Summary: After a nice twenty-year nap, Crowley finds Aziraphale in Enlightenment country. Fun with Taoism and water. NC-17 for slash. (Yes, and it's spiritual too. Am I not strange?)
Warnings: Slash. Reasonably graphic. I did my best. Also: this story is based in large part on my admittedly patchy knowledge of history, Buddhism, and Taoism. I have most likely gotten large wads of information wrong. If you notice any of these, please please PLEASE let me know. I don't mean to offend, I am simply incompetent.
Author's Note: Yet another plot bunny, based on a truly entertaining dream I had and urged into prawn by my dearest fellow loons, Twitch and Lindsay. Footnotes are way the hell at the bottom. I'm afraid I may have made Crowley a bit too adorable, but it's too late now; I suppose that's just what cold does to him.
Reviews: I'm normally not fussy about this, but I will warn you that this is my first prawn!fic, and if I do not get feedback saying that I'm not making a complete and utter fool of myself, there shan't be more. I have a disturbing feeling that the entire second half of this is a large pile of crap. Enlighten me if I am wrong, do.
Disclaimer: Crowley and Aziraphale belong to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, both of whom I sincerely hope never, ever see this. The Buddhist monastery was significantly influenced by the History Monks of Oi Dong from Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time, although individual characteristics are different. I assumed yetis would eat rocks because yeti troll and trolls eat rocks, though it's never explicitly mentioned in ToT that yetis eat rocks.
The Buddhist Baths
Somewhere in the lower Himalayas, about halfway up a mountain that looked deceptively friendly, two lesser acolytes were wishing they had more sensible footwear for a hike. It was summer, or as summer as it got in these mountains, but they were still uncomfortably chilly in their thin robes, and their sandals were rubbing painfully on fresh blisters.
They were nervous; they hadn't been this close to sea level (about eight thousand feet) in, gosh, years, was it that long already? It seemed like completely foreign territory to them—which, come to think of it, was rather odd, since they had both grown up just a few mountains over. Grown up physically, that is, of course; naturally, their spiritual growth was far from finished. Regardless, they were feeling quite twitchy.
"Hallo! I say! Are you still with me?" shouted a voice from ahead.
The acolytes exchanged glances, and then looked back at the figure about fifty yards in front of them, who was now waving cheerfully. There was that, too.
The man who had, after careful thought, adopted the name Brother Ladybug was… strange. Admittedly, most of the monks in the mountains were a bit odd—wearing only orange for a lifetime while breathing very thin air often did that to a person—but the new monk went right past odd, through eccentric, and off into the deep end of bizarre. His appearance was off-putting, to start with. His hair was the slightly nauseating yellow colour commonly associated in the monastery with curdled yak's milk(1), and it was curly. He also refused point-blank to have it shaved, as was customary; he ran screaming at the sight of Brother Cricket's huge razor. When questioned, he merely muttered a lot, saying something about "my hair!" and "bleeding enormous razor". The man's eyes, too, were unusual, a bright blue eggshell colour, but with more facets than human eyes should have; they seemed to move in at least four dimensions. His skin seemed to shine from within, more so when he thought no one was looking, and he had somehow remained slightly plump despite living on a diet consisting solely of rice.
What was most irritating about him, the acolytes reflected, was the way he moved. He strolled. The monks of the monastery generally moved through the world as unobtrusively as possible, quietly enjoying the crisp air, the snow, the ground, the slush, the wind, the ice. Brother Ladybug, however, walked around with his hands behind his back, saying things like, "Oh, what a marvellous day!" and "Look at those crocuses!" and "What's that big, furry, snarling thing? Is that a cat? Here, kitty… pss pss pss…," at which point the monks had had to grasp him gently but firmly under the arms and run like mad. Later the abbot tried to explain to the man that snow leopards do not appreciate being patronized, but Brother Ladybug had waved him off, saying, "All it needs is a bit of a talking-to and a kind ear!"(2)
That was another thing. He didn't show the abbot the proper respect. Oh, he gave every impression of liking the abbot, very much, in fact; but there was none of the bowing and scraping that the other monks were expected to do. And the abbot didn't say anything about it! He simply smiled pleasantly into his bowl of rice, listening carefully to what Brother Ladybug told him and responding, after a pause to absorb, in his usual way: slowly, calmly, and with utter certainty. None of their conversations made sense to the monks; some of the talk seemed to be about foreign countries, while some was about somewhere else altogether. It was very important to the abbot to speak with this person, for some reason. After their conversations, the abbot would go into the temple to meditate, and often the monks, long accustomed to silence, would jump at the sound of a very unenlightened "Ha!" coming from the direction of the temple. The abbot always looked very pleased when Brother Ladybug showed up for a fortnight—he drifted around the mountains quite a bit, but turned up at regular intervals—and responded to the monks' questions about the man with a quiet smile. It was really vexing, which doesn't help much when one is seeking enlightenment. The monks were certain that the abbot knew something they didn't.(3)
Oddly, Brother Ladybug had arrived a few months ago and hadn't left since. In all the time the strange monk had been in the area—the monks thought it must have been seven or eight years, although for some reason no one was quite certain—he had never stayed at the monastery this long. He was looking rather glum, too, which was surprising, as he had always been the epitome of good cheer before this. His mood seemed to be catching—even Brother Cricket had managed to become more surly, which was quite a feat—and all in all everyone was eager to be shot of him, even if just for a few hours. It was quite a relief, therefore, when the abbot had tactfully suggested a trip to the nearby hot springs for a bit of relaxation. A thoroughly sceptical Brother Ladybug had been escorted down the mountain by the abbot himself. He'd been going several times a week since then.
Sighing with relief, the acolytes realized that they were close to the drop-off point. Brother Ladybug was very firm about his privacy, and insisted that his escorts leave him just before they got within sight of the springs. This didn't make sense—after all, they were all human, weren't they?—but it was easiest to play along and leave him to his own devices.
The acolytes slowed their steps as Brother Ladybug trotted back up to them. "All right, thank you very much, I can manage from here," the man gushed hurriedly, and looked both relieved and irritated as they nodded mutely and began to retrace their steps up the mountain. He shrugged, turned, and had started walking towards the cluster of boulders that concealed the hot springs when a voice rang out from behind him.
"Hey, mister—er—I mean—Brother…"
"Ladybug," said Brother Ladybug, turning around. It was one of the acolytes, the younger of the two, the scrawny one; Brother Mantis.
"Right, well, look—look, what is a ladybug, anyway? No disrespect, Brother, but I'm buggered if I've heard of them," said Brother Mantis.
"Ah!" Brother Ladybug's eyes gleamed excitedly. He scurried up to the two acolytes, floundered for a stick I the melting snow, and began to scratch a picture on the ground. "Well, they're beetles, you see, little round ones—wings fold up under there, see—they live in the west, you won't find them here."
"Are those spots?" asked Brother Mantis suspiciously.
"What colour are they, then?"
"Red and black!" Brother Ladybug looked absurdly proud.
"Er… I suppose… camouflage, possibly?"
Brother Mantis considered saying, Really? Lots of red and black plants in this West place you're always on about, are there? He decided against it; Brother Ladybug seemed to be completely impervious to sarcasm. Instead he asked, "May I ask you why you adopted this name, Brother Ladybug?"
"Well," said the man, looking a bit taken aback. "They're very useful, aren't they? They eat aphids. Farmers love them."
"Yeah? What're aphids, then?"
Brother Ladybug opened his mouth, and closed it again. Truthfully, he had no idea, and he'd never been any good at lying. He attempted to summon up a mysterious demeanour and told the acolytes, "I'm not sure the abbot would want you to know the answer to that question," which could theoretically have been true. Then he turned around abruptly and began walking swiftly towards the rocks again, saying over his shoulder, "I would like a few hours, please—could you perhaps come back at sundown?" Without waiting for an answer, he disappeared behind a boulder.
The acolytes stared at the rock. Brother Mantis shook his head sadly. "Completely mad, that one," he remarked.
"You said it," said his companion, and shivered. "Let's be getting back, eh?" he added hopefully.
"Yeah, let's go," said Brother Mantis, and they began trudging back up the mountains.
From the top of the boulder, on which the sun had made a very pleasant warm spot, someone watched them go.
Aziraphale ducked behind a boulder, feeling somewhat vexed. It shouldn't bother him, he knew, the way these men let him do whatever he wanted, but it did. They seemed not to have the same amount of free will as most humans did. It was eerie.
Really, he should be pleased about that, he told himself. They're so much easier to steer towards the Path of Righteousness when they're docile.
Aziraphale nearly laughed aloud. He shook his head ruefully. He was still pretending, even to himself, that he had business here.
Looking around quickly, he walked over to the small cluster of rocks over which was draped an enormous cloth. He twitched aside a corner and got a faceful of warm air. His muscles already relaxing, he ducked inside, pulling the flap of cloth shut as he went.
Inside it was dark and humid. As he stumbled about looking for his lantern, his toes encountered hot water and curled pleasantly. Finally his groping fingers landed on glass, and he lit the lantern nervously; he had never been very comfortable with fire. Warm light illuminated the walls of the tent and the clear, hot spring by Aziraphale's feet, just big enough for one person to stretch out comfortably.
Aziraphale put the lantern gently on the ground and poked his head outside again. Satisfied that there were no peeping yaks or denizens of darkness lurking amongst the rocks, he closed the tent flap again, tossed off his borrowed robe, and stretched out his wings, groaning as his cramped muscles protested at this sudden movement. He looked at his somewhat bedraggled feathers forlornly for a moment, and then stepped into the spring and sat down with a sigh, the water up to his neck.
He stared blankly at the flickering light of the lamp, trying to empty his mind as the abbot had taught him. He sighed; it was no good, he couldn't remember his koan, and anyway he couldn't help thinking what would happen if someone Upstairs found out about all of this. It was bad enough that he'd left Europe; it was worse that he had come here and was associating with people who, devoted though they were, were certainly barking up the wrong tree in the wrong forest on the wrong continent. What would really cause trouble was the reason he'd left in the first place. Angels don't get bored. It simply doesn't happen. Nor do they get interested. It's part of the Way Things Are.
Nevertheless, Aziraphale had gotten very bored. He'd gotten so lethargic that he started unconsciously projecting his excess boredom onto humans around him, leading people to wonder loudly when another war was going to start and liven things up. Aziraphale knew where this led, so he had packed up a few choice manuscripts and gone off to look for something to do. He'd ended up at the monastery, which intrigued him. Even though he knew that the monks were completely wrong—they had to be—there was something about their attitude of steadily and with complete confidence heading towards answers that made him wonder whether they weren't really right, in some odd way.
Aziraphale stopped luxuriously flexing his toes in the water and looked up sharply. A corner of the cloth had moved, and a ray of watery sunlight waved weakly at him through the opening. Frowning, he reached out and pulled the cloth shut again. The wind in these mountains was really strange sometimes.
He sank back into the water. He was being stupid, of course; he should just go back to Europe and concentrate on saving souls before their owners died in the war of the week. That was his job. But the fact remained that it felt strange working alone.
This was a disturbing thought, but it was true. It was disconcerting, not having anyone working against you. Aziraphale thought of two people pulling on the ends of one rope; one let go without warning, and the other fell over backwards onto his backside, blinking and looking extremely foolish.
Aziraphale closed his eyes and blew bubbles. He contemplated his pruning fingers. Then he nearly choked as a voice from behind him said:
"This is quite the nice set-up you've got here, angel."
Aziraphale squeaked and flailed about until he had managed to turn himself around. Lounging by the side of the pool, gazing at him with mild amusement, was Crowley.
Aziraphale opened and shut his mouth several times. Crowley gave him a mocking half-wave. The demon was dripping from the cascades of water Aziraphale had sent up in his efforts to turn around. He was also not wearing anything. Aziraphale felt that he should mention this.
"Crowley," he said weakly, "you're not wearing anything."
Crowley rolled his eyes. "Well spotted, angel."
"Well, you're not!" said Aziraphale defensively.
"Look, you try turning into a snake and back and retaining your trousers," the demon said, sounding slightly irritated but too lazy to bother getting worked up. "It's harder than you might think. Besides," he added, "it's not worth the effort, they'd be coming off in a moment anyway."
Aziraphale blanched. "What—do you—?" he sputtered.
Crowley raised an eyebrow. "You're going to invite me in, aren't you?"
Staring at him in an attempt to figure out what exactly was meant by that comment, Aziraphale said, "No."
"Aziraphale, listen," said Crowley, a hint of pleading creeping into his voice, "I know you don't like it, but I'm freezing, I've been a snake up here for hours, and you know what the cold does to me! Can I just come in and warm up? Please?"
Well. That was a word he hadn't heard out of the demon's mouth before. Looking more closely at Crowley, Aziraphale realized he was shivering violently. "Oh… fine," he said reluctantly. "Get in."
Crowley immediately slid into the hot spring, hunching over so that more of his body could be in the water at once. Peering up at Aziraphale with only his eyes and the top of his head visible above the surface, he said, "Thnrgk nrgk, ngngnl."
"Hmm? Oh—you're welcome, my dear," said Aziraphale, smiling slightly despite himself. He wasn't sure that he'd ever actually been thanked before. It was a nice feeling.
"Cknrgk rgk phrrt mrmgh wrngj rrt?" said Crowley, blowing bubbles.
The demon sat up and stretched his wings out slowly. They were in better shape than Aziraphale's. This wasn't unusual; nevertheless, Aziraphale felt a bit embarrassed and tried to surreptitiously push a few feathers back into place. Crowley wasn't looking; he had his eyes closed and a blissful grin on his face. "This is excellent," he murmured, and sank back into the water.
Aziraphale said nothing. He contemplated the damp black hair in front of him and the face beneath it. He felt uneasy, but was unsure why, until he readjusted his knee and saw the pale skin contrasted with the demon's hair.
Though normally they were of equal height4, at the moment the top of Crowley's head was below the top of Aziraphale's.
Crowley was freezing; he was pleasantly warm.
Aziraphale had investigated Taoism as well as Buddhism, and he'd drawn a few parallels between it and what he thought of as Home Base. The most obvious similarity, to him at least, was the contrast: between light and dark, night and day, male and female… and, yes, good and evil. He actually felt a bit let down by that, because good and evil, which were never mentioned explicitly in the Tao Te Ching, seemed to be a highly simplified version of the varied and diverse balanced factors of Taoism. But nevertheless, though the Powers That Be might not wish to acknowledge it, the only way humanity could continue to function was through a very careful highwire balancing act.
Horrified by the sudden awareness that he was part of this enormous effort to keep the scales even, Aziraphale had taken to practicing t'ai chi, handicapped only slightly by the fact that he fell over every time he attempted a move that required him to stand on one leg. Considering he had no permanent residence, feng shui was not an option. But, being, Aziraphale, he had read the Tao Te Ching several times, and he could visualize the symbol of yin and yang.
He could see it now, and it wasn't in balance. Though the halves were touching, they did not form the customary seamless circle, instead only touching briefly, like two fat worms brushing against each other on the way to somewhere else.
It made Aziraphale nervous.
He considered telling Crowley to sit up, but he obviously had truly been freezing, and the angel didn't have the heart to make him cold again, so he folded his knees up and sank into the water until his eyes were at the level of Crowley's. He blinked owlishly at the demon, who, seeming to feel it, looked up, somewhat startled, into blue eyes creased at the edges with worry.
Crowley looked at him for a moment, his own amber serpent's eyes flickering with the light of the lamp reflecting on the water. Then he grinned (predictably) and sent a great splash of warm water into Aziraphale's face.
The human body, when startled, does several things automatically. For instance, the mouth opens. Also there is a sharp intake of breath, whether one actually needs to breathe or not. It's just one of those things. So Aziraphale opened his mouth and gasped, and as a result swallowed a large amount of water and got some more up his nose. This is never comfortable. It tends to put people in a bad mood.
He glared at Crowley, who gave him a toothy grin, and sniffed. "I put up with a lot, you know," he said, in what would have been dignified tones if he hadn't had a lot of suddenly-loosened mucous blocking his nasal passages, "but there is no subclause in the Arrangement allowing you to splash water in my face." And he splashed back.
There followed an intense and highly immature water fight, which, when he looked back on it years later, made Aziraphale wince and say nervously, "That wasn't—what d'you mean, that wasn't holy water? Honestly? Blast! Oh, well, I tried!" and change the subject as quickly as possible.
Nevertheless, it was loads of fun at the time, at least until they managed to extinguish the lantern with one giant wave that Crowley swore Aziraphale had made and Aziraphale firmly asserted was the demon's responsibility, thank you. Crowley dried the wick as best he could with a batch of hellfire, but water is a stubborn bitch; the lantern, though it did light, sputtered, spat, and flickered, casting only a dim, unreliable light onto the walls of the tent.
Crowley watched Aziraphale tip his head to the side to try and drain some of the water out of his ears. After a moment, the demon sighed heavily and said, "I expect you'd like to know where I've been."
The angel froze and stared at Crowley, his head still perpendicular to his body. Then he straightened up and said, "Naturally. But I didn't think you'd tell me, so I didn't bother asking."
Crowley squirmed, not looking at the angel. "We-ell," he said, sounding as if every word was being dragged from him, "we've got this—this Arrangement thing now, and I felt I owed it to you to—"
"You felt guilty," said Aziraphale, giving his demonic counterpart an appraising look. "Because you didn't tell me you were going anywhere."
"I felt no such thing!" Crowley replied hotly.
Aziraphale said nothing. There was a sucking silence, during which time Aziraphale studied his fingernails and Crowley stared determinedly at the air to the right of the angel's head.
Finally he snapped, "Oh, all right, I should have told you. It would have been only fair, considering. But I did not feel any kind of guilty!"
"That's a working compromise," murmured Aziraphale. Crowley either didn't hear him or pretended not to.
"I was…" Crowley stopped and looked at his reflection in the water. "I was asleep," he said glumly.
Aziraphale looked Upwards briefly, praying for more patience than was probably stored even in heaven. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "You were asleep," he echoed.
"Yes." Crowley wriggled wretchedly.
"For more than twenty years?"
"Can I just try to explain?" Crowley asked. He truly looked worried now, and Aziraphale wasn't surprised: he was sure that the look on his face matched the rage he was feeling. He was furious. Just a few centuries into the Arrangement, and already he was having it flung in his face that he was a bloody imbecile.
A demon, he thought numbly. I trusted a demon. And now I am actually surprised. Oh, well done, Aziraphale.
He nodded at Crowley. He wanted to hear the excuse before he went righteous on the demon's arse.
"Right," said Crowley uncertainly. "Well… you know I was bored. And I had been for decades, angel. I—"
"Yes," Aziraphale interrupted.
"I…" The demon swallowed. "Right. Well. I was getting sick of it all, to be honest. I mean…" He made a gesture with one hand. "This is England, right?" He gestured with the other hand. "And this is France, right? Well, every five minutes it's…" The hands met at high speed, scrummed, fell apart, and splashed back into the water, palms up, twitching. "ARRGH," said Crowley articulately(5). "I mean. The first few years, yes, all right, but after that, what am I there for? There's nothing creative about it." Crowley made a face like a houseproud woman upon the discovery of roach-infested cereal. "Just… war. Over and over. Pestilence, War, Famine, and… the other one. Nothing for me to do, really." He gave a dry chuckle. "People do for themselves very nicely. You may have noticed."
Aziraphale was still looking at the demon, but he wasn't seeing him anymore. People do for themselves very nicely…
"Anyway," Crowley continued, "I'd never really noticed it before, but I started to see people acting… twitchy around me. At first it was marvellous, relieved boredom something fierce, because they were doing all sorts of wild things—one woman actually sacrificed a sheep and bathed in its blood, I thought people only ever did that in private these days, but she dragged the tub right in the middle of the street—but then it got… odd. I would think things, just idly really, and people would do the things, or the things would happen."
"What do you mean?" Aziraphale interjected sharply. Things would happen…
"I'm not entirely sure myself, angel. It was… Well, sometimes it was just strange things, like the sheep's blood, but sometimes it was actual things that I was actually thinking right at that moment. Once I was thinking that I wanted some wine, and this tiny man came running out of a pub with an enormous barrel of wine on his back. Then it collapsed right onto him, and the wine spilled out onto my shoes. Which were quite expensive, by the way."
"Oh, dear!" Aziraphale gasped, clutching a hand to his mouth despite himself.
"What?" Crowley looked blank. "Aziraphale, they were just shoes—"
"Not the shoes!" said the angel impatiently. "Was the man all right?"
"Oh, him," Crowley replied dismissively. "Oh, he was fine; the wood was rotten, he just got up and sprinted away. But even if he had been hurt—it's not very demonic behaviour, is it, splitting a solitary wine barrel? It's excess mental energy, perhaps, and probably nothing to worry about, but…" Crowley frowned, trying to find the words. "… It was out of my control," he said after a moment. "Control is what I do, right? Without control, I'm just—well—"
"A sod who dresses in black because it sets off his cheekbones," Aziraphale said absently, as he remembered:
…a cat that had been irritating him, flattened under the wheel of a carriage…
…turf wars between previously allied street gangs that broke out as he passed…
…the crying of a small child by the side of the dusty highway, lost and confused and alone…
"Yes, well." Crowley's voice cut through his thoughts, sounding irritated. "I wouldn't have even gotten credit for any of it, anyway, since it wasn't purposeful. All it could do would be attract unwanted attention." He paused. "You see, angel?"
Aziraphale looked up at him. There was a depth to those serpentine eyes that he had only rarely seen before, but it was there now: an opening, a read-my-mind expression, some of the cocky bastard momentarily removed and replaced by… something else, something fierce and unfamiliar and impossible to understand.
"Why didn't you tell me?" the angel said, his voice not quite hoarse.
The cocky bastard came back, relief sliding onto and off of his face almost too quickly to register. "Well," said Crowley, stretching casually, wings brushing the cloth ceiling above them, "if I had accidentally made you do something, or influenced you, or what have you, then, correct me if I'm wrong, but you would have gone utterly apeshit, wouldn't you? I've been on the receiving end of your righteous sword, angel, and it's not as pleasant as it sounds."
He smirked, though his expression faltered a bit when Aziraphale made no comeback, snappy or otherwise, but continued staring into the distance, unseeing.
The demon sighed huffily. "It was my opinion at the time," he said, in a slow and mockingly official voice, "that I should leave the world of the conscious for a period of time, until the world ceased to be so bloody boring." He opened his arms wide. "There. That's all, angel. You may now have at me."
Aziraphale still didn't say anything. Crowley looked at him, anxious now. The angel roused was truly dangerous, and he was currently unreadable. It would be wise to tread carefully.
The demon attempted a smile. "So, angel," he said, "what are you doing here, hmm? Consorting with heathens? Are you on a mission?"
"Actually," Aziraphale said, snapping to attention suddenly and looking directly at Crowley, "I'm here for the same reason you left."
There was a stunned silence. Then Crowley said, "What?"
"I was projecting as well," Aziraphale said, gazing steadily at the demon. "You were gone; after a while, I left. I was looking for control as well, just in a… more direct fashion. I may have found it." His forehead creased in a slight frown. "I'm still not sure, to be honest."
Crowley stared at him. "I didn't know you… you were…"
"You didn't know you could do it, either, not till recently," said the angel. "We know less than we think. I've learned that. I've learned a lot."
"Oh, really?" said Crowley, coating his every word with sarcasm. "Enlighten me."
"All right," said the angel; he sat up straighter, a fiery look in his eye. "To begin with," he said, pointing a pruned finger at Crowley, "you and I are far less different than you think we are."
Crowley rolled his eyes. "Come off it, angel!" he scoffed. "Are you going on about the bloody 'spark of goodness' again? That's ridiculous! I mean, look at us! You're Good, I'm Evil. Capital letters included. We're opposite numbers! There's nothing even remotely the same about us!"
"That," said Aziraphale calmly, "is precisely where you are wrong, my dear." He held up a hand as Crowley began to protest. "Wait." He propped his elbows up on his knees and steepled his fingers, looking intently at the demon. "Opposites," he mused. "Tell me, Crowley… what do you need to have night?"
"What kind of question is that?" Crowley asked irritably.
"Answer it, please."
"I don't know. Dark."
"Wrong. Try again."
"Stars. The moon."
"Creepy things under the bed."
"No, Crowley. You're thinking about this the wrong way. Consider this: night is a phenomenon all its own. Stars, moon, darkness, and so forth, they come with it, they aren't separate from it. What you're looking for is the contrast that makes night an understandable concept. I ask you again: what do you need to have night?"
Crowley opened his mouth to hiss at the angel, and closed it again. Aziraphale's hair was plastered to his forehead, his eyes shone, and his cheeks were flushed with excitement. This, Crowley realized, was important to the angel.
It was important.
"Contrast," he murmured to himself. Night is just night, he thought. It was true; there was nothing, never had been anything, about night that made it irrefutably, indisputably Night. Nowhere was there a sign marked 'Here be Nyte' on a sundial. Night by itself was, in fact, Crowley realized, simply a collection of hours. It was—
Night by itself.
"Day," said Crowley, and left it at that.
A sheet of water hit him across the face. Wiping his eyes and cursing, he attempted to scowl at Aziraphale, but there was still water in his eyes, so it ended up as more of a squint. Besides, it was very difficult to be even mildly upset with the angel at the moment, because he was smiling a wide, beaming, genuine smile that seemed to fill the tent with golden light and warmth.(6)
"Oh, well done, Crowley!" he said. "I must say, you're very quick, it took me much longer than that—"
"What does it mean?" Crowley interrupted. "What's your point, angel?"
"Now really, my dear," said the angel, looking miffed, "you've just solved a Level One koan in less than five minutes, I rather think I'm allowed to be pleased with—oh, all right!" he relented, seeing Crowley's expression.
"Look, Crowley," he began, and sighed. "It's a bit difficult to explain—it's taken me eight years to understand—but in essence, opposites hold the universe together, do you see? Without light there can be no dark; without day there can be no night; and—yes, I'm getting to it, Crowley—without good there can be no evil. And vice versa, of course," he added hurriedly, seeing the look on the demon's face. "Everything can go either way. That's the point, actually. How can I put this… It's two sides of the same coin. Yes. They aren't the same by any means, but they are both indispensable parts of the whole. And you can't have a coin with only one side; it's not possible. So you see," he concluded, "without good, evil is impossible, and without evil, good is impossible. Without Aziraphale, Crowley could not exist, and without Crowley, there could be no Aziraphale. But since both of us are here… we cancel each other out. We make life possible. If we're there, people can just be people."
"So you're saying we're unnecessary, then?" Crowley asked slowly, a dangerous glint in his eye.
"No! No, Crowley, no. What I'm telling you is that we are indispensable. Without good, no evil; without evil, no good; but with both comes balance, and people can choose. That's why we're here, Crowley. That's why the Arrangement happened. Somehow, we achieved balance without realizing it."
Crowley stared at the angel. "But… that's not how it was explained to me at all…" he muttered, looking dazed. "They said… they said one side or the other had to triumph… completely win…"
"Yes," said Aziraphale sadly, shaking his head. "I was told the same thing. I—I think our superiors may be… mistaken," he added, lowering his voice as if afraid he would be overheard. It was quite funny, and Crowley would have laughed if he hadn't been concentrating so hard.
"So you're saying," he said slowly, "that our job isn't to… to tempt or thwart or whatever, but to keep things balanced?"
"So that humans can be good or bad as they choose?"
"Humans are naturally both, no matter what we might think to the contrary. "Balance composes all life, human and otherwise."
"Angel, I really don't understand."
"Look, said Aziraphale patiently, and he scooched(7) around the small pool to Crowley's side, "life is balance. Every living thing contains good and evil, light and dark, and so on." He reached out and began to draw in the muddy earth by Crowley's shoulder. "This is the symbol of yin and yang," he said softly. "A circle. No edges and no end, you see? It's quite cleverly designed. Divided in half, but not cleanly—" He traced the curved line in the middle of the circle as if hypnotized. "—and, in the dark half, a white circle; in the white half, a dark circle," he finished, indicating the symbol with a muddy finger. "Dark within light within dark. That is balance. You don't know where one ends and the other begins. That's how it should be."
Crowley put a hand over the symbol, not quite touching it. He looked at Aziraphale, puzzled and a bit overwhelmed.
The angel smiled at him again. "The way we look—" He reached out a hand to brush lightly against the demon's black hair and rested his muddy fingertips lightly on his own pale chest, indicating the contrast between them. "—it's how we're expected to look, isn't it? How we expect ourselves to look, as well. It isn't what we are."
Crowley watched as the angel lowered his hand. He was still confused, but now he was beginning to get the shape of things.
"So," he said to Aziraphale, "what you're saying is, whether we're fighting or… doing what we're doing now… either way, the goal is to achieve balance, so that humans can get on with things. Which sounds pointless, but… but if we didn't, there would be no things to get on with. We maintain the balance, so that they can make their own."
Aziraphale nodded, looking tired. "Yes," he said. "Although I think the Arrangement will continue to improve matters. Working at cross-purposes is so draining, and maintenance of the balance is much more haphazard. Besides, this way will, I'm sure, be much more interesting, and educational all round."
"I imagine it will," said Crowley dryly.
The angel's hand was still hovering uncertainly above the water. Crowley regarded him through the veil of his hair. Now he was looking for it and not just taking it for granted, the contrast between them seemed gratuitous, as if the Authorities had been trying too hard to make them complete and utter opposites.
He grinned. Well, the joke was on them now, wasn't it?
"What are you so happy about, Crowley?" said Aziraphale with some trepidation.
"I was just thinking," Crowley said, poking him gently in the chest, "that whoever sent you down here was probably not counting on you to be too blessed clever by half." He smirked at Aziraphale's expression. "It's bloody boring working alone," he said. "Don't you think?"
Aziraphale, still wondering what to do with his hand, gave the demon a warm smile. "I must admit, I did miss you, my dear," he said.
Crowley winced. "Arrgh, angel!" he protested. "Too friendly! You don't want to drown me in syrup before we start this up properly, do you?" He ran one finger down the very middle of Aziraphale's chest.
"Job hazard, I'm afraid," said the angel breezily. He laid his confused hand lightly on the back of Crowley's neck.
There was a comfortable silence, during which neither of them looked directly at the other. Then came movement.
Then Aziraphale said, slightly breathlessly, "Crowley?"
"Hmm?" came the slightly muffled reply.
"What exactly do you think you are doing?"
Crowley looked up at him. "Evil things? Demonic things?" he ventured.
"Huh. Funny, that. Because from up here, it looks as though you are licking my collarbone."
"Same difference," said the demon, shrugging.
"Licking my collarbone, Crowley. Why?"
"Er… new subclause in the Arrangement?" Crowley lied.
"You came up with that, did you?"
"Er… no," Crowley lied.
"I was drunk, was I?"
"Er… no," Crowley lied.
Aziraphale sighed. "You lying snake," he said, tightening his grip on Crowley's neck. "Carry on, then."
There was a significant pause, during which Crowley blinked.(8)
"Carry…?" he began.
"Carry on, yes," said the angel. When Crowley still didn't move, Aziraphale snorted impatiently. "Crowley, my dear," he said, grabbing Crowley's wrist with his free hand, "I know you're a demon, but…" He clasped Crowley's hand in his own, splaying the demon's fingers out, and kissed them, one by one. "Don't tempt me," he murmured, eyes half open. "And don't stop."
Crowley gazed at him dazedly. Aziraphale sighed, wrapped his leg around Crowley's, disentangled his fingers from the demon's hair, and moved his hand southward. Crowley went cross-eyed for a moment, and then said:
"Knew you'd get there in the end," said the angel cheerfully as Crowley dove at him again. He buried his hand in the hair at the nape of the demon's neck once more and arched his own neck to allow better access. Crowley seemed to be drawing with his tongue, lightly tracing lines and circles and unpleasant sigils that evaporated, hissing, with a tingling sensation. A bite, a lick, and lips brushed against his neck on the way to his chest. Then Crowley seemed to change his mind halfway down, and he abruptly changed direction, sucking greedily at the skin below Aziraphale's chin.
Aziraphale gave a groan that faded into a quiet shriek. He was probably making a truly ridiculous face, he reflected, just before his mind was completely taken over by fuzziness and demon skin.
Crowley looked up at him, grinning with satisfaction and sweating a bit, one hand clutching at Aziraphale's chest, the other still in the angel's now-limp grasp. "Angel…" he murmured. "You're all red, angel… are you all right? Should I ssstop?" He ran his tongue over his lower lip.
Growling, Aziraphale tightened his grip on Crowley's wrist and brought the demon's hand to his lips. "Bastard," he panted, and put Crowley's fingers in his mouth.
The demon stiffened. "Oh… fuck," he said again, weakly. He couldn't hear for the pulse in his ears, but he somehow managed to disentangle his legs from Aziraphale's and straddle his hips, pushing him a few inches further down into the water in the process.
Hair now floating in the water around his head, Aziraphale made a little mewling noise into Crowley's hand as friction appeared—he wasn't sure how; he hadn't been paying attention, focusing instead on the way Crowley's fingers were searching his mouth, stiffening every once in a while as he did something truly innovative with his tongue… But now Crowley wrenched his hand out of Aziraphale's mouth, a fiery look in his eyes (which would probably have frightened the angel if he hadn't known he was wearing the exact same expression), and let his weight sink into the angel's crotch.
Aziraphale opened his mouth to say something snide about demonic egos, but for some reason nothing came out but a gasp, and he found himself pressing frantically upward, the hand on Crowley's neck clenching and unclenching desperately, the other migrating southward at speed to feverishly explore the demonic arse he had been so intent on kicking just minutes ago.
But a hot hand clutched his arm, and he shivered as Crowley pulled him up and leaned onto him so that their stomachs were touching. "What are you…?" he mumbled through thick lips.
"No… I know… I'm not…" said the demon incoherently. He breathed in and said, somewhat more steadily, "I refuse to wait any longer to play with that tongue of yours, angel, where did you learn—?"
And he leaned into Aziraphale's mouth, and how could he have thought it cold up here? It was like a furnace, but wetter and more interesting, with a tongue investigating the backs of his teeth, doing clever things to his lips, and teeth gently holding his tongue, letting it go, biting his lip, letting it go… There were hands going up and down his back, those absurdly perfect angel hands, finding spots Crowley didn't even know existed and doing maddening things to them.
Aziraphale bucked his hips again, ready to scream but refusing, relishing the stiffening of Crowley's muscles as he ran his hands over them, but relishing even more the tongue and the lips and the skin and, blast, all of it. He ran his finger around Crowley's nipple and was rewarded with a choppy breath in his mouth and a series of increasingly frantic hip motions. Deciding abruptly that enough was enough, he said, "Crowley," his mouth full of lip.
The demon pulled back a bit, looking at him with pupils dilated so wide that black fought with yellow for supremacy. Then he nodded, once, and readjusted them before Aziraphale could blink: the angel on the edge of the pool, Crowley below him, again ministering to his chest, but this time working his way steadily downward. He made a pit stop at each nipple, circling it slowly with his tongue while running fingernails up and down the angel's sides. And onward to the navel, and goodness, he gets winded so quickly, so he stopped and teased it, too, all the while thinking, Five more inches… four more inches… oh bugger…
"Crowley!" said Aziraphale hoarsely, pushing his head down.
Oh, well, it was fun, Crowley thought, and, forgoing the teasing for the moment, did his patented Jaw Trick, closely followed by Really Weird Things With His Tongue.
Aziraphale's bones seemed to suddenly disappear, leaving behind congealed mush, or possibly jam. As he steadied himself shakily with one hand, he was unaware of anything other than the blur of black hair and yellow eyes and tongue, oh yes, definitely tongue, in front of him and the building sensation in his groin.
(… in the distance, a small pile of haphazardly-stacked rocks began to tremble slightly…)
"Crowley," said Aziraphale, by way of punctuation, as the demon angled his body to be able to rub against the angel's leg. He seemed to be breathing very loudly all of a sudden, and there was an odd ringing in his ears, and he wanted to blaspheme very, very, loudly.
So he did.
"Oh, God!" he breathed, and came, arching his back.
(… and the rocks fell quickly, triggering other rocks, until it became an official rockslide, going down and down and down and…)
He had never looked more divine, Crowley saw, as he spat gracefully(9) to the side and ground against Aziraphale's leg, wanting so much to attach himself via mouth suction to Aziraphale's collarbone again, in just… a… minute…
"Oh, hell," he gasped, collapsing on top of the angel.
(… narrowly avoiding a cluster of houses, the rocks landed in front of a yeti's cave; the yeti in question grinned hungrily at his newfound lunch and said a silent prayer of thanks.)
He rolled off of Aziraphale, who seemed to have temporarily forgotten that he didn't technically need to breathe and was taking slow, gusting breaths, and stared at the cloth draped above him. Pulling a semi-conscious angel a bit further down into the water, he got a fingerful of poolside mud and drew, sloppily but with feeling, the symbol of yin and yang on Aziraphale's chest.
"You soppy bastard," said the angel sleepily, eyes still closed.
Crowley look up at him, grinning slyly. He moved his hand…
Brother Mantis, cleaning n the kitchens, dropped a plate with a crash when the abbot's voice cut through the dense monastery silence.
"HA!" it said.
Brother Mantis pinched the bridge of his nose. He had a migraine coming on.
Leaving the kitchens, he walked across the slush-covered monastery grounds and poked hi head into the temple, cautious lest he be hit upside the head with a stray blast of enlightenment. To his surprise, the abbot was not meditating, but sitting with his back to the wall, cackling weakly and wiping his eyes.
"Master?" Brother Mantis ventured timidly. He'd never actually spoken to the abbot before, although admittedly the man did not currently look very intimidating or very holy at the moment. "Are you all right?"
The old man looked up, still chuckling to himself and clutching his stomach. "What?" he said, peering up at Brother Mantis nearsightedly. "Oh, yes, yes, my son," he said hastily, trying to look dignified and failing.
"Are you sure?" Brother Mantis asked uncertainly. Laughter was, to the stricter monks, evidence of illness or injury, or else unenlightened thought, which unfailingly led to injury. He ransacked his memory to see if he'd ever heard the abbot laughing before. No. Definitely not.
"Oh, yes, quite sure, thank you," said the abbot. Then he gave Brother Mantis an appraising stare. "You're one of the lads going to pick up our esteemed Brother Ladybug, are you not?" he asked.
"Yes. Er. I mean I'm not. I am. Going to get him, that is," babbled Brother Mantis.
"Hmm." The abbot scratched his chin and regarded the ceiling for a moment. "Give him… oh, an hour or two more than he asked before you go down."
The acolyte gave the abbot a blank stare. "Why?"
"Just do it, please."
"It will be dark, Master—"
"This," said the abbot loudly, "is why I do not talk to acolytes. Do as I say!"
"Yes, Master," said Brother Mantis meekly.
"Good. Now leave me. I have much to meditate on."
Brother Mantis turned to leave. As he walked out of the temple, he heard from behind him a series of sniggers, badly disguised as a coughing fit. He shook his head and went back to the dishes.
Brother Mantis later achieved enlightenment. He decided he didn't like it much, so he went back to his home mountain and raised yaks. He turned out to be very good at it. Curdled Mantis Milk sold like proverbial hotcakes.
Brother Cricket achieved enlightenment as well, which suited him. He became abbot in time and later a Bodhisattva(10), all the while maintaining a controlled humility and adhering to the maxim, "Speak softly and carry a bloody enormous razor."
Brother Ladybug soon returned to Europe, a bit more confused about some things and a bit less about others, so it probably all balanced out in the end. Until the day he left the mountains, he carried an extremely self-satisfied-looking serpent around his neck, smiling at the monks in an infuriating way and refusing to answer their questions with excruciating politeness. He visited the springs on a daily basis. The abbot watched him and smiled.
Speaking of whom, the abbot died while meditating a few years later. He may have been reincarnated as the boy in a village near the monastery who, in the face of bizarre, confusing, and generally squint-making circumstances, laughed a brazen laugh and brandished his talisman of yin and yang.
So it goes.
1 Although he didn't seem to have made the connection yet; he wouldn't drink tea, preferring a mysterious brown drink that smelled decidedly decadent and which was made from powder, a large sack of which was stored in the very bottom of his bag. (Just because they were monks didn't mean they couldn't be nosy. Or at least that's what they told themselves.)
2 Brother Ladybug had gone to find the leopard the next day. Surprisingly, he came back alive and unscathed, although a little disappointed. He told the abbot sadly, "I really felt I was getting somewhere, I really did, but then some hares turned up and started sniggering at it, and it ran off." Eventually there were sightings in nearby villages of a confused and vaguely guilty-looking snow leopard that would, after killing a domesticated yak, leave half of it behind, along with a thank-you note scratched in the snow.
3 Well, besides the whole enlightenment issue.
4 Due to a heavenly regulation that had been carried over into Hell. Ethereal creatures get weird about this sort of thing.
5 In case you're wondering: it was, in fact, Crowley who came up with the idea of televised political commentary.
6. Angels don't whiten their teeth. They golden. It has a much more warm-and-fuzzy effect on people.
7. There was no word in the fifteenth century for 'scooch'. Yet another reason Crowley so approved of the twentieth.
8. So you know it was significant.
9. This can be done, but Crowley isn't telling how.
10. No, we're not telling you which one.