It started with a kitten.
Many things do, in fact. They rarely make the headlines, as it were, in lieu of certain reports to the proverbial higher-ups (or lower-downs, as the case may be) and are not usually something you'd receive a commendation for.* Nevertheless, you eventually tended to notice that a great many occurrences had a kitten or cat or some other member of the feline subfamily somewhere along their chain of causality.
And so this, as well, started with a kitten.
This particular kitten, a fluffy ginger, had launched itself across the road at a most inopportune moment, and would quickly have become a kitten-shaped splat if Crowley hadn't swerved dramatically, taking the car off the road and into an ornamental pond in the process. The demon shrieked a profanity. His passenger made an 'eep' sound.
As it turned out, the pond was just deep enough for the Bentley to become comfortably submerged in the wake of a melodious glunking and a set of bubbles.
Some wet and slippery scrambling and splashing around later, Crowley and Aziraphale stood at the edge of the little pool of water that now held the Bentley captive in its dank and slimy embrace. They were both covered in lemna.
Absentmindedly wiping his sunglasses on his wet suit, Crowley stared at the bubbles coming to the surface. He made a helpless, aborted movement towards them. Then he swore again at length.
Aziraphale fished a bit of pondweed out of his once-perfect hair and patted the demon on the shoulder. "There, there, dear," he said. "Just miracle it out and it will be good as new, you'll see."
"It bloody well won't," Crowley snapped. "I'll never get the smell completely out of it and it'll drive me crazy." He made a strangled sound. "Go- Manchester, the upholstery is leather, do you have any idea-" He broke off and looked around wildly, peering back at the road where the kitten was no longer to be seen (having taken off, wisely, for safer pastures). "D'you think I hit it?" he asked hopefully, ignoring the admonishing tutting sound the angel made.
"Thanks to you swerving, it appears to have gotten safely away. In fact, I found it rather sweet how you-"
"Oh bloody shut up, will you, it was just a reflex-"
He heard giggling and whipped his head around at a teenage girl standing nearby, cameraphone out.
"What do you think you're ssssstaring at?" he hissed, fixing the kid with the full force of his glare. She gulped and scurried away, having suddenly discovered a lengthy and painful dentist appointment she was late for. Aziraphale winced but did not object.**
"My dear, in her defense, you do look rather... It's, ah... here, let me just..." the angel trailed off, reaching up to pick a water lily out of its nestling place in Crowley's hair and lower it carefully back into the water (after giving it a slight pat).
The demon glared balefully at the water lily, then sighed and shook himself, and suddenly he was dry again. He sniffed. "Can still smell it," he whined.
"My dear, we are still standing next to the pond, I would be surprised if it were otherwise," Aziraphale noted, drying himself in a similar fashion (though his method involved not so much threatening his tartan jacket into dryness as imploringly guilting it into it).
Crowley slumped and took out his phone***. He dialed the number of a random car company and arranged for his Bentley to be fished out and restored to top condition. He was assured, with no sarcasm involved, that there was quite literally nothing they would rather be doing, and of course he needn't bother paying. The hissing probably had something to do with that.
Aziraphale beamed, his spirits none the worse for the dunking they took. He took one look at the demon still staring disconsolately at the series of bubbles that marked his Bentley's watery grave and hooked an arm through Crowley's, gently pulling him away.
"Where are we going?"
"Do stop sulking, dear boy. I am going to get you drunk."
Just because you're an angel doesn't mean you have to be blind to the needs of the situation.
*Unless pharaohs are involved.
**Dental care was another one of those things both sides liked to take credit for.
*** It hadn't occurred to him that sensitive electronics could in any way be damaged by water, so naturally, it had very swiftly un-occurred to the phone as well. Plus, it was a Nokia.
"...Ssssee, wha'm tryinasssay issss... I. You're a. Whassisname. Feather thing. Owl. Nowait. Chicken. Yeessssss. Except you wouldn've arms 'cause chickens jus' have wings an' legs, but you 'ave armsss... Sssoo. Sssso you're like a chicken, except, you know. Arms'n'legsn'wingsss makessss ssssix. Whatchacallit when sssomethin'sss got ssssix legssss..."
"No, no, no... Anyway, ssso you're like a chicken, excssssept you're a ssssix-legged chicken, sseeee?"
Aziraphale was at that unique stage of drunkenness when the only way he could react was to give this due consideration and nod solemnly.
"Mmm-hum. Yesh, dear, I, er. I shee wha you mean."
"An' the besssss part issss, y'know wha tha makesss that uptight one you report to? Gabriel?"
"...Mishelle, I shink? No, no. Mishael."
"Michael. Thassright. Ssso. That makesss 'im... wait for it... an archchicken."
He sat back, satisfied.
He watched Aziraphale's face transform as the angel considered the mental image.
"Witha flamin' ssswoooord," Crowley added helpfully.
Aziraphale exploded in a burst of giggles that turned to snorts which in turn ended in undignified roaring chortling shortly before he knocked over a bottle and drenched himself in absinthe, which amused Crowley to no end.
Five minutes later, when they finally stopped gasping for breath (after remembering that they didn't need to breathe), Aziraphale gave a giddy sigh and Crowley wiped away tears. He gestured at his frie-… adversa-… associate with a wine bottle. (Neither of them even noticed when more wine sloshed out, drenching Aziraphale even further.)
"Your turn, angel." He lifted the wine bottle to his lips and took a swig. Some of the wine even landed in his mouth. It was too scared not to.
"...You're a shnake."
"Hah, noooooo. Too easy. Try again, angel."
Crowley stared suspiciously at him in a manner that was not at all cat-like.
"Whatabloodyloadofrubbish," he hissed.
On second thought, perhaps the less said of the drinking, the better.
In retrospect, Crowley would regard it as The Kitten Incident Number One*, but back then it had been nothing of the sort – after all, it had been a reflex, and the Bentley did pay the price for it, which meant that there were more important things to worry about and it was put out of mind quite quickly.
Unfortunately, it was only months before the concept of kittens reared its ugly head again.
Crowley was sleeping. He adored sleeping almost as much as he adored his car (and had once decided to claim the best of both worlds and curled up comfortably on top of the sun-lit roof of the Bentley, until revived by a policeman who immediately regretted it), or having a good drink in good company**, or the idea of sunglasses. And so one afternoon he was cocooned happily in his sheets (red satin, for the record) and enjoying that moment of drowsiness between one nap session and the next.
He was startled awake by a very recognisable yowling.
He stiffened, then hissed to himself and burrowed deeper into his nest, stuffing his head under a pillow. Unfortunately, this did not erase the yowling, wherever it was coming from. The sound was not unlike the things you heard in the deepest bowels of Hell – for which, unlike most people, Crowley had a direct basis for comparison.
He might have succeeded in ignoring it and going back to sleep, even if the interruption did spoil it a bit, if he hadn't started thinking of what would happen if he did just that. Not the cat, no – he thought about how all the other people in the building could surely hear that blasted animal as well, and how soon there would be loud voices and yelling and excitement and maybe even the fire department come to visit.***
That would be even worse.
Crowley spent a moment inventing a dozen new profanities in his head, then sighed and slithered out of bed. He pulled himself upright in another sinuous motion and staggered blearily to his balcony, not bothering to change out of his outrageously opulent burgundy silk pajamas.
And that was how Crowley found himself climbing up from his top-floor flat to the roof as the yowling grew in intensity and volume. He could already hear voices inquiring about what the source of all the bloody noise was and if someone wouldn't let the blasted cat in already.
The roof was quite pleasantly hot under the afternoon sun and he made a mental note to try napping there later.
The incessant noise was coming from one of the chimneys, where the trapped cat promised to die a slow, painful and loud death if it were not rescued eventually.
Which Crowley did not think about as he approached the chimney, poked his head in, and then (his human body being optional, after all) slithered in.
Crowley snaked his way down into the dark towards the steady ruckus of vibrations**** that was the now increasingly terrified cat. He briefly imagined how embarrassing it would be to fall in and get stuck as well, and so coiled the rest of his meters-long body all the more tightly around the outside of the chimney.
Ignoring the faint pressure of claws scrabbling viciously at his scales, he coiled a few loops around the frantic cat and pulled himself back up.
He changed again (mercifully, remembering to manifest his pajamas) and stared at the scruffy-looking feline held in his arms. It stared back, salad-green eyes full of mistrust.
A moment passed.
Then the cat hissed and lashed out at him in a whirlwind of claws.
Crowley cursed and shifted his grip. It continued to claw at the air furiously.
"You know, I ought to just drop you off the rooftop this instant," Crowley said, and stepped towards the edge. "Find out if it's true what they say about you and landing on your feet and all that."
The cat yowled, loudly.
Five minutes later, he was walking out of his flat, face and arms tingling with that feeling of freshly healed scratches, holding the huge (and quite frankly, overfed, which he didn't neglect to mention to it) tabby by the scruff of its neck at arm's length. The cat's yowling had subsided to a constant, thrumming hiss.
As he walked out onto the landing, he nearly collided with a little old lady who he vaguely recalled lived downstairs (though whether that would still be true by the time he finished his nap was another matter). The little old lady frowned up at him with a righteous fury reminiscent of Aziraphale at his most unbearable, shaking her tiny shriveled fists.
"Why, you… Just what were you doing with that cat, young man?"
Crowley gaped for a moment, feeling oddly affronted. While he generally had no qualms about taking credit for evil-doings he was not actually responsible for (his career would be in a sorry state otherwise), there was something undignified about this particular accusation. He was the Serpent of Eden, instigator of the Original Sin, master of temptation and door-to-door salesman from the time before doors even existed. He was Hell's oldest agent on Earth. He had worse things to do than torment a little dumb animal that was likely already scheduled for Damnation, anyway.*****
"'Twas stuck in the chimney," he gestured with the cat, voice full of wounded pride.
The old lady's expression immediately transformed. "Oh! Oh, I see, oh, I'm so sorry, but the people you get these days, horrible isn't it, it's just that I heard all that wailing and wasn't sure where it was coming from, I don't suppose you have any cat food do you no that's quite alright don't trouble yourself dear…"
Crowley stood there, cat still held in an outstretched hand, not sure how to proceed. He'd wanted to dispose of the animal in some quiet and horrible way and thus exact his revenge for the murder of his sleep. He also wanted to get back to the aforementioned sleep.
Which was why when, in the midst of slightly senile chattering, the lady said something like "Oh look, the poor thing has a collar attached, we should call the owner, oh, but you look busy, would you like me to take him off your hands", Crowley nodded vaguely, deposited the vicious little bundle of fur into the old lady's arms, turned on his heel and slunk back into his apartment.
Soon he was worming his way back into his cozy, no longer warm nest of sheets, the incident moments away from being forgotten.
Had he known in advance that karma would come back to bite him in the proverbial behind, he would at least have changed into a snake and given it something to think about.
* If he were more pedantic or honest with himself, he would realise that this was not, in fact, true. The real Kitten Incident Number One took place quite a bit earlier and actually did involve pharaohs. Aziraphale had once asked something like "Say, my dear, where were you back then, when I was dodging locust swarms and making sure all the right doorways were smeared with lamb's blood (a terrible business, yes, but better than the alternative, all things considered)?", Crowley had shuffled his feet and mumbled something about oversleeping. This was actually code for "I heard yowling and it turns out a cat and its kittens got locked in a catacomb during all the confusion and, um, well, so there" – a truth Aziraphale, to his endless relief, had never managed to fish out of him in all the millennia of getting drunk together that followed.
** If he were more pedantic or honest with himself, he would have phrased that thought differently and admitted that-… screw it, this isn't that kind of story. Sorry about that.
*** It was true – Crowley actually had seen the fire department come driving just to rescue a little white kitten stuck high in a tree. He remembered it because he'd gloated to Aziraphale about it later ("Look at those hypocrites, angel, all that effort just to feel good about themselves while they happily let people starve right under their noses"), and despite his best efforts, the blasted angel had kept smiling for a solid week.
**** Being a demon meant he had better hearing and eyesight than regular snakes, but it still felt that much more intuitive to rely on good old tongue-tasting and vibrations when in that form. He'd found that the strategy tended to be a good one in all sorts of situations.
***** Crowley recognised a kindred spirit in cats the same way two Metallica fans can find each other across a crowded, loud, pitch-black room.
"...And that is how she ended up calling a police officer," Aziraphale finished, his distress evident in the way he kept crumpling and re-smoothing his napkin.
"Right," Crowley said, hands clasped tensely in front of his mouth. "And, uh. What happened then?"
"Well, I had to, you know, take measures," Aziraphale gestured vaguely with a hint of embarrassment. Crowley made a choked sound. The angel frowned at him. "Are you finding this amusing?"
Crowley unclasped his hands and took a deep breath, face impassive. Then his mouth twisted and he broke out in giggles. "No," he managed. He made the mistake of looking at Aziraphale's expression and promptly doubled over, roaring. "Honestly, no," he gasped.
"I don't think it's amusing," Aziraphale said tartly.
"My deepest condolences," Crowley grinned, sharp and flash. "Look, angel, even you've got to admit: scaring a customer so badly she calls the fuzz? Comedy gold."
"I'm not supposed to scare people, Crowley. I'm supposed to be a soothing presence, a beacon of hope-"
"And I'm supposed to tempt people to sin and inspire destruction and calamity, but guess what? I balance that with wanting to enjoy the good things in life," he gestured at the posh interior of the Ritz, the expensive tablecloth and the vanquished remains of the chocolate soufflé, "which wouldn't really be an option if I just kept inciting envy and lust and hatred and all that other rubbish in everyone. A lot of sin here, but you can't create things like this without a little virtue thrown in as well. 'S like cooking." He grinned again.
Aziraphale glanced down at the desert plates and looked back at him levelly. "...It is cooking."
"Good, you're with me then. And like cooking, you can't have your quaint little bookshop and glare righteous death at people who come in to buy something and not expect to come off as a bit of a creep once in a while. It's life."
Aziraphale looked unconvinced. "Sometimes I wonder if you aren't changing me," he said, then blinked in surprise at himself. They didn't usually talk about that.
Crowley was silent for a moment. He reached up and removed his sunglasses. His elbows on the table, he leaned forward and gave the angel a tight smile.
"Probably," he said. "But then again, I sure as heaven wasn't the one to start you on your little obsession. As I recall, you were getting all high-pitched and excited back when they first started scribbling on walls, so I don't know. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's just you. Or maybe it's them." He jerked his head at the other tables, full of gestures and conversations. "Now, the way I see it, I'm not saying you shouldn't worry about it, 'cause it sort of comes with the territory, I guess, but you could do worse than learn to laugh about it a bit. You can take something seriously and still laugh about it, you know. Okay? Does that sound okay?" He swallowed. Aziraphale's hands had gone very still on the napkin.
Then, the angel smiled beatifically.*
"Crowley..." he began tentatively, brow furrowing., as he reached out to pat the demon's hand**. "You really needn't worry, dear boy..."
Crowley leaned back, hastily putting his sunglasses back on. "Worry about what?" he asked, trying to sound blasé.
"About the Arrangement," Aziraphale said gently. "I certainly didn't mean to suggest anything. As far as I'm concerned, it's been a crashing success."
"Smashing," Crowley corrected without thinking.
"Of course. As I was saying, I think it's been beneficial for both of us. There have been very few times when I've had cause to question it at all, and this is hardly one of them."
"Didn't think so," Crowley sniffed, then nodded eagerly. "I mean, what would you ever do without me, right? Years upon years, and nobody to complain about your customers to? You'd explode."
"...Okay then. So that's okay."
Aziraphale nodded cheerfully – it was amazing how easy he was to cheer up, really. He picked up a wine menu and tsked. "I think we should head back home for drinks, don't you, my dear?"***
Crowley smiled. "Your place or mine?"****
* That is, with approximately 150% more celestial grace than his regular smile, including an actual slight glow.
** FYI, this still isn't that kind of story.
*** It wasn't that the Ritz didn't have an adequate wine selection, because it did, but rather that humans tended to react oddly as soon as glasses started refilling spontaneously as things got out of control.
**** Feel free to squint and tilt your head backwards and pretend that this is that kind of story, right about here.
Crowley was not a great believer in karma. This was largely due to him knowing for a fact that he was rather high up on the Creator's list of least favourite creatures, which made believing in karma about as reasonable as "believing" in gravity or the colour blue. Even so, after six thousand years of evading vague cosmic justice, you learned not to worry about karma too much in the immediate present. Until something like this happened, that is.
What happened was a ghost of Crowley's (admittedly recent) past come to haunt him.
He had agreed wholeheartedly that the Ritz was a lousy place to get properly, ravingly drunk in, driven back home, and had just stepped out of the elevator (out of order, not that either of them had noticed) when he nearly collided (again) with a little old lady. The little old lady, upon further inspection, who had procured a similarly arthritis-ridden comrade in arms* and had just been teetering down the hall when Crowley happened upon her. Even as she blinked up at him nearsightedly, Crowley neatly sashayed around her and was halfway to the door of his flat when she did a little jump and high-pitched yelp of recognition.
"Oh, look, Lily, it's that nice young man I told you about who rescued the cat what was trapped in the chimney! It's so nice to see kind people nowadays, people certainly aren't what they used to be, wouldn't you say..."
Crowley froze, suddenly very aware of the angelic presence prickling at the back of his neck. In a single, crystal-clear moment, he felt six thousand years of reputation crumbling to dust.**
All thoughts of exacting unholy vengeance upon the little old lady dissipated as he turned back to look, a sinking feeling in his stomach as he saw his companion. Aziraphale was looking at him. He could practically hear the cogs turning in the angel's head, face lighting up as he connected the dots into what deceptively resembled a damning pattern.
Crowley spread his hands helplessly. "It really, really isn't what it looks like."
"Of course not, dear," the angel said indulgently.
Azirapahle smiled at him in that infuriatingly knowing way of his, and Crowley knew that all hope was lost.
* Never forget that little old ladies hunt in packs, and woe befall anyone's lost grandchild that falls into their stifingly nurturing clutches. Crowley still wasn't sure what mechanism of nature produced such scores of frail yet oddly resilient, identical-looking, knitwear-clad little old ladies, but suspected mitosis was involved.
** Unbeknownst to him, another piece of his reputation disintegrated at that moment, namely the one concerning his relationship status. Since the local gang of little old ladies numbered, between them, a grand total of three dozen young, single, female relatives, he'd rather dodged a bullet with that one.
Two hours later, Crowley summoned another 1789' Montpeillier and filled Aziraphale's glass to the brim.
"An' she says.. she sats... this here's degera.. degene... degenetey..."
"Degenerate?" Crowley said helpfully, steadying the angel's hand as his glass threatened to slosh over.
"Yes gerenate, er. I mean. Yes, that. So she says, this here's deregenate art, we're shupposhed to burn them, and then I just..." Aziraphale hiccuped, giggled hysterically, and gestured wildly with his wine glass to demonstrate unspecified measures. Crowley reached over to steady his hand again and poured more wine. "So then I jus'... I was ov'r my quota already, shee, of miracles, tryin' to shave all those people, so I couldn' jus'..." He waved his hand again.
"So what?" Crowley said. "You went all Sssophie's Choice on 'em and sssmuggled a couple out in your big tartan overcoat?"
The soggy silence indicated that that was exactly what he'd done.
"I got dishcoropate... discorpr-... killed that day," Aziraphale said. Crowley winced in sympathy. "They weren't very pleashed with me about that, esgpecially what with everythin' else goin' on. I wash out of the loop for a while. I wish I hadn't tried it, you know? Shet my priorities shtraight. It'sh just... all thoshe booksh..."
"Lousy decade," Crowley nodded.
Aziraphale sobbed suddenly. Crowley reached out to pat his shoulder, a gesture that should've been awkward but somehow wasn't.
"There, there," he said mechanically and poured the angel more wine.
Aziraphale peered into his wine glass suspiciously. He looked up at Crowley. "I'm drunk," he announced.
Aziraphale squinted at him. "I'm a lot more drunker'n you are," he added with a hint of hurt feelings.
Crowley's strategy had been to get the angel drunk into oblivion, quite literally, so that it would never occur to him to think of Crowley and cats in the same sentence ever again. He gulped and shrugged uneasily.
"Just thought I'd ssstay a bit more sssober for a change, angel," he said cagily. "Sssoo anyway... Don't beat yoursself up over it. We've all done things we regret. And sssso on."
Aziraphale looked at him in silence, then at the pile of empty wine bottles (significantly more of them on his side than Crowley's), his brain appearing to go through a series of complicated and slow mathematical exercises, then back at Crowley. Suddenly he laughed.
"What is it?" Crowley asked uneasily.
"You're tryina get me drunk," the angel giggled.
"You're tryina get me drunk sho I forget about the cat," the angel jabbed a triumphant finger at him (and managed a rough approximation of his general direction), eyes sparkling with more mental alacrity than was entirely fair for someone that inebriated.
Crowley froze. He decided that karma really wasn't on his side today.
"No I'm not," he protested weakly.
"You sho are! You're embarshed of all the catsh you've been shaving, you wily shnake with a shpark of goodnesh, you!"
"No I'm not!" Crowley repeated, then decided that a change of tactics was in order. "It's nothing to be embarassssed about, anyway."
"Really?" the angel blinked at him in curiosity.
"Really, angel. Jussst doing the devil'sss work here, understand? No?" he saw the angel shake his head. "Fine! I'll explain it to you. They're evil creatures. Evil. Viciousss, bloodthirsssty monsters. Ever ssseen a cat play with itsss food, angel? There'ssss nothing good about them, trussst me."
Aziraphale leaned forward. "Shmall. Furry. Animals," he said slowly, punctuating each word with a tap on the table.
"You of all people should know appearances can be deceiving, angel*."
"Me of... all people?"
"You hang out with me, right? Sssnake, remember?"
Aziraphale cocked his head. "Shnakes aren't evil."
Crowley looked at him in silence for a moment. He swallowed.
"Cats are," he insisted.
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows.
Suddenly Crowley grinned. "Actually," he said, "you're probably right. The Lord's creatures, and all that. Ineffable. Yeah. You know what, you win, angel."
The angel in question looked confused, but nodded sluggishly. "I'm glad that'sh shettled, then," he said as haughtily as he could manage. "I don't know what you're up to, you wicked sherpent, but you're fallin' behind." He gestured at the wine bottles.
Crowley nodded eagerly. "I've got a bottle of Ssscotch sssomewhere," he lied and stumbled up, pretending to rummage in his minibar. While the angel was distracted, he produced a post-it and a shiny ballpoint pen and scribbled as legibly as he could manage under the circumstances. Just in case. Flashes of genius were not meant to be lost to drunken oblivion, after all.
He stuffed it into the pocket of his suit, hung it up carefully and returned to the couch, where the coffee table's collection of bottles was beginning to resemble a small, very shiny army.
He drank and joked and teased and tempted and wiled, even as his mastermind plan pieced itself together in the back of his mind.
The angel smiled.
The demon smiled.
But for rather different reasons.
On the post-it note, two words were written in a spiky, unsteady handwriting:
After all, a demon never surrenders without a fight.
To be continued...
* Unfortunately, Crowley had missed the particular showing of Discovery Channel that divulged how a cat's hissing face, with its narrow pupils, sharp fangs, triangular snarl and round head with flattened ears, was actually meant to emulate a snake's, otherwise he could have made an even better point for the whole "cats are horrible vicious creatures" thing.