Crowley gave up any hope he might have had that he would survive knowing Aziraphale.

            For the next few hours, Aziraphale drew shimmering letters and eventually words in the air, speaking them aloud to Crowley and waiting for them to be repeated. Crowley was a quick study- he had painstakingly learned a lot of languages over the years, and the patterns were familiar even if the symbols themselves were new.

            At one point, Crowley shifted and motioned toward Aziraphale's wing, beckoning it over, and Aziraphale barely hesitated before turning to drape it over Crowley's lap. Butterflies fluttered in Crowley's stomach, stilling his hands, and then his fingers were in Aziraphale's soft feathers, gently fixing barbs, smoothing the vanes back into place. He worked through them with deft, nimble fingers, eyes on the words Aziraphale was spelling for him.

            When Crowley had finished with Aziraphale's left wing, they swapped sides and he started in on the right. The city had settled into sleep outside, bringing with it the sort of silence one only found in the scant hours just before dawn, after the parties had ended and before the early birds rose. For a time, their voices and the quiet zip of Crowley's fingers over feather shafts were the only two noises in the world.

            Eventually, Crowley ran out of feathers to occupy his hands, and Aziraphale's voice grew scratchy. The sun had begun to gild the horizon in gold and the first few humans had started to rise. Soon, Crowley would have to leave to get back to the temptation he was here for in the first place, and Aziraphale would want to be getting along to whatever business he had at the library.

            But Crowley was loathe to let go of the moment, one hand smoothing over the gleaming surface of Aziraphale's wing still in his lap. He didn't know when he would see the angel again. He knew that he would, but that it might be a year or a decade or a century even, and they were here now, together, for just a little longer.

            "Can you keep a secret?" he asked, after a few moments of silence. Aziraphale must have also realized that dawn was breaking and would soon send them their separate ways. Crowley glanced up to meet Aziraphale's gaze.

            "I'd like to try," Aziraphale told him.

            Crowley smiled as best as he could, and then brought his wings into view slowly, splaying one of them open on the bed between them as Aziraphale folded his away. In the pale morning sun, they shone with purple and pink iridescence, the white-tipped feathers practically glowing. Aziraphale looked up at Crowley in question, and this time Crowley nodded permission to touch.

            Aziraphale spread his fingers over Crowley's coverts, skimming gentle fingertips down them until he reached one of the white points. "They're warm," he breathed, glancing up again.

            "They're stars," Crowley whispered, not entirely sure he was ready to be heard. "Well, not- not quite in this dimension, but, you know."

            Aziraphale's eyes widened and for just a second Crowley thought he had made a mistake, but all Aziraphale did was look back down, eyes tracking over the dotted patterns in his wings. Crowley could tell that he was looking with more than just mortal eyes now, and he held himself perfectly still as Aziraphale's true form brushed against his in exploration, burning and bright.

            "Constellations," Aziraphale said, returning back to the compression of mortality. "Crowley, why...?"

            Crowley forced a smile that couldn't hide the pain of that answer. "I... Before, I was a starshaper. When things... when I saw what was coming, I couldn't stand to think of losing all of them."

            "You hid them in your wings, when you were cast down," Aziraphale said, so brokenly that Crowley knew he understood, even though he had never shaped stars himself.

            "Yeah," Crowley affirmed, then pulled his wing from under Aziraphale's hand. "Silly, I know."

            "It's not!" Aziraphale covered his mouth at the exclamation, and then settled his folded hands in his lap to keep them put. "It's not. You loved what you made. You chose to hold onto love, even when you were cast out of it. There's nothing silly about that."

            Crowley's throat tightened nearly closed, eyes stinging. He shut them, wrestling with his own body to stop it from so obviously expressing itself, and after a few breaths, he was finally able to speak again. "You shouldn't... say things like that. I'm still a demon."

            Aziraphale's smile did more to light the room than the sun. "A very wily one, stealing constellations like that." He turned to drop his feet back on the floor, but he didn't yet rise. "And... your secret's safe with me. If they haven't noticed in thousands of years, I'd say they don't exactly need them anyway. You know, you could always just say you've decorated your wings like those little blackbirds."

            A laugh clawed out of Crowley's chest. "Starlings," he said. "I made those, too, after I got here."

            "Did you?" Aziraphale asked, looking over. "I didn't think demons were allowed to create things."

            "We're not," Crowley said, a bit of a fond smile flickering across his lips. "But I figured no one would really notice one more black bird with the rest of them, and I needed somewhere to put the stardust I'd taken. So I gave it to them."

            Aziraphale smiled in return. "They're quite lovely," he said, and then got reluctantly to his feet. "I suppose you've got to be off to your temptation?"

            Crowley wished he could hang the temptation and come to the library, which was, he thought, a very dire indication of a problem. Instead of saying so, he hid his wings and got off the bed and nodded. "Maybe I'll see you again soon? I can thank you for the reading lesson."

            "You already have," Aziraphale told him, but his smile didn't dampen any. "But I should still like to see you again. I'll be here a few more days."

            There was something else to be said, some kind of gratitude for the opportunity to be purposely vulnerable, for the safety of Aziraphale's presence for the night, but Crowley simply fidgeted once, and headed for the door. He would find an excuse, some other way to say what he needed. He would come back here with a scroll or a parchment or something, anything, really, that needed to be read. He would find a restaurant they could eat at together or bring wine if he had to.

            One way or another, he would find a way to see Aziraphale again.