Chapter 1: The Pleasures of the World
When it came down to it, Crowley felt that what he needed was a good laugh. While the park was fine for clearing his thoughts, and Aziraphale was the best remedy for his best attempts at thinking too much, that tall chap had given him the uneasy feeling that chances were at least even that they hadn't heard the end of it. Crowley had experienced more confusion, frustration, and pure existential fear in the past few days than he'd experienced in the past eleven years combined, never mind the fourteenth century. He wasn't pleased about the fact that he'd added worry to the roster, and anxiety certainly wasn't doing him any favors. He was still a demon, after all. It was undignified.
"...don't you think?" Aziraphale was saying, dabbing his mouth with Crowley's napkin. His cheeks were flushed pink.
"What?" Crowley asked. "Sorry."
"About the wine," Aziraphale supplied helpfully, setting the napkin down on the table. "Not bad for a Brouilly, is it?"
"Er. Right," Crowley said, picking up his glass. "Not bad at all."
Aziraphale frowned at him, eyes flicking to the empty bottle between them, then said, "Haven't you slept well?"
"No," Crowley said, which was also ridiculous, because after he'd dropped Aziraphale off the night before, he'd found a shining new Bentley, which fit his key perfectly, parked in the street precisely in front of his building. He'd never known what true relief was until that moment, or at least he thought he hadn't, and he'd proceeded to go inside and check everything else. His flat was intact right down to the holy water in the safe, and the mess that had once been Ligur was conspicuously absent.
Crowley had gone to bed pondering Adam's judgment on that one, and, as a result, had taken several hours falling asleep.
The mouth-shaped stains on his napkin weren't nearly as funny as they should have been. He sighed and refilled the wine bottle. Even the Ritz slipped on occasion, and that didn't amuse him, either.
"Perhaps we ought to go," Aziraphale said, taking hold of the bottle. He refilled his glass and took a judicious sip.
"You haven't finished my dessert," Crowley pointed out, pushing his torte at the angel. He'd only taken one bite.
"Don't be silly, dear boy," Aziraphale said, licking his lips as he pushed the plate back to Crowley. "You're looking a bit peckish."
"Not hungry," Crowley said, signaling as he caught sight of the waiter out of the corner of his eye. "You! Over here."
"If you insist," Aziraphale said, but he drained his glass and reached for the torte.
The drive to Soho was uneventful. Crowley pushed his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and thumped the steering wheel in time to "Under Pressure," which was rather late to the party and overkill besides. Aziraphale made busy staring out the window, sighing every now and again with well-fed contentment. He was humming, too, but Crowley decided not to call him on it. Uncertainty aside, they'd gotten off on the right foot, and there was something unsportsmanlike about messing things up this quickly. Crowley had decided he was tired of messing with things, at least for the time being.
"Crowley, you're weaving," Aziraphale said, voice taut with the faintest hint of warning. His hand was warm on Crowley's elbow, fingers curling tensely on his arm.
"Got it," Crowley muttered, shoving his glasses up and rubbing his eyes with one hand. He was tired, no two ways about it.
When he finally pulled up in front of the bookshop, killing the engine, there was a moment of awkward silence. Aziraphale had let his hand drop to the seat some miles back, but it had remained irritatingly close to Crowley's leg, hovering as if Crowley might nod off again at any moment. Crowley blinked at it, then looked up at Aziraphale, who was looking at him with familiar, unnerving patience.
"I don't think you ought to drive home," Aziraphale said.
Crowley slid his glasses carefully back into place, then gave him a pointed look.
"Fancy getting us both discorporated, eh?"
Aziraphale flustered, then glanced away.
"No," he said quietly, with some annoyance. "However, I wasn't implying that I ought to drive—"
"Then what are you implying I should do, spend the night in the car?"
Aziraphale gave him another look that was suspiciously close to nasty.
"Right, sorry," Crowley sighed, gripping the steering wheel and staring straight ahead. "I'm sober, how's that?"
"Cold comfort," Aziraphale admitted, smiling thinly, and touched Crowley's shoulder. "Won't you come in?"
"If it means having a little chat, I don't think so. My head hurts enough."
"It's all in your mind, dear boy," Aziraphale said, but he touched Crowley's temple, and the pain subsided.
Crowley turned his head and stared at the angel, annoyed in his turn.
"You can't make anything simple, can you?"
Aziraphale ignored him and said, "Besides, we really ought to talk. Loose ends to tie up, as you're so fond of putting it."
Crowley sighed, letting go of the steering wheel.
"Is your wine restocked?"
"And then some," Aziraphale replied fervently.
"Your argument," Crowley said, opening his door, "just turned convincing."
It was strange seeing all of those new titles on Aziraphale's shelves, but the angel walked past them cheerfully enough, completely unconcerned. Crowley studied the floorboards, the worn-out rug, the splinter-hazard countertop—it was as if none of the space had ever been scorched, let alone burned to the ground. Upon seeing the familiar table and chairs in the back, Crowley felt nearly the same shiver of relief he'd felt upon discovering the Bentley, and he squashed it out quickly. He'd tried so hard to hold back hope, but it seemed determined to pop up at every possible opportunity.
"There, now," Aziraphale said, dropping to the floor in front of his china cabinet with some effort. The lowest cupboard had been dedicated solely to alcohol for as long as Crowley could remember (and, if he tried hard enough, for as long as he couldn't). "What would you like?"
Crowley pulled out one of the chairs and took a seat, waving his hand absently.
"Something with kick."
"That's not helpful," Aziraphale said, rummaging through bottles with a soft grunt. "Rum? Whiskey? Perhaps you'd like a nice—"
"I don't care," Crowley said, and was simply relieved to have something to wrap his hands around when Aziraphale set a full glass of brandy down in front of him. Without time to keep or a steering wheel to grip, his fingers felt jittery and uncertain. He hadn't ever really had a handle on things, had he? Strike free will being a bugger; it was the whole blasted world.
"Much better," Aziraphale said, sliding into the seat across from Crowley with what seemed like unusual grace, or maybe that was the alcohol mixing. He hadn't actually bothered to sober up before leaving the Ritz, which was why he'd been drifting off, but Aziraphale had taken his bluff, too relieved about the situation to care. "Is that enough?"
Crowley considered his glass, then polished the rest off.
"Nope," he said, holding it out to Aziraphale.
Once they'd gotten settled with full glasses and a few other miscellaneous bottles on the table, Aziraphale decided that it was apparently time to get the Conversation underway, which was just as well, because the room was beginning to ripple at the edges of Crowley's vision and everything felt pleasantly warm. Crowley held his glass up to the candle that Aziraphale had lit on the table, fascinated by the way the light played through it. If Aziraphale was determined to go droning on about matters that Crowley had already hashed out in his mind, he might as well make things interesting for himself.
"If you don't mind," Aziraphale said, taking a slow sip of what looked like a mojito, "I'd like to know what's got you so bloody quiet."
Crowley shrugged, setting his glass down so he could dip his finger into the deep-amber liquid.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to know what's got you so bloody flippant."
"Very funny, Crowley," Aziraphale said with genuine irritation, which took some doing when he was on his way to getting thoroughly trollied. "I'm sure you think that's very clever."
"Not as clever as you think you are," Crowley muttered, sucking the brandy off his fingertip. "That was some stuff—er, stunt you pulled back there. Could've gotten us—"
"I had to," Aziraphale said desperately, setting his glass down hard enough to send cloudy droplets flying in Crowley's direction. "Nobody else was forthcoming with any bright ideas!"
"Well, congrack...um," Crowley said, scooping his glass up unsteadily. "Congratulations. Worked."
"Thank you," Aziraphale said, hesitating before picking up his glass again. "As for...ah, weren't we just...?"
"Fighting? Yeah," Crowley said, feeling curiously detached. He took another drink, then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "Damn good show it was, too."
"I though—" Aziraphale hiccupped, breaking his own chain of reasoning "—thought so."
"Wouldn' take much, after all," Crowley said, as the whole picture was getting muzzier by the second. "The brat likes things the way they were, so whoosh, back it all goes, seas full of brains and trees back in the forests and—" Crowley hiccupped himself, surprised "—us back in your shop with more acol—alcolho—booze than we know what to do with. Cheers." He drained the rest of his brandy, and it burned the whole way down. Crowley coughed, blinking into his glass. He wasn't so drunk to forget that things like that didn't normally happen.
"Crowley," Aziraphale said, sounding pensive, and if Crowley squinted hard enough, he could tell the angel was frowning.
"D'you suppose if...well, that if we hear..."
"Nonono," Crowley said quickly, waving his hand in Aziraphale's face. "No s'posing. Just got over it, so 'f you think for a second 'm going to—"
"You could be right," Aziraphale said gloomily, more sober than Crowley had given him credit for. "You've been right before."
"So've you," Crowley said, then realized he hadn't meant to say that at all. "Still," he pressed on, "'m thinking that maybe as long as we don't go messin' about so much anymore, maybe..."
"Maybe," Aziraphale murmured, but he was still frowning into his glass, and Crowley thought he looked terribly petulant.
"What're you suggesting?" Crowley asked, setting down his glass. He tried very hard to shape the words clearly, to meet Aziraphale's eyes.
"If we don't...go messing about," Aziraphale said uncertainly, "then what are we supposed to, er, do?"
Crowley considered the vulnerable look on Aziraphale's face, then considered the fact that the angel had given him a near foolproof in.
"'F you ask me," he suggested recklessly, "we ought to start getting more out of life."
Aziraphale just stared at him, uncomprehending. Perhaps he was as drunk as Crowley after all.
"What I mean is," Crowley clarified, sitting up straight, "that we ought to, you know, start enjoying the pleasures of the world. There's lots of 'em."
"Carpe diem," Aziraphale murmured.
"Yeah," Crowley said, jabbing a finger at him. "S'it exactly, though it's got nothing to do with carp, which don't make nests I don't think."
"Crowley," Aziraphale said again, but this time, he was smiling. He picked up his glass, raising it as if in salute.
Unable to argue with that, Crowley fished around in front of him till he found his own, empty as it was, and drank anyway.
* * *
After a few solid days of sleep, Crowley felt like himself again. Some of the plants had slacked off and wilted in his absence, so he made a point of collecting them up and announcing their wrongs more loudly than usual. The four offenders trembled in the back seat of the Bentley until he pulled up along the curb of an unfamiliar flat and set them on the sidewalk in a neat, careful row. He glared at them venomously.
"You had it coming," Crowley said with a shake of his finger, then slid hurriedly back into the Bentley and drove off. He had no idea where he was going to find four empty pots on such short notice, but he'd always managed to improvise before. He prided himself on that, and he also prided himself on never hitting the same doorstep twice.
Stray plants always got a warmer welcome in Mayfair than stray pets.
That evening, Crowley combed his flat from top to bottom, searching for some sign of diabolical correspondence, some booby-trap that he must have missed. On the few occasions that Hell had managed to learn something from him, he'd vastly regretted the outcome. He wasn't about to take any chances. The search turned up nothing, which was as suspicious as it was relieving. Satisfied, but mildly reluctant, Crowley took a chance and put on some music. Twenty minutes in, Maria Callas was still Maria Callas.
It was just as well that the phone rang, because Crowley was getting bored.
"It's remarkable," he said into the receiver, not bothering with a greeting. "I swear to you, nothing—"
"There's no need for that," Aziraphale reassured him, sounding considerably more relaxed than the startled breath that Crowley had heard when he picked up the phone. "I was thinking you might enjoy some tea, now that you're awake."
"How did you know I was—"
"Crowley, really," Aziraphale said impatiently. "You were hardly in any condition to be considering anything else when you left here the other night. Won't you come over for tea?"
As a general rule, Aziraphale didn't make invitations, and even if he'd been in the habit, Crowley wouldn't have accepted. It was just that, between one thing and the next, they'd always ended up in one place or another, keeping each other company. Crowley tapped on his desk, considering. Slowly, he broke into a grin.
"This wouldn't be your idea of a wild time, would it?"
He could fairly see Aziraphale stiffen.
"I'm only taking you up on your suggestion. The last I knew, you put tea into the category of 'pleasures.'"
"Come over here," Crowley suggested. "I have tea."
"I don't doubt it," Aziraphale muttered, "but you also have a car."
Crowley was beginning to enjoy himself.
"Flying's hardly outdated, angel. Are you sure you'd rather risk an antique fire hazard?"
"You're insufferable," Aziraphale said tartly, and hung up on him.
When Crowley pulled up in front of the bookshop, the angel was waiting outside with his hands shoved into his coat pockets, looking uncharacteristically contrite. As soon as Crowley caught his eyes, Aziraphale's expression changed from worried to nonchalant.
Crowley wondered why he even tried to hide it.
"Pleasant evening, isn't it?" Aziraphale asked cheerfully, slipping into the passenger seat.
"If you say so," Crowley said, shrugging, and pulled back into the street.
Aziraphale immediately took over the kitchen when they returned to his flat, which was quite all right. Crowley had been meaning to spend some quality time with his television now that he was almost certain that there would be no interference, and it covered the sound of Aziraphale's shrill whistling nicely. He'd missed Looney Tunes something fierce.
He'd barely finished a second episode when Aziraphale shouted in that he ought to turn off the television and come to the table. He smelled more than just tea—crumpets, at least, and some kind of fruit jam—and the argument that he hadn't seen this particular rerun in forever just wouldn't hold up. Especially since he was hungry.
"Where'd you get all that?" Crowley asked, blinking at the spread Aziraphale had managed to coax from his neglected refrigerator and bare cupboards.
"Never mind," Aziraphale said, already heaping clotted cream on a crumpet.
Crowley shrugged and sat down. For the first few minutes, they ate and drank in absolute silence—not so much because they were quarrelling again as because they were both genuinely starved. Crowley hadn't eaten since the Ritz, and while he doubted that Aziraphale would've been able to manage such a feat of fasting, he ate fast enough to suggest that maybe he'd been skimping on between-meal snacks.
Aziraphale finished off his second crumpet, giving Crowley an expectant look.
Crowley raised an eyebrow and waved the butter knife at him.
"Is this what you had in mind?" Aziraphale asked, hopeful, as if eager to be told he'd done the right thing.
Crowley chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. They were awfully good crumpets, and his tea was just the right sweetness.
"Something like it, yeah," he said, deciding it wouldn't hurt to smile.
Aziraphale blushed, then beamed.
Crowley glanced down at his plate, wondering what else he'd said when he was drunk. He hoped it hadn't involved The Sound of Music.
"I thought maybe a film would be nice," said the angel, finishing off his tea.
"No musicals," Crowley choked.
* * *
Movie nights, Crowley reflected a week later, weren't all bad, but they were getting old. They'd manage to exhaust more than a dozen films and double that number in bags of popcorn, but one could only sit through so many silent films and convince an angel to watch only so many hours of Monty Python. Aziraphale sighed as Crowley hit eject, spreading his hands.
"My dear, it's just that it's not..."
"Just that it's not Lon Chaney, is that it?" Crowley asked sarcastically, shoving Life of Brian back into its case. Some things, like the angel's sense of modernity, were terminally incurable.
Aziraphale gave him an apologetic look, folding his hands in his lap.
"Right, whatever," Crowley said, rising to his feet. "Don't blame me; this whole thing was your idea."
"If my idea of a good time bores you, then why don't you come up with something?"
"I was working on it. These things take time."
"The best laid plans," Aziraphale muttered. "Have you got any theatre tickets?"
Crowley just stared at him.
"Shakespeare," Aziraphale squeaked. "I meant Shakespeare!"
Advance tickets, like table reservations, were something that happened to other people—but were easily enough obtained if one knew where to look. While The Merchant of Venice wouldn't have been Crowley's first choice, it was what was playing, and Aziraphale would probably get mildly tetchy afterwards if he attempted to start a discussion, which he usually did, so the venture was bound to be a catastrophe from the get-go.
That didn't keep Aziraphale from lighting up like anything.
Crowley had fully intended to doze off before the first act was through, as he'd read a flurry of lukewarm reviews, and the Globe wasn't as much fun as it used to be, but Aziraphale's hand crept to his forearm during Antonio's closing speech in the first act. It was going to be a long night, and what was worse, it was going to be pleasant.
* * *
In the grand scheme of things, whatever that was, live theatre was infinitely preferable to anything you could put on television, though Crowley rarely admitted his preference. Just because the Globe season was stuck in a rut didn't mean there were no quality productions around. Show by show, he methodically picked off the best tickets he could find. What he had meant by "no musicals" was "no old musicals," so Aziraphale was rather put out when Crowley neglected to include the revival of My Fair Lady in the proceedings. Crowley told him that he had no room to complain, since he was incapable of using a phone and didn't know what Ticketmaster was.
"It just isn't the same," Aziraphale sighed, adjusting his tie. He cast a disapproving glance at Her Majesty's marquee, straightening his lapels. "I can't fathom why he left us for the States. Nice enough people, of course, but dreadful venues."
"Los Angeles is dreadful?" Crowley asked dryly, glancing both ways before taking hold of Aziraphale's arm and rushing him across the street. West End after dark wasn't the ideal place for somebody like Aziraphale to cross streets unattended. He'd narrowly escaped being flattened by a double-decker on the way in, and that had been during daylight.
"Well, I don't actually know," Aziraphale admitted, cinching Crowley's arm in tight against his side once they reached the opposite curb. "I've never seen the theatre. It's a shame we lost Crawford, that's all."
"You say it as if it's another matter of your people and mine."
"Maybe it is. Last I knew, his marriage was in a tough spot."
Crowley snorted and slipped his hands into his pockets, shivering as the wind whipped past them.
"They don't want him down there. Elgar and Liszt will be thrilled."
Aziraphale sucked in his breath disapprovingly, or at least that's what it sounded like until he let go of Crowley's arm and slid his own snugly around Crowley's waist. He let his breath out again, shivering as if he'd taken Crowley's discomfort upon himself.
Too shocked to react, Crowley just kept walking.
"You felt cold," Aziraphale said weakly, fisting his hand quickly so that it was his knuckles rather than his fingers that rested against Crowley's hip. "I think we ought to go someplace for a drink, or maybe some tea?"
Crowley's brain wasn't functioning except on a level where The Music of the Night was stuck on repeat.
He tried to steer them into the first pub they came across, but Aziraphale murmured something indistinct that sounded like protest, so he kept walking, picking up the pace. On top of the incessant music, his brain was also trying to sort out that they were heading farther and farther from the vicinity of the parking garage, and that he'd fumbled his hand out of his pocket in order to set his own hand over Aziraphale's. He certainly hadn't told it to do that. Muscle memory, his brain decided. Even his body had learned a thing or two from humans, and –
And Crowley was going to stop thinking about that immediately. He cleared his throat.
"That bistro over there looks all right."
"It does," Aziraphale agreed, sounding about as blank as Crowley felt. "The lighting's lovely."
"We're crossing the street again, angel," Crowley said, and disentangled himself from Aziraphale's arm, folding it over his own before rushing them across. He hadn't realized how much the contact had warmed him until it was gone—or rather, diminished back to a small patch of his arm. Aziraphale shivered and tugged him in till their shoulders touched, breathing fast enough for Crowley to hear.
The restaurant was rather agreeable, and the wine list was worth staying for. Crowley was surprised when Aziraphale declined the waiter's suggestion of the house red and went with a pot of tea. Crowley shrugged, set his menu down, and heard himself say he'd have the same thing. The waiter whisked the menus away, leaving them to stare at each other in silence.
"I thought you wanted a drink," Crowley said, carefully removing his sunglasses. Aziraphale's expressions were getting difficult to read, and the waiter didn't seem to be the type for eye contact anyway. Not that he cared if anyone looked him in the eye.
"I thought you would," Aziraphale sighed, distractedly unbuttoning his coat. "All I wanted was something warm."
The words weren't just words: they were Words. He hadn't heard Aziraphale use that tone since 1020.
"Tea's plenty warm," Crowley said cautiously, averting his eyes as the waiter arrived with two steaming glass pots and a pair of matching cups. He set one of each down in front of each of them, and for a few seconds, Crowley's dread was deferred by the sound of glass meeting the smooth wooden tabletop. "Do you want some milk?" he asked, offering it to Aziraphale as the waiter left again.
Aziraphale glowered at him for a few seconds before his expression subsided into a weary sigh.
Crowley poured some into Aziraphale's partly filled teacup, then set it down between the two pots. He didn't care for milk or cream himself, but he'd rarely seen Aziraphale take tea without it. He spooned some sugar into his cup, thinking carefully about what he was going to say. Aziraphale wasn't finished, he could see it in the way Aziraphale held himself stiffly and took tiny, hesitant sips.
"There are better ways of approaching this," Crowley said, blowing the steam away from his face. The first taste of tea scalded his tongue, but he ignored it, taking a deliberate sip and watching Aziraphale turn as pale as his suit.
"I thought I was so clever," muttered the angel, turning from ghastly white to faint, flushed pink.
Crowley sighed, setting his teacup down and adding more sugar. Lord, he hated confessions.
"It's not as if I haven't thought about it," he said, finding himself unable to meet Aziraphale's eyes.
"Oh," Aziraphale said, sounding relieved. "Oh, good."
Crowley picked up his cup again and bit the rim. How could he be so—so casual?
"Who hasn't?" Crowley asked, taking a nonchalant sip. He risked a glance, and it was worth it, because Aziraphale looked even more embarrassed than he had before. Crowley wondered if he'd started blushing around the time he'd taken hold...
"One shouldn't take these things lightly, Crowley."
"Says the clever bastard who brought it up," Crowley snapped, setting his tea down hard enough to slosh some on the table. "Do you have any idea where we are? Do you even realize we're in public?"
Aziraphale got a worried, sorry look on his face, then reached across the table and took Crowley's hand.
"Oh dear. I thought I had been rather discreet."
Crowley's brain skipped tracks from Music of the Night to All I Ask of You.
"I had no idea you were that up on pleasures," Crowley muttered, staring at his tea.
"I'm not," Aziraphale admitted, drawing his thumb lightly across the back of Crowley's hand.
Crowley just nodded, realizing he'd started to breathe and that his heart had decided that pounding was the proper reaction.
"I'd like it if—" Aziraphale began, then stopped short. His hand tightened on Crowley's. "I mean, it would be purely experimental, and—"
"Going to bed with somebody doesn't make for a good laboratory," Crowley said, finding his voice again. "Humans are wretched at that sort of thing. One can only watch so many train-wrecks and not come away feeling sick to his stomach."
Aziraphale's fingers crept under to Crowley's palm, brushing light circles.
"Making you sick was rather far from what I'd had in mind," said the angel softly.
Crowley's internal soundtrack screeched to a halt, his stomach tightening with something far more pleasant—and far more frightening—than nausea. He glanced up at Aziraphale and saw that he really wasn't taking this lightly at all, and when had this situation gotten so out of hand? Crowley swallowed, closing his fingers over Aziraphale's.
"I can't promise you much. I haven't the faintest idea how these things work in practice."
"We're rather made for theory, aren't we?"
"Don't go philosophical on me. I'm not drunk yet."
"Actually," Aziraphale said, "I don't think intoxication helps."
Aziraphale looked away.
"I'm sorry, dear boy," he said, letting go of Crowley's hand. "Forget I mentioned it."
The soundtrack zipped back to life, pounding past The Point of No Return.
"No," Crowley said, catching Aziraphale's hand.
Aziraphale gave him a blank, caught-in-the-headlights look.
Crowley wanted to shrink into the booth cushioning behind him, but he resisted the urge and held Aziraphale's hand tightly.
"It fits into the theme and all, doesn't it?" he asked, hopeful.
"Well, yes," Aziraphale said. "Theoretically, of course."
"They say practice can't hurt," Crowley said, shoving the other adage to the back of his mind.
"Very true," Aziraphale murmured. He was brushing the back of Crowley's hand again.
"I think it's getting chilly in here," Crowley said, letting go of Aziraphale's fingers with a squeeze. "Let's go."
As soon as they'd paid the tab and gotten out the door, Aziraphale put his arm around Crowley again, explaining that it had gotten worse since they'd gone inside, which probably explained why it had gotten nippy in there. Crowley just nodded and tried to find a convenient angle for his own arm, but they were walking quickly and the sense of sudden possessiveness he got from Aziraphale's touch was overwhelming. Back at the Bentley, he was clumsy at the passenger door handle, and in the end it clicked almost of his own accord and he had the feeling Aziraphale had done it himself, but Aziraphale gave him a quiet, grateful look for holding the door open for him.
Crowley couldn't bear to pop anything in the Blaupunkt, because the bridge really was burning, and hadn't they had enough flame?
Aziraphale seemed mildly disappointed when Crowley pulled up in front of his shop, but he held his breath patiently while Crowley fumbled the Bentley into park. Crowley couldn't get his fingers to stop shaking, and as badly as he wanted a drink or two or ten, it was likely a wretched idea, and had Aziraphale meant for them to do this tonight?
Aziraphale's fingers brushed his cheek, then turned his head slowly.
"I'm asking you to think it over," he said, so quietly that Crowley almost couldn't hear him. "That's all."
Crowley's stomach clenched harder. Somehow his hand had gotten ideas again and migrated in the direction of Aziraphale's waist, blindly creeping its way around, forcing the angel to lean slightly forward. This was the sort of thing reckless human teenagers did, or in the very least reckless human adults who hadn't gotten out much and were just beginning to notice how entrancing their bridge partners were.
"Won't take much," Crowley said, and leaned over to kiss him.
Aziraphale made a soft, surprised noise that got muffled against Crowley's mouth. Crowley closed his eyes, concentrating on the way Aziraphale's lips felt pressed to his own, idly realizing that this was wonderful in ways that even touching hands could only begin to be, and if he wasn't careful, his mind would run it up a step further and then—then Aziraphale opened his mouth the slightest bit and denial was an utterly lost cause. Crowley let his tongue slip hesitantly past Aziraphale's not-quite-perfect teeth and felt an answering shiver in the crook of his arm and all along his front.
"Sorry," he hissed, shrinking back. He hadn't meant –
"No, it's..." Aziraphale fumbled at his coat buttons quickly, setting them in order. "What I said before, I..."
Crowley turned to face the steering wheel, letting his forehead fall against it.
With a nervous laugh, Aziraphale set an unsteady hand on his shoulder.
"Not a bad start at practice, wouldn't you say?"
Crowley couldn't look at him. The music was thundering places he didn't want to think about.
"Good night," he said quietly.
Aziraphale sighed, reluctantly drawing his hand away. The gesture was a slow, torturous caress.
"Good night, my dear."
Crowley thought the passenger door open before Aziraphale could set his hand on it, and didn't bother to watch Aziraphale walk up to the door. He heard the footsteps hesitate, then pause altogether. He could feel Aziraphale's eyes on him.
"I'll pick you up at six," he said to his fingers, which were clenched white on the steering wheel.
"Crowley, you don't—"
"Six," he repeated, and turned the key in the ignition before he could curse the day Aziraphale had done everything he hadn't asked, and more besides. That was the trouble with angels whether they were of the musical variety or not: they wouldn't take no for an answer, and they knew full well you'd say yes.
* * *
It was almost worse than waiting for the world to end.
Crowley decided that going through his usual nighttime routine would be the best course of action, insofar as he had one. There was nothing decent on television, so, after waving through half a dozen channels, Crowley slumped back against the sofa and quietly began to panic. The options left to him were music, a shower, and bed, or possibly all three. None of them would help.
He stood up and paced across the room, arms folded across his chest. Da Vinci's sketch mocked him with its serene, smug expression: there was somebody who'd gotten hers and wanted the whole world to know, no doubt about it. Humans were so bloody easy about the whole thing, like it was something you started off the day with, commonplace as a cup of tea, and had seconds or thirds or fourths of any old time you wanted. Crowley, of all people, knew this, though he didn't necessarily want to.
Crowley twitched and turned away from the picture, wondering if a shower wasn't such a bad idea. He'd heard plenty about cold ones, though he'd never been able to take the suggestion seriously before.
He settled on a fast, lukewarm one and wrapped himself in his thickest bathrobe afterward. Hunting around the bedroom for something to read yielded nothing except an outdated magazine (Aziraphale was forever giving him old issues of Fine Gardening) and a battered novel that hadn't been able to hold his interest. He lay awake for a considerable time, forcing his thoughts away from replaying the entire scene at dinner. The expanse of mattress around him felt curiously, wretchedly empty.
At about three in the morning, Crowley rubbed his eyes, turned the lights on, and went out to make some tea. An empty kitchen was far preferable to an empty bed, especially since he had gotten used to the former being occupied and was still trying to wrap his mind around the latter. His body, on the other hand, seemed just fine with it, even if somewhat jittery. The tea did nothing to calm his nerves, because it reminded him of scones and horrible films and things he wished he had thought of doing on the sofa.
Crowley dropped his half-empty mug in the sink and stalked back to bed.
Somewhere between the witching hour and the crack of dawn, Crowley had managed to fall asleep, though dawn inevitably went from a sliver to an all-out explosion and flooded the entire room. Crowley swore and sat up, rubbing his eyes with a grimace. He set the coffeemaker to work, lay down again, and piled the spare pillows on top of his head. He drifted off again, but the smell of burning coffee was enough to wake him. Crowley dashed out of the bedroom, then trashed the stuff in disgust and made more tea.
Once he'd gotten dressed, or rather, once he'd thought long and hard about what he ought to wear and found himself wearing it, Crowley spent the afternoon between fits of pacing and cleaning. When he realized that there wasn't anything to clean, he resorted to straight-up pacing. After a while, even that got old, and he had the distinct impression that the plants were taking blackmail notes.
A change of scenery, he told himself, was the way forward.
St. James's Park was as full as one could expect for a late summer day, and the weather was maddeningly pleasant. It seemed as if Adam was bound and determined to make it up to everybody—especially to London, which had rather taken the brunt of the affair. Crowley put his hands in his pockets and wandered across the bridge, ignoring the fleet of ducks and miscellaneous waterfowl that glided up alongside.
"I haven't brought you anything," he said, pausing halfway across to lean on the railing. "I'm flat out of bread, got it? Shoo. Go bother those people with the picnic, why don't you."
A black swan mournfully tilted its head at him, and the ducks chattered in complaint.
Crowley spread his hands and turned back the way he'd come. According to his watch, it was going on four o'clock, and two hours wasn't as much time as it made itself out to be. Back at his flat, Crowley remade the bed and fussed with the blinds covering the sliding glass doors onto the balcony. How much light was too much light? It would be getting dark anyway. Would Aziraphale want dinner first? That was the most ridiculous question he'd ever asked himself. Crowley stormed out of the bedroom and snagged his jacket off the rack, shrugging into it on his way out the door. Five-fifteen. The angel could deal, since it was, after all, his blessed idea.
Halfway to Soho, Crowley wondered if this was the sort of occasion you bought flowers for. He squashed the idea, annoyed at himself for not having thought to pinch some of the irises and lilies from the park, but he didn't feel so bad when he remembered that lilies were usually reserved for death and decided that irises were too random. Roses were the ticket, but it was too late: he was nearly there.
Aziraphale answered the door looking much the same as he usually did, with the exception that his shoes appeared to have been polished more than was strictly necessary and he looked as if he'd tried to sleep and discovered what it was to have a bad night of it. Suddenly, Crowley didn't feel so alone.
"Er," Crowley said. "Hi."
"You're a bit early," Aziraphale said, opening the door wide. "Please, come inside."
Crowley wanted to say that he was about to do that anyway, thanks, but there was something about Aziraphale's newfound nervousness that detracted from his own in ways that were, in a word, reassuring. If the angel could allow that his bravery was at least half a front, then Crowley could certainly reach into the depths of his terrified being and stir up some courage.
It wasn't until he was well into kissing Aziraphale that he realized the bookshop smelled of roses.
"Really, my dear," Aziraphale murmured, glancing over Crowley's shoulder at the door, which hadn't quite shut.
"Have you taken up gardening?" Crowley asked, letting go of him, running his fingers nervously through his hair. He didn't like how hurried this one had felt in comparison to the one the night before, and if those roses on the counter were for him, he was going to throw something.
Aziraphale glanced at the flowers, hesitated, then stared at the floor.
"Well, no, but I thought that the place could, you know, use some brightening up," he said. "I picked them up this morning. Er."
Crowley stared at his lapel, where one of the blooms had appeared. He sighed and pulled it out, sniffing it briefly before walking over to the counter and trying his best to fit it back into the vase.
Aziraphale's face fell, landing somewhere between saddened and offended.
"It would've died sooner," Crowley explained, walking back over to him. "Dinner?" he asked, offering his arm.
Aziraphale took it, smiling reluctantly.
"Actually, I'm not quite—"
"Neither am I," Crowley said, and led him out the door.
They were silent for the short ride's entirety, though Aziraphale's hand kept turning up in places that made Crowley want to forget about driving altogether. He'd always taken those casual touches on the shoulder for granted, hadn't he? Fortunately, they came to a traffic light about the time that Aziraphale had decided that setting his hand lightly on Crowley's knee was a good idea. Crowley reached down and took hold of it firmly, swallowing around the knot of fresh panic in his throat.
It was worse than waiting for the world to end, and the distance between their respective residences had never seemed so far. When the light turned, Crowley peeled out fast enough to earn himself several indignant honks and one impolite hand gesture, but it was worth it to feel Aziraphale's grip tighten, then relax under the careful stroking of his thumb. Maybe he was getting the hang of this.
When they reached Crowley's flat, Aziraphale tried to get the door, but Crowley pushed him lightly aside and used his key for what felt like the first time since he'd bought the place. Aziraphale turned slightly pink—by now a frequent occurrence—and mumbled his thanks, hurrying inside. Crowley pulled the door shut behind them, cringing when it slammed. Aziraphale had already hung up his coat, and he gave Crowley a reassuring (if mildly miserable) look.
"This was your idea, you know," Crowley said, clearing his throat. Normally, he would have just willed his jacket to vanish, but this was a situation in which buying time was to one's advantage, so he took it off with careful deliberation and hung it beside Aziraphale's. "No second thoughts."
"Thank you, Crowley," Aziraphale said, his tone indicating that he had at least begun to grasp the use of sarcasm. "That was unnecessary."
"How would you like having that blessed music stuck in your head for a full twenty-four hours?"
"I did," Aziraphale said, sighing as his gaze dropped to the floor. "Crowley, I—"
"Shhh," Crowley said, and reached for whatever part of Aziraphale was most readily available. If he wouldn't let himself over-think this, then he wasn't about to let the angel.
Aziraphale was as warm and soft and solid as he had been in the Bentley, with the exception of being much easier to get a hold of now that both of Crowley's arms were free and they weren't sitting side by side at an awkward angle. Crowley was about to say something else, maybe something that he hoped would pass for reassuring, except Aziraphale was kissing him and that made the execution of his plan somewhat difficult. Crowley gave up and closed his eyes, shivering as he deepened the kiss. If you were in a hurry to start things, the front door was as good a place as any.
"This isn't exactly what I had in mind," Aziraphale panted, "but it's really quite pleasant."
Crowley let go of him and stepped back, vibrating from head to foot with his own heartbeat.
"What did you have in mind?"
"Something, er—" Aziraphale stared at Crowley's feet "—more comfortable than your front hall."
"Oh, good lord," Crowley muttered, grabbing Aziraphale's hand before he could protest. "Come on."
It took all of Crowley's willpower not to turn them around and suggest that they use the sofa, because Aziraphale had never seen his bedroom and would probably laugh behind that eternally polite mask of his about how precisely it matched the rest of his flat. On second thought, though, the sofa wasn't nearly big enough, and he could tell from the hold he had on Aziraphale's wrist that if Aziraphale's heart rate suggested anything, it was quite far from suggesting that he was thinking about mocking Crowley.
"Here we are," Crowley said lamely, pushing open the door.
Aziraphale just stood beside him and blinked for a few seconds, as if the ridiculousness of the situation had finally begun to sink in.
"I somehow thought it would be larger."
"Oh, we're off on the right foot now," Crowley said dismally, and sat down on the edge of the bed. He kicked his boots off, waiting for Aziraphale to follow suit. What they said about leading a horse to water was absolutely true, only sometimes you had to yank the blinders off without unbuckling the bridle, too. And Crowley had always been bad with horses.
The bed sagged beside him, and Aziraphale reached down to untie his shoes.
"This feels...odd, doesn't it? Terribly normal."
"If you think most people spend this much time on shoes," Crowley said dryly, pulling his legs up Indian-style. He might as well get his laugh while he could.
"To be frank with you, I have no idea about time," Aziraphale said, almost snippy, "but I'm of the opinion that it shouldn't be rushed."
Crowley rested his chin on his hands, smiling ruefully.
"There are plenty that would disagree with you."
"Well, they don't matter," Aziraphale said, setting his shoes carefully on the floor, then sitting up straight. He looked at Crowley for the first time during the entire conversation, and his eyes softened, giving the vaguest hint of warning that he was about to say something sentimental. "What matters is—"
"For crying out loud," Crowley said, unfolding his hands, and leaned over.
Kissing, at least, was something that almost anybody could do with a little practice, and Crowley was amazed to find that it only took a few shots before one could reasonably feel that he had gotten something of a handle on it. Aziraphale hummed in surprise, as if he'd been expecting Crowley to do something else, and put his soft, precise hands on Crowley's cheeks. Well, that was new, Crowley thought, and he tilted his head so that he could lean into one of them a little, but not really. He'd already gotten used to the feel of Aziraphale's tongue and teeth, and how sometimes they clashed and had to back off with muttered apologies, but on the whole, yes, kissing was very good, especially with Aziraphale's hand on his cheek and the other one trailing down to his collar.
Crowley opened his eyes and eased away, breathing hard.
Aziraphale paused, sighing, and worked his finger deliberately between the top buttons of Crowley's shirt.
"If you'd rather get this over with more efficiently, now's your chance."
"No," Crowley croaked, cursing his voice for betraying him.
Aziraphale nodded once, deliberately, and worked the button free. Half fascinated, Crowley watched as Aziraphale unbuttoned the whole length of his shirt until he reached the line of Crowley's trousers, under which the last few buttons were inconveniently tucked. They looked up at each other as if on cue, and if Aziraphale's expression hadn't been so chagrined, Crowley might have laughed.
"Ah," said the angel. "If you don't mind..."
"No," Crowley said, and found that his hands were acting of their own accord again, hastily untucking his shirt. So much for having gotten it pressed.
"Thank you," Aziraphale said quietly, almost contemplative as he unfastened the remaining buttons.
Crowley shivered, wondering if he'd turned the air conditioning up too high again.
"It's all right, you know," Aziraphale was saying, and his hands, far from stopping, had made their way inside Crowley's shirt to rest lightly on his chest.
"I, uh," Crowley said, having determined that he definitely wasn't trembling because he was cold. "Yeah. Right."
Aziraphale, who had been staring at his own hands, glanced up with a look that Crowley had never seen before. Cautiously, he spread his fingers and fanned his hands, reaching, and the result was a tentative, tickling caress that left Crowley short of breath. He nodded again, as if understanding what this meant, and leaned in very, very close.
Crowley bit his lip, because the only words coming to mind were do that again.
"Is that all right?" Aziraphale asked, for once too patient for his own good.
"I hope," Crowley said with a short laugh, "that's a rhetorical question." His pulse had spread to places that he didn't usually think about, and Aziraphale was close enough to one of them that this had gone far enough beyond amusing to be outright torture. This was one thing he wouldn't be telling Hell about. It was probably already in standard use.
"Good," Aziraphale said, voice wavering slightly, and drew his right hand from Crowley's ribcage down to his stomach.
At that point, all Crowley could think about was that he wanted to be kissing Aziraphale while they did this, but Aziraphale permitted him only the briefest brush of lips before pressing him back against the pillows and murmuring against the corner of Crowley's mouth, "Don't be impatient." Crowley suspected that Aziraphale was still fighting a pretty severe case of nerves, but his brain was fogged with the same vague, fluttering anticipation that had settled in his stomach. Aziraphale was rubbing circles there as if he meant to calm Crowley, but all he had succeeded in doing was making Crowley's condition considerably more...pronounced.
"For Hea—oh, get on with it," Crowley hissed, and made his trousers vanish with an irritated wave.
"Well, I've been try—oh," Aziraphale murmured, pulling his hand away.
"Look, the point was—"
"I know what the point is," Aziraphale said, clearly trying not to meet Crowley's eyes, which Crowley had apparently just made easier for him. He reached out and brushed his fingertips against Crowley's arousal, drawing in his breath. "It's..." He closed his fingers around Crowley cautiously, letting out a tense breath. "Does it, er, feel all right?"
It did. So much, in fact, that Crowley couldn't determine how to convey that in words.
"Yes," he gasped. "L—lovely."
"Oh," Aziraphale said again, leaning over Crowley, and kissed him.
Crowley almost wished that they could've kept talking, because it would've meant something, anything for his scattered mind to latch onto, but the truth of the matter was that if Aziraphale wasn't kissing him, he'd be reduced to undignified begging. Aziraphale's hand on him was still tentative, exploring, but it repeated everything that made his hips jerk up from the mattress—here a squeeze, then a tug, and the gentlest circling of Aziraphale's thumb just there.
Crowley felt the weight of the past twenty-four hours collapse, or maybe it was just that he'd pulled Aziraphale half on top of himself and he was shuddering helplessly, breathless, under Aziraphale's sticky hand.
"...all right," Aziraphale was whispering, breath warm and shaky against his cheek. "Oh, Crowley. Just breathe now, yes, that's...oh, Crowley."
"Shut up," Crowley managed, and tried to pull Aziraphale closer, but his arms didn't want to move.
Aziraphale kissed him, sliding his hand, which was a frightful mess, over to rest on Crowley's hip. Crowley felt the wetness dry and vanish, and then Aziraphale's fingers, more steady than before, were stroking his hair back from his forehead, which felt rather damp. He closed his eyes and sucked in a breath between kisses, fumbling at Aziraphale's waist. Oh, he'd get even, if only his blasted fingers would work.
"There's a trick to it," Aziraphale mumbled, trying to wedge one hand in between them.
Crowley hissed in frustration, snapping his fingers. At this point, it didn't matter who did what.
"You've got to—Crowley!" Aziraphale froze, breath coming in short pants, and let his hand fall back to Crowley's hip, as there wasn't anything between them now except skin and the proof that he was in a much worse way than Crowley. "That...oh, that wasn't..."
Opening his eyes, Crowley nuzzled under Aziraphale's jaw. He was still floating, but he had some sense of motion back, and movement, if he'd learned anything from humans, was what made this whole thing tick.
"Fair?" he asked, pushing up against Aziraphale and discovering that he was somewhat sensitive at the moment. "Forget that. Feels good?"
"Yes," groaned Aziraphale.
"Right, then," Crowley said, and snaked one leg around Aziraphale's.
Crowley was mildly indignant that he hadn't gotten the chance to make Aziraphale squirm, but it didn't last for long. Holding Aziraphale snug up against him was more than satisfying even in his exhausted state, and the more he let his hands wander over Aziraphale's skin, the faster Aziraphale breathed—sometimes a whimper, sometimes moaning Crowley's name. He couldn't keep still any more than Aziraphale could. Soon, it was nothing but clumsy, desperate kisses until Aziraphale tensed, gasping, and their bellies were the same wet mess as before.
Aziraphale groaned something into the pillow.
"Mm," Crowley sighed, stretching as much as he could manage, and cleaned them off. "What?"
"'M sorry," Aziraphale mumbled, then yawned. "I don't know what came over me."
"There's ineffability for you," he said, tentatively running his fingers through Aziraphale's hair.
The angel was already asleep.
* * *
Crowley woke up feeling unusually well rested, except for the fact that something of considerable weight was squashing the breath out of him. Opening his eyes, Crowley determined that the room was dark and that the tickle under his nose was a stray curl of Aziraphale's hair. Sighing, Crowley closed his eyes. Not a dream, then.
He tried falling asleep again, but he'd become all too aware of Aziraphale's warm breath against his neck and how reassuring it was. If Hell was coming for him, they'd have to pry the angel up first. Crowley gave up and ran his fingers down Aziraphale's back, glad that he'd wished away the rest of their clothing before falling asleep himself. Aziraphale's skin was heated and smooth, and Crowley flushed to think that he was enjoying the way it felt against his own. If he'd been in snake form, he might at least have had an excuse.
Aziraphale stirred, yawning, then tensed.
"Lucky for you, I'm awake," Crowley said, promptly stilling his hands, though it didn't have quite the effect he had hoped, because they ended up resting on Aziraphale's hips—more to the back than on his sides.
"Good morning," Aziraphale said softly, lips brushing Crowley's neck.
"Five a.m., to be exact," Crowley said, stealing a glance at the alarm clock he never used. "Do you have any idea how fast you fell asleep?"
By the way Aziraphale stiffened, Crowley guessed that he was blushing.
"Well, I have been under a lot of strain these days," said the angel dismally. "You didn't seem to have any complaints."
"Why should I?" Crowley asked, yawning.
"You mean you…don't?" Aziraphale asked, incredulous, his fingers creeping from the pillowcase into Crowley's hair. It was dreadfully distracting.
"No, but I still say you could've worked on your timing and given me, oh, I don't know, a week's notice," Crowley said.
Aziraphale stiffened again, fingers tightening almost painfully in Crowley's hair.
"You're the one who jumped to conclusions," he said, almost too soft to be heard.
Crowley's mind blanked, trying to process this information even as he realized that his body wanted to jump to more than just conclusions.
"You mean you…didn't mean…?"
"Yes," Aziraphale said, sounding as if he was losing his patience. "No. I mean—oh, bugger. What I meant was that we ought to start things since we were headed in that direction anyway! I didn't want it to come along and take us completely off-guard. That would've been—"
Crowley snorted, trying to hold back laughter.
"That would be," he corrected, "exactly what happened anyway."
Aziraphale lifted his head and looked at Crowley, perfectly visible even in the early morning dark.
"But you must have wanted this very badly, I think, to have brought it up so quickly."
Crowley brought one hand up from under the covers and rubbed his forehead. This was more of a mental workout than he liked at this hour, and regardless of whether he had wanted it badly before, he certainly wanted it badly now.
"I thought the point of all this was to get past the strain."
"I think that 'all this' has expanded to encompass a very different meaning."
"Than what?" Crowley snapped, trying to worm his way out from under Aziraphale. "Frittering time away on useless human pursuits?"
"Crowley, that was terrible," Aziraphale said, but apparently not terrible enough to let Crowley move away from him.
"Sorry," Crowley sighed, slumping back against the pillow. "But what I'm saying is…"
"If you don't want—that is, I'd understand," Aziraphale said quietly, lowering his head even as he said it. "For what it's worth, though, this is…well, you said it best."
"Yes. 'Lovely,' I believe, was the term."
"You think so?" Crowley asked, disbelieving. The conversation had just taken several dizzying turns and left Crowley hopelessly lost.
"Quite," Aziraphale murmured, and kissed him.
"Oh. Then—mmm—what are you proposing we should do about it, exactly?"
Aziraphale paused, giving him a thoughtful frown.
"I'm not sure," he admitted, fingers lingering against Crowley's cheek. "They don't, er, cover this in the manual, as it were."
Crowley closed his eyes and concentrated on the curve of Aziraphale's neck.
"I'd say the manual has been through a considerable revision, wouldn't you?"
Aziraphale nodded, sighing, and relaxed again.
"We could back up and go in for a proper seduction, if you like," Crowley suggested, experimentally touching his tongue to the patch of skin beneath Aziraphale's ear.
The angel shivered.
"Good," Crowley murmured, careful to breathe against the spot he'd licked. Aziraphale shivered again, and Crowley realized that he was probably pliant enough to be moved. Crowley tested this theory, pressing his lips to Aziraphale's as he shifted, pushing Aziraphale until they lay side by side. Crowley hissed at the tingling in his leg as the blood rushed back, flexing it.
"Sorry, my dear," said Aziraphale, his hand migrating down to Crowley's thigh, stroking gingerly.
Wits thoroughly scattered, Crowley kissed him harder, pressing up against Aziraphale's front. He snaked his leg over Aziraphale's hip as an afterthought, sighing. Somehow, this was preferable to sleep, though he was having a wretched time rationalizing it.
"Crowley," Aziraphale gasped, "I—ah—thought—"
"This isn't 'proper,' you see," Crowley explained. "We're still informal."
"Oh," Aziraphale said, sounding relieved. "Practice, yes. Of course." He nuzzled Crowley's jaw and gave an impatient little thrust against Crowley's stomach.
"Right," Crowley groaned, and pulled Aziraphale in tighter. He had a lot of planning to do, but for the time being, it could wait.
* * *
Crowley stared at the phone on his desk. He wondered if he'd thought this through enough.
On the one hand, they did need to get out. They'd spent the better part of two whole days between Crowley's bed and the kitchen, and while he didn't have any particular objections to either one, he had promised Aziraphale something formal. They could do with a change of setting, for starters.
Biting his lip, Crowley picked up the phone and dialed. He didn't know the number, but he was confident that the call would get through anyway. It did.
"Hello, you've reached the Ritz. Can I help you?"
"Er. Yes," Crowley said, clearing his throat. "I'd like a room."
That afternoon, Aziraphale seemed relieved to see him. He'd insisted that Crowley return him to Soho—for propriety's sake, of course—the night before. Aziraphale looked up from his reading when Crowley leaned over the counter and peered at his untidy desk.
"How you find anything is beyond me," Crowley said conversationally. "Did you ever locate your fountain pen?"
"No," said Aziraphale, setting down his pencil with a sigh. "I've lost it for good, I fear."
Crowley fished in his coat and brought out his pen, offering it to Aziraphale.
"It wouldn't hurt to let you borrow this, I guess," he said, attempting to sound reluctant. "Shame, really, that you've got to sign things in graphite."
Aziraphale rose from the desk and stepped up to the counter, uncertainly taking hold of Crowley's pen.
"Are you quite sure, dear boy?" he asked, eyes flicking from the pen up to Crowley's face, his expression longing.
"Yeah," Crowley said, and leaned over, meeting him halfway. Aziraphale tasted like he'd been at his cocoa again, and Crowley made a mental note to get him some more.
"Thank you," Aziraphale said, setting the pen down on the counter. "I have some cocoa heated, if you'd like."
"Was that an invitation, angel?"
"An informal one, if you prefer."
"Mm," Crowley agreed. "Not to be scoffed at."
Half an hour later, they were enjoying fresh mugs of cocoa at the table in the back room—though Aziraphale kept excusing himself and peering out front every now and again, as if he had forgotten there was a bell on his door.
"I'm open," he explained apologetically, settling down again. "I made a few sales this morning. Those new titles are quite popular with the children."
Crowley thought it an obvious thing to say, but he just smiled and sipped his cocoa.
"You're quiet today," Aziraphale said.
"Am I?" Crowley asked, anxious. The reservation burned guiltily at the back of his mind. It was for the next evening.
Aziraphale nodded, patiently taking a sip of cocoa.
"I thought we might have dinner tomorrow night," Crowley said casually. "Get out a bit. That sort of thing."
"I wouldn't be averse," Aziraphale said, pleased.
"Great," Crowley said, forcing himself to smile again. "Keen. The Ritz, then, shall we?"
"Very good," Aziraphale said, reaching over for Crowley's mug. "Have you finished with that?"
"What? Oh," Crowley replied, hastily handing it to him. "Yes. Absolutely."
"A little jumpy, too," Aziraphale said, walking the mugs into the kitchenette. He returned with a plate of biscuits and set it down in front of Crowley, though he didn't sit down.
"You look as if you could use a few," he said, gesturing redundantly at the plate.
Crowley shook his head and stood up, brushing his hands off on his trousers. He had to get Aziraphale to come off it, or he'd crack and admit what he'd done, and that wouldn't do.
"I'm fine, thanks," Crowley said, noticing a bit of cocoa at the corner of Aziraphale's mouth. "Hang on," he said, licking his thumb, "you've got…"
Aziraphale tasted like cocoa, and like the biscuit he'd undoubtedly eaten while he was in the kitchen. The angel sighed and broke away briefly, giving Crowley an anxious look.
"You haven't been much upstairs, have you?"
"No," Crowley admitted, both hands still on Aziraphale's cheeks. He couldn't quite look away from Aziraphale's eyes, fascinated by the way that they were blue or gray or no color at all, depending. Had it really taken him six thousand years to notice?
Aziraphale nodded, then reached up to stroke the backs of Crowley's hands before gently removing them.
"I'd better close up," he said softly.
Crowley stood alone for ten stunned seconds, listening to the sound of Aziraphale turning the sign and locking the door, and wondered if they should just stick with practicing.
* * *
Crowley woke up to find himself tucked snugly under Aziraphale's worn cotton sheets and an extra quilt. He dug his way out and sat on the edge of the mattress, which rested on the floor without so much as a box spring, rubbing his eyes. Aziraphale's bedroom window was open, spilling a perfect rectangle of early September sunlight on the floor. The breeze drifted in, smelling of overnight rain, and billowed the antique lace curtains.
It was then he heard footsteps on the stairs, which were followed by Aziraphale's voice.
"Crowley? I'm sorry to bother you, but I thought I'd check—"
Aziraphale stopped in the doorway, blinked at him for a second, then blushed.
"Getting in a bit of early business?" Crowley asked, standing up. "It's a good job you got dressed first."
Aziraphale blushed even deeper, eyes lingering about Crowley's middle before flicking guiltily up to his face.
"Yes, please," Crowley said, and produced himself a suit. He strolled over to Aziraphale and kissed him briefly on the lips, then started down the stairs. It was several seconds before the angel followed.
Crowley reached the kitchen first and managed to assemble a tea tray before Aziraphale could protest. He carried it out front and set it down on Aziraphale's desk without bothering to clear away the papers.
"You needn't do that," Aziraphale said, hovering in the doorway, wringing his hands.
Crowley pulled out the desk chair and gestured at it, indicating that Aziraphale should sit.
"You've got customers to worry about, isn't that right?" he asked, picking up one of the cups and carrying it over to the counter. He set it down, then hopped up beside it, swinging legs as he took a sip. "Excellent stuff, what is it?"
Aziraphale sank down at his desk and picked up the other cup, drinking long and slow as if it contained something alcoholic.
"Tea House," he said between sips. "It's their signature blend."
They drank in silence for a while, and Crowley half wondered if he'd overdone it. He knew that pettiness was a surefire way of getting on Aziraphale's nerves, and he supposed that he had been rather petty. They'd had an unusually good go at it the night before, and Crowley was feeling all the more dubious about the Ritz. No matter what he did, the angel was a step ahead of him—even with nothing but a lumpy old mattress.
"I really ought to be going," he said, sliding down from the counter, and carried his cup back over to the desk. "Stuff to catch up on before tonight. You know."
"I suppose I do. What time should I expect you?"
"Same as always," Crowley said, about to go, then hesitated. Aziraphale looked anxious, which made Crowley feel even guiltier. Crowley bent down and kissed him, one hand on Aziraphale's cheek for good measure. It was reassuring, somehow, a lifeline for closed eyes. "Six," he said, still feeling as if he owed an apology and not wanting to give it. "Five if I lose my nerve again."
Aziraphale touched the back of Crowley's hand, eyes questioning.
"You—lost your nerve?"
"Yeah," Crowley said. "Almost. Wear something nice, would you?" he asked, drawing his hand away. "I'll be back later. Ciao."
Crowley drove aimlessly around Soho for about ten minutes before deciding that he was too restless to go home. Pacing never did him any good, and lately, he'd done so much of it that he feared for the carpet. It wasn't as if he had to pack anything, seeing as the suit he'd put on was his best.
The Marble Arch wasn't exactly deserted, as it was nearing lunchtime rush hour, and there were always tourists milling about with cameras and badly designed guidebooks (Crowley's invention, of course). Still, Crowley had often found it an excellent spot for being alone, as none of the tourists ever found their way on top of it. Crowley sat with his arms folded across his knees, glaring through his sunglasses at the bright sky.
The pigeons seemed a bit confused, but they fluttered off as soon as they determined that he hadn't brought any birdseed.
"Shoo," Crowley said, and stuck his tongue out at the dimmest of the lot. Alarmed, it gave a distressed coo and flapped away.
Unsurprisingly, it didn't make him feel better. He stayed there until his watch read five-thirty, then stood up, stretched, and appeared on the sidewalk below, already on his way to collect the Bentley. He might have resorted to making a room reservation, but he'd done no such thing for dinner.
Aziraphale seemed glad to see him again, though that wasn't what took him aback. The angel was wearing something slightly closer to modern fashion, and his tie looked new.
"You're early, dear boy," Aziraphale said, one hand flat on the counter as if it was all he could do to steady himself. Crowley took his other hand and raised it to his lips. If he was going to do this, he might as well do it full stop.
"You look, er, nice."
Aziraphale averted his eyes, lacing his fingers with Crowley's and lowering their hands.
"And I've never known you to look otherwise," he said. "Let's be off."
Crowley made sure to park the Bentley in a place it wouldn't be bothered overnight, though he was sure Aziraphale wouldn't have been able to make that distinction if he'd tried. He held Aziraphale's door for him, then clamped the wheels for good measure. That got him a strange look.
"My dear, I don't think anybody around here would steal—"
"You can't be too sure," Crowley said, offering his arm. "Come on. It's chilly."
Dozens of pinpoint golden lights loomed up overhead as they crossed the street, every one of them spelling out The Ritz. Once they got inside, Crowley made sure that nobody was looking and vanished their coats. He wasn't sure what room he'd booked, but whichever it was, the coats would be there waiting.
"Table for two, please," Crowley said politely to the hostess, who said, of course, right this way. She'd been expecting them.
"Thought you might like a change of pace," Crowley explained as she showed them to a corner table at the back of the dining room. "Something secluded. Peaceful."
Aziraphale just stood there looking befuddled for a few seconds, then smiled and asked the hostess if she'd be a dear and start them off with a bottle of their featured white. After she had gone, he pulled out the closest chair and told Crowley he'd done quite enough, wouldn't he sit down?
Crowley sighed and did as he was told. If he humored the angel now, it would pay off later. He hoped.
"It really is sweet of you, though," Aziraphale said somewhere halfway through his second glass of wine. "I can't remember a time we've been here that it wasn't spur of the moment. It…means more, I suppose."
"That's basically the idea," Crowley said, cracking open another mussel. "I told you. I'm a demon of my word."
Aziraphale scooped a few more mussels onto his plate, then put the serving spoon back with deliberation.
"Dear boy, if these past few weeks have shown me anything, they've shown me that."
Crowley had almost forgotten what it felt like to blush.
He'd ordered them one of the main-course specials to share, duck in honey and plum sauce, though he tried not to think too hard about that, and Aziraphale had the good grace not to call him on it. The angel hummed approvingly around his first bite and took hold of Crowley's hand across the table. Crowley pushed his vegetables around and brushed his thumb across Aziraphale's knuckles, realizing that he wasn't hungry at all and that this would probably blow up in his face, because things had a way of doing that lately. The only difference was, if he messed up, there'd be nobody turning his hand to put things back in place.
"Crowley?" Aziraphale asked hesitantly, squeezing his hand. "Are you—"
"Fine," Crowley said brightly, abandoning his vegetables to spear a slice of duck. "Just great. Delicious, isn't it?"
Aziraphale sipped his wine, smiling over the rim. Ridiculously, illogically beautiful. Crowley went back to terrorizing his carrots and wondered if he'd get through dessert without making an utter fool of himself.
As was the way of things, dessert came and went (pear and almond tarts didn't stand a chance in front of Aziraphale), and so did the bill (Crowley handed the girl a handful of cash, undoubtedly too much, and thanked her). Aziraphale stood up and stretched, content, and gave a wine-sleepy yawn.
"Goodness," he said. "Excuse me."
"Excused," Crowley said, then hastily took hold of his arm. "Come on."
"Crowley, the door is that—"
"We're going this way," Crowley said, eyes fixed straight ahead, and led Aziraphale out of the restaurant and into the hotel lobby. It was much brighter than where they'd come from, and Crowley had to blink a few times to orient himself before dragging Aziraphale to one of the check-in counters. He let go of Aziraphale's arm and fumbled for his wallet, hands shaking.
"Reservation in the name of Crowley," he said, placing a credit card on the counter. While the elderly concierge frowned at it and punched numbers into a computer, Aziraphale fixed Crowley with a flabbergasted expression and made several attempts at saying something, all of which failed.
Crowley grinned sheepishly, but inside he felt a swell of triumph that was, in all probability, a swell of something else.
"Your keys, sir. Are you here on business?"
"You might say that," Crowley said, picking up the keys. "Thanks so much. Cheers."
"Have a pleasant stay."
Crowley didn't dare answer any of Aziraphale's astonished, half-articulated questions until they'd gotten into one of the shining elevators, which was, of course, empty except for the two of them.
"You—you didn't," Aziraphale said immediately, taking hold of Crowley's arm.
"'M afraid so," Crowley said, pushing the button for the fourth floor. Not as high up as he would have liked, but they probably wouldn't be spending much time at the window.
"Crowley," Aziraphale said weakly, as if he meant to protest, "you shouldn't have gone to—"
"Promised," Crowley snapped, tired of all the formalities, and pinned Aziraphale against the back wall of the elevator. "Didn't I?" he murmured against Aziraphale's mouth.
For once, Aziraphale got the message. He slid both arms around Crowley's waist and kissed him hard enough that they both staggered when the elevator creaked to a halt and the doors opened with a faint ding.
"That's us," Crowley managed, straightening his jacket. "This way."
Their coats were, in fact, exactly where he'd sent them—neatly on hangers in the closet—and there was an ice bucket containing two bottles of champagne on one of the suite tables. Nice touch, he'd thought, and also the flowers.
"I think I need to sit down," Aziraphale said faintly, and did—right on the edge of the bed, which was much larger than Crowley's, and probably more comfortable.
Crowley froze for a few seconds, as he hadn't been expecting quite that strong a reaction, then sat down beside Aziraphale, unable to look at anything except the floor.
"It's not—too formal, is it?"
Smiling suddenly, Aziraphale closed his eyes and slowly shook his head.
"As if you hadn't done enough," he said softly, and Crowley let out a sigh of relief. "It must have taken a dreadful amount of effort to pick up the phone."
"That," Crowley said, too shocked to say anything else, "was low." He snapped his fingers, and one of the champagne bottles violently uncorked itself. "Fortunately, I'm of a mind to let it slide. Would you like some?"
"Please," Aziraphale laughed.
If there was anything Crowley hadn't expected, it was that matters of intimacy could turn playful without a moment's notice, especially if one drank while attempting to undress. Crowley finally gave up and sent both glasses over to the nightstand, much to Aziraphale's disappointment.
"I wasn't finished," protested the angel, undressed except for his unbuttoned shirt, unfortunately plain pants, and his socks.
Perhaps Crowley hadn't had enough to drink, because the sight of Aziraphale like that, ridiculous as it was, struck him as instantly, profoundly arousing. He got rid of his trousers impatiently and reached across Aziraphale to the nightstand, grabbing the nearest glass. Aziraphale gave him a questioning look.
Finding speech inadequate, Crowley drained the glass, then leaned over and kissed Aziraphale with the bittersweet, dry taste of champagne still fresh on his lips.
When Aziraphale groaned and pushed up against him, the remainder of his clothes gone, Crowley reached over and fumbled for the other glass, almost tipping it over.
Aziraphale laughed breathlessly into Crowley's mouth.
"Shhh," Crowley said, taking another dizzying sip, then pressed the glass to Aziraphale's lips.
Aziraphale took the glass and drank slowly, never once taking his eyes off of Crowley's.
"Thank you," he murmured, and handed it back.
Crowley set the glass back on the nightstand, taking the opportunity to kiss Aziraphale again while he was at it. The glass toppled, making the angel jump under him, but it didn't break, which was something of a relief. Crowley set his hand on Aziraphale's cheek and trailed it absently from his jaw to the hollow of his throat, refusing to break the kiss. Aziraphale whimpered.
"Hmmm," Crowley murmured, heart skipping a beat, and let his hand slip down to cover Aziraphale's. It hammered in his chest, a distinct, pounding entreaty against Crowley's palm. Please, he thought, lingering there, and rested his head against Aziraphale's shoulder. Let me do this, just let me…
"Oh, my dear," Aziraphale sighed, and relaxed into the crook of Crowley's arm.
And then it was simple, remarkably simple, to learn the curve of Aziraphale's belly with the tips of his fingers, to find Aziraphale's heartbeat with his lips. Aziraphale gasped under him, trembling, but Crowley held him still with one hand at his shoulder, the other at his hip. He tasted the faintest trace of sweat and trailed his mouth lower, nuzzling Aziraphale's bellybutton. He'd never been sure why they had them. Camouflage, maybe.
Aziraphale's frantic breathing caught on a moan.
"You—really you don't—"
Crowley hadn't planned this far, but his plans had always had a way of working themselves out, and why shouldn't he?
"I do," Crowley murmured, deliberately setting his hands on Aziraphale's hips, and tentatively licked at the hard, begging flesh that had, until then, been just inches from his nose. More salt, soft skin. Crowley sighed and licked again, surprised at the strangled sound Aziraphale made. Not at all unpleasant, he decided.
"Crowley," Aziraphale whispered, one hand finding its way into Crowley's hair.
Something seized up painfully in Crowley's chest, but he ignored it, calmly reaching up to take hold of Aziraphale's hand, twining their fingers.
"It's all right," he whispered, and carefully took Aziraphale in his mouth.
This part, unfortunately, was awkward, as there was rather more than he could fit at once, and it was difficult to hold Aziraphale steady with only one hand. He closed his eyes and sucked slowly, reminding himself that he didn't have to breathe. Aziraphale's tightening grip should have been warning enough, but it wasn't until Aziraphale gave a strangled cry that might've been Crowley's name that Crowley realized just how close he was.
Aziraphale squeezed Crowley's hand so tightly that a few joints dislocated, then slid immediately back into place, knitting back together smoothly.
Crowley turned his head and spat on the comforter, almost choking. It would take some getting used to yet.
"Crowley," Aziraphale whispered, letting go of Crowley's hand as if it had burned him. "I shouldn't have—"
Crowley snatched his hand back, which wasn't any great challenge, because it was too limp to have gotten very far.
"I'll break your fingers if you apologize," he hissed, nuzzling Aziraphale's stomach. He let his hand drift up to rest over Aziraphale's heart again, lying still until the frantic pulse faded to a sleepy murmur.
Aziraphale sighed, pulling his hand free of Crowley's and set it against the back of Crowley's neck.
"Come here," he murmured.
Crowley lifted his head, blinking to clear his eyes. He didn't remember getting rid of his sunglasses, but he wasn't wearing them now.
"I hope you know," Aziraphale said softly, "that I don't have words—"
"Then don't try to use them," Crowley said, and slithered up to rest against him, sighing with relief at finally being able to stretch. He'd gotten terribly cramped.
Aziraphale kissed him slowly, without even a moment's hesitation. His free hand rested against Crowley's chest for a moment before drifting down to touch Crowley almost reverently—or perhaps it was just that he hadn't gotten his coordination back yet.
Still, the brush of Aziraphale's fingers reminded him how badly he'd been aching.
"Oh," Crowley groaned, thoroughly embarrassed, and came before Aziraphale could get a proper hold on him.
"There, now," Aziraphale murmured against his cheek, stroking his stomach soothingly. The mess was already gone.
Crowley slumped, gasping, and buried his face in the pillow. He hoped Aziraphale still wasn't big on words for the time being, because Crowley couldn't remember any.
"My dear," Aziraphale whispered, as if he thought Crowley was asleep, and the words meant quite something else.
Thanks to the knot in his chest, Crowley couldn't breathe anyway.
* * *
They slept late and ordered up brunch, which didn't get eaten because Crowley decided to retaliate for Aziraphale's tendency to bring him off with just a touch. As tempting as the scones looked, they couldn't possibly measure up to the satisfaction he got out of making Aziraphale beg as desperately as he had the night before with only the tips of his fingers. Afterward, Aziraphale held him and stroked him until it was, blissfully, too much. They slept some more.
When they left just after noontime wearing roughly the same clothes they'd worn to dinner, the hostess gave them an odd look. Crowley waved at her anyway.
"It's not as if she didn't suspect something," he said reasonably, feeling too laid-back to harass the Sunday driver in front of him. "I mean, she's probably seen us there before. It's not as if we've taken care to make everybody forget."
"No," Aziraphale said, relaxing a bit. "I suppose not. Though, there was that young lady—"
"The one with the book? She knew anyway," Crowley said. "In fact, so did the old bat who wrote it, and everybody else in between. Can we move on?"
"I'd say we definitely have," Aziraphale said seriously.
"Which was the point," Crowley said, a different sort of tightness settling in his chest. "Right."
"Well, yes," Aziraphale said, pronouncing the words cautiously, as if they might explode. "But we've…gone well beyond experimentation, I should think."
Crowley turned his head and stared at Aziraphale, trying very hard not to bite his lip or thump the steering wheel or do anything else he was likely to do in this kind of agitation.
"Yes," he said hesitantly, certain he knew what Aziraphale was getting at and not wanting to admit it.
Unexpectedly, Aziraphale smiled and reached over to pat Crowley's knee.
"So long as we're on the same page," he said, sounding cheerful, and left it at that. "Watch the road, my dear."
Crowley was more than glad to leave Aziraphale with his books, though the parting kiss made it difficult to convince himself of that. As if it wouldn't make matters worse, he needed to think some more. He couldn't put what Aziraphale had said out of his mind—or rather, how he had said it—and what was worse, he wanted to say the same thing.
He went home and took it out on the plants, which didn't make him feel better, either, but at least it made the flat look much nicer. There weren't any new candidates for removal.
There were times, Crowley reflected, when you got to the point where you felt as if you'd done and seen it all, never mind if that was far from the case because there was too much in the world to ever run out. The trouble was that he'd spent the better part of the last few centuries thinking that he'd gotten to know everything about Aziraphale that there was to know, and that they'd done everything that there was to do, but clearly, that wasn't the case.
There was also the problem of free will, which he'd always thought they didn't have.
Crowley collapsed on the sofa, staring at the ceiling. If the truth of the matter was that they always had had it, well, that meant they'd wasted a bloody lot of time on work that the Higher-Ups and Lower-Downs really didn't care about anyway. And the world was, as of now, in a frightfully interesting situation. He wondered what the boy had done, and he wondered if the change was permanent. Deep down, he hoped that it was.
After all, the alternative was too miserable to consider, what with the pleasures he'd been missing out on just when he thought he'd gotten a handle on them all. There was pain tied up in this one, and love, and that made it worth something.
Made Aziraphale worth something.
Crowley knew that there was only one effective temporary solution to this kind of realization, and it involved consuming a lot of alcohol without the benefit of company.
* * *
When the doorbell rang, it wasn't the noise that woke Crowley. It was the pounding in his head, which was considerable enough that he only managed to get as far as the kitchen before he realized that this was the first time in a long, long while that he'd had this much to drink and not sobered up and gotten an actual hangover.
The doorbell rang again, accompanied by soft knocking.
"In a minute!" Crowley shouted, swaying, and dropped three empty bottles in the sink.
He found the door by way of the wall, which was white and slippery and not really helpful, but the doorknob reflected the hall light gaudily enough to make him squint and groan. He grabbed it and wrenched the door open, ready to hiss at whoever was there.
"Oh dear," said Aziraphale, sighing. "I'd been afraid of this."
"Afraid I'd break out the mead without you?"
"That was uncalled for," Aziraphale said, grabbing his arm and steering him back inside, closing the door behind them. "I have no idea what's gotten into you. You didn't—"
"Sober up, no," Crowley said, and closed his eyes, because it was too easy to let Aziraphale support him, and also, it meant he wouldn't have to think.
Aziraphale sighed again, slinging Crowley's arm over his shoulder and wrapping his own arm around Crowley's waist. He stepped forward, then hesitated.
"Three," Crowley said soberly.
"I thought you'd learned your lesson," Aziraphale said, getting him past the kitchen and into the hallway. It was darker and cooler back there, and it made Crowley shiver.
"They don't make it like they used to, though."
"Yes, but you'd been saving those."
Try though he might to put out of his mind how undignified it was, there was something fascinating about being awake for the getting-tucked-in part of Aziraphale putting him to bed. The only problem was that, after he was undressed and under the covers, Aziraphale kissed his forehead and left the room. Crowley thought that rather defeated the point, and promptly started to drift off. He had the feeling a dream was coming on.
When he woke up later that evening, he couldn't remember what it was, but Aziraphale was seated on the bed beside him, leaning against the headboard, tilting his head so that he wasn't quite looking at Crowley upside-down. He reached over and picked a glass of water up from the nightstand. For a split second, Crowley was afraid it was going over his head. It wouldn't have been the first time Aziraphale had done that, and wouldn't be the last.
"Sit up," Aziraphale said patiently.
Crowley did, though it took some struggling with the covers, since Aziraphale was sitting on them. The room tilted a little, but it settled down quickly, and he gestured the light on to see if his head would start pounding again. It didn't.
"Drink this," Aziraphale said, and pressed the glass into his hand.
"Thanks," Crowley mumbled, and gulped it down.
Aziraphale waited until he was finished, then took the glass away and set it back on the nightstand. Unexpectedly, he reached over and smoothed Crowley's hair back from his forehead, more concerned than exasperated. Crowley looked away, sighing.
"I'd rather you talked about it, you know," Aziraphale said, leaning so close that their foreheads touched. "I'd rather you told me, or at least let me be there while you did it."
"What good would that do?" Crowley asked gloomily.
"More than you've done yourself," Aziraphale said gently, and kissed the corner of his mouth. "I'll make dinner, shall I? What do you want?"
You, Crowley thought, but he said, "I don't care. Order something. I've got menus all over the refrigerator."
"You've got food in the refrigerator," Aziraphale said stubbornly. "It would be a shame to let it go to waste."
"You really aren't thinking, are you?"
"Oh, be quiet," Aziraphale muttered, letting go of him and standing up. "Go back to sleep. I'll wake you when it's ready."
Disappointed, Crowley waited until Aziraphale was safely in the kitchen, then crawled out of bed and fished something casual out of the drawers he hadn't bothered opening in at least a decade. Jeans never really went out, so he had plenty of those, and he thought about puzzling Aziraphale with one of the strange band shirts he'd acquired in the seventies, then decided against it. He was more comfortable in collared things anyway.
If Aziraphale heard him walk up the hall and settle down on the couch, he didn't give any indication and just kept up his steady shuffle around the kitchen. Crowley turned on the television, more out of habit than actually wanting to watch. He was pleasantly surprised to flip across Whose Line Is It Anyway? and got interested in the sketch.
Something smelled awfully good.
He got through some tiresome commercial breaks and a few more sketches—Superheroes, for one, which he'd always liked—by the time Aziraphale showed up behind the couch, staring at the television with something akin to confusion.
"What's that he's doing, exactly?"
"You don't want to know," Crowley said, and shut it off, mildly disappointed to be leaving Colin Mochrie as Hear-With-Your-Elbows-and-Talk-Through-Your-Ass Man.
Aziraphale had the table set already, and he'd heated up (and embellished, by the look of it) a few different items that Crowley hadn't even remembered picking up, however long ago it had been that he'd bought them. The chicken marsala made his mouth water.
When they were almost finished, Crowley snapped his fingers, remembering that he had at least one bottle of the mead left, but Aziraphale snatched the bottle away and banished it to the counter before Crowley could get it open.
"I thought you wanted some," he said, scraping the last of his rice into a jumbled pile with the snap peas and zucchini. He was losing his appetite again, and Aziraphale looked testy.
"Perhaps, but not without you, and you've had quite enough these past twenty-four hours, I should think," Aziraphale said pointedly, clearing the table with a wave of his hand.
"You took the easy way out," Crowley said, pushing his chair back and away from the table. "I'm impressed."
Aziraphale stood up and walked over to the sink, where he filled the teapot without so much as asking if Crowley wanted tea. It looked like he was getting some whether he did or not, not to say that he didn't.
"I'll be in the lounge," he said, and got up. The silence was cryptic and deafening.
Whose Line was over by the time he got the television back on, but there seemed to be a handful of films in the higher channels, none of them overly interesting, but excellent for background noise. Crowley settled in and stared at the screen, letting the images blur.
When Aziraphale came in, he wasn't carrying any teacups. He sat down beside Crowley, then shifted closer, making the leather squeak. If Crowley was honest with himself, he'd half gotten the sofa for the fascinating noises it made when you shifted around.
"I don't believe I've seen this," Aziraphale said, and if he was irritated at Crowley for walking out on him, he certainly wasn't letting it show.
"It's boring," Crowley said, which was the truth. "Except for the part with the rubber octopus."
"Hmmm," Aziraphale murmured, shifting closer. The cushion squeaked again, but that wasn't so much what got Crowley's attention. Aziraphale had let his arm slip from the back of the sofa down to Crowley's shoulders, which made Crowley want to laugh because that was one of the oldest tricks in the book, if not the oldest.
"Subtle, angel," he said.
"I'm glad you think so," Aziraphale said, and nuzzled Crowley's ear.
Now, there were a limited number of choices to make when faced with such a situation, and Crowley wasn't foolish enough to let slip the one that involved ignoring the television, because the list of pleasures that kissing exceeded extended far beyond sleep. Crowley turned so that Aziraphale didn't have to turn his head quite so much, and it meant that he sort of had to shift over and lean into Aziraphale. Or that he wanted to.
"Were you trying to get my attention?" Aziraphale finally asked, tracing Crowley's jaw with the tips of his fingers. "Did you hope I'd ask you what was the matter?"
"I don't know," Crowley said, and leaned in again, as he was of the opinion that they shouldn't be talking right now. He tried to kiss Aziraphale on the mouth and ended up getting his chin, because Aziraphale was shaking his head, exasperated.
"I wish you'd just let go, you know," he sighed, separating himself from Crowley just enough to slip off the couch and onto the floor. He situated himself on his knees in front of Crowley, then placed one hand on each of Crowley's thighs, looking at him.
"I—" Crowley opened and closed his mouth, then opened it again "—what?"
"Things would be a lot easier, I think, if you didn't think so much. If you didn't have to have such a handle on things all the time, that's all."
Before Crowley could respond, Aziraphale had leaned in and taken hold of his shirt, unbuttoning it carefully. He kissed Crowley's stomach as soon as the shirt hung loose, then trailed his fingers back down and ran them along Crowley's belt-loops.
Then, Crowley felt it—the strange, panicked tightness he'd felt in the Bentley—and it was trying to push out the other tightness, the one he'd felt when he'd done this to Aziraphale and oh God he'd done this to Aziraphale –
"Crowley?" Aziraphale asked, hesitating over the button of Crowley's jeans. "Are you all right?"
"Maybe," Crowley said, and touched Aziraphale's cheek. "Go on, would you?"
"More gladly than you know," Aziraphale said, and pulled him down for a kiss.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, Aziraphale's clever fingers got his jeans open and before Crowley knew it he was gasping into Aziraphale's mouth, hands tight on his shoulders, asking for this as if it meant everything, fearing what it might mean if he let go.
"I'm not just humoring you," Aziraphale said softly, finally easing back. He set his hands on Crowley's thighs again, one gentle stroke up and down, and the jeans vanished.
"Oh, shit," Crowley whispered, and took hold of Aziraphale's shoulders as Aziraphale nuzzled his stomach and what strained desperately against it.
When Aziraphale kissed him there, Crowley closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.
Not that he could keep quiet for long when Aziraphale finally tasted him, curious and tender as if they had all the time in the world, all over again, and when Aziraphale took as much of him into his mouth as he could, Crowley moaned, doubling over, and prayed. His hands folded in Aziraphale's hair, clasped, and released again, fingers shaking. Aziraphale was moving; he was moving. Couldn't be helped.
And when he came to the end, pitched up to the limit, there was Aziraphale's hand against his cheek, cradling him as if for a kiss, and if not a kiss, what was it?
Crowley choked out Aziraphale's name, falling forward, and let himself be caught. When he snatched his breath again, he found that he'd taken hold of Aziraphale's hand with his own and that Aziraphale's cheek rested against his stomach. He'd fisted his other hand against the couch cushion, and he had to peel it away.
"Are you all right?" Aziraphale asked, surprisingly clear-voiced.
"Yeah," Crowley whispered, and fell back against the sofa, taking Aziraphale's hand with him. He closed his eyes for a few more seconds, then looked down to see Aziraphale peering up at him—patient as ever, simply waiting, and more than a little flustered.
"It's not as bad as all that," Aziraphale said, and tugged Crowley's hand down to his mouth. He kissed it, circling Crowley's wrist with careful fingers.
"No," Crowley agreed, dazed, not sure if Aziraphale had played entirely fair.
Aziraphale turned his hand over and kissed his palm.
Shivering, Crowley took a deep breath.
"Come here," he said.
Aziraphale held his hand and smiled.
Chapter 2: Sleight of Hand
What Aziraphale enjoyed about Saturday mornings was quite different from what Crowley enjoyed about them. He'd been reluctant to leave Crowley asleep, the poor dear, but the weather had persisted mild, and once the breeze through the window had cooled his skin, he'd kissed Crowley's forehead and carefully extracted himself from a tangle of sheets and warm, pliant limbs. Out in the sunlight on Great Windmill Street, one felt a terrible disparity, but given such clear skies, Aziraphale decided not to turn back.
It was a very nice day.
There were certain supplies that couldn't be skimped over: milk, sugar, cocoa, and cinnamon. Aziraphale crossed the street and turned right, smiling at the nervous young lady who stood there smoking a cigarette. She worked in one of the corner shops; sometimes she smiled back, and sometimes she didn't. Her lips quirked as she flicked a rain of ashes onto the pavement, but her expression was unreadable. She'd be a touch less stressed if her landlord forgot to ask for last month's rent. Yes.
It was, Aziraphale decided, the sort of morning for a long walk, and again he regretted leaving Crowley behind. Waking the demon, he had discovered, was difficult unless it involved lovemaking, a really excellent breakfast, or both. Aziraphale stared at his feet, waiting for the signal to turn. He wondered if he ought to have stayed in bed after all. Crowley had opened his eyes only once—such wide, startled pleasure—and drifted back to sleep after. Aziraphale stepped off the pavement when the gentleman to his right brushed impatiently past him. Unless held tightly, Crowley was a restless sleeper.
The Berwick Street market was crowded, though that was hardly something to complain about. Aziraphale had been patronizing the stalls for, as Crowley had once put it, "longer than they've actually been there," but it was, after all, only proper to show a bit of pride in one's community. He would have to stop at a convenience store for milk, but he'd be able to find everything else here without difficulty. He passed a vendor hawking a baffling array of sunglasses and imagined Crowley would have something rude to say about it.
Truth be told, Aziraphale didn't understand why designers mattered so much, though he supposed that certain items of clothing looked fetching if you could pull them off.
"You, over there! Sir! Head in the clouds, Mr. Fell, God as my witness. Where on earth have you been these past few weeks, to the moon and back? Mr. Fell!"
Aziraphale shook himself and looked up, smiling immediately. A few stalls ahead of him, a short woman in a crushed velvet shirt was waving at him, hopping up and down.
"Annie, my dear," he called, carefully maneuvering his way around a young couple holding hands, "I'm terribly sorry to have worried you. Lovely, you're looking just lovely. May I ask how your husband is getting on?"
"Not half as well as you, the Devil take him," Annie said, taking hold of his hands with her wrinkled, surprisingly strong fingers. "What brings you about, then, if you've obviously got better things going on in that shop of yours?"
"Odds and ends," Aziraphale said, glancing down at her trays of jewelry distractedly. She'd never met Crowley, of course, at least not that he knew of, but her uncanny demeanor had always gotten to him. "You've sold most of your books, I see."
"They come, they go," Annie said, still smiling when he looked up again. "Same as you, Mr. Fell. Every year since I was twenty, mark me. I never forget a face."
"Then I shall leave you, dear lady, to meet new ones," Aziraphale said, and patted the back of her hand. "My best regards to your husband."
Annie's smile turned into a grin.
"And mine to you and yours. Sure as anything, it's company keeping you away."
"Yes, er," Aziraphale said, glancing hastily back over his shoulder as he strolled away. "I'll do that. Thank you." He'd been wondering for a long time why Heaven hadn't caught on—her kind were harmless nowadays, he supposed. If she'd been alive three centuries ago, they would have burned her with Agnes and the rest.
From there, the rest of the trip was quick, even uneventful. There were spice-sellers and bread-sellers, cheese-sellers and fish-sellers. Crowley wasn't much for fish, but Aziraphale had learned a thing or two about his guilty fondnesses. When all was said and done, Aziraphale's parcels were heavier than planned by a carton of raspberries and a small wheel of French cheese with a hyphenated name he was always forgetting.
The closest corner shop was back on Brewer Street, and by the time he got there, he thought that, Annie or no Annie, having Crowley along would've been nice if only to help with the carrying. He had to set everything down on the floor, slightly flushed, and fumble in his coat pocket for some money. Milk hadn't always been so pricey.
"No rush," the cashier reassured him. Nice young man by the name of…Charles. It was a good job they all wore nametags these days. "Unless you've got somewhere to be."
"You might say that," Aziraphale said, holding his hand out for change.
Being out of breath aside, he might have gone on having a pleasant morning if not for the large truck that he found occupying the street in front of the bookshop when he returned. It was towering and white, the sort of thing they transported pianos in, or maybe furniture. Aziraphale sighed and walked around it, irritated, only to find his neighbor standing on the sidewalk, hands on hips, peering curiously at the door of the bookshop, which was wide open. He looked up when Aziraphale got there, startled.
"Some big delivery," commented Mr. Grundel, who Aziraphale had made a point of not getting to know very well, on account of the fact that their areas of expertise were quite different.
"I'm not expecting any deliveries," Aziraphale said, setting his bags down, astonished as a young man in a mover's uniform hurried out the door of his shop, followed closely by another. They scurried to the back of the truck and clambered inside, talking, and emerged thirty seconds later hefting a large, oblong cardboard box between them.
"That's quite a thing to forget," Mr. Grundel said, and went back inside his own shop.
Aziraphale was just about to open his mouth and demand that the man come back and tell him what on earth was going on when Crowley came outside. The demon was awake, fully dressed, and unaccountab—well, no, that was unfair, he had a reason to be cheerful.
"Hi," said Crowley, immediately walking over and picking up two of Aziraphale's bags. "I had wondered when you'd be getting back. I hadn't meant this to be a complete surprise, seeing as you don't take those very well. Is that Ossau-Iraty?"
"What the hell is going on?" Aziraphale asked, mystified.
"No, see, you've got it wrong," Crowley said, stooping for the third bag, then the fourth, almost as if in guilty afterthought. "It's what's going up. They've had a wretched time getting all the pieces up the stairs, and I think I'm going to have to tell them to just leave—"
"Oh, all right," Crowley sighed, and Aziraphale was instantly sorry for having caused the crestfallen look on his face. "I'm telling you, this doing-good thing just gets you in loads of trouble. Wouldn't you like to see your new bed? It's in pieces, granted, but—"
"Bed," Aziraphale echoed, suddenly glad that he wasn't holding onto anything perishable.
"Yes, you idiot," Crowley said, turning on his heel and heading for the door. "Most of it's upstairs, though I'm thinking the headboard's going to be no end of trouble, so…"
Aziraphale followed him, ignoring the rest of the words coming out of Crowley's mouth. Here he'd been imagining some frightful new method of collection or retaliation courtesy of Crowley's people, not another instance of Crowley proving how ostentatious he could be when it came to buying presents. It was nerve-wracking and a bit infuriating.
"You could have given me fair warning," Aziraphale said, but it was useless. Crowley was already rushing ahead of him into the back, waving his hands at the movers, who were held up at the staircase with the unwieldy box. Aziraphale knew instantly that it wouldn't fit.
"No, no!" Crowley was shouting, rather shrilly. "You had better not try that. It'll knock out the—er," he said, glancing at Aziraphale, visibly trying to calm down. "Tell you what, just leave it where it is and bring the last pieces in front. We can take it from here."
"Yes," Aziraphale echoed, letting out his breath. "That might be for the best."
The movers stared at them for a few seconds, then one of them said in a tone that suggested he thought they were out of their minds, "Sir, do you realized that's two more pieces bigger than this one?"
"Yes," Crowley said without skipping a beat. "You've been a marvelous help, really. We're quite capable of finishing up. Isn't that right, A—ah, angel?"
Aziraphale felt the blood rising in his cheeks as both of the movers' eyes fell on him, but he managed to keep a straight face.
"Certainly," he said reasonably, smiling at Crowley in such a way that he knew Crowley found embarrassing. "Thank you both ever so much."
"Right, then," said the silent mover, and carefully set down his end of the box. His partner did the same, following him out of the shop in a hurry.
"I can explain," Crowley said, turning to Aziraphale as soon as they had gone. "I thought you'd be here, what with how you made me promise we'd spend a few days…" He withered under Aziraphale's gaze, setting the bags down on the floor. "Fair warning?" he asked, tipping his sunglasses in disgust. "I seem to remember you having no such decency, and you can't claim I didn't try—"
Enough was enough. Aziraphale sighed, smiling wearily, and stepped in close to Crowley despite the racket that the movers were making out front. Crowley twitched, then pushed his glasses up into his hair. He tried to speak again, but Aziraphale cut him off.
"I do appreciate this, you know," he said, softly so the movers wouldn't hear. "It's just that your sense of timing is terrible, and I don't think you considered the, er, space constraints when you ordered this."
"Of course not," Crowley said, as if shocked that Aziraphale would suggest such a thing. "I was considering this ancient, abused spine of mine, thank you very much." With his eyes open that wide, he looked more manic than innocent.
"Really, my dear," Aziraphale said, not to be outdone, and carefully stroked Crowley's cheek. "The springs weren't that far gone…"
For an instant, Corwley's eyes slid closed, and he leaned into Aziraphale's touch with a soft, sharp intake of breath. He pulled back almost immediately, though, scowling as if annoyed with himself.
"Far enough gone that I had them take it out and trash it first thing," he said, eyes flashing petty defiance.
"Oh, yes," Aziraphale sighed, taking Crowley's face in both hands this time. "Of course you did. How very mature of you. I suppose you had them do away with the curtains while they were at it."
Crowley was still scowling, but he didn't pull away. That brittle, glassy look that he could summon up sometimes never lasted for very long.
"On the contrary, I like the curtains."
"I don't know what I'm going to do with you," Aziraphale murmured, and kissed him lightly on the mouth. Crowley relaxed into that, too, his hands coming to rest on Aziraphale's shoulders.
"I can think of a few things," he said under his breath.
"Maybe later," Aziraphale said, patting Crowley's cheek before removing Crowley's hands from his shoulders, feeling cheerful again. "We ought to go out and help those nice young men, and you had better see about paying them."
Crowley started to say something, but he shut his mouth. Glaring, he slid his sunglasses back into place and stalked out to the front of the shop.
Aziraphale watched him go, satisfied, then collected up the bags and carried them to the kitchenette. As much as he felt that getting the bed put together and feeding Crowley breakfast there was an excellent idea, it was nearly noon, and getting Crowley out for some fresh air would do him a world of good.
* * *
Aziraphale paused in front of the glass, fingertips poised lightly against it. He couldn't remember the last time they had actually taken a stroll through the collections. Crowley's interest tended to fray after an hour or so, and it was somewhat disturbing to come across objects—and people—that one recognized.
"I still don't know how they ever slept on those things," Crowley said, peering over Aziraphale's shoulder at an Egyptian neck-rest. He tugged Aziraphale's hand away from the glass.
"I haven't the faintest idea," Aziraphale said, turning to look at him. "Didn't you have one?"
"For all of one night," Crowley said grimly. "From then on, it was all pillows, all the time, let me tell you."
"So, you've…replaced the whole bed set?" Aziraphale asked cautiously, unsure of whether he wanted to know what the damages actually were. He'd been rather fond of those quilts even if he hadn't used them much, and the old down pillows, too.
"Yes," Crowley sighed, put-upon, "but you needn't worry for your linens. They're in the closet with the rest of your rags, and honestly, haven't you heard of cedar chips?"
"Thank you," Aziraphale said, too relieved to retaliate. "Let's eat, shall we?"
The cafeteria was a touch crowded—more families than usual, lots of small children running about—so Aziraphale decided that a peek into the gift shops first couldn't hurt. Crowley made a frustrated noise and trailed after him, knocking something mummy-shaped off a stand full of toys and novelties. Surreptitiously, Aziraphale restored it.
"Who buys these things?" Crowley asked, holding up a silver chain with a pendant that appeared to have hieratic on it, or possibly Hebrew. It was difficult to tell.
"People, of course," Aziraphale said, shuffling through a bunch of note cards with interest. They had gotten in some nice prints since last he'd been there, and his stationery collection was dwindling. He held up the box, giving Crowley a questioning look.
"I don't know you," Crowley said, putting the necklace back on its rack.
Aziraphale waited until Crowley had wandered off in the direction of the cafeteria, then purchased the note cards and the pendant (later, he'd puzzle out what it said, then send it to Madame Tracy). He got through the line in decent time and caught up with Crowley at one of the tables. Crowley had managed to find one that wasn't all that crowded.
"How is the pasta salad?" Aziraphale asked, taking a tentative sip of his coffee.
"Not up to snuff, and I can't fathom why you bother with that sludge."
"It suffers for cream and sugar, that's all," Aziraphale said, borrowing one of Crowley's napkins. He'd forgotten to grab some, and the line was getting crowded again.
Crowley made a face, stabbing at his stuffed chicken breast.
"I really don't mind," Aziraphale said, ripping open a packet of mayonnaise. "It was something of a shock, that's all, coming home to—"
"You should've told me you were going somewhere."
"You were asleep," Aziraphale said, trying to keep his tone reasonable, but this was getting ridiculous, and the mayonnaise was not cooperating.
Crowley's eyes flicked up briefly, then back down to his tray.
"Forget it," he said, and took a sip of tea.
Aziraphale had the distinct impression that the other regulars were watching them with thinly veiled interest. He cleared his throat and sat back, taking another sip of coffee. His sandwich was likely to fall apart if he wasn't careful, so he took hold of it and hoped for the best. Crowley sat his teacup down with a strange little flourish. Nothing fell out.
"I'm never going to hear the end of this, am I?" Aziraphale asked, taking a bite.
Crowley shrugged, half grinning behind his hand.
"Only if you want to hear the end of it."
"I wouldn't mind," Aziraphale said, quickly bringing the napkin to his lips.
"Too many sets of virgin ears present," Crowley said, almost primly, and tapped Aziraphale's shoe with the toe of his boot under the table. He finished off his tea.
For the first time in six thousand years, Aziraphale choked on something.
"I was giving you fair warning."
"Just finish your lunch, please," Aziraphale coughed into the napkin.
They took a stroll in the park after that, pockets stuffed with bits of bread smuggled out of the cafeteria. The ducks were more appreciative than usual, as St. James's was about as empty as the museum had been crowded. Crowley pointed out the black swan.
"He's very pushy," Crowley explained, and threw a piece of bread on the bird.
"Seems earnest enough to me," Aziraphale said, watching it bounce off the charcoal-colored feathers. "I suppose it's in his nature to be greedy, so you can't blame him."
"This conversation is getting old," Crowley said, tossing the last of the bread to the ducks, and turned Aziraphale to face him. His kiss was soft and slow, apologetic.
"You just wanted an excuse to do that, I'm sure," Aziraphale said finally, giving the ducks a suspicious look. They were all peering up expectantly, and the swan seemed interested.
"I'm an expert, of course."
They stayed until the sun sank low in the sky, painting the surface of the water with a fiery glow. Crowley suggested a cup of tea in the café, perhaps a few scones, but Aziraphale shook his head and admitted that he'd had quite enough walking for one day.
The bookshop was exactly as they'd left it, silent and dark with the boxes taking up space. Crowley surveyed the two sitting in the front room, then glanced to the back as if remembering the one propped partway in the stairwell. He snapped his fingers, and there was a whoosh as all of them vanished and a thud as they landed upstairs.
Aziraphale grabbed his arm, frowning.
"Crowley, I really don't think—"
"Trust me," said the demon, and tugged him toward the stairs.
Not only were all of the pieces present, but they were fully assembled. The cardboard was nowhere to be seen, though Aziraphale suspected it was piled out back in a disorderly fashion. He blinked at the bed a few times before giving it a once-over.
It wasn't a proper canopy, not exactly, though the posts were high enough for that, almost touching the ceiling. Aziraphale wondered if something was meant to be draped over it, or if it was some kind of obscure stylistic statement that he clearly wasn't meant to comprehend. The mattress looked dauntingly high, but the dark blue duvet looked…well, inviting. Aziraphale frowned, feigning concentration, and stepped closer to it. He knew that he was blushing again, and it annoyed him to no end.
"Will it…um, will it do?" Crowley asked, sounding uncertain.
Aziraphale ran his fingers over the duvet, feeling it give ever so slightly under his fingertips. He brushed a small patch of it, testing the fabric, which was flawlessly soft.
"I should think so," he managed, turning around. "Crowley, this is—"
"No, don't you dare," Crowley said, setting his finger against Aziraphale's lips. "I don't care if you think it's too much, or too ridiculous, or whatever. Let me have this."
Oh dear. Aziraphale closed his eyes, trying to collect his wits, but they were more or less scattered and hardly concerned with where the boxes had gone or if the bed clashed with his wardrobe. He couldn't find words for when Crowley did things like this—it had all started with the room at the Ritz, he supposed—and it didn't look as if he'd be finding the right ones any time soon. Aziraphale opened his eyes, sighing.
"That's not what I was going to say," he murmured, taking Crowley's hand.
Crowley was wearing his best anxious look, though it was his best because it was unintentional. Not even the sunglasses could hide it, and his hand was shaking.
"My dear," Aziraphale whispered, and kissed his palm. "Stop this, unless you want to hear in no uncertain terms how much—"
"Getting old," Crowley said hurriedly, moving their hands out of the way so that he could kiss Aziraphale with a lot more intent than he'd dared to show in the park.
That was the touching thing, somehow, no matter how many times it happened. Aziraphale pulled him in close, feeling instantly protective of that rare, disarming sweetness. He hadn't known that Crowley had it in him, but then, it wasn't the sort of trait that one expected a demon to possess. It was like that spark of goodness, maybe, or somehow related to it. Crowley could, and did, love to the point of stifling.
Aziraphale had tried not to push the issue, though that night on the couch had gotten a bit intense, especially after they'd ended up on the floor with only moonlight to see by.
"Off," Crowley was mumbling between kisses. "Get this blasted…"
"Shhh," Aziraphale said, gently pushing him off, and reached to turn down the covers. He climbed onto the mattress, surprised at how firm it was. The sheets were soft, too.
"You never play fair," Crowley said, crawling in after him, "so don't you think I'm letting you get away with this morning. That's what they call taking advantage, in case you wondered. You couldn't have known that I wanted—"
"On the contrary, I think it was staggeringly obvious," Aziraphale said, stretching out casually, flopping back against the pillows. "Oo, that's fluffy. You should try."
Crowley glared at him, then shrugged off his jacket and dropped it on the floor.
"I couldn't help it," he muttered, and lay down beside Aziraphale. "There, are you happy?"
"Very," Aziraphale murmured, rolling over, enjoying the way Crowley's eyes flew wide, then fluttered with his sigh of contentment. He leaned over Crowley and shifted his weight, wondering what he ought to do. This kind of encounter was a step, wasn't it?
Kissing, then. Kissing was hard to mess up, or rather, it seemed hard to mess up. Crowley liked kissing no matter which way they did it, and it was a brilliantly versatile thing. Aziraphale liked lazy, half-asleep mornings, but he had the sneaking suspicion that Crowley liked this sort of scenario best—alert and deliberate, artfully unplanned. He ran his tongue thoughtfully over one slightly pointed eyetooth, then the other, and got a surprised gasp for his trouble.
"Are you trying to maim yourself?" Crowley mumbled, cheeks flushed. His chest rose and fell rapidly, now, and his heartbeat was almost frantic.
"Don't be ridiculous," Aziraphale said, deciding that their clothes were, at this point, redundant. He relaxed into Crowley, skin against skin, determined not to laugh at Crowley's strangled moan, but it was really quite funny if he thought about it.
"If you say a single word about fair warning," Crowley said, eyes hazy, "I'll—er."
"That's not," Aziraphale murmured, nudging his thighs apart, "what I was going to say."
The other amazing thing was…well, it wasn't really a single thing as much as it was a collection of several very specific things that, when added up, comprised the sensory experience that was Crowley. His mouth, yes, that was familiar by now, and wonderful, but there was also his skin: his warm, flat stomach, the curve of his neck, the way he trembled and wrapped himself around Aziraphale as if he wanted to cover every inch of him. Aziraphale buried his nose in Crowley's hair, lazily stroking his hip.
"That," Crowley hissed in Aziraphale's ear, "feelsss…"
"Hmmm?" Aziraphale let his hand slide gently up Crowley's side, then down as far as Crowley's knee. There was something entrancing about the way it felt, and even more so about the way Crowley moved when he did it.
"Yes," Aziraphale said, lifting his head, and kissed the corner of Crowley's mouth. "I know." There was this, too, the way Crowley felt under him, or over him, pressed up flush and hard and so fiercely wanting. It made Aziraphale's heart clench.
"Bit faster, would you?" Crowley whispered, fingers catching in Aziraphale's hair, and then, even softer, "Please?"
"Oh," Aziraphale replied, "certainly."
From there, it was breathless and pleading and somewhat rushed, but they'd been working up to that all day, hadn't they? Aziraphale squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lip, but it wasn't any use. He spent himself in one tense shudder, moaning Crowley's name.
"About time," he heard Crowley gasp, felt Crowley's hands press at the small of his back. Then whispered apologies and more helpless movement, and a groan, then silence.
Aziraphale dozed for a while in the aftermath, dimly aware that Crowley might be uncomfortable—except for the fact that Crowley was still wrapped around him, warmer than a blanket, except for the sticky heat between them, which was easily enough done away with. Crowley stretched, then, yawning, and nuzzled Aziraphale's shoulder.
"Would, uh…you mind, maybe…"
"Not at all," Aziraphale yawned, rolling away from him. Crowley stretched some more and rolled after him, sprawling with an arm and a leg thrown across Aziraphale's middle. Aziraphale stroked his arm absently, drifting. The mattress really wasn't so bad.
After a few minutes, Crowley shifted around some more, then slid over on top of Aziraphale, settling down with a sigh. Startled, but not displeased, Aziraphale wrapped both arms tightly around his waist. Crowley's breathing slowed and grew even.
"Can't get comfortable?"
"Something like that," Crowley muttered. "I'm used to bloody springs."
Aziraphale kissed his neck and let one hand drop to the mattress, contemplating springs. Crowley caught it instantly, giving it a light slap, pinning it flat on the spot.
"Don't even think of it."
"Fine," Aziraphale murmured, yawning again. He was glad, however, because he found the new bed more than satisfactory (though that probably had something to do with the fact that Crowley was in it). "But if you'd like it fixed—"
"It doesn't need 'fixing,'" Crowley said, propping his chin on his arms. "It needs breaking in."
"Isn't that what we're doing?"
"Yeah, but I'm impatient."
Aziraphale brushed Crowley's untidy hair back, then paused, thoughtful.
"I'm sure I could think of a few things," he murmured.
"Probably," Crowley agreed, tracing Aziraphale's collarbone.
"No, I mean," Aziraphale said, determined not to blush, "things we…um, other things."
Crowley tensed at that, tilting his head.
"I'm not sure I—oh. Oh," he said, recovering himself quickly. "Got you. Right."
Aziraphale ran his fingers tentatively up Crowley's spine, letting them come to rest at the nape of Crowley's neck. Crowley was still tense, so he massaged the spot until Crowley's muscles loosened.
"I don't mean tonight," he said hastily. He'd need time to prepare, certainly, and –
"Can we discuss this in the morning?" Crowley asked softly, then yawned till his breath escaped him on a sigh. His heartbeat was a faint murmur by now, retreating into silence.
"Of course," Aziraphale murmured, and kissed him, feeling a bit fuzzy himself.
"Mm," Crowley sighed, and let his head drop against the pillow, his breath ghosting against Aziraphale's cheek. It was soft and peaceful, almost careless, and briefly Aziraphale wished that he could see Crowley's face. He was strangely lovely in sleep.
Closing his eyes, Aziraphale wrapped his arms around Crowley and thought about how, first thing in the morning, he was pointedly not going anywhere except to the refrigerator.
* * *
I pass your house with misty eyes; there stands the gate to paradise…
"Do you know," Crowley said, his voice drifting into the kitchenette over the sound of the gramophone, "I don't think anybody has heard this woman's voice since at least 1920?"
"1940," Aziraphale corrected him, slicing the Ossau-Iraty into neat wedges and placing it on a plate with the raspberries, which were already washed. "Vera was quite the sweetheart, you know. She used to be on the radio. I expect you never listened to her."
"Once or twice," Crowley said, indignant. "The name sounded familiar."
…But you don't hear the heart that cries, outside of heaven…
Aziraphale wiped off his hands, set the dishtowel aside, and carried the plate into the next room. Crowley was already on his second cup of tea, so he was looking more chipper than he might have looked otherwise. When Aziraphale had tried sneaking out of bed, he'd made a point of yawning and muttering about having to get up this early.
"It's not as fresh as it might be," Aziraphale apologized, setting the plate down on the table. "The cheese, I mean. They were out of the younger wheels."
Crowley shrugged; his mouth was already full.
Aziraphale sighed and sat down.
"Good to know it's up to your standards anyway," he said, and helped himself to some raspberries. They had an unpleasant way of staining one's fingers, but they were shockingly sweet for this late in the season. He took some cheese, too.
You're happy there with someone new; good luck to him, good luck to you…
"Are you kidding?" Crowley said, pinching a berry between his thumb and forefinger, then licking away the mess. "I haven't had it for at least a few years."
"It's not as if you couldn't get your hands on it," Aziraphale said, chewing thoughtfully.
"I was waiting for you to take a hint. It would look bad if I just up and stopped being lazy," explained Crowley, reaching for the teapot. He filled Aziraphale's mug.
…I count the dreams that won't come true, outside of heaven…
"Thank you," Aziraphale murmured, and spooned in some sugar.
"I have to say, though, sometimes you have horrible taste in music. These words are trite."
"Then why have humans kept listening for all these years?"
"You're not human."
There were a few moments of companionable silence, wherein most of the remaining cheese slices were consumed and the berries were divvied up somewhat unevenly by Crowley. He wasn't very good at doing things left-handed, but he'd already been holding his teacup, and the butter knife was conveniently nearby.
…There goes the kiss my lips have known…
"Where'd you get these?" Crowley asked. He popped a few berries his mouth.
"The market on Berwick," Aziraphale said, savoring the last bite of cheese.
…There goes the love I called EXCUSE ME, IS ANYONE THERE?
Crowley's teacup hit the table with a sickening smash, splashing tea everywhere.
"That's not—" Aziraphale cut himself off mid-sentence, breathless, switching to a whisper "—possible, is it? I mean, this is my—"
"Yes!" Crowley said loudly, standing up in a hurry, ignoring the tea and shattered porcelain that trickled off of him. "We're—I mean—yes, of course I'm here! Lovely morning we're having, isn't it?" Crowley asked, giving the gramophone a terrified smile. He glanced at Aziraphale, making frantic gestures that suggested Aziraphale ought to leave the room.
Aziraphale shook his head firmly, setting down his teacup as calmly as he could. His hands had begun to tremble, and it was no use risking a second spill.
I'M SORRY TO INTERRUPT YOU, MR. CROWLEY, BUT THERE SEEMS TO BE A PIECE OF CORRESPONDENCE IN MY IN-BOX WITH YOUR NAME ON IT.
Crowley's expression went from terrified to moderately frightened.
"Only a secretary!" he hissed.
OH, RUB IT IN, WHY DON'T YOU. THEY WARNED ME YOU WERE A REAL CHARMER. LISTEN, I COULD MAKE THIS A LOT WORSE FOR YOU BY TELLING THE AUTHORITIES YOU'RE NOT COOPERATING, BUT YOU SEEM LIKE A DECENT GUY, AND I'D HATE TO RUIN THINGS FOR YOU—FIGURE OF SPEECH, OF COURSE.
"Of course," Crowley sighed. "I'm sorry—only, you know, not really. So, um, what's up? If it's about that report I was running behind on back in August, that's easy enough; in fact, I think I've got it out in the glove comp—"
Aziraphale folded his hands in his lap and sat very, very still. He mustn't intervene, he told himself. This was Crowley's quarrel, after all, and he seemed to be holding his own.
OKAY, SO, THIS PAPER IS BASICALLY A LOAD OF RUBBISH, SO I'LL JUST GET TO THE POINT: YOU'VE BEEN CITED FOR A MINOR INFRACTION, BUT IT DOESN'T SAY WHAT. YOU'VE GOT PENANCE COMING DOWN THE LINE. FRANKLY, THIS IS SOME WEIRD—PARDON MY EARTH-SPEAK—FUCKING PENANCE, BUT I GUESS THE BOSS KNOWS WHAT HE'S DOING.
"I guess," Crowley echoed, looking vaguely ill.
Aziraphale clutched the edge of the table, halfway to his feet.
YOU'RE GOING TO AMSTERDAM.
Crowley blinked, as if he hadn't heard her right.
"Er, come again?"
THAT'S WHAT IT SAYS. THEY WANT YOU ON ASSIGNMENT IN AMSTERDAM FOR A WEEK, AND WHEN THEY SAY A WEEK, THEY MEAN EXACTLY A WEEK, NO CUTTING CORNERS. GEE, JUST BETWEEN US, YOU MUST CUT CORNERS A LOT, MR. CROWLEY.
"This is ridiculous," Aziraphale whispered, suddenly, overwhelmingly angry. Patience only got you so far these days, and when it came to the Other Side encroaching upon one's personal space, it was definitely time to throw patience out the window. "She—they can't just come in here and—"
"Oh, they can do a lot," Crowley muttered, then looked up, eyes thoughtful. He hadn't put his glasses on yet, and now that the tea had kicked in, he seemed more like himself. "Anyway," he said to the gramophone, "thanks for letting me know. You're a real credit to the force, just splendid. I bet you've got to put up with a lot."
YOU'RE TELLING ME. IN COMPARISON TO AN ETERNAL DESK SHIFT, YOU'VE PROBABLY GOT IT PRETTY GOOD. UM. YOU'RE WELCOME.
"And I couldn't help noticing that you've picked up some of our—er, that is, some of the more colorful stuff they say up here. You're a sharp one. Where have you been, if you don't mind my asking?"
FLORIDA. I HAVEN'T BEEN ABLE TO GET A DECENT TAN SINCE.
Aziraphale was beginning to think he'd slipped into some alternate version of the nice, quiet morning that he and Crowley were having, and it looked as if things weren't going to get back to normal in time for them to go back to bed. He stood up, taking a few cautious steps toward Crowley.
"Oh, that's a shame," Crowley said, at the same time wildly gesturing Aziraphale back in the direction of the table. "Really dreadful. I could, um, drop you a postcard sometime. Or something. You've been great, you know, um—er—"
LIL, BUT I DON'T EXPECT YOU TO REMEMBER THAT. ANYWAY, MR. CROWLEY, JUST BETWEEN US AGAIN, I THINK YOU HAD BETTER GET MOVING ASAP. LORD HASTUR WILL HAVE A BLOODY FIT WHEN HE FINDS OUT I WAS ON THE LINE THIS LONG, BUT I HAVE TO TELL YOU, I THINK THEY'RE ABSOLUTELY WRETCHED FOR SENDING YOU TO—
"What? For sending you to Amsterdam?" Aziraphale hissed, baffled. "That's hardly—"
"Yes, yes, I'm sure," Crowley said hastily, clapping a hand over Aziraphale's mouth. "Well, Lil, it's been lovely talking to you, and I really do appreciate your kin—er, forthrightness. Bluntness. You've got what it takes. Great. I've got to be going, then. Ciao."
YEAH, I GUESS. SEE YOU AROUND, MR. CROWmy own…
"Oh," Crowley whispered, sagging against Aziraphale. "Shit."
"Look, it seems to me as if you're getting off easy," Aziraphale said, trying to reassure him by rubbing his back, except that wasn't working because Aziraphale's hands hadn't properly stopped trembling, and the gramophone went on as if it hadn't been possessed. "I think you ought to be grateful. A week away sounds like noth—"
"Do you have any idea how bloody miserable it is working Amsterdam?" Crowley moaned, clutching at Aziraphale's shoulders and shaking them. "Have you even been there recently?"
"Well, certainly, I—" Aziraphale paused, reconsidering. "Er. No, not recently."
"It's bloody Free Will Central! You'd be as lucky to save somebody as I'd be to damn them!" Crowley shouted, and tried to sink down on the floor. "Oh, I knew I should have just kept my head down, you know, all that nonsense about how we basically went up against—"
Aziraphale held him up, giving him a good, hard shake in turn.
"Then you'll just have to go after the tourists, won't you?"
"I don't do one-on-one temptations these days! I'm out of practice. All this is going to accomplish is showing them exactly why they're going to sack me, and then…"
Aziraphale had never seen his eyes turn so hopeless.
"I had better," said the demon, straightening up, "get packing."
"Crowley, I could—"
"The sooner I get going, the sooner that week starts, right?"
"Well, yes," Aziraphale sighed, taking gentle hold of his hands. "There's truth in that."
Crowley squeezed his hands briefly, then let go of them, staring down at the floor. If he was about to say something, he was having a hard time getting a handle on what it was—perhaps Aziraphale shouldn't have gotten on his case about that—and several times in the seconds that passed, his brow furrowed with genuine pain.
…There goes the kiss my lips have known…
"I'll call," Crowley said finally, eyes narrowed, determined. "Or write. Or something."
Aziraphale touched his cheek, forcing him to look up.
"It's only one week," he said softly. Surely they could manage.
"Yeah, but that's seven days," Crowley replied, giving him a numb sort of smile.
"More difficult things have been done in as many."
"I hate it when you do tha—mmmf."
Aziraphale closed his eyes and slid his other arm around Crowley's waist, pulling him close. Sometimes it was the only way to get him to be quiet, but at least it was foolproof. He could feel Crowley's heart hammering in his chest, as if it hadn't had the chance to slow.
…There goes the love I called my own…
"That doesn't change the fact that it happened," Aziraphale said, tracing the line of Crowley's jaw. "You'll call, or you'll write, and I'll be right here."
Crowley nodded, once, and sucked in his breath before kissing Aziraphale in return.
"Right," he whispered, stepping back far sooner than Aziraphale would have liked. "Behave yourself, angel," he said. Without another word, he turned on his heel and left the shop.
…Why was I meant to walk alone, outside of heaven?
Even once the door had closed, Aziraphale couldn't believe that Crowley hadn't looked back. He glanced over at the gramophone, which was still crooning in Vera's hollow voice.
"I never liked this song," he said quietly, and shut it off. There were dishes that needed doing, after all, and they had left the bed cold and disheveled, unmade.
* * *
Sleeping alone was, much to Aziraphale's consternation, difficult. He suspected that it had something to do with his body not being properly tired-out, but thinking about that only made it worse. The mattress was not to blame, as Crowley's taste was impeccable, and how had he not noticed that the old mattress's springs had been shot? Probably, he reasoned, because he had never actually slept on it until he'd taken Crowley to his bed. Oh dear. Around three in the morning, Aziraphale got out of bed and wandered over to the window, arms folded across his chest.
The narrow street glowed with soft, reddish light that spilled from the lamps and the fluorescent sign next door. Through the glass, Aziraphale could hear voices and laughter, and occasionally, figures would stumble—alone, in pairs, in threes—up the street and onto Great Windmill, or vice versa. A short-haired woman in a dark dress paused under the nearest lamp, struggling to ignite her cigarette lighter. Her companion, a somewhat androgynous figure in a fur coat, top hat, and fishnet stockings, produced a sliver of blue flame with the snap of its thumb against its forefinger. The woman handed over a cigarette as if in thanks, and the two of them lit up and moved on, arm in arm.
Aziraphale turned away, avoiding his own glance in the full-length mirror as he left the room.
His first impulse was to have a seat in the living room and perhaps try finishing the crossword he had apparently left on the couch about a month ago, but the page had curled in the heat of August, and that would make for difficult writing. Aziraphale picked up the Telegraph and tossed it in the trash bin, which was in the washroom that he hardly ever used. Aziraphale frowned into the sink, then ran some water to get rid of the spider that had died there. He always felt horribly guilty about that sort of thing.
Once he'd turned on the shop lights and made a pot of tea, he felt a little bit better. The cheese and berries were gone, of course, but there was always the shortbread in the cupboard or the digestives with chocolate on one side. Crowley was quite fond of those.
Aziraphale drained his teacup quickly and went back to the kitchenette to refill it.
Clearly, the problem was that he wasn't doing anything productive. He'd been just as lazy as Crowley for the past month or so, if he was honest with himself, and he'd even let the bookkeeping and his computer records fall behind. Aziraphale sat down at the desk and sorted through his receipts (there weren't very many), putting them in chronological order. Once he'd done that, he tucked them in the back pocket of the ledger and carried it upstairs, grabbing a fresh cup of tea and a plate full of digestives on the way.
His computer was situated in the farthest corner of the living room at another small desk, which had seen much better days than the one downstairs (he had moved his old desk upstairs and gotten a new one for downstairs sometime in the sixties when Crowley had complained about it wobbling when he sat on it). Aziraphale turned on the computer, then opened his ledger and thumbed through to where he'd left off. Ah, yes. There.
He'd managed to get quite wrapped up, punching in numbers, when the door downstairs rattled. Bugger. It was well past dawn, and he'd left on the lights.
Aziraphale got dressed in a hurry and dashed down the stairs, dropping the ledger at his desk barely in time to catch a young man with a boy clutching his hand walking resolutely away. Aziraphale sighed and walked back to the desk.
By noon, nobody else had come poking, so Aziraphale cleaned up the tea-remnants and decided there were plenty of other ways of being constructive. Digging around in his wardrobe for fresh clothes, it had occurred to him that his magician's coat needed dry-cleaning, and probably some patching-up where that bit of silk lining was loose.
He tried not to think about how the blasted cream cake had tasted.
There were a few dry-cleaners in Soho, though Aziraphale had learned not to trust them. If he needed anything taken care of, he usually gave it to Crowley, who took it to a dry-cleaner that everybody swore by in his own neighborhood. At the moment, however, that was impossible, so Aziraphale gritted his teeth and carried the garment bag carefully draped over his arm to the dry-cleaner's on Brewer Street, which also did tailoring. He was not about to walk to Mayfair.
"'Morning, sir," said the girl behind the desk when Aziraphale walked in. She was thin, pale, and had pensive hazel eyes. Aziraphale wondered if her young man knew she was expecting. "Can I do anything for you?"
"Yes, in fact," Aziraphale said, tipping his hat, and laid the garment back out on the counter. "This coat is in desperate need of a cleaning, and there's also a bit of lining loose under the right arm. I'd appreciate if both could be taken care of."
The girl nodded and unzipped the bag, carefully tucking her curly red hair behind her ear. She ran her fingers over the fabric, then flipped it inside-out and ran her fingers over the rose-colored silk, eyes flicking up to Aziraphale in amazement.
"This must have been in your family for ages," she said admiringly.
"Er, yes," Aziraphale said. "You might say that. How sharp of you to notice, dear girl."
"I've seen a lot of old stuff," she confessed, carefully removing the coat from the garment bag and folding it over her arm. "I'll do the repair work myself. I did theater costuming at university. There were a lot of antique dresses and things in that cellar."
"In what did you do your degree, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Psychology," she said with a weak grin, and disappeared briefly into the back room. When she returned, she was carrying a small yellow notepad. She tore off the top sheet and handed it to Aziraphale. "We ought to have it for you in about ten days," she said. "I hope that's quick enough."
"There's no rush, dear girl," Aziraphale reassured her, and briefly touched her hand as he accepted the receipt. Her despair shot through him in a wave, startling and final. Aziraphale let the paper slip so that he had to grasp at it again, brushing her thumb in the process, only just long enough. "Oh, I'm terribly sorry," he said. "These old fingers aren't what they used to be, please pardon my wretched dexterity!"
"It's really okay," said the girl, smiling faintly, tucking her hair behind her ear again. "And this has nothing to do with anything, but you remind me of somebody."
"You're quite a ringer for that lovely young actress, oh, what's her name," Aziraphale said, folding the receipt and placing it in his pocket. "I'm wretched with names, you see, but I've got a friend who's much more up on this than I am. In any case, I saw her in a magazine, and she couldn't hold a candle to you. Oh, and you'd do well to get plenty of rest over the next twenty-four hours; you're looking a touch pale, pardon my saying so."
"You're a doctor, too?" she asked, grinning wider. There was already a hint of color in her cheeks.
"I've done far too many things to claim any one of them," Aziraphale said with a wave of his hand. "You'd best be eating, too, my dear. It's hardly proper to start the day on an empty stomach."
"I've been a bit sick," she admitted. "I think I'm feeling better, though."
"Then a nice cup of tea and some toast can't hurt you, and mind you get that rest, and lots of water. It's been wonderful speaking to you, er…oh dear, I'm sorry, I…"
"I didn't tell you my name," said the girl, "but for next time, it's Kathryn."
"Charmed, then," Aziraphale said, smiling, one hand already on the door. "If you wish, you may call me—"
"I got it off the tag, Mr. Fell."
Aziraphale opened his mouth, then closed it again, realizing he hadn't thought to question the fact that she hadn't asked for his name for the receipt. He smiled again and waved.
"Next time, dear girl."
Instead of heading directly back to the shop, Aziraphale strolled as far as Golden Square, where there were a couple of mothers with strollers and two small boys racing around on tricycles. An old man in a plaid coat was hunched on one bench, intently tossing handfuls of sunflower seeds to a flock of curiously tame collared doves.
The wind was turning cold, and although Aziraphale had remembered to lock the shop, he'd left on the lights. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and retraced his steps, not daring to look back. Kathryn would be needing good thoughts, so he'd spare all he had.
* * *
Aziraphale woke with a gasp and sat bolt upright, panting and trembling. Fighting a mild sense of hysteria, he threw off the sheets and duvet, which felt far heavier than they should, and stared straight ahead at the window. The sky was already bright blue and cloudy, which meant that it must be eight o'clock at least. He blinked, trying to process what this meant. He had, somehow, managed to fall asleep—and had fallen prey to his first nightmare. Aziraphale plucked at his pajama shirt with shaky fingers, then let the fabric drop back against his skin, which was faintly damp.
For the first time in nearly a decade, he used his rickety shower, which had not, luckily, become the site of an arachnid graveyard, though he did have to rinse away the dust.
Once he'd gotten dried off and wrapped up in a flannel robe that he'd acquired somewhere around the time Crowley said they were all the rage, he went downstairs. First off, it was the kind of morning for coffee, and second, there was an unpleasant nagging at the back of his mind that reminded him of nothing so much as what he'd felt when Crowley had distractedly answered his phone call before everything, so to speak, went to hell.
Cup of coffee in hand, he walked out to get the mail and decided he wasn't going to open the shop. The mail in question lay on his floor in an untidy puddle of envelopes, as he hadn't bothered to gather it up for nearly a week. Something on top caught his eye, as it was smaller and more brightly colored than the rest of the lot, a photograph of a city scene that he didn't immediately recognize, unless –
Aziraphale snatched up the postcard and realized his fingers were shaking again.
Hallo, angel, it read in cramped, tiny handwriting,
This'll take a few days to reach you, so I'm popping it in the mail first thing in the morning. Have gotten here safely, as safely as those red-eyes out of Heathrow can do (would've called, but it's too early to risk that & there's no guarantee you'd answer). Staying at some fancy place near Schiphol, which has strange taste in art & a very good bar. Yes, I'll drink you a glass of the house red, in fact am doing that as we speak. Write. Running out of room. Hope you're taking care of my pen, because this one isn't the same. Bloody thing & I'm sorry & all that,
Or rather, it was a "C" and an "R" and an indeterminate squiggle, but Aziraphale had been reading Crowley's handwriting long enough to know that, no matter what manner of glyphs or script it was in, it was Crowley's handwriting.
Aziraphale let out his breath, shocked to find he'd been holding it. Carefully, he tucked it in the pocket of his robe and bent down to scoop up the rest of the pile. He tossed most of it out—junk mail, he'd practically wanted to smack Crowley for that—and ended up with three envelopes worth opening. One was from the electric company, the second was from the telephone company, and the other was from Heaven. Aziraphale sat down at his desk, set the bills aside, then turned the largest of the envelopes over in his hand. Smooth, simple white, the highest quality paper. Gabriel's hand, if anyone's.
He took Crowley's postcard out of his pocket and propped it up on the desk so that the writing faced him, then carefully tore open the envelope. He hated to damage them.
It was a thin, familiar piece of cardstock printed with his name and a bunch of other nonsense that he'd read sufficient times to know exactly what it was: a commendation. Aziraphale chewed his lip and slid it back into the envelope, setting it down on top of his ledger. They had promised him one, after all, though it no longer felt like any kind of victory, and it was ill-earned at that. In comparison to Crowley, he had gotten off the hook.
Deliberately, Aziraphale picked up the phone and dialed the operator. While the voice on the other end was not so helpful as to hotels in Amsterdam, it was at least knowledgeable as to what directory assistance number in the Netherlands that he ought to be dialing, and transferred him. His Dutch was out of practice, but it had certainly suffered less than his Chinese.
As it turned out, Crowley was at the Sheraton, which was sort of disappointing, but was apparently five-star. The receptionist put him through to Crowley's room, but it rang and rang until the voice-mail picked up. Aziraphale sighed. He'd learned his lesson with the ansaphone. He took a deep breath and waited for the beep.
"Er, hello. Look, I'm sorry I went tracking you down, but your postcard got here and I just couldn't help it; I wanted you to know I'd gotten it and that it's…it's here. Yes. It sounds as if you're having a lovely time with that bar, and I wouldn't recommend the house red at a place called the Sheraton, but then again, what do I know? Obviously you're busy, or out, or asleep, or you're…see here, my dear, I just wanted to say—"
There was another beep, and a recorded voice saying "thank you, and goodbye" in Dutch and English, and then an ominous click. The blessed thing had cut him off.
Aziraphale sighed and set the phone back in its cradle. Most likely Crowley wasn't asleep or any of those other ridiculous guesses; he was probably working. He'd seemed unusually determined about this, as he should, and Aziraphale knew it was hopeless to interfere. What he wanted more than anything, if he let himself think about it, was just to hop the next train or boat or plane, whatever it would take to get him there, too, but it wasn't right. Crowley was being punished, and punishments are, by definition, usually endured alone. He wondered if Crowley was having any luck, then shook himself and put it out of his mind. Best not to ask, really.
Finishing his coffee, Aziraphale picked up the postcard and read it again.
* * *
"Hey! Where have you been?"
Aziraphale let the door close behind him, listening to the familiar jangle as a familiar young lady walked toward him at top speed from the back of the salon. Her hair was getting long, bleach-streaked brown locks hanging in her face in what Aziraphale supposed must be the latest shag fashion. She beamed at him, hands splayed on the front of her smock as she hurriedly brushed them off.
"Anastasia, my dear, there's something different about you every time," he said, taking her hand warmly. Whoever had taken care of her had done quite a good job with the French tips—probably Maddy, though Aziraphale tended not to favor her as she was forever on about her newest spiritual pursuits that were, if nothing else, baffling.
Grinning, Anastasia flipped her hair out of her eyes, then set her hand on her hip.
"I told you he'd say something about it," she said over her shoulder.
"Honey, I didn't say he wouldn't," said one of the hairdressers that Aziraphale didn't recognize. He was young, painfully slender, and had on a shirt Crowley would approve of. He looked Aziraphale over from across the room, then winked.
"Oh dear," Aziraphale murmured, cautiously smiling back.
"You're a spoilsport, Louis," said Anastasia, turning on her heel and leading Aziraphale by the hand. "C'mon, you. We've got a lot to catch up on, and what have you been doing with those nails of yours? Cuticles all over the place!"
"Please don't remind me," Aziraphale sighed, following her obediently.
Anastasia's workstation was in the back where the rest of the manicurists worked, though there were only three of them, and on any given day only two of them tended to show up. Aziraphale knew this because Anastasia liked to gripe about it, being the only one who showed up all the time, and he knew that to be the truth.
"Sit down," she said, pointing to the chair, and went over to the sink to run some water.
"My dear, I had only meant to check if you had any op—"
"Does it look to you like we're turning anybody away? It's not exactly Grand Central Station."
"Point taken," Aziraphale said, and sat down with a sigh. Finally, he could relax.
"So," Anastasia said conversationally, "I think something scandalous is going on. You haven't been here for over six weeks."
"Bloody hell, leave him alone," Ming said at the next station over, coiling her long, black ponytail around her hand. She didn't bother to look up from her magazine. "Hi, Mr. Fell."
"I hope you're well," Aziraphale said, but his attention turned instantly to the fact that Anastasia was already unbuttoning his cuffs, biting her lip as she tried to shove up his coat-sleeves.
"Off with that thing," she said. "It's not that cold in here. And anyway, we were talking about something scandalous."
Aziraphale shrugged out of his coat, draping it carefully over the chair, and turned back to her, hands out in front of him.
"We hadn't quite determined what it was," he reminded her.
"Well," Anastasia said reasonably, rolling up his sleeves, "it can't be too scandalous, because you did turn up again. I had a bet going with Louis that you'd be walking in any day now, so he owes me five quid. Isn't that right, Louis?"
Aziraphale turned around to look at Louis, who had a comb stuck between his teeth. He snatched it out quickly and waved it at Aziraphale. "Don't you take it from her," he said.
He glanced back at Anastasia, bewildered. She had his hands dipped in warm, soapy water, and it felt wonderful. She rolled her eyes and glanced at her watch, then clucked her tongue at nothing in particular as she started massaging Aziraphale's wrists.
"We don't get along," she explained in a loud, conspiratorial whisper.
"Oh," Aziraphale said, flexing his fingers. "I see."
"I'm going to tell that new girl of yours that you have a thing for dashing, old-fashioned gents," Louis called. It sounded as if his client was trying not to laugh.
Anastasia glared at him, then lifted Aziraphale's hands out of the water and wrapped them in a soft lavender towel. "You," she said to Louis, "are a horrible, horrible man."
"I don't mean to pry," Aziraphale said, frowning at the troubled crease in her forehead, "but has something gone amiss with Rae? I quite liked her, you know."
"Yeah," Anastasia said. "But you only met her the once. She's got problems I don't want to get into, and I didn't know how to handle them."
"I'm very sorry," Aziraphale murmured, pursing his lips as she set his hands down on the table and deliberately squeezed out some vanilla-scented lotion into her palm. She hadn't looked up in several seconds.
"If it's for the best," Aziraphale said gently, "I'm sure you'll both be happier in time."
Anastasia sighed heavily, then took his right hand between both of her own.
"Isn't it always like that," she said with a sad, pensive smile. "I promise you we're still speaking, though, unless it's got something to do with Nadine. You'd never believe it, I met her at Sainsbury's. Isn't that wild?"
"In the produce section?" asked Aziraphale.
"Nah," Anastasia said, vigorously massaging the lotion between his fingers. "Nowhere near that romantic. She's a cashier. It took my card three swipes to process, so we had plenty of time to talk. She said I looked familiar, that she'd seen me somewhere around."
"It sounds as if you've made a sensible match."
"Oh, don't talk to me about sensible," Anastasia said, looking up at him with a wicked glint in her pale eyes as she moved on to his other hand. "We were talking about your scandalous behavior, if I recall."
"I'm not quite sure," Aziraphale said slowly, "where you've gotten this idea."
"As regulars go, you're too regular," Anastasia said, pausing to frown and pick at a bit of dry skin with the very tips of her fingernails. "I said to Ming last week, the day you stop showing up, that's the day the whole bloody world ends."
"I suppose you're right," said Aziraphale, guiltily. "What is it you'd like to know?"
"Who that young man is," she said, fixing him with her curious gaze, "that's in and out of your place all the time these days, and oh, no, don't you play shocked with me, I've known for a long time you've got that shop on the alley off Windmill, and he's got a haircut to die for and drives this absolutely ridiculous old car."
Aziraphale blinked at her, too stunned to respond.
Anastasia kept on massaging his arm, grinning.
"I mean, it's none of my business, and I'm a fine one to talk because I can't get up the nerve to come in and say hello—I don't know shite about books, can't even save up enough for university, but that's the way it goes. I'd just like to say, you've done well for yourself."
"All the good ones are taken," Louis said mournfully.
"You can say something, you know," Anastasia said, setting down Aziraphale's left hand. "You're in good company, heaven knows. Well, fine. Can I talk you into something tinted today, or wouldn't your lad find that very funny?"
"Crowley," Aziraphale said finally. No use arguing.
"What?" Anastasia said, frowning. "I don't think we've got that color."
"No, no," Aziraphale said, relaxing again. "His name is Crowley."
"Like the occultist, huh," she said, picking up the nearest clear polish and giving it a good shake. She sorted through her trimmers and tools, pulling out the ones she needed. "Maddy would go nuts."
"Which is precisely why I'm glad she isn't here," Aziraphale admitted, then glanced at the bottle in her hand, chewing his lip. "Er, I don't quite think that's…"
"Don't worry," Anastasia said, patting the back of his hand. "It doesn't dry glossy."
* * *
On Thursday morning, after another bad night's sleep, Aziraphale woke up from quite a different sort of dream. He felt sticky and panicked again, this time in a non-frightened sense, but it was far, far worse, because Crowley was not, in fact, there and doing to him what he'd been dreaming Crowley had been doing to him. Aziraphale tugged the spare pillow over his face and groaned. It wasn't supposed to be that easy for their bodies to adapt to this, was it? Or was it just that, once you got it going, it was hard to stop? Granted, he didn't particularly want it to stop, but…
Aziraphale sighed, got up, and trudged to the shower. For the workout it was getting, he was probably going to have to pick up some cleaning supplies and give it a proper scrubbing. Crowley would have a fit about the mildew, for starters.
He spent most of the morning after that reading at the desk, as he'd told himself firmly that two days closed was quite sufficient. He had some customers, and genuinely liked a few of them. Perhaps Anastasia would stop by, though she'd be sorely disappointed by Crowley's absence. She'd asked if she could meet him the day before, but Aziraphale had told her that Crowley was, alas, on a business trip.
Lucky you, she had said. He must bring you lots of nice presents.
He does, Aziraphale had admitted, and bid her goodbye as he left.
He was completely engrossed in an overdue reread of The Kingis Quair when a soft jangling brought his attention to the door. It was already closed, and in front of it stood Anathema Device with her arms folded across her chest. She glanced to one side, then the other, taking a quick survey of the shelves, and finally looked at Aziraphale.
"Hello," she said, simply. "I guess I found you."
"I suppose you did," Aziraphale agreed, carefully setting his book aside. "Are you looking for something else?"
"No, actually," said Anathema, stepping up to the counter and leaning on it. "I suppose I just wanted to thank you for returning what was left of the Book."
"Oh," Aziraphale said, standing up. "Oh, of course. You're very welcome."
"I'm not sure I'll be able to explain to my father why all I've got left is two burnt spines now, though," she said, somewhat troubled, green eyes fixed on the countertop. "I was wondering, you wouldn't happen to know if…" She trailed off and shook her head.
"I'm afraid I never owned a copy," Aziraphale sighed, uncertain of why he felt so at ease being candid with her. "I wish I had. If I may say so, it was a thrill handling your copy while it lasted. Er. I didn't mean it like that," he added, wincing.
Anathema shrugged, smiling wanly.
"I'm glad somebody else got something out of it. I had a whole nineteen years with it, and that made me selfish. It's just that I wouldn't mind having it back, that's all."
Something dawned on Aziraphale.
"You said you had…two burned spines?"
"Yes," Anathema said, standing up straight. "Do you know, that old bitch wrote a second one and had it delivered to our doorstep? That's one damned effective chain of postmen."
"Oh my," Aziraphale said, steadying himself on the counter. "And it's…?"
"Mhmmm. Newt convinced me to throw it in the fire. We had a partial ceiling-collapse last week that I would've liked to have been prepared for. But it's probably for the best."
"Ineffable," Aziraphale muttered.
"I always liked that word," Anathema said thoughtfully.
"You do? Crowley hates it."
"How is he, by the way?"
"Out of town," Aziraphale said, quickly changing the subject. "I was wondering, how did you know where to find me? I'm not listed."
Anathema gave him a confused, if deadpan, look.
"Where else would I have looked for you?"
"Next question," Aziraphale sighed, pushing in his desk chair.
"Would you like to get out of here and have lunch? You look like you could use it."
Good gracious, but she was forthright. "Are you sure," Aziraphale asked tentatively, "that your young man wouldn't mind?"
"He's at work," Anathema said. "I rode in with him this morning. I like to run around the city sometimes. They've got some great little places up around Covent Garden, you know."
"I know," Aziraphale said, somewhat sadly, and tipped his hat. "Lead on, my dear."
They ate at a lovely little French bistro that Crowley had once taken him to, but it was easy enough to act surprised, and well worth the smile on Anathema's face. By daylight, she was a curiously attractive girl, and he wondered if that was how Agnes had looked when she was young. Aziraphale wasn't at all shocked to find out that she'd done her degrees already—no doubt she was as bright as Agnes—and listened to her complaints about sharing living space with Newt.
"He has no concept of a laundry basket," she lamented. "Even though I set one up, he still drops his stuff all over a floor. It's a miracle I haven't broken my neck, speaking of things I'd like fair warning for. Do you know what I mean?"
"About fair warning?" Aziraphale asked, sipping his wine. "Absolutely." Crowley was, fortunately, very good about his laundry, though Aziraphale missed having to step over his shirt and trousers in the morning.
"You're quite sad, aren't you?" Anathema asked, peering concernedly into his eyes.
"Yes," Aziraphale admitted, finishing off his wine. No use hiding from her, either.
"This, too, shall pass," she said, and reached across the table to squeeze his hand. "You'll hear his voice again soon enough."
Aziraphale nodded, gradually tugging his hand away. Her touch made him feel strange, and if he thought about it, so did her too-knowing glance.
"I apologize," she said into her own glass, eyes downcast. "You're missing him too much to be hearing things like that. I'll make it up to you. Would you like dessert?"
"Not today," Aziraphale said, "but thank you."
They parted ways in front of the Tea House, where Aziraphale bought some more of the house blend before making his way back home on the Tube. He tended to avoid public transportation, but Anathema had seemed terribly proud of her newfound navigational skills, and he hadn't had the heart to suggest that they take a cab.
He'd just gotten settled down again with his book when the phone rang.
"H—Hello?" asked Aziraphale, and realized his hand was shaking.
"Honestly, who else would be calling you at this hour?" Crowley sounded much more relaxed than he had four days ago, though there was a bit of a tremor in his voice. "So," he continued, "what have you been doing, anyway? I tried calling about an hour ago."
"I'm sorry," Aziraphale said, settling back down in his chair a bit unsteadily. "I was out to lunch with Anathema—you'd never believe it, she showed up here this morning."
"With who?" Crowley asked suspiciously.
"The girl with the strangely named bicycle, whose book got burned up in your car."
"Oh," Crowley said, sounding a bit sheepish. "I, er, hope she wasn't too put out about that."
"She wanted to know if I had a copy in the shop."
"There's irony for you," Crowley said, sighing. For the first time since he'd started talking, Aziraphale realized how tired he sounded. "It sounds as if you've been having lots of wild adventures, then."
"If the dry-cleaner's and the salon count as adventures."
Crowley laughed, but it was soft and patient, oddly devoid of mockery.
"I'd forgotten what a girl you are."
"Oh, be quiet," Aziraphale said, picking up the nearest pencil. He set its point to the open page of his ledger and began drawing a spiral. "You and your fancy clothes are no better."
"Anathema took me to that French place you're fond of," Aziraphale said, and moved on to a leaf-shape. He shaded it in, frowning. "She's a funny one. Far too perceptive, if you ask me."
"This shocks you?"
Aziraphale ignored him and drew a flowerpot, or something that vaguely resembled one.
"She asked after you."
"I'm touched," Crowley said, yawning. "Excuse me."
Aziraphale frowned at the paper, then said, "Are you getting enough sleep?"
"Not really," Crowley admitted, voice tensing again. "It's mostly night-life around here, so…"
"I take it you've had some success?" Aziraphale asked, mentally kicking himself for it.
"That," Crowley said, somewhat hesitantly, "would be a no."
"You expected as much," Aziraphale said as hearteningly as he could. "You're doing your very best, I'm sure."
"Worst," Crowley corrected him. "It's just that they're a lot better at it than I am, or they would like to think they are."
"Have you ever," Crowley asked, in something like frightened awe, "been asked straight-up if you'd like to be handcuffed and covered in honey?"
"Um," Aziraphale replied.
"I didn't think so," Crowley said, and Aziraphale could fairly picture his expression. "Well, I've been asked that and about a dozen other things that I shall chivalrously spare you."
"My virgin ears, is that it?" Aziraphale asked, recovering himself.
"No," Crowley said severely, "it's that I'd rather have you asking me if I'd like to go upstairs, or asking me what I'd like for breakfast, or if I'd rather just have a lie-in."
Aziraphale felt the pencil-point break.
"I see," he said softly.
"No, you don't," Crowley said drily. "That's kind of the problem."
"I would have followed you," Aziraphale said, "if this hadn't been punishment."
"I know, and believe me, that's what makes it punishment."
Aziraphale could hardly breathe. Crowley was talking to him, really talking to him, which was rare except in moments when he couldn't be held all that accountable for what came out of his mouth. Aziraphale shut out the mental image quickly, but it was too late—he was already trembling enough that he'd almost dropped the phone twice.
"Somebody might be listening," Aziraphale hissed.
"Oh, I doubt that," Crowley said, abruptly casual. "Hell doesn't understand telephones."
Oh. That definitely made a difference. Aziraphale relaxed a little.
"In that case, I'd very much rather that I was the one asking you those questions, too."
"We're not using honey in my bed or in yours," Crowley said, horrified.
"I didn't mean that one—"
"Oh, good," Crowley said, relieved. "For a minute there, I thought you'd gone a bit off again."
"Again?" Aziraphale echoed, frowning, setting the pencil down. "I'm afraid I don't—"
"You didn't exactly elaborate on what you meant the other night."
"Which other night?"
"The night before I left," Crowley said, sounding mildly hurt. "When else would I mean?"
Aziraphale rubbed his forehead, sighing.
"I thought you understood what I meant."
"I thought I did, too, but you have to understand that this place is doing funny things to my perception of what 'other things' might mean. How am I to know you haven't read a bunch of embarrassing books on the subject?"
"I haven't!" Aziraphale said, indignant, then wondered suddenly what would have been wrong with that. It couldn't hurt to be well informed, could it?
"You're thinking," Crowley said nervously. "That's rarely a good sign."
"What I meant was," Aziraphale said, gathering his courage, "that I'd like to try—"
"We're on a bloody phone line!"
"But you said—"
"I know what you meant, angel."
Aziraphale let out his breath.
"Look, if it puts you off, we don't—"
"It doesn't," Crowley said in a quiet voice, and Aziraphale imagined him suddenly, perfectly still. "It's just that it seems to me a lot of preparation goes into that, and…"
"I could do some reading," Aziraphale said, instantly regretting it.
"Oh," Crowley said. "I suppose you could, what with that place next door. Would you?"
Aziraphale thumped the desk.
"Thanks," Crowley said, animated once more. "I mean, really, it means a lot that—" He cut himself off abruptly, as if getting back to business. "Now, then, I don't want to run up the tab. You're doing all right? Do you, er, need anything?"
Aziraphale sucked in his breath, fingers closing into a fist against the desk.
"Yes, to touch you."
There was dead silence, then a sharp, almost-angry hiss.
"You," Crowley managed, "are completely—"
"I'm not exactly capable of lying," Aziraphale reminded him, pressing his hand over his heart, which was racing. Oh dear. This was not a good sign, not here.
"You too," Crowley said miserably.
"What? Oh. Yes. Crowley, I…" The words caught in Aziraphale's throat.
"You're not getting away with this," Crowley said, almost a whisper. "You what?"
"Haven't been sleeping well without you," Aziraphale said in a rush.
There was a choked sound on the other end that might've been a laugh, but it wasn't.
"It's funny, but the bed here's too big," Crowley said, nearly babbling himself. "I've got the best view in the house and the best suite to boot, but it doesn't mean anything if I can't…"
"Can't what?" Aziraphale asked, shifting uncomfortably. Not now, not now. Too close.
"Hold you," Crowley said quickly, and hung up.
With deliberate care, Aziraphale stood up and put the phone back. He took one shaky breath, then another, and pushed in the chair. With a wave of his hand, the shop lights went down, and the door locked. He left the kitchenette lit, as he'd need that light to get up the stairs.
As far as Aziraphale was concerned, he was overdue for a nice, hot bath, and it was high time to prove to Crowley that thinking was not, in fact, an ill-advised pursuit.
* * *
In the nearly twenty years that they'd been neighbors, Aziraphale had never once set foot in John Grundel's adult bookstore. Mr. Grundel had once wandered into Aziraphale's shop looking a bit disoriented, and he'd left with no more than a nod and a brief hello. They tended to tip their hats to each other in the street, but beyond that, they had no official dealings with each other, and Aziraphale had the feeling that his neighbor preferred it that way as much as he did. The exchange over the moving truck was the most they'd ever said to each other at one go.
Aziraphale steeled himself and turned the doorknob.
The interior was about the same size as his own shop, though it seemed to be dedicated more to shelves of videocassettes than to shelves of books. There was a magazine rack at the front, and the back wall was filled with…well, Aziraphale wasn't exactly sure, as most of the items were in plastic packaging and bore quite a lot of resemblance to certain parts of human anatomy that, as far as he was concerned, were best covered up in public.
Averting his eyes, Aziraphale walked past a set of shelves occupied entirely by videos with overtly suggestive jacket designs and headed for a set that it contained actual books. As to the content of those books, he'd cross that river when he came to it. There was only one such set of shelves, and most of the books were paperback. Some of them appeared to be romance novels, though not the sort that even most lower-end bookshops would consider keeping in stock. He scanned the titles, desperate.
"'Afternoon," said Mr. Grundel from his desk, where he was reading a magazine, or at least presumably he was reading. "No offense, but you look a touch lost."
Aziraphale met his eyes briefly, then glanced at the floor.
"Er, well, I admit that I'm not…familiar with your sort of, er, inventory."
"What is it you had in mind?" Mr. Grundel asked, setting down his magazine. "I can make this visit a lot shorter for the both of us, if you like."
"Oh," Aziraphale said, gripped by sudden panic. "No, that's all right, I wouldn't dream of imposing—"
"I don't judge 'em," Mr. Grundel said, his expression somewhere between reassuring and indifferent. "I just sell 'em. You'd be amazed at the stuff people ask me for."
"I'm sure I would," Aziraphale said, scanning the shelf in front of him. Most of the titles were so decidedly scandalous that he couldn't help but blush. This was not going as well as he had hoped. Perhaps he ought to ask for assistance after all.
"Oh, come now, it's nothing to be ashamed of," Mr. Grundel said, far too reasonably, and got up from his chair. He came over and stood beside Aziraphale, scratched his chin, and reached for a book with a suspiciously brightly colored cover. "I'm guessing you're not out for anything too far-fetched," he said, handing it to Aziraphale. "This one's just basics. I'm assuming you and your partner—"
"I beg your pardon," Aziraphale said sharply, but took the book anyway and tucked it under his arm. "That's none of your business, I'm sure."
"Of course it isn't," replied Mr. Grundel placidly, already reaching for another book, the cover of which was another color, much less gaudy than the first. "This one, now, this is sensible. Not sure why I didn't think to give you that in the first place. You'll definitely want it. Even a bit of history and whatnot, right up your alley."
"I'm perfectly aware of the history," Aziraphale said, which was more or less true, at least in a general sense. He had, after all, been around for most of it, even if he hadn't been directly participating. Not entirely, anyway, as that Wilde business hadn't all been pleasant. For at least a few decades after, he'd felt that he'd seen enough.
"I'm not saying you aren't," Mr. Grundel said, still reassuring, and pulled down one more book. "Classic, this one. It's got some traditional stuff in it, but there's also some stuff for the adventurous. Highly recommended. Tasteful writer, for what it's worth."
"A lot," Aziraphale reassured him, and snatched them both out of his hands.
Aziraphale studied his shoes while Mr. Grundel rung him up, wondering if they needed another polishing. Fortunately, he'd brought enough cash to cover the books, though he fumbled for it and made quite a fool of himself asking for a repeat of the total.
"Good of you to pop over, you know," said Mr. Grundel, counting out Aziraphale's change. "It's not as if you hadn't plenty of places to choose from. Much appreciated."
"Don't be silly," Aziraphale heard himself say, looking up. "We're neighbors, after all."
"Well, then, as a token of my appreciation, I'm going to slip in a couple of bonuses. On the house, Mr. Fell. You needn't look so horrified. I hope you'll pardon me for a moment." Mr. Grundel got up and walked to the back of the shop, taking the bag with him.
It was the longest ten seconds of Aziraphale's existence, and when he came back and set the bag in Aziraphale's hands, it was much lumpier than it had been before.
"On the house, as I said," Mr. Grundel assured him with a nod, then made his way back around the desk and sat down. "Have a pleasant weekend, then?"
"Yes," Aziraphale said vaguely, turning for the door. "And you as well."
Mr. Grundel said something as he left, but Aziraphale was too much in a rush to hear what.
On Friday afternoons, Aziraphale usually stayed open until four or five—that is, he usually stayed open till four or five on Friday evenings when Crowley didn't bother talking him into going out for dinner or closing up early so they could have a few drinks. For the first time since he'd opened, Aziraphale closed early on a Friday for the purpose of reading that hadn't originated amongst his own stock.
The bright purple book, at a skim-through, appeared to have been written by a psychologist for people who hadn't quite come to terms with their orientation. Well. Aziraphale set it down on the counter, quite certain that he knew what his orientation was and that he was all right with it: he liked being with Crowley just fine.
The second book did, to its credit, seem to be mostly about the history, and historically documented, er, methods. He got rather engrossed in it for about half an hour, then realized that it was getting late and that he ought to put on water for tea.
When he came back, he fished the third book out of the bag. He didn't glance through it, however, as three small items toppled out into his lap. The jar-like one fell on the floor and went rolling under the desk. He swore under his breath and set the other two items—the bottle and the tube—on his desk, then got down on all fours and hunted for the one that he'd dropped. It hadn't gotten far, and when he brought it up and brushed it off under the lamplight, it took him a few seconds to realize what he had in his hand and another few to talk himself out of giving Mr. Grundel an annoyed ring. The man had only been trying to help, after all, and he would have needed to get something like this anyway—or rather, he wouldn't have needed too, but it was a nice thought, and Crowley had seemed nervous enough.
Aziraphale opened the jar and sniffed at it. Pleasant, something like herbs and mint.
The contents of the tube were oddly lotion-like, though less oily, and the contents of the bottle, when squeezed onto the fingertips, were unpleasantly cold and reminded him of antibacterial soap. He preferred the smell of the stuff in the jar, which he picked up again. He was pleased to find that the label said it was also good for massage.
Aziraphale gave the remaining book, the one with a tame cover and an exuberant title, the longest look, and had nearly finished it when he decided that his desk chair wasn't the most comfortable place for this sort of reading. Surely there was light enough upstairs.
He stuck the jar in his pocket.
* * *
"I hate this," Crowley moaned. "No matter where I go, no matter what I do—"
"Shhh," said Aziraphale, stirring a bit of sugar into his tea. The telephone had rung while he was in the kitchenette, and he felt guilty about having let Crowley wait a few extra rings. He sat back in his chair, stretching, and sipped it. "It's not your fault."
"You wouldn't understand," Crowley insisted. "These people, most of them? They've got absolutely no shame. There's nothing I could suggest they do that they haven't done already. Now I remember why I haven't been here in twenty years."
"What about the tourists?" Aziraphale asked.
"It's bloody October," Crowley said. "This isn't the high season or anything. Do you know, I think the most work I've done all week is flip every privacy sign I could find on my floor?"
"Really, my dear, would you begrudge them that?"
"Yes," Crowley replied, "because otherwise, nobody's got any sense of decency."
Aziraphale sighed and took another sip of tea, then set it down on the desk. Crowley sounded awfully agitated, and that massage stuff could work wonders.
"I'm sure that's an exaggeration."
"No, it's not," Crowley said irritably, then paused. "You sound awfully relaxed."
"I finally had a good night's sleep, that's all," Aziraphale said guiltily.
"Getting used to me gone, are you?"
"No," Aziraphale said, picking up his tea again. "I was reading till late."
"Dare I ask what kind of reading?"
Curse Crowley and that demonic memory of his.
"The kind of reading, I believe," Aziraphale said coolly, "that you asked me if I wouldn't mind doing."
"It's eleven o'clock here. What time is it there?"
"Just an hour back, why?"
"You overslept. You never oversleep."
"You're having fun without me," Crowley accused. He was probably pouting, and he liked to pretend he didn't know he did that, though he'd learned to use it to good effect.
"On the contrary," Aziraphale said, remembering what one of the books had said on the importance of emotional honesty, "I'm missing you very much, and I'm hoping that when you get back we might…er, have fun together."
"I can't believe we're having this conversation," Crowley said after another long pause.
"It's true," Aziraphale said, somewhat irritated. "I've been thinking about you."
"Really," Aziraphale pressed on, lowering his voice. "I wish it was tomorrow."
"You," Crowley said with some effort, "are not making my last twenty-four hours in this God-forsaken, Hell-forgotten city any easier," and the line went dead.
"That went rather well, I think," Aziraphale said to his tea, and hung up the phone.
After a small brunch, he decided that it was too nice a day to stay in. He got dressed and went back downstairs, making sure everything was in order. He found the museum bag sitting on the table in the back, and carried it over to his desk. The box of cards he set neatly to the back with the rest of his stationery, and the necklace he tucked into his pocket. He flipped the sign to CLOSED and left.
Aziraphale had kept up with Madame Tracy even after he and Crowley had taken her and Mr. Shadwell out for dinner, and he hoped that they hadn't left London just yet. "Scanning the real estate, love," she'd said, sighing into her coffee. "Cottages don't come cheap these days, especially not in the Cotswolds. Isn't that right, Mister S?"
"Wha' she says," Shadwell had muttered, cutting into his steak.
The Witchfinder Army headquarters weren't that far, but Aziraphale took a cab anyway. From the look of things, Madame Tracy's curtains were still in the upstairs windows, and Mr. Rajit's wife was outside straightening the fruit displays. She gave him a cheerful wave. Aziraphale tipped his hat and stepped up to the flat door, ringing the bell.
It was several minutes before Madame Tracy came dashing down the stairs in a blue silk kimono and curlers. She opened the door a crack, breathless, but she was all smiles.
"Oh, I was hoping we'd see more of you!" she said, delighted. "I'd ask you up, you know, except Mister S sleeps late these days, and I haven't even got tea made. But it's lovely to see you, just lovely!"
Aziraphale tipped his hat, then reached into his pocket.
"You have my deepest thanks, dear lady, though I'm afraid I can't stay long as it is," he said, and handed her the folded-up bit of tissue paper that the clerk had wrapped the necklace in. "Please consider this an early house-warming gift. I do hope you've found—"
"Yes, and it's perfect!" Madame Tracy exclaimed, unwrapping the paper, and Aziraphale wasn't sure whether she was talking about the cottage or the necklace as she held it up to the light. "Just last week, it was the strangest thing—up in the listings pops this lovely little place back a lane with its own pond and everything, you know, what they call a fixer-upper, but it's not as if we aren't used to that. Oh, it's charming," she said, and put on the necklace with practiced ease. "You're too kind, Mr. Fell."
"Don't mention it," Aziraphale said. "We were in the British Museum last week, and I thought of you."
"How is he, by the way, that lovely boy of yours?"
Aziraphale should have been expecting it, but he blushed anyway.
"Out of town at the moment, but he returns tomorrow."
"Well, you take good care of him when he gets back," Madame Tracy said, beaming. "I really ought to get back upstairs; Mister S will be wanting his breakfast."
"You, er, take care of him, too."
"Goodbye," Aziraphale said, and watched her go back upstairs.
From there, he wasn't entirely certain what to do with himself. He'd half been hoping to stay for a visit, as there was nothing like a nice visit to pass the time. He bought some coffee from Mr. Rajit, then waited for a cab to come by. He hailed it.
"St. James's Park, please," Aziraphale said, closing the door.
The driver just nodded and drove.
The park was much less deserted than it had been a week ago, for which Aziraphale was glad. There were quite a few children running about, watched carefully by wary mothers and fathers from benches and picnic blankets. Aziraphale strolled across the bridge, pausing at the far side. The wind blew across the water, carrying with it a few scattered leaves. Half a dozen ducks glided up, expectant.
"No, I'm afraid," Aziraphale sighed. "Not today."
They swam under the bridge, muttering soft disappointment, but the black swan and a few geese lagged hopefully behind. The swan tilted its head.
"You're a lonely one, aren't you?" Aziraphale asked, resting his arms on the railing. "Where's your lady-friend?"
The swan blinked at him, paddling around in a small circle. The geese, finally impatient, went the way of the ducks.
"There's a dear chap," Aziraphale told him. "She'll come back."
The swan flapped his wings and swam off.
Aziraphale continued on the path, deciding he could do with a cup of tea, and maybe even a few scones. He hadn't been in the café since summer, and the tables outside afforded one a lovely view of the lake. Aziraphale sipped Earl Grey and watched a pair of pigeons squabble over the remnants of a sandwich. He tossed them a piece of scone.
Once he'd finished, Aziraphale brushed off his hands and got up, carrying his trash to the nearest bin. He retraced his steps, tossing the bit of scone that he'd saved to the ducks as he crossed back over the bridge. At the gate, he wasn't sure whether he should wait for another cab or head for the Tube—he felt guilty about the amount of money he'd spent on cab fare already. After a few moments of dithering, he started to walk, but the direction in which his feet took him, out of sheer force of habit, was toward Crowley's street.
Generally speaking, he had always approved of Mayfair. It was upscale, well-kept and beautiful, but rent was high, and he'd felt at the time he'd been considering a move that high rent was needlessly wasteful. Crowley, of course, hadn't agreed.
They'd begun going to St. James's primarily because Crowley didn't live that far off, though they usually used his car anyway. Crowley's building looked bright and cheerful, and the lady downstairs had her window open. Aziraphale put his hands in his pockets and stepped down to the curb. Beside somebody's empty trash bin, there was a potted African violet.
"He must have been in an awful hurry, to have left you here," Aziraphale murmured, picking up the plant. It had two sad-looking, pale pink flowers on it, and a few scattered dead leaves. Aziraphale pinched them off carefully at the base, flicking them into the grass. There had been some rain the night before, so the soil at least wasn't dry.
Aziraphale stood there for a long time, listening to the sound of the lady's television.
On his way home, the cab driver gave him an odd look, but there was no law against plants on public transportation. Aziraphale paid the driver, thanked him, and fumbled one-handed for his front door key. The shop brightened at his gesture, and he carried the plant directly to the kitchenette, where he watered it just in case.
It wouldn't get enough light downstairs unless he put it in one of the main windows, but there wasn't enough of a ledge to do that. He carried the violet upstairs and set it in one of the bedroom windows, pleased with the effect. He checked it for dead leaves again, and, unexpectedly, one of the healthy ones came off in his hand.
"Terribly sorry," he murmured, and walked over to the bed.
The surface of the leaf was soft as velvet when he ran his thumb across it. He sat down on the bed, sighing, and instantly stood up again. He'd left one of the books there. Aziraphale moved it over and sat down again. He brought the leaf up to his cheek, then placed it carefully between the last two pages of the book's index.
It was almost evening, and he had more reading to do.
* * *
Aziraphale didn't sleep. He couldn't have even if he'd wanted to.
Before dawn, he'd entirely finished all three books, and he'd consumed several pots of tea, which certainly weren't helping him on the sleep front. Still, it would've been pointless to remove the caffeine from his bloodstream, so he left it. He was fairly certain he didn't want the books lying about where Crowley could see, so he took them all back downstairs and filed them on the private shelves in the back room.
Around five o'clock in the morning, Aziraphale collected up the last two days' worth of mail. There were no more postcards, though there were a couple more bills. He piled them with the ones from Wednesday, then opened and sorted them, and wrote out his cheques for the month. He went outside to drop the envelopes in the nearest postbox, which was on the corner, pulling his coat tightly around himself. It had gotten colder.
He dashed back inside, hung up his coat, and stared around the shop. He'd cleaned it, re-shelved the books he'd read most recently, and cleaned out the teapot. He wasn't usually open Sundays, either, so there was no need to make sure the place was looking dusty.
Aziraphale walked into the back room and sat down at the table, reaching for Friday's Telegraph. He hadn't bothered with the crossword, and he didn't feel like doing it. He got up again, filled the teapot, and put it on the stove. One more couldn't hurt. He speeded the heating process up a bit, then put a tea filter full of first flush Darjeeling in his cup and headed back to the table. He miracled a fresh pencil from the desk out front and tried to do the crossword anyway.
Some time later, Aziraphale opened his eyes to bright sunlight and a close-up view of the tabletop. The Telegraph was stuck to his cheek, and the tea in front of him was half finished, cold.
Crowley was sitting across from him, chin resting on his hands.
"Didn't have the nerve to wake you," he said, half smiling. His eyes had dark rings under them, which was a sight Aziraphale hadn't seen in decades. "Remember what happened that time when I—"
"How did you get in here?" Aziraphale asked, alternating between rubbing his eyes and blinking rapidly. He had to be dreaming, but he hadn't been able to…
"The door," Crowley said matter-of-factly. His coat was draped over the back of his chair, and he'd unbuttoned his cuffs—or maybe they'd been like that all along. His shirt looked dreadfully wrinkled, and his sunglasses were on the table in front of him.
"You should've gotten me up," Aziraphale said, standing up to stretch. Crowley stood up, too, rather more stiffly than usual. Aziraphale wondered if he'd gone home at all.
"No point in that," Crowley said, looking very much like he wasn't sure how on earth he had come to be standing there. He licked his thumb, then reached out and rubbed at Aziraphale's cheek. "You've got, um, stuff. Graphite. You do realize that was hilarious, don't you?"
"I'll take your word for it," Aziraphale said, and caught his hand, holding it there. Crowley's expression changed from dazed to longing. Maybe he'd been dreaming, too.
"I didn't think I'd make it back," he said, almost a whisper.
"I did," Aziraphale told him, and kissed the palm of his hand.
"Do you know," Crowley said with a faint laugh, fingers flexing against Aziraphale's cheek, "I'm so bloody tired I don't think I know what I'm saying."
"Shhh," Aziraphale whispered, letting go of Crowley's hand. At first, Crowley didn't react when Aziraphale wrapped his arms around him, though it was only a few seconds before he melted, letting his head drop to Aziraphale's shoulder. He sighed.
"Brought you something," he mumbled. "Left it out front."
"It can wait," Aziraphale reassured him, stroking his hair. Crowley had only ever behaved like this when he was asleep, or at least mostly asleep, and Aziraphale wasn't about to let the opportunity pass. Crowley's arms were loose about his waist, but he was holding on, and Aziraphale wanted nothing so much as to carry him, though he'd probably resist. "I think we ought to get you upstairs. You need a nice cup of tea, and then you ought to get some sleep."
Crowley trembled a little, but he didn't protest. His arms tightened around Aziraphale.
"I'd like that," he sighed.
"Good," Aziraphale said, letting go, and steered him toward the stairs.
The first thing that Crowley noticed was the plant on the window sill, and he gave Aziraphale what was, quite possibly, the most confused look that Aziraphale had ever seen on his face. Aziraphale shrugged, leaving him to gape, and turned down the covers.
"I couldn't very well leave it there."
"I'm surprised nobody took it," Crowley said, somewhat disconnected. "They're usually gone by the time…"
"Crowley," Aziraphale said gently, taking him by the shoulders.
He went, pliant, and sank down on the edge of the bed at Aziraphale's urging. Aziraphale hesitated for a moment, unsure of whether he should get Crowley tucked in or go heat the tea. Crowley made the decision for him, tugging on his wrist.
"I know that look, and I don't like it."
"Fine," Aziraphale said, sitting down beside him. "I won't go anywhere." With a sigh, he waved his hand at the dressing table, and a steaming teacup appeared. "Sugar?"
"Mm," Crowley sighed, leaning close, and brushed their lips together.
It was a slow, lingering kiss, not unlike those they'd shared on waking up. Aziraphale had always thought that coming home, at least for humans, was cause for breathless passion and normally not making it past the kitchen table. Aziraphale liked this better, somehow, and felt reassured, because one of the books said that long-term relationships had a way of leveling off nicely, and what were they if not long-term?
"Oh, I missed you," Aziraphale sighed. To hell with emotional honesty; it had been all he could do to keep from saying so, and Crowley's eyes got satisfyingly wide.
"I did," he insisted, brushing Crowley's hair back, then started unbuttoning his collar. "You have no idea how bad it's gotten. I can't even take a walk without stumbling across something you've left lying about, or see anybody without them asking after you."
"Asking after me?" Crowley echoed, watching Aziraphale unbutton his shirt. "Who…?"
"Anathema," Aziraphale said, pushing the garment down off his shoulders. "Madame Tracy. Anastasia at the salon, who's seen your car around here."
"That's it," Crowley said, taking over with his shirt, dropping it on the floor. "You're moving."
"On the contrary, I don't think I'd have the heart to. They like us here, you know. Can you say the same for your neighborhood?"
"I can't believe we're having this conversation, either," Crowley said, crawling past Aziraphale and onto the bed. He curled up against the pillows, already in his bare feet. "How about that tea?"
"You're terrible," Aziraphale said, and got it for him anyway. "Now, be careful," he said, handing the cup over cautiously, "it's—"
Crowley took it quickly, finishing off the tea in three gulps.
"You were saying?"
"Never mind," Aziraphale muttered, and made the cup vanish from his hands.
"Hey, that wasn't—"
"Fair warning?" Aziraphale asked, shrugging out of his robe and crawling under the covers beside Crowley. "No, I daresay it wasn't."
As if he'd finally learned there was no point in arguing, Crowley sighed and stretched out beside him, curling over as soon as he'd tugged up the covers. He settled against Aziraphale, all warm skin and slow, steady breath. He was suddenly naked except for his pants, and the fine silk teased at Aziraphale's skin as they pressed close.
Crowley yawned, nuzzling Aziraphale's shoulder, and lay still.
Drifting in a warm, happy haze of Crowley and the duvet, Aziraphale drifted off effortlessly, even if his body had begun contemplating ideas that were reasonably executable now that Crowley was lying in his arms. Aziraphale squashed them, sighing, and held Crowley close. He needed sleep, too, and surely they needed their strength.
* * *
Waking up was much more pleasant than it had been earlier in the morning, though Aziraphale was certain that the sunlight on his eyelids indicated that it was past noon. Somehow, he had ended up on his back, and Crowley was sprawled on top of him. Aziraphale drew in his breath, skimming his fingers along Crowley's hips. He'd kicked off his pants, or possibly vanished them, but it didn't much matter which.
Crowley yawned, shifting a bit under Aziraphale's touch.
"I was wondering when you'd come around. Sleep deprivation's a horrible thing, you know."
"I've been sleeping," Aziraphale insisted, opening his eyes. Crowley was grinning at him, chin on his elbows. It was a lazy sort of grin, perhaps a little mischievous. Aziraphale sighed, tracing a path up Crowley's right side.
"I told you," he said, gasping on laughter, "you never…"
"Never what?" Aziraphale asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Entirely subjective, my dear."
Crowley rolled off of him, trying to get away.
"That's ridic—ow," he muttered, sitting up. "What's that?"
Aziraphale frowned, propping himself up on his elbows. Crowley was wearing a somewhat disturbed expression and fishing around under the covers.
Crowley stuck his tongue between his teeth, then said, "Aha!" He drew his hand out from under the covers and held up—oh, bugger. He squinted at the jar, bringing it up closer to his eyes. "Aziraphale, what's—"
"It smells nice," Aziraphale said helplessly, reaching for it.
Crowley shot him an accusing look, holding it too far off to one side for Aziraphale to reach it, then scooted across the bed and started to read the label again, eyes narrowing gradually. Aziraphale bit his lip, waiting.
"Well," Crowley said, handing the jar to him. "That's one way of breaking the ice."
"That has nothing to do with it," Aziraphale said miserably, folding the jar in both hands. "I'd wondered where it had gotten off to, though."
Crowley was staring at him, and he hadn't blinked for at least ten seconds.
"I don't care what else you think, but that," he said, pointing at Aziraphale's hands, "definitely requires fair warning. It's not that I'm not willing, but—"
Aziraphale leaned across the bed and kissed him, anything to make the panicked chatter stop. Crowley froze, sighing against Aziraphale's mouth, and relaxed into it as if in surrender. He fumbled between them for Aziraphale's hands, prying the jar out.
"No, I didn't mean—look, if you're really set on this now, I'll—"
"What have I told you," Aziraphale said between kisses, trying to steady his voice, "about jumping to conclusions?"
Crowley froze again, and the jar fell on the sheets between them.
"No," he said instantly, sitting back. "I won't have you pulling that—that—noble thing of yours, because after all this is more my area of—"
"Have you read up on it?"
"No, but I've seen more in the past week than you'd care to hear about."
"You're right, I'm really not interested," Aziraphale said, stroking his cheek, "unless you're offering to give me a demonstration. Because I'm sure I'd like that very, very much."
Crowley blinked at him, as if the information wouldn't process. Aziraphale felt him fumbling for the jar again. He found it first and pressed it deliberately into Crowley's hand.
"You're kidding me," Crowley said. "You've got to be—"
Aziraphale kissed him again, beginning to lose just a bit of patience.
"I'm not," he murmured against Crowley's mouth, taking a chance on more of the sensible book's advice. "I trust you. In fact, I think I trust you more than I trust myself, which is saying something. Er. Sometimes."
"I don't know how you do this," Crowley muttered, and, after carefully setting the jar as far to one side as he could put it, crawled over Aziraphale and flattened him against the pillows. "Just when I think I've got the worst ideas around, you manage to trump them."
Aziraphale bit his lip again.
"Crowley, if you don't want—"
"Oh, how could I not," Crowley whispered, eyes glinting, and lowered his mouth to Aziraphale's. "Bloody—hmmmf—you have no idea how—"
What Aziraphale had no idea about got lost somewhere between the kissing and the trying to carry on a conversation, which Crowley gave up fairly quickly, much to Aziraphale's relief. A lot of talk usually meant he was nervous or scared out of his wits, or possibly both, but the more Aziraphale ran his hands up and down the length of Crowley's back, the less coherent the sounds got. As long as the kissing kept up, or Aziraphale could—ah—press up against him like that, things would go more smoothly. He hoped. At this point, a lot depended on theory.
"I think," Aziraphale managed, holding Crowley at bay, which took a lot of effort because Crowley's hand had found its way to his inner thigh, "you've got to get the…er, stuff. What d'you call it. That you put…" He gestured at the far side of the bed.
"Right," Crowley sighed, and disentangled himself just long enough to snatch it. He sat back, shifting his weight on Aziraphale's hips, and that didn't help, either. He was reading the label again, as if he expected the instructions to be there, frowning.
"It doesn't say," Aziraphale said, propping himself up with some difficulty, and took the jar out of Crowley's hand. "But the books I bought all seem to agree that it would be easiest if I just rolled over like—er, Crowley, you're going to have to move if—"
Crowley wouldn't budge. He leaned forward, pinning Aziraphale down again, and that's when Aziraphale felt it, the fine, almost imperceptible tremor running all through him.
"You mean I can't…um, do it from here?"
Aziraphale studied his eyes for a few seconds, comprehension dawning on him slowly.
"Not precisely there, no," Aziraphale said, and pushed at Crowley some more until he reluctantly shifted back far enough to let Aziraphale spread his legs, at which point he had to move again just to settle in between. "There. Something like that. I think it also said it's easier if you take my legs and…ah…"
Crowley's eyes were wider than Aziraphale's favorite tea saucers, and he'd put his hands, which were shaking, too, on Aziraphale's thighs as if to steady himself.
"Right," he repeated, shifting awkwardly on his knees. "So, then, I've got to…"
Aziraphale leaned up and drew him down for a kiss, wondering what it would take to get Crowley calm enough to think past the fact that Aziraphale was putting more control in his hands than he'd probably had over anything in the past week. He worked a hand between them and touched Crowley's stomach, gently, then curled his fingers around Crowley's erection. Crowley moaned into Aziraphale's mouth, relaxing into the touch.
"I think I've got just a bit more work," Aziraphale murmured, fumbling for the jar with his free hand. Thankfully, it hadn't gotten too far, and he managed to get it unscrewed. The stuff inside was faintly cool on his fingers, but not cold like that bottled stuff had been, and even at that distance, the scent of herbs and mint hit his nostrils instantly.
"So," Crowley mumbled, sitting back up, breathing rather hard, "you're going to…"
"Mmhm," Aziraphale agreed, and switched hands, massaging the mixture onto Crowley.
He wished it had been possible to record, somehow, the sequence of expressions that passed over Crowley's face over the next few seconds, but it began with bright, blinding yellow and ended with Crowley's eyes screwed tightly shut, followed by Crowley slapping his hand away. He sagged over Aziraphale, breathing even harder.
"Any more of that," Crowley panted, "and this isn't going to work."
"Right," Aziraphale murmured, contrite, and kissed his forehead.
Crowley hissed, drawing himself up again, and snatched the jar from where it had been propped against Aziraphale's side. He didn't bother with the instructions this time, for which Aziraphale was grateful, though he did sniff at it and give it a brief flick of his tongue. Crowley made a face, then scooped some out and rubbed it between his fingers.
"I don't think it's made for eating," Aziraphale said faintly, fascinated.
"Well, it says, 'Not for human consumption,' so I had to see what the fuss was about," Crowley explained, and, without warning, ran his sticky fingers in one smooth swipe down the one part of Aziraphale he'd so cleverly avoided touching.
Gasping, Aziraphale caught his wrist.
"No! You're supposed to put it—"
"Look, I just wanted to show you how that felt," Crowley said, somewhat annoyed, and squeezed Aziraphale's hand. "Besides, I think I'm supposed to distract you, aren't I?"
"The books didn't put it quite like tha—mmm."
Later, Aziraphale would have a hard time sorting out exactly what happened in the next handful of seconds, but it involved kissing and Crowley's heartbeat racing and a little bit of swearing until Crowley managed to get more of the herb-stuff on his fingers, which Aziraphale knew that he'd done only because his hand slipped down and cautiously began to apply it where Aziraphale had been expecting it in the first place. Oh.
"Doesn't h—um, feel uncomfortable, does it?" Crowley asked, a bit breathless, pressing slightly deeper. He'd managed a second finger without Aziraphale much noticing, which was a good sign, or maybe it just meant he had slender fingers.
"Sort…of, but not really," Aziraphale breathed, concentrating fiercely. He'd closed his eyes without thinking about it, and he could feel Crowley's breath on his cheek as Crowley leaned in close—yes, there was his heartbeat. Still frantic, uncertain. He wondered fleetingly if a purely human approach to this had been best after all.
"Look, I need to know these things," Crowley snapped, but he stopped the pressure for a moment and took a deep, shuddering breath. Aziraphale opened his eyes, glancing up at him. He looked twice as frightened as before, although there was something under the fright that told him this would be very worth it if Crowley could just calm down.
"Feels very good, in fact," Aziraphale murmured, which wasn't untrue. His body had adjusted to it, and Crowley was close enough to touching on something the books had been extremely enthusiastic about. "I think maybe that's…ah, mmm, enough."
Crowley looked only a little reassured, but he withdrew his hand, breath coming fast. He seemed at a loss until Aziraphale kissed him again, tugging him up for more reassurance if that was going to get him through this, and then Crowley pulled back, fumbling with the jar again, and mumbled apologies and oh fuck, it was painful.
The minute he saw Crowley's eyes, though, that didn't matter, and what was a little manipulation, in the end, to make it go that much more smoothly? Aziraphale relaxed.
"Oh," Crowley whispered, fully inside now, shaking. "Oh my."
Aziraphale nodded, trying to process how it could be so peculiar and wonderful all at once, and tugged gently at Crowley's hips. The motion was there; Crowley just wasn't letting himself go. He thought about giving some more advice, then decided against it.
"It's all right," Aziraphale murmured instead, running his hands up Crowley's sides. He couldn't take much more of this hesitation. He wanted –
"Ssssh," Crowley hissed, thrusting once, carefully, and when his voice broke on a whimper it was all Aziraphale could do to keep from pulling him close, but that wouldn't work quite yet, and Crowley was moving now, and it was lovely.
"That's it," Aziraphale heard himself whisper, though he was starting to feel familiar things in strange places, and Crowley was clearly not going to last much longer, the poor dear. Aziraphale brought Crowley's hand up to his mouth and kissed it, stroking his wrist. "Oh, that's wonderful," he sighed. "Crowley, that's just…"
"Yesss," he agreed, somewhat forced, though that was understandable. Watching Aziraphale through half-closed eyes, lips slightly parted, he unsteadily tugged his hand away and trailed it from Aziraphale's throat to his belly, then lower, in one long, careful stroke.
"Crowley," gasped Aziraphale. "Crowley, please—"
And he did, exactly where Aziraphale had expected. The heat and pressure inside him fused into something indescribable, because Crowley had just collapsed on top of him in a heap of damp skin and incoherent moaning. Aziraphale tried to find his voice and failed, so he settled for his hands, which weren't much better, and stroked Crowley's hair.
"I love you, you know," he murmured, partly because the books had advised it and partly because he couldn't prevent himself from saying it anyway.
Crowley lifted his head, grimacing when he found that he had to—good gracious, they'd made a mess, but it was gone before Aziraphale could do something about it. He settled back down on top of Aziraphale, though it was more falling than settling, and gave him a blank, exhausted look.
"How could I not?" Aziraphale asked, desperately, then realized how foolish a thing that was to say to somebody who still thought you couldn't help being good.
Crowley let out a slow, labored breath, and sought out Aziraphale's hand. He closed his eyes for a moment, as if he needed their fingers tangled beyond recognition before he could answer.
Aziraphale patiently stroked his thumb, waiting.
"You've got on nail polish," Crowley said flatly.
"You're not getting out of this."
Crowley sighed, closing his eyes again.
"No, I didn't think so."
"We're not on the telephone," Aziraphale said helpfully.
"Fine, then," Crowley sighed, scooting up closer so he could nuzzle the crook of Aziraphale's neck. "But if you go making up wedding invitations, I'm leaving."
Seeing as his other hand was in a convenient location, Aziraphale smacked him lightly.
"Since you put it that way," said Crowley, "I love you, too."
Yes, Aziraphale thought, squeezing Crowley's fingers. Very well indeed.