Chapter 1: Poughkeepsie, 2006
December 31st, 2006
Poughkeepsie, New York
“It’s cold.” Sam says, unfolding himself from the passenger’s seat and shutting the door behind him. The wind off the already-icy Hudson River rolls up the hill to the East, gaining speed all the way, and by the time it reaches their discreet parking spot it’s got the power to slice right through layers of flannel and leather.
“Thanks, Captain Obvious.” Dean mutters, puffing clouds of breath onto his already-chilling hands.
They don’t have to trek very far into the woods. When they get a visual through the trees on the bog-standard creepy cabin, they can still hear the distant sounds of a particularly raucous party at the college just south of the nature preserve. The word was that students had been jogging or hiking and disappearing; only to turn up down by the river dead, with torn and mutilated torsos.
Neither Sam nor Dean had been surprised when the coroner had mentioned that each one of them had been relieved of some oddly specific internal organs. A call to Bobby had confirmed what John’s journal had suggested: they were dealing with a Kumiko – a vicious fox-spirit of Korean origin, in monster taxonomy, not too far from the Japanese Kitsune or the Chinese Huli Jing. Fortunately, the kill strategy for all three was more or less the same, so if they were a little off, well, that’d be alright. It’d end up just as dead in the end.
Something about it is fascinating, like the darkness between the trees stretches on into a slice of infinity, and if Sam just looked long enough, he thinks he could slip into it and be absorbed. He recognizes the almost hypnotized sensation quickly and breaks away, only to turn and see Dean in an unblinking stare through the trees just the same.
“Probably in there, right?” Sam swallows the anxious saliva pooling in his mouth.
“Always with the creepy old houses.” Dean jokes grimly, hoping to ease Sam’s nerves a little as he takes point. “I mean, would it kill ‘em to put out a potted plant? Maybe clean the gutters once in a while? Is there some law that monster houses can’t have a little curb appeal?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Dean catches a gratifying hint of a smirk on Sam’s mouth. He slips his hand into his sleeve and nudges the seemingly ancient wooden door. It starts to swing, and then falls off its hinges entirely. Dean scrambles to catch it, but he’s too late: it tips inward and makes a thunderous, gunshot-like slam against the dirty floor.
* * *
The noise could have been anything. A crack of lightning, a kid lighting off a firework, a gunshot in the drug-addled hellhole town to the East, but it isn’t any of those things. The big bad wolves are here, knocking down her door. She can smell them, all gunpowder and motor oil and adrenaline breath.
She rolls her eyes as she listens to them bicker. Winchesters.
“I’m in here, meatheads.” She calls from the cobwebbed room where she’s curled up in the corner by the window. Her voice is low and sultry, a harsh contrast with the casual insult.
It only takes a minute or so before their heavy footfalls make it to the doorway. She stays where she is, curled tight against the wall, gazing at them from behind a curtain of mussed black hair. They startle a little when they catch sight of her.
Muscles tense and ripple beneath her skin and she rises to her feet with an unearthly speed and grace, but she doesn’t approach.
“Dean.” She pushes enough hair out of her eyes that they can see her face in the moonlight, tan-skinned and coated with blood and dirt. “Sam.”
“Who the hell are you?” Dean takes a step forward, brandishing his weapon.
“Now, now.” She raises her hands, retracts her claws, and makes herself look as harmless as she can manage under the circumstances. “Is that any way to treat a friend?”
“We don’t make friends with monsters.” Dean asserts.
“That’s a good joke, kid.” A slow grin spreads across her face, the corners of her mouth stretching a little further than perhaps they ought, and then a little further still. Her head tilts slowly, and her searching eyes glint yellow.
She seems entranced, and Dean takes the opportunity to rush in with the knife, but she’s out of the way well before he reaches her, leaving him stumbling into the corner of the room.
“Don’t worry.” She says. “You’ll get to kill me. In fact, I won’t even put up a struggle. You know how this goes.”
The blank looks on Sam and Dean’s faces make her frown.
“Not much for pattern recognition, are we? Where’s your little angel? I’d very much like to speak with him before we do our dance.”
“What?” Sam frowns, his heart beating double-time, so loud he’s sure she can hear it.
“There’s no such thing as angels, Sam.” Dean growls without taking his eyes off her. “I don’t know what her game is, but she’s just messing with you. Don’t listen to it. These things pull tricks all the time.”
Her thick, caterpillar eyebrows furrow for a moment. She looks Sam up and down, and after a couple of quick passes, her gaze settles on his head – no, his hair. His much shorter hair.
Recognition and understanding spill suddenly over her features, visible even through the layer of dust and filth. She tilts back her head and lets out a loud, barking laugh.
“I’m so sorry.” She claps her hands together in front her. “My mistake. It seems that we haven’t… well, that is you haven’t met me yet. Sam, your brother's been very rude - we go way back, he ought to introduce you to me, but since he wont...” She approaches them gingerly and extends a hand, as if to shake. "I'm Maledictus."
“You want us to shake your hand?” Sam asks, somewhat thrown. "Dean, what is she talking about?"
“That is the custom, is it not?” She smiles.
"She's just lying, Sammy." Dean says through his teeth.
There's something a little off about it, it stands out from the rest of what he'd been saying in a way that Sam can't put his finger on, but he doesn't push. It's probably just the cold, the stress, he's almost certain he's reading too much into it.
“What year is it?” Asks the creature.
“It’s 2006.” Sam says softly. "For another couple of hours."
She looks down, like she’s calculating. “No angel yet. Pity. He's a better conversationalist than either of you two louts.”
“Sounds like more tricks to me.” Dean says. He wraps his hand around hers, pulls her in and drives the blade between her ribs.
She stares into Dean’s eyes, never taking her gaze off them as she speaks. “Listen. Ypsilanti. Pittsburgh. Broward. Monument. Milan. Erie. Couer d'Alene. New Harmony. Hell.”
The walls vibrate. Sam eyes them warily.
“Towns.” He says. “She’s naming places.”
The wood in the floor begins to warp. Dean swallows hard and twists the knife in her chest.
“Dean Winchester.” She coughs dark blood, and Dean thinks he’s addressing her, but she goes on: “Bela Talbot. Dean Winchester. Alastair. Uriel. Adam Milligan. Lilith. Ruby. Castiel.”
“She said you.” Sam points out. “Twice?”
“Yeah? And?” Dean pulls out the knife and stabs her again. Wood-splinters rain from the vaulted ceiling.
“Jo Harvelle.” Her eyes go out of focus, but she keeps talking in a husky rattle. “Ellen Harvelle. Sam Winchester. Anael. Sam Winchester. Dean Winchester. Zacharaiah.”
“Do you think we should get out of here?” Sam asks, eyeing the roof of the building that seems to be sinking somehow, getting closer and closer as if someone were holding up a giant zoom lens just beneath it.
There is an unholy creak as the walls start to curve inward at their centers.
“Gabriel. Castiel. Bobby Singer. Balth—“
A piece of the house falls directly onto her head with a wet crunch. Sam’s hand closes around Dean’s wrist and they just barely slip out through the door before the entire thing collapses in on itself. They turn around and watch as the entire house turns, piece by piece, to dust that blows away in the freezing winter wind.
“Holy shit.” Dean says. He looks down at the knife, and the blood itself dries to dust and blows away.
“Should we, uh…” Sam offers, gesturing toward the car.
They drive until they are exhausted, and when they are exhausted, they drink until they can't help but sleep. In the morning, Dean finds Sam already awake, completely absorbed in the glow of his computer.
“I don’t think that was a Kumiko.” He says, voice flat and tired, as if he’d just gotten bad news he doesn’t know how to process.
Sam meets Dean’s groggy gaze, sees the microscopic shake of his head, and in the silence there is something of an accord, a sense as deep as hunger or lust that they simply are not going to speak of it. Not to Bobby, not to anybody, not even to one another.
But when Dean is shot in Broward, that rasping, choking voice will echo loud and clear in Sam’s head. He'll wish they'd killed her sooner, left the house quicker, or maybe steered clear of Poughkeepsie altogether.
And it won’t be the last time.
Chapter 2: Barbados, 1720
“If the Universe came to an end every time there was some uncertainty about what had happened in it, it would never have got beyond the first picosecond. It's like a human body, you see. A few cuts and bruises here and there don't hurt it. Not even major surgery if it's done properly. Paradoxes are just the scar tissue. Time and space heal themselves up around them and people simply remember a version of events which makes as much sense as they require it to make.”
When tide goes out at midnight, and the clouds cover the moon the full moon, they can be summoned. Do you want to know how?
It is with great hesitation that Bower uncurls his large fingers just enough that he can take another look at the symbols messily scratched on the scrap of paper concealed there. He lets his eyes fall shut to steady his nerves.
He reaches forward into the dark, damp sand and finishes the circle drawn there. In the bowl at its center, he places a piece of oiled tendercloth. He scrapes the flint. One spark, then another, then another, and whoosh. The tendercloth catches the spark and the contents of the bowl follow after. Orange flame makes the inside of the copper bowl glow.
The fire sucks air and grows, sending smoke into the air in thick, greasy clouds. The grains of sand pressed into service to the sigil light up as if caught in a powerful heat from below.
Eventually the smoke becomes too much, sending Bower into spasms of coughing that wrack his body. When he waves enough smoke away to breathe and brushes the dreadlocks from his face, he sees it: the shape of a man behind the black curtain. His heart clenches, his stomach drops, his feet want to run but he roots himself to the spot and doesn’t move.
The sea breeze kicks up and whisks the smoke away.
“Hello.” Says the man.
Bower squints. He tries to make out the man’s features, but it is as though he has none. Looking at him is like reading text in a dream, every time he tries to concentrate, the pieces of the man’s face shift beneath his gaze.
“Was I summoned for a staring contest, then?”
“I want--” Bower swallows, hesitates, and then presses on, opening his throat and letting the deep timbre of his voice come out fast with a faked confidence. “I want to be the best at crossing swords of any man at sea.”
“I… see.” The man chuckles, a shifting tangle of sound that seems to come more from Bower’s own mind than the man’s mouth. “And what makes you think I can do that?”
“The woman at the inn, she-“
“And if the woman at the inn told you that covering yourself in feathers and clucking like a chicken would make you better at sword fighting, would you do it?”
“Well, no, I'm not—“
“But rather than, I don’t know, practice, you’ll follow an instruction to summon a demon from hell, like that’s a perfectly rational thing to do? The missionaries have been, haven't they? You do know what a demon is?"
Bower feels his cheeks heat, and for once he is thankful that his face is too dark to show the flush that would glow from a paler man.
"Did she tell you," The man goes on, a dark smile spreading from the hazy place where his mouth should be, "that some demons have never taken a body?"
Bower's dense, black eyebrows furrow together. "I don't understand."
"Did she tell you how a demon takes a body for the first time?"
"No." Bower licks his suddenly-dry lips. "I don’t know what you are talking about. I came here to make a deal. Do you not make deals?”
"Certainly.” Says the strange man. "I'll take yours, then."
"My what?" Bower's large hands clench tight, and he feels his heart pound in his stomach.
"Your body, of course. You’ll be the fiercest fighter in the Caribbean, and I'll have your body."
"I... I don't..."
The man's aggravated sigh pierces Bower's mind. "Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth? Your body. Mine. You. Very strong. Okay?"
He finally forces out, "If you have my body, what use is my skill to me?"
"Well I'll give it back."
The man thinks it over, and replies, "One year, or less."
"The woman said you would want my soul." Bower says cautiously.
"Traditionally, yes. But perhaps you can bang two neurons together long enough to take a guess at why my priorities might be… shifted. Think of it my way. My options are: One, make a deal with you to borrow your meatsuit, or two, kill you and take it. You're pretty pure for a pirate, so killing you now would be a waste of a soul. But you’re a man, Thomas Bower, and a pirate at that. Once you’ve got your little prize, something tells me you’re going to walk right off that boat and into Hell all by yourself.”
"Ship." Bower corrects, oddly emboldened. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you’re a terrible negotiator and I don’t see you as a threat.” The answer rattles through bone and brain. “And so you know what’s going to happen if you suddenly get scared and decide you don’t want to deal.”
Bower grits his teeth. “So I have no choice?”
“You really should have done your homework about demons, mate."
"Fine.” Bower says. “One year. And I want it back in one piece."
Bower steps forward and extends a slightly nervous hand.
"No." Says the flickering man.
"What do you mean, no?"
The man puts his hand in Bower's, a feeling like a static shock, and pulls. He puts his hand on the back of Bower’s head, bringing him in close, and then closer, to that mouth full of teeth.
* * *
It isn't yet noon when the pirate sloop Revenge docks at Carlisle Bay on the west coast of Barbados.
"There's no rush." Anne Bonny purrs, running her hands up the slight curve of her lover's sides.
But the other woman only purses her lips in an unamused grimace, slipping into a long coat and pulling tall boots up her legs.
"Mary," Anne frowns, "What's the matter? They reacted well, I think. Anyway, Calico's in charge and he'd never allow a single one of those louts to lay a finger on you. You know that. What troubles you so?"
‘Mary’ licks and bites her lips. She doesn't make eye contact. The first day in a new person is always the toughest.
"I dreamed of ill omens." She confesses. "Nothing more."
Sympathy crosses Anne's face, and she turns away, not watching her friend exit the darkness of the cabin.
‘Mary’ squints into the sun as she saunters up the pier.
Telling the friends and family, Maledictus had discovered, is simply not worth it. How many times had she tearfully confessed to a lover, a friend, a parent? I’m going to die in one year, she had said in life after life after life, but what good did it ever do?
She does it anyway, most of the time, though perhaps not right away. She wonders if she’ll tell the woman that her new body’s mind labels Anne Bonny. The affair doesn’t seem to be a romantic one, but the friendship is strong. Maledictus riffles through the filing cabinets of her host’s brain for information. A good impersonation requires proper intelligence-gathering.
Once on the island, she realizes passively that she has no destination, no direction she wants to go other than away. She always likes to get away a little in the beginning, if she can – to simply be herself, to collect the shattered fragments of personality she’s managed to cling to over the eons.
She hikes inland to the far edge of Bridgetown, where the cobbles and dirt give way to deep green grass again, and it gathers into a hill that presides over the burgeoning little city. One foot in front of the other, she disregards the sweat forming beneath her hat until she’s reached the rounded peak of the rise.
It’s all so much cleaner from here. No faces, no names, just meandering little creatures in corsets and wigs, milling about their colony. She wonders, as she always wonders, if there are any versions of her down there, but she doesn’t meet herself too often, and the likelihood seems slim.
She watches a group of men being led out to the docks in the direction of the same ship she had just left. They’re mostly very dark of complexion, and she spares a moment to search Mary Read’s memories of her captain. Not the sort of fellow to engage in human trafficking, Maledictus is relieved to find.
It’s hard not to remember what the little town’s going to look like in ten years, or one hundred, or three hundred – she can superimpose the cars, hotels, and shopping malls that will one day try desperately to seek some romanticized version of the aesthetic below her now.
They’ll want it cleaner, she imagines.
It is several hours before Maledictus feels comfortable among the crowd, but when she does, she embraces it. She passes among the narrow streets and grins wide beneath the tip of her hat, letting the humanity seep back into her like a fish adapting to its new tank.
It’s all going marvelously until she crests the gangplank to the Revenge and her gaze passes over the line of faces of the new recruits. Her eyes connect with the one four from the end of the line, and her heart stops. It’s unmistakable: the flicker and shift beneath the skin like the reflection of sun off the water, the unique shape, a fingerprint of a distortion she learned long ago that no one else could see.
* * *
Crowley is not listening. He had been so simply pleased to breathe fresh air and see the sky that he hadn’t given a lot of heed to what he would actually do on Earth, aside from staying away from Lilith, and finding a slightly more permanent body. He’d been discovered by some pals of Bower’s and swept into a night of drunken revelry. Some of the drunkenness had had to be feigned on his part, but he had no less fun for it.
Not a lot of good parties downstairs, he muses. At least, there aren’t as many as one might expect.
The companionable nature of the night had gone on to the morning, and something about the easy way they’d joked and not turned on him, not tortured him even a bit, had convinced him to being agreeable when one of them had said there was a job waiting, and was he coming?
The day had brought recruitment to what, as far as he can tell, is a fairly bog-standard pirate ship, made unique only by the not one but two women serving to the objection of apparently no one at all. He is almost certain this is supposed to be bad luck, but if a whole crew of seasoned sailors is content, he supposes he can be as well.
He reflects on the previous night. After what he calculates to be nearly four hundred years in Hell, words like trust and friend aren’t really in his lexicon anymore, but he imagines that Thomas Bower must know them well. The night has taken edge off the anger he’d arrived with, and between that and the weather, it’s hard to feel that demonic fury he thinks is expected of him.
When the newcomer bounces up the gangplank, the movement catches his eye. He watches her face as she makes eye contact; he doesn’t miss the way her energy shifts from purposeful to stunned, like she’d been hit in the gut by some great invisible fist.
Crowley must resist the temptation to look behind him, as if he’ll see something shocking there, as if it’s almost difficult to believe it’s really him she’s looking at. He wonders if Thom Bower has perhaps wronged this woman in some way. The way her shoulders suddenly heave and her jaw tenses, it must be the case. He’ll try to keep clear of her.
The sparkling sea draws his gaze as he thinks, and it’s in the midst of this reverie that he is shocked by a sting across his cheek.
“Mary?” The lilting voice comes from behind the slapper, a small hand on the woman’s shoulder, a tug, and he seems to be safe.
“Anne. I… He’s… I can’t—” The ruddy-cheeked woman who had slapped him (Mary?) sounds almost choked up.
The blonde murmurs something into Mary’s ear, at which point she sucks a long breath, collects herself, and shoots a look at Crowley that freezes the blood in his veins. The captain does not interfere once, merely watching the women with the passive amusement of a man in charge of otherwise wild women. He saunters up to Crowley slowly, getting in close and managing quite well to intimidate, despite the height of Crowley’s new body.
“Perhaps now would be a good time to explain something to you, and your friends.” He glances back and forth.
Crowley looks him the eye and purses his lips. He doesn’t have to look around to see Bower’s friends starting to sweat. Is that the Caribbean sun? Or is it the fact that they suddenly see their job as at risk because of him? Perhaps it’s both.
“Maybe you’ve heard I am a nice fellow with a more… relaxed… crew. As a man who loathes pretensions, I’ll say it’s largely true, with one exception: Anne and Mary. So let me explain this: Anne and Mary are not here for your entertainment and when the going gets tough I’d rather have the two of them on my ship than the ten of you – a trade I will not hesitate to make at a moment’s notice. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
Whatever vestiges of drunkenness had lingered in the blood of the new crew, it’s gone now, and they are sober as judges. Crowley swallows his indignation long enough to assent, an action he considers a generous gift to Bower and his friends. He tells himself that, and as he watches Mary disappear below decks, he almost believes it.
* * *
Crowley had not been sleeping, but with his eyes closed, the small hand suddenly clapped over his mouth is still a bit startling. In the darkness of the sleeping quarters beneath the still-new moon, it takes him a moment to realize that this is the second time that hand has touched his face.
Mary’s fingers slip away, twisting into a blurry “follow me” gesture, which kicks up sparks of mad curiosity and so he does. As quietly as he can manage, he follows her through the door and up onto the nearly empty deck. The second that he’s let the trapdoor gently down behind him, she is in his space, pressing him back into a dark, shadowy alcove beneath the elevated bridge deck until his back hits the wall.
“You’ll have to trust deserved that slap.” She says, voice low and warm, “But you know me, I’m not about to hold a grudge.”
Crowley searches Bower’s memories for Mary Read, but finds nothing. Perhaps the body was drunk when they last met? He sifts through a few possible responses, but decides the best is to say nothing at all, so he keeps his mouth shut.
She answers by leaning in and pressing her lips against his. Her fingers start at his cheekbones and trail down his neck and chest, and her mouth follows, dancing kisses along the line of his neck. Crowley almost stops her, almost pushes her away, almost explains that he’s not who she thinks, almost almost almost… but her hands are drifting down past his waistline and he doesn’t vocalize anything. Lilith's got him trained not to resist.
She's just a human. You don't have to-- But his thoughts stop there. Of course he doesn't have to do anything - she is just a human, unsuspecting as a kitten, he images. So why not turn a little of that fear into anger and work out his feelings? Picture Lilith's face, he thinks, and turn the tables for once.
He recovers himself enough to strike back, grasping a fistful of her hair and eliciting a grinning gasp. He spins them around and presses her against the wall. He makes sure she can feel what she’s done, pressing against her hip, and when he realigns to grind strategically against her, she hisses through her bared teeth.
All the air seems to be sucked out of his brand-new lungs and his dick deflates faster than if he’d jumped into the cold sea. He can feel his hands start to shake, can’t even bring himself to speak. All this time he’d thought he was getting away from demons and Lilith and her machinations, and…
“Crowley?” She seems to shrink against the wall under his examining frown. “Listen, I just fell into this one, just today. We could have a whole year if everything goes well, I thought you’d be happy.”
“Who are you?” He tries for anger but instead it comes out like a cough.
“What are you talking about?” She frowns. “It’s your… it’s me, just look at me.”
His eyes dart around her face. He can see something faint beyond the boundary of her skin, but certainly nothing he can recognize.
She picks up on this immediately. “Crowley it’s me, it’s Maledictus. Last time for me was maybe eleven, twelve lives ago. Ah… 1980. You were in that Englishman I like… or rather you will be?” She looks up into the slick darkness of his eyes. “Who was I? Last time?”
There is no recognition in his face, no easing of his tension. He sucks air and lets it out slow through his nose, rather than the lips he’s biting down on. With one hand on the bony center of her chest, he pins her to the wall again, much harder this time.
“I don’t know what you are.” He says, “But I have a pretty good idea who sent you. If this is some kind of prank or trick I advise you call it off. You leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone, and no matter what she told you, believe me – you want me to leave you alone.”
When he releases her, she gasps for air, something he pays little attention to as he brushes off his clothes and vanishes down the hatch into the belly of the ship.
He climbs back into Thomas Bower’s bunk and listens to the ship breathe until morning comes.
* * *
Crowley can recall a time when he’d wondered to himself what was worse about hell, the torture or the politics. Truly, it was a naïve question to be asking, as once he’d been there long enough, the answer was clear: they’d always been one and the same. The easy interactions and clear goals as a cog in the machine of a running pirate ship feel almost clean by comparison, and not having seen “Mary Read” (or whatever craftily-disguised thing is wearing her face) in days simplifies things even further.
He’s got a plan in the back of his head to buy a few souls among the crew before he gives Bower back his lumbering form, but beneath the blue sky that had emerged after a storm; he can’t quite bring himself to feel hurried.
As the only newbie who hasn’t had a hint of seasickness in even the choppiest water, Crowley is volunteered by one of Bower’s pals for crow’s nest duty, much to the relief of the current green-faced lookout. The men chuckle at each other as he accepts without hesitation, but their smiles are replaced with brows high in surprise at how adeptly he scales his way up. For a few hours, they keep looking up, as if they’re waiting for his discomfort or inexperience to become clear in the face of the deep swoops and dips of such a high point away from the ship’s center of gravity. Eventually they seem to accept that he must have an iron stomach and return to their business uninterrupted
He’s not up there long before he gets the idea that his peace isn’t going to last. Below on decks, he can see her emerge from her quarters and gesticulate wildly at the Captain, who leans back as if genuinely intimidated, and nods along agreeably with what appears to a fairly heated rant. Once she stalks off, Captain “Calico Jack” turns his gaze upward.
Directly at Crowley.
He hasn’t forgotten what they’d all been scolded about on day one – in fact it’s been something he’s given a lot of thought to since his little altercation. He isn’t so arrogant as to imagine that Miss Mary is safe. She doesn’t have the face of a demon, but that doesn’t mean she’s not in the employ of any of his rivals, and he wonders if the Captain is in cahoots as well. He can’t think of how else she’d know his name.
The remainder of his shift up top is uneventful, but no longer relaxing. He’s open to violence, but it’s not in the plan, and he’d much rather stick to the plan than get even the slightest bit messy. When his feet are back on deck, he finds himself face to face with the displeased Calico Jack.
“Bower.” The Captain acknowledges.
“I hear you and Mary had a little disagreement.” He says impassively.
“Have you?” Crowley raises Bower’s eyebrows.
“She told me herself. Fortunately for you, she also requested that I not push you overboard tied to a cannonball, provided you’re willing to go have a talk with her and work things out. But if you don’t want to, I’d be glad to—”
“Naturally.” Crowley interrupts. “Where?”
“Her and Anne share quarters, you’ll find her there. Oh, and Bower?”
“If you piss her off, I’m the least of your worries.” The Captain says with a barely-concealed smirk as he tips the corner of his hat down over his face.
Crowley trusts him on that, and can’t help but analyze the whole interaction as he descends below-decks – Does Rackham know? Is he human, or is he the same as whatever strange undetectable thing has got hold of Mary Read? Crowley’s steeling himself for a fight, but against what, he’s got no idea. Paranoia flares in his belly as he knocks.
“Crowl—Bower?” Read’s voice is muted by the shut door, but her words are clear and they make Crowley press Bower’s fingernails into his palms.
“Affirmative.” He calls back.
“The door’s open.”
He pushes it, meets resistance, then pulls and finds it open as promised. He closes it behind him.
“What happened to I leave you alone, you leave me alone?” Crowley lets her hear the edge on his voice.
“That was your idea.” She reminds from where she’s perched on the edge of her bed. “And it was stupid.”
“Was it?” He asks.
“It was. You were always going to have to meet me eventually. I gave you my name. Did you even think about it? At all? Or are you stupider than I remember?” She tries to cover her obvious hurt with insults.
“Maledictus.” He says. “Maledictus. That’s Latin, for… You’re cursed?”
“Light dawns over Marblehead.” She declares grandly.
“Future slang. Part of the curse. Means you’re thick.”
“Cursed to what, then?” Crowley pushes.
“To live the last year of a random life, die, and then do it all over again.” She adds, “And when I say random, you ought to know I’m not fucking around with the word.”
He nods, putting the pieces together of her formerly-perplexing remarks – eleven or twelve lives ago, she’d said, and that she’d seen him in 1980.
“I can see the gears turning.” She says through a smirk.
“You’re not on the same timeline as the rest of us.” He says. It’s not a question. “And I’m a lot friendlier in a couple hundred years.”
“If it makes you feel any better, you’ll get to be on my side eventually – getting to look into the eyes of someone you know, who doesn’t know you.” She can’t make eye contact, instead examining the grain of the wood in the floor with the intensity of a carpentry enthusiast. “I’m a little relieved, actually. I dreaded this for so long, and now it’s here, kind of a load-off.”
“And when’s that?” He’s half curious, half testing the pressure points on her story, looking for cracks, for any evidence of a lie. “The part where I know you, and you don’t know me?”
“Are you expecting me to coyly refuse to tell you about the future? Like it matters if you know? Because I’m not going to do that.” Her voice carries a sense of gravity, of warning. “I’ll tell you whether you like it or not: I meet you in 2014. A busy year for you, and you still found – or is that will find? — time to pick me up out of the dirt.”
“I can’t think of a reason I’d want to save any ass but my own, darling.” He looks down at her hand where it rests against the bedding “You sure I’m who you’re looking for?”
“I know how this goes, Crowley. You’ll tell me all about it one day, when I won’t have been here yet. Times change.”
He remembers the warmth of her hands on his face, the way he felt alive, almost human again for a moment when she’d touched him, a quick crack in the stone wall that Hell had tortured into him. For a moment she’d almost slipped past the traps and pitfalls that Lilith had installed in her horrific way. One day the mortar will be poured anew, but for now, there’s a crack and it’s spreading unchecked. He wants to reach over, to trace the calluses on her palm, but the idea of any contact at all still makes him feel a little sick.
He asks, “Do they? How much, I wonder?”
She looks up at him with a face like an open book: eyes full of questions that she doesn’t ask. He can practically hear her heartbeat – an unsteady flutter of indecision. So clear is her feeling that he imagines he can listen in on her thoughts. The smell of warmth and want on her is so new and different to what he’s been accustomed, it’s intoxicating.
Trust isn’t something that comes easy, and for the moment, Crowley’s not bothering to decide whether she’s being honest. Instead, he’s making a promise to himself to simply keep his distance. Some part of him knows he will break it, but that part remains silent for now.
She’s welcoming, and interesting, and most importantly, not a demon.
"Listen, ah... this is a little..." Maledictus' brassy confidence seems to flicker. "You should stay here."
"For appearances' sake, Crowley. You ought to sleep here. Anne stays with the Captain most nights, she won't mind. You stay here, he'll think we're sympatico. Might help things a bit." Flimsy excuses. She wants him close, and it bleeds through in every word.
"Maledictus, I don't think..." He tries to deflect, he doesn't want to say the real reason he's pushing back against her offer.
"You think I mean...? Oh, fuck, Crowley, I know what she did to you. You haven't told me yet, but for me, that story's miles in the rear view mirror. This is why we always talk timelines. It's a risky business, ours." All at once, she sucks air through her teeth. "I can't just assume you're the you that's alright with... damn, I feel like a heel, about before."
"Don't." He tries to toss out the single word like it's nothing, he means for it to flutter out the open porthole like a handkerchief on the breeze, but instead, it's more like a lead ball.
"I won't touch you, not without your say so, even if it means I go the whole year not so much as holding your hand. Promise." What she finishes with is so soft as to be barely audible. “Please stay.”
Crowley lets out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
* * *
The almost joking pretense of secrecy aboard the Revenge is shattered deep in the night when Crowley wakes up screaming in Mary Read’s bed. His panic is amplified by Lilith gagging him, stopping his breath, and – wait. It’s not a gag, but rather hands, clapped over his face--
“What in blue fuck are you doing?” Maledictus hisses into his ear.
His pupils are blown and his mind is whirling. The pain is gone, and aside from some scars that don’t really belong to him, it’s whole, intact, safe. He answers her with a furrowed brow and searching eyes.
“I know you’re a little green at this but even you should know better.” She scolds. “It’s not as if you even need to sleep, you bloody idiot.”
“You looked so peaceful, I thought it might feel…” He trails off with a vague gesture.
Maledictus sighs, pulling clothes on and tossing his garments to him. “I see what this is. You’re fresh out of tortureland and getting nostalgic. Well don’t.
She’s barely dressed when the door rattles hard with the force of the knocking against it. The call is rough, throaty, and clearly drunk.
“MARY” Says a man who, as far as Maledictus can tell, never mattered to Mary Read one bit. “Who’s in there? You-ntrouble?”
“No.” Maledictus says through the door as she does a more detailed search for his name. “I’m fine, go away… Henry.”
“Who is it then?” He slurs, all directionless anger.
The door thumps again, harder this time, and the frame cracks. The next time, it breaks, and the door tilts inward until it’s hanging on by only one hinge. Through the gap, Crowley can see Henry, and Henry can see him.
“It’s… Mate, it’s not what you…” He tries to assuage, but his approach to the broken door is stopped by Henry’s final blow that sends it toppling to the floor. Maledictus looks at the door with a sort of passive amusement, a strange recognition that Crowley doesn’t understand.
“You ‘eard the captain.” Henry admonishes dizzily. “No bothering the ladies. You’re s’posed to leave ‘em all for him.”
“Ex…cuse me?” Crowley takes a careful step backward, fumbling behind him around the edges of Mary Read’s writing desk, hoping for a concealed weapon.
“I know it ain’t fair, mate, but he’s the Captain, anat’s jess how it goes.”
“And you’re the police then, are you?” Crowley’s suddenly a little indignant about the woman he has no claim on.
“I’m the guy who oughtta be in here, if anybody’s gonna.” Henry pulls his sword.
Maledictus pulls her own and smacks Henry’s out of the way. “That’s quite enough of that.”
“Mary.” He entreats. “I was so relieved you were a lady, I thought I… I…”
She smacks his sword of out of the way again with her own. She thinks of films that will be made in two hundred years, full of swordfighting duels with fancy footwork and clever choreography.
This isn’t that. She’s far from an expert, in fact she wonders if Crowley notices how clumsily she handles a blade she’s never so much as lifted, but it doesn’t take years of training to incapacitate a man whose few existing brain cells are drowning in liquor. The moment she sees an opening, she drops the sword and moves in close. She jams the heel of her hand into his red, greasy nose and sends him tumbling to the floor bloody. It’s not graceful, but it’s good enough.
Crowley watches her take a few heavy breaths, and realizes her hands are shaking.
“I thought Mary Read was a stone cold killer.” He says quietly, a reference to Maledictus’ clear discomfort with the situation.
“Fortunately, she is.” Maledictus huffs. “Or something like that. Might have gone worse, otherwise.”
“Can you learn things like that? Really learn, like take them from one life to the next?”
“A little. Not enough. And you get rusty fast.” She lowers herself uneasily onto the edge of the bed.
By the time the dozing Captain finds his way to Mary’s quarters, Maledictus has settled down immeasurably. Captain Rackham seems more or less unconcerned with Henry’s state, nor is he so much as annoyed at Crowley’s presence there, given Maledictus’ assurances that it pleased her – clearly Henry’d made some kind of mistake in his assessment regarding his relationships. From Crowley’s point of view, Rackham treats the woman he thinks is Mary Read more like a little sister than a lover.
He files the incident away, and in a few hundred years, he’ll see the incident referenced in the more detailed history textbooks and biographies of Mary Read’s life, and it will sound considerably more dramatic. He’ll wonder if Maledictus had ever seen it.
"Go." Maledictus hisses, the second Rackham's out the room. "Hurry, go on. He's receptive right now, he trusts you. I can feel it."
"His soul." She clarifies, practically shoving him past the broken door. "You don't get to be King by laying about drinking rum and singing shanties, you need practice, you need souls."
"He hasn’t summoned me, or anybody." Crowley protests. "I don't even know what he wants." He's all nerves until he suddenly processes what she just said. King? Of what? Is she having a go at me?
"Details, details." She dismisses. "Just look at him. Really look. You always know. You always see it. You can read a human like a book, you've done it to me five times just today. Go."
In her eyes, he can see twisted reflections of deep pools of might befitting a demon well beyond him. And yet, it’s still him, looking back. She's not joking, is she? King of… well, anything really… The thought is enough to drive him, and what do you know, the sale goes down easier than he could have imagined. Just like Maledictus had said, as soon as he'd really looked, he'd known what to offer, and he'd gotten to dip his fingers into that beautiful reservoir of dark, sweeping power that comes to the demons who close deals.
The experience buoys him, makes him feel electric, and by week's end half the ship has signed on with him for one thing or another. The wisp of guilt that had come with the first sale is gone, washed away in a flood of sparks and victory.
At first, the demon that Maledictus had seemed to know so well had seemed a million miles away from possible, more like the invention of a smitten schoolgirl with a runaway imagination than an immortal's report of something he could really become. But now? He can see the black sunset-shadow of the future stretching out before him. A seed of ambition has been planted somewhere too deep for even Lilith to pull its roots.
* * *
The day of the raid, thin clouds turn the sky white, and the wind is from the West – Crowley can almost smell the wet soil and sweet smoke from Jamaica. The Revenge is restocked, thanks to the complete annihilation of two ships in one day, something Crowley had amused himself by helping with – he’s fairly sure his little interventions went unnoticed, but he doesn’t mind a bit. The men have gorged themselves on food and drink, and the congenial atmosphere reminds Crowley of his first night back on Earth with Thomas Bower’s friends.
Not even he is prepared when the Jonathan Barnet’s infamous pirate-hunting ship is upon them. By the time the first round of canon-fire pierces the lower decks, the men are uselessly intoxicated.
Crowley follows Anne and Maledictus to the upper decks just in time to see the crisp-suited soldiers boarding the Revenge. He can already see that there’s too many of them to take on in a fair fight, but that doesn’t seem to stop Anne, who he stops to admire – she doesn’t have the comfort of knowing she’ll be back if she falls, but she battles with no less fury for it. He peers into her soul and finds it almost a pity that, should she die today, she’ll wind up in Hell.
Gunshots and snapping wood fill the air with cracks and pops – one of which turns out to be Maledictus, angry that she and Anne are alone in their defense of the ship, shooting her gun down into the hold where the men are hiding, sleeping, or both.
There’s too many skilled men, too little time. Maybe a thousand souls from now, he’d have the power to fight back on his own, but as of now? He’ll have to get his hands dirty if he wants to do anything at all.
Thomas. He says, reaching inside to where the original owner of this body lies dormant. Thomas Bower, can you hear me?
No response, but he can feel something shifting, like a man waking slowly from a long sleep.
You’re about to get your body back.
He can sense confusion.
You’re on a ship, not far from shore. You’re sober. You’re being boarded. If you want to live, you’re going to have to swim.
Alarm shocks across the invisible cord that connects Crowley to his host.
You can swim, can’t you? What kind of pirate can’t swim? Crowley’s losing his patience and he can hear the footsteps of a soldier coming closer to his hiding place. Shouldn’t that have been in your deal?
The alarm is now a steady anxiety.
Fine. I’m throwing in a perk, but if you ever tell anybody about it I’ll make you wish you were never born. You also get to be a fantastic swimmer. Now, this is where we part ways.
Just as the soldier rounds the corner, Crowley wraps his fist around a glass bottle and swings it with all of Thomas Bower’s considerable might directly into the man’s forehead. He’s not out cold, but he’s solidly stunned, giving Crowley more than enough time to smoke out from Bower’s body into the soldier’s.
Bower looks around, sucking air fast like a scared rabbit.
He nods, and in mere moments, he’s overboard, unbeknownst to anyone involved in the fracas.
Crowley stretches his arms and fingers – this body isn’t quite as muscled as Bower’s was, but it’s loose and young, and more importantly, it fits in with the soldiers currently dragging handcuffed pirates, including a struggling Anne and Maledictus, aboard.
He does his best to watch with passive contempt when the pirates are sentenced on the spot, and he is able to tamp down the urge to object when a few of the men he’s spent the last few weeks with are unceremoniously shot and thrown overboard. Things don’t feel the same way they did when he was human, as if sensation and emotion are locked away in a heavy box. He’s finding that he can look inside the box when it suits him, and put it away when it doesn’t. It’s nothing like the maddening tempests of humanity, and that’s something to be grateful for.
Something about Maledictus, though, seems to wedge open the lid of the feelings-box more than he likes when he sees her bleeding, broken, and bound at the feet of a particularly smug officer. She’s conscious, however, and it only takes one look for her to know it’s him. She closes her eyes for a moment, as if concentrating, and when she opens them again, they are full of tears.
She doesn’t speak, but he can read her lips as the officer begins to drag her away. There’s no declaration of love, no big goodbye. What she mouths is so casual that one would think they were parting after a night at the pub. There’s even a little ghost of a smile on her face when it forms the shape of the words.
When the guards drag her down to the brig, it’s tempting to follow, but he’s after a bigger fish.
He follows the captain, instead.
In the future, he’ll look back and see what he’s missing now. He’ll see that it was too easy, that he should have been more suspicious of a "renowned pirate hunter." There are puzzle pieces, and he simply isn’t putting them together.
But for now, anger is slipping from the cracks of the box and he feels powerful and free of doubts. He waits tirelessly outside Captain Barnet’s quarters until the man finds a reason to leave, at which point Crowley slips inside, ready to lie in wait, eagerly awaiting a body with a little more authority.
In the future, he’ll cringe when he remembers the first time he stepped on a devil’s trap.
He feels it the moment he steps into it – sudden prickling heat and then a chill that comes just as fast. He frowns, there’s nothing on the floor; it’s just blank wood. Then, and only then, he looks up. Sure enough, there it is: the star in the circle, symbols meticulously carved into the ceiling.
* * *
"You've been such a good little thing." Lilith coos. "And I promised you a present."
"How long's it been?" Crowley sags in his restraints. Exhausted, he forgets himself for a moment, and tries to lean back on the wooden X-frame that holds him. It has, of course, been treated with holy water. "On Earth?"
"Oh, darling. If I didn't know any better, I'd be jealous."
"That would require you having feelings." Crowley grits his teeth.
Lilith barks a throaty laugh. "You've got a mouth on you today. Good thing I'm in the mood for a little resistance, or maybe I'd take this present right back where he came from."
"When you say present..."
"I sent someone to pick him out just for you, all the way from the future. 1980's, I believe. He's a publisher or something. They found him in New York but he’s got an accent, I don't think he's from around there. A real fish out of water, just like you, baby."
Crowley swallows. "Why?"
She takes two steps deep into his personal space and presses her body against him. His borrowed flesh reacts unbidden, much to his irritation, and she chuckles against his neck when she feels him harden.
"I'm going to miss this body, useless as it is. I suppose this old one was more a present to myself. You'll have to let me break it one more time before you move on, of course. For old times' sake." She whispers, looking at his memories of how Maledictus had touched him, that one time, and trailing two fingers down his chest just the same way. "I know you think I hate you, sweet, but one day you'll look back on this and know the truth."
Her fingers draw circles on his inner thigh.
"Truth?" He rasps.
"That every time I see your true face, I am proud. That your soul was the hardest nut I ever cracked, and for that..." She wraps long, manicured fingers around his cock. "I love you."
She digs her nails into smooth skin until beads of blood form and spread.
“How long's this going to take?” He says, hiding his pain like a sick cat. “Before I get the… present?”
“Don’t rush me, kiddo. Be a good playtoy, and maybe I’ll think about checking into if anyone’s seen any cursed immortals around.”
Crowley closes his eyes.
He can wait.
“No one knows for sure that that tomorrow won't come,
but most people assume that tomorrow will still exist as usual.
This is Toba's Paradox, which means, hope overcomes doubt.”
He's been away too long already. Christian August steals furtive glances back to the stagecoaches he can still see through the trees. He can hear the soft nickering of the horses and the muffled gossip of the coachman and the steward, wondering what's taking their aging Prince so long to return from his stroll. They're thinking about stopping for the night, he imagines, and Christian's not fond of that idea, not one bit. He already wants to flee from here, and nothing's even happened yet.
With one shiny shoe, he scuffs at the mound of dirt over the box he buried. This is stupid, he thinks. No one's coming. It was a ridiculous notion in the first place. He spins on his heels and takes a few steps back toward the trees.
"Are you sure?" The voice from behind Christian is low, and curls into his ears like smoke. He whips around, hand dropping automatically to the pistol at his hip, but not grasping it, not yet.
Crowley's got it down to a science. A lot of crossroads demons, they just show up, come when they're called like eager puppies. Crowley likes to wait. He can't ignore a summons forever of course, not that he'd want to, but when he feels the pull, he pulls back. He sits with it, becomes its friend, until the sorry sap who'd likely gone and killed an even sorrier cat just to get their way has nearly given up.
Show up when their back is turned, and you even get a chance to size them up as you startle them.
"Who are you?" Christian means to shout, but it comes out more like a stammer.
"Look around, numbskull. Who do you think?" Crowley rolls his eyes. "You're all the same. Go to all that trouble to summon a crossroads demon, then act like you're so shocked when one shows up. What did you think was going to happen?"
This is step two, and is particularly effective on the high and mighty type. Knock them down, make them feel that otherworldly authority, right down to their bones. Make sure they know who's in charge, or they might get a different idea, especially if they're at all well informed about demons.
"I don't..." Babbles the great Prussian general.
"You don't know." Crowley snarks. "I know. Well, what do you want?"
"I want to..." Christian gathers himself. "I want you to stop the wedding. My daughter, Soph--Catherine, I guess she calls herself now-- She's marrying that... that mecker liesse..."
"Calm down." Crowley looks at him. Really looks. "Who is she marrying?"
"Peter Fyodorovich the third." Christian says the name slow, like he's regurgitating something slimy. "He is a child in a man's body."
"She love him?"
"Of course not. It's all political. Her mother and Elizabeth, they're the ones behind the whole mess. Made her convert and everything - changed her name, changed her faith, I feel like I've lost my daughter. I'm a good Lutheran, sir. I would not have... done this, called you, if I weren't desperate."
"Naturally. Believe me, I completely understand." There's no scorn in Crowley's voice now, only sympathy. He's already knocked the man off his feet, emotionally speaking, and now he's reaching down a gentle hand to help him up. It's the most basic manipulation.
I should write a book. Crowley thinks.
"Can you do it, then?" Christian pleads.
"I'm not sure that's really want you want." Crowley suggests, all friendly tentativeness. "Your daughter, how well do you know her?"
"I don't catch your meaning, sir. I know my daughter well."
"You seem like a good father." Crowley steps forward, closes the distance, as if they are two conspirators plotting together. "You called me because you want what's best for her, isn't that right?"
"Of course." Christian looks him up and down, swallows.
"What does she stand to gain, then? From the marriage?"
"Well, Peter is heir to the throne of Russia, and she's always had a little more ambition than is perhaps ladylike." A little smile ghosts Christian's lips as he says it - it's clearly something he's proud of.
"What if I told you I can do better than stop the marriage?" Crowley intimates, preparing for the upsell. "For someone with ambition... how does Empress of Russsia sound?"
Christian draws back. "It's impossible. There's nothing that would give her more pleasure, I'd be happy the rest of my days, but a German princess, at the helm of Russia? It can't be done, not even by a demon."
"Have a little faith, your princeliness. It can be done. You've struck the jackpot tonight. It just so happens I have some personal interest in Saint Petersburg, so I'll even cut you a little discount."
"Yes, well, for something this... labor intensive... I'd normally only give you a year, at most, before collection."
"Collection? Of my--"
"Soul, of course. But in this case? I think I can swing two."
"Only two years? I don't suppose I'll get to see her crowned?" Christian wavers.
"Fret not. Results are guaranteed, or your soul goes free." Crowley assures.
"I'm not sure. I mean, Hell, forever?"
Always the last minute hesitation. Another demon might be tempted to argue his case, or throw in a bonus. Crowley just waits. Humans are predictable.
"She'll never know?" Christian asks.
Christian steels his jaw, and sighs through his teeth. "Very well, then."
"You know how a deal is sealed?" Crowley can't keep the little predatorial glint out of his smile, now. He doesn't need to.
"I do, sir." His back is a steel rod, like a man going to the gallows, but he doesn't resist or lean away when Crowley moves with eerie smoothness into his personal space. The kiss tastes like sulfur and wool.
Crowley's gone by the time the man opens his eyes. This part isn't strictly necessary, it's just a flourish he likes - leave them confused and wondering whether any of it ever really happened.
* * *
Crowley had found his angle quickly. The wedding at the palace in Saint Petersburg was a sight to behold, unlike the groom - Crowley could see immediately why Prince Christian hadn't bothered to travel to Russia, why he'd been so frustrated by the whole ordeal. There were the obvious personality defects, and then the clear fact that only a mother could love that face.
The bride had been a vision of loveliness, but that's not why Crowley had watched her so closely. Her pallor had gone beyond what fear, makeup or corsetry could explain, and her eyes went in and out of focus for the entire ceremony, as if she might swoon on the spot. His suspicions had been confirmed when she coughed for perhaps the five-hundredth time.
There it had been: the angle.
"I'm afraid she has pleuritis." Crowley closes Catherine's door softly behind him, his voice is the gentle one of a sympathetic physician, delivering unfortunate news. " It's gone untreated for some time, I expect. Under usual conditions, the prognosis would be poor..."
"But?" Asks Peter, "Will she be able to bear children?"
"She may, yet. The infection is serious, but I am pioneering new procedures in phlebotomy that may be able to save her, if we're lucky." He feigns cautious optimism with aplomb.
"Waste no time, then!" Peter demands, before stalking off.
He won't, of course. He made a deal, and the moment it was sealed, the skeleton of the path unfurled in a flash before him like a diagram. How to toy with reality - twist here, nudge there. It can't tell him everything, of course. He'd known that going in, he'd known that the bigger the deal, the bigger the holes in the map, but even he'd been surprised by just how big the holes had been, this time.
There's a soft quiet back in Consort Catherine's chambers, no sound but her lightly troubled breathing. He draws the blinds. She doesn't like to see the dark outside at night, she'd said. She's taking to him quickly. A little medical jargon, a little orthodoxy talk, and a few comforting words in this moment when she's sick and scared and far from home, it's almost effortless. He can already feel her trust coming off her like the heat of the fever.
She's propped upright on a pile of cushions, head tilted laxly off to one side. She's not asleep, not yet, but the bloodletting is getting to her - she's pale, and even from here, he can hear her heart slowing, fluttering. Syncope will follow, and that's when he'll wrap her arm and dispose of most of the blood.
Most. You never know when you might need a little of a future Empress's blood, after all.
What he knows for sure that he's looking at easily a decade, maybe two, before the pieces can fall into place, and there's a lot that can go wrong. It makes every step he takes a little nervous, a little tentative, as he feels out the gamepieces and gets an idea of how they can be moved.
He's hungry for this one, though. Another demon might have just stopped the wedding, or talked the guy down from even that to get an easy soul, but it's not the soul Crowley wants, it's the gossip. He's playing the long game, and this is exactly what he's been looking for: a big fish, the kind of deal that could really make a reputation if he pulls it off and prime him for even bigger scores in the future.
A stepping stone to the future Maledictus had been so sure of.
"Doctor?" Catherine's voice is weak, little more than a whisper. "I feel... strange. A little... I..."
There it is. Her eyes flutter shut, and when she opens them again just a few moments later, she is hazily watching him banadage her arm.
"You seem different than the other doctors." She murmurs through the fuzz of the fainting spell.
"Quite astute, Your Majesty." He responds without looking up.
"You're considerably more handsome."
"Pity. Here I thought you meant I was a better doctor." Crowley deflects. He can't blame her for being a little charisma-starved, staring down a life with that feeb.
She reaches down to stop his hand, slim fingers wrapping around his wrist. "Would you like to kiss me?"
Crowley's hands, full of bandages, freeze in their place. His stomach doesn't turn as much at the notion as it once did, which seems like a good sign, but testing his own boundaries is not on his to-do list tonight.
"That would hardly be appropriate, Your Majesty." He says.
"There's no one here," She says, a little dreamily, "And I expect we'll be spending some time together, if I'm as ill as I appear to be. You must call me Catherine. You're not a eunuch, are you?"
"Your majes...Catherine. Darling." He says. He places his free hand around her fingers and heals her - just a little. Just enough to ease her pain and keep the infection in check without killing it. He needs her dependent a little longer. "Flattered, truly. I suspect you must be delirious with fever to say such things. I wouldn't dream of taking advantage."
A few steps toward the door, she stops him.
"Don't." Her words struggle out through a coughing fit. "Don't go. If you go, he'll... he wants a child as soon as possible. Please, it hurts when... I mean... Do you understand? The moment you leave..."
"I'll tell him that--"
"It won't matter. He won't care. It only works if you--just say you're treating me, say you have to keep watch, something. Please." She rasps. "Please stay."
It hurts, she'd said. Do you understand? Of course he does. Far too well, perhaps.
His eyes close as he listens to the internal echo. Please stay.
For as quietly as she'd spoken the words, they are screaming through his head at a million decibels, and for a moment he can smell salt air, hear the creaking of the ship, and feel the sugary heat of rum in his throat. He doesn't want to look at her, he's terrified he won't see the Consort's sallow complexion, but rather that round, ruddy face with the strange flicker of old soul just behind.
He fills his lungs slowly and empties them through his clenched teeth, if for no other reason than to buy time. He tells himself he's only staying to buy the lady's favor and trust, to make her feel safe with him. He says it to himself again and again as he nods curtly to her and takes up residence in the armchair by the window. He says it to drown out the memory of blood and bruises and that silent next time, of the way he failed, of the only debt he hasn't paid.
* * *
"You?" Catherine's voice is suddenly high. "You're not... you're just my doctor. Why would he... Why would Peter want to summon you?"
An amusing choice of words, Crowley thinks. Close as he is, he can hear her anxious heart beating against the bars of her ribs like a bird caught in a storm. The microexpressions that twitch past on her face, the way she tenses, he's learned it all. Nothing escapes him.
There is easiness between them now. Once, he had worried that rejecting her advances would put a wedge between them, but if anything, it has only allowed him to slip deeper into her court and her life than a lover ever could. The celibate physician: trustworthy as the priest, invisible as the eunuch, unthreatening as the homely handmaiden - a man who triggers no defensive reflex whatsoever, who seems to utterly defy the very idea of anxiety. She undresses in his presence as if he were her own mother, and not even Catherine's husband or lovers experience even the tiniest crumb of suspicion regarding his constant presence as a shadow at her side.
The first time Maledictus had hinted at future power, he'd imagined himself a figure of dark strength, frightening and forceful, but there is a power in this that he'd only suspected until now. Now, he sees it with his own eyes. The true power, he thinks, is not in violence or fear, but in flexibility - the ability to slip into whatever role suits the moment.
He supposes he's learned that from Maledictus as well, somewhere along the way from island to island.
Even Crowley has to admit that the news is a little bit nerve-wracking. Why would the new-ish Emperor call for him? He'd thought that he'd slipped beneath even Peter's radar, and doubt's creeping into the bones of the body he'd once thought of as borrowed but is now beginning to feel like his own. Catherine must not sense his nerves. He must be the rock in the storm of her suspicion, of her fear that perhaps the clumsy, stupid Emperor has caught wind of the schemes that have been in the making so long. Fear could make her act rashly, and ruin the game.
The carriage ride from the Winter Palace to the castle at Oranienbaum isn't long, but it is fraught. He's been growing these seeds too long and too meticulously to let anything get between him and seeing them bear fruit.
He does not show his feeling as he stands outside the chambers of Peter the Third, as the steward announces him, or as he steps through the threshold, his footsteps going from the echo of the hall's hardwood panels to utter silence against the thick, dark carpet. He knows immediately that something is wrong - the room smells off. Not the sulfur smell left behind by another demon, nor the stormy ozone he'd expect from an angel, not even the earthy musk left behind by most monsters he's encountered.
There's the usual smell of human, of course, but with something just beyond the meat and sweat, something clear and sharp like the first drops of rain on dusty ground. The air crackles with it and goose pimples creep up along Crowley's arms and back. The feeling reminds him of Jonathan Barnet's cabin, of walking into a trap. At once, his gaze darts about the room, but neither sees nor feels a sigil.
Still, something has changed.
The Emperor of Russia stands at the window across the drawing room, looking out, his gangly shape silhouetted against the cool white sky hanging low outside. His posture is not the lazy slouch to which Crowley has been accustomed to seeing over the years - but then; he hasn't seen the man much at all since before his coronation. Has the throne been good to him, perhaps? Today, he stands tall, with his shoulders squared, and the way he carries himself makes him seem almost like a different person altogether.
"Greetings, Demon." He doesn't turn.
Peter's voice is different, too. It is less nervy, it does not shake or give. It is cool, with the quiet strength of a much older man. Even the mish-mash of Eastern European accents caused by his upbringing seems more deliberate.
"Your highness." Crowley says simply.
"So then, you do not deny what you are?" Peter asks, still without moving so much as a hair on his head. His hair - it looks different without the powdered wig, dark and wiry, with a gentle curl at the neck that makes him look younger than he is.
"Is there something you wish of me?" Crowley asks, almost hopefully. A well-crafted deal here might be just the icing on the golden brown cake he's been waiting for years to take out of the oven.
Peter lowers his head, and in a move that manages to send a shiver down even Crowley's spine, he begins to laugh. Softly at first, and then more erratic and loud, as if he's just heard a joke from which he simply cannot recover.
"Crowley." Peter says, as if caressing the name with his voice. "I think you know I don't have a soul to sell. Or rather, I have it, but it doesn't belong to me."
"Your highness, I--"
"It's on loan, from a dead goddess." He finishes. At last, he turns and crosses the span of the room in only a couple of long strides.
There it is, behind the skin of Russia's dweebiest Emperor. The flicker, like waves of heat above desert sand, if Crowley'd have blinked he'd have missed it.
"Impossible." Crowley murmurs.
"Improbable." Peter corrects. "Actually, I've been here for months. Shame Catherine can't put up with this twit, or else we'd have crossed paths earlier."
A sudden heat creeps up from Crowley's belly, and he's a little nauseous. It takes conscious effort not to sweat, and his inner ear goes haywire, throwing his balance into vertigo chaos until his mind latches onto something.
"Timelines." He says, swallowing the moment, collecting himself.
Maledictus chuckles through Peter's mouth a little. "You always want to do timelines." He says.
Because you told me I did, you little-- Crowley thinks, not without a little chagrin. This is why time travel is a bad idea.
"So, who was I?" Maledictus asks, knuckled hands on his hips, the almost feminine gesture somehow not that out of place on the Emperor's body.
Crowley says nothing, gears spinning, trying to find a weak point, a way to turn the tables. He feels like he’s being schooled, somehow.
Maledictus wonders aloud, "If it's 1762 now, and we met in 1720-- Is this the first time in 1762, or your second? I can't remember which is which."
"You've been to 1720?" Crowley asks.
"Must be the first," Maldictus deduces, "Or you wouldn't be all funny about it. So we just met, last time, is that it?"
Crowley closes the feelings box. "Darling I don't know exactly who it is you think I am, or what you think I'm going to become," He says through slightly bared teeth, voice rising as he speaks, "But I'm about through with you faffing about like you're some kind of time sailor and I'm the mistress at this particular port."
"Honestly, if anything I'd say it's the oth--"
"I asked you a question." Crowley interrupts, eyes narrowed and cold.
Maldictus swallows the lump in his throat and lowers his bony frame into the embrace of an overstuffed armchair.
"Have you been yet? To that time?" Crowley reminds.
"Then what about you?" He takes a long, slow step that finds him right in front of the chair. Rather than loom, he elects to circle it, running one finger across the upholstery at the upper edge as he strolls around the back and stops there. "How far along are you into this little curse of yours? And this time, I'd like a straight answer."
"What are you expecting, exactly? I'm past the point of counting, is that good enough for you?" Maledictus manages not to stammer, but fails to conceal the effort involved.
"But you haven't seen the day I met you?"
"No, I told you no."
"What do you know about it?"
Maledictus sighs. "Nothing. You won't tell me anything. You never have - not yet, anyway. Believe me, I've asked."
"I believe it." Crowley passes the other side of the armchair and settles into the identical one that sits across from it.
"I'm not toying with you." Maledictus says, resting Peter's elbows on his knees. "Most yous understand. It's not malice, I promise. It's just... I was in Norway, once, not far from here, with a group of people known as the Sami. The young boy whose body I took spoke the most incredible language - they had something like a thousand words for Reindeer.
Crowley leans back and frowns. He twirls his hand lightly. Get to the point, the gesture seems to say.
Maledictus goes on, frustration increasingly evident in the pitch of his voice, Peter's slight whine starting to come through. "Because they have a lot of reindeer. They interact with reindeer; reindeer are part of daily life, part of identity. Do you follow me? Humans only make words for the things they have to talk about. And they only move through time in one direction, at one speed, all together. The language reflects that, or rather doesn't reflect anything. Asking a human about time is like asking a fish about water. I'm not toying with you. It's not an affectation. I'm just old, and lonely, and lacking in grammar.”
Well, if he wanted to make Crowley feel like a heel, he's done a bang-up job of that. Crowley rubs his face with his hands. He should have known better than to use tactics on a cursed immortal time traveler - why would someone like that process anything in the predictable ways? He admires the honesty, though. After a decade and a half of court politics, a little forthrightness is like a splash of cool water. Just like last time.
"If it makes you feel any better," Maledictus offers, "It's not just you. We never do quite get the beginnings right. Not that I've seen, anyway."
"So I've got more of this to look forward to, then." He purses his lips. "Lovely. Anyway I can foresee a problem with this little reunion, could put a damper on things quite a bit."
Maledictus raises Peter's eyebrows. "What's that?"
Crowley leans forward. "I'm going to kill you."
Maledictus replies simply, "Again?"
He has nothing to say to this. He wants to jitter, but it's not in him to be so obvious, so instead, he stands, picks a direction, and walks, finding himself after several steps at the very same window where he'd found the would-be Emperor on his arrival.
Instead of the recalibrations he should be making, the little tweaks that will make sure everything goes to plan, he's got something else on the brain, something he hasn't thought about of his own free will in more years than he can easily count. Whenever he tries to focus, his mind seems to dart away.
His mind skitters to the stringy tendons and soft palms of Maledictus' new hands as he imagines them teasing up and down his spine. It strays to the pale lines of Maledictus' new neck, as he pictures it arched, bared before his mouth. It wanders to the sea of Maledictus' borrowed eyes, dark and round, sad like a doll's eyes, and he wonders what they'd look like fluttering closed in a storm of lust.
He isn't sure what it is that sends him stumbling over the tripwire of these thoughts. Peter the Third isn't exactly what most people would consider sexy. Crowley had entirely believed the rumors that his alleged son was fathered by someone else, as it simply had seemed unthinkable that even the stoic Catherine could tolerate his presence in bed.
So why does his dick want to know what those anemic lips feel like?
There's just something safe about it.
He's not so fresh off Lilith's madness machine anymore, and he can't see any reason he'd have to go back. In a move that surprised him then and still surprises him now, she'd gotten all her bullshit out on the old body, and never so much as laid a finger on this one.
It hadn't been until Maledictus had been at the wheel that he'd realized just how completely opposite Peter's body is to the sort of meatsuit Lilith would choose. She wouldn't be caught dead in there, and Crowley guesses that has something to do with it as well.
And then there was Maledictus' promise. He knows that this Maledictus hasn't been there yet, hasn't promised to take things at his speed, but it reassures him nevertheless. He hasn’t said those words, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t.
It all adds up to the realization that something in his bent and twisted skull has given him permission to feel on his own terms again, without guilt or fear, and that fact on its own stirs something in him.
"Love," Maledictus' loaned voice hums from right by his ear - how had he snuck up on him? "These nerves do not suit you."
Crowley feels Maledictus' hands slip around his waist and tighten like a belt, holding them close together.
"Can you read my mind?" Crowley thinks to ask a bit too late.
Maledictus chuckles in response, breath puffing against Crowley's neck.
"I'm going to tell you about this, aren't I?" Crowley guesses.
"Something like that" Maledictus hums against Crowley's skin.
“How much did I say?” He says in a voice soft and heavy with caution.
Maledictus doesn’t answer, and Crowley can’t figure out whether that means that he’s destined to say too much, or not enough. Given his propensity to keep even innocent information on a need-to-know basis, the possibility of the latter is strong, and it’s that fact that tightens the strings of the worry he’s working overtime to conceal. This is familiar, he thinks, the way proximity with him seems to throw open the valve of feelings in a way that leaves him struggling to close it. He wonders if he gets used to this, in the future that Maledictus has seen, but he isn’t willing to ask.
He feels Maledictus reach down with one hand and blindly trace curls on Crowley’s palm, a gesture that he turns into a gentle tug. Crowley lets his eyes fall shut and takes a quick breath before responding. He sets his face into an expression of deliberate neutrality, and then lets go, lets himself be turned.
“I wish we had music.” Maledictus says, centimeters from Crowley’s face, in a tone somewhere between mournfulness and scolding. “I’d say that you’ve only got another hundred years or so to wait for record players, but I suppose you’ll be waiting a good deal longer.”
In the future, Crowley will wish he’d asked for details on that. For now, he’s distracted by their closeness, and by the scattered flashes through Peter’s skin of that odd, twisted version of soul light. He feels words pile up on his tongue, but they’re tangled and they won’t come out, so he just swallows them.
He surprises himself by being the one to close the distance.
The kiss is awkward, experimental, like the first stutter of a new word in a foreign language. On contact, he reaches instinctively for those endless ancient wells that open when a deal is sealed, and when there’s no connection, no rush of sudden power, he feels like he’s just missed the last step on a staircase.
Maledictus must have mistaken the resulting tiny gasp for pleasure because he puts his hands on Crowley’s shoulders and sinks his fingertips into the soft places between clavicle and scapula. The heavy curtain behind, the press of Maledictus' body in front, it all begins to make Crowley feel warm, and not pleasantly so. His body's heart starts to race - perhaps this is misinterpreted as well, because Maledictus' tongue parts Crowley's lips.
Crowley barely registers what's happening. There's just a red alert, invasion, his stomach and the world both do a dreadful flip, and he's suddenly looking down on his crumpled body. If he were human, perhaps this sensation would be imaginary, a bout of dissociation, but as it is, he seems to have genuinely left.
"Was it something I said?" Maledictus asks the ceiling, borrowed face wrinkled in puzzlement.
He remains on the ceiling for a few fitful moments, spreading himself across it like a spilled drink. There's something soothing about this, being free of all that bodily feedback, and it settles him almost instantly. There's no devil's trap pendant sewn messily into the skin of that body, like Lilith had done with her cadaver-toys, nothing to keep him there if he wants to leave. It's something he'd known, of course, but somehow almost forgotten.
Without human eyes in the way, Maledictus' soul is clearer, and stranger. He appreciates the way the man does not seem the least bit perturbed when Crowley flows and sweeps around him in a tightening spiral to regard him with unrestrained curiosity. Humans, as he's usually seen them in this state, are not unlike flames, bright and radiating with heat and power, always needing fuel from a body, consuming and consuming until that housing is burnt out (or destroyed in some other way) at which point it escapes to wherever it's bound.
Maledictus, however, is fuel - a soul like a bed of coals, reserved and dim, but glowing nevertheless, with only measured heat at surface drawing continuously from a core deep enough that he cannot see it. It almost resembles the grace of an angel in this way, if less garishly luminous, and he gathers that it is probably similarly endless in its output, independent of its body. Curse indeed! If it weren't for the lack of ownership and involuntary body-switching, it's the kind of thing that could put someone like Crowley out of business.
"Would you like to touch it?" When Maledictus asks, Peters lips do not seem to move. Crowley can feel the question more than he can hear it.
He tilts the leading wisp of the smoke column to one side, with the uncertain hope that his quizzical feeling might come across, since can’t actually ask, are you sure? He doesn't want to hurt him.
Maledictus lowers himself to the carpet and lies down, flat on his back, next to where Crowley’s meatsuit had fallen.
“I trust you.” He whispers.
Crowley’s not sure that’s a good idea, but he wants to, and badly. The pull toward the soft warmth is almost irresistible, so he stops resisting and just lets its gravity drag him in. Gently, tentatively, he slips nearer until the sheer closeness to the old magic of soul-light feels like a long, relaxing sigh.
He has to make a concerted effort to look at Maledictus’ body – there’s some tension in it, but its eyes are loosely closed and its mouth bears a little smile. Crowley is cautious, watching that face for any sign of discomfort. If he were in his body, he’d be holding his breath.
Proximity becomes contact, and contact is incredible. He feels like he’s just touched the sun and he can’t stop, before he knows it he’s wrapping himself around Maledictus’ edges. Sparks fly where they meet and he’s absorbing them. He’s overwhelmed, lost in the richness of sensation, the music of the past and present and future, falling beneath the waves of every life this soul has ever lived, falling through time and memory and wanting, needing, mindlessly seeking more, more, it’s like nothing he’s ever felt. He skirts the edges, dives deep, and surfaces, only to sink once more into the whole universes that seem to dwell inside.
A noise gets his attention, and all at once he panics – he’d been so wrapped up in it, he’d forgotten – but when he extricates himself (not without a little regret) he finds Maledictus’ body more than safe. At first, Crowley isn’t sure - his fingers are buried in the carpet fibers, clinging to the ground as if he might otherwise float away, and tears are running down the sides of his face, past his temples and into his hair, but the look on his face is miles from painful – it’s smiling, sighing and mumbling words that sound like nonsense through the sunniest of grins.
Returning to his flesh feels almost like getting dressed. The moment he’s back, he can feel Maledictus’ hand snaking into his and giving it a small squeeze.
He squeezes back.
“That was… I mean it’s always… I...” Maledictus’ eyes blink open as he seems to realize how little he’s actually expressing. “Sorry, sometimes I can’t… I told you, language.”
“Well I find you very articulate.” Crowley jokes as a smirk takes over his face of its own free will.
The bark of a laugh doesn’t quite translate through Peter’s body, and it comes out sounding stretched and strained. Maledictus reaches up to cup Crowley’s cheek.
“That word you used... always.” Crowley points out. “I take that to mean this isn’t an isolated event. Why didn’t I know this was possible?”
“No,” Maledictus says through the second laugh Crowley’s earned. “Tthough it’s a bit scary now I know you never did that before. Lucky that went as well as it did. Who knows what could have happened…” He trails off, then, says, apropos of nothing: “I know what you’re thinking.”
"Oh?" Crowley reflects for a moment on the fact that in a literally palatial suite full of the nation's finest and most comfortable furnishings, they're over here by the window, hand in hand, stretched out on the floor. Something about that just tickles him, so it's with a healthy dose of good humor that he asks, "Am I going to tell you that, too?"
"Nah, I just read you like a book."
"Alright then, what is it you think I'm thinking?"
"You're thinking you're fixed now. That whatever your dysfunction, you're all better."
"Am I not?" Crowley asks, reaching up with his free hand to trace invisible shapes on the distant ceiling.
"Demons are demons." Maledictus rolls over and props himself up on one elbow, imbuing his words with enough weight to drag down Crowley's inflated smile. "You’re born of torment. You're what's left when all the parts that aren't broken get cut away."
"Ah, and now it all becomes clear." Crowley extends an index finger as if he's just invented the wheel. "You think if you can put Humpty Dumpty back together, it'll somehow redeem you, is that it?"
Maledictus lies back down with his hands beneath the back of his head. "Are you that desperate to believe I'm ultimately self-serving?"
"Everyone is. Even you, I'm sure." He waves his hand like he's dismissing a cloud of smoke. "People generally don't go 'round getting so creatively cursed for no reason. I haven't asked, but I assure you that's courtesy, not naïveté."
"I like to think people can change."
"Now that's naïveté."
Crowley props himself up and flips around until he's on all fours over the body of the Emperor. He resents Maledictus playing therapist and trying so hard to carve him open and poke at whatever soft underbelly he seems to believe Crowley has.
When he puts one hand behind Maledictus head and mashes their mouths together, it's not an apology, it's a warning.
When he forces his tongue between Maledictus' teeth, it's a rejoinder, a scolding for making assumptions about who he's dealing with.
When he presses one leg between Maledictus', and is met with the needy arch of hips against it in response, he's fairly certain that the message is not getting across quite the way he'd intended.
He pulls away from the kiss to find Maledictus open-mouthed and with pupils the size of dinner plates, searching his face for the next move. There's a sense of waiting and expectation that steels Crowley with the confidence to push the heel of his hand into Maledictus' shoulder, pinning him to the ground to hold himself up while he unbuttons his trousers.
There's no waiting on Crowley's part. As soon as he's free of his clothes, he's reared up, kneeling over Maledictus' chest and grasping for purchase of coarse hair, of stubbled jawline, of whatever he can pull closer. He doesn't have to work hard at it - the message is clear and Maledictus requires little encouragement to curl forward into a position where he is better able to reach all the places that he wants to.
The first time Maledictus sinks all the way down, on that first deep press of lips and tongue and throat around him, Crowley feels his heart skip and his breath hitch and his foot threatens to cramp but he's trying to prove a point here, (whether more to Maledictus or to himself, he's lost track) so he grits his teeth and concentrates.
What helps the most is the flash and blaze of Maledictus' soul, the corners of which are still fresh in Crowley's memory. It's when he returns there that his body finally stops threatening to betray him.
He watches Maledictus' ministrations like he's hypnotized, seeing none of the body, and all of the soul, the way it is thrown wholly into this worship - his lover is utterly focused, without a single reservation or ulterior motive that Crowley can detect.
The last thing he thinks before the pops and sparks of pleasure reach their zenith wash out his mind is that it's getting harder and harder not to trust him.
Crowley watches him drift to sleep, but doesn’t let go of his hand. He simply remains there, as if they’re protected, encapsulated in a bubble of stillness. The plot back at the Winter Palace is thickening, the gears are turning, and the time is coming, it can’t be more than a couple of months away now. But for now, as the cloudy evening sky darkens into night, he will remain in this moment, committing to memory every detail of this calm before the storm.
* * *
The weeks that follow are a springtime in more ways than one. Saint Petersburg is finally dusting off the last chills of winter and it is as if the whole castle at Oranienbaum is waking up. Maledictus makes great claims to anyone who will listen about Crowley’s skill as a physician, and it is in the interest of the Emperor’s health, of course, that they take long walks through the gardens and along the Gulf of Finland. Doctor’s orders.
Crowley’s condition is the one that improves, however – The two of them discover almost immediately that a change in setting (to whatever secluded outdoor places they can find) makes all the difference when it comes to stretching boundaries. Lilith had had no love for Earth or the green things on it, and despite Crowley's initial reservations along the same lines, he can't deny that being around them feels almost like a shield from her influence, a safe place to learn and relearn.
His resentment for any condesencion (real or imagined) in Maledictus’ tutelage and therapies wanes like the frost: slowly, in fits and starts and with no lack of backward steps, but eventually it recedes enough for new things to begin to grow.
The affair, for all the uniqueness of its participants, proceeds in much the same manner as any other. Just as birds fly and fish swim, lovers caught in the inebriation of a dalliance inevitably grow careless, no matter how old or how cunning they might have been before they drank of love. It shouldn’t be as surprising as it is when they are discovered, and by one of the very men Crowley'd pressed into his service to keep an eye on the Emperor for Catherine, no less.
Neither Peter nor Catherine had ever demanded (nor even expected) fidelity of one another. In that regard, neither Maledictus nor Crowley have anything to fear. What is problematic is the matter of Crowley’s alleged celibacy – alleged, that had been, until the moment he’d been spotted beneath the tented branches of a Norwegian Spruce, kneeling on a carpet of fallen needles as he’d lowered himself onto the naked lap of the esteemed leader of all of Russia.
The difficulty is not even one of sexuality. The Emperor is largely entitled to take any lover he likes without reproach, and discretion among palace staff goes without saying.
The problem is Catherine. The hour is late and the last thing Crowley needs is for her ever-growing paranoia to latch onto this and see it as a betrayal. There's the obvious double agent, keep-your-enemies-closer story he can tell, but to justify being that close? It's missing something.
Unfortunately, even as the words tumble out of his mouth, he knows precisely what bit of spice he needs to add.
"...Well? Can you prove your intentions?" Catherine is red-faced and puffy-eyed. She's been stung by rejection and it's written all over her in a cocktail of hurt and bewilderment.
"I'll kill him myself." Crowley says through his teeth, without a hint of humor.
"That's all well and good," Catherine says. She's not mollified yet, but Crowley can tell he's got his foot in the door. "But can I trust you to? To do what needs doing? We do God's work here, dear doctor."
He's never had this much trouble keeping a straight face in his life, but Catherine is examining his face with all her gray-eyed intensity, and he knows the stakes.
"I need to know for sure," Catherine says, "That you haven't strayed from the path. That His hand still guides you."
"Naturally." He doesn't move, but he bows with his eyes, as if to defer.
"You will go to Goretovo." She says, turning away. "And bring Count Alexey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin back to Saint Petersburg, with all haste."
"Catherine," Crowley murmurs her name, a reminder of their friendship, a tug on her heartstrings. "You need only provide me two horses, and I will return to Saint Petersburg within the fortnight."
There is a sudden shift in the energy of the room. Catherine's whipped around, face painted with confusion, and in the corner, Catherine's lover has suddenly snapped up in his chair.
"Doctor, you promise too much. Do you know how far it is to Goretovo? What you say is completely impossible." Her voice is softer now, he's thrown her, and while there's wariness there, he will disarm that too.
"Your pleurisy was a death sentence, darling. Your guards trusted in the Emperor. Your people were suspicious of your origins and your intentions." Crowley takes his signature step into her personal space. "Yet here you are, alive, powerful, and beloved. I've cured your every ill. Physical, personal, political. The moment is drawing nigh, and I know you know it too, or else you wouldn't be sending for Petrovich."
"That... is exactly why I worry." Catherine says.
"Have I ever failed to deliver on a promise?" Crowley quirks his eyebrow just so, and lets a challenging smirk appear.
"You have not." She says, holding her chin high and tight.
The man in the corner has not missed a word. Grigory Orolv is almost breathless when he questions Crowley if it can really be done - not because he truly disbelieves, as Crowley susses out, but because if such a thing is possible, he wants his horses to be the ones that do it.
This is the best turn of events that Crowley could have hoped for. The conversation is no longer about him, or about betrayal, but about Orlov's thrill at the possibility of his personally-bred "Orlov-Rostopchin" horses and the accomplishment to which their name may be attached. The horses, obviously, are irrelevant. They could hand him a couple of old donkeys and the result would be the same, but this redirect is more beautiful than anything he could have scripted.
* * *
"Succeed," Catherine had said in parting, "And I will see it as a sign from God that you can be trusted."
Night has hardly fallen over Saint Petersburg when Crowley crosses out of the outskirts and into the boonies to the East. He's almost certain he's safetly out of view now, and he dismounts the admittedly impressive stallion on loan from Grigory. He closes his eyes and seeks the dwindling access that his deal with Christian gave him to the powers deep within the void. There's not a lot of juice left in this fruit, but there should be enough. He lays his hands on the foreheads of the two horses, and--
"Won't be any need for that, mate. Save your chops. You'll need 'em."
The voice jolts Crowley out of his focus so much that he doesn't even register how familiar it is, until he spins on his heels and is confronted with his own face.
"Surprise." Says his own mouth. "Fuck, Mal wasn't kidding, look at you, you're so young."
Not his mouth, but the clone mouth, the one that looks like him, smirks like him, and houses the same true face as him, which is how he knows it's not just some monster wannabe or trickster with an axe to grind.
Crowley reaches out a tendril of power to brush against the... well, against other-him. Nothing amiss, not a molecule out of place, on this plane or any other.
"That tickles." Other-him deadpans. "And I know what you're thinking."
He wishes people would stop saying that. He narrows his eyes, and thinks some very rude things as loud as he can.
"Now that's just uncalled for. No, I'm not reading your mind, handsome. I know what you're thinking because I'm you. Or rather was you. Will be you? Is this what it's like?" Other-Crowley muses to himself. "I remember the other side of this moment, is what I'm getting at. I remember being you."
"You've... I've... We? Time travel? How far ahead did you come from?" Crowley probes.
"Behind." Other-Crowley corrects.
Crowley glances back over his shoulder, as if it's a warning, and then looks back at his future self in puzzlement.
"I came from... not the future." Other-Crowley says. "Just your future. Have fun puzzling it out. I know you will, because I did."
"Are you just here to tease, or do we have business?" Crowley rolls his eyes.
"Let's face it sweetheart, you bit off a little more than you can chew here."
"Did not. I'd have this entirely under control without you holding me up. I could be halfway to Krettsky by now." Crowley protests.
"Did too. But that's alright. It's a two man job and we just so happen to have two men right here. And one of us --that's me-- happens to know how this turns out. Pay attention and you might learn something."
* * *
Future-Crowley delivers Alexey right on schedule and disappears into Saint Petersburg well ahead of time. In a borrowed body, he alerts the castle staff of Crowley's criminal betrayal of the crown, and that he and a co-conspiritor will be arriving shortly. The day that Crowley and Alexey are meant to ride into town, Future-Crowley says it's June 28th. The number rings a bell, but Crowley can't quite put his finger on why.
The original plan was supposed to wait longer than this, but Crowley's come to understand how this is going to work, and he's finally wrapping his head around the seemingly odd lifespan of Maledictus' year in Peter's body.
When the guards meet him at the gates, he creates a diversion to give the guards plausible deniability when Alexey rides off and returns to Catherine and Grigory. As soon as his cargo is safe, he submits himself to arrest at Maledictus' behest.
Just as planned.
Crowley wonders about this, though. Is Maledictus anxious, does he feel bad for what he must do in the name of the nation he's babysitting? Or has his future-self filled him in on the details? Most likely, he imagines it's some combination.
The guards, most of whom are his own men, cart him with a playful roughness off to whatever dungeon is the most convenient. Future-Crowley arrives with perfect punctuality dressed in a guard's uniform, they change clothes and places, and the next time someone checks Crowley's cell, he's nowhere to be seen.
No search will turn up a thing. Crowley marvels pleasantly at how much smoother everything seems to go when he's working with himself.
It's thanks to the assistance that he's already standing at the door to the Emperor's chambers at Ropsha where he is to be held under lock and key. He maintains confusion among the guard staff with a glammer that would have been unavailable without the support of his future self, making himself Peter the Third's primary jailer.
He will not make an old mistake again. He will not wander off.
There is chaos in the Saint Petersburg as the throne changes hands and his plan comes to fruition in his absence, but the halls of Ropsha are calm and quiet. It reminds him of Catherine's quarters in the Winter Palace all those years ago.
In an echo of the first night of phlebotomy, he slips through the bedroom door, into the warm darkness of the wee hours to find Maledictus, covered in the evidence of less than kind treatment from the very men Crowley himself had instructed to imprison him. No matter how quietly he tries to remove his armor, he manages to startle the man anyway.
"Wh-Crowley?" Maledictus whispers. "Is that you?"
"It's me. I'm here." He whispers back.
"It hurts. I knew some of this, what would happen, but I..." He tries to shift a little in bed, and it turns out to be a bad idea. "It hurts."
"I won't leave this time." Crowley says under his breath.
He sits on the edge of the bed at first, reaching out to brush his fingers along Maledictus' wan brow. He takes the pain, as much as he can without healing Maledictus outright in a way that would seem suspicious, or end up causing him a further beating. He watches him fall back to sleep as the pain recedes.
Once he's done all he can, Crowley toes off his shoes and pulls up his legs. The next shift of guards won't be here for hours. He can afford this. He pulls whatever strings he needs to, nearly to the point of exhaustion and carelessness, to ensure that he is able to make it back each night.
He knows when the last night comes.
"History will say he was assassinated" Maledictus says. "But with a good deal of mystery surrounding the whole mess, replete with rumors. Even suicide is suspected."
Crowley has spent so long trying to prepare himself to be the one to make the final blow, but in its course, nature seems to have taken his place - the body is dying of a blood infection secondary to wounds received in the scuffle. Maledictus had asked him specifically not to touch it, not to impede its progress at all.
He'd been forceful on that point. Crowley had obeyed until tonight, but he struggles with it now. Each fever chill that that wracks Maledictus' body makes him grimace, and it takes a concerted effort to not intervene.
Instead, he simply remains.
"You don't have to watch." Maledictus says. "It's not pretty. I suspect it never is. People love to speak of dying with dignity, but I've come to think there's no such thing. There's no romance in it, I assure you."
"If the tables were turned, would you walk away?"
Crowley regrets asking almost immediately - he isn't sure whether it's the sickness or the question that drains the color from Maledictus' face, and all at once, he isn't sure whether he wants to know. Some things are better left a mystery, perhaps.
They hold hands, like they did that evening on the floor at Orianienbaum, and through Maledictus' papery skin, Crowley can feel the strain of his organs, all under the barrage of damage from inflammation that rolls along the walls of his blood vessels, tearing up the cells and causing fluid to leak into spaces it shouldn't be.
His kidneys start to ramp down first, like an engine out of gas that can't turn over. Crowley nearly lets go of his hand at this point, but Maledictus' jaundiced eyes go wide when Crowley's hand begins to pull away, and his face says it all: I'm scared. Even after all this time, Crowley thinks, it's still frightening to die?
Instead of letting go, he holds tighter, gathers this body he once hated and scorned deep into his arms.
"It's a good thing you don't have a heart." Maledictus murmurs into Crowley's shoulder. He can feel him smile against his skin, as if he is feeling terribly clever.
"Yes, you're right." He jokes back weakly, "That would be terrible, wouldn't it?"
Big blood vessels leak, and small vessels clot. Each organ system in turn is deprived of oxygen until the wreckage finally reaches the heart and lungs. Maledictus takes shallow, labored breaths that seemingly do nothing. His heart works overtime, to no avail. As the end nears, his eyes water and tear with the effort drawing breath.
Crowley feels as if he should say something, but if there's one thing that's absolutely not his area, it would have to be this. The very idea of closeness and comfort seems like something he might have seen in a hazy, half-forgotten dream once, but would have no idea how to replicate it in waking life. Is he doing it now? Would doing something else be better?
He owes Maledictus this much, but he has no idea how to pay that debt.
"Crowley? Where are you?" Maledictus mumbles, brows furrowed in confusion.
He hasn't let go, he's right here, but it's as if his usually overactive mouth has seized up completely.
"I can't feel you." Maledictus says. "It's so cold."
Ultimately, those are his last words. And Crowley'd still not said a thing.
* * *
The first light of dawn is in the sky before Crowley gets to work. He retrieves a small basin from the garderobe and takes the sharpest blade he can find. Maledictus is long gone from this body - he imagines him just waking up now, in some other time and place, the beginning of a new year.
Catherine is on the throne of Russia, Peter is dead, his deal is complete. But instead of the exhaustion he'd expected to feel when the job was finally done, he feels just the opposite - he is consumed with the fire of purpose. He's solved the puzzle that Future-Crowley presented, and the solution is like sunlight on a map page illuminating his road.
At any rate, he doesn't feel bad about slitting Peter's lifeless forearms from elbow to wrist, a clean slice that gives him more than enough blood to work with. He stirs the blood with the tip of his knife and murmurs over it.
"Tenebrarum domina nocta voco.
Quaecumque aut quiescant
evigilans loquere cum ipsa mihi."
The blood in the basin begins to shift, and thick bubbles appear at the surface.
I knew you'd come crawling back. Lilith says through the medium of the blood.
"Far from it. As far as possible, in fact."
"You can send demons through time. You did it to get this body, so you can do it to me. What's the price to send me back?"
Back? How far back?
"Back." Crowley says. "Maledictus' original life."
That's rich. You must be joking. What is that, 3000 BC?
"Can it be done?"
Oh, it can be done. It just can't be undone. You don't get to holiday in ancient Mesopotamia.
"Not looking for a holiday." Crowleys says through his teeth.
The blood laughs at him. The transmission gets distorted, but the end of the message comes across better than he'd even hoped - must be his lucky day. No price at all, she says, just the fun of teaching him a lesson about frivolous time travel.
You come visit in a few millenia, let me know how that worked out for you. She says, that part coming through loud and clear. Shit, from where I'm standing, I won't even have to wait. This is gonna be the most fun I've had in years.
We'll see about that, Crowley thinks, and submerges his hands in the blood.
When something grabs them from the other side, he knows it's time.
I promise we'll get more relevant stuff soon. I hope. Feedback is beyond welcome, I'm feeling pretty unsure of my footing here. This is different from the stuff I usually write.
Chapter 4: Uruk, 3002 B.C.E.
That "our time in mesopotamia" thing really *does* stick in the craw with us fans, doesn't it?
That took a long time... sorry about that.
My father gave me the heavens, gave me the Earth,
I am Inanna!
Kingship he gave me,
Queenship he gave me,
waging of battle he gave me, the attack he gave me,
the flood storm he gave me, the hurricane he gave me!
The heavens he set as a crown on my head,
the Earth he set as sandals on my feet,
a holy robe he wrapped around my body,
a holy scepter he placed in my hand.
The gods are sparrows -- I am a falcon.
-From a hymn to Inanna
* * *
Uruk, 3002, B.C.E.
Naomi can feel the wave of gooseflesh spread up her vessel’s arms and down its back as she alights on the high pavilion of the ziggurat. No matter how many times she crosses the limestone threshold into Inanna’s Temple, she suspects it will always feel this way, like she’s stepping off a high cliff with her wings bound.
Maybe some part of her hopes it will always feel this way.
A few steps in, she turns back – the violet sunset over the Euphrates river is framed immaculately in the archway, and she wants more than anything to see a good omen in this, but something inside her stirs with warning instead. Stop, turn around, get out and don’t come back, it says. Fly into that sunset, throw yourself at Michael’s feet and beg forgiveness, be done with it. Even her wings ruffle and bristle as if they want to disappear into the sky of their own volition.
But she fights it. Fighting the urge to turn herself in, to confess, to let them take her down and down into the depths, into Adna Amgedpha. There’s a little Enochian euphemism she’d never been fond of, even before all this. It is prison, plain and simple, and they insist on the ridiculous name, “Obedience Renewal.” Fake and slimy, just like everything else the angels have made.
Still, thinking of those words in their mother tongue is sweet somehow, as if something in her inner script wants it to be desirable, to draw her home. She has to remind herself of how wrong that sweetness is, how false, like filthy rotten fruit masquerading as wine.
She has to stop herself from spitting on the limestone floor to keep that taste from her mouth.
Before she realizes it, Naomi’s feet have carried her through the labyrinthine halls, nearly all the way to the inner sanctum, the lair belonging to Inanna alone, inside which few humans have ever stepped. It suddenly occurs to her that the Temple is empty. She’s not sure why she didn’t notice before, but usually she passes a fair number of those odd, silent, genderless temple servants Inanna calls Galas. They ought to be sweeping the stairs, filling the lamps with oil for the night, lighting the incense at the altar…
Where are they?
The eerie silence makes her hesitate before the door. Again, her wings and feet almost scream for her to flee, but she stays rooted. Five hundred years, they’ve labored together on the Soulkeep, it would be insanity to run away now. Inanna has never shown her anything but love, real love, a free and easy kind of love seemingly absent entirely from the heaven she’d abandoned. They had never accepted her, never believed in her, never been willing to consider for even a moment that they might be wrong. Naomi rests deep within the nest of her conviction that she has done nothing but love humanity as their Father intended. She reminds herself: I am serving Him by serving them, and whether my brothers understand is irrelevant.
They’ll see, she thinks, when the Soulkeep is complete. The Father she thinks she remembers loved his children, and He would never have wanted what Heaven has become. Of that, she is certain. He believed in free will for them, real freedom without the barricades and pits and traps that the host of angels has set for any man who doesn’t follow the narrow path they’ve set.
It’s all wrong, and the Soulkeep is the way to fix it.
Then what is this doubt she cannot crush? She pulls her hands away from where they’d rested at the edge of the heavy stone door.
“Naomi?” Inanna calls from within, voice full of hope. “Naomi is that you?”
I could never let her down, Naomi thinks, and pushes the door open.
Inanna runs to her, violet linens (like the sunset before, Naomi thinks) rippling and fluttering around her pale ankles.
“You were gone so long this time.” Inanna slips her hands beneath Naomi’s arms and wraps her arms around Naomi’s waist, pulling her close and pressing against her, burying her face in the crook of Naomi’s neck.
“I missed you.” Naomi coos. Warmth spreads from the center of her, and she runs one hand down through the long black wires of Inanna’s hair.
“You have nothing to fear now. It is nearly ready, and it is beautiful, come and see.” Inanna pulls away, but catches her fingers in Naomi’s to tug her forward toward the center of the large chamber. “Fair warning, I had to make some… modifications. It’s just that I got so inspired while I was alone, oh Naomi, this is going to be amazing.”
Naomi has to crane her neck to take in the entire thing.
A large part of the room’s center is occupied by what resembles an enormous soap bubble, its walls only clearly visible by the way they play with the room’s low light, shimmering and reflecting back the flames from the lamps. Within the sphere floats a small stone dais, just big enough to hold the circle of six temple servants and the final seventh standing in the middle.
The six humans that form the outer ring are clad all in lavenders and indigoes, a sight that takes Naomi by surprise at first. She’d never known Inanna to share her special dyes with almost anyone, short of receiving some really incredible tribute. The other thing that stands out is their hands. The six of them have their hands clasped together, and a light emanates from each junction as if they were working together to hide five tiny fires between their palms.
The Gala servant in the center wears a robe close in hue to Inanna’s own, and unlike the others, is unhooded. His (at least, Naomi believes he might have been born a man, though if he is trusted by Inanna, he is almost certainly neutered by now) hair floats around him as if he were submerged in clear water, and his eyes are gently closed in a peaceful expression. His hands sit upturned at his waist, and on them rests something Naomi was not expecting to see, something that makes her stomach turn.
He is holding his own soul upon his palms, as if in a gesture of offering.
“Inanna…” Naomi draws back without even meaning to, brows knitting together in confusion – it can’t be what it looks like. There must be some mistake. She doesn’t want to fly off the handle surely she’s just missing something, and Inanna will explain so she asks, “What is this?”
“Isn’t it lovely? He is my most faithful servant, I call him Tam. It means glimmering and reliable. Isn’t that just perfect for what he’s become? When your grace and my Gansis Stone activate the Keep, his soul will use that power to—”
“Gansis? I had labored under the impression that only Death possessed such a thing.”
“I know Ereshkigal and I don’t always get along…” Inanna’s smile spreads across her wide-eyed face in a way that unsettles Naomi more than excites her. “But she owed me one.”
“She stole from Death?”
“She says he gave it to her.” Inanna protests.
Naomi swallows. “Inanna... this is not…”
“Give it a chance, please? I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. We both want to make humanity better, right? ‘To free the fate of their souls from the tyranny of Heaven’s mandates,’ isn’t that what you said you wanted for them?”
“Yes, that was my idea, but this… this is not free at all.” Naomi’s voice is strained, her efforts to contain her anxiety and anger are failing. “If you direct the Soulkeep’s power through his soul –the prism as you put it– and you control him, then… are you not claiming that you’ll control… everyone?”
“Do you think I haven’t thought about this?” Inanna huffs impatiently, as though explaining a concept to a particularly thickheaded child. “The more I tried to work out the kinks in the plan, the more I realized that someone’s going to have to micromanage things. Why not me?”
“I do not understand— ”
“You claim to love humans.” Inanna says, her usually-lyrical voice taking on a dark edge. “Do you even know them? First you lived in Heaven, and then you finally get down here for real and practically all you do is walk the desert. What do you really know? I’m here, in this city, among the flesh and the chatter and the mortality, day in and day out. These people are lost, Naomi. They want someone to lead them.”
“You sound like one of my brothers.” Naomi shakes her head.
“But just imagine if the power was ours, if we led the souls of man. Heaven would have no power over them, just like you wished, and with all those souls beneath us, they’d have no power over us either. All those angels who hurt you… you could make them kneel, if you wanted.”
“Humanity is not ours to use as a weapon.” Naomi warns.
“They would do anything for someone else to lead them.” Inanna says. “You hear as many prayers as I do. Today I heard a man pray for guidance about what sort of trinket he should bring his wife at the end of her pregnancy. They ask the most ridiculous minutiae of us, as though making a single decision for themselves is akin to drinking poison. Do you not love them? Do you not wish for their happiness?”
“I do, Inanna. I swear it. But my father created them to have free will, and I cannot simply forget that, no matter what consternation it brings them. I helped to build this Soulkeep in the first place because Heaven had lain this path before humans that they must walk, or else, and I felt it was not in spirit of Our Father’s creation. How is this any different?” Naomi chokes back bitter tears.
“You know as well as I do that angels no longer love humanity.” Inanna persuades. “They make the path narrower and narrower by the day, and even the slightest misstep is fatal, is it not?”
“Precisely.” Naomi says, thinking for one golden moment that she’s made an impact.
“That’s why this version of the Soulkeep is so beautiful.” Inanna explains. “Instead of forcing them to walk the line on their own and punishing them if they fail, I will hold their hand and lead them step by step. I know it is not what we set out to design. My vision may not be the sort of freedom you imagined from the start, but you cannot deny that freedom from error and failure and pain is still freedom of a sort.”
“I will have to consider further if I can go through with this.” Naomi takes a few steps back, both in her vessel and in her heart. “This is… nothing like what I thought it would be.”
In the center of the circle, unnoticed by everyone, the man with his soul in his hands sheds a tear. It tracks down his face and his gone.
“Imagine it, Naomi.” Inanna pleads. “There could be peace on Earth, forevermore, because of us.”
“Because their hearts are frozen, their desires suspended, their souls nothing but pawns. It would be a world of nothingness, a garden made of stone. I should go.” Naomi takes a few more steps backward before pivoting to leave.
“Don’t turn your back on me.” Inanna cautions.
“I do not believe I can do this.” Naomi says, resolution growing. “This cannot be the way.”
“Can I ask you to just think about it a little more?” Inanna says, tone suddenly shifting back to the almost childish softness that is so familiar to Naomi. “Please? We don’t have to talk about it. Just… think about it. The Vernal Festival is in a week’s time. I had hoped to activate the Soulkeep then, when my power is greatest. Would you be willing to return to me then?”
Naomi hangs in the doorway. “I can give no guarantee that my mind will change.”
“I understand.” Inanna says quietly, as if every ounce of pushy ambition had evaporated in an instant. “Just a little thought and one visit. That’s all I ask. Surely you can give me that much, at least?”
“Yes.” Naomi concedes. “That much. But for now…”
Naomi paces the empty halls back out to the ziggurat pavilion where it stands beneath the stars and, from the southernmost edge, takes flight.
At the edge of the city, just when she thinks she’s cleared the walls, something bright and hot skims the air across her wing, forcing her to dip and swoop away. She looks back and finds herself under fire, and not just any fire – it had been the tip of an angel blade. A few more projectiles barely miss her before she’s out of range. Why her pursuers don’t chase her into the sands, she doesn’t know. She’s too busy being relieved to alone again, and concerned about what might happen if they catch up to her.
She passes by leagues of sand in fractions of seconds, intending to sequester herself deep in the heart of the desert, but before she can get half as far as she’d wanted to go, something gets her attention, stirring among the dunes.
It is buried inside an enormous dust storm, but that’s no barrier to her eyes. She can see it as if it were right before her, the twist and shift of reality at the center of the flying sands, a place being subsumed by torsion of time itself.
Not just cold, no – freezing.
One of the pluses to the demonic life, up to now, has always been the ability to divorce oneself from these little feelings, to pull away from the nerve endings of a meatsuit and just not feel the bulk of simple impulses like heat, cold, pressure, and pain.
This is different. This is a kind of cold that seeps in through the Russian guard’s uniform he still wears, past the layers of leather and wool, past the hairs that coat his limbs and trunk, past the outer layer of skin and flesh and muscle and bone until it’s wriggling its way past his body and into him, the real him, like some kind of ghostly parasite.
It’s an altogether new sensation and Crowley doesn’t need much of a sample to decide he’s not a fan.
It doesn’t take more than a quick look around to make it crystal clear that he’s nowhere near the ancient river delta that had been the aim of this little experiment. Instead, he’s standing in a narrow hallway that stretches on into an infinite darkness ahead, behind, and above. If he had to guess, he’d say the walls and floor are made of some kind of polished black stone. Flecks of light dart through the stone just beneath the surface like millions of tiny shooting stars, shedding some dim illumination on the space.
“...problem… …fficult, you know. Even for m…” Lilith’s irascible voice crackles in and out, echoing from the walls. “…hear me?”
“Where did you send me?” Crowley shouts, covering the judder of fear with a wash of anger.
“…etween…” That’s the closest thing to a word that emerges from the hiss and pop before the sound vanishes entirely.
Crowley looks ahead, and then behind. It’s all the same, the only difference is which way the lights are heading, so he just picks a direction (he decides to go with the lights, rather than against them) and walks. No sense in staying any longer than he has to. The trouble quickly becomes that without even the slightest variation in the landscape, he has no sense at all of time or distance. Even his footfalls don’t seem consistent – one moment a step feels like inches, the next, like miles. The normal rules may not apply.
It inspires him to exercise some caution.
At last, after what could have been seconds or years, he meets a fork. It’s only a moment of hesitation before he places his left hand against the left wall and follows it down.
“…yone in there?”
That was not Lilith’s voice.
“I sai… … …in there? I may be ab… … …help y…”
“Erm, hello?” Crowley calls out, feeling more than a little foolish.
“…ame is Nao…”
“…Na… … I am an a…”
“Naomi, my name is Naomi. I am an angel of the lord. I have stabilized the anomaly. Continue forward and take the fork to the right.”
“You’re a what?” Crowley’s still stuck on that second part.
“I know what you are.” Says the voice.
“Then how do I know you’re not walking me into a trap?” Crowley narrows his eyes at no one at all.
“I guess you shall just have to trust me. What choice do you have, anyway? Have you seen a single door?”
Crowley purses his lips, mentally searching for literally anything he could say that wasn’t conceding that an angel was right.
“Well, have you?” Presses the disembodied voice of a supposed angel.
“…No.” Crowley finally admits.
“So continue forward and go right at the fork, then.”
He doesn’t need to see her face to tell it’s probably horrifically smug. He rolls his eyes as loudly as he can, but ultimately follows her instruction and what do you know, practically walks straight into a large, slabbish-looking doorway with stairs beyond it. Given that his options are to be petulantly trapped in some kind of frozen timespace between from now until the heat death of the universe or walk into the clutches of an angel…
Well, the worst she can do is kill him, right?
He walks through the doorway shrugging, wincing, and bracing for the flood of boiling light to rip him apart. Sure, she said she wouldn’t kill him, but you can’t trust angels. Demons, he muses, can be relied upon to act in their own self-interest at all times, so long as they’re clever enough to know what that is. You can trust them – not their words, necessarily, but you can trust them to be selfish and so you can generally predict what they’re going to do. Even humans can be anticipated, with a few more factors accounted for. Angels, on the other hand, with all their veneers of honesty and goodness, are the ones you have to watch out for.
You can never guess when they’re going to do something ridiculous or insane in the name of “following orders” or “the greater good.”
“Are you well?” She asks, instead of smiting.
“I suppose.” Crowley answers cautiously. The shivers are dissipating. The desert at night is cold, but it’s cold in the normal sort of way, rather than the timespace-anomaly-full-of-nothingness sort of way.
“You can stop eyeing me like that. I am not about to pounce or explode or acquire reinforcements.” Naomi states flatly, through a heavy sigh. “I would not want to run into more angels any more than you would.”
“A deserter in the desert. If we had a bit of fig pudding and a baked pear, it’d be perfect, wouldn’t it?”
“Did you enter the anomaly deliberately, or did it consume you?” Naomi asks, the angel seeming to have little interest in wordplay.
“Good question.” Crowley asks, not so sure himself. “But here’s a better one: How far to Uruk?”
Naomi’s jaw clenches, and she averts her eyes.
“Look, I don’t want to come off as ungrateful, and rebel or not, I know you’re not exactly inclined to do me any further favors.” Crowley levels with her. “But I’m looking for someone. I only get one shot at this and time is of the essence. I need to get to Uruk.”
“Uruk is guarded.” Naomi reveals. “I was… assaulted, when I left. I believe they intended to kill or capture me. I do not expect they would welcome either of us hospitably.”
“Not concerned about that.” Crowley waves his hand, as if the fact that a garrison of angelic soldiers guarding a city is nothing more than a stray insect buzzing in his face. “Just point me to the city and I’ll figure out the rest.”
“You are awfully confident, demon. What makes you believe you can pass them?”
“What does it matter?” He narrows his eyes.
“I also need to return to the city.” She says, hesitantly, not making eye contact. “I thought perhaps, if you are so certain of your ability to enter, we could come to some agreement.”
“What?” Crowley has to bite down on his tongue so that he doesn’t laugh aloud. His eyebrows are practically scraping his hairline.
“Do not mistake me, I do not wish to aid you in the corruption of some poor soul—”
“If it makes you feel better,” He interrupts, “This is personal. Not business.”
Naomi continues, “—However my situation and yours appear to be similarly urgent. If I am able to locate this missing person, and you are able to enter Uruk… do you not see it as feasible that we could both accomplish our aims?”
“You’re trying… to make a deal with me?”
Naomi adjusts her posture, somehow further straightening her already rigid back. “As I am not human, and I have already forsaken the esteem of my peers, it seems I have little lose in such an arrangement. Am I incorrect?”
“Darling, you don’t have to justify to me, and I’m not sure your friends are listening. Your secret’s safe with me.” Crowley shakes his head a little in disbelief.
She’s not much of a negotiator, he thinks. She could probably have made an argument that he owed it to her for pulling him out of the anomaly in the first place, or at least not let him know clearly that she was on her own and badly in need. Sheesh. Well, not his place to worry about that.
“Give me your hand.” Crowley says.
“What?” Naomi’s face looks pained, as if she’s been asked to touch something slimy.
“Don’t you want to know who I’m looking for? Forgive me, but slipping past a garrison of angels alone is a rather less complex goal than bringing you with me, I’d like to make sure you can hold up your end of the bargain.”
“Very well.” She sighs again through her teeth and extends her hand toward his forehead, hesitating at the last second, suddenly full of second thoughts that aren’t quite strong enough to keep her from going ahead.
“Be gentle.” Crowley jokes as he closes his eyes and focuses on the unique makeup of Maledictus’ soul. He hopes all the way through that the soul he knows isn’t so different from the person who lived the first time as to be unidentifiable.
It stings a little, when Naomi’s grace searches him, the same way holy water or salt might sting, and it takes a certain amount of willpower for him not to recoil and break the connection. It’s worth it, however, if the momentary discomfort can score him an angelic shortcut to finding Maledictus and stopping the curse before it’s too late.
The feeling fades, and he opens his eyes, but the lines and creases on Naomi’s face fill him with dread rather than hope.
“Demon…” She can’t keep her eyes on him, they dart around the tips of the dunes and out to the horizon, anywhere but his face.
“Crowley.” He corrects.
“Crowley.” She accepts. “You… I don’t know how to say this.”
“What? What? You don’t know them? They’re already dead? What?”
“I know who he is, and he yet lives, but I am afraid your cause may be lost nevertheless. Tam is in the service of the goddess Inanna. Retrieving him –even speaking to him— is likely to be impossible.”
“Getting into the city is impossible, finding this Tam fellow is impossible, how do I know you’re not just dreadfully fatalistic?”
“I know Inanna. She is stubborn in the best of times.”
“Sweetheart, I guarantee nobody beats me at bullheaded.”
“At any rate, the temple where he is being held is my destination as well. It is for the best, I believe. I suspect now that neither of our goals are simple.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. I only said I’d get you in, not take care of whatever angel-thing you’ve got up your sleeve.”
“You may change your mind.” Naomi says, the ghost of a smirk barely visible on her face.
“It’s called glammer.” Crowley explains.
“I know what it is.”
“Then why are you acting like I’m about to dust you with smallpox?”
“It is not proper for an angel.”
“It’s proper for you to run away from heaven and team up with a pagan goddess, who you then betray in tandem with a demon, but a little glammer is over the line all of a sudden?”
“…I suppose not. I am simply uncomfortable. Do you not think the angels can see through it?”
“It doesn’t make us invisible, love, it makes us uninteresting. And using it on the both of us is stretching it fairly thin, so we’d best not tarry.”
They pass beneath the enormous clay-brick archway into the city, Naomi sweltering, as much as an angel can, beneath the gaze of the brethren only she can see. The glammer works, at first, long enough to get them a few steps into the city, but Crowley can feel it tremble and crack.
Hiding and fleeing is nothing new to her, but deception? She’s never been any good at that, and hasn’t liked it besides. She’s not fooled by the vessels of the angels above the walls – she knows well that in their true forms, they are covered in eyes, a vision that is in no way dampened by the vessel’s skin. They do not have to turn their heads to watch her.
Panic gives her away, and the glammer cannot hold them. It shatters just beyond the gates and the angels are upon them in moments.
“Can you hold them off?”
“Not for long…”
“It doesn’t have to be.” Crowley calls back to Naomi, watching her trade blows with him before he vanishes into space. Lucky they’d been more focused on her.
He isn’t powerful enough to go far, and they probably know that, so it does him little good to abandon her entirely, much as he’d like to wash his hands of what he considers to be very much Not His Problem – but they’re angels, they’ll just take her and come back for him before he can get halfway to the Temple of Inanna – so instead, he picks up the first flat stone he sees and pulls the dagger from the Russian guard’s belt and cuts his hand.
When he returns, he finds that Naomi has beaten the odds and been able to keep them at bay, at the expense of her own condition. Just before the leader of the bunch descends upon her, Crowley crouches next to her, grabs her hand and slams it against the bloodied clay.
White light swoops out in a blinding ring from the epicenter created by the sigil.
Once it’s cleared, the angels are gone.
“Crowley?” She looks at him, her face painted with blood and confusion. “I do not understand.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You could have activated the sigil yourself, and banished me as well. Yet you used my hand, so as to prevent putting me in its path.” She explains.
Crowley’s not sure whether she knew that his brush-off was rhetorical and is pushing the matter anyway, or whether she missed the cue completely. Either way, he’s not sure he likes that look on her face – the last thing he needs is an angel with the wrong idea on his hands. Women are bad enough, but ones that could smite him to kingdom come? He wonders when the last time was that anyone’s gone out of their way for her, if something as simple as not banishing a useful ally lets emotions seep into that hard angel shell.
“Don’t get all sentimental.” He says. “You’ve still got an end of the bargain to hold up, so mojo yourself healed and let’s get moving.”
She looks away again. He’s already come to recognize this behavior.
“What now?” He asks impatiently.
“You must be joking.”
“You said hold them off, I held them off…” She trails.
“Remember when I said time was of the essence?” He presses. If someone had told him prior to this that he’d be standing in ancient Mesopotamia raising his voice to an angel, he’d have laughed in their face, but here he is. “I should have known better than to deal with an angel – I can’t tell you how fast this is going sour for me.”
“He is safe, for now.” Naomi’s voice rasps. “At least, I think he is. She is fairly enamored of him as her soul prism, I do not believe she would allow harm to come to him as long as he remains useful to her. Until I return, she will likely take no action.”
“Hold on a tic. What happens when you return?”
“Perhaps we should discuss this elsewhere?” She gestures weakly to the people who seem to be glancing more and more often down the alleyway where a strangely dressed man crouches over a badly beaten woman.
They work together once again: Crowley puts an arm beneath her and walks through the door of the nearest house as if he owns it. Naomi places two fingers on the actual owner’s forehead and knocks him out, something that apparently doesn’t take a lot of juice.
“So how long does this take?” He gestures at her, as if to indicate the process of restoring grace enough to make a move on the Temple.
“They did a lot of damage.” Naomi says. “I’ll probably need about three nights.”
“Be calm. Tam will be alright. I will return to the Temple well before I promised, and she will do nothing until then. I am certain of it. When I am healed, we will go, and you may retrieve the human.” Naomi smiles weakly. “Do you love him, or hate him?”
“You traveled into the past thousands of years and made a deal with an angel, even a rogue one. You protected me and much as it bothers you, I can tell that you are going to wait with me, because you know that going in with me gives you a better chance at success than going alone. All the effort you have gone to… this human can only be your greatest friend or your most dire foe. Am I mistaken?”
On the first night, Naomi requests that Crowley go out into the city to procure figs and goat’s milk for some kind of angelic poultice, or something. He doesn’t ask a lot of questions. After divesting the still-sleeping homeowner of his tunic for a little more anonymity, he slips out into the night, mumbling in irritation all the while.
Little as he’d wanted to run the errand, however, he’s not more than a few minutes away from the house before the night air and buzz of the evening market cheer him. He’s not sure how certain he can be that Naomi is correct about Tam’s well-being, but he’s not nothing else to go on, and if she’s as close to Inanna as she claims, she might be the key to getting the two of them out unscathed.
Mostly, he’s just hoping that the winged stooges take their sweet time to come back.
By the time he returns, his spirits are high. He’d pulled off a tidy heist for the figs and milk, and the walk had done him good.
Naomi wastes no time in pelting him with instructions. Remove the fig’s skin, crush the fig in the mortar and pestle, being sure to completely pulverize the seeds, add this that and the other thing from the house’s larder, stir in the goat’s milk until it creates a thick paste, wrap the paste in cheesecloth, remove her garments—
Of course, her arms and wrists are so shattered; she is unable to do this task for herself. Crowley nearly makes quite a number of rude jokes, but every time he looks back up at Naomi’s face, he winds up biting his tongue. Something about her complete guilelessness makes him terribly uncomfortable, which in turn makes him even more uncomfortable, since he’s used to being the one making other people uncomfortable, not this way round.
He’s just in the middle of pressing the damp cloth against her collarbone and wondering how on Earth she’s managed to even survive away from Heaven for so long, let alone collude with this Inanna character, when she leans forward just enough to kiss him, her vessel’s lips meeting the corner of his.
It hurts him, sudden and sharp like an insect bite, and he half moves to recoil, but somehow finds himself pressing into it instead, prying into her mouth and filling his own with bright pinpricks like a man devouring an intensely hot pepper and reveling in the way it devours him back. The pain is sweet and irresistible.
Absolutely not. It is a terrible idea for him, a terrible idea for her, and probably a terrible idea for whomever she’s wearing. He is able to logically conclude that to take advantage of this situation and push it any farther would be wrong on every possible level.
He considers this with a certain amount of detachment and tosses any hesitation aside without any real deliberation. After all, how often does an opportunity like this come along?
The third night comes and goes, and by sunrise, Naomi is the picture of health. She conjures a hefty reward for the homeowner, an enormous woven basket in the center of the floor full to brimming with meat and fruit and beer, as well as a note explaining what occurred while he slept.
Crowley considers this deeply unnecessary, but says nothing of it.
They set out for the Ziggurat just after dawn. The temple at its peak is as silent and empty as it was days before. Crowley wouldn’t know the difference, but he isn’t immune to the eerie atmosphere, and he isn’t fool enough to imagine that it’s always this way.
Naomi’s shoulders are tight and her lips are pursed. She doesn’t say much as they move through the temple halls, and Crowley’s just as glad for the silence. When they get to the dark, labyrinthine series of chambers before the inner sanctum, he realizes that the hassle is finally paying off in the form of having a guide.
There’s no need for Naomi to tell Crowley when they arrive at the heavy gate to the innermost room. He brushes his fingers against the wall and he can feel the power leaking from inside, pulsing along the walls and floor like a current on a wire.
“He’s in there?” He asks, eyes fixed on the door.
“Tam? Yes, he is."
“And you’re telling me he’s safe, somehow?” Skepticism swells Crowley’s voice and strains the skin of his words.
“I am not sure that I would use the word safe, but he is alive for now. I suggest you allow me to enter alone. If I can defuse the situation without violence, I will turn him over to you, much as the notion pains me. You have earned that much.”
“That’s all well and good in theory.”
“You have so little confidence.” The hard line of Naomi’s mouth twitches into something that might be described as a smirk.
“What can I say? I’m a realist.” He shrugs.
Naomi shrugs back, as if she is somewhat unfamiliar with the gesture. She pushes the door open just far enough for her vessel to fit through and slips into the room.
Crowley listens closely. He shifts from one foot to the other, trying to filter out the hiss and crackle of energy and focus on the voices. There’s a greeting, and then the volume drops below what he can make out. His teeth grit against each other.
He doesn’t have to wait long for the shouting to begin or end – a few invectives and the scuffle starts too fast for an argument to even take place.
A realist indeed.
“Wait here.” He says to his meatsuit, and smokes out, leaving his body crumpled on the floor.
Inside the room with the impossibly high dome, Crowley finds it difficult to even look at either of them. Without a body, his sight is different – he’s forced to look at their true faces, and the light is so bright as to be painful to behold, even at a distance, and Inanna’s incantation, while it doesn’t hurt him, does make him feel uneasy.
Inanna is clearly enraged. As smoke, all he can make out of whatever she’s hurling at Naomi is a barrage of glowing blobs. Naomi’s done a decent job so far of darting out of the way, but one finally catches her left foot. Crowley’s expecting it to hit her or burn her or explode against her vessel’s leg, but it does none of that. Instead, it wraps around her foot and ensconces it utterly.
If it were a shackle, or a ball and chain, Naomi could lift it effortlessly, she could rip it to pieces, but she can’t so much as wiggle a toe. It’s something Crowley has never seen before.
Do either of them even see him? He, for lack of a better word, dissipates, stretching as far as he can tight along the wall and following it up to keep as much out of sight as possible. He drifts around to the other side of the enormous sphere in the center, thinking it would camouflage him before realizing that it’s probably only opaque to him.
He can sense something inside, though – he doesn’t have to see through it to know of the souls within, making him feel unpleasantly like a flying insect drawn to a fire.
“Inanna, you don’t have to do this…” Naomi’s voice sounds nothing like it would to his flesh ears. “You don’t want to do this, I know you don’t.”
Angelic tones sift through the vessel’s throat, not enough to bother a human, but more than enough to grate against him. Her words don’t even need to be directed at him to make him a little seasick. He peers around the edge of the sphere, only to find that Inanna’s cuff-bubbles have snared all of Naomi’s limbs. She struggles against the restraints, and Inanna begins to speak.
“Ialpirgah, ialpirgah,” Inanna chants in Enochian, brandishing a squat oil lamp toward Naomi, away from which she recoils in horror.
“You can’t.” Naomi whispers.
“Merifri piripsol,” She continues, Netaab, invarmar. Foants du hubai…”
Crowley has to translate quick – in the flames of the first glory, in the flames of the first glory, angel of the heavens, be governed, apply yourself to us. Dwell within this lamp…
It doesn’t take him long to put two and two together. It had never occurred to him before to wonder where genies came from, but all at once it’s clear as day. Angels, perverted and bound by a spell, and if Inanna’s doing that right now? Did Naomi just walk in here and tell her it wasn’t happening?
Someone’s got to teach that angel some people-management skills, Crowley thinks.
Either way, he knows he’s got to work fast. The second the angel becomes a genie, she’ll be forced to do whatever Inanna wants, including make bring the soulkeep to life. He’s never seen anything like it before, but he imagines that once it’s up and running, Maledictus’ fate is sealed. The clear solution:
He probes the outer edge of the giant bubble experimentally. Entering it is possible, he finds, but isn’t going to feel good. He’ll need to take a body immediately if he’s going to survive in there long enough to dismantle it.
Slipping through the surface is like lowering himself into acid. He aims straight the body in the center in the hope that he’ll be able to control the bubble from the inside from that position. After the assault of the bubble, possession is an immense relief. The soul in his hands is familiar – a bright-burning, clean version of the one he’d been looking for all this time, one untarnished by eons of oppression beneath a curse.
He presses it back into its, swearing that it will stay that way.
Once the soul is safe, he works with each of the other humans in turn, reconnecting them with their souls and waking in them in the process.
Maybe if they hadn’t gone and started screaming, he might have remained unnoticed. He can’t blame them, he can only imagine how painful it must be, but still, Inanna turns her gaze on him all too quick. Well, He thinks, concentrating on the pluses, she’s not saying the spell anymore.
Crowley lunges for the Gansis stone. Inanna does too, but she’s a second too late and Crowley gets there first, clutching it in his fist. Harder and harder he squeezes it.
“You don’t understand!” Inanna shrieks. “You can’t understand, any of you!”
“Do it, Crowley!” Naomi shouts to him.
Like he needed a pep talk? He draws upon his considerable might to put more and more pressure on it, and he can feel it weakening, but it’s not quite enough. It’s too sturdy, he needs more.
The soul flares to life within him.
“Take my aid.” Comes a voice from inside the body’s mind. “This Inanna is not the goddess I came to serve.”
All at once, Crowley finds the power of the soul itself at his disposal. The stone cracks mightily, like an icy pond beneath a bootheel, and finally, shatters.
Crowley imagines that Inanna’s screams might be heard in Hell itself.
She crumbles at his feet, scrabbling for the pieces of the broken stone.
“What do you think you’re going to do?” Crowley says in Tam’s voice.
“You think it’s over.” Inanna doesn’t lift her head to say it. “You think it’s over, and you idiots have won. That’s what you think."
Naomi and Crowley both eye her cautiously, but neither has time to react, she’s too fast – Inanna grabs the biggest piece of the Gansis stone, and grabs Tam’s shoulders, pulling him down and plunging the edge of the shard deep into his chest.
When Crowley smokes out involuntarily, she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, so wrapped up is she in the trappings of revenge. He spills out as if forced, spraying from Tam’s mouth, and by the time he’s gotten his bearings, the damage is done. The soul inside is being drawn to the surface, lighting the skin with a red like a flame turned to embers.
“You think you’re dying.” Inanna sneers, her face inches from Tam’s. “I can feel it. You believe I’m killing you, but I’m not, oh no. It won’t be that easy. This stone might be broken, but there’s still just enough juice left – I can do better than kill you. I can curse you.”
Crowley’s not sure how he’s going to stop her, but he’s going to stop her.
Naomi’s head jerks toward the door. Get your body. She mouths. Crowley goes along with it, fingers crossed all the while that there’s a plan here. He picks up his body and hauls ass back into the room, making eye contact with Naomi immediately, as if to ask, what next?
She says nothing, but from the sleeve of her tunic falls a long, silver dagger. It clatters to the floor beside her.
He scoops it up and doesn’t even bother moving from the spot. He pinches the tip and throws it, sending it flipping handle over blade through the air until it buries itself deep in Inanna’s back.
She has just enough time to turn around and fix Naomi with a look of utter betrayal that strikes Crowley as almost humorous in its utter lack of self-awareness. Naomi just swallows the tears she doesn’t want Inanna to see, and shakes her head. I’m sorry, she mouths. I love you.
Finally, Inanna bursts into a fine mist.
Without her standing between them, Crowley gets a better look, and is on the floor in an instant cradling Tam’s dying frame, staring through the body to exactly what he was most afraid he’d see: an all-too-familiar dimmed and twisted soul. He claws at Tam’s shoulders.
Stop dying, you bloody idiot. He can’t open his mouth, he can’t move his arms. His fingers dig into Tam’s shoulder and he can’t let go. The man is regarding Crowley, a total stranger to him, with a deeply confused expression, and all he can think is stop, you have to stop. After all, he’d done everything right. He’d traveled through time, he’d broken the machine, he’d fixed it, or at least that’s how it was supposed to go. A debt repaid.
This is wrong. Everything is wrong. It’s all wrong.
Naomi crouches over Tam and places two fingers against his forehead, looking as if she’s performing some kind of examination. After a moment, when she finds it, her head snaps up, and she looks at Crowley.
“I had no idea…” She whispers.
“How much did you see?” He asks, searching her face.
Naomi cups Crowley’s cheek, and her fingers feel like an electric shock.
“Everything.” She says. “I saw everything.”
The stone of the Temple of Inanna begins to hum and vibrate, and through the thick rock walls, they can hear it – the high pitched whine and shriek from all sides that can only mean one thing.
“They’ve found me.” Naomi says. “They’re here.”
The walls begin to shake in earnest, the whole ziggurat trembling all the way to the base, rattling apart from the force of the angelic earthquake. Stones start to pull apart from one another, but they do not fall. Rather, they float apart, hundreds of millions of tonnes of clay and stone hanging in the air like the leaves of a tree.
Eventually, the inner sanctum is breached, and Naomi stands slowly, step by step moving to the gap in the wall where she can see the garrison of angels prepared to take down the entire structure.
Naomi addresses the angel at the head of the formation on the other side of the new doorway.
“Naomi. How far astray you have gone.” He answers. “Do not resist us, Naomi. We have come to bring you home.”
“I am not coming with you.” She says, shoulders squared.
“I don’t understand.” Castiel says, a genuinely puzzled frown crossing his features as though not retrieving Naomi is not an outcome he can compute.
“Call them off.” Naomi says, gesturing to the armed garrison outside the inner sanctum walls.
“Why would I do that?”
“This civilization with fall, Castiel. Its people and its idols will be left to history.” Naomi pleads. “Go, tell them I have already fled, if you like. I will ensure that you do not regret it. When my job is complete, I swear to you, I will deliver myself into your hands and you can do with me as you like. Torture me, erase my mind, tear me limb from limb, destroy my very essence if you like, but please, I beg of you, not now. Let me stay – let me work for her people and erase the madness and the darkness from her legacy.”
Castiel swallows. He looks at her for what seems like centuries.
“They’ll listen to you.” Naomi says. “Just a little time, that is all I ask, to stitch back together some of what is broken. Please.”
Something shifts in his face, an understanding and a guile that looks to surprise even him, and he answers:
“I shall tell them not to enter, but to wait outside the temple, and capture you when you emerge.”
She nods, and with that, the angels are gone as suddenly as if they’d never come. The stones settle back into the places where they’d been.
“They’ll be back.” Crowley says.
“They’ll brainwash you. You won't remember any of this.”
“Yes.” She says.
"If I were you, I'd just pretend I'd forgotten everything straight away, pretend I was on their chain, and try to minimize the losses as much as possible, through, you know, lying. Information is power. Everything you've learned on Earth... you could do some real damage up there, if you used it right." For all the sliminess of his advice, Crowley speaks from the heart.
"Here I stand, listening to a demon instruct me to lie to angels." She says, though she doesn't sound like she's rejecting the idea outright.
“I hate to ask you for a favor,” Crowley ventures after a few long, silent minutes, “But I don’t suppose you’d be able to pop me into the future a bit?”
“I’d like to.” Naomi grimaces. “But I can’t. Not that body, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” He frowns.
“It’s carved into your bones.” She says. “You… did not know? If you ask me, it looks like the writing of Lilith herself. Basically says, if this form travels backwards through time, or forwards faster than normal for any human, it will, for lack of a better word, explode.”
“Yes. If you’d like to find another body, I could—”
“No.” He says, his face set in stiff lines, gaze straying into the middle distance as his rage simmers hotter and hotter. “No, I think I’ll be going to have a… chat with her about that instead.”
“What do you… she won’t know. She won’t have done it yet, she won’t understand any of it.”
“DO I LOOK LIKE I CARE?” He hollers. His wrath echoes off the walls.
Even Naomi, despite the fact that she could smite him in an instant if she so chose, swallows, blinks, finds herself with gooseflesh. For an instant, he does not look like a demon, not a normal one, anyway. For an instant, he appears as something much grander and more frightening. In his eyes, she can see a flash of something more than what he is, something he might yet become.
For an instant, she wonders if she shouldn’t kill him now, when she has the chance.
But, for whatever reason, she doesn’t.
“We create each other.” He says, in a voice soft and full of poison. “That’s what I learned today. We all create each other. Who am I to deny fate?”
Naomi says nothing, does nothing. She just watches him, until he is gone, and she is alone in her stone prison.