Crawly was aware of it the moment the angel came into the village of Eridu. He could feel it, always, the Light of Heaven unmistakable even when angels were trying to be inconspicuous. He curled up tighter, furling his wings around him, and closed his eyes.
Not long now.
The direction of the Light changed, veering away from the tavern. It was coming in this direction. Crawly always tried very hard to hide, but it seemed he was just no good at it. There was something about him that angels acted as if they could smell.
Crawly supposed if anything would have a scent you couldn’t shake, it would probably be Evil.
He heard the door slam open downstairs and cringed. He had paid properly to rent a room for the night, and the inn didn’t deserve to be thrashed for it. They probably also didn’t deserve the bloodstain they’d be cleaning up in the morning, but he couldn’t bring himself to stir.
He was so tired. So very tired.
The angel burst into the room like a solar flare from a star. Crawly managed to furl his wings just a bit closer, keeping his back turned away.
He flinched at the ice in the angel’s voice. How long had it been?
“Oh, not very long at all,” Aziraphale answered. Crawly didn’t realize he’d said that aloud. “About fifty years, or thereabouts.”
“Oh.” That should have felt important. He just wasn’t up to feeling much of anything anymore.
“That’s all you have to say?”
Crawly sighed and dug the hard angles of his face into the lump of cloth he was using as a pillow. “Just get this over with.”
Maybe he could fight his reassignment back to Earth before someone demanded he resume a physical corporation. Maybe he could find the deepest, darkest corner of Hell, curl up there, and hide until the flesh rotted from his serpentine bones.
He just couldn’t take this anymore. He couldn’t. He hadn’t meant to, but he’d betrayed the first person to show him kindness, kindness that he could remember.
Just like God, angels didn’t forgive. Crawly had, once again, learned his lesson.
“I—get what over with?” Aziraphale asked, sounding confused.
Crawly wanted to scream. “The killing and the making dead part!” he snapped. “The entire reason you’re here! Just fucking do it already!”
Now he could hear and feel Aziraphale’s growing anger. Bloody finally. “Why should I?”
“Because that is what angels do,” Crawly hissed. “They find demons, and they destroy them, no matter the reason, no matter why—” He broke off and choked back down the rest of the words.
No. He would not. He’ll never grant anyone that sort of satisfaction.
“Angels, plural?” Aziraphale was curious instead of angry. That wouldn’t do at all. “You’ve encountered another angel aside from myself?”
“Yes. Why the fuck does that matter?”
Aziraphale’s voice sharpened. “When?”
Crawly thought about it. “What year is it again?”
“You don’t know?”
“Stopped caring,” Crawly muttered. “No point to it, calendars and all that rubbish. Just reminds you of how shit everything is.”
“It’s…well, going by the calendar Upstairs, it’s the year 3027. Counting down, you know. It’s spring, by the way.”
Crawly felt a brief moment of nosiness. “Counting down to what?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea. When did you encounter another angel, Crawly?”
If the stupid calendar is going backwards, oh, that was a while ago. “The year 3953. 3952. Somewhere in there.”
“Fifty years or so after…after the Garden.” Aziraphale was still hesitating, and it was going to drive Crawly mad. “Please tell me what happened.”
“Look, Crawly—” Aziraphale tried, and Crawly’s temper snapped.
Crawly rose from the hard wooden platform of a bed with its pathetic coverlet of lamb’s wool and stalked forward, teeth bared and wings spread. Aziraphale looked startled, taking several steps back, before standing his ground. There was a short bronze sword in his hand, one without a bit of fire to it. It looked like the same sword that had fatally pierced Crawly’s last corporation.
“Come on, what’s the bloody hold-up?” Crawly demanded, staring into the angel’s stupid blue eyes.
Aziraphale was starting to shake his head. “Crawly, this doesn’t seem right—”
“JUST FUCKING KILL ME, ANGEL!” Crawly roared. It felt like something within him was ripped asunder. “Get this over with!” He then horrified himself by screaming, “PLEASE!”
Fuck. Fuck, no, that wouldn’t do at all.
“Please,” Crawly whispered, sinking to his knees. A strike to the head was usually the fastest method of dispatching a corporation. “Aren’t angels supposed to be merciful?”
They weren’t. They never were, but sometimes taunting Aziraphale into being what he was would garner faster results.
“Yes. Yes, I suppose we are,” Aziraphale said. Then the angel sat down on the floor next to him and placed the sword in front of Crawly. “Well, then. You’d best go on and prove it.”
“What the—prove what?” Crawly demanded, lifting his head to glare at the angel. “What are you on about?”
“If you’re a demon, and thus so very evil, then prove it. Kill me.” Aziraphale looked rather unruffled about it all. Bastard. “Besides, if I recall, the last three times it’s been me killing you. It’s just not sporting if I don’t give you a turn.”
“Sporting,” Crawly repeated in disbelief. “Have you gone and lost your Heavenly mind?”
“Not in the slightest,” Aziraphale replied. He gestured at the sword. “Go ahead. I won’t move from this spot.”
Crawly discovered his breath was wheezing through his throat, whistling past his extended fangs. He grabbed the sword and leapt to his feet, shaking with rage and something else that he had no name for.
Aziraphale, as promised, didn’t move. He merely sat there in his dusty white robes, looking for all the world as if the prospect of imminent discorporation didn’t bother him in the slightest.
It would be so easy.
Crawly screamed and hurled the sword through the window. “Fuck you,” he gasped. “Just…fuck off.”
He walked to the nearest corner and slumped down in it, facing the wall. He spread his wings, so black, so damning, and did his best to keep out the firelight and the bloody angel light.
He had no idea how long he sat there, trying to shut out the whole of existence, when he realized Aziraphale was sitting next to him again. “Oh, my dear,” Aziraphale murmured. “I have not been a very good angel lately, have I?”
Crawly let out a bitter laugh. “You’re an angel. You’re incapable of being evil.”
“Oh, that cannot possibly be true, or there would be no Fallen angels, and no demons. There would certainly not be anyone like you,” Aziraphale said. “Angels can be absolutely terrible, a lesson I think I am only just now starting to learn.”
Crawly snorted. “You’re only about a thousand years behind the learning curve. You’ll catch up.”
“Undoubtedly,” Aziraphale agreed sadly. “It was an accident, wasn’t it?”
Crawly blinked a few times, trying to cope with desert dryness in his eyes. “What?”
“When you bit me,” Aziraphale clarified, and Crawly flinched. “You encountered an angel who was…predisposed towards violence, and then you saw me again.”
Crawly would very much like the floor to swallow him now. “Yes.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Crawly muttered, turning his face back to the stone wall. “But he saw me, and he had a stupid fucking sword. It was the market in Larsa, and…there was nowhere to go. Not unless—”
Not unless he’d wanted the angel to kill someone aside from himself. The odd thing about it was that he hadn’t wanted that at all. He was a demon. An angel killing a human would have given him an increase in his status in Hell.
“Was it only because I had a sword when we met again?” Aziraphale asked.
Crawly shook his head. “No, not just that. You. You, uh…I’m a serpent, and I was nervous, and you…fluttered.”
“Oh.” There was a pause, and then Aziraphale started giggling.
Crawly lifted his head and turned to glare at the angel. “You think it’s funny?”
“Oh, my goodness! Oh, dear!” Aziraphale was starting to laugh to such an extent that his blue eyes were leaking tears of mirth. “I think it’s terribly funny!”
Crawly stared at him. “It’s not! It’s—how could you—it’s not bloody—”
“You said I fluttered!” Aziraphale gasped out. “Fluttered!”
“That’s because you bloody well did!” Crawly retorted, and then suddenly he was laughing, too. It hurt so much, God it hurt, but he couldn’t make it stop.
The next thing he knew, Crawly was practically rolling around on a rough wooden floor next to an angel, howling with laughter. It would wind down just to the point where Crawly could breathe, but then Aziraphale would let out a little gasped repetition of, “Fluttered!” that just set them both off again.
“You bastard,” Crawly said when things finally quieted down. He wondered what the poor innkeeper downstairs thought of the ruckus and nearly started cackling again.
“Mm. Want to go back to being enemies again, Crawly?”
Crawly let his head thump down on the floor. “Yeah, grand. Just with less stabbing this time, all right?”
“That can be arranged.” Aziraphale sighed, sounding rather pleased and relaxed. “I think I’m done with carrying a sword, no matter my orders. They cause too many problems.”
“They do. Being stabbed is not fun, anyway. Next time I end up being discorporated, I’d like to try something different.” Crawly considered it. “Maybe drowning.”
Aziraphale made a startled, amused noise. “We don’t need to breathe.”
“See? That means it would be something different!”
“That it would,” Aziraphale agreed. He sat up and groaned. His white wings made a brief appearance as he stretched them out, every feather extended, before they vanished again. “Buy me a drink, you serpent.”
Crawly quickly sat up, offended. “What? Why am I the one buying?”
“Because I am about to get into a great deal of trouble for losing another sword. This one was stolen by a demon, can you imagine?” Aziraphale retorted primly. “Being observed creating coin for the purpose of drinking just after that loss would be rather suspicious.”
“Oh. Well, then.” Crawly slid his fingers together and pulled forth a piece of silver. “I suppose I can oblige you.”
* * * *
Aziraphale hoped it wouldn’t be that difficult to get back into the mindset of regarding Crawly as a friend. Eight hundred years or so was a long time to hold a terrible, useless, stupid grudge. They were immortal, and still it felt like eight centuries of utter waste. So much had happened during those years, and he could have been pointing it out to the only other immortal being on the Earth who hung about for more than five minutes at a time. Crawly was the only other person Aziraphale knew who would understand, who would appreciate everything that humanity was accomplishing since their banishment from the Garden.
Granted, getting utterly soused in the inn downstairs on yeast-based, honey-brewed beer helped quite a bit. They drank quite a lot of beer, as a matter of fact. Aziraphale much preferred the wine that was slowly gaining popularity in the more fertile and damp regions of the Earth, but this would certainly do in a pinch.
“Fluttered,” Aziraphale said under his breath.
Crawly glanced at him in amusement. “That only worked the one time, Aziraphale. It’s not going to work again.”
“But it was dreadfully funny when it did work. Can you blame me for trying?”
“Mm. No. I don’t really blame you for anything.”
Aziraphale went still. “You—you should, you know. I could have asked about that moment so much sooner than this.”
Crawly shrugged, waved him off, and then drained the clay tankard of beer. “Too bad. I don’t. You’ll just have to…to…what’s that word that means deal with shit?”
“Oh, you really are sodden.” Aziraphale smiled. “Cope is the word I believe you’re looking for.”
“Yeah. That. Cope. If I’cn cope, so c’n you.” Crawly got up and walked, rather unsteadily, to the tapped barrel. He dropped another bit of silver onto the countertop, filled the tankard, and came back. “You want another?”
“I think one of us should stay at least a little sober,” Aziraphale observed.
“Rubbish,” Crawly retorted. “You can sober up when the drinking’s done.”
Aziraphale paused mid-sip. “You can do that?”
Crawly looked at him and started cackling. It should have been a bit terrifying, hearing a demon cackle, but Crawly was far too relaxed for that. “Of course you can do that! You are rubbish at being an ethereal being if you didn’t realize that!”
“I’m certainly rubbish at being an angel, anyway,” Aziraphale said, cocking his head to give his corporation a bit of a nudge. “Oh, yes, I see.” Then he looked over to find Crawly staring at him. “What is it?”
“You’re not a rubbish angel. You’re not,” Crawly insisted. “You’re better than them all.”
Aziraphale felt himself blush at the compliment. “That is very kind of you, Crawly, but I—I know better.”
Crawly kept staring at him, not blinking, which, really, he needed to remember to do so more often. This was a dry environment, and the lack of blinking made humans nervous. “If…if it happens again. Some twat of an angel turning up and…and succeeding. I’ll tell you.”
It took an act of strong will for Aziraphale to keep his wings from putting in an appearance. There was fierce protectiveness coming from Crawly, and with it was an admission of guilt, a pledge of trust and faith, and…even love. Aziraphale didn’t know it was possible for demons to love, but Crawly wasn’t exactly a typical demon. Not in the least.
“Thank you, Crawly. If I ever encounter a similar difficulty, I promise I’ll do the same,” Aziraphale said.
Crawly gave Aziraphale the brightest smile that Aziraphale had seen in literally hundreds of years. Humans could smile, but they didn’t yet really understand how to put the whole of their emotions into the expression. Crawly was a demon, but he’d never forgotten the trick of it.
Then he completely ruined the moment by belching and looking utterly startled by the sudden interruption. “Oh, wow. That was a bit much,” Crawly muttered. Aziraphale tried very hard not to laugh, but he didn’t succeed.
Crawly, as promised, sobered up around midnight. “Yeah, that’s it for me, then.” He tilted his head at the stairs. “You’re welcome to stay, if you want. Entire upstairs is paid for already, anyway, candles included.” He paused. “Not that you need them, really, but if you’re trying to blend in, s’handy to have them.”
Aziraphale opened his mouth to refuse politely, but something stopped him. Even thousands of years later, he would never be able to describe why. He just knew it wasn’t time to leave yet. “That is very kind of you, thank you. I do have a few scrolls I’ve been wanting to read. What are you going to be doing?”
“The greatest invention of all the great inventions,” Crawly replied. “I’m going to sleep, angel.”
“Sleep? Why?” Aziraphale asked, curious and slightly fascinated. He didn’t see the appeal of humans and their constant need to sleep, but perhaps Crawly could explain it.
“Because it’s amazing,” Crawly said, which…really, didn’t do much to answer Aziraphale’s question at all. “It’s…all right, it’s not always grand. Sometimes I have nightmares,” Crawly admitted, which surprised Aziraphale immensely. “But when I don’t, it’s…it’s quiet.”
“Peaceful?” Aziraphale suggested.
Crawly snorted. “I’m a demon. We don’t know what that is.”
“Yes, I know, demons are this, demons are that. You’re a very good demon, and that is because you are far more accomplished at existence than they are.”
Crawly gave him a stunned look. “Uhm. Thanks?”
“So: is it peaceful?”
“Well…” Crawly yawned and stretched, both motions very much like that of a serpent. “Sometimes I suppose it’s peaceful. Sometimes I dream.”
“It’s like…it’s like remembering, except it isn’t. Sometimes it’s just complete nonsense your brain spews out because it doesn’t have anything else to do,” Crawly explained. Aziraphale was beginning to wonder if he perhaps didn’t sober up completely, or if eight hundred years of loneliness was starting to pour out at once.
That was a terrible thought, one that was probably true. Aziraphale felt a brief flush of miserable guilt and did his best to dismiss it. That wouldn’t help.
“Sometimes I think I remember what it was like Before,” Crawly murmured, his eyes suddenly locked onto the table. “Then I wake up and it’s gone. Doesn’t matter, though.” Crawly glanced over to find a rather irate-looking innkeeper trying to chase out inebriated guests. “Come on, angel. Let’s go upstairs before Iosha there gets fucking cranky about it.”
“Are the candles going to bother you at all?” Aziraphale asked, once he’d taken up the only desk on the opposite side of the room from the sleeping pallet.
“Nope.” Crawly covered his eyes with his black-robed arm, his long red hair tangling up a bit in the lumpy rag of a pillow. “I can nap in the brightest sun, angel. Candles aren’t going to stop me.”
“Oh. Good night, then,” Aziraphale said, because he’d been there when humans began that tradition. He might even have encouraged it.
“Night. Don’t strain your bloody eyes,” Crawly grumbled, and within moments seemed to be rather resolutely asleep.
Aziraphale unrolled his scroll, intent upon reading, but didn’t succeed at all. Crawly kept calling him angel. It was…very odd. If Crawly wanted to forget eight hundred years of misdirected animosity, then that was fine with Aziraphale—he didn’t like that sort of awkwardness, either. It was just—why angel? That was what Aziraphale was, yes, but it didn’t feel like that was the whole of the reason why.
I wonder if it’s a reminder, Aziraphale thought, and then pinched his lips together in a wash of grief. A reminder that they were on opposite sides, and that they always would be. Aziraphale was all but certain they could be friends, the way they had begun at the very beginning, but Crawly was thinking long-term.
Crawly was thinking about consequences.
Aziraphale shivered. If Heaven discovered he was consorting with the enemy, the worst he could expect was a bath in holy water to see if he boiled away to nothing, just as the enemy would. Hell, though…there were terrible stories that floated up to Heaven from the depths of Hell.
Destruction would be the least of Crawly’s problems. They would have to be cautious.
Oh, he hated that stupid, stupid war. He hated that it had ever happened. It made everything so blasted complicated!
Crawly chose that moment to groan, nearly causing Aziraphale to knock over all of the candles. That would never do. He made certain everything was miracled into place, so no ravaging flame could burn down the inn, before he turned his attention to Crawly to find out why the demon had awoken.
Aziraphale was surprised to see that Crawly’s eyes were still closed. His face was turned towards Aziraphale, and he didn’t look the slightest bit peaceful. He looked—well—ravaged.
Remembering what Crawly had said about nightmares, Aziraphale resolved that tonight, at least, nightmares were going to leave his friend in peace. He walked over and went to put his hand upon Crawly’s shoulder, to soothe or rouse, he wasn’t certain, and then froze with his fingers hovering just above Crawly’s bared collarbone.
“Please,” Crawly was whispering. “Please, please give him back to me.”
There was so much pain in the words that Aziraphale found himself on his knees. Oh, dear.
“Please!” Crawly turned his head away from Aziraphale just before his fingernails tore gouges through the wood of the sleeping platform. “Please, I don’t know who I am without him!”
Aziraphale struggled to get back up, perching on the edge of the sleeping platform. Who was Crawly speaking of? Their Father? Aziraphale himself? Someone else?
Crawly’s skin was glistening with sweat, as if he’d picked up a fever in the spare hour between the last drink of the evening and now. Aziraphale fretted for a moment before gripping Crawly’s shoulder. “Wake up, please!”
Aziraphale’s touch caused Crawly to twist away from him. “No, no, not that, not again, I won’t do it again!” The words would have been the hisses of a serpent if not for the hard, choppy consonants involved.
“Crawly.” Aziraphale swallowed and then dared to prod at the demon’s aura, trying to get through to a mind that was very much not on this plane of existence right now. “Crawly!”
Crawly shrieked in pain and curled up, wings manifesting as he tried to fend off some invisible foe. “Get away, get away, don’t make me—”
Aziraphale frowned as he caught the hint of something vile, something that didn’t belong. Being careful not to dig too deeply into Crawly’s being—angels and demons, oil and water, he thought grimly—he found and latched onto something that felt slippery, some darkness that wanted to escape an angel’s ethereal touch.
“Oh, no, I do not think so,” Aziraphale said, extending the tips of his fingers with a thought, strengthening them with his own core of magic and light. Whatever he’d caught hold of shrieked in agony, but it wasn’t a part of Crawly. This was something else.
The moment Aziraphale pulled it free to burn it away, Crawly began to retch. Aziraphale hurriedly rolled the demon onto his side. Crawly coughed and hacked out something that looked like a puddle of black, bubbling tar.
“Oh, that is simply foul,” Aziraphale muttered, and burnt it away the same way he’d burnt away the slippery thing he’d found worming its way around inside Crawly’s aura. “That’s quite enough of…of whatever that was.”
“It was from down there,” Crawly whispered. He still looked sweaty and ill, but his eyes were cracked open enough to reveal the bright gold hiding beneath. “Why’d you do that?”
“Because it wasn’t yours, and it didn’t belong there,” Aziraphale responded at once. “Unless—I won’t get you into trouble for that, will I?”
Crawly slowly shook his head. “No…s’from…just being down there. It’s…it’s poison, Zira. Nothing but poison.”
“Does that—does every demon suffer from that?” Aziraphale asked in shock. That seemed excessive, even for the Almighty.
“No.” Crawly sighed. “Most of them enjoy it.”
“How could they enjoy that?” Aziraphale exclaimed, horrified. “It made you—it made you very unhappy.”
“They want to be miserable, angel.” Crawly’s eyes opened further until he was giving the angel a bleary stare. “They want to hate, they want to…they suffer. They want to suffer because then they can say they were right. That they did everything right, and their punishment is wrong, because what sort of God would allow that kind of suffering?”
“A Hell of their own making?”
Crawly snorted. “Oh, angel. Literally. It’s literally of their own making. All of it is.”
“I don’t know what I did,” Crawly whispered, answering a question Aziraphale had politely never planned to ask. “I remember asking questions. I remember asking why…and I remember Falling. But I don’t know what I did. I’m sorry. I don’t know.”
Aziraphale closed his eyes briefly before reaching out and resting his hand on Crawly’s shoulder. “It doesn’t matter,” he said softly. “It doesn’t matter to me what you did then, even if you never know. All that matters is right now, and an hour from now, and tomorrow, and the day after, and the year after, and onwards. Forward. Not backwards.”
Crawly swallowed. “I’ll always regret.”
“Just don’t drown in it,” Aziraphale said, and then went for a wry note. “There is plenty of beer to drown in, instead.”
Crawly closed his eyes and let out a brief laugh. “Yeah. All right. Hey. Show me what you’re reading.”
“You’re not going to go back to sleep?” Aziraphale asked.
“Pfft. No, not after that,” Crawly retorted, but without a hint of anger. “Most people don’t sleep after nightmares, no matter what species they are. Come on. What did you dig up?”
“I didn’t dig up anything. I merely borrowed it.”
“Angel.” Crawly propped himself up on his elbows and grinned. “Did you steal that scroll?”
“No! Not in the least,” Aziraphale sniffed. “I borrowed it.”
“Borrowed. Of course.” Crawly slung his arm around Aziraphale’s shoulders and lifted them both up from the sleeping pallet. “Show me what you borrowed, then.”
Aziraphale abruptly felt very warm, but also, very comfortable. “Very well. It’s called the Epic of Gilgamesh, and it’s brand-new.”
Crawly laid on the floor next to the circle of candles and listened to Aziraphale recite the new story for the rest of the night. When it came to the part where Enkidu was civilized by way of sex, he started laughing and never quite remembered to stop.
Aziraphale found himself thinking on a very odd, very inappropriate thought for an angel in regards to a demon: I am never going to let anyone harm you. Not if I can stop it.
“I heard that,” Crawly said.
“Good,” Aziraphale adjusted the scroll so he could continue with the next line of cramped cuneiform. “Because I meant it.”