Ephesus, 400 B.C.
As the shadow of her long black chiton-draped figure moved over them, the plants trembled, knowing full well who was the master of this garden. Crowley walked along the stone-paved path, and the plants that she passed grew ever harder for her, leaves unfurling, flowers blooming all the brighter. They knew full well the penalty of failure, and so they straightened up, their leaves outstretched in verdant glory toward the sun, tensed and straining toward beauty and perfection, all to please her will.
Crowley set down the pitcher of mixed wine and as she did so she nudged a chair into place beneath the golden dappled shade of a sycamore tree, eyeing the table laden with food that she had set out. On a large plate painted in red-figure surrounded by ducks and waterfowl, cheeses both soft and hard were surrounded by brined olives both green and black. A little mountain of dried apricots, cherries, and figs were piled up on one side, the other heaped with shelled walnuts and pistachios. Crisp cucumbers still damp from rinsing were in a bowl and nearby was a jar of honey, the edge of a golden honeycomb peering out from the lip.
“Oh, the bread.” She reached out to touch the cloth-wrapped bread, checking the temperature, and at her touch the bread grew warm again, as if fresh and hot out of the oven.
“And stay that way,” she hissed, and the bread did not dare to disobey.
She moved around to the other side of the table and straightened the other chair, so that the two chairs faced each other. But then she frowned to herself.
“Too much. Far too intense. He’ll think...” And here, she could not finish her thought, not even to herself.
So she moved the chair again, making sure that both chairs faced each other at a gentle angle, so that whoever sat could easily look at their companion, and at the same time look out over the garden wall below and see the gleaming wine-dark band of the Aegean along the horizon, islands rising from the sea like distant mountains.
Just then she heard Aziraphale’s familiar step along her path, the soft scuff of his sandals upon the stone. She had left the gate unlocked for him and he had let himself in as was his custom. And when Aziraphale came into view, climbing up the hill, Crowley looked up with a smile.
“Angel,” Crowley said in greeting, straightening his black chiton about his shoulders and hips.
“Crowley!” Aziraphale smiled brightly, and greeted him with a kiss as though they had not just seen each other the day before.
“Just in time,” Crowley pulled away, drawing the edge of his himation closer over his head, his hand pressed to his cheek as if he could still feel the lingering touch of Aziraphale’s lips. “Bread’s still hot, let’s eat.”
“I hope you don’t mind,” Aziraphale said, setting down a plain ceramic pot on an empty spot on the table, rattling the lid. “I brought you some soup to go with our meal.”
“Of course not,” Crowley smiled, though he clearly remembered telling the angel yesterday that he would take care of all the details of the food today.
“Here, have a seat, I know where your bowls are and will get some for the soup.”
“No, it’s all right, I can-”
But the angel was already heading up to the house, and Crowley sighed, slumping back in the chair. Alone, Crowley looked out over the terraced garden down toward the sea. There were dark clouds gathering over the islands; perhaps it would rain soon. And so Crowley sniffed the air, first tasting it with the nose and then the tongue and there it was, the faintest scent of rain and ozone lingering in the air.
And yet, the sky above was clear.
Crowley stood and walked up to the house, meeting Aziraphale in the entry.
“It seems like things changed.” And just as those words were spoken, Aziraphale set down the bowls and took his hands.
“What was it that you said, my dear?”
Aziraphale’s lips pressed gently to his fingers, and Crowley found himself drawing back, even as he longed to take Aziraphale’s hand. Torn, he stepped away, out past the colonnade, feeling the cool breeze and tasting the briney scent of sea air on his tongue, the wind swirling the folds of his long black chiton about his sandaled feet.
The green garden within the high stone walls that normally felt like a refuge seemed to block him in, and he wandered higher up on the hillside terraces past the house, looking down at the flat mirror of the sea.
Aziraphale followed him.
“I said, it seems like things changed. Ever since Athens,” Crowley said, rubbing his fingertips. “Did things change? It feels like things changed.”
“My dear boy, I don’t think anything has changed, has it?” But there was an odd note in Aziraphale’s voice, a tone that was different, that was unusual, and Crowley frowned, hearing the strangeness coupled with the hesitation in the angel’s voice.
He turned to look at Aziraphale who quickly looked away, hands folded behind him, fingers tangled together in a tense knot that did not escape Crowley’s attention.
“You’ve been much. Much more...” And the words caught in his throat; they were too hard to say. How to explain that everything was different after that night at the symposium when he had rescued the angel from Asmodeus. It seemed that since then Aziraphale pressed his affections at any opportunity, reaching out to touch Crowley, to kiss his fingers or cheeks, or to hold his hands. And it wasn’t that Crowley didn’t like it – it always sent a pleasant shiver of sensation through him to touch the angel – but things were different now. It didn’t seem like the easy natural affection that had existed before, but something else, something that seemed almost forced.
Something with hidden intention, perhaps. But this was Aziraphale and it was impossible that the angel could have an agenda that he didn’t know about; Aziraphale wore his feelings openly. Or so Crowley thought. And that was a troubling notion too, that there were hidden depths to the angel that he had not fathomed.
“Hmm? Much more what?” Aziraphale had a mild, careful expression on his face.
The false note of feigned innocence in Aziraphale’s voice made him pause. Crowley frowned, not sure of what to say or how to say it. “We’ve become closer, haven’t we? Since Athens.”
“Well, why not? After all, we are refugees from the war between Athens and Sparta, and living as such here in Ionia. It would only be natural that we see each other more often now.” Aziraphale came closer, the back of his hand brushing against Crowley’s hand, and it sent a shiver that slithered over all of his skin. Yet Aziraphale continued speaking as if he noticed nothing, glancing up at Crowley to meet his eyes. “Isn’t it reasonable for friends to lean upon each other in times of hardship?”
Crowley rubbed the back of his hand. It seemed as if any time he brought this up, the question was skirted.
“I miss my little house in Athens. It’s been years, but I miss it,” Crowley said, changing the subject so as not to have to deal with it. It was easier to pretend that nothing was wrong, that nothing was different, even as he eyed the angel cautiously as he retreated, pulling the himation closer over his hair, sinking into the obscuring shadows that the cloth provided.
“Ionia is always nice,” Aziraphale said as he began to stroll deliberately away from Crowley, glancing back at him at intervals as if to gauge his expression. “I’ve always liked it better than Attica. I thought you did too. It’s closer to Egypt, for one. And your place in Ephesus has a better view, and is closer to the sea.”
“And is colder in the winter,” Crowley said, drawing his crimson-edged black himation tighter over his shoulders.
“Maybe so, but…here you don’t have to be a hetaira,” Aziraphale ventured. “You needn’t warm anyone’s bed anymore. Not at Hell’s command.”
Crowley said nothing for a long moment as he wandered through the garden, the air redolent with the scent of laurel, rosemary, mint, and lavender, while Aziraphale followed at a polite distance, tailing him through the trailing path of stones that wandered lazily through the shrubby plants.
“I know what I did. And you’re not wrong. I had orders,” Crowley said finally, not looking at Aziraphale. “But if you think I have anything to be ashamed of, you don’t know who or what I am.”