torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
June 1-21, 2015

Disclaimer: mismatched cosmologies are no joke. Written for jamjar. Do not archive without permission.

Efficient temptation

One of the first things Crowley noticed was that a lot of people in this quiet little village had slit-pupilled eyes. At least, a lot compared to London, where practically no one did, unless Hastur and Ligur were visiting. It made him feel quite at home, and almost made up for the fact that he had to wear some extremely dull clothing and a chunky vest to blend in.

He thought sending a demon on a cross-reality trip to tempt one single mortal was more than a little extravagant, but from his perspective it was rather like an all-expenses-paid vacation, which he carefully did not point out to anyone. Instead, he spent some time studying his target, considering the best approach, using all his millennia of experience to decide what would be the most efficient temptation, and absolutely not putting off doing any real work.

The first hint that he might have been a little too leisurely came when he saw a very familiar figure sitting at the ramen-stand counter, wearing something comfortably shapeless and listening with apparent interest to whatever the cook was telling him.

Crowley slid onto the seat next to him just as the cook turned away to stir something. "Hullo, angel," he said.

Aziraphale gave him a very familiar look of mingled kindness and disapproval. "I suppose I don't have to ask why you're here."

"No," Crowley said cheerfully. "And you're here to stop me. But I should tell you that my side's practically got this one in the bag already."

"Really." Aziraphale didn't look convinced. "I understand he's very skilled, dutiful, and has a highly-developed sense of responsibility. It should be easy to guide him along the right path."

"He's guilt-ridden, extremely lazy and chronically late, and spends most of his time reading porn," Crowley said. "This village is doomed."

"Nonsense," Aziraphale said. "He'll be the positive influence needed to lead to--"

"Porn," Crowley said again. "Rather tame, I have to admit, but I'm sure he can be encouraged to move on to more depraved things."

Aziraphale gave him a cold look. "I think you've misjudged him," he said. "This... scarecrow person, is it, would hardly be either skilled or in a position to teach if he didn't train a lot. These things don't just happen," he said with the calm certainty of someone who has always believed gyms are an invention of the Other Side. "Clearly he has a lot of discipline. He'll be the force for good that he was meant to be."

"Force for evil," Crowley said, then considered the man in question. "Inertia will do. Sloth is a sin, too, you know. May the best demon win!"

That seemed like a good exit line, and besides, he didn't want to hear Aziraphale predictably pointing out that he wasn't a demon, so Crowley strode off down the street and began to ponder how, exactly, he was going to ensure his victory, because of course it was inevitable, but with Aziraphale's present to interfere, perhaps Crowley needed to be a little more proactive. Hands-on, even.

He found the scarecrow person, as Aziraphale called him, seemingly asleep in the sun on an out-of-the-way rooftop. It seemed to Crowley that all that was necessary to ensure this village didn't get any of that positive influence that Aziraphale had talked about was to leave the man there, to do nothing and let him continue to do nothing. Crowley turned to do just that, his foot skidded on a roof tile and made a barely-noticeable sound, and in the next moment, he was pinned to the chimney with several of those sharp little knives through his sleeve and trouser-leg.

"I thought you were asleep," he said.

"I was." Kakashi sounded faintly put-out. "No one ever sneaks around on this roof. Mind telling me why you're here?"

Crowley tugged at one of the knives. It was driven deep into the brick of the chimney. He pulled it out anyway, of course, because being a demon came with a few advantages in handling ordinary objects and matter, but he had to admit he was impressed. "I was just looking for a quiet spot myself," he said. "But I can see you don't like to be disturbed." He went on pulling out knives, putting them down in a pile at his feet.

"I should go see my students," Kakashi said, sitting up. He made no move to leave, though, just watched Crowley with his one visible eye.

"I'm sure there's no hurry," Crowley said, pulling the last knife free. He was starting to remember why he didn't like direct temptations, as opposed to indirect ones. He never knew what to say to people. "No need to interrupt your nap on my account."

"No, it's about time," Kakashi said mildly. "Just tell me who you are first. I've never seen you in the village before."

That's because you've been asleep, Crowley didn't say. "I'm new here," he said instead. "I'm in sales."

"Really." That got him a sharper look. "And what are you selling, up here on a roof?"

This was extremely inconvenient, Crowley thought. He could hardly claim to be a roof-to-roof porn salesman. "I didn't come here to sell anything," he said instead. "I just wanted to get away from everything and relax for a while. Just like you."

Kakashi got to his feet. He had unnervingly good balance. Crowley realized, belatedly, that he himself probably should not have, since he was pretending to be an average human. He shifted backwards and took care to wobble a little.

"The roof is all yours, then," Kakashi said. And just like that, he vanished, leaving only a few leaves fluttering in his wake. Crowley glared at them, and they fell to the rooftop and lay absolutely still.

Crowley decided the indirect approach was probably better. He tried leaving a clip with a large sum of money in Kakashi's way, just to see if that would work; the man looked uninterested, and turned it in to some kind of security force led by a large man with worrying scars who could have stepped into the ranks of demonic torturers with no questions asked. Crowley was quite clear on the fact that he wasn't going to get caught.

Next he left a bag of pornography outside Kakashi's door. Kakashi set it on fire. To be scrupulously exact, first he began to use some kind of odd bomb-disposal technique, and then, when he'd apparently determined it was harmless, he looked at it. Then he set it on fire. Crowley sighed. Perhaps he should have been a bit more selective, rather than just using the contents of the nearest shelf of the seediest Soho shop he could think of. Humans were exasperatingly fussy about their sexual preferences. The wrong color lace on the underwear, the wrong gender partner, the wrong number of others watching and they were put off, just like that.

Crowley decided that he was appealing to the wrong vices. It seemed Kakashi wasn't greedy, and despite his reading preferences, more discriminating in sexual matters than Crowley really had the patience to investigate. Nothing about his habits or person suggested that he was particularly interested in eating, though Crowley experimented with a few chocolate bars randomly found in pockets and in cupboards.

Kakashi tested them for poison, then gave them away.

That was exasperating, and the inherent generosity of the gesture also suggested that the other side was winning. Crowley stalked the streets of the village until he came across Aziraphale mending a toy for a small child. He walked up just as the child was running off, all smiles and shouted thanks. "I suppose you're very pleased with yourself," he said.

"That tiny wheel was tricky," Aziraphale agreed, and then he turned and looked at Crowley. "Are you talking about our assignment?"

"It's hardly a joint effort," Crowley said. "You must have done well, tempting him towards virtue."

"We don't tempt," Aziraphale said primly. "We merely provide opportunities for virtuous behavior. And I have to say," annoyance overrode the primness, "when I give someone a chance to rescue a kitten from a tree," Crowley rolled his eyes, "I don't expect him to paw it off on his students as a training exercise. They completely destroyed the tree -- there's only a crater left."

"And the kitten?" Crowley said. This might turn out to be a win for his side, after all.

"The kitten was fine," Aziraphale said. "One of them tried to feed it milk that had gone bad, but the others stopped him. Besides, that was only ignorance, not malice."

"Sounds like a success to me." Crowley wondered if he could just stay in this reality and refuse to come home, avoiding whatever punishment the powers below would think up for Aziraphale's success, which was, of course, Crowley's failure.

"The scarecrow man wasn't even there." Aziraphale didn't look like an angel who had won a soul from the demonic wiles of the local representative of evil. "He went off with his book. I suppose that was your doing."

Much as Crowley would have liked to take the credit for this particular bit of apparent apathy, he found himself sharing the events of his recent days with Aziraphale, and they swapped exasperated stories about their target, who refused to be either good or evil, and instead just displayed equal measures of laziness and paranoia.

"I should be able to work with that," Crowley said. "Empires have fallen due to laziness and paranoia. This fellow shouldn't be harder to topple than an empire." He considered the matter. "Perverse bastard."

"I thought your lot liked that kind of thing," Aziraphale said.

Crowley gave him an unamused look. "Don't even start with me, angel."

His next attempt was to change every part of Kakashi's bedding into something visually identical, so he wouldn't notice, but vastly more comfortable. Encourage the man to sleep in, Crowley thought, and then there'd be other opportunities to encourage further sloth during the day -- it shouldn't be difficult, really, given Kakashi's own propensities.

Except that the man got up at his usual hour and slouched off for his usual morning routine, as if nothing had changed. Possibly his posture was a little improved.

"Did you do that?" Aziraphale asked brightly in his ear. "I think his back must be feeling better."

Crowley ground his teeth. "You're not helping."

"Of course not, dear boy," Aziraphale said reasonably. "I'm not supposed to help you."

The only comfort, from Crowley's perspective, was that Aziraphale didn't have the smug glow of an angel who had accomplished his mission, either.

And Kakashi was going out that evening. This, Crowley felt, had possibilities, primarily the one spelled a-l-c-o-h-o-l. A man who got drunk could easily get into a fight, or fall into bed with an unsuitable person; his reputation would suffer, he'd try to make up for it, and Crowley would be right there, paving the way with seemingly good intentions.

Counting your souls before they were fallen never went over well with the accountants of hell, Crowley reminded himself later that night, as he sat at the other end of the bar and watched Kakashi sip at his drink, more sober than most judges Crowley had come across and not getting into any trouble whatsoever. Of course, Kakashi wasn't rich enough to drink the way Crowley would have liked him to drink. He should have taken that money. Crowley had a drink sent over to him, just to see what would happen.

What happened was that Kakashi excused himself to his friends and came over to Crowley. Crowley watched moodily how entirely steady on his feet Kakashi was. "The sales person," Kakashi said, voice neutral. "I've noticed that you tend to turn up wherever I am."

"I admire you very much," Crowley said, trying to sound as if he meant it. "Let me buy you a drink."

"You just did," Kakashi said. Not that he'd brought it with him.

"This is a nice place," Crowley said. In fact, it was rather dingy. "Lots of pretty women." Kakashi looked entirely unmoved by this. "Er. Lots of handsome men?"

"Not interested," Kakashi said, sounding more bored than anything.

"I'll have you know I'm a very good kisser," Crowley said. Not that he'd done any temptations in person in a very long time; it was a messy business, at best, and he really did think he did his best work indirectly, just out of sight of his target. He found Kakashi more appealing than most humans, true, but that was probably because there was so little of him on display. Oh, well. In for a penny, in for a soul. "Come out back and I'll show you."

He couldn't actually see Kakashi raise his eyebrows, but there was a general impression of eyebrow-raising somewhere behind the mask and the headband.

"All right, then," Kakashi said unexpectedly. He half-turned and made a swift hand gesture at his friends. "Lead the way."

This really wasn't how Crowley had intended things to go, he reflected as he went with Kakashi out into a dark alley that smelled like the fifteenth century. It wasn't very appealing; he didn't know how anyone had managed to reproduce in those days. Not that that would be an issue at present. Still, he had dragged the man out here for a specific purpose. Crowley turned to Kakashi and kissed him.

"I'm sorry to be the one to tell you," Kakashi said after a moment, not sounding sorry at all, "but that really wasn't very impressive."

"You're wearing a mask," Crowley said. There was a faint taste of cotton in his mouth.

"Well, it's fairly dark here, true," Kakashi said, and the next moment his mask was tugged down and he kissed Crowley very thoroughly and with a great deal of attention and care, until Crowley sagged back against the nearest wall and tried to remember if he actually needed to breathe, strictly speaking, or if he just gasped for air because his body thought he did.

That's now how this was supposed to go, Crowley wanted to say, but all he got out was, "That..."

Kakashi already had his mask pulled up again. "I really have to get back to my friends," he said. "And I think you'd do better if you stayed away from shinobi bars."

The back door closed behind him without a sound.

"I think so, too," Aziraphale said. He was perched on top of a dumpster, which Crowley viciously hoped would leave rotting cabbage smears all over his trousers.

Crowley straightened up. He would have adjusted his cuffs, if this miserable outfit had any. "You can't tell me that was anything but evil," he said.

"Perhaps we both need to reconsider our approach," Aziraphale said.

"We'll be here forever." Crowley stared glumly at the door through which Kakashi had vanished. "I miss my suits."

"I miss my shop," Aziraphale said. "And no one here knows how to make a proper cup of cocoa."

Crowley missed his Bentley, too. He even missed his plants, obedient and terrified as they were. "We could just both claim to have been successful," he said. "Blame whatever eventually happens on free will, if we have to."

"But that's like lying," Aziraphale said, jumping down from the dumpster with all the grace his apparently-middle-aged body didn't have. "Are you trying to tempt me now?"

"Couldn't go worse with you than with the scarecrow man," Crowley said philosophically. He turned out of the alley, and Aziraphale went with him. "Don't tell me you actually want to stay here for years, getting kittens stuck in trees, trying to find a busy street and an old lady who wants to cross it at the right time."

"No," Aziraphale said; that incurable honesty was at least good for something. "But if that's what I'm called to do--"

"I'm telling you," Crowley was a little unsteady on his feet still, since Kakashi was as good a kisser as Crowley had claimed to be, "we could do a lot more evil -- and good, I suppose -- back in our proper places..."

The sound of their bickering faded into the night.

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