Chapter 1: The Garden
Ephesus, 400 B.C.
As the shadow of her long black chiton-draped figure moved over them, the plants trembled, knowing full well who was the master of this garden. Crowley walked along the stone-paved path, and the plants that she passed grew ever harder for her, leaves unfurling, flowers blooming all the brighter. They knew full well the penalty of failure, and so they straightened up, their leaves outstretched in verdant glory toward the sun, tensed and straining toward beauty and perfection, all to please her will.
Crowley set down the pitcher of mixed wine and as she did so she nudged a chair into place beneath the golden dappled shade of a sycamore tree, eyeing the table laden with food that she had set out. On a large plate painted in red-figure surrounded by ducks and waterfowl, cheeses both soft and hard were surrounded by brined olives both green and black. A little mountain of dried apricots, cherries, and figs were piled up on one side, the other heaped with shelled walnuts and pistachios. Crisp cucumbers still damp from rinsing were in a bowl and nearby was a jar of honey, the edge of a golden honeycomb peering out from the lip.
“Oh, the bread.” She reached out to touch the cloth-wrapped bread, checking the temperature, and at her touch the bread grew warm again, as if fresh and hot out of the oven.
“And stay that way,” she hissed, and the bread did not dare to disobey.
She moved around to the other side of the table and straightened the other chair, so that the two chairs faced each other. But then she frowned to herself.
“Too much. Far too intense. He’ll think...” And here, she could not finish her thought, not even to herself.
So she moved the chair again, making sure that both chairs faced each other at a gentle angle, so that whoever sat could easily look at their companion, and at the same time look out over the garden wall below and see the gleaming wine-dark band of the Aegean along the horizon, islands rising from the sea like distant mountains.
Just then she heard Aziraphale’s familiar step along her path, the soft scuff of his sandals upon the stone. She had left the gate unlocked for him and he had let himself in as was his custom. And when Aziraphale came into view, climbing up the hill, Crowley looked up with a smile.
“Angel,” Crowley said in greeting, straightening his black chiton about his shoulders and hips.
“Crowley!” Aziraphale smiled brightly, and greeted him with a kiss as though they had not just seen each other the day before.
“Just in time,” Crowley pulled away, drawing the edge of his himation closer over his head, his hand pressed to his cheek as if he could still feel the lingering touch of Aziraphale’s lips. “Bread’s still hot, let’s eat.”
“I hope you don’t mind,” Aziraphale said, setting down a plain ceramic pot on an empty spot on the table, rattling the lid. “I brought you some soup to go with our meal.”
“Of course not,” Crowley smiled, though he clearly remembered telling the angel yesterday that he would take care of all the details of the food today.
“Here, have a seat, I know where your bowls are and will get some for the soup.”
“No, it’s all right, I can-”
But the angel was already heading up to the house, and Crowley sighed, slumping back in the chair. Alone, Crowley looked out over the terraced garden down toward the sea. There were dark clouds gathering over the islands; perhaps it would rain soon. And so Crowley sniffed the air, first tasting it with the nose and then the tongue and there it was, the faintest scent of rain and ozone lingering in the air.
And yet, the sky above was clear.
Crowley stood and walked up to the house, meeting Aziraphale in the entry.
“It seems like things changed.” And just as those words were spoken, Aziraphale set down the bowls and took his hands.
“What was it that you said, my dear?”
Aziraphale’s lips pressed gently to his fingers, and Crowley found himself drawing back, even as he longed to take Aziraphale’s hand. Torn, he stepped away, out past the colonnade, feeling the cool breeze and tasting the briney scent of sea air on his tongue, the wind swirling the folds of his long black chiton about his sandaled feet.
The green garden within the high stone walls that normally felt like a refuge seemed to block him in, and he wandered higher up on the hillside terraces past the house, looking down at the flat mirror of the sea.
Aziraphale followed him.
“I said, it seems like things changed. Ever since Athens,” Crowley said, rubbing his fingertips. “Did things change? It feels like things changed.”
“My dear boy, I don’t think anything has changed, has it?” But there was an odd note in Aziraphale’s voice, a tone that was different, that was unusual, and Crowley frowned, hearing the strangeness coupled with the hesitation in the angel’s voice.
He turned to look at Aziraphale who quickly looked away, hands folded behind him, fingers tangled together in a tense knot that did not escape Crowley’s attention.
“You’ve been much. Much more...” And the words caught in his throat; they were too hard to say. How to explain that everything was different after that night at the symposium when he had rescued the angel from Asmodeus. It seemed that since then Aziraphale pressed his affections at any opportunity, reaching out to touch Crowley, to kiss his fingers or cheeks, or to hold his hands. And it wasn’t that Crowley didn’t like it – it always sent a pleasant shiver of sensation through him to touch the angel – but things were different now. It didn’t seem like the easy natural affection that had existed before, but something else, something that seemed almost forced.
Something with hidden intention, perhaps. But this was Aziraphale and it was impossible that the angel could have an agenda that he didn’t know about; Aziraphale wore his feelings openly. Or so Crowley thought. And that was a troubling notion too, that there were hidden depths to the angel that he had not fathomed.
“Hmm? Much more what?” Aziraphale had a mild, careful expression on his face.
The false note of feigned innocence in Aziraphale’s voice made him pause. Crowley frowned, not sure of what to say or how to say it. “We’ve become closer, haven’t we? Since Athens.”
“Well, why not? After all, we are refugees from the war between Athens and Sparta, and living as such here in Ionia. It would only be natural that we see each other more often now.” Aziraphale came closer, the back of his hand brushing against Crowley’s hand, and it sent a shiver that slithered over all of his skin. Yet Aziraphale continued speaking as if he noticed nothing, glancing up at Crowley to meet his eyes. “Isn’t it reasonable for friends to lean upon each other in times of hardship?”
Crowley rubbed the back of his hand. It seemed as if any time he brought this up, the question was skirted.
“I miss my little house in Athens. It’s been years, but I miss it,” Crowley said, changing the subject so as not to have to deal with it. It was easier to pretend that nothing was wrong, that nothing was different, even as he eyed the angel cautiously as he retreated, pulling the himation closer over his hair, sinking into the obscuring shadows that the cloth provided.
“Ionia is always nice,” Aziraphale said as he began to stroll deliberately away from Crowley, glancing back at him at intervals as if to gauge his expression. “I’ve always liked it better than Attica. I thought you did too. It’s closer to Egypt, for one. And your place in Ephesus has a better view, and is closer to the sea.”
“And is colder in the winter,” Crowley said, drawing his crimson-edged black himation tighter over his shoulders.
“Maybe so, but…here you don’t have to be a hetaira,” Aziraphale ventured. “You needn’t warm anyone’s bed anymore. Not at Hell’s command.”
Crowley said nothing for a long moment as he wandered through the garden, the air redolent with the scent of laurel, rosemary, mint, and lavender, while Aziraphale followed at a polite distance, tailing him through the trailing path of stones that wandered lazily through the shrubby plants.
“I know what I did. And you’re not wrong. I had orders,” Crowley said finally, not looking at Aziraphale. “But if you think I have anything to be ashamed of, you don’t know who or what I am.”
Chapter 2: The Scent of Juniper
Nightfall, and the sea air seeped in cold. Sprawled out alone on his bed, Crowley watched the flickering shadows cast by the lamplight on the plain whitewashed walls that were bare of any decoration, and wondered at his own words. After that, there was no more to be said. They ate their midday meal with perhaps a few too many cups of wine in a silence punctuated only by the lightest of conversational topics, nothing more than remarks upon the weather and such safe small talk as to be abysmally dull. Afterwards there was a last cup of wine and a cool parting, which left him troubled. They could see each other tomorrow, in a few days, or next week, or perhaps not at all for a decade or more. It could be a year. It could be a hundred years.
With a groan, Crowley flopped over and closed his eyes, pressing his hands over his face, trying to untense enough to rest, to sleep. To while away the hours in pleasant unconsciousness as the humans did; it was a better thing to do than to spend all the long hours of his time awake and thinking, which he would otherwise do.
Too often he found his thoughts wandering to Aziraphale, and it seemed that if he thought about Aziraphale any longer, he might remember the touch of the angel’s lips on his fingertips, against his cheek, against the back of his hand, and perhaps even that one time, against the sensitive skin of the palm of his hand...
Crowley found his fingers straying to touch his own lips.
But then, suddenly he sat up, as the air itself in his room seemed to change, the quality of the world around him seemed to darken, the shadows growing deeper, taking on a hint of an infernal tinge like the crimson stain of the falling sunset light upon the distant horizon.
Crowley twisted around, just in time to see Asmodeus rising from the ground, dusting himself off before sitting down on the edge of the bed, black wings blocking out the fluttering lamplight.
“My lord,” Crowley shivered, and drew the bedclothes close over her body.
Afterwards, as she caught her breath and the scent of juniper clung to her damp skin, she felt Asmodeus run his fingers through her dark hair, and it tingled still from where his firm hand had gripped it tight. She waited, wondering what more he wanted, if it was just her or if it was something else.
But she did not have much hope; it was usually something else.
“Darling, I need you to do some work for me,” Asmodeus murmured, his breath hot against her throat.
“Work?” Crowley shivered. “Is it an assignment? Am I being reassigned to another city?”
“Nothing so formal, Crawley. It won’t take long. A few months. A year at most, I should think.” Asmodeus’ lips brushed against the bare skin of her shoulder.
Crowley tensed upon hearing that old and discarded name, the one that she had sloughed off like a snake’s skin. Immediately knew it was a mistake when she felt his hand tighten on her wrist. He knew what she wanted to be known as; this was a sign that nothing had changed between them. “I. I don’t think. That I should be doing anything that isn’t official business from Hell,” Crowley began, reciting words that she had practiced so many times alone until she knew she could say it to Asmodeus.
“My darling one, if an order comes from me, it is the official business of Hell,” Asmodeus said. “Don’t forget who I am. Now get up and get dressed, we have work to do.”
For the rest of the afternoon, Aziraphale walked down to the harbor and watched the fishing ships sailing in and out, dodging swift triremes and round Phoenician merchant gauloi ships. As the sun began to set, he continued his walk around the waterfront until he stopped by a favorite fish restaurant and had a simple, leisurely supper of grilled fish, hot flatbread, and stewed vegetables. As he finished the last of the fish, he felt a pang of regret that he had not asked Crowley to dinner.
But that could be amended, he thought. As he walked through the waterfront, he found his favorite bakery and bought some sesame honey cakes that he wrapped up in a clean cloth before taking the long way to Crowley’s house, stopping by the harbor once more to watch the sun set, the sky tinged beautifully pink.
It was a few hours after dark when Aziraphale knocked, but there was no answer. He hoped that the gate was unlocked, and sure enough, it was miraculously still open.
“Sorry to intrude, my dear, I hope you’re not asleep already,” Aziraphale said loudly as he walked into the central courtyard. Perhaps he should have gotten wine too, he thought, but then he remembered that he had already brought wine a previous day when he came to call upon Crowley; an amphora from Egypt of an old favorite variety, and another from Lesbos that he knew Crowley was partial to.
“Let there be light,” Aziraphale murmured, and a gentle glow followed slightly above and behind his head as he walked into the dark building.
“Crowley? Are you asleep?” Aziraphale whispered loudly. “I hope you don’t mind me dropping by unannounced; the gate was unlocked and besides, I brought honey cakes that I know you’re fond...”
Aziraphale peeked into Crowley’s bedroom, peering around the doorway, the gentle golden light following him.
The room was empty, curiously so, the bed in tumbled disarray.
“Oh dear.” Aziraphale muttered, wondering where Crowley had gone off to. It wasn’t like him to leave his bed unmade; in fact, usually the bed was far too afraid not to stay orderly. And Crowley was usually here at this time unless there was some business that he had to do, and certainly he wouldn’t normally have wandered off without making his bed...
Catching a strange note to a familiar scent, Aziraphale leaned down toward the bed. Sniffing curiously, he glanced at the tangled blankets and very deliberately set one hand down on the rumpled bedding.
It was still faintly warm, and then he realized that the air smelled of roses and myrrh and juniper and…
Aziraphale’s breath caught, and he took a step back.
Chapter 3: Pomegranates and Honey Cakes
Between one step and the next, reality seemed to fold around them, the world fluttering like leaves in a gale as they stepped forward and suddenly they were somewhere else, in the deep shade of a sycamore tree in a courtyard garden, the moon shining bright through the leaves, leaving a mosaic of shadows staining the ground.
Dizzy, Crowley stumbled forward, nauseous from the sudden shift in reality, and Asmodeus caught her, steadying her.
“Careful. You’ve never grown accustomed to that, have you?”
Crowley shook her head and immediately regretted it, fighting back the nausea for a moment before remembering to miracle it away. She sighed, feeling Asmodeus’ arm tighten around her waist, leaning into the embrace before suddenly straightening up, remembering who she had become.
She drew away from his arm.
“Where are we, my lord?”
“My house in Ecbatana, in the land of the Medes. Just a little jaunt, nowhere far at all. This Ionian chiton won’t do; you’ll stand out.”
“They won’t even notice us, not unless we want them to,” Crowley began, but Asmodeus was already changing the contours of the dress around her shoulders, so that all of her body was covered, draped in a crimson dress of fine wool with long sleeves and trousers beneath it, all of it bordered with a twisted and tangled pattern of gold embroidery that reminded Crowley of two serpents entwined.
Her breath caught at the memory.
To distract herself, Crowley looked closely at the sleeves. Besides the embroidery, there was a subtle design of a stylized pomegranate tree that had been woven into the fabric, red against a red background, and when she lifted her arms, there was a tiny tinkle of metal, where golden pomegranate beads were twined in delicate bracelets around her wrists.
She turned her head and caught a glimpse of the long black veil that covered her head and hung down past her fingertips, held in place by an embroidered band.
“They might not notice, but I would. Gorgeous, a stunning Median beauty. Perfect in every way. Come, darling, let’s go.”
Stepping forward in embroidered felt shoes, Crowley followed in Asmodeus’ wake, her eyes following the gleaming gold of the Prince of Hell’s snake ring as they passed through the streets of Ecbatana. They came down from the upper city and stopped at a house, where torches burned merrily to light the courtyard and festive music seeped from the very walls themselves. The people inside came out in a flood, and Asmodeus and Crowley slipped into the crowd unnoticed.
As they meandered their way through the streets following the wedding procession, Crowley felt at the new clothes, subtly changing the weave, so that it slid a little rougher against her skin, so that it wasn’t quite so infernally perfect, adding seams where there were none before, turning the dress a slightly darker shade of red. Then she focused on sliding the gold threads in the border first into electrum and then slowly edging the metal toward silver, just to see how far she could go without him noticing. She turned one of the golden pomegranate beads around her right wrist into a geometric bead of lapis lazuli, the one currently closest to her thumb and forefinger so she could hold the smooth bead between both fingers and think of something else. Someone else.
It didn’t seem that Asmodeus noticed, or if he did, he didn’t seem to care.
Soon they arrived at the groom’s house and as the bride was led inside, the two demons slipped in following her while the speeches were being made.
The sounds of the wedding party dimmed as they walked, their footsteps silent as they passed unnoticed through the humans.
Crowley glanced at a door that led out to a moonlit garden and covered her mouth with one hand so that she would not sigh; it was tempting to just run, to slip out into the night and into the guise of a serpent, tunneling into the hard-packed soil and disappearing into the darkness. But she could not, not as long as Asmodeus wanted her.
Asmodeus paused at the doorway. “They do their best to keep us out, don’t they? As if a blessing in the Almighty’s name could stop us,” Asmodeus murmured, his fingers trailing over container in the doorframe that held a written blessing as he opened a door for Crowley, letting Crowley step in first.
“I don’t think that’s how a mezuzah works,” Crowley muttered.
“Quiet, they’ll be here any minute. You’ll know what to do when I give you the signal?”
“No, I don’t,” Crowley said crossly, even though she knew all too well what was likely to be expected from her. After all, this wasn’t the first time. “I don’t even know why I’m here.”
“To freeze people, darling. You’re quite good at that, aren’t you? Your little parlor trick that’s been so very useful for me.”
“Point me out who you want stopped, my lord,” Crowley said dully, a quiet rising panic in her heart wondering what Asmodeus was about to do.
Aziraphale paused to unlock the front gate, his hand trailing over the smooth wooden doorframe. Once he stepped inside and closed the door behind him, he realized that he was still holding onto the cloth-wrapped honey cakes. Miraculously, the sticky sweets had not soaked through the cloth, but it couldn’t be helped; it had to be eaten if it was not to go to waste. So he unwrapped the cakes but then realized it would be better if it were set out on a dish of some sort; after all it wasn’t as if he was having a snack in the Agora while watching a philosopher expound on the nature of Nature. So Aziraphale went to get a lovely shallow golden fluted bowl that he liked.
And then after he arranged the cakes and sat down, he thought, well perhaps it would be better with something to drink. Wine was out of the question, they had certainly had enough of that already this afternoon, and fresh water from the spring didn’t seem like an appropriate companion to honey cakes. But then he thought, Crowley was right; the wind blowing off the Mediterranean at night was a bit cold and damp, so Aziraphale proceeded to start a little fire in the hearth and heat up some spring water. While he was waiting for the water to boil, he went and found his favorite cup, a double-handled kantharos painted on one side in red figure and on the other in black figure, both sides showing a charioteer urging his team of two horses onwards to victory.
Finally, with a steaming tisane made from dried mint, rosebuds, and lavender, as well as a plate of honey cakes, Aziraphale sat down at his desk and lit the lamp.
The curving bronze tree that held the oil lamp trembled and the lamp smoked faintly. Aziraphale gave it a mild look of reproach, and the lamp began to burn cleanly, the flame bright and clear.
It was nice to keep busy, Aziraphale thought, glancing at the unrolled papyrus on his desk, weighted down on one side with a flat papyrus weight, and on the other with a quartzite knife. Lots to do between blessings and healings; bills to pay, books to read, suppers with a friend…
His eyes drifted to the text:
Ten years behind, ten years athwart his way
Waiting and home, lost and unfriended...
Aziraphale looked away, gently moving the knife so that the scroll rolled up on itself with a hiss of crisp papyrus.
He turned his attention back to the food. First he took a bite of the sesame honey cake, savoring its sweetness. Then he took a sip of the hot drink, and the scent of roses filled his nose and the sweetness of honey was washed from his mouth, leaving only a lingering aftertaste.
Troubled, Aziraphale got up and paced the room, the reading forgotten, the honeycakes going stale, the hot drink turning cold.
Chapter 4: A Wedding Night
The bride came in first, chaperoned by some older women who left her at the doorway. The human came in alone, walking with hesitant footsteps to the bed that was down the narrow hallway and around the corner from the entry. As she walked in past Crowley, her eyes met Crowley’s eyes, and for a moment Crowley was frozen with shock, thinking she had been seen. But the human had not seen Crowley; she had merely glanced up at some decorative tile set in the wall behind Crowley’s head.
Behind the genuine happiness evinced in her expression it seemed that the human’s eyes were sad and full of fear, and Crowley wondered if it was the fear of what was to come, being bedded by a man that she had seen perhaps only once or twice before the marriage.
Or more troubling, perhaps it was fear of Asmodeus, whose eyes had followed her with a flat predatory gaze as she passed.
Before Crowley could say something, the groom came in and cheerfully locked the door behind him. With a gesture, Crowley stopped time, careful to limit it to just the human and nothing else so as not to give away what she was really doing, and the groom froze, his hands still on the handle. Beyond the entry in the bedchamber, Crowley could hear the bride moving about, the rustle of her clothes and her long trailing veil.
“Lovely work, my darling one.” Asmodeus caressed her face. “You needn’t stay, I can take it from here. Go back to my house and wait.”
“I think I’d prefer to wait here, my lord,” Crowley said.
“Suit yourself. It may be some time,” Asmodeus smirked, and as he brushed past the frozen bridegroom, he changed his face, taking on the poor human’s appearance.
“My lord…!” Startled, Crowley realized what was about to happen and began to frantically think of a distraction.
“Yes? What is it?”
“Would? Uh, er, that is, ah wouldn’t you rather prefer me instead?” Crowley whispered. “And not a human...”
“Oh, Crawley,” Asmodeus slipped out of his disguise to come to Crowley’s side, stroking his long fingers through her hair. His hand cupped her face, catching her chin, and he turned her eyes up to meet his. She tensed, unable to look away from the intensity of his brilliant green eyes. “You know that I love you and no one else. You’re the only one for me, my darling. Humans are an altogether different matter; it’s a passing fancy, nothing more, like having a taste for a bite of fruit or a sip of wine. It’ll be over soon, I promise. This means nothing to me, not like you.”
And then Crowley shut her mouth, feeling her arguments dry up. There was nothing that could be done. She watched as Asmodeus changed his face, becoming someone else. “You’re right. It’s nothing, my lord. Just, I wish that...no, it’s nothing.”
“Nothing can be done,” Aziraphale said calmly to himself once more. “Absolutely nothing can be done. What could be done? He can’t disobey a Prince of Hell, just like I can’t disobey an Archangel. It’s not like I can go after him...” The mad thought filled his mind for a moment, sending a jolt of excitement through him but then Aziraphale drooped, slumping down onto the empty supper couch in the dim and shadowy room, remembering that he had no idea where Crowley could have gone.
Besides, it would be too dangerous. Far too dangerous to face Asmodeus again; who knew what could happen? It wasn’t a good thing to tempt a demon. Aziraphale shivered, remembering the last time he had seen Asmodeus, decades ago.
And the thought of seeing Crowley at Asmodeus’ side, a mocking smile on Crowley’s face, Crowley’s hand touching Asmodeus’ hand, their fingers entwined…
Aziraphale shook off the thought, refusing to entertain such notions.
You don’t know who or what I am.
And from that, Aziraphale knew two things; that Crowley meant what said, that there were aspects of Crowley’s life that Aziraphale could never know, that he could never even guess at. But more importantly, that he knew Crowley was wrong. Perhaps he didn’t know everything, but he knew that he understood Crowley better than anyone else, even a crowned Prince of Hell.
“After all, I am a Principality myself,” Aziraphale said out loud.
He closed his eyes for a moment, and wondered what it would be like to be swooping in to rescue Crowley from the infernal wiles and clutches of the evil Asmodeus. After all, it would be impossible to track where they had gone; it was not by a method that Aziraphale could have even tried to follow.
Perhaps it would be worth convincing Heaven to move against the Prince of Hell. Or maybe he could inquire with the Earth Observation department regarding the whereabouts of Asmodeus and thus Crowley by extension. Inquiry was unlikely, he’d probably have to sneak in and break into the vaults themselves, finding the right information. Then he would take the ladder down to that point on Earth and with some simple basic snooping, find Crowley and slip him out from under the grasp of his infernal master. There would be a confrontation, a fight.
Flaming sword in hand, he’d fight Asmodeus for Crowley, receiving some wounds certainly, but nothing fatal as Heaven triumphed over Hell in proxy, or at least in Aziraphale. Crowley would be so grateful, tenderly patching up his injuries. Aziraphale would redeem the fallen angel, taking away the taint of Hell from Crowley with his love and triumphantly return to Heaven with Crowley in his arms. And then once it was clear that the Fallen could be redeemed, Heaven would go back to the way it was before the Fall, with that lovely infinite stillness and peace that spread throughout the cosmos, that deep and loving intimacy that it had lost so very long ago.
The rebellion would end, the wars would be over, and it would all go back to what was most important: love.
Aziraphale sighed. It was a nice thought, a wonderful dream though ultimately futile. Heaven did nothing to thwart Princes of Hell, just as Hell did nothing to thwart Archangels; it would upset the tenuous balance of peace between the two sides, and these days no one was up to risking war. There was still that unpleasant matter of both sides missing key players so no one side knew for sure who would win.
He tried to picture what kind of documents would be needed to request the relevant Earth Observation files; by the time he received it, Asmodeus could be anywhere, even in Hell where they had no jurisdiction. Trying to imagine what would happen if he went in by force was unthinkable; something terrible would happen to him that he might never recover from. There was no mercy for a rebel; that was made abundantly clear ages upon ages ago.
With a sigh Aziraphale sat up, stretching his arms, feeling the muscles in his body tremble as he strained his limbs, as if he could reach out far enough to embrace Crowley and draw Crowley back to him.
Chapter 5: Pacing
Trembling as her felt shoes and the hem of her long dress slowly stained darker, Crowley inched away from the growing pool of steaming blood until her back was pressed to the wall, the coppery scent filling the air until there was nothing else but the scent of blood. The human had died without ever coming to full consciousness, hemorrhaging blood from his mouth at a gesture from Asmodeus so that it stained the entire entry of the bridal chamber.
“Why did you do it? You didn’t have to kill him did you?” Crowley asked, afraid to glance down the narrow hallway back into the bedchamber to see if the bride was still alive. Asmodeus let them out discreetly, the blood disappearing from their clothes before they stepped beyond the threshold; no one noticed them leaving, and those who waited outside the nuptial chamber did not see the door open and close to let the demons out.
“My darling Crawley, always full of questions. That’s why you’re here by my side and not rotting away in the cold vaults of Heaven. You know that the humans expect some blood on the nuptial night; I only gave them what they wanted.”
Behind them, the sound of screams and wails, and Crowley took a deep breath so as not to flinch.
“The blood of a virgin. Not that he was one; the men rarely are, are they? Even as they expect the women to be. But they’ll think she’s a virgin still; I made sure of it. And so she’ll stay mine as long as it pleases me, without another man touching her. Why they keep trying to marry her off, I don’t know. You’d think after a handful of dead grooms, someone would stop trying to find her a husband. Thankfully you’re here to make it easier; I have had more than a tussle or two in the past with these men.”
“I am grateful to be of service, my lord,” Crowley said automatically, her voice bereft of feeling, watching with cold eyes as humans rushed past them to aid the fallen. Too late, she thought, far too late.
“You know, she looks rather like you under that bridal veil. A rare beauty, with black hair the color of a moonless night, and golden brown eyes the color of honey...” Asmodeus sighed. “A gem-like beauty for any being, human or not.”
“You know I’m here,” Crowley muttered. “You needn’t chase humans.”
“Oh, but they’re ever so much fun.” Asmodeus caught Crowley by the wrist, drawing her to him, close enough for her to catch the scent of someone else’s perfume on him. “You’ll stay with me in Ecbatana for now. There’s no pressing business for you; I’ve made sure of it. Your calendar’s clear for the next ten years; someone less important will be doing those little temptations and assignments that you’re sent to do.”
“Ten...years? I thought you said-”
“What’s with that expression, darling? There have been times when you’ve been with me longer on Earth; this is nothing, just a little vacation.”
“Oh.” Crowley managed a smile, one that almost looked genuine. “Just surprised, that’s all. Didn’t think you’d want me for so long. Usually you don’t need me for more than a day or two. How long has it been since we’ve spent so much time together?”
“Too long, my darling. Far too long.” Asmodeus stole a kiss, and it seemed to her that she could still taste the human on his lips.
If he could just get past merely kissing hands and cheeks, Aziraphale thought as he tread the tile floor of his house, circling through the study, the supper room, the bedroom, and eventually adding to the circuit the courtyard so he could see the gleaming moon as he paced.
If he could just build up the nerve to invite Crowley to his bed. It wasn’t something that he did; it had been millennia since he was asked to bed anyone, and that was at the orders of Heaven. It seemed an easier task when it was as part of an assignment, but here he had the option to save Crowley, to redeem the Fallen, and all it took was tainting the other angel physically, or more accurately, untainting Crowley, drawing the toxicity of Hell from those slim shoulders and soft hair, from that scowling face and those long legs.
It was just a matter of joining, Aziraphale thought. Shouldn’t be hard, just go for it and try one’s best. He remembered what it was like; a little awkward at times certainly but the basic mechanics were simple once the process was started. While there were many variations, it didn’t take much to accomplish, and it was easy to let the animal part of the body take over while the angelic side watched with bemused curiosity.
Physical intimacy, to replace that of the union of souls that Heaven used to represent. And when he tried to remember what that was like, it was elusive; all he remembered was closeness but whether it was physical or something else, it was hard to pinpoint. Then again, he thought, it couldn’t have been physical; they weren’t issued bodies until much later.
He had been trying for some time to bring himself to redeeming Crowley; after all, if Asmodeus was right and he could be drawn into falling through intimacy with a Prince of Hell, it followed that an ordinary fallen angel could be drawn into ascending through intimacy with a Prince of Heaven. Though, it did occur to Aziraphale that perhaps only an Archangel could do that, but no, the difference in ranks was nearly wide enough and besides, Aziraphale had God on his side.
But it didn’t answer why he couldn’t just seduce Crowley, and here Aziraphale realized that it came down to love. Did he or didn’t he love the fallen angel?
It made sense that he loved everything and everyone; after all, he was an angel, a being of love. But while it was easy to love all of humanity, and even all of the Fallen, things began to get a bit tricky when pointing that love specifically at one being.
Of course he loved Crowley. But was it like everything else in Creation, or was it somehow different? And when Aziraphale found that he couldn’t answer that, he paced an ever longer circuit, until he found himself outside the walls of his own house.
It was dark and cold, and when he realized where he was, he sighed, knowing just how silly it was. No point in reflecting so hard, he thought; the answer would either come to him or not, but it would take time. So he went back inside, locking the gate behind him.
Chapter 6: Music
With a gesture, the door unlocked itself, and Asmodeus motioned for Crowley to step inside.
She had only seen the courtyard and the entry when they had first arrived, but now that she had a chance to look around, it was clear that Asmodeus’ house was grand, just below the lowest gates of the great palace of Ecbatana, built up almost against the high white-washed wall. Trees and vines shaded the courtyard from view, and the rooms that were built around the central courtyard were splendid and pleasant, with thick walls to protect it from the harsh winter winds that came off the mountain.
As they walked into a dark room, lamps lit around them, flames sparking to life at Asmodeus’ command. Crowley looked around; the bedroom was huge and lavishly appointed, though eclectic. There were wall hangings from Ionia and India, alabaster vessels from Egypt, silk drapery from China, a geometric spiraling reed basket that Crowley was sure came from across the distant ocean, and by the bedside, a small gleaming bronze statue in an archaic style that Crowley realized was a depiction of Beelzebub, or what the humans sometimes called the First Prince of Hell, Baal.
She said nothing, but this was definitely a place that Asmodeus had owned for some time, and she wondered what made it worth it for him to show her this secret abode and when he meant to burn it to the ground now that she knew about it.
“Serving human, play us some music,” Asmodeus said and Crowley nearly jumped, realizing there was a person who had been sitting on the floor near the bed in darkness, hardly moving until addressed. His eyes were blank and dazed, but when his head turned toward Crowley, she could see the fear, the panicked dread that lay beneath the smooth-glazed surface of enthrallment.
“Yes, Lord Asmodeus.” With a groan the human stood and moved over to a harp that had been set in a corner, half-hidden to Crowley’s view by heavy curtains. The human sat down, taking a moment to tune the instrument in a rough manner, not at all detailed nor delicate, and then began to strum a tune, mechanically precise but as though the feeling had been stripped out of the music, replaced with monotonous perfection.
A deep tremor went through the human’s hands, but even so he still played on, and Crowley shivered, hearing the underlying fear in his music.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” Asmodeus drew Crowley close for a kiss, and Crowley struggled to not pull away, though she turned her head slightly so that his lips touched her cheek.
“There’s a human in the room, my lord,” Crowley began, but Asmodeus shrugged it off.
“So? Does it matter?”
“It wouldn’t matter for him to see us?”
“Why not? It’s not as if he’ll remember it. I keep all my servants gently subdued; they won’t remember their time here with me.”
“They’re supposed to have free will, my lord. Is it right for them to be so...”
“He has the free will to work for me, and I provide him food and a roof over his head. If some of the other details are a little bit unusual by human standards...well, I am a Prince of Hell, after all, and I have my standards.”
The words were on Crowley’s lips, that it was cruel to do this to humans, but she closed her mouth. After all this was at least some of the business of Hell, the spreading of misery, of cruelty, but she preferred it when it was done with a softer hand. A lighter touch was needed, one that didn’t overwhelm and overshadow the delicate lives of humans, who remembered so much, even when they weren’t supposed to remember it at all.
Asmodeus kissed her lazily as the music played, stroking her hair, and Crowley wondered which scale it was that the harp was tuned to, that it played with such a strange and mournful sound.
Aziraphale would know, Crowley thought wistfully.
In between pacing, Aziraphale practiced. In particular, he practiced tuning his kithara, which was an art unto itself. First he tuned it to Mixolydian, then Lydian, and Phrygian. By the time he started on Dorian, he lost patience for it, and tuned the kithara to Common so he could play something that he liked. Taking up the kithara, he strapped it to his body, adjusting it until it sat comfortable against his chest, and picked up the plectrum where it swung from its braided cord.
With a gentle flick of the plectrum over the strings, he began one of his favorite songs, a piece by Sappho, but then thought the better of it, taking a moment to think of what else was tuned to this mode, and switched to Anacreon.
Boy with the virginal glance,
I court you, but you pay no heed,
unaware that you drive
the chariot of my heart...
Aziraphale shivered and dropped the plectrum, which trembled the cord it was attached to as it fell. His fingers touched the strings to pluck them, meaning to go onto the next section of the song but then he realized he couldn’t. His thumb slipped and it sounded the first note, the deepest note, and the vibration that it sent through the kithara sent a shudder through his entire body.
He set the kithara down carefully on his desk, adjusting the instrument so that the plectrum was not caught underneath the soundbox but stayed obediently by its side.
Perhaps a strong cup of wine would be good right about now. But then when he got up to get it, he found himself pacing again.
Chapter 7: Wine and Games
“Serving human, bring us some wine,” Asmodeus said.
Crowley watched as the human got up to do Asmodeus’ bidding, bringing back a pitcher and two delicate fluted cups of worked gold, pouring them wine.
In her hands, the cup felt tenuous, the soft gold malleable, and Crowley pressed it carefully to her lips to take a sip of the clear golden wine within. She drank it down in quick gulps like swallowing medicine, feeling better for it after the long night.
“Come, sit with me,” Asmodeus said, reclining back on the bed among the cushions, gesturing for Crowley to join him. “I know you like to rest.”
“The sun’s coming up soon,” Crowley said, but followed anyway, obedient to his will, setting down the empty cup on a low wine table.
“Is it now? But that doesn’t matter to us. We are outside of the animal cycle of mortal beings, who are tied to the rhythm of the sun and the moon. You can rest your beautiful head anytime you like.” Asmodeus drew Crowley close, his hand curved possessively around her shoulder. “You’ve always been a little strange, haven’t you, darling? Enjoying this manner of rest as the humans do. What do they call it again?”
Crowley shifted, trying to get more comfortable. “They call it ‘sleep’, my lord.”
“Ah yes.” Asmodeus stroked her long curling hair, running locks of it through his fingers, bringing a long strand up to his lips for a kiss. “Sleep. An interesting habit you’ve picked up from these mortals. What happens when you do that?”
“Close my eyes. Doze off. And sometimes I dream.”
“Hard to explain,” Crowley said. “Something like...letting go and letting the mind wander.”
“Wandering thoughts. Seems dangerous, doesn’t it?”
“Oh no, I have no control over it. It just happens.” Crowley yawned. “No free will, my lord. I swear it.”
“Good.” Crowley put her arms around Asmodeus. From here, Crowley could hear his heart, a slow steady pace, and she closed her eyes, feeling his lips upon her forehead. She felt happier than she had in a long time, reveling in this moment of rare and pleasant intimacy that they sometimes had, his arms warm around her as she nestled against him. Her best memories of Asmodeus were like this, in the tight embrace of his arms. It couldn’t last long; he didn’t have the patience to stay by her side for much longer, but in this warm drowsy moment, she could forget everything and pretend that maybe there had never been a fall from grace, and that this moment of quiet intimacy could last forever.
Crowley fell asleep quickly, exhausted.
Asmodeus laid back, feeling Crowley’s weight against his shoulder, a pleasing burden, and when he looked at the pale hand that clung to his black robes, the one strangely archaic bead of lapis lazuli among the golden pomegranates upon her wrist caught his eye.
Touching it, he wondered if he should change it back, but decided against it.
“Crawley,” Asmodeus murmured. “Always full of your little secrets.” He pressed her hand to his lips; she did not wake, but shifted to draw closer to him.
Careful not to wake her, he slipped out of her arms and left the room, the flames of the lamps snapping out of existence as he stepped out of the room, leaving nothing behind, not even smoke.
Dawn, and the birds began to wake, singing their sleepy morning songs. Aziraphale was pleasantly surprised by the bright morning light seeping into the room. He sat down at his desk and blew out the lamp. That was enough pacing for one night, any more and he’d wear out the sandals or his floor, and he liked both of those quite a bit.
“And no more Euripides,” Aziraphale said out loud to himself. He went to the pile of new scrolls that he had been accumulating and rummaging through, found a copy of one of Aristophanes’ new comedies, The Fry Cooks, which he hadn’t had a chance to read yet.
So many things to read, Aziraphale thought, and as he read in a quiet murmur, he nibbled on the honey cakes which had gone slightly stale over night but immediately perked up, freshening back up again in the angel’s hands. Some time later as the morning progressed, he heated some more water and this time made a tisane out of a handful of fresh mint that he picked from his garden, enjoying the hot drink as he read the comedy. Occasionally, with a smile on his face, he got up from his reading and puttered around the house, cleaning and wiping down surfaces, straightening the curtains, washing the dishes, and putting his scrolls in a new and better planned order. Unlike the other gentlemen of Ephesus, Aziraphale kept no servants or slaves but did his own cleaning, which really meant that everything was always rather dusty and cluttered, though ultimately clean as the world around him tended toward tidiness in its own way, just not how everyone else thought constituted tidy.
By afternoon, he had finished, and straightening up with a smile on his face he thought he should do something else. Perhaps a game of some kind. So he found his Petteia set and laid out the beginning pieces, only to remember too late that it was best played with two people. He sat down and rested his hand against his chin for a moment, thinking what other games he had. Hounds and Jackals, Twenty Squares...nothing that he could think of wanting to play was going to be playable by one person. Except perhaps knucklebones or dice, and he was not about to squat on the floor and toss knucklebones or dice. Hard on the knees, squatting.
So he played Petteia by playing the other pieces as Crowley would have moved them. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t played Petteia with Crowley, after all Crowley was the one who insisted they switch games from Twenty Squares, bringing the Petteia board with him one bright sunny afternoon. They had played it in the shade of an awning in a tavern courtyard, wrangling over the rules in that first play, Crowley pointing out all the possible stratagems with every turn, always with an eye for loopholes and inconsistencies.
“’We have played Twenty Squares since nearly the beginning of the creation of Earth, angel, it’s time for something new,’” Aziraphale murmured to himself, amused, remembering Crowley’s words as he dug his fingers into the bowl full of round, flat black stones, feeling the slip of the cool game pieces against his fingertips, considering Crowley’s next possible move and then his own method of countering it.
Chapter 8: Games and Clothes
Crowley eyed the gaming board, digging her fingers into the bowl full of round, flat silver pieces, feeling the cold metal sliding against her fingertips as she scowled at the clusters of gold and silver pieces laid out on the incised square board, ebony inlaid with thin ivory strips, looking for a way out from the surrounding pieces that Asmodeus had laid out. A neat trap, Crowley thought, frowning, and she had been falling for it for ages now.
“What’s the matter? I thought you were fond of games,” Asmodeus said.
“Not the way you play them,” Crowley muttered.
“You’ve become rather rebellious, haven’t you?” Asmodeus leaned back on the cushions, watching Crowley with a curious look. “Don’t think that I haven’t noticed.”
Crowley closed her mouth, eyes downcast, striving to look modest.
“A word from me and you could be spending the rest of eternity rotting away in the dark. Is that what you want?”
“No,” Crowley whispered.
“Look at me.”
Crowley looked up, focusing on a point near Asmodeus’ brow, feigning eye contact even as she kept a sharp observation on his expressions.
“And yet, I can’t say I dislike seeing you have more spirit.” Asmodeus folded his hands together, his eyes on Crowley, who knew better than to look away. “There’s something intriguing to think that perhaps you may have developed something like free will.”
“Free will? Me?” Crowley laughed nervously. “No, of course not, why would you think such a thing.”
“You’ve become rather mouthy. If I didn’t find it amusing, I would have you sent to Beelzebub. There’s a new experiment going on Downstairs; some project of the First Prince. A nice little retraining project that’s been running for some time now. You wouldn’t know about it, but they’ve been taking some of the more...difficult Fallen to task. Attitude adjustments. We’ve heard much about it from the Opposition and have developed our own techniques.”
Crowley felt herself grow hot and cold, all at once, remembering Aziraphale’s loss of his memories of the miracle year, that year when they roamed the Earth granting miracles as freely as the wind and the rain, without any fear of reprisal or condemnation. “Did you say...adjustments? From the Opposition?”
“Oh yes, their idea, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve on it ourselves. There are methods of ensuring compliance beyond the fear of destruction. But I’m certain we never have to go there, do we, my darling?”
“No, of course not. It’s obvious that I’m always at your command, my lord.”
“Well then, it seems that you’ve lost this round, my dear. Why don’t we go do something more fun?” Asmodeus stood up and offered Crowley his hand, and Crowley glanced back at the board one last time to see the gleaming gold pieces that encircled and surrounded the silver pieces all over the board.
Many months later, Aziraphale decided it was high time to mend his clothes. So rummaging through his house, he pulled out items from his shelves and storage chests, looking for his sewing things. Of course, that meant that he had to rearrange everything that he took out, which took up most of the morning so that by afternoon, he was ready to mend.
Needle, scissors, and thread ready, he hummed a pleasant tune to himself, something that he had heard in the Agora the other day, a new tune that he thought Crowley would like. One edge of the himation was frayed and worn, the side that draped closest to the ground, so he rehemmed it with neat little stitches so that the frayed edge would not show. The place where he usually pinned the himation was worn out with a series of holes and stretched threads, so he patched it on the wrong side with a bit of linen that he kept from another even older chiton that had long since worn out. Then he moved onto his chiton, which he inspected all over to make certain that there were no holes, but then he found threadbare sections where the belt had worn through the surface and he stitched those up, leaving a little line of stitches along the inside of the cloth that was invisible from the outside. It looked almost like folds there, and he thought it a good job done.
Too bad Crowley always miracled up his own clothes, Aziraphale thought; he never had the enjoyment of going through the mending process. There was always no small amount of pleasure to be had in just buying the little tools the humans used to fix their things; for example it was hard to find a delicate enough bone needle for the task and even harder to keep from breaking them. A light touch had to be used.
He sighed; it would be fun to mend things for Crowley too, if Crowley ever needed it, but like so many of the angels, fallen or otherwise, Crowley was resistant to change, to human things, and so never needed mending clothes that were miracled up. It would be nice if his own clothes didn’t wear out, but then they would lack the uniqueness of a human-made thing.
Humming to himself, Aziraphale put his sewing things away and put his clothes back on, stretching out his arms to admire his handiwork.
Chapter 9: Clothes and the Unmade Bed
Crowley stood very still with her arms out, as the human tailor draped her with sheer and fine silks dyed in vibrant colors, colors that must have come from far away. From a nearby chair, Asmodeus watched intently, his hand resting on his chin.
“Does it matter?” Crowley asked. “After all, there are...other ways of getting clothes.”
“Oh, but human imagination is ever so interesting,” Asmodeus said. “Look at these fine silks; it reminds me of your beautiful dresses from Athens, only with a different sensibility. Think of the hundreds, thousands of tedious hours it took to spin the thread and weave the cloth, all that suffering and toil, all that anger and frustration. All those times when some low-ranked weaving or spinning human was beaten for a mistake, for wasting material, as if material was worth more than their dignity, than their very lives. And then the dangerous travel of hundreds of days, of thirst and hunger and greed and betrayal and death, just to bring it here to us. The sharp prick of the needle, the cut of the knives, the shears. And not all of it on cloth.” Asmodues smiled.
“Oh. Right. Beautiful suffering. Frustration and unkindness. Anger and sin.”
“And then there’s the human. How he desires you; he lusts after you but he strains to stay professional. His fear of me overrides his lust for you.”
“He’ll hear...” Crowley winced, shying from the tailor’s hand as he bent to take a measurement with a bit of knotted string.
“He won’t.” Asmodeus stroked his chin thoughtfully. “What if I let him have you?”
Crowley’s mouth tightened, but she knew he was bluffing. At least, she hoped he was. “You know that I am as always...at your pleasure, my lord.”
“Polite as always when you’re afraid. No, you’re far too fine of a jewel to be sharing with anyone else, at least if I have any say in it. It’s different when Lucifer sends out orders but...” Asmodeus leaned back with a yawn. “I prefer to keep you to myself.”
“Why is that, my lord?”
“Why?” Asmodeus’ blond brow creased, and for a moment he looked genuinely puzzled, but then his face smoothed itself out. “Because you belong to me of course. I claimed you first of all my subordinates. You were the first one I named. Of course that must be it. You’re a prized possession, one of the most radiant of the Fallen.”
The tailor turned her around. By the time Crowley turned back, she noticed that Asmodeus was still puzzling over it. When he noticed she was looking at him, his expression changed and he smiled as if nothing was wrong.
Still no one home. Aziraphale circled around the property once more, peeking in at Crowley’s things that were still left as they were, the bed unmade, the wine cups where Aziraphale had left them after washing them for Crowley, everything covered in dust and cobwebs from months and months of disuse.
Aziraphale ran into Crowley’s landlord on the way home from Crowley’s place, and the human wrangled with him briefly; it had been more than a year since Crowley had been seen, and the human was wondering where Crowley had gone off to. Not that it mattered much to the human; Crowley had paid for some years of rent in advance, but Aziraphale managed to placate the human with some story about a long journey, traveling to claim some money that had been put in trust with a person in a distant city.
By the time he sent the human on their way, Aziraphale changed his mind about going home and went back to Crowley’s house again, wandering through silent, empty rooms before ending up where he had last been, standing at Crowley’s bedside, looking at the rumpled sheets.
“Where are you, Crowley?”
Chapter 10: The Rock Dove
Time passed in a slow trickle. There were days when Crowley wondered where Asmodeus had gone; he often left for long stretches of time, sometimes for months without a word. She knew that she could not leave, not without permission, and so she came up with ways to keep herself occupied.
At first, she worked on projects, ideas to help pass the time. For example, if the little bubbles in beer were somewhat bubblier, then the bubbles might create some kind of obscuring foam that would take some time to reveal the actual amount of beer in a cup. Then humans, with their predilection toward both fairness and dishonesty, would wrangle over even distributions of the drink as well as try to cheat each other out of a few sips. She had taken over Asmodeus’ kitchens for a few weeks until he returned and complained that she constantly smelled of yeast and ferment.
Then she thought, it might be a useful thing to convince humans to keep peacocks as personal pets, something attractive and fashionable to be sat on a lap. They were pretty, but loud and disagreeable and prone to biting. But then she remembered that she had tried geese before; that had been something of a failure. Instead of keeping them as irritating pets that liked to bite, humans domesticated them. That was a hard day in Hell, explaining why the project had failed as very few humans seemed interested in bringing one into their home, even though she had tried her best to make it seem desirable. Fortunately Asmodeus had been there to spin it in such a way that it seemed like a triumph, bringing angry bitey flappy creatures into human settlements, ones that were often more trouble than they were worth eating. And once she remembered how poorly the geese had gone, she decided she needed another project.
A method of devaluing silver and gold coins? Realigning the King’s Road to go through a malarial swamp? A new and exciting food trend that involved something that would be very dangerous to hunt and would be even more dangerous to eat. Even more new and exciting ways of generating bureaucratic paperwork, perhaps something like needing specially numbered tokens to attend certain important events, and paying extra just for the tokens. Maybe even paying extra to pay someone for the tokens...
But then over time the project ideas dried up, and she found herself sleeping away much of the day to pass the time.
Often Crowley took naps in the garden on a hard stone bench beneath the sycamore tree, not daring to sleep on the grass for fear of mussing up the clothes that Asmodeus gave her. As the tree lost its golden leaves, she often woke covered in a fall of crisp leaves that crumbled between her fingertips. In the winter, she would brush off the piled-high snow and lie down, feeling the damp stone beneath her back, dozing off in the icy sunlight until Asmodeus himself would bring her back in, shivering and chilled through. He would drape a heated blanket around her shoulders, scolding her for her carelessness, bringing her in to warm up by the hearth or with him in the bed. In the spring, she slept under budding leaves until thunder and soft rains that dripped down her cheeks woke her from her slumber. In the summer, in the heat of midday, she dozed under a sun-dappled green canopy of leaves for as long as she could, until Asmodeus came to wake her, to draw her out of her dreaming daze.
She slept and her dreams took her away from her life. Often she dreamt of the past, of a time when Aziraphale had spirited her away from Asmodeus’ island, the angel’s arms firm around her waist and beneath her knees. Had it been worth quarreling with Aziraphale? Would it be so hard to just do what Aziraphale wanted? What it seemed like he wanted? Perhaps all Aziraphale needed was someone to guide him; he didn’t fraternize with the humans, not as the Fallen did. Not that she knew of, anyway. Perhaps it was just a matter of letting him lead far enough so that she knew for certain that it was what he wanted, and then taking over; perhaps the angel had no experience and needed guidance. But then after all this time, why now? How had things changed?
She had been right, she thought. Asmodeus making contact with Aziraphale made everything so much harder for them.
And when she realized that, finally she started wondering what Asmodeus had said to Aziraphale, before she had come along.
Sometimes as she laid down on the bench watching the birds, they would land on her body, perched on a knee, a shoulder. Sometimes a bold one would try to steal a strand of hair; that was never possible, but it would try, tugging at a single long hair until she shooed it off with a wave of her hand.
One morning as she lay watching the birds flirt and flit about the winter-bare branches of the tree, a rock dove landed on her breast and it settled there as if brooding, its soft gray feathers reminding her of another pair of white wings that she had not seen in some time.
The dove cooed, contented.
“Lucky. If only it were so easy to be happy,” Crowley muttered.
With a skeptical look in its orange eye, the rock dove preened and Crowley sighed. That was the kind of look Aziraphale was a master of, and this dove could not come anywhere close to Aziraphale.
“Look, you can stay if you like but not for much longer. Can’t let it be known that a demon’s let you sit on them and live. What would that do to my reputation?”
The dove flapped its wings, feeling Crowley’s body move as she spoke, but stayed put.
“I should eat you. Is that what you want?” Crowley hissed, glaring at the dove with golden serpent’s eyes.
But the dove stayed, and before long Crowley reached out to it, to touch the tip of her finger to the gray feathers of the dove’s breast, noticing the subtle iridescent gleam of the feathers around its neck as she lightly stroked the bird.
Its feathers were soft, and Crowley felt a pang of emotion go through her.
“Reminds me...of the past. You should go, little bird. Don’t stay here with me. Here there is nothing but death and ruin.” Crowley sighed, thinking of Aziraphale, wishing that she could be back by Aziraphale’s side. “After all, I am here at his will, until he’s done with me. Then and only then can I return to my own life.”
With a fluttering of wings the dove launched itself into the air, and Crowley sighed, plucking a gray feather off her black dress.
Twirling it between her fingers, she looked at it thoughtfully until she fell asleep again.
Chapter 11: The Messenger
When the moon was very bright, Aziraphale came over to Crowley’s place to water the plants. It was a dry winter, so Crowley’s garden was looking a little wilted. A little tender care was all that it needed, and with water and love the garden was looking as good as when Crowley was here himself. He trimmed the plants and the trees, making sure that things would not be too different for Crowley once he returned home.
If he returned home.
That was always the problem, wasn’t it? That they could be reassigned at a moment’s notice. That perhaps that last conversation they had could have been their last conversation. Recall to Heaven or Hell. A new assignment somewhere else. The world was both a very small and a very big place, and it was easy to not run into his counterpart for years, decades...even a century or more.
Anxiety gnawed at Aziraphale’s bones, fearing the worst, but there was nothing he could do, so he just let the feeling pass through him as best he could, as everything else did, and focused on task at hand. Watering the plants, refilling the bucket from the well, trudging through the familiar stone paths in the garden.
Once he was done with that, he went home and waited for the sunrise.
In the mornings when warm sunlight began to stream into his house, Aziraphale liked to eat his breakfast out in the courtyard and watch the birds that came to his garden, perching on the trees and shrubs, gliding down onto the ground to peck amongst the greenery for their sustenance.
This morning as Aziraphale nibbled on his breakfast, a particularly thin rock dove flapped down, landing beside him and it seemed to Aziraphale that it was underweight, emaciated, as if it had burned off all its fat reserves on a long flight.
The dove gave him a skeptical look with a bright orange eye, and Aziraphale sighed, remembering Crowley’s golden serpent-slitted eyes. It would take far more than a mere rock dove to come anywhere close to those scowly skeptical looks of Crowley’s. He took a bit of bread from his breakfast and reached out to the hungry bird.
But instead of pecking at the morsel, the rock dove hopped forward onto Aziraphale’s outstretched hand and opening its beak, began to speak.
“’After all, I am here at his will, until he’s done with me. Then and only then can I return to my own life.’” And then the rock dove’s beak closed with an audible click. It hopped down out of his hand and onto the ground, pecking hungrily at the dropped bread that had slipped out of Aziraphale’s lax hand.
“...well, goodness.” If ever that was a Crowley message, it certainly was clear; the bird even spoke in Crowley’s voice.
Aziraphale didn’t know such a thing was possible; that birds could be used to send messages and in particular, a message this exacting. It must have been a mistake on Crowley’s part, accidentally shifting his will onto a bird who had come to Aziraphale as fast as possible. The message that it brought was nothing new, nothing that he didn’t already know; Aziraphale had known from the beginning that there was nothing that could be done but to be patient. But it gave him a little hope, knowing that Crowley had not been recalled to Hell, and that he was waiting out an assignment to come back to his place in Ephesus. Or at least to be on his own again.
Even if it was Asmodeus…
Aziraphale felt a tremor pass through his body.
“If only I could send you back to Crowley with a message of my own,” Aziraphale said gently to the rock dove. But he knew it was a foolish thought; there was no way he could send this emaciated bird back. For one, it was poorly and would probably die before it made it back to Crowley and for another, it was too dangerous. A Prince of Hell had no compunctions against killing humans out of hand, much a bird. It wouldn’t be fair to this bird who had been accidentally caught up in something far bigger than it.
So Aziraphale sighed and got up. He went inside and dug through his pantry, finding some shelled walnut meat, dried figs, and the rind of a hard cheese that he broke up into little bits with his hands to feed this poor little messenger who had come so far and had so little to give.
Chapter 12: Free Will
When sleeping in the garden wasn’t enough or when it became too much, Crowley would wander the house.
Asmodeus’ house was something more like a minor palace than a mere home, and Crowley often found herself looking through the rooms, investigating the art. Fine, elegant furniture from Egypt made of ebony inlaid with silver. A brazen statue of Asmodeus, but as an archaic kouros from somewhere in the Hellenic world. A stone wall panel depicting a muscular angel pollinating a sacred tree, and Crowley often wondered which of the angels it was, fallen or otherwise, that had been captured doing the work of the Lord, whether divine or infernal. She hadn’t done this work and it was certainly not Aziraphale, and so she wondered. A Prince of Hell, perhaps? An Archangel? Someone who sometimes had a raptor’s head, someone with a beard. So many possibilities.
Often she found herself spending her time in Asmodeus’ library, reading through a vast collection of works from all over the world. While it was hard to keep practicing all the human languages, Crowley found it easy to relax and let the meaning of the words flow into her, even if she could not quite read the specific words. That was the trick to languages; it had very little to do with how things were said but their meaning, and she could always grasp that and convey it even if she never learned the language. Only someone like Aziraphale would go to the lengths of learning to speak the actual words, as opposed to speaking the meaning directly to the humans and having it spoken back to them.
As for the humans, the Prince of Hell’s slaves did all the work of keeping house. Even though everything could be miraculously adjusted to Asmodeus’ taste, he kept human servants. But they were strange and so deeply in thrall that they hardly spoke and could not answer simple questions unless it had to do with basic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, or fetching.
Yet sometimes when Crowley spoke to them, she could see the fear straining behind their glazed eyes, and knew that they knew they were enthralled but could not break free. However she felt about it, there was nothing that she could do. Like the drapery, the statues, the ceramics, and all the other ornaments in the house, they belonged to Asmodeus. And like the gold and jewels and the gown upon her body, she belonged to him too.
And so working hard to please Asmodeus’ will, straining toward perfection, smiling brightly when he called to her even as she hid her true feelings within her heart, Crowley spent her days in quiet tension.
But nights were the worst, because she could never know when she would be called upon to stop time for him.
Her eyes were full of sorrow, of fear, and the lines of pain, of suffering were starting to etch delicately into her face, along the edges of her lips, her eyes. There was no more jubilant expression in her face, no more happiness, not even feigned acceptance, and Crowley felt a pang of pity as the bride walked past her yet again, the long flowing veil brushing against the backs of Crowley’s hands as the human passed by.
Crowley rubbed her hands, and went through the motions of what was expected from her until Asmodeus left her alone again, to listen and stand witness to what she could not avert.
Pacing the narrow entry just outside of the bridal chamber, it seemed that Crowley could feel the reproachful eyes of the human groom upon her, even though he could not hear her.
She snarled, even though it was futile, at the person who was frozen in a moment of time, the human who had been eager to meet a bride that would only bring him death. The human wouldn’t remember. Even if he did, it wouldn’t matter much. After all, he would be dead soon.
“Don’t blame me,” Crowley hissed, glaring at the groom as she shivered, hearing the bride’s soft whimpers from the other room. “You’re the one who made this choice; no one told you to marry a woman whose previous husbands before her died unexpectedly on the wedding night. Just because her father’s rich and she has no brothers doesn’t mean that you should have put greed before common sense. After all, you’re a human. You can make your own decisions. You have free will. That’s more than I’ve got. More than I’ll ever have.”
And then Crowley realized that what she herself had was still more than the poor young woman in the next room. Because even she could tell Asmodeus no, even if Asmodeus didn’t listen. And this young woman could not even do that.
With a sound of frustration deep in her throat, Crowley crumpled to the floor, and for a moment her form wavered as she briefly lost control of which body she should be in until she remembered who she was expected to be.
Chapter 13: A Veil of Black Feathers
“Wake up,” Asmodeus gave her a shake, and Crowley snapped into consciousness, shivering as she sat up. It seemed to take her a long moment to realize that she was outdoors and that she was cold, that the late autumn wind was cutting through her clothes and that she had not been comfortable on this barren stone bench, not in a long time. Perhaps not ever.
He draped a heavy woolen coat over her shoulders, the fabric heated by some infernal means, and quickly she felt the shivering go away.
The sound of the wind blowing through the golden leaves of the sycamore tree seemed almost like the gentle soughing of the waves of the Aegean and for a moment the longing for her own place in Ephesus was so intense that Crowley felt tears welling up in her eyes.
“You spend all day here. Why?”
Crowley shrugged, staring down at her feet as she blinked away the tears. There was nothing that she could say that wouldn’t draw his ire, so she said nothing.
“Do you particularly like this garden? This bench?”
Crowley shook her head.
“Then why don’t you do something else?” The Prince of Hell looked away from her, even as he buttoned her coat.
“Like what?” Her voice sounded dead to herself, and she winced, wondering if he had noticed. The thought of trying to find something new to read in Asmodeus’ library filled her with dread, and the thought of finding something new to look at in this high-walled compound was even worse. She prayed that he would not want to play a game, or worse yet, talk.
Asmodeus said nothing for a long moment, and straightened the coat about her shoulders once he buttoned it up.
“Fine. You have my permission to go out about Ecbatana as you please,” Asmodeus said, grudgingly.
“Really?” Crowley’s expression brightened, and she couldn’t help but smile.
“Really.” Asmodeus stroked his hand along her cheek, turning her face up to him. His eyes were unreadable, but he looked directly into her eyes as though they could tell him something that she couldn’t, and it didn’t even bother her.
The moment she stepped outside of the gates of his grand house, Crowley took a deep breath, feeling as free as that first day on Earth when she was sent on her first assignment here, free from the stifling confines of Hell and its vicious petty hierarchies. With great joy she thought about wandering through the markets, the temples, the neighborhoods, but then realized that she had something far more important to do.
Immediately she went to find the house where all the troubles began. It was easy to trace her steps back to the bride’s family home; the assignments had always started there and followed the wedding party to the groom’s house. Those other homes would have been much harder to find, Crowley thought, as she had mostly tried to forget or had forgotten the other houses, but she could not forget this one.
The hard part, of course, was figuring out which room the young woman was in, and so Crowley strolled in, careful to keep herself hidden from human eyes. But then the first room she walked into from the outer courtyard, a receiving room, was fortuitously occupied. From the richly embroidered tasseled coat and the gold-chased silver rhyton in his hand filled with fine wine, it was evident that this was the master of the house, and so she froze him with a snap of her fingers.
“All right,” Crowley hissed. “Let’s take the direct route.”
Walking over to the man, she looked directly into his eyes and gently eased time back as she hypnotized him with a serpent’s gaze.
“Father of the bride, forbid your child from marriage. Refuse to agree to any man’s suit, no matter how lucrative. This has gone on too long as it is. Too much blood has been shed. You must stop it.”
“No,” the human said in a daze.
“No?!” Crowley was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“My master commands me to give her away in marriage. I need someone from my father’s tribe to marry her in order to inherit the family business...someone of the faith, someone suitable. No foreign man shall have her. I have no son, no other child to be my heir, and I need a close relative or other kindred to give my daughter a proper home. I cannot give my child away to strangers, to fornication and loss and poverty...”
“The way this has been going, you won’t have much more family left to inherit the family anything!” Crowley snapped, but then realized what question she really should be asking. “Who is your master?”
“I do not know his name and have only seen him once in my dreams, but he has hair like torch fire.”
“Asmodeus!” Crowley snarled, her fists clenched. She paced a short angry circle and somehow managed not to kick the furniture. There was nothing she could do to override Asmodeus’ command, nothing she could do to bypass Asmodeus’ power over the human’s mind; it would take an angel to undo a compulsion placed by a demon lord. Not for the first time she wished that Aziraphale was by her side.
Crowley heaved a sigh of frustration and then came back to the human.
“Wake in an hour, remember nothing.”
The human said nothing. Crowley glared at him for a moment longer, and then left him where he was standing, in a daze.
She wandered through the house, peeking into rooms. Here were the kitchens, where the servants were getting the evening meal ready. There, storage rooms for food, for goods, for all the fine trade items that were sent off to the distant eastern lands or brought from there. Crowley had some trouble finding the young woman until she remembered that the women in this part of the world would live in their own wing of the house, separate from the ordinary day-to-day maintenance of the home.
So she went upstairs.
She found the young woman alone in the waning light of day, a frail figure half-hidden by shadow, kneeling beside her bed, narrow but with a heavy dark wooden frame decorated with carvings. Her black mourning clothes had been set aside, hanging listless over the elegantly curved back of a chair. She was in a thin colorless linen shift despite the cold autumn wind that came through the high slit of a window, and she glanced over at the new gown that awaited her, draped across the bed. It was the color of pomegranates and its brilliant color was a splash of crimson against the pale bedclothes.
“Father won’t listen. He’s set on it, no matter what. Even begging won’t-”
But then she turned away, and she was praying, her hands outstretched.
Crowley watched her for a long time, unable to hear the words distinctly. But as she turned her head toward the dying light, Crowley saw that her cheeks gleamed with tears.
“...you know, O Master, that I am innocent of any defilement with a man. I have never knowingly done any wrong. But...again I have had that dream. A nightmare where a great serpent has embraced me, many times, and I don’t know what it means...” And she collapsed upon her own arms, her choked sobs muffled against the bed.
“If I could free you, I would,” Crowley said, her voice catching in her throat. But there was nothing that she could do for the human that would not leave something of herself that Asmodeus could recognize, a hint of her powers.
The young woman whispered her prayers fervently, and then sighed.
“Why should I still live?” Her voice quavered.
The words sent a chill through Crowley and later when she looked back upon it, she realized that it was in this exact moment that she knew what she ultimately had to do.
Exhausted, the young woman collapsed against the bed, her head resting against her arms, and soon Crowley heard only the soft, even sounds of her breaths as she slept, a troubled dreamless sleep.
Crowley sat down on the floor beside the young woman, and put her arms around the thin shoulders. But it was not enough, so she unfolded her wings, shrouding them in a veil of black feathers.
Even in her sleep, tears seeped from her eyes and so Crowley stayed by her side as the young woman wept, holding her close, the human’s head resting on her shoulder, a heavy burden. That was as much as she dared to do; Crowley had already tried her best for the human but there was no way around it.
“Right now it looks hopeless,” Crowley said softly, knowing the human could not hear her but speaking anyway. Feeling dampness against her neck, she brushed a stray tear from the young woman’s face and it clung to her finger like a jewel. “But I promise you that I will release you from him. Whatever it takes.”
Chapter 14: Prayers
When it was over and the groom’s blood stained the floor, Asmodeus offered Crowley his arm gallantly.
“Who were you talking to, my darling?”
“Just muttering to myself as always, lord,” Crowley said defiantly, though she took Asmodeus’ arm and let him lead her out of the bridal chamber.
“Very amusing. Next time stay quiet, I don’t want to trouble my lovely virgin. She already has a lot on her hands,” Asmodeus smirked.
“My lord, the humans know.” Crowley looked up to Asmodeus, intentionally meeting his eyes in the dimly lit hallway. “They remember, even if we tell them not to. It’s something we can’t control. Don’t you think it would be best to let her go? She knows what’s been going on...they all do.”
“I can see it in their eyes. Even when they’re enthralled, they know that they’re being controlled. And the longer it lasts, the worse it is on them. Have you ever followed up with those servants that you set free? Do they last long after you’re done with them?”
“Crawley...” Asmodeus hissed. “Are you questioning me?”
“No, my lord. Of course not. Not you. Why would I question you? Only...the method in general.” Crowley tensed, flinching back at Asmodeus’ anger. “Because...your lovely maiden might remember. Not while awake, not aware of it in the daylight hours perhaps but in her body and her dreams. Humans are strange like that. Their bodies remember more than their minds. And when it comes back...sometimes they hurt themselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“Knives. Poison. Hurling themselves off a high place. And if not that, they sometimes just wish for death and lose the will to live. I know. I’ve heard their prayers for centuries, just as you have. And their prayers are for death.”
“So it benefits us.” Asmodeus’ mouth moved into the cold parody of a smile, showing a mouthful of sharp teeth. “Why are you so concerned, darling? You know this isn’t the first time nor will it be the last time I’ll take a human as I like. After all, there are ever so many of them and they come and go in their season, like the fruit on the vine or the leaves on the trees. Besides, if this were not part of the Great Plan, wouldn’t I be thwarted? Wouldn’t the Almighty send some great champion to stop me? Wouldn’t someone hear and consider their prayers? Perhaps even answer them? No. Of course not. There are no miraculous interventions, my darling, not for anyone. No one is listening. Not even God.”
Crowley looked away.
Asmodeus took her by the wrist, pulling her out of the house and into the dark streets, his bright green eyes sharp with suppressed rage. “Remember that you are a demon. Not just a fallen angel.”
“As if I could forget.”
There was no regular pattern to the mornings when the messengers arrived. But as time passed, Aziraphale was slowly gathering a menagerie of birds of all sorts that had flown the long journey from Crowley. Rock doves, sparrows, starlings, larks, wrens, crows, magpies, swans, geese, a green parrot, a woodpecker, a hoopoe, a crane, two vultures, a golden eagle, a sharp-eyed falcon, long-legged black storks, and even a pale pink flamingo and a very tired quail that had walked for ages to get to him, all gathered in his yard. He had to make two or three trips a day to the markets some days just to feed them all; they left only after they were rehabilitated and strong enough to fly away.
The messages were never very long, and they were often unhelpful. But it was a connection, and Aziraphale was grateful for it, no matter how tenuous. He kept a new roll of papyrus upon which he would carefully write the messages that he received.
“’I wonder how he’s doing. Do you think he’s happy?’” A lark had said.
A black swan, in Crowley’s sardonic voice had said, “’If he could just be done with this stupid mania, I could go home.’”
“’I can’t stand this.’”
“’You can’t understand what it’s like being used like this.’”
“’I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
“’I thought I loved him. But perhaps it was just that he was the only one I was allowed to love.’”
“’Maybe it would be better if I was recalled permanently.’”
“’Do you think I could get a transfer and work for Beelzebub instead? Or anyone else for that matter.’”
“’He says he loves me.’”
“’What ways out are there?’”
“’Why must I keep doing this? Is he right? That it’s all part of the Great Plan if he’s allowed to kill all these people without divine interference?’”
“’I don’t think I can bear this much longer.’”
“’You can’t know what he’s made me do. I know it’s worse for her. I know I don’t have to stay in the same room but...she’s suffering too and I can’t stop him.’”
“’And still he calls it love. But I know what love is. Was. Back before the Fall there was plenty of it, and no one had to hoard it for themselves.’”
“’What ways out are there? How can I fly away like you do? Just having wings is not enough.’”
“’Why should I still live?’”
But no matter what he heard, no matter how many times he was left stunned, his eyes brimming with tears that he feared to shed under the watchful eye of Heaven, Aziraphale kept himself under control, and worked on feeding these tired and emaciated birds. That was something he could do, somewhere he could do something positive. There was no way he could intervene in the internal affairs of Hell, not without consequences from Heaven as well.
And so Aziraphale did what he could, staying busy, keeping himself occupied, knowing what he could not do.
Chapter 15: Consequences
“Does it matter?” Crowley strolled into the entry, cool eyes moving over the corpse splayed out on the floor.
“Yes it matters,” Asmodeus hissed. “Thanks to you I had to kill him first. Where have you been?”
“Why would it matter when you kill the bridegroom? Before or after, dead is dead,” Crowley said, her voice quavering at the end of the phrase.
“You said you’d meet me here, and that you knew where it was. So what is your excuse?”
Crowley shrugged, looking away. “Got none.”
Strong hands grabbed her shoulders, slamming her against the wall, and she gasped, finding herself facing Asmodeus, brilliant green eyes incandescent with rage.
“Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t punish you for this or any of your other past failures,” Asmodeus hissed.
Trembling, as tense as a strung harp string quavering in the wind, Crowley met his eyes. “I have no reasons. Why don’t you just send me to Beelzebub and get it over with? Have me locked up forever in the deepest pits of Hell. Or have them make me more obedient. Wouldn’t it be better if I were obedient to you always? If I had no mind of my own anymore, no memory of anything other than you. Then I’d never fail you. I’d be what you want me to be. My lord.”
“What are you saying?”
“That maybe...it would. Be better. If. If you sent me down to be...”
Asmodeus let her go abruptly, his eyes looking anywhere but at her. “I will forgive you this time. Do not fail me again.”
“Yes, my lord.” Crowley whispered, straightening her gown with shaking hands.
A shift in the energy in the room, and Aziraphale stood up, feeling something change. And upon his desk a small wax tablet appeared, glowing faintly for a moment before settling into ordinariness.
With trepidation, Aziraphale opened it, the wood yielding with a click.
“’Report to heaven immediately. Await further orders upon arrival.’” Aziraphale made a face, thinking that it certainly read like Michael, and upon further investigation noted that the orders were definitely written in the Archangel’s neat and precise hand.
But then he smiled; a summons to Heaven for new directives meant a change of scenery, and Aziraphale could almost kiss the tablet with gratitude, happy to be given something to do, something to stay busy with.
“Well, what can be done? Orders are orders,” he said aloud to himself, pleased to have something to do, and stepping out into the courtyard, he unfolded his wings and was off, heading for the nearest ladder.
Asmodeus waited, and yet there was still no sign of Crowley. Impatient, he slammed his fist against the wall, cracking the plaster, and yet she was still not here. She was late again.
“Crawley,” he hissed, angry. “This won’t do at all. There are consequences for your failures.”
At that moment, the door opened, and the groom walked in, his face hidden by a fold of his black cloak. He was tall for a human and slim, and he walked in with the foolish confidence of youth in his step, as if eager to meet his bride.
Or his doom.
In his wrath, Asmodeus struck out with a viper’s long fangs, piercing the human’s vitals in one quick blow.
He licked his lips, tasting hot, fresh blood.
The human stumbled, his hands reaching out to stabilize himself on the wall. Asmodeus stepped back, watching the death with cold, dispassionate eyes. How very similar deaths were, and also very different, both at once. Some cried, some pleaded, some struggled, some resigned themselves to their fate. But death came for all mortals. This one was a little different, he made no sound, not even one of surprise or hurt, and all Asmodeus heard was the harsh sound of his breathing as he slowly succumbed.
And then as the human thrashed about in the last throes of death, of pain, the body struggling to stay alive, the fold of the human’s cloak fell back from his head, revealing a long fall of crimson hair, and Asmodeus realized that he had made a grave mistake.
“Asmodeus...” Crowley gasped, clutching his chest as the blood ran through his fingers, stumbling forward.
“Crawley, why did you…!” Asmodeus caught Crowley in his arms but it was too late; Crowley’s eyes were already fixed in his head, and the body grew limp as the last of the air escaped the lungs.
Asmodeus felt something in his throat catch, the beginning of a snarl, perhaps, or something else. He clutched Crowley close to him for a long time in the dim light of the entry chamber, feeling the warmth slowly seeping from the still corpse.
The corpse meant nothing; it was no more than a discarded shell, and he heaved a sigh, realizing that he now had to answer for the discorporation. There was nothing he could do but leave for Hell.
After all, there were consequences for failures.
Asmodeus glanced back at the corpse. He already felt regret for the loss of that lovely body, which he had known for so many eons now that it was as familiar to him as if it were an extension of himself. And now it was discarded, like so much rubbish left for the humans to clean up.
With a hiss of frustration he gestured sharply, disappearing with a flicker of yellow flame.
Chapter 16: A Very Big Fish
Nineveh was nice this time of year. Early autumn meant that it was not too hot, and Aziraphale cheerfully made it down the ladder to the rendezvous point. It would be an easy job: a little travel, some minor blessings, a healing, and a happy ending all around for the humans. Though it would be even easier if he was allowed to do as he wanted to, which is immediately apply the healings and the blessings, which would dispense with much of the travels, but as they said in head office, humans had to do some toil and suffering first in order to earn the miracles in their lives and not expect it from Heaven just because they asked for it. And even then, asking for it or toiling and suffering for it was hardly enough; the dispensation of miracles always seemed quite arbitrary to Aziraphale, often going not to those who were modest and quietly needed help, but those who could be counted on to spread the ideologies and teachings of Heaven.
It was easy enough to find the young man, Tobias son of Tobit, and easy enough to convince the young man and his parents that he was a kinsman by name of Azariah and would make an excellent travel companion. The hard part of course, was that the young man was not an excellent travel companion, too naive, awkward, and set in his own ways to let the course of the traveling road take him on an adventure.
Between the preparation and the supplies and the asses and the fish that tried to eat Tobias’ foot in the river, Aziraphale was finding himself a little short on temper and long on wanting to lay down some petty miracles to make this trip go faster.
“Do you think I’m going to lose my foot?” Tobias fretted, as Aziraphale washed the young man’s foot, examining the little pink marks made by the fish’s mouth in the fading evening light.
“Oh, I highly doubt it. Carp don’t have teeth. I think you’ll live,” Aziraphale said gently.
“Blessed be G-d!” Tobias sighed, leaning back against his outstretched hands, the little dog that followed him licking at his fingers. “Brother Azariah, I probably should have told you, but my parents said I should be careful telling anyone this. I know you’re a kinsman but...they said I should be careful anyway, no matter what. But I know I can trust you. You see, I’m my father’s only son and the only hope for my family’s survival. If I can’t get the money back for my father or if I can’t work...I don’t know what I’d do. So I can’t mess this up. I shouldn’t have put my foot in the river like that to wash it off, it’s not safe. I know I should have drawn water from the river first in a vessel, but it just looked so inviting and I thought, what’s the harm? And then I nearly lost my foot or my life. I really messed up, didn’t I?”
“It’s all right,” Aziraphale said gently. “You’re allowed to make mistakes. And besides, this isn’t necessarily a mistake. You caught us dinner, for one, though in a rather unorthodox way.”
“Thank you, Brother Azariah,” Tobias blushed faintly, looking embarrassed. “Still, I’m very sorry about-”
“No more apologies.” Aziraphale patted Tobias’ foot. “Forgive yourself as you would forgive others; you’re not better or worse than your friends. Wait until your feet dry off before you put your shoes back on, and we’ll go get supper started. Nothing’s finer than fire-roasting a carp fresh from the Tigris.”
“Ooh, I love roasted Tigris carp! Back home my mother makes it with all the condiments and...” Tobias’ expression changed. “I...I’ve never been this far from home before. Not without my parents.”
Aziraphale smiled at him reassuringly. “It was bound to happen some day. Think of it as an adventure.”
“But...won’t that change things? Change me?” Tobias wiggled and then cracked his toes. “I think I can already feel something in me change from being on my own, and from seeing new things.”
“It’s hardly been a full day away and we haven’t even gotten past the first night, child,” Aziraphale said, amused, but then he noticed the worry in Tobias’ expression. “Though you are right, travel does bring about change in people. But the change won’t be so bad, I promise; travel helps one grow into the person they were meant to be.”
“By offering new perspectives, and new ways of looking at the world. New sights, new friends...old friends too, sometimes.” Aziraphale smiled to himself, not even a motion of his lips, thinking about the past.
An old memory surfaced, not so much a memory as a feeling, of moving through water, of song, and he wondered what it meant and what it was a memory of until it slipped away, forgotten again.
“Well, are your feet dry? We should get to preparing the fish for dinner. There’s something I want you to do with some of the fish’s inner organs, if you’re willing to listen to me.”
Tobias eagerly put on his shoes. “Sure thing, Brother Azariah. And you know, maybe you’re right. This is an adventure. But a good one, one blessed by G-d. For after all, were we not provided with a bountiful supper that we can share with others less fortunate and that is also pareve?”
They weren’t the only ones camping along this stretch of the river, but they were the only ones who had caught a carp easily the size of a man, and so it turned into something of a feast; all the neighboring camps were invited over for supper and Aziraphale watched with fondness as the humans organized themselves, some making bread in the coals of their cook fires, others chopping fragrant onions and garlic and parsley to make condiments for the fish, many pouring out cups of beer, sharing food and drink.
Aziraphale glanced over at Tobias in the flickering light of the fire. He seemed to have dozed off where he stood, a slack hand lightly touching a stick that had been prodding the fire. At his feet, the little dog dozed, legs twitching in the midst of a dream.
A long day, Aziraphale thought with a smile, and he was about to say something to wake the boy, but then Tobias looked up and gave Aziraphale a brilliant smile with a strangely familiar expression that pierced him to the core.
“You know, angel, smaller fish make for better eating. The meat gets tough and dry the bigger they get and the fact that they need to be cooked longer doesn’t improve upon it. And carp are always muddy tasting, not as good as sea fish or really anything that doesn’t make its living in the mud. Like Nile perch. Always tastier than Nile catfish. And I’d say it’s better steamed with fresh ginger and scallions and salty jiang than roasted with chopped onions and garlic. I like the way they cook fish much better on the other side of the world.”
“...Crowley!” Aziraphale’s breath caught in his throat. “Good lord, what are you doing here?”
“Long story. Where am I?” Tobias looked around with that look of sharp curiosity in his eyes that Crowley often had and Aziraphale felt something inside him loosen, as if a tight-wound knot had lost some of its tension.
“In a young man named Tobias. A day’s journey south of Nineveh. How did you do this?”
“Eh, you know. Possession. It’s a thing.”
“A thing.” Aziraphale said dryly. “Merely a thing?”
Tobias, or rather, Crowley, shrugged. “You know, a thing. A demon thing.”
“Well, they don’t have to be receptive. They just have to be, eh, uh...you know, alive. Preferably human. It helps that he’s asleep. Made it easy to just dip in. And I don’t know why I’m here or how I got here. I just didn’t want to be in Hell and well, here I am.”
“Did just you say ‘dip in’? You’re not...treating this as if you’re visiting someone’s house, are you? Crowley, this is a human being you’re in! You can’t just ‘dip in’ to them for a visit! That’s...”
“Yes, yes, demonic.”
“I was going to say ‘rude’. You should ask permission first.”
“I don’t mean to be rude. And I’m a demon, asking permission isn’t exactly my thing.”
Aziraphale sighed. “All right, fine. Good point. What are you doing here then?”
“Really, I don’t know what I’m here for. Just needed a ride, and lo and behold, a ride appeared.”
“But how are you doing this?”
“Couldn’t tell you. Seems natural, honestly.” Tobias, no Crowley, held out his hands, turning them to and fro, examining the corporeal form that he was now in.
Aziraphale lowered his voice to the barest of whispers, absolutely scandalized. “Crowley, where’s your body?”
“Discorporated. Long story. What’s for supper?”
Chapter 17: The Stars
Fires banked, the camps along the Tigris fell quiet as people settled down for the night. But the night itself was not silent, broken by the sound of the swift current of the Tigris lapping the shore, the flutter of autumn leaves in the wind, the flitting of bats among the trees, and the occasional cry of night birds as they sang their duets of love.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Aziraphale said softly, keeping his voice down as he banked the fire and lay down beside Crowley, careful not to be too close.
“Hmmm?” Crowley looked at him through Tobias with bright eyes and a soft expression that Aziraphale felt down to the tips of his toes.
“The stars. They’re beautiful tonight.”
“They’re always beautiful.” Crowley gestured toward the sky as if he could touch the stars with the tips of his fingers. “Sometimes on breaks I’d wander off and sit on a good sized asteroid, preferably one going the wrong direction, lying down or leaning against the rock, just tumbling through space, watching all the stars streak by my eyes. Used to get hilariously dizzy. Of course, head office didn’t find it particularly hilarious.”
“I think I did that too! At least once. I remember the stars tumbling past my eyes...”
“And the soft dust that was stirred up when you’d lie down.”
“And the fine dust between your fingers, just floating all around in little specks…”
Crowley’s hand reached out to him, barely brushing against Aziraphale’s hand before drawing back and Aziraphale felt it like fire from heaven, like electricity zinging across his skin.
“Sorry. Forgot myself. Literally.” Crowley sighed. “Since I’m not myself and merely going along for the ride. It would be rude, taking free will away from a human being like that.”
“If that was the case you wouldn’t be possessing him,” Aziraphale said tartly, but then immediately regretted his words.
Crowley shrugged, and Aziraphale could hear the soft rustle of cloth moving as Tobias’ sleeping body shifted. “Didn’t mean to, really. A little possession, that’s all.”
“I don’t think any possession is good.”
“Just didn’t feel like listening to the arguing down in Hell. There was a lot of it after I was discorporated. Beelzebub will be shouting for days. Weeks. Years, maybe.”
“How...did it happen? If I may ask.”
“Oh you know...eh, er...um. An accident.”
“Oh bother, I’m so sorry. I hope it wasn’t too unpleasant. Seems like it would hurt quite a bit to be discorporated. I’ve never had it happen to myself but I have been at the trainings on what to do when one is discorporated. Well, what to do afterwards, where they teach you how to fill out the proper documentation. Oh, what about the documentation? How many tablets do you suppose it’ll take? Upstairs, it seems like it’s nearly enough to build a wall around Uruk. Well, a section of a wall.”
Crowley laughed, loud enough to wake the sleeping dog that curled up between them, which got up and looked around briefly to make sure that everything was all right before turning thrice and curling back up to sleep. “Documentation? That’s Asmo- that’s...that’s a problem for the Prince of Hell that I report to, not my problem. It’s his fault anyway.”
“Crowley.” Aziraphale’s voice dropped to a startled whisper. “What happened?”
“Oh, just an accident. Erm, you know...things. Things happen in the course of diabolical business. Not a big deal, really.” There was a strange note of tension in Crowley’s voice, and Aziraphale realized that he was not about to be pressed on the matter. “So you said Heaven’s still using clay tablets? Really, after all this time? We’ve been on papyrus for ages. You should mention it to one of your superiors. Tell them your surveillance picked up that Hell is keeping records on papyrus. The jealousy would make them make the switch. I’m surprised they haven’t switched already.”
“Oh they know about it. I was Upstairs recently and overheard them discussing switching to papyrus. Michael argued that Hell had been using it for years and Heaven should upgrade, but Gabriel said he already knew that and that the tablets were more stable and easier to store. The things I hear when I’m early for a meeting. Well, overhear. I suppose even if we do go on the papyrus standard, implementation will take a century or more.”
“At that rate, some human might figure out something better than even papyrus and head offices will be spending all their time migrating from one type of documentation to another.”
“You’d think it’d be a miraculous thing, data entry, but even Heaven can’t handwave that. There are cadres of angels just for documentation.”
“Ten million demons minus a handful have to have something to do with their time.”
“So very true. Even our jobs generate enough documentation to keep many of them busy for a long time.”
“How many angels do you think could dance on the tip of a stylus?” Crowley asked dryly, and Aziraphale laughed.
“Crowley!” Azirphale said, scandalized.
Crowley found himself giggling.
“But wait, isn’t papyrus liable to go up in smoke?” Aziraphale asked.
“Oh yes, that’s part of the draw, really. Just imagine it; you’re an ordinary demon at a desk job, carefully transcribing a large and lengthy description of an assignment on Earth with notes and annotations. It takes hours, maybe days to properly write it up to standard. Proud, you turn your work into the nearest Duke of Hell, who upon seeing a misplaced aleph or a wobbly ayin and obliterates the entire text between one heartbeat and the next. Oh well, time to start all over again, can’t be helped, this work can’t be done in a reasonable amount of time.”
“How...absolutely infernal,” Aziraphale gasped.
“Things get lost in the drafts. That’s usually good for me, until it’s not.”
“Really. How does Hell manage?”
Crowley shrugged. “Eh, seems to work. I’ve seen it myself. What about you, Heaven must have some protocols like that?”
“I don’t...know? I’m not Upstairs more than I have to be, and I’ve never really seen the work that goes on behind the scenes. They keep all that messiness out of the way, hidden from view. At most, I might hear the Archangels talking but...I don’t think it’s ever anything important. Trivial things, really, things that aren’t important at all. Important matters are done privately in the Assembly of Heaven.”
“Dark Council meetings are open to any observers. Of course, not a lot go because if there are any real secrets that come up at those meetings, you’re bound to be locked up or destroyed for hearing it.”
“Oh dear. Have you ever been?”
“Yeah, a couple times,” Crowley shrugged.
“How did you manage not to be destroyed?” Aziraphale asked anxiously.
“Nah, it wasn’t like that. You can’t be destroyed if you’re on the other side of the gallery.”
“Other side? You mean...”
“Eh, no big deal, just standing in for As-, er, that is, for the boss. Casting lots on his behalf while he’s off doing something important.”
“Really. He trusts you with that?”
“Oh, he tells me beforehand what he wants me to say for him and what he wants me to do in his name. There are no surprises at these things; the agendas are set out months in advance. I don’t have any opinions on the matters. At least, I’m not supposed to have any expressed opinions.”
“I’m amazed that you were sent into something so important.”
“Usually the Duke of Hell that serves that particular Prince would fill in but. Well, Ligur was busy too, so I was sent to fill in.”
“My dear boy, I didn’t know you were so close to the seat of power.” Aziraphale gave him an appraising look. “I’m rather impressed.”
Crowley waved it off. “Not so much highly ranked as highly favored. Or more likely, put in that position to irk someone powerful, probably another Prince of Hell. I don’t know about their wrangling, but I do know that Asmodeus treads a fine line.”
“Oh?” Aziraphale brightened up.
“Shouldn’t talk about it, internal affairs. Well, infernal ones too, if you really must know.”
Crowley’s eyes grew distant, thoughtful.
“It’s a shame you can’t inhabit my body,” Aziraphale said suddenly. “I’d share but it is probably dangerous for both of us.”
“Pity,” Crowley said. “Would probably discorporate you or explode the both of us.”
“A shame. I’d think it’d be quite nice to spend time with you, tucked into that nice soft body of yours. I bet it’s all lovely and warm,” Crowley said without thinking, and then realizing what had been said out loud, tried to duck away.
“Never you mind. Look, it’s almost daylight. Time for me to step aside. I’ll let the human have the waking hours. Wouldn’t want to trouble a good and filial son too much; I think he’d plotz if he knew he was being possessed by a demon.”
“Yes, rather. Please try to stay out of the way when he’s awake; I wouldn’t want him to think that his faith isn’t enough. They tend to believe that a lack of faith or some other character defect is what brings on possessions.”
“Frankly, it’s not a matter of faith; it’s just a matter of availability. Any body would do in a pinch.”
“Could you possess the dog?”
“Yes, but there’d rather be less options for conversation without the right physiology. Besides, two legs are already enough trouble to navigate when they’re my own, much less someone else’s. Four I would certainly spend tumbling about in an awkward circle.”
“A good point. Well, I had best pretend to be asleep; how close is Tobias to waking?”
“Ten, fifteen minutes?” Crowley shrugged. “Earlier if the birds get started and...oh there they go.”
With a yawn, Tobias turned over in his sleep, and Crowley’s voice was gone, as if Aziraphale had imagined it.
“’Lovely and warm’,” Aziraphale murmured to himself, as he closed his eyes, pulling the blanket over his shoulder. Sunlight slowly seeped in, the glow brightening so that he could see the light even with his eyes shut, and as the first birds of the morning began their cheerful songs to greet the rising sun, Aziraphale felt happier than he had in a very long time.
Chapter 18: An Arranged Marriage
When the weather was good, they walked. When it rained, they sometimes stayed the day indoors in sturdy mudbrick inns if the rain was too heavy, though often they found conveyance with wagoneers and caravans who were willing to let them hitch their asses alongside horses and camels, Bactrian and otherwise. Sometimes Aziraphale was lucky; Tobias would fall asleep on a swaying wagon and he’d have a few hours with Crowley. But most of the time, it was just Tobias.
As they made their way northeast away from Babylon, Aziraphale paused to turn back and look at the great walls towering in the distance, a human-made mountain with an unnaturally regular geometry, a dark splotch rising from the Tigris and Euphrates valley.
It reminded him of another journey ages ago when the world was still relatively new, one not quite so long as the one he was currently on, but with a familiar travel companion whose company he found himself yearning for. And that was a problem, wasn’t it? To wish for that tall slender companion in black who watched him closely with a serpent’s eyes, when he really ought to be getting along and doing his work and being a credit unto Heaven itself, instead of letting his thoughts wander to a snake-hipped stride that cared not for correct gait or posture or even the limitations of gravity.
Aziraphale sighed, his eyes fixed on Babylon.
“Brother Azariah, are you married?”
“Huh? What?” Aziraphale looked up, remembering where he was and what he was supposed to be doing.
“I was wondering if you’re married.”
“Oh. Why is that?” Aziraphale demurred. “Let’s keep walking.”
As the little dog danced merrily about their feet, they unhitched the reluctant asses from the thorny scrub and got back on the road, which was luckily still damp but not muddy, so that the dust which kicked up badly on dry days did not blind them or force them to breathe through cloths wound around their heads. Tobias said nothing for some time and as they walked, Aziraphale was relieved that he was in the clear.
But then after a long and considering quiet, the human spoke.
“Brother Azariah, before I left, my father gave me a long talk about marrying the right kind of person. Do you think that’s important to take into account before getting married?”
“I...don’t know. I suppose it would depend on what the conditions that he discussed were...I don’t know very much about all that, to be honest.”
“Were you married?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, unable to skirt the truth.
“Did someone give you a talk? How did you pick your bride? What was she like? Was she beautiful, Brother Azariah?”
“The way it worked for me was that it was arranged,” Aziraphale said carefully.
“Arranged? Who arranged it?”
“It was a long time ago.” Aziraphale smiled sadly to himself. “Before you were born. A bride was chosen for me, but it didn’t last very long.”
“No? I’m sorry to hear that. A lot of women die in childbirth,” Tobias said, with an earnest and serious expression. “I’ve heard people talk about that a lot.”
“It wasn’t that,” Aziraphale said. “But...she was not meant to live long. Nor was the union meant to last.”
“I don’t understand?”
“I don’t either,” Aziraphale admitted. “It was part of a Great...well, a bigger plan than I understand. I was married, we had a child, but. Well, business took me away from her before the child was born. After that, I don’t know what happened.”
“No. It was forbidden to know.”
“But doesn’t that mean that your son, and the sons of your sons-”
“Tobias, I don’t know if the child was a son or not. But I don’t think that generation ever continued on to begat anyone else. They were strong children, but perhaps too strong for this world.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, Brother Azariah.” Tobias’ brow furrowed.
“Well. It was a long time ago,” Aziraphale said. “And I was in a strange land filled with strangers.”
“Oh. Oh! No wonder father wanted me to marry the right kind of person, someone from our own people,” Tobias nodded sagely. “Foreign habits are strange and bad.”
“No, not always. Strange perhaps but...” Aziraphale sighed. “There is a reason for all those habits, and often it is just how humans adapted to their environment, to their circumstances.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“You haven’t had many travel opportunities,” Aziraphale smiled. “Now that you do, you’ll see why people do the things they do. The Egyptians wear linen kilts because of the heat and because it is too hot to work in coats. The Persians wear wool coats and long trousers because the hills and mountains are cold and besides, it’s too hard to ride a horse in a kilt. The Greeks sometimes wear nothing at all because they value hard exercise, and it is troublesome to wash garments.”
“And there are more, so many more that it would be nearly impossible to list them all. The world is a big place, with many people.” Aziraphale said gently. “I spoke only of a tiny faction of all the people in the world. Wherever there are people, there are different customs. I suppose we are accustomed to our own and prefer them over others, but it doesn’t mean that the others have no value.”
“So the differences aren’t good or bad,” Tobias said, “they’re just...differences.”
“Yes. Exactly.” Aziraphale smiled beatifically. “See, you’re already learning.”
Chapter 19: Delusion
Days he spent traveling with Tobias. Nights he spent talking with Crowley, as the human slept. Once they were past Babylon, they continued on their long journey along the Royal Road, heading northeast to Ecbatana, keeping to the margins of the road when swift horsemen with vital messages to or from the king of kings came galloping by with hoofbeats like thunder along the dusty road. Starting from a few days travel from Babylon, they didn’t have to camp as much and were able to stay in comfortable inns and caravanserai. Not needing money, Aziraphale spent all the wages he had been given as a chaperone on meals and housing.
Tonight a steady light rain fell, the high humidity leaving the walls damp with condensation. Moonlight streamed in from the tall narrow window, illuminating Tobias even as Aziraphale was in shadow.
“Where do you think the king is now?” Aziraphale wondered, his hand resting lightly on the little dog that slept curled up on his soft belly.
“Susa or Persepolis or Babylon? Ecbatana’s more of a summer retreat. Saw him there in the summer. Well, not the actual king in person. Just, you know, his entourage and household and such. City gets pretty busy once he’s in town.”
“Is Ecbatana cold in the winter?”
“Dreadful cold.” Crowley spoke without hesitation. “Absolutely miserable. Wind comes slicing off the mountains like a knife and cuts right through you.”
“You sound like you know it from experience.”
“Yeah, well.” Crowley’s eyes grew cold. “I may have been there once before.”
“What was it like?”
Crowley shrugged. “Eh, you know. A city. People, markets, temples...the usual. Nothing great, nothing terrible.”
“Ah.” And Aziraphale wondered if that meant Asmodeus had a house there. “Good accommodations?”
“Only the best,” Crowley said flatly, and then Aziraphale knew it for certain.
“Ah?” Crowley looked over.
Aziraphale’s mouth moved in a wry expression. “I suppose he has a house there. Your boss.”
Crowley couldn’t hide his surprise from Aziraphale, not for long, and it took him a moment before he could reply.
“You should pretend that you never considered that thought. Stay away, angel. He’s too dangerous. He could destroy you out of hand without a second thought.”
“Seems like that gives him rather too much credit, my dear.” Aziraphale felt the edge of malice sliding into his words.
“Promise me you’ll stay away. After all, I wouldn’t go back to him if I didn’t like it.”
Aziraphale huffed a sigh. “...my dear boy, you know that’s not really true. If you didn’t go back to him, you’d be hunted down as a traitor and destroyed. Isn’t that what they do to runaways? You’ve told me that before.”
“Yes, well,” Crowley muttered, looking away.
“Playing at free will is just what it is; play. You don’t have any, no more than I have. We were created to serve and we are bound to serve.”
Crowley said nothing.
“The least you could do is be honest with yourself. Or me.” Aziraphale said simply. “You needn’t indulge in self-delusion just to make me feel better.”
“Maybe that helps me live,” Crowley muttered. “Helps me feel better.”
“Delusion. It’s easier to pretend. Instead of thinking too hard about the truth.”
Silence, and all Aziraphale heard was the dripping of rain as it pattered softly on the eaves, giving life to the dry and dusty world beyond the walls.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to overstep any boundaries.”
Crowley waved it off. “It’s fine. Think I needed to hear that.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Crowley’s voice caught in his throat.
“No need to thank me, really. I-”
Crowley suddenly interrupted him. “You’re a good friend, Aziraphale.”
But before Aziraphale could answer, Tobias shifted and yawned, opening his eyes, blinking.
“What a strange dream,” Tobias said, his voice quavering. “I can’t remember it, but my eyes are all wet now.”
Chapter 20: A Mentor
“Excuse me,” Tobias said, frantically waving as the wagon passed them in the rain.
“I’m sure one will stop and let us on,” Aziraphale suggested, looking down the road pointedly, though it was a sure thing that he should not try to use too many miracles on the road now that he had a(nother) traveling companion, this time of the more demonic bent. He shifted the little dog in his arms, his hands holding onto the lead ropes of the asses. The dog managed to somehow stay miraculously dry. Aziraphale on the other hand was soaking wet.
“Do you think he heard me? Maybe we should switch.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea; we’ve already long since established that the asses won’t hold still for you. Though certainly I wouldn’t know why. Maybe you should raise your voice? Perhaps the drivers can’t hear you.” Aziraphale suggested, as the soft-spoken young man had not so much called to the wagon driver as murmured sternly.
“I’m not sure if I can...” And then Tobias blinked, a faint hint of an infernal flicker passing through his eyes that Aziraphale, who was looking down the road hopefully, did not notice. “You know, Brother Azariah? I think I will.”
“Do try your best,” Aziraphale said, with an air of infinite patience and sweetness that hid his unfettered impatience and sourness.
A wagon drawn by plodding camels came rumbling down the road, and instead of waving it down, Tobias darted out into the middle of the road before Aziraphale could stop him.
“Halt! You will give us a ride to the nearest caravanserai on the road to Ecbatana!” The human’s voice was deep and commanding, and the wagon came to a shuddering halt as the driver pulled hard on the reins.
“Well, that works?” Aziraphale blinked, surprised.
The cart beneath its waterproofed oiled felt cover was filled with bundles of woven woolen cloth that stank pleasantly of clean sheep. Aziraphale and Tobias settled down among soft sacks of clean carded wool, the little dog settling down at their feet. Before long, the heat of their bodies warmed the small confined space, helping them dry off, though perhaps aided a bit by the principle that Aziraphale’s clothes and Tobias’ clothes strove to keep them warm and comfortable, despite the inclement weather.
In the pleasant darkness of a rainy afternoon, Tobias dropped off to sleep, and Crowley sat up to look around.
“Well, that worked.”
“Hmm? What was that?” Aziraphale realized that he was getting used to hearing the crisp sound of Crowley’s voice emanating from the human and feeling guilty about that, tried to hang onto his general sense of decency and mild outrage. But after a day of slogging through rain and mud, he no longer had the will to keep it up for long and instead lazed back in the pleasing comfort of Crowley’s voice, his eyes half open.
“All young people could use some of it. Helps them...er, how’s it said...find their voice?”
“Find their...find their voice?!” Aziraphale sat up with a start, shocked. “Do you mean you-”
“Eh...” Crowley shrugged. “I didn’t do anything, really.”
“Oh no, not that-”
“Just a little encouragement, that’s all.”
“Oh, now you’ve done it-” Aziraphale said, offended.
“Really, it wasn’t anything he wouldn’t have done himself. He just needed a little push. So I...helped.”
“Helped?! Like a temptation? Into behaving badly?”
“Like a cup of strong, unmixed wine,” Crowley said. “Straight to the gizzard, loosening some of those inhibitions. And since when did standing up for one’s rights mean that one was behaving badly?”
“Since...always?” Aziraphale glared.
“Right,” Crowley said flatly.
“And besides,” Aziraphale said, realizing his mistake and changing the subject away from the Fall, “humans don’t have gizzards. As you should well know. After all, you don’t have one either. Though, I suppose you could make one for yourself if you really-”
“Yes, yes. Relax, angel. He’s fine. He’s just...finding his voice. Finding himself as an adult. And if he needs a little nudge from a mentor, say an older brother, does it matter who the brother is, infernal or divine? Don’t we all need that, sometimes?”
At that, Aziraphale had nothing to say.
Chapter 21: The Fall
They rode for about a league in the back of the bumpy wagon in silence. Aziraphale wondered if Crowley had fallen asleep as well in the warm twilight beneath the waterproofed cover, but then suddenly the road seemed to smooth out and Crowley began to speak, though at first it seemed as if he were talking to himself.
“He was very kind to me from the first. When I saw how the other Princes treated their subordinates, I knew I was lucky,” Crowley said, breaking the silence. “When things went wrong or didn’t go as planned, he always protected me from people like Beelzebub, or Satan.”
“Satan...you mean Lucifer?” Aziraphale wondered.
“Lucifer’s his name, Satan’s his title. The Accuser. The Adversary. You know, like ‘First Prince of Hell’ or ‘Duke of Hell’ or ‘Seraphim’ or ‘Cherubim’ or whatever,” Crowley shrugged.
“Please, do go on. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Crowley waved it off with an eloquent gesture, but it took some time before he started speaking again.
“He protected me. And I was grateful for that. I saw what happened to those subordinates that weren’t protected. Tortured. Beaten. Locked away for an eternity alone in the darkness, starved of light, starved of companionship. Destroyed, sometimes.”
“Dreadful,” Aziraphale could not help but whisper, and Crowley nodded.
“But now I know it wasn’t that he was protecting me, it was that he was protecting himself.” Crowley hugged himself for a moment, before letting go, remembering it was not his own body. “To the Princes, we subordinates are no more than extensions of their will. And were I to fail, it meant that by extension, he had failed.” Crowley folded his fingers together, looking at a stranger’s hands. “Since that was unacceptable, he did whatever it took to keep me from the appearance of failing.”
“Oh. Oh!” Aziraphale blinked. “That’s...”
“I would have said dastardly.”
“It can be both, can’t it?”
“Both? Yes, both.”
Crowley lifted the felt flap of the wagon cover and looked out at the gray rainy streak of the world passing by at a slow crawl, droplets of rain falling on his face, before letting the cloth drop from his hands and wiping the water off with the long sleeve of his coat.
“But now that I’ve seen the world...now that I have seen the actions of human beings, I know that it wasn’t that he was kinder than the other Princes. He was trying to survive. We all were, in those days after the Fall.”
“It must have been hard.”
“It was. Loss, pain...hatred. There was no room for anything else for a long time. A rather unpleasant number of us were destroyed before someone realized that if we were ever going to win against Heaven, we’d need all the hands we could get.”
“That was true for us too,” Aziraphale said. “Though I don’t think they were destroyed so much as...lost?”
“Lost. Disappeared. Gone. No one knows where they are. We’re quite certain they didn’t fall; they weren’t the falling type. They didn’t hang out with your lot. Sorry, didn’t mean it that way. But they were always loyal and ever obedient to Her Will. So it was not possible that they fell and were renamed. But all the same, there are missing angels all over the hierarchy and She won’t answer any questions about them. Not that we were of the mind to be asking anything after, you know. The Unpleasantness.” Aziraphale closed his mouth.
“Ah. The Unpleasantness? Is that what you’ve been calling it?” Crowley said tartly.
“Don’t make this harder than it is. It’s already hard when one of the most coveted positions was filled by...Sandalphon.”
“Indeed. Can you even imagine who made that staffing decision? An angel of smiting to replace an archangel of healing? Not my first choice to replace Raphael, but.” Aziraphale shrugged. “They don’t invite me to the planning meetings.”
“I suppose you’d do better.”
“I should certainly hope so! There are so many that are better suited for that position. Just because one is so close to the Metatron...” Aziraphale frowned. “Well, it’s just a surprise to me that a fellow Cherubim who directed choirs and managed communications now does quite a bit of the...you know, smiting. I suppose it’s all that experience as a choir director.”
“Or as a communications manager. I hear that job can make one quite testy.”
“Exactly! Frankly, if you ask me, Raphael was a balancing force in the Four, but once he went missing, the entire system was broken and even gentle Gabriel became hard and unpleasant and oh goodness, I shouldn’t be gossiping about internal affairs.”
“It’s the same for us.” Crowley looked away. “They weren’t all destroyed. Some of them are just...missing. Should be seven Princes of Hell and an equal number of Dukes. There are only four now. Asmodeus wasn’t even always the Second Prince of Hell; he was promoted.”
“It was the Fall,” Aziraphale said simply. “Something happened that broke the system.”
“Do you think it was a mistake?”
Aziraphale shook his head. “No mistakes are made by the Almighty.”
Aziraphale shrugged. The word was already in his mouth when Crowley pressed a finger to his lips.
“Shhh… Don’t say it. You know as well as I do what it means.”
“We can’t know Her will.”
“No.” Crowley reclined back on the springy sacks of wool. “But I wish that sometimes She’d drop us a hint.”
Chapter 22: The Promise
In Media, a day’s journey from Ecbatana, they stopped in a caravanserai; there were so many to and from Ecbatana that they never had to camp out anymore, staying in rooms with plain but pleasing appointments, with warm beds and hot meals every night.
Once Tobias went to bed and Aziraphale put out the light, the angel waited patiently for the young man to fall asleep.
“Brother Azariah, have you ever been to Ecbatana?”
“No, not in some time.”
“What will we do there? Do you have friends we can stay with there? Or do we have to stay in another inn? Should we stay with family to save money? I think we have family there...”
“Do we?” Aziraphale said thoughtfully, before remembering his role. “Oh, yes, of course, we do. I’m sure we have family in many places.”
“Which cousins do you think they are? How are we related, do you know? Are they also descendants of Asiel of the tribe of Naphtali? Do you think they were exiles in Nineveh too and moved? Or were they exiled to Ecbatana directly?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter much, does it now? Family is family, no matter who they are or how they’re chosen. Why don’t you get to sleep, young man? We have a long day of travel tomorrow.”
“Mmm,” Tobias yawned. “A long day tomorrow...”
After that last thought, Tobias mercifully fell asleep. As the young man’s quiet breathing relaxed, there was a lingering silence that made Aziraphale wonder if perhaps Crowley was gone.
But then, just as he was about to give up waiting and get up to go for a walk to pass the time, Crowley’s voice spoke, soft and slightly muffled by the blankets.
“Aziraphale. Promise me something.”
“Hmm? What’s that now?” Azirphale asked. He had thought Crowley had fallen asleep himself; it had been so quiet.
“I need you to do something for me,” Crowley said and his voice sounded strange, strangely troubled.
“Yes? What is it?”
“When you’re in Ecbatana...in case. Just in case. Look, I don’t know if I can stay here much longer; I think something is going on in Hell. But in case I’m not there, look up this house. The house of Raguel, son of Eleazar. He’s a merchant with one child, a daughter of marrying age. Her name is Sarah. Get her married off, as soon as you can. It’s for her own good. If she’s married, he can’t, or rather, he won’t-”
“Married off? My dear boy, how am I supposed to do that? It’s not like I could marry her myself. Where am I supposed to find the right husband? This isn’t some kind of a fairy tale...”
Crowley made a noise of frustration. “Figure it out. But promise me you’ll do it.”
“I can’t tell you. It’s to save her life. You’re all about that, aren’t you? Saving people.”
“Yes, but. Why won’t you tell me what your interest is in this?”
Crowley fell quiet for a moment.
“Because...because you’re just going to have to trust me and… Oh what in Heaven do you people want? Not now, I’m in the middle of-”
And between one breath and the next, Crowley was gone. Aziraphale could feel the resounding emptiness in the room once Crowley’s spirit departed.
“Raguel, son of Eleazar.” Aziraphale said the words thoughtfully, and glanced at Tobias who murmured and turned over in his sleep.
Chapter 23: The Servants
Aziraphale laid in bed and thought about Crowley’s words. First, he would have to find Raguel, son of Eleazar, if a human by that name even existed. Though he thought that to be fair, it was worth giving Crowley the benefit of the doubt; more than once in the past Crowley had given him some tips about a job or a person and those hints had always been right. It had just never been so specific or spoken with such urgency, which left Aziraphale troubled as to why Crowley took such strong interest in the affairs of a particular human family.
Of course, Aziraphael thought, once the man was found, it just was a simple matter of figuring out why the man’s daughter needed such strong protection, and then perhaps finding a proper bridegroom, given time.
Aziraphale huffed a sigh of frustration, and the noise woke up the little dog. It sat up from its spot on the floor and yawned, before trotting over first to Tobias’ bed, where the dog pawed at the bedding, and then over to Aziraphale’s bed, where Aziraphale picked up the pup.
“You just want a warm bed to sleep in, don’t you? Well, you’re always welcome here,” Aziraphale said, setting the dog down against his chest.
The little dog turned around thrice before settling down, though it watched him with curious eyes for what seemed to be a long time.
Aziraphale set his hand down on the dog, scratching behind its ears, and went back to his thoughts. A proper bridegroom. Well, that could be Tobias, couldn’t it? It was a neat solution to a possibly tricky problem; Tobias was about the right age for marriage, the young woman needed the protection that a marriage could offer, and besides that, Tobias was a good and decent young man with a sense of responsibility far beyond his years. Compatibility given age, culture, and background was likely, and it would do no harm to at least float the idea; if not, Aziraphale could go looking for a proper bridegroom somewhere else.
And it then followed that it wouldn’t matter if the young woman or the young man were truly related as the custom dictated. As far as Aziraphale was concerned, to a human being, perception was reality and perception could always be gently bent to one’s will.
Aziraphale yawned, cozy under the covers, which disturbed the little dog and it stood up, its feet unpleasantly heavy against his chest.
“Oof,” Aziraphale said, wondering how this pup learned that trick that cats liked to do, putting all its weight on one diminutive paw. So he shifted to sit up.
Halfway to verticality, Aziraphale realized that there was something he could do while he was up; he could get to work.
That was probably the best thing about being a celestial being, not being bounded by human rules or limitations. First, he picked up the little dog off its unpleasant perch on his chest. He got out of bed, sloughing off the warm covers to feel the cold night air. Carefully, he placed the little dog in the nest of warm blankets, covering its small body with a fold of the bedding.
“Stay here and be good. Keep an eye on Tobias,” Aziraphale scolded playfully. The little dog gave him a lazy look, and curling its tail over its nose, fell asleep immediately.
Aziraphale stretched, shaking off the warmth of the bed. Despite the chill he didn’t shiver; the temperature meant nothing to him. He recognized that humans and many living creatures would think of this as cold, and that for him it was a purely intellectual understanding of the temperature, recognizing its effects on others but not on himself as his corporeal form was not affected by cold nor heat.
As he pulled on his coat, the little dog stirred but did not wake and Tobias stayed soundly asleep. He slipped out of the room without anyone noticing as no mortal living being could see him when he wanted to be discreet, and with a sigh of relief, as if loosening a cramped muscle, he stretched out his wings into the sky.
Ecbatana was not far away, and in the early hours before dawn, he did some basic snooping; it was easy to find the Jewish homes: those were the ones with the mezuzot in the doorposts, some prominently displayed, others subtly blended into the architecture of the house. A little interrogation here and there in these homes of humans dazed by sleep, and he was able to quickly find the house of Raguel, son of Eleazar.
Aziraphale alighted down at the right house. A light was on, and he strolled into the grand kitchen where he perched by the fire to listen to the servants work and gossip.
“Seven husbands, seven! Can you believe it!”
“Shameless, that the young mistress is such a hussy.”
“Don’t say that, she’s a good girl-”
“Shush! Close the door!”
“Oh don’t worry. No one will hear if we’re just talking. The house has thick walls and the oven walls are even thicker. Fine, close the door then if you’re so worried. No, I won’t do it, my hands are sticky with dough, you do it. Think about it, we have a right to complain. We’re the ones who have to clean up the blood and dress the corpses.”
“How’d they die?”
“Horribly! The last one had gaping wounds in his chest, this big. Went clean through him!”
Muffled shrieks and giggles, and Aziraphale felt the polite smile on his lips tighten as he watched the servants go about their work.
“Shh, shh, get back to the bread. And keep stirring the porridge, don’t let it burn. If it gets too hot, pull it off the fire...no, not that long, put it back or else it’ll never cook through!”
“Wait, how did the last one die?”
“Two gaping wounds! The kind a spear makes. Weren’t you listening? Just because you’re new means you should be listening twice as hard.”
“Sorry, I’ll do better, honest. Was there a spear? Did she kill him with a spear? Stabbed him twice?”
“How could she have killed him with a spear? They don’t leave spears in the bridal chamber.”
“No one keeps a spear in their bedchamber. Maybe a dagger, but not a spear-”
“Maybe it was a dagger and not a spear?”
“There were no weapons. No one knows how he was run through.”
“Who else could have killed so many grooms? They don’t fall dead on their own.”
“Unless she killed him?”
“Oh that’s stupid. The young mistress couldn’t swat a fly much less a full-grown man. I’m telling you that she’s cursed, absolutely cursed. Possessed by a demon or an evil spirit, I’m sure.”
“Too bad. Did I ever tell you that in the last house I worked at, you know, the very rich man’s house whose name I really ought not to mention though I can tell you he was very well-connected...in a princely manner…”
Aziraphale stifled a yawn, glancing out the window to see if he could see the position of the moon.
“Always with the princes...”
“Right? As if you need to keep reminding us.”
“Listen, that just means it’s reliable. I heard a story from another servant of a very important noble whose child had been beset by demons and was sickly. They brought in a, what is it called again, that man with the veil that tends the sacred fire-”
“A magi who cleansed the child and after that no demon or evil spirit would dare to bother the poor little thing. So why doesn’t someone get a magi or a rabbi or-”
Aziraphale straightened his clothes and stood up from where he sat by the hearth. He began heading for the door, strolling lazily past the humans who no longer put up the facade of working but stood chatting by the ovens as the bread baked.
“The master won’t hear of it.”
“Laila tried to do it in secret and got fired. That’s why you have a job.”
“Even after seven men died?”
“Something’s wrong with him too. Maybe it’s a demon-”
“Or maybe what’s wrong with him is the same thing that’s wrong with the young mistress? Children inherit it, you know, all those characteristics of their parents. Good or bad, sometimes both good and bad. Everyone knows that.”
“I don’t agree-”
“Did you see him?”
“Who, the master? Of course not, he’s asleep.”
“No the groom, the dead one. The seventh groom. Did you see him before they buried him?”
Aziraphale paused at the door.
“Oh yes. A strange one.”
“I thought he was very princely.”
“You mean arrogant.”
“Well, he was nice to me-”
“Ooh, princely? What did he look like?”
“Tall and thin, with long red hair the color of fire.”
Aziraphale gasped, his hand pressed to his mouth, but the humans did not hear him.
“A demonic look for a demonic bridegroom.”
“Oh, don’t say that, I think he just had a foreigner for a father. That’s weird but there’s no law that forbids that...”
Chapter 24: Sarah
He had heard enough. Aziraphale walked out into the courtyard, the tips of his fingers touching wings that were folded alongside his body. Once outside, he stretched out his wings and ran his hands through hair damp from the frost of the upper atmosphere that had melted in the warmth of the kitchen, and the touch of his fingers left his short-cropped hair instantly dry. It didn’t mean much; condensation would build up and it would freeze again once he was high enough in the sky, but for now it gave him some sense of order, of decency when it didn’t seem that the world had any.
Discorporated. A strange one, tall and thin. Gaping wounds, as if made by a spear.
“Or a serpent’s fangs,” Aziraphale said to himself. So this was the secret that Crowley had been keeping from him, this was why Crowley had been called away from Ephesus so many seasons ago. A young woman, dead bridegrooms, a discorporation…but why was Crowley the bridegroom? Had he been fighting with Asmodeus over the young woman? But Crowley wanted her married off, for protection, as he had said.
And then with a start, Aziraphale remembered Crowley’s messages, the unintentional ones that no one was meant to have heard, and he thought about how desperate the fallen angel must have been to stop these murders, that Crowley had resorted to letting his master destroy his mortal form.
Aziraphale felt a shiver move over his skin even though he was never cold.
But that was in the past, and there was nothing he could do to change that. However, there were things that he could do now, that were within the realm of his control, and Aziraphale considered the possibilities, his mind moving over many variables and probabilities, mapping out all the factors that would help him decide how to move forward.
He stepped forward, one foot on a stone bench in the garden, his body tensed into the motion of flight, but in the moment before he launched himself into the air, he heard a choked sob.
Aziraphale paused, and curious, strained his ears to hear it again, the sound of a whimpering voice.
He couldn’t leave. Not yet.
Pale moonlight from a high narrow window clung like white frost to her shoulder, and when she turned it was restlessly, as if in the throes of a nightmare. Her eyes were screwed shut as if against a blow that had not landed, and her body twisted, hands gripping the blankets with white-knuckled intensity. Her sobs came in harsh, fast breaths, and Aziraphale felt his heart twinge with sympathy.
The angel sat down on the edge of the bed and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, an outstretched white wing shielding her from the world, and immediately her breathing calmed and she relaxed.
“Tell me about your nightmares, child,” Aziraphale said with a soft, gentle voice. “What do you see?”
“The stranger with my husband’s face,” she said, her closed eyes creasing as she spoke.
“What happens next?” Aziraphale asked, afraid to know the answer.
“He takes me in his arms. I try to pull away but my body refuses to move. His eyes tell me what he wants and I cannot refuse him...he spends the night with me, as long as he likes and by morning…when I wake up the blood on the sheets is gone and it is impossible but I know that there should have been but-”
“Tell me how many times it happened.”
“Six times with six grooms. The last time...I was spared. But what if he comes back? I don’t want him to come back again. He hurts me...he does strange things, things I cannot even explain. Sometimes he is a man, sometimes he is a serpent, sometimes he is like wildfire, sometimes he is something else, a shadow, a shade, a ghost, a beast, a nightmare...”
“Shh. He won’t hurt you again, I swear.” Aziraphale murmured, stroking her hair so that the furrowed brow smoothed, the tight muscles untensed. Her mouth opened briefly, but then closed, and he wondered; was there something she wanted to say?
“If you want to say something or ask something of me, you may say it.”
“Will...” Her voice caught in her throat.
“Will you protect me?”
“For ever and all time,” Aziraphale promised. “But tell me one more thing, my child, before you dream of better things, of peace and tranquility.”
“Anything.” Her voice was no more than an exhalation.
“Tell me. What is his name?”
“Asmodeus. A Prince of Hell.”
“Thank you.” Aziraphale pressed a kiss to her forehead, the blessing that he imparted suffusing her whole self. “I understand now what I have to do.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“I’m sorry I can’t do more for you. But there are limits, even to an angel’s abilities,” Aziraphale said. “I wish I could do more, my child, but I can’t take your pain from you nor can I take your memories. Know that in time the pain will lessen until it is just a memory of pain, and the memories will fade until they cause less pain.”
Sarah murmured, a sound of understanding, and as she fell back into a deeper, restful sleep, her breathing evened out and she dreamt no more of the demon lord.