When he got back to Earth, the angel went looking.
He wasn't sure why except that it seemed like the right thing to do. It wasn't like he wanted to be discorporated again - though the chances of that were somewhat slimmer - but there were things he needed to say. Or maybe to hear.
Aziraphale began his search in the larger cities, thinking they'd be havens for a demon; there were plenty of people to tempt, after all, and many who were already mostly lost. (1) But Crowley wasn't in Uruk, Nineveh, or Babylon. What was in Babylon, however, was a library, the likes of which he'd never seen and he ended up spending rather a bit more time in the city than he'd intended. About a hundred and fifty years, in fact, and Aziraphale unintentionally became the world's foremost expert on comparative flood mythologies. Not that anyone else knew it.
It was only while tsking over the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh (2), that he remembered why he was there in the first place. In the text, Gilgamesh had just gone to see Utnapishtim and his wife - the two immortal survivors of the Great Flood - who told him of a plant at the bottom of the ocean that would make him young again. Gilgamesh managed to retrieve said plant by tying stones to the bottom of his feet, but rather than eating it immediately, he placed the hard-won specimen on the lake shore when he went to bathe and a serpent stole it away, shedding his skin and becoming reborn. Which was odd, Aziraphale thought, because seen in a particular light, that was precisely what had happened to that demon, Crowley, during the… oh, dear.
After a few days of settling his affairs and saying goodbye to his acquaintances, Aziraphale was once again on the move.
- - -
Following the faint energy signatures of evil, Aziraphale was inadvertently sidetracked once or twice before he finally found the demon he was looking for in the tiny village of Nuvlana in Ausonia (3), far to the northwest of the Great Cities and the cradle of civilization. He couldn't imagine what Crowley was doing in this backwater area.
Landing half a mile away, the angel tucked his wings in and changed his relatively well-off merchant's clothes for something more appropriate to a rural town. It itched. The itch was an unwelcome distraction from thoughts that were now down to just around ten minutes to find a reason to explain his presence, although if the previous weeks were anything to go by, he hadn't much hope of succeeding. Somehow he didn't think that coming right out and saying 'Thank you for brutally murdering me two hundred years ago,' would go over all that well, and he hadn't come up with anything better in all his musing on the subject, which, granted, took a hundred and fifty year hiatus, but one would think that in the first fifty years of thinking about it off and on, one could find something to say. When he met up with the goat herder a few minutes later, he knew he'd run out of time.
The young man looked at him. Aziraphale cleared his throat self-consciously. "Hello. I'm looking for..." oh, dear. He didn't know the demon's current pseudonym or even gender. "... someone with yellow eyes?"
Looking suspiciously at the angel, the man said, "Alaite?"
"Er, yes. Yes, that sounds familiar. I haven't seen Alaite in many years. Would you take me to," he made the briefest of pauses, "him? My name is Aziraphale."
He must have guessed correctly for the young man nodded. "I am called Roeban. Alaite is likely in his home. Please follow me."
After a brief stop to ask another robust young man to keep an eye on his herd, Roeban led the angel to a small village of maybe twenty-five or thirty half-moon shaped woven wood homes. Though they looked identical to Aziraphale, the man led him unerringly to one particular home amongst all the others. Four pregnant goats were tied up in a pen outside. Roeban knocked.
"Alaite? You have a visitor. He is called Aziraphale."
Aziraphale heard some muttered cursing and the door opened. Crowley looked... if the angel had to pick just one word, it'd be 'terrible'. It wasn't that he wasn't as attractive as ever, but the demon looked thin and weary and there was a disturbing, haunted, hopeless look to his flat eyes that the angel had never seen before, not even when he... she'd been ill.
"Thank you, Roeban. You may go."
Roeban nodded politely and left. Crowley turned his attention to Aziraphale. "If you've come to square things, just be aware that I'm not the only one here."
Eyes widening in surprise, Aziraphale looked into the interior of the little house to find three men looking back at him. "I didn't... I mean I don't believe in revenge. I believe in duty."
The yellow eyes were unreadable as they bored into him; the body they inhabited, tense. "Same thing for you, isn't it?"
"No!" replied Aziraphale, shocked. Aware of his audience, he swallowed the rest of that statement. "I just... wanted to talk. If this is a bad time, I can come back."
Crowley sighed and stepped out of the way, inviting the angel in. "No, it's fine. Come in. Have a seat."
Vaguely suspicious, Aziraphale went inside. As his eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the house, he saw that it was neat and well-appointed, but humble. It was the sort of place he'd be comfortable living in, but it didn't seem like the demon's taste at all. Not that he knew what that was. In two thousand years, this was the only one of Crowley's dwellings that he'd ever seen, apart from the Ark and that hardly counted. Still, it was a puzzle.
The angel nodded politely to the three men and took a seat on an unoccupied cushion on the floor as Crowley made the introductions. "Roebart, Planister, and Thawlis, this is Aziraphale, a merchant known to my father." The men nodded as Aziraphale hid a confused expression. Father? He was known to Crowley's father if the demon meant God, though that seemed unlikely. Still, practised enough at blending in, the angel said nothing, waiting to find out more before he spoke in order to avoid contradicting one of Crowley's lies. He wasn't here in an official capacity, after all.
"Aziraphale, these gentlemen are the village council. We've just finished our meeting and were going to have a drink. Would you like to join us?"
"Thank you, some water would be appreciated after my long journey."
Crowley looked at him. "We're having wine."
The angel's mouth opened in astonishment. "Oh. No, I won't corrupt myself with evil drink. It makes wise men act like fools and turns virtuous men into sinners."
The members of the village council stared at him with rather dark expressions. Switching to a language that was used before the Flood, Crowley snarled. "You are embarrassssing me in front of my people, angel."
Aziraphale looked horrified. "Your... people?"
The demon rolled his eyes in a manner so reminiscent of the snake he'd been long before. "Not those kind of people. They're not evil, they're just mine. I'm head of this village. I have been for decades. When I'd been here too long, I got myself killed and returned as my son to claim the position again. Roebart is the chief goat herder - Roeban is his son. Planister is the chief grain farmer. And Thawlis, who you are thoroughly insulting, by the way, is chief of the vineyard. Sso, before you make me look bad - drink."
The angel hung his head in defeat and shame. Returning to the tongue they all spoke, he said, "I'm sorry. That was terribly rude of me. I don't know what I was thinking. I would be honoured to drink with you."
With eyes still vaguely narrowed, the men accepted his apology and Thawlis began to pour from a jug by his side into five simple cups that Crowley produced the normal way, one of which looked oddly familiar somehow. Before Aziraphale could figure it out, Crowley lifted the cup he'd recognized and the others followed his lead.
"Nuvlana," he said.
"Nuvlana," they echoed and drank.
The angel tipped back his cup and drank deeply, going into a coughing fit as the alcohol hit the back of his throat. His eyes started to water as he gasped for breath. Aziraphale hadn't expected it to be painful. Of course, the fact that the demon was laughing at him didn't help.
"First drink?" Crowley smirked. "You don't gulp wine, you know. A mouthful at a time is fine."
Aziraphale nodded, still unable to speak. The serpent sighed, then stood, returning a moment later with a pitcher of water, which the angel drank from gratefully. When he had his voice back he managed, "I wasn't expecting it to be so strong..."
Crowley smiled at Thawlis, who'd been watching the scene with some horror. "Thawlis is a fine winemaker."
Thawlis squirmed a bit and smiled uncertainly back. "Thank you," he said. Aziraphale got the feeling that Crowley didn't compliment people very often, so they didn't know what to do when he did.
Resettling himself, the demon lifted his cup to his lips again and launched into an amusing and biologically improbable story about the head of a nearby village. Aziraphale wasn't entirely certain why until it became clear that Crowley had been giving him some time to recover as well as smooth over bad feelings with the council members. By the time the story ended, the tension in the room had dissipated with a hearty laugh and Planister took over with some hot gossip of his own involving just who he'd caught trysting in his fields a few days prior. Grateful that he didn't know the people involved in these tales and that he was largely excluded from participating, the angel turned his attention back to the wine, trying a small sip and then another. It still burned his throat, but less so with each swallow, and a pleasant warmth began to form in his chest. By the time Thawlis refilled his cup a second time, he was beginning to find the stories quite amusing and laughed along with the others. This was nice, he thought, comfortable. Like all those evenings on the Ark together. And the fact that he was sitting next to his immortal enemy didn't seem to matter so much, which really should have been a warning sign. The wine was ensnaring him with its false sense of security as it had so many others...
- - -
About the time he'd finished his fifth cup of wine, the others stood to go. It had been a good meeting, but they had responsibilities to their families in the evening, and they left, stumbling and weaving back to their own homes a few paces away. Crowley and Aziraphale were left alone together.
"Ssso," hissed the demon in the suddenly quiet room. "What brings you here?"
They'd come to the moment Aziraphale had been dreading, and yet, when it came to it, he didn't seem to mind at all. Thanks to the wine, the angel was feeling loose and chatty, so rather than agonize over the proper words or the sense in telling the demon at all, Aziraphale simply came right out and said what he'd traveled a thousand leagues and waited two centuries to say. "I wanted to thank you."
Crowley furrowed his brow, trying to come up with a recollection that explained this odd announcement. "For what?" he asked, confused.
"For killing me," said Aziraphale, finishing off his wine and looking for the jug again. "Back in Sodom."
The demon tensed suddenly, the haunted look returning to his slightly unfocused eyes. "Why would you thank me for that...?"
"Two reasons," the angel slurred, carefully holding up two fingers and counting them to be sure. "When I got back to Heaven, I learned they had been planning to recall me. Said something about the world not needing an angelic agent after all the evil people were gone. But you proved to be such a strong, um, opponent that they decided I could stay and try to keep you from making more evil people. Which is good, because I like it here. There are stories."
Looking faintly stunned at the confession, Crowley eloquently said, "What?"
"You killed me. In front of an archangel even. They figured you were good. Well, a good fighter, anyway." He waggled a finger. "But I warn you. I've had fifty years of mandatory combat training since then..." Fifty long years of sword drills that he'd been forced to do with a stick because he'd misplaced his sword. He'd been the laughingstock of Heaven. It had been another reason why Earth was far preferable. But he had become a better fighter than he ever had been before, even to the point of besting other angels who relied solely on their swords. He hadn't tested his skills against a demon yet, but he'd rather not have to, either.
"What's the other reason, then?" asked the demon.
Aziraphale looked at the ground. "Since I was discorporated, I didn't have to help Gabriel... with what he did..." Crowley had saved him from having to kill thousands of people with his own hands. It was a mental horror he couldn't imagine. Gabriel still wasn't the same, even if he had acted on God's orders and simply channeled God's power. It was subtle - the Messenger looked and behaved as he always had - but there was something a bit broken behind his eyes and it frightened Aziraphale. The principality was reminded of him whenever he looked at the demon, but he couldn't quite figure out why. The wine, again, playing tricks on him. Sober, he might have recognized the similar expressions between the two and realized how traumatic an experience it must have been for Crowley as well. Post traumatic stress syndrome, or shell shock, which wouldn't be formally discovered for centuries yet and not understood or treatable for millennia. But it would have gone a long way toward explaining the demon's presence in the quiet little town.
"Huh," said Crowley, draining his glass.
Aziraphale smiled. This hadn't been difficult at all. He should have done it decades ago, it felt so good to have it off his chest. "You're awfully easy to talk to," said the angel, unaware that the alcohol probably helped a little.
The demon seemed to consider this, then refilled his drink.
"I've always thought so," Aziraphale persisted. "Even way back in the Garden. You had that lovely simile about the balloon..."
Crowley looked faintly embarrassed.
"And later, on the Ark. Well, I mean it was nice to talk to anyone by that point, but you've always expressed yourself well for someone either about to kill me or on the verge of dying yourself. Of course, most of what you said wasn't very nice..." The angel held up an unsteady hand to forestall any objections, "but it was sometimes rather amusing."
Aziraphale couldn't believe he'd said that last bit out loud, but the demon was laughing, so it couldn't be that bad so he continued.
"Gosh, it's awfully warm and nice in here. I thought you'd have all..." he waved his hand again, "oh, I don't know, corpses and things lying about."
"Corpses?" repeated Crowley faintly.
"Well, you've killed me so often, I rather thought it would be habit by now."
"Ssorry to disappoint," said the demon, "but even if there were enough sspare people around to kill, I hardly think my villagers would sstand for it."
Aziraphale noticed the hissing, but refrained from commenting on it. It was sweet, he decided, and reminded him of the old days when the world wasn't so complicated. (4) "You mentioned that earlier, demon dear," he remembered. "How on Earth did you end up the leader of a village?"
Crowley shook his head. "Doesn't really matter. Wandered around for a while. Wanted to get out of the area..." He didn't specify which area, but the angel was starting to get the idea, even through the wine fog, as that same look returned. "Found mysself here with a lot of information about when to plant the crops and weird eyes that were apparently a gift from the gods according to the local wise man. Their last leader had just died with no sson and they assumed I was here to take over. End of sstory."
The angel nodded as if this made sense and then felt rather odd, so he stopped. Unaccountably tired, he closed his eyes for a moment.
"Before you go to ssleep..." the demon started to say.
"I don't go to ssleep, er, sleep. I'm just closing my eyes," Aziraphale retorted. The last thing he saw was Crowley's smirk.
- - -
When Aziraphale woke the next morning from his uncomfortable spot on Crowley's floor, he was sure the demon had killed him again. It had been rather foolish to stay in his house alone and to think he could turn his back on him. They had shared several difficult situations, but that meant nothing. They always had been and always would be enemies.
The angel groaned. His head felt like it had been split open and he gingerly felt for the wound. Not finding it, he deduced that it had been fatal and he was already back in Heaven, his mortal shell gone. Cracking one eye open, he winced at the light, dim though it was, but his surroundings didn't look like Heaven. They looked like Crowley's house. Maybe he'd only been wounded and left to die? After a great deal more thought, which came slower than it should, and limb counting, Aziraphale realized that he hadn't been physically injured at all. What he hadn't yet learned was why, then, he should feel so awful? Apart from the splitting headache and sensitivity to light, he was feeling faintly nauseous. The angel was still trying to puzzle this out when Crowley entered through the front door carrying a pitcher of water.
"Drink this," he said softly, for which Aziraphale was grateful. "You'll be dehydrated. After a few minutes you'll be well enough to try getting the toxins out of your system."
The angel's eyes widened. "You poisoned me?"
Crowley snorted. "You poisoned yourself. I tried to tell you to get the wine out before you slept, but you wouldn't listen. It's a lot harder in the morning. The alcohol has metabolized into a bunch of other shit that you have to clear out one by one."
"The wine?" repeated Aziraphale. "Does it have this effect on humans?"
"When they drink as much as you did. Only they have to piss it out."
Aziraphale looked a little green. Trying to figure out why the demon wasn't attempting to harm him and trying to decide whether or not it was appropriate for an angel to heal himself after a self-inflicted action or if he should just accept the consequences of sin, was taking a lot of mental processes, so it was a while before he opened his mouth to speak. Unfortunately, that was just as the ground began to shake.
"Fuck," said Crowley. "Earthquake. Out of the house, now!" He grabbed Aziraphale's arm and hauled him violently to his feet. The angel swayed dangerously but was unable to find his bearings as he was pulled out of the small building. The last thing he saw was the water pitcher fall to the ground and smash right where his head had been.
Once outside, believing the danger to have passed, Aziraphale began to focus on his own dilemma again. That was, until he saw Crowley's face. The demon looked stricken and pale, staring as he was up at the sky. The angel followed his gaze to the peak of the mountain, the slopes of which made up the fertile ground of the village's fields, only to find a great plume of smoke rising hundreds of feet into the air.
"Not again," murmured Crowley almost inaudibly as he ran a hand through his hair. "Please, not again..."
And finally for the angel, everything clicked into place. For two thousand some-odd years the demon's life had been punctuated by disaster: the Fall, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and countless others - all examples of great holy power directed against him or the people around him, and all of which must have had an effect on the only demon to regularly reside on the Earth. Aziraphale suddenly understood why Crowley had fled, why he dwelt in such an insignificant place. He must have felt he had some control over his circumstances here, could possibly avoid the gaze of God for a while, and to find that he couldn't; to have epic disaster loom once more in the form of a volcano, well, Aziraphale's compassion told him what he must do, aching head or no.
"Demon," he said, "Crowley. We must evacuate the people. Your people. You must lead them somewhere safe."
Crowley turned dazed eyes on him. "You came to herald this."
The demon's blank expression didn't change during the long silence. Then he said, "My people..."
"I will help."
"Why?" asked Crowley, suddenly suspicious. It was more reassuring than the nothing of moments before, but had he so forgotten what it was to be an angel?
"Because they're people," Aziraphale said serenely. His pain was of no import any longer.
Crowley shook himself and the lost look finally left his serpentine eyes. "To me!" he cried to the frightened people milling about.
The villagers gathered at the center of town, mostly standing in family groups. Several children were crying as their parents and older siblings gave each other horrified looks and another quake hit the little town.
"Silence!" the demon demanded after it passed. "You must listen to me. The earth mother is angry. I do not know why, but soon she will destroy the mountain and rain fire on all Nuvlana. We must leave. Go into your homes and take only what is most necessary for your survival. Then you will follow this one," he nodded at Aziraphale, "away from this place. Go now."
With odd looks at the angel, the people disbursed. Aziraphale glanced at Crowley. "Why am I leading them away?"
The demon was looking up again. "The shepherds are up there. I need to get them down. Just do what I say, angel," he said sounding exasperated and disappeared, running up a narrow track up the hillside.
Aziraphale did what he could to assist people in their packing and to keep them calm. In times of difficulty, people will follow any strong leader and the angel proved that he could be one when circumstances demanded. After a while, Crowley returned with the shepherds who scattered off to their respective homes.
As he seemed to be in a temper, Aziraphale was worried about his opposite number when the demon caught sight of Thawlis, the winemaker, trying to leave with a large cask of wine. Crowley strode over and dashed it from the man's back where it broke open and soaked into the ground. The angel couldn't claim to be upset by this development considering how he felt, but the man certainly was.
"Only necessities, you fool," yelled Crowley who moved on ignoring the mutinous look in Thawlis' eyes.
As the angel watched, he realized that he hadn't seen one vaguely familiar face. "Cr... Alaite!" he shouted, "where's Roeban?"
Crowley froze. "Sshit... shit!" And he ran back up the path, calling out behind him, "Get them out now!"
Aziraphale did as he was instructed, gathering up the people; a shepherd of men he would think ironically many, many years later. When he was certain he had them all, he began the long trip down the mountainside and toward the sea.
After about half a day's travel, the top of the mountain blew off in a cacophony of terrible noise and blinding smoke. The people had been prepared, however, and curled to the ground with wet strips of fabric covering their noses and mouths as the cloud of superhot gases and ash passed by. Miraculously, no one was hurt.
By dusk, the exhausted people had to stop as their limited visibility ended completely and the angel let them set up camp for the night beneath the glow and heat of the mountain. As they made their preparations, he wandered back up their path. Drawn by instinct, he wasn't surprised to see Crowley flying toward his location, Roeban's unconscious form in his arms. The demon was sooty and looked tired.
"Take him," he said with no preface. "I have to go back. The lava is moving faster than you are. It'll overtake them by morning if I can't divert it."
Aziraphale gathered the young man in his arms. Not quite sure what to say and well aware he couldn't and shouldn't talk Crowley out of this course of action if they were all to survive, he simply gazed into the demon's eyes. "Good luck."
When Crowley had flown away again, Aziraphale added quietly, "And God bless..." Turning, he took Roeban back down to his worried father.
They traveled for another day with no further problems, but the angel had an uncomfortable, ominous feeling. When everyone else went to bed for the night, he slipped out of camp and headed out on his own toward the still smoking crater. Flying, he reached Nuvlana quickly to discover that it had been almost entirely enveloped in a mudslide. Nothing of it remained. Instead, he turned to follow the lava flow down the mountainside.
At a point not terribly far from where they had camped the night before, Aziraphale noticed that the flow shifted abruptly to the left. Investigating further, he found several large boulders grouped together to divert the molten rock away from where the people had unsuspectingly lain. Near the boulders, however, just off the lava stream, the angel spotted something charred and odd. Aziraphale flew closer to look curiously at it and then began to retch. It was Crowley. Or what was left of him. Somehow he'd fallen in his battle against the forces of nature and curled into an unnatural position; his mouth still gaping open in horror.
Unsure when or where he'd see him again and hoping that Crowley wouldn't get into too much trouble for his actions, Aziraphale hastily buried his remains and returned to the camp feeling heavy and grieved, though he knew the demon still existed somewhere. In the morning, they'd continue their journey and once he'd found a place for Crowley's people to thrive, he would leave them. Considering all of what had happened, he just wanted to return to Assyria to have some quiet alone time to think.
- - -
(1) The angel never gave up entirely on a soul until the individual's death. There were such things as deathbed confessions; repentance could come at any time and he needed to be ready to help save if it did.
(2) Which was clearly added later and just stolen from the Atrahasis Epic anyway…
(3) Nola in Italy, essentially. Not then, of course. But eventually.
(4) People (and people-shaped beings) have always thought the world used to be less complicated. Even Adam and Eve walked around going, "Remember yesterday? When it was easy to pick that fruit and name that animal? Things were so much less complicated then."