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build me a city, call it jerusalem

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The waiter at the Ritz trips, stumbles, upends a tray of canapes, and it's 1982 or 1831, it's hard to know, it doesn't matter, because when Aziraphale snaps his fingers once the mess is gone and when he snaps them twice it never was at all.

"Mensch tracht, Gott lacht," Aziraphale says, smiling, over his shoulder, halfway to the bathroom already, because he's always doing this, cleaning up messes and leaving Crowley to do the dirty work, to burn clean the speck of crème fraiche on the tablecloth he didn't quite manage to miracle away. That was probably on purpose; it usually is.

"Uh," says the waiter, smooth accent slipping, two miracles over-quota, shell-shocked and not sure why, "what's that mean, then?"

Crowley sighs, scowls, takes a sip of his wine, trades it for brandy with a flick of his wrist.

"Ineffability," he says, "in Yiddish."

--

It's funny, later, what turns up. Crowley gets in a shoving match with one of the Angel's people; it's early yet, pre-Arrangement, a those-in-glass-houses situation, so to speak. Crowley doesn't touch the Angel's people and in return the Angel doesn't touch Crowley, doesn't lay hands on him and watch the burn--it'll be funny how that turns up later, too.

In any case: it's one of the Angel's people, and Crowley doesn't know his name, his face, just knows the look, the spring in his step, the trust the way his hands move. The Angel's people always know they're protected, are always shrouded thick around with their own security, and if Crowley had more of a spine he'd point it out, how close it slides to pride.

But he's not long on spine, is he, not long on much except self-preservation instincts and a tendency to follow the curve of a slope, and he wouldn't have bothered the stranger if the stranger hadn't bothered him first. But bother he did, and Crowley fights back because his alternative is cowardice, small and shameful; lets him win, because he really is a coward, when push comes to shove comes to the threat of an Angel's wrath.

"Let me go, you lunatic, it's morning," Crowley says, panting, eventually, "what're you trying to do here, do you have any idea how bright it gets--yeah, yeah, get off, you've won, get off me. What's your name?"

"I am Jacob, son of Isaac," says…well, Jacob, son of Isaac, apparently. Crowley narrows his eyes.

"Okay, Jacob, son of Isaac--that's kind of a mouthful, you might want to work on that--that was fun and all, but if you ever touch me again, it's going to go a lot harder for you, d'you understand me?"

"I fail to see any credibility behind your threat, given the result of our recent combat," says Jacob, son of Cocky Little Bastard, and, well. Self-preservation instincts are all well and good, but Crowley's had a long night.

"I do believe that business at the end was a bit overdone," the Angel says, when Jacob, son of Isaac has vanished screaming into the horizon, when Crowley has reassembled all of his own scattered pieces-parts. "But the rest will suffice quite nicely, I imagine."

Jacob Wrestling the Angel, the story is called, later; even Aziraphale can see the humor in that.

--

She's smaller that Crowley would have thought, dark eyes, too-thin, a creature borne of absence, of struggle, red hair on her head and red hair in her hand, shorn free, tied up, her grasp white-knuckled and she's crying and she's been crying, been crying since the temple fell, has maybe always been crying, and Crowley wonders what it must be, to be human, to feel with the sharp-sung cadence of a hundred thousand lifetimes, to love and lose, to love and take, and the Angel's been Aziraphale for years now but he's the Angel today, cold eyes, cold wings, judgement at the tips of his fingers, burning white-blue like that sword he once gave away, and Crowley always wondered, wondered for ages, until he saw it for the judgement that it was, in its way, not so clear as this time, not so clear as the darkness wrapped up in all that light, and it's Crowley who pulls her in, who carries her away, who strikes the name Delilah from every book but that of Judges, for there are those territories that belong only to Angels, and, well, it's been awhile.

--

On the eighth day, God wept. They don't really tell you that part.

--

Aziraphale writhes beneath him, skin flushing in a way that's not-quite-human, never quite human, wings just an echo now, more gossamer than feathers, skittering over Crowley's well-kept sheets, and he looks like he did at the edge of a garden in the rain, the hollow of his throat the open pit of a thousand choices that weren't, not really, not in the end, because the Angel might say ineffable but Crowley says unfathomable, because free will is a nice place to visit but he wouldn't want to live there, because Aziraphale's hands work patterns on Crowley's back that could raze this city to the ground, could take them all Below, and when he hisses through his teeth Crowley moves, once, twice, pins him down, covers his mouth, swallows and swallows, because he knows what that means, always has, yea, verily, better than anyone.

--

Her name is Bathsheba and she is beautiful; Crowley learns this much later, the first in a long line of commendations he doesn't deserve--or, at least, didn't quite earn. He accepts it, lies his way through it, because he did not fall so much as saunter vaguely downward and it's not a lie so much as a vaguely inconsistent truth; there are those things that are nurture and those things that are nature and Crowley is something in between, always has been, so.

"Angel," he says, weeks later, stone smooth underneath thighs still running scaled, the remains of a castle in ruins, still good enough for a makeshift throne. "I don't suppose you'd care to explain?"

"I don't have to explain myself to you," says Aziraphale; pride, Crowley thinks, because it's a running tally now, his little pleasure, and that's gluttony on his side, but on his side that's not what you'd call a problem.

"Maybe I'm curious."

"You serpents always are."

He figures it out in the end anyway; David and Jonathan skate across word of mouth, sing up out of the ruins they've left, and if it's a young song that'll be Solomon's one day that doesn't leave it unrecognizable. The Angel, Crowley remembers, hadn't been a soft touch for anything, but Aziraphale's wings shriek loneliness across the wind when he flies. It's not hard to put together, and Crowley doesn't let himself pick it apart; he's learned that lesson, hasn't he, once or twice.

--

"You tore down their tower," says Crowley.

"I'm not sure I take your meaning," says the Angel, and that's on purpose, that's deliberate; hell, that's almost funny.

--

He hangs on the sidelines, Crowley does, for Esther and Ahasuerus, switches to snake and curls himself around Mordechai's favorite chair, keeps his eyes open. This is Aziraphale's show, and he could interfere, doesn't have to; it's getting easier to spot, the stories that'll be stories, the strings Aziraphale plays like they're one of those blessed harps, and it's not like Haman needs any help.

"Nicely done, that," Aziraphale says at the hanging. "Gave me no end of trouble."

Crowley snorts, reaches out, and it's a three-cornered hat that's drifting on the breeze, a hat marred with everything it wanted to be and didn't become, with a legacy of blood it didn't quite spill. He turns it over in his hands, rounds those corners, makes it blacker, puts it on; he pulls it low over his eyes, the best he can do against the sunlight, and smirks.

"Don't understand a bloody thing about humans, do you," he says, watching for the twitch of Aziraphale's fingers; wrath, then, that's refreshing. "No, he did that all himself."

--

It's false idols, Crowley know, that get to Aziraphale, always has been; Crowley hasn't forgotten Abraham and his madness, hasn't forgotten who caused it, what caused it. But human beings are simple in their complication, drawn to the easiest mistakes, and Crowley doesn't have to do anything; he just watches, perched amongst the mountains, and hopes none of the bushes catch fire.

It's a golden calf, because of course it is; some days, Crowley isn't sure why he bothers at all.

Aziraphale shows up later, mid-revelry, and none of the bushes have caught fire but his eyes, his eyes, there's fire enough there to burn a hundred years, and Crowley knows what that means, knows how it goes, remembers Falling away from a certain brand of viciousness, from retribution, and he slithers forward, coils himself around Aziraphale's wrist, before he can think better of it (before he can think at all).

It doesn't burn, because nothing does, not really, not anymore, it's the wrong word, or the right one. It doesn't burn, but it eats, because Aziraphale is still mostly Holy and Crowley mostly holes, holes that fill, now, with everything Aziraphale is and isn't, and it doesn't burn but it does hurt, worse than the Fall, worse than a hundred Falls, and Crowley's long since hissed when he meant to scream but he doesn't, doesn't, tightens himself around Aziraphale's wrist and rides it through, because his flesh is impermanent and this matters, doesn't it, somehow.

Three days, Crowley spends coiled 'round Aziraphale's wrist, ducking his head when Metatron speaks, pushing his own agenda when the Levites rise against the dissenters. He watches with a cold sort of distance when Pestilence sweeps into town, touching man, woman and child with his tapered grey fingers, and when Aziraphale shudders with intent, Crowley tightens his grip.

Angels can still fall, after all. The worst that can be done to Crowley has long since been over with.

It's the last time it hurts, Aziraphale's touch. Crowley's not sure if that means he's become more holy or less; he's not sure he wants to know.

--

They say Man was made in God's image, and that's not wrong, exactly, except for how it's all wrong, except for how it's always been wrong, because Man was made in God's image, that first time, but man, lowercase, widespread, always evolving into something worse, man was made in the image of man, who was made in the image of Man, who spent too much time gorging himself on apples to remember much about whose image it was he was made in. Man begets man begets The Tales of Men, and there's nothing godly in that, because Those Above and Them Below haven't any real need for the stories humans have been hungry for since the snake and the Angel with the flaming sword.

But if they were going to tell stories, if there was any truth to be mined from the silence, it would be that they were friends once, Lucifer and God. It would be that they traveled together, the smooth-talking flash bastard still on high tangled up with the overly literal moralizer-that-could, in the early days when all the universe was young. It would be that the saying the humans have picked up, the idea that it's pride that cometh before a fall, was more about external pride than internal; it would be the image of The King of Darkness on his knees, the edge of the River Styx, begging forgiveness that would never be granted to him.

Crowley's not stupid, not blind, not insane; Crowley knows what the word cyclical means, knows ineffability's no joke. He'd just...well. He'd just rather not think on it.

--

"And for you, sir?" says the waiter, same one, different day, canape-guy, Crowley calls him, and it's still 1831 or 1982, still hard to tell, it always is, days like this, faces like this, Aziraphale smiling so sweetly it's almost a smirk over the edge of a newspaper whose date Crowley could check, if he felt like it.

"He'll have tea," says Aziraphale, "milk and honey should do it, don't you think?"

"Oh, ha ha," says Crowely, "you're very funny--"

--

Crowley visits the Dead Sea, just the once, an afternoon spent skirting the edges, skipping stones, watching the tourists drift by, buoyed, buoying. War's been here, set up camp, dug her heels in, scratched up the walls, a vacation home if ever there was one; Crowley catches sight of her once in his own reflection, again just outside Tel Aviv, and scowls.

He sticks one finger into the water, just to test it, just the once, and it burns the whole way back to London, flesh peeling away to reveal the mottled truth underneath, scaled and scalding. Aziraphale takes one look at him, sighs, takes the whole mess of it in his mouth; swallows hard at the expession on Crowley's face when his finger comes out healed.

"What, praytell, were you expecting?" he says, and Crowley winces, looks away; one more unanswered question for the history books.

--

They are collectors of things now, of flash cars and old scrolls, of decent wine they'll improve upon, of cell phones and old memories, of land deeds, just because. They are collectors of things, because they have learned better than to be collectors of people, know now that it will only speed it, the way they aggregate, the way they steal, are stolen, a thousand shades of piety in the weave of Aziraphale's tweeds, a watercolor in petty sins in the folds of Crowley's leathers.

It doesn't help, not really, not at all, does the opposite, until eventually Aziraphale closes his eyes and tilts back his head, rapturous, and it's Mahler, 9th symphony, D Major; it's lust and gluttony and acedia; it's funny, really, to think of how he once was when it came to false idols.

--

It's a dark and stormy night, again, always, it always is when there's something to be done, something Crowley would call dreadful if that wasn't such a human word, if that didn't mean inspiring dread for dread's sake. He squelches through, mud on his boots, his ankles, splattered along the length of a tail that's never really been there, and there's the Angel, again, always, above it all, floating, and he's smiling like he would have done a thousand years ago, like he would have done in his bookshop this afternoon if he'd thought Crowley could take it, because Crowley sheds skins, has from the start, but Aziraphale wears them.

"What do you want from me here, Angel?" Crowley says, screams, and Aziraphale smiles.

--

Job's tricky, a study in good fences, for all he comes along a few millennia too early for that reference to make any sense at all. God and Lucifer use him, abuse him, as bad as each other, worse; Crowley and Aziraphale remain on hand, trusted lieutenants in their way, keep their comments to themselves.

Except: "Do you imagine he knows?" Aziraphale says, after, the kind of question he shouldn't be asking, a hint of weakness in a battle of wills. "How petty it is, really? How little he matters, in the long run?"

"I think he's a human being," says Crowley.

"Meaning?"

"Meaning," Crowley drawls, plucking a stalk of wheat that dries, dies, against his fingertips, "it doesn't matter what the truth is. As far as he's concerned, he's the most important thing in the world."

--

They end up in London, or maybe London ends up in them; Babylon topples and Rome burns but London stands, a little worse for the wear, a lot worse for the two of them. Aziraphale buys a bookstore and Crowley knows it's to temper the urge to rewrite history; Crowley buys a Bentley and Aziraphale must guess it's to dampen the urge to run.

The apocalypse doesn't come, not that first time, not the handful of attempts that crop up later, chemical agents and bloodless wars, nuclear blasts that Crowley swallows, meteor strikes that Aziraphale waves away. It doesn't come, except for how it does, a little; Crowley and Aziraphale are an apocalypse in and of themselves, London in their exhales and borrowed vitality in their eyes, whispering come on, come on.

It takes Crowley longer to see it, because that's usually how it goes; he's long been the more susceptible to blindness, to dodging the truth, a dirty, human trick. When he opens his eyes a hundred years hence to the way the street edges away from him, like they know, like they can tell, he goes home and sets his flat on fire, sits on the floor and sucks in the smoke.

"You don't think this is a little unnecessary, my dear?" Aziraphale says, his steps near-silent as he slips in through the front door, quirking a soft, sad smile as the flames slide away from him intrinsically. "A bit overdone, wouldn't you say?"

"I wouldn't say anything," says Crowley. "You're always the one that's bloody talking these days, isn't that right?"

Aziraphale just shudders, sinks to the floor, wraps Crowley up in wings that are looking more defined every day, and there's sadness in his eyes, in his hands, in the way he whispers Let there be light and the whole damn flat goes still and silent.

--

Crowley gets on Noah's ark because he can't see any reason not to; Crowley gets on Noah's ark because it was a raft the last time he checked in; Crowley gets on Noah's ark because he's told to, but that's more a formality than anything else. He stirs fights between the varying members of the animal kingdom, enjoys their lack of complication, the predator-or-prey mentality; he slithers the whole length of the boat, maps the blueprints with his soft underbelly, and knows it's not large enough to contain all that it holds.

The Angel's on the roof, because of course he is.

"So, mass drowning, huh?" says Crowley, flicking out of the snake because he might as well. "Seems a little harsh, from my end."

"Your end would have the whole planet in ruins," says the Angel, a stiffness in his voice that'll be written out of their memories eventually, and Crowley snorts.

"Sorry," he says, "must've missed something, is this not a planet in ruins?"

The Angel shifts guiltily, eyes flicking from the sickly sky to the filthy, stagnant water, thirty-three days still and overrun with insects. "It is not our place to question the ineffable plan, Crowley."

"Don't be ridiculous, Angel," Crowley says, stretching out, catching the sun, "that's pretty much my whole job."

--

Yom Kippur a year after the eighteenth failed apocalypse, and Crowley finds Aziraphale in the last temple, head bowed, wings folded. The building would be beautiful, if Crowley were the type to appreciate such things; as it is, it reminds him of nothing and everything, of Freddie Mercury and a life he's been borrowing so long it might just be his, except, except.

"Ah, there you are," Aziraphale says, without looking up. "You got through the threshold without any of the typical unpleasantness; I'm surprised."

"Are you?" says Crowley, "are you really?" and Aziraphale sighs.

"Sit with me," he says and it's not a request, not anymore; maybe it never was, in the beginning, end, whatever, wherever they are. Crowley does it anyway, because, well. Tradition for tradition's sake, and all that, and the humans still say all's fair in love and war.

It's silent, still, like Crowley's flat after a spot of arson, like the back room of Aziraphale's bookshop. This is the last temple, the last one in London, the last one anywhere; he knows it's not empty, just feels that way, a moment drawn out for their benefit, the cigarette before the firing squad. Dust mites catch and keep on the beams of light filtering through the windows, and Crowley's eyes burn behind his sunglasses, as human as they've ever been, which is to say, not at all.

"Be funny, wouldn't it," Aziraphale says eventually, his hand tangled suddenly with Crowley's, a touch that burns again, but differently that it once had done, "if I did the wrong thing and you did the right one?"

Crowley thinks back: a garden and a flaming sword, a woman weeping over her ruins, a waiter with a tray of canapes, a tower falling and falling and falling. He traces the paths of the history they've woven, unwoven, sold and stolen and stumbled over; his teeth sink in around the world they've written in blood and smoke and holy water.

"Angel," he says, "which time?"