He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.
Aziraphale closed the book and sighed. Something was tickling at the back of his brain, something he had to do. Water. Yes, he hadn’t had anything to drink in—well, since before he’d started reading, and perhaps it was best not to think about how long that had been. A pile of books he had since finished sat on the edge of the desk. He gently set aside Anna Karenina and went to the kitchen.
After rehydrating himself, while he was up he thought he might as well take care of whatever else needed doing that had built up over the past days. He watered the few plants he had and went to get the mail. He shuffled through the letters and ads while he walked back to his desk. Nothing but junk, advertisements, a few magazines, more advertisements, a summons to serve as a witness in court—
He paused and flipped back to that one. His brow wrinkled. How could that be? What could he have witnessed? He hardly went anywhere.
He looked again, and that was when he noticed what was odd about the envelope: it wasn’t from Earth. It was from Heaven.
He wasn’t sure what the dress code was Up Above these days. Humans seemed to think that angels ought to be going about in robes and that sort of thing, but the opinion of the other angels on this was divided. Aziraphale settled on going in clothes that would be appropriate in a human court, as he could always use the fact that he’d been stationed on Earth for so long as an excuse if anyone questioned him about it. Heaven had sent him his summons by human mail, after all. Maybe they were finally getting the hang of things.
He could never remember where anything was in Heaven anymore. The last time he’d been there for longer than a few minutes, ‘location’ was a concept that hadn’t existed yet. He had to look around a while before he found the court room that had summoned him. He was relieved to find, when he entered it, that most of the other angels were dressed like humans, also, though, of course, from all around the world. Most of them looked like they were wearing the mere concept of clothes*, or what they had gathered it was through reports, but at least they were decent enough that Aziraphale wasn’t embarrassed.
*To be fair, Aziraphale, to other humans, may have looked like this also, but at least his clothes were fully substantial.
He was ushered to sit with the other witnesses, and then the accused was brought it. It was an angel named Ruth. Her head hung low and she looked almost hopeless, until she saw Aziraphale in the stands. She stared at him with wide, imploring eyes.
“You’ve got to prove it to them,” she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper, but carrying all the way to him, nonetheless. “Tell them it’s real!”
Aziraphale watched in dismay as the other angels lead her away, toward her place. He had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.
“This is a bit awkward,” he whispered to the other angels around him, “but do you happen to know what I’m doing here? I mean, I don’t believe I know that young lady. Why have I been called to serve as a witness? And am I supposed to be speaking for her, or against?”
“That’s up to you,” a man in a tweed coat said. “You’re here as a witness of the practices of Earth.”
“You mean as a field agent?” Aziraphale said. “Is her crime related to Earth?”
“Yes, and her plea,” said a woman wearing formalwear from twelfth-century China. “She was a field agent, too. She claims that what she did isn’t counted as a crime on Earth. You’re here as a cultural expert.”
Aziraphale felt the blood drain from his face as he turned towards the front of the room. He was no expert on law. He tried to remember every court case he’d witnessed on Earth—he was coming up empty.
“Welcome, members of the heavenly court,” said the judge. He belonged to the group of angels in favor of wearing robes. “We are gathered today to discuss the case of Ruth, Principality, who has been stationed on Earth some several centuries. She stands accused of betraying Heaven by refusing to follow orders regarding a human. Ruth, you were commanded to cease communication with the human in question. You refused to do so. What is your defense?”
“I did disobey the order,” Ruth said quietly. “But I didn’t mean to betray Heaven. I didn’t stay with him for any sinister purpose.” She took a deep breath, and her voice rose as she said, “I did it because I love him!”
Normally, after such a dramatic declaration, there would be some astonished gasps. Aziraphale held back his own surprise to be polite. The other angels, however, did not reel in dismay, ‘aw’ in understanding, or scoff in disgust. They mostly looked confused. Some of them coughed.
“That is no defense,” the judge said, waving a hand through the air dismissively. “The divine love of an angel towards the inhabitants of the Earth has never prevented them from disobeying orders before.”
Aziraphale was glad that he didn’t have to speak yet. He wasn’t sure he could have kept a straight face. Instead, Ruth interrupted the judge.
“That’s not what I meant,” she said. She blushed. “I mean, I do love all humans, of course. But what I feel for Rajesh is something other than that. It’s—romantic love.”
This time, the other angels broke into murmuring, some scornful, others simply baffled. One lady said something along the lines of ‘tish’. There was a lot of awkward shuffling. Aziraphale was not sure what their reactions meant. The judge silenced the court.
“Romantic,” he repeated. “Do you mean, like Latin?”
“No,” Ruth said, “I mean like, you know. Soulmates.”
“Soul—” the judge paused for what seemed like an eternity, “—mates?”
Ruth gave an exasperated sigh. One angel rushed forward and whispered politely into the judge’s ear. When they backed away, his eyes had grown very round.
“My goodness,” he said.
“You see, I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I’m in love with him, and I didn’t want to leave him. There was no harm in staying with him.”
“’In love’,” the judge said scathingly. “There is no such thing.”
“This is her only defense,” said the angel who had spoken to him earlier. “She is willing to swear that this kind of love exists, and that it proves that she didn’t disobey orders as an attempt at rebellion. She seems to be telling the truth, but we don’t see how this could be. How could one human mean so much to her?”
The other angels seemed to agree.
“It’s love,” Ruth cried. “It’s real! Aziraphale, tell them I’m telling the truth!”
Aziraphale nearly fainted as all eyes turned on him. He gripped the table in front of him for support, melting under the expectation of everyone around him.
“B-but,” he stammered. “I don’t understand—why me?”
“Because you’ve been on Earth,” Ruth said. She was looking at him with that pleading expression again. “You must have seen it. Humans feel it all the time. You must know what I’m talking about.”
So many eyes were turned on him, some mortified or revolted at the realization of what she was saying. Some, fortunately, only looked curious. His palms were sweating so much that his hand slipped off the table.
“Um,” he said. “Surely there are other Principalities here who could speak on her behalf?”
“You have been on Earth the longest,” the judge said. “You are considered to be the highest authority on the subject. Besides—” he passed a hand over his brow in frustration, “all of the others on Earth claimed that the forces of evil would run rampant if they weren’t there to keep them at bay.”
Fiddlesticks. That had been an option? He should have called Crowley. He was sure he wouldn’t have minded running rampant for a bit to get him out of his civic duty. Besides, he was hardly the right person for the case. ‘Highest authority’, indeed. What did they think he’d been doing on Earth, interviewing humans about their romantic encounters? His eyes swiveled back to Ruth, and he saw that she was still staring at him. That was when the truth hit him. He was the only person for the case. He would have to be. He was the only one who had shown up at all, and he was this poor girl’s only hope.
Aziraphale had read about love. He’d always wondered if it wasn’t really real. It seemed so extreme, so exaggerated. Oh, it had its allures. He’d heard about it in songs, and seen it depicted in art and ballets and in movies and at the theater, but it had always been love’s depiction in literature that had intrigued him. The words people used to describe it—they seemed like too much, like they couldn’t be true. How could such emotions, such turmoil and joy, be real? And not helped by any miracle, either, or by bewitchment or beguilement from the Other Side. Humans claimed to love this way, and it could only have occurred naturally, because Heaven and Hell had certainly not had anything to do with it.
He sometimes wondered if they hadn’t simply invented it for fun. Romantic love and courtship were always surrounded by rituals, and perhaps that was simply all they were. He had even considered that it all might be nothing more than an excuse for lust. Much of the time, it certainly sounded more like an obsession than other forms of love.
“I am certain this is no valid excuse,” the judge was saying. “However, I will listen to the opinion of someone who has been among humans for much longer than I. Perhaps if it exists there, an angel could suffer from it as well. Perhaps it is—contagious. Aziraphale, what is your opinion? Could she be telling the truth?”
“Um,” Aziraphale said. “I—er—that is—”
Humans wrote about a lot of things that weren’t real. But they wrote about love a lot.
They wrote about it so beautifully, he hardly felt it could be a lie. It all seemed too good to be true—or, perhaps, too incredible to have been made up. Secretly, he had always wanted to believe. He went about acting as though he did, because he had known humans who had claimed to have fallen in love or who had chosen other humans to spend their lives with because of how much they meant to each other. He’d assumed they must have done so for a reason. Romantic love was mentioned throughout history, even in religious texts—although that wouldn’t necessarily convince the other angels.*
*Aziraphale was actually unique in having studied human religious texts. Most angels felt that ‘since they were there’ they didn’t need to see how humans had interpreted things. Aziraphale had argued that this wasn’t the point, but to no avail.
Humans certainly believed in it. And they wrote about it so vividly. It was all so—wonderful. The most beautiful words he had ever read had been about it.
“Yes,” he said.
The room stayed quiet. Only Ruth looked like she believed what she had heard. Aziraphale watched as every single other angel in the room tried to remember what exactly the judge had asked him. He decided that he needed to clarify.
“Yes,” he said, then, clearing his throat, “erm, I believe she is telling the truth.”
There was another moment’s silence before the judge tottered and stared at him with bulging eyes.
“You mean there is such a thing?”
“I believe so, yes.”
Many of the angels agreed with him, and started chattering. The judge did not bother to silence them.
“Surely this love is no more than human exaggeration.”
Aziraphale closed his eyes. Words he had read before rang in his ears.
To the dull angry world let’s prove
There’s a Religion in our Love….
For though we were design’d t’ agree,
That Fate no liberty destroyes,
But our Election is as free
As Angels, who with greedy choice
Are yet determin’d to their joyes.
Aziraphale felt his certainty rising. “No,” he said. “I believe it to be real.” He looked around the court proudly. It felt good to take a stand. This must be what faith was like, he thought. Believing in something in spite of doubts. Putting faith in it.
Just when he had been feeling good about himself, he felt a chill run down his back. “Why?” he repeated.
“Yes,” the judge said, eying him. “Why do you believe this?”
“Erm.” Aziraphale pulled at his coat sleeves. “I have heard accounts—”
“I have heard accounts,” said the angel in the tweed jacket. “And I don’t believe them.”
“You have only heard one account, just now,” said the angel in the Chinese clothes. “Aziraphale says he has heard from multiple sources.”
“That’s right,” Aziraphale said. “Many reliable sources.”
“I’m a reliable source,” Ruth cried out. “I have served Heaven faithfully for eternity before now. I would never turn my back on you. Why would I do this unless I knew it was right?”
That lessened some of the disapproving glares, although some people still looked dubious. The judge was still peering at Aziraphale.
“Have you ever felt it?”
“Erm, come again?” Aziraphale murmured.
“Have you ever ‘been in love’?”
Aziraphale felt his ears go red. He opened and closed his mouth several times. “What?”
“How do you know it’s real if you’ve never felt it yourself?” The judge crossed his arms, satisfied.
Aziraphale huffed. “Well, excuse me,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was meant to be falling in love with humans these past six millennia. Pardon me for not knowing it was part of my job description to go wooing people left and right.”
“It isn’t,” the judge said darkly, turning to Ruth, who was looking more frustrated than ever.
“I didn’t woo him,” she said. Her voice became softer as she went on. “Rajesh fell in love with me first. I was only trying to help him. He was going through a dark time in his life. He said he loved me, and I cared about him so much, that I didn’t want to leave him—then, it just—sort of happened.”
“You see,” Aziraphale said. “It doesn’t just happen to us angels unless we put ourselves in very specific circumstances, which Ruth did without meaning any harm. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
“So you’ve never attempted anything similar?”
“No. I’ve, er—I’ve never had a reason to do so.”
“But you’re saying it could happen to any of us if we were to make ourselves more open to the possibility?”
“I suppose so,” Aziraphale said, getting nervous. “Yes.”
“All right then,” the judge said decisively. “Show us.”
Aziraphale’s voice came out very small. “Pardon?”
“You may demonstrate to us that this kind of love is real by experiencing it yourself and reporting the effects back to us. This will determine whether or not Ruth’s plea is valid.”
Aziraphale’s voice had become miniscule. “Oh.”
“We will give you one moon cycle to experience love. You will then report to us with your findings. All right?”
“You want me to fall in love.”
“You’re free to decide that for yourself,” said the judge.
“So,” Aziraphale said, “you want me to, that is, make the effort?”
“You have been given permission,” the judge replied. “Do you think you can do this?”
Aziraphale swallowed and looked around the courtroom, where people were watching him with expressions ranging from fascinated to amused. He saw Ruth. He saw the fear in her eyes.
“Yes,” he said. “At any rate, I promise you that I will make the best effort I can.”
“Thank you,” Ruth said to him.
The judge nodded.
“Very well,” he said. “Then we will return to this room after the time allotted to finish the trial.”
I know I do not love thee! yet, alas!
Others will scarcely trust my candid heart;
And oft I catch them smiling as they pass,
Because they see me gazing where thou art.
Right then. Time to fall in love.
Aziraphale didn’t really know what ‘making the effort’ was. He thought it might be simply opening himself up to the idea that he might one day, some day very soon, hopefully, start to feel immense emotions about one particular person. This person might become very important to him, and he might feel unreasonably strong waves of longing and affection for them. He had to accustom himself to the idea that these emotions might seem overblown or silly to an onlooker, but he was reassuring himself that they probably wouldn’t seem so to him. That was what love was, after all. Supposedly.
He let himself consider people, and himself, and himself in terms of other people, or one other person, and he tried to imagine imagining a future with someone.
And he did, in fact, feel a change in the way he reacted to other people. He did feel more open to them. He now felt very different whenever he was around anyone else.
For one thing, he felt absolutely mortified.
“Excuse me, my dear,” he said after bumping into a woman in the crowded Underground. He blushed. What if she thought he was flirting with her? Did bumping into people count as flirting? Maybe he should be flirting. That was why he had gone out, after all. It turned out that his strategies at keeping people away from his bookstore worked better than he had thought. He was headed out to meet people, and it would do no good for him to avoid flirting with them just because it made him nervous. He looked for the woman again. She was gone.
Oh well. Better luck next time. Of course, there were still hundreds of people swarming all around him, but none of them would have the nice conversation starter of him having bumped into them. He was sure another chance would come around. He wanted things to start off right.
The tube was extraordinarily crowded. He should have asked Crowley for a ride, but he certainly hadn’t wanted to tell him what he was doing. He made himself as small as he could as two people sat on either side of him. He had decided that bumping into people counted more as harassment than flirting, and if he was trying to fall in love, that sort of thing would not do at all.
No, coming on the tube to meet people had definitely not been a bright idea. There were people, certainly, but none who wanted to do any meeting of any sort. Plus, given his current mission, being around people had never been so perilous. He had never missed sitting in the comparatively spacious seat of the Bentley as it tore hazardously down the road more than he did now. Being afraid of crashing was nothing compared to this. A man far too young for him to consider ‘flirting with’ had been stepping on his feet the whole ride. Aziraphale made a mental note to walk home.
He knew that people went ‘out’ to try to find people, but he had no idea where. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure if people went ‘out’ before or after they had met someone they wanted to be in love with. There was such a process to it. It all seemed rather convoluted.
He had to believe, though. If he didn’t, Ruth would be punished. He had to believe for his own sake, for his own view of the world, too. It would be fine if romantic love wasn’t real. Humans loved each other in so many different ways, and it was all wonderful. But they had spoken and sang and written about romantic love throughout the ages, as though they had faith in it. He wanted to believe them, too. That was what they did, humans, coming up with beautiful things that may or may not have been true at all, and putting so much faith into them that they made them so.
It was one thing to like humans as a group, though, and a far different thing to pick one to obsess over, or whatever it was he was supposed to be doing. Aziraphale walked through Regent’s Park, looking around at the crowd, hoping someone would catch his eye. He’d wanted to meet someone new, but also someone who might have similar interests as his own. He liked parks. He hadn’t wanted to go to St. James, though. It felt too close to home, although he suspected he might be missing the point, but still. Regent’s Park had plenty of people.
Far, far too many.
There was nothing else to it. He was simply going to have to pick one and start it off.
He gazed around the park. Families strolled past, some with strollers, others with teenagers taking pictures of the scenery on their phones, others with dogs sniffing and wagging their tails. Several people too young for him walked by. Technically, no one was too old for him, but he didn’t think the old man grumbling to himself as he passed wanted to be bothered. Aziraphale walked a little further along.
He tried to remember what he had read about the falling part. Most accounts suggested he should be minding his own business when all of a sudden someone should drift past and their beauty would assault his eyes and ensnare him, or something along those lines. He looked around and waited to be captivated.
Nothing happened. It seemed, in his case, it was going to require more effort.
The next thing he knew, from stories of a different type, was that the best romantic relationships tended to occur when the people involved had something in common. Perhaps he should look for someone with a shared interest. He considered looking for someone who was reading, but when he imagined how he would react if someone tried to interrupt his reading just to fall in love with him, he decided against it. He looked around for something else.
He spotted a woman feeding the pigeons. He wandered over to her.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” she said, sweetly enough.
They stood, the woman feeding the pigeons, Aziraphale with his hands in his pockets. He tried to remember what people normally talked about.
“Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes. Lovely.”
A pigeon glared at him suspiciously.
“Um. It’s very nice of you to feed the birds.”
“Oh, yes. I love them,” the woman said, smiling, but not looking at him. “Little dears.”
“Quite!” Aziraphale said. You were supposed to compliment someone when courting them, weren’t you? “Er, I always thought caring for small creatures showed a very kind spirit. A great generosity and, erm, heart.”
“Erm,” the woman said.
One of the pigeons had approached Aziraphale and was pecking him on the foot. When he did not feed it, it looked up at him reproachfully.
“And, er, a capacity for goodness.” It occurred to him that this was how he spoke to people whose souls he was trying to influence. It might not be best for those he wanted to take to dinner. He stopped talking. The woman looked relieved. She hadn’t looked at him once. The reproachful pigeon had abandoned him as a lost cause.
Aziraphale decided to do the same. “Well, good day to you,” he said brightly, and then walked away rather quickly.
Most of his interactions in the next few hours were much the same. He managed not to mention anyone else’s capacity for goodness, but he did tell one person he had a benevolent aura. Another man had burst into tears when he told him he seemed sweet, and Aziraphale had ended up counseling him and assuring him that he could be a good person if he wanted to, and that ‘oftentimes we are more critical of ourselves than we deserve’. The man had seemed comforted, but Aziraphale didn’t think tears should be involved in any way in the first stages of courtship, so he had left him alone thereafter. He’d thought things had been going well with a woman for a while, as they had been having an interesting conversation about the nature of the world, but then she had handed him a pamphlet on Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It turned out that she had been trying to get him to join a church, and they had parted, both feeling rather embarrassed.
He ended up going to the zoo. He had a nice chat with a lady who was then joined by her girlfriend. Then he had a horrible conversation with a nasty man who had said something awful about one of his favorite books. Then he sat in awkward silence permeated by the occasional ‘um’ with another woman. Then he had a nice chat with a man who was then joined by someone whom he claimed was only his friend but who obviously wanted to be more and who had glared at Aziraphale terrifyingly. He excused himself, claiming that he’d needed to use the water closet.
The day ended with him trying to talk with a woman in the Tiger Territory exhibit who had ended up, somehow, trying to sell him insurance. He’d had to sneak out through the Reptile house. He figured it was time to call it quits. He would just have to try again another day.
First quote from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
Second quote from "Friendship's Mystery, To My Dearest Lucasia" by Katherine Philips.
Third quote from "I Do Not Love Thee" by Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton.
I swear Crowley shows up at some point.
Aziraphale was woken from pleasant slumber a few days later by the horrifying realization that sometimes, people tried to attract others by altering their appearances and trying to make themselves seem appealing. He stood in front of the mirror, squinting at himself. He’d always tried to look presentable, but he had never been trying to present himself—in this way. What was considered attractive in London in the present day, anyway? He supposed technically he could go anywhere in the world. He wasn’t sure what the beauty standards were anywhere else, either. He ran his fingers through his hair uncertainly.
He stared at himself.
Well, true love is about what’s on the inside, anyway, he thought, quoting something, probably, and he turned away.
He still had more than three weeks before having to prove anything to the court in Heaven, but he still hadn’t even met anyone. It had once taken him three decades of regularly talking with someone before he had realized they were friends. She’d had to tell him so, herself. He needed to move more quickly.
Perhaps he needed to start with people he already knew. There were just a few problems with this. The woman who sometimes sold him artefacts from the museum was already married. The man who ran the old book auctions he went to every summer wasn’t interested in romance. The nuns, he was sure, would not have seen any advancements as appropriate. He often had nice conversations with his friend who worked at the library, but they had been in love with the schoolteacher who came in every week for a year, and Aziraphale didn’t want to ruin their chances of finally winning her over.
He had heard that sometimes people who were once enemies ended up falling for each other. He did have a sort of enemy—a rival book-collector, who was always snatching books he was dying to get his hands on at auctions at the last second. Aziraphale dearly hoped he wouldn’t end up falling for him. Besides, he thought it was a silly sort of cliché.
In the end, the only single and available person he could think of whom he saw on a regular basis was the man who always served him and Crowley at the Ritz. Onslow was always friendly to them. In fact, just thinking about the Ritz made him feel more relaxed than he had in ages. Maybe that was a good sign. Conversations always seemed easy with Onslow.
Aziraphale figured he could at least try to look sharp. He wore what he thought was his best looking suit—Crowley had complimented it once, and he would know—and listened to some romantic songs from the first half of the century. Maybe he should find some more modern songs to listen to, he thought, so he wouldn’t go about things in a way that was too old-fashioned. Crowley probably could have recommended some, except that Aziraphale didn’t think he would approve of what he was doing, at all. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with it—he had to keep telling himself this—it just seemed insincere in its inauthenticity. Crowley always disliked when he was insincere. Aziraphale felt his stomach squirm with guilt, but he pushed the feeling aside. What choice did he have?
He arrived at the Ritz and tried to tell himself that this was just like any other dining out experience, except Crowley wasn’t there, and he was going to have to flirt during it. And he didn’t know what flirting was. And he wasn’t even sure Onslow would be working tonight.
He was. Aziraphale told himself he was happy about that.
“Good evening, sir,” Onslow said after Aziraphale was seated. “Dining alone, tonight?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said. “Er—well, just you and me, I suppose.” He laughed and coughed.
“Is Mr. Crowley unwell?”
“What?” He was finding it hard to focus. His palms were sweaty. “Oh, no. He’s, er, well I assume he’s fine.”
Onslow gave him an odd look. “Everything all right, sir?”
“Yes.” He decided to try something he was sure he had read somewhere. “Er, that is. Everything will be, now that you’re here. I’m sure. Erm.”
Onslow looked completely baffled. In a moment, he regained his normally unshakable composure and smiled politely. “Shall I bring you something to drink, sir?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale sighed. “Wine, please.”
He tried to prepare some things to say while Onslow was gone. When he had returned, he had hardly thought of a single sentence worth speaking aloud. He recognized that it might be awkward trying to woo someone while they were also supposed to be serving you food, but he was rapidly running out of options. He cleared his throat as the man arrived.
Say something flattering, he thought. Compliment him. And not on his excellent moral compass! But what sort of compliments did people appreciate? Something about their appearances, he thought. But how to say it? Did they just come out and say the words, or was there a process to it? Seemed like there was a method to everything. Oh well.
“My, Onslow,” he said, trying not to let his voice shake. “I can’t help but notice how the light hits your eyes—”
“Is it Mr. Crowley’s eyes that have kept him at home?” Onslow asked, sounding worried. “Was it because of his condition? If the lighting has been unsuitable, we could move your table to a darker corner and use candlelight instead.”
“What? No.” Aziraphale’s whole forehead was sweating now. This was harder than he’d thought. “Crowley’s—look, I haven’t even seen him in weeks, all right? Er. Although, some candlelight might be nice. It’s, um, romantic, isn’t it?”
Onslow looked even more concerned but agreed to fetch the candles. Aziraphale sank down in his chair after he had gone. He put his hands to his head. The empty seat across from him made it only too easy for him to imagine Crowley sitting there, laughing at him. He groaned and ran his hands down his face.
Onslow returned, and Aziraphale sat up straight, quick as lightning. He flashed Onslow a smile. The man patted his hand gently.
“Never fret,” he said in a low voice. “Those of us who truly care about each other can weather the toughest of storms, now, can’t we?”
Aziraphale didn’t quite follow, but it certainly sounded encouraging. He gulped and tried smiling again. “Yes,” he said, hoping it was the right answer. Onslow smiled and stood up again.
“Shall I take your order, sir?”
“You know, Onslow, you really don’t have to call me ‘sir’. After all this time, I, er, I dare say we’re—closer than that, don’t you think? You can call me—erm.” There was a hitch. If it was true love, he ought to know his real name, oughtn’t he? But most people didn’t go around in England with a name like Aziraphale. “Well,” he said, beads of sweat forming on his forehead all over again, “you can call me by my first name, of course. After all, I call you by your first name.”
“Onslow is my surname, sir.”
“Oh. Is it?” He breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, then, you can call me by my last name.”
“Very well, Mr. Fell.”
That didn’t sound quite right, either, but he supposed it would have to do. “Onslow, what I was saying earlier, about your eyes. That is, what I was trying to say was, they’re quite nice.”
The area between Onslow’s nice eyes wrinkled as his brow creased.
“Sort of, erm. Striking?” Aziraphale attempted.
Onslow’s face went blank and he looked away. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, sir,” he said. “May I please take your order?”
Aziraphale sighed and ordered the lobster.
After he had eaten, he thought he’d try again. He had gotten off course with the whole candlelight thing earlier. Onslow had seemed almost upset at one point, but he had been perfectly civil through the rest of the meal, and even shot him empathetic glances every now and then. Aziraphale wished Crowley were there. He was much better at understanding social cues such as these, but then Aziraphale could sometimes read peoples’ emotions, too. Unfortunately, Onslow has been raised to be as steady as a rock, and to express as much emotion as a stone while he was being professional. They had fallen back into their usual relationship of guest and waiter, and Aziraphale needed something to break the ice. He decided to try a different compliment.
“Onslow,” he said as the waiter was clearing away his dessert plate. “Your hair is looking very stylish tonight.”
“I sincerely hope,” Onslow said, looking down his nose at him, “that you are commenting on my hair because you are going to ask me what product I use, and for no other reason.”
“Erm,” Aziraphale said.
“Really, Mr. Fell,” Onslow said, turning to walk away. “Surely a few rough weeks aren’t enough to make you behave this way?”
“Wait,” the angel cried. “Did I do something wrong?”
“I’m sure it’s not my place to say, sir. Perhaps you ought to ask someone else?”
Aziraphale watched him go helplessly. That had been the last person with whom he’d had any sort of prior relationship at all. He left still feeling hungry, and with no idea what he was going to do next.
What he was going to do next, was get properly desperate.
There was nothing for it. He was going to have to go where everyone else went to begin a courtship.
If only people still held balls. He could have put on all the airs and graces of a proper early-nineteenth century gentleman and done the kind of dance that barely involved touching other people. He imagined dances these days were rather different.
He wished this was already over. He wanted it to be something of the past, so he could laugh about it with Crowley, except he would never be able to tell Crowley about it at all, because it was too mortifyingly embarrassing. Every time he thought about him his stomach felt sick because he had been ignoring his calls. He could never keep a secret around him. He just wanted everything to go back to normal.
He had been keeping his shop open, too, in case someone came in and made a connection. This meant people could, he shuddered at the thought, browse through his belongings. These were hard times, indeed.
He missed normality so much, it was almost ridiculous.
The places humans went to meet others in a dancing context these days were downright intimidating, so Aziraphale settled on going to a bar he had heard was usually populated by single people. He didn’t think people normally wore his kind of clothes to bars, so he’d had to go shopping beforehand. Again, he’d bought clothes he thought looked most like something Crowley would wear, but which would also not look completely ridiculous on himself. He had not bought any shades.
He entered the bar, and felt like a duck out of water. He spent several minutes dithering by the doorway, half hoping he would lose his nerve and walk away. Ruth’s pleas kept coming back to him. He stayed.
People swarmed the place. He tried to look at each of them individually, then he tried to run his eyes carelessly over the lot of them, because it seemed like that was what the heroes or heroines of romantic novels normally did. Then, lovers were supposed to sort of leap up and catch your eye, and all of a sudden you were swooning, although he doubted any amount of effort on his part could really make this sort of thing likely.
When the world did not suddenly go fuzzy and in slow-motion with only one person properly in focus with music swelling sentimentally*, he decided to take a seat.
*He had seen some films.
He should have sat next to someone, but he hadn’t the courage. He thought maybe, since he was an immortal being, he should let someone else choose to talk to him, rather than imposing himself upon some poor human who hadn’t planned on dallying with someone ethereal. Not that he thought he could use his angelic presence to sway anyone in this particular regard.
Eventually, someone did come up to him. She was a woman wearing a tight fitting blouse that revealed her arms and the many tattoos with which they were adorned. She ordered a whisky and leaned against the counter.
“Hello,” Aziraphale said.
The woman gave him a look like she’d had no idea he was there. “Hi.”
He had the sinking realization that she had only been standing there to wait for her drink. He soldiered on, as one does, when one has been around for millennia and has been through too many uncomfortable encounters to recall all of them. “You have some very interesting tattoos.”
“Thanks,” said the woman. She flexed one of her arms. A snake tattooed on her bicep wriggled.
Aziraphale gave an awkward laugh. “I have a friend who—er—who likes snakes.”
“Really?” She raised a dubious eyebrow. Her drink arrived, and Aziraphale smiled and turned away, as though that had been his plan all along. The woman left.
You’re going to have to be more suave, he told himself. No one is going to want to talk to you just because you’re there. It was time to turn to the experts, or rather, it was time to do things by the books. He ran through every courting scene in literature he could remember.
The other patrons of the bar started to wonder who the man was who had been sitting silently, with his brow furrowed, fingers to his temples, looking as though he were calculating solutions to complex mathematical equations in his head. No one dared approach him. The woman who did walk up and take the seat next to him only did so because she had only just arrived and had not had time to properly survey her surroundings or notice that everyone had carved a void around him.
Aziraphale blinked and looked up. Someone had sat next to him. He could hardly believe it.
He cleared his throat. “Hello.”
“Hello,” the woman said, giving him a shy smile.
Here goes nothing, Aziraphale thought. He fixed her with a gaze that looked far more certain than he felt. He said, in the tone of voice he hoped people used for this sort of thing, “A fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my center and spring of life, wraps my existence about you—and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.”
The woman nearly fell off her stool.
“Gosh,” she said.
“That’s—” she sputtered. “That’s lovely, that is.”
“Really? Oh, good!”
“Yeah,” she said. “Wow. I mean, really. Wow.” She had turned red. “I mean, I’m not particularly looking, for that sort of thing? Not at the moment, I mean. Sorry.”
“That was really very impressive, though.”
“Oh. Well, thanks anyway.”
The woman nodded with another apologetic smile and left. Aziraphale adjusted himself on his seat and sighed.
That one had been closer, anyway.
Someone had been watching him. One man had been regarding this newcomer to the bar with some interest. The man thought Aziraphale looked like the sort of person who didn’t usually come to bars. He looked, the man thought with a grin, like the sort of person who would only come here as a last resort. The man thought he looked perhaps like someone who could use a little guidance.
Aziraphale did not even notice him right away when he sat next to him. The angel had become a bit frantic. He was running out of literary inspiration. He had begun to dredge through the farthest recesses of his mind. The man coughed, and Aziraphale nearly shot out of his seat.
“Hi,” the man said, flashing him a too-white grin.
“Uh,” Aziraphale said.
“What’s a man like you doing in a place like this?”
“I don’t know,” Aziraphale said, barely controlling his panic. “What do people normally do in places like this?”
The man raised his eyebrows. This fellow was more direct than he’d thought.
“Say,” Aziraphale said. “Do you like poetry?”
“Sure. You gonna recite me something?”
Aziraphale tried to keep a calm outward demeanor. The truth was, he had been growing desperate.*
*It is worth noting this, in defense of what he was about to quote. He had thought, Well, the man wrote about angels, for goodness’ sake, and all sorts of religious things. Surely it can’t be too bad.
“Right,” he said. He steadied himself. He looked into the man’s confused but eager eyes. He took a deep breath, and said,
“But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtile than the parent is,
Love must not be, but take a body too,
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid Love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.”
The man blinked. Then he smiled, a slow, smoldering grin. Aziraphale couldn’t have been more unsettled if the man had had fangs.*
*Granted, Aziraphale had a friend who had once had fangs, and all they had done for him was give him a speech impediment.
“That’s nice,” the man said, his voice smooth, too smooth. He looked Aziraphale up and down. “Very nice.”
Aziraphale’s mouth opened, but he did not make a sound.
“Do you like prose, too, or just verse?”
“Erm,” the angel replied. “Er, both.”
“You like Oscar Wilde?”
“Yes?” Aziraphale said, feeling deeper and deeper regret.
The man scooted forward until he was only a few inches away. He put his arm on the bar, around Aziraphale’s side, not quite touching him, but almost. He still grinned.
“The only way,” he said, “to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”
Aziraphale squinted. The man brushed his hand against Aziraphale’s arm. He stared at him for a moment. His internal voice said, ‘Mhm. Nope.’
“Ah,” he said out loud. “Oh, well.”
And he left so quickly that he had vanished from the bar before his stool had stopped spinning.
Two weeks left. Still half the time, technically, but it seemed like far too little. He was beginning to wonder if he should lie at the trial, for Ruth’s sake. He remembered a time, long ago, when Crowley had intervened with supposed ‘justice’ to help a girl escape a cruel punishment. She had broken the law, but she didn’t deserve what they had been threatening. That had been the just thing to do, he knew it. He wasn’t sure if he could pull off such a lie. He still had no inkling of what romantic love was supposed to feel like, and he had never been good at deceit. Plus, angels could read each other better than humans could. Crowley, at least, had always been able to tell when he was lying.
The bell tingled, signaling that someone had entered the shop, and Aziraphale nearly had a heart attack, thinking it might be the demon himself. It was just a harmless looking man who looked nothing like Crowley. His skin was much darker, and he was wearing an argyle sweater vest, for goodness’ sake. Not like Crowley at all.
Aziraphale relaxed and went back to reading. The man seemed like the sort who had wandered into the bookshop by accident and who would soon become intimidated by the callous shopkeeper and leave. Aziraphale pulled his book up to cover his face more completely.
“Well, well,” said a low, pleasant voice, followed by a warm chuckle. “Aren’t these beautiful?”
Aziraphale’s brow furrowed, and he tried his best to ignore him.
The customer let out a low whistle. Aziraphale lowered his book surreptitiously, just enough to see what he was looking at. The customer had found a set of Tolstoy novels, fairly old, in gilded binding that had been worn throughout the decades. Aziraphale had touched them up as much as he could. The man pulled the copy of Anna Karenina off the shelf. Aziraphale frowned at the book in his hands.
“This is really lovely,” the man said, running a hand down the book’s spine.
“Can I help you?” Aziraphale said tetchily.
“Oh.” The customer looked genuinely as though he hadn’t noticed him. “Oh, no, no. I don’t mean to be a bother.”
Aziraphale sniffed and put down his book. He walked over to him. “That is a very fine edition of Tolstoy.”
“It certainly is a beauty.”
“You ought not to judge a book by its cover, you know.”
“No, I suppose not,” the man said, looking surprised. He had a slow, gentle way about his expressions; but then he gave a conspiratorial smile. “But a pretty one such as this doesn’t hurt, does it?”
Aziraphale took the book from him and made a face. The man laughed again.
“Besides, a good book like that one deserves a beautiful cover, doesn’t it?”
“You’ve read this?”
“A long time ago. I’ve done a bit of reading in my time. I didn’t just wander in here by accident, you know. The name’s Gerry, by the way.”
“Aziraphale,” the angel responded absentmindedly, still staring down at the book.
“That’s—” the man stuttered. “Well. That’s an interesting name.”
“Not once you get used to it,” Aziraphale replied. He looked back up at him and frowned. “So you have read this?”
“Yes.” Gerry gestured to the book’s binding. “Someone put a lot of care into restoring that, didn’t they?”
Gerry had a twinkle in his eye as he said, “You really don’t want me to buy any of your books, do you?”
“Don’t worry,” Gerry laughed. “I understand. Many in my family are collectors.”
Aziraphale contemplated the man. “Gerry,” he said. “I am very sorry that I have been so rude to you.”
“It’s all right,” Gerry said, amused. “I know I look like someone who doesn’t know where he’s going. I tend to roam around, always getting distracted by bookstores, and that sort of thing. I guess I just like to take my time.”
“You can look around, if you like,” Aziraphale said. “You could even buy something, if you want. At least I’d know my books would be going to a good home.”
“That’s okay,” Gerry said. “I don’t think they could find a better home than with you. It’s nice to find someone to talk with about them, though.”
“Yes. Would you like to get dinner sometime?”
Gerry looked startled. Aziraphale waited, nervous. For the first time, his worry was that he would say ‘no’.
“I don’t know—” Gerry said hesitantly.
“That’s all right. I just thought I’d ask.”
“No,” Gerry said. “I—I would like that.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale’s eyes widened. “All right.”
“I’m sorry,” Gerry said with a sheepish smile. “I’m not much of a—well, I don’t date much. My niece is always pressuring me to get out more.”
“Not that I’m only saying yes because of that. I like you, Aziraphale.”
“Even in spite of my lack of manners?” Aziraphale asked with a wry smile.
“Yes, I suppose I do.”
“Then, Gerry, I think we’re off to a good start.”
Aziraphale's first quote is from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
His second quote is from "Air and Angels" by John Donne.
The man at the bar's quote is from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; —it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.
Aziraphale hoped it was true. He had only a little over a week before he had to return to the trial. He hadn’t given Gerry much time to prepare for their—hmm, date—but he assumed the man would know more about what to do than he would, even if he’d claimed not to have dated much before. He couldn’t imagine anyone being less prepared than himself.
He had read that being in love with someone made you obsessed with them, that it made you think about them constantly, even when they weren’t there. He tried to think about Gerry a lot. He found there was nothing to think. He probably needed to get to know him better before that would start to happen. He hoped he could within the span of one evening. Crowley was always saying things like, ‘If you want to get to know someone quickly, just stick them in traffic for an hour and see how they react,’ but since Aziraphale didn’t have a car, they had decided to meet at the restaurant. He wasn’t sure sticking Gerry in an irritating situation would be the best way to fall in love with him, anyway, although supposedly loving someone meant loving them even when they weren’t at their best.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites, yet we must not be foes.
Or something like that.
He had been thinking about his upcoming date pretty constantly throughout the days leading up to it. Admittedly, he was preoccupied more with what to wear and say than with Gerry himself. He just had to hope that counted.
Aziraphale tried to make sure he really was putting his all into making an effort. It was difficult, when you didn’t know what was supposed to happen. He had hoped it would be obvious when things started working, but nothing had sprung out at him so far. He could only expect that as long as he was trying, something about his feelings would change.
The night was upon him. He met Gerry at the door to the restaurant. The two stood around, smiling nervously at each other, not knowing what to do with their hands, and laughing for a bit until Aziraphale suggested in an overly bright tone that they go inside. They did so.
Gerry hadn’t known where to go, so Aziraphale had suggested the best restaurant he knew. He hadn’t recalled his last experience there until they had already arrived. He realized his mistake when Onslow saw the two of them enter the Ritz and immediately transformed himself into an ice sculpture.
“Hallo, Onslow,” Aziraphale said nervously.
“Sir,” Onslow replied, his eyes shooting icy daggers.
Ever the paragon of professionalism, even when miffed, he showed them to their table, although he did whip the cloth napkin a bit more harshly than usual before giving it to Aziraphale. He left without glancing at him.
“Well,” Aziraphale said. “This is nice.”
“It is,” Gerry agreed.
They looked at the tablecloth.
“I’ve been reading Anna Karenina again,” Gerry said.
“Just as good as the last time,” he said with a smile. “Although I can’t say I relate to the characters much.”
“No.” Aziraphale smirked. “Anna and Vronsky have more passionate natures than myself, I must admit.”
“I can’t even understand Levin,” Gerry said. “Always trying to figure out the whole nature of the world.”
Aziraphale laughed. “I have a friend who’s like that.”
“Seems exhausting to me,” Gerry admitted. “I guess I don’t see the point in trying to figure it all out. I like to accept things the way they are.”
“It’s probably for the best,” Aziraphale said, although he stopped himself before mentioning that he had been trying to figure everything out for six thousand years, and still hadn’t come close.
They talked about books for quite a while. It was a fairly interesting conversation, but there were many awkward pauses. Aziraphale had to remind himself not to let them sit in silence, but he was running out of things to say. Besides, he kept getting distracted. Speaking of Crowley, he’d think, have I watered my plants? Then he would be drawn back into the conversation, only to think, a few moments later, There was something I was just worried about. Something I needed to remind myself to do. What was it? He would remember that it was watering his plants, and he’d be annoyed that he had been distracted from the conversation, right when he was getting invested, by a nagging feeling for something so trivial. He would talk with Gerry again, and they would go on for a while, pleasantly, until they ran out of things to say. They would sit quietly. Then one of them would bring up another book he had read. They would talk about that, but right when Aziraphale had assumed he was invested in the conversation, he would catch his mind off on a tangent again, drawn away by something Gerry had said that connected to something else. Aziraphale tried to focus on the man in front of him—tried to get lost in his eyes—but he found his own glazing over. He’d heard that two sustained minutes of eye contact could do wonders for a relationship. He looked into Gerry’s eyes, and only felt mildly embarrassed. His feelings were nothing as strong as they needed to be to convince the other angels.
Maybe he was trying too hard.
After their meals, Onslow came round asking if they would like any dessert.
“Shall I put you down for your usual, sir?” he asked Aziraphale, glancing at him from the corner of his eye with a sneer. “Or have you tossed that aside, as well?”
Gerry seemed confused. Aziraphale gave him an apologetic look. He’d thought Onslow hadn’t been interested in him at all, but perhaps he had been wrong. He hoped he hadn’t offended him for good by flirting with him, only to show up later with a different man. He really was very terrible at this whole thing.
“The usual will be fine, thank you, Onslow,” he said. “And don’t forget my friend, here.”
“I would never forget a friend of yours, I am sure,” Onslow said, his voice brittle. Luckily, when he turned to Gerry, he was polite enough. Aziraphale was glad he at least wasn’t taking it out on him.
“I don’t think our waiter likes us very much,” Gerry whispered when Onslow had left.
“I’m afraid that may be my fault,” Aziraphale sighed, taking a sip of wine. “I hope I haven’t made a permanent enemy out of him.”
“I don’t know,” Gerry said with a tongue-in-cheek tone. “You seem like someone who could keep an arch enemy for quite a long time.”
Aziraphale nearly choked on his wine. He smiled into his glass. He would have to remember to tell Crowley that one.
“I hope you know I was joking. I didn’t mean to offend you. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if you had any rival book collectors. My sister collects vintage clothes. I know how it can be.”
“Oh, them.” Aziraphale made a face. “Yes, I do hope Onslow doesn’t think of me the way I view those sorts.”
Gerry laughed. “You know, you’ve got a few different sides to you, Aziraphale.”
“I’ve been told that before.”
“Well, let’s talk about reading again. That’s a more pleasant topic, isn’t it?”
“That’s probably a good idea. It will bring out my better side—at least, I hope it will.”
They did spend the rest of the evening talking about things they had read. It went much better, and when they had finished, they said goodbye to one another in fine spirits. Aziraphale left the building feeling optimistic. By the time he got back home, that feeling had drizzled away.
Had he really been miserable the whole time? That wasn’t it. He’d had a nice evening. But it had been such an effort, the entire time. He was exhausted. He knew he had to try to open himself up to these sorts of things, but he didn’t want to try. He wanted to let things happen naturally. All that would happen naturally with Gerry was that he would have a nice chat with him and then they would say goodbye, and that would be it, no desire to linger just a little while longer, no thinking about him constantly. No desire for more. In fact, Aziraphale wished he could have had just what he already had. A nice time talking with someone, then going home to be himself again. Why couldn’t that be enough?
It would be enough, he thought, if you didn’t have something to prove. He hated feeling like he had something to prove.
And the other thing was, even when he got home, it took him a while to actually feel like he was himself again. He had to surround himself with things that were quintessentially him, just to get his bearings back. He still felt like he was missing something—he had for weeks.
He felt he had to be a certain way around Gerry, just as he felt around most people. He didn’t mind that, really. It wasn’t like he had to pretend to be someone else, he just had to put forth the side of himself that got along best with whichever person he was talking to. This was how friendships normally worked for him. He would enjoy spending time with someone who shared one hobby of his, and once they’d gotten all they could out of one interest, they would go their separate ways. Most of his friendships were great things, but there was only so much two people could overlap. Maybe that was what love was, feeling more than that. He gotten along with Gerry well, but only with a part of him. It was a bigger part of himself than what he shared with most people, but it still was only part. He felt like he hadn’t fully been himself in weeks. Perhaps this was just an aspect of making the effort for love. Perhaps it always felt like sacrificing a part of oneself.
Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.
Aziraphale read, and tried to think about Gerry. They were similar. Could they be similar enough to be bound like this? Aziraphale tried, as hard as he could, to believe they could be.
He tried to read more. It wasn’t the most romantic novel, really. Or maybe it was, and he had never understood romance in the slightest. Maybe it really was just anger and pain. Maybe it would be a good thing if he didn’t prove its existence.
He closed the book and sighed in disgust at himself. He was failing. He was going to let everyone down, all the humans who believed, Ruth, and himself.
Maybe if he stopped trying to think about him, he would end up thinking about him naturally, finding himself distracted from whatever else he tried to do. He needed a break—to clear his mind—anything.
He stood up, then put his hands on the desk and closed his eyes. He tried, one more time, to feel something—no good.
He slapped the desk in annoyance, and walked away.
He let himself get lost in reorganizing his bookshelves. That should have been something from which he could easily be distracted, but he wasn’t. His mind filled with the familiar algorithms—alphabetical this time? Or by date? Perhaps by genre. Or, he could organize them solely by the color of their covers. It would look nice, and any true booklover trying to take one of his treasures away would be so annoyed at how difficult it was to find anything, they would leave in a huff. He smiled and started to put the books in stacks, red, orange, yellow, green—
The bell clinked. Someone had entered. Aziraphale stiffened, not turning around, waiting.
Aziraphale relaxed, so much that he almost let the book he was holding slip through his fingers. He put it down and walked toward the front of the shop.
“Where the hell have you been?”
Aziraphale wore an apologetic smile which turned into one of relief when he walked around the corner and saw him. Crowley was standing by the door with his arms crossed. He turned toward the angel and tilted his head at him.
“Sorry,” Aziraphale said, his voice still showing his guilt. “Been—er—busy. Heaven stuff. You know how it is.”
“Right, right.” Crowley leaned against the wall. “You could have answered the phone, though.”
“I really am very sorry.”
“Well, never mind. I needed to get out, anyway. I just thought I’d drop by, make sure you hadn’t been reading through One Thousand and One Nights for four weeks straight—”
“It doesn’t take me that long to read.”
“—again. I know how long it takes you to read, angel.” Crowley sounded amused, but there was still a bitter edge to his tone.
“I was only clarifying,” Aziraphale said. Crowley shook his head at him, but he was hiding a grin. Aziraphale could tell. He wouldn’t be able to stay angry for long.
“It felt like it took four weeks to get here,” Crowley said. “I was just thinking, If the angel has been reading this whole time, he’ll probably have forgotten to water his plants, so I jumped in the car and was on my way over before I remembered it was rush hour.”
“For once, I was aware of how much time had passed,” Aziraphale said with a sigh. “I still couldn’t phone you because of—well, things. I’ve missed you, though.”
Crowley looked mollified. “Well, things are all right. I know how things are.”
“Shall I put some tea on?” Aziraphale asked. He had been worried, this whole time, that he wouldn’t be able to keep the secret from Crowley, but now he was here, there was no point in shooing him away. He had needed a break so badly. Talking to Crowley felt like a breath of fresh air.
“Please. The drive here nearly dehydrated me.”
Crowley headed for the back of the shop, and Aziraphale followed him, all smiles, feeling very comfortable for the first time in a while. He went to the kitchen to start the kettle, and instead of sitting down, Crowley went with him and stood in the center of the room. He and Aziraphale chatted while the angel bustled around, getting things together, while Crowley revolved on the spot, always facing him, gesturing in his characteristically animated way.
“I tried not to meddle, but it wasn’t easy.”
“We did promise Adam, my dear.”
“I know, but angel, if you’d been there, you would’ve miracled some of those traffic signals. I know you would have.”
“If I’d been there,” Aziraphale said, “I would have reminded you of the virtue of patience.”
“I meant if you’d been there by yourself,” Crowley said. “You only lecture on the virtue of patience when there’s somebody else around. On your own, you miracle the speeding-up of queues.”
“Well, that benefits everyone.”
“Only the queue you’re in. The others get slowed down.”
“That teaches the virtue of patience. Besides, you disrupt queues all the time. You slow them down. To get people angry.”
Crowley grinned. “That teaches the virtue of patience, I believe you said.”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes. Then he looked smug. “When you’re on your own, you do nice things for people. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
Crowley crossed his arms again and looked away from him, his cheeks turning slightly red. Aziraphale grinned. Crowley shrugged. “Lectures on patience or not, I wish you had been there. At least I would have had someone to talk to.”
Aziraphale reached for the kettle, but stayed half facing him, wearing a small smile.
And then, he noticed it.
The way he was drawn to him like they were tied together with string.
“Forget something?” Crowley asked. Aziraphale had turned into a statue, his hand on the kettle, his eyes on Crowley’s face. The demon was giving him a quizzical look.
“Erm,” Aziraphale said.
“I think generally, the next thing to do is turn the heat on.”
Aziraphale managed to start the tea. Crowley kept talking, and Aziraphale listened. But he also realized, in a slow dawn of realization, that he was sort of basking in his presence, like Crowley was the sun itself.
But it wasn’t just his presence—it was his company. It was the both of them, there together. It enveloped them in warmth.
He stopped, and leaned, slowly, against the counter, facing him.
“D’you remember that time we were driving to York?” Crowley asked. “About five years ago.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale replied, trying to keep his voice from sounding strange. “Um. It was raining cats and dogs, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, and the road was backed up for miles. It was like that. Except I didn’t even have you making snarky comments about my driving methods, which at least would have passed the time. I actually missed you.”
Aziraphale felt his heart beating too strongly. He wondered if Crowley could feel it too, the way there was something between them, something that burned when they made eye contact, when they were both thinking, I’ve missed you. He probably didn’t. He probably just felt at ease with him, which was all Aziraphale had ever felt up until now. But now he knew what feeling at ease with someone actually meant, how rare that really was.
“This is going to sound really cheesy,” Crowley said, oblivious to Aziraphale’s internal turmoil. “But bear with me. Traffic is like—life.”
He paused and looked at the angel, as though Aziraphale could possibly want to stop him from talking. Aziraphale waited. Crowley snorted self-consciously, but carried on.
“Yeah. Cause, when you’re in it, see, you’re always focused on where you’re going next. But if you just look around yourself a little, you might see something interesting, like someone lip-syncing to the radio, or some kids drawing on the car windows with the fog of their breaths. Drawing smiley faces and hearts.”
Aziraphale nodded. His heart was readjusting itself. He stared.
“I guess the things that slow you down in life can be opportunities, if you let them,” Crowley said. He spoke about ups and downs, and breaking them all apart to look at them more closely and see what they were really made of. He talked, putting the world together, like he always did. Aziraphale listened in a trance.
It wasn’t that he was just staring at him, either. He was doing more than that. His mind didn’t faze out of focus in any way, because he didn’t want to miss even a second of it. Crowley talked about everything he’d seen in that traffic jam, and it was like he was describing the most fascinating work of art he’d ever seen. Aziraphale listened to him as though he were the same.
“It was bloody awful traffic, though,” Crowley finished with a snort. “I still can’t say I liked it. I just wanted to get to your place faster.”
Aziraphale felt his cheeks going red.
So. It had taken him about ten minutes. Or, maybe, about six thousand years, and ten minutes of a little bit of effort. He wasn’t even sure. It seemed all he’d had to try to do was finally notice.
“Traffic as a simile of life,” Crowley murmured.
“Who would have thought?” Aziraphale said, his own voice even quieter.
“Yeah.” Crowley grinned. “Who would’ve thought?”
Aziraphale breathed in slowly. He could deal with this. He would.
He would act normal.
Just talk about something mundane, he thought. Be boring. Make him want to leave. Stop this before it goes too far! Part of him rebelled against this viciously. He frowned.
“Hang on,” he said—he couldn’t help himself. “Traffic can’t quite be like life, can it, because people in traffic know where they’re going. Humans don’t know what’s going to happen to them in the end. That hardly seems fair.”
“Hmm.” Crowley frowned. “I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of that.”
“You would have eventually,” Aziraphale said. He was surprised at the warmth in his own voice, but was realizing he shouldn’t have been. Of course he sounded like that when he was talking to Crowley. “I think I only thought of it because I’ve picked up some things from you, after all this time.”
“But I guess, really,” Crowley went on, enthusiastic as ideas kept coming to him, “that’s all part of it. Some people assume they really want to get to where they’re going. Some people are just headed in that direction because they assume they don’t have much of a choice. Others, well, they don’t really believe in anything at the end of the road, do they? Can’t much blame them, with the limited proof we’ve given them. So when they get stuck in traffic, they figure, might as well get out of the car and dance in the road. Seems reasonable, when you look at it that way.”
“But sometimes the other cars might start again, and if you’re dancing in the road, you might create more traffic. Then it’s really not fair to others.”
“No. I guess you’re right.”
Unlikely, Aziraphale thought. You’ll think of something to counteract that with soon enough. This is what we do. We prove each other wrong, and then, together, we figure it all out.
In spite of the growing pit of worry in his stomach, Aziraphale smiled.
“I suppose what it all comes down to, then,” he said to Crowley, “is you’d best be sure you have a really good car.”
Crowley seemed to appreciate that. He grinned. “Yeah. And the right person in the passenger seat.”
Aziraphale definitely blushed at that. Luckily, Crowley didn’t seem to notice. It probably wouldn’t occur to him that anything was out of the ordinary—it probably wouldn’t occur to him that anything ever could be, with Aziraphale. When did the angel ever change?
The tea was done. Crowley poured himself and Aziraphale a cup. Aziraphale didn’t drink any right away; he was already feeling far too hot. Crowley took a sip, and burned himself. He put the cup down, wincing. Aziraphale winced, too. Crowley looked thoughtful.
“My car was on fire once,” he said. “I wonder what that’s supposed to symbolize?”
“You kept on driving anyway, didn’t you?” Aziraphale said. His voice was very soft. He couldn’t help it. “I always admired you for that. Did I ever tell you?”
“Not in those exact words, I don’t think.” Crowley looked at the angel’s untouched cup of tea. He did seem to notice something was off. He looked up at him, one eyebrow raised above his dark shades. Aziraphale picked up his cup, trying to look normal.
This wasn’t good. This was going to be trouble. Of course, it was wonderful, admitting to himself how fantastic he was without anything clouding his own judgment of him, finally. You wanted him here this whole time, he thought. This whole time. This was bad news, though. He hadn’t meant for this to happen. He’d only been supposed to fall in love under his own control. Certainly not with Crowley. Not with the most important person in the world to him. Because he’d read all about it, and he knew what it could do between people if it wasn’t right, if they didn’t both mean for it to happen.
He had been so stupid. He’d read all about love, and had waltzed into it willingly, even though he knew, also, about all of its pain. How could he have been so stupid?
Crowley shrugged. “So, what kind of car would you say you have? In this metaphor of ours.”
Aziraphale avoided his gaze—he looked down into his cup. He said, ashamed, “I think I just stay at home.”
“Well,” Crowley said, sounding thoughtful, “your house burned down at one point, too.”
“It did, didn’t it?” Aziraphale laughed softly. “I guess that’s what it took to get me to join the rest of the world on the road. It’s kind of pathetic.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Aziraphale looked up at him. Crowley shrugged.
“Traffic is miserable.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Actually,” he said, “before my shop was set on fire, it was being discorporated through my communication with Heaven that really got me out of there.”
Crowley snorted. “So you’re going to give Heaven credit for finally getting you ‘on the road’, are you?”
“Not really. I actually meant it would technically have been Shadwell who did it.”
They paused. Then, both of them cracked up. They sniggered at the memory of the strange man. Aziraphale stopped first, struck by what it did to him to see and hear Crowley laugh. How had he never noticed before?
Crowley’s laughter faded to a sigh.
“No,” Aziraphale said. The angel was looking at him closely. “Heaven’s influence on me lately has been full of—mixed blessings.”
They talked some more while they finished their tea, or at least, Aziraphale tried to talk as best he could. He was realizing that the comfort he had felt around Crowley was being infiltrated. A new kind of discomfort was creeping in, one that wasn’t entirely bad, that made his heart beat faster and his palms sweat and his knees go weak, and, really, it wasn’t unpleasant, against all odds. But still, he knew that even if it didn’t feel bad, it was. Because he should never have done this.
But, fear of what the future may hold, aside, deep down, he couldn’t make himself regret it.
“Let’s get dinner,” Crowley said. “I haven’t eaten properly all day.”
“I—” Aziraphale felt the new discomfort threatening him. He needed to think this through, before things got worse. “I—don’t think I can.”
“You’re not going to make me drive through that traffic alone again?”
“It should have died down by now,” Aziraphale said, quietly.
Crowley stared at him. Aziraphale tried to look normal. He could only stare back.
“Is everything all right?” Crowley asked.
“Yes—um. It will be. I’ll take care of it.”
“Yes, I’m taking care of it. You don’t need to worry about me. I promise.”
Crowley pressed his lips together. Aziraphale had been right about the lying.
He had been wrong, though, in assuming that Crowley would push him. The demon could tell he was not going to say more. He nodded, then left.
Before he did, though, he gave Aziraphale one last, long look. He was wearing shades. Aziraphale couldn’t even see his eyes through them.
That look did wonders on him, anyway.
First quote from Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
Second from Shakespeare's "Sonnet 40".
Third from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.
Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care;
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair.
Aziraphale wanted to tell Crowley, but he couldn’t. He wanted him to feel it, how much he cared for him, how much he thought of him, but he couldn’t.
He wanted him to feel the same way. But he couldn’t have everything he wanted.
He tried to ignore it for a while, but all it felt like, really, was finally being right. He’d had to make an effort to define it, to put his feelings for him into a category that had been described before. Really, he thought, he’d been feeling it all along. Really, it was indescribable.
Gerry showed up, a few days before the reconvening of the trial. Aziraphale let him in, feeling horrible.
“I thought you said today would be a good day for me to drop by,” Gerry said. He could obviously tell something was wrong. It wasn’t just angels and demons he couldn’t hide from, then. “Er, you did say today, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale replied. He’d planned it before Crowley had stopped by. He’d been having trouble thinking since then, and hadn’t thought to phone him. “Um. Sorry. I’ve been a bit—”
“Should I come back some other time?”
“No.” He might as well do this now.
The two of them decided to take a walk. They strolled down the street, facing a strong breeze and a bright sun. Aziraphale pulled a scarf around the lower half of his face. It gave him an excuse not to have to be very expressive while he tried in vain to listen to what Gerry was saying.
“—isn’t it?” the man finished. Aziraphale realized he had been asked a question. He turned to him awkwardly.
“The weather, I mean,” Gerry said.
“Perfect for it.”
Aziraphale didn’t know what he had been talking about. He knew he should focus to catch up to the conversation, but the fact that he was already so lost made it only too easy for his attention to slip away again. One time, Gerry said something about ducks. Aziraphale said he liked them. For some reason, that made Gerry laugh. He had a warm, deep chuckle. It was nice.
Aziraphale missed Crowley’s laugh—or, really, all of them. There were different kinds. There was his loud one, the one that cracked out of him when something took him by surprise, or the low one that came from the pit of his stomach. There was the one that was mostly air, hisses and sputters, that Crowley only did when he was very drunk. Aziraphale remembered the first time he had made the demon laugh until he cried, tears streaming down his face. The memory gave him butterflies.
“Gerry,” Aziraphale said, stopping abruptly. Gerry stopped, too. “I need to tell you something.”
“You have seemed distracted. Is everything okay?”
“Yes. Well, no. I’m sorry.” Aziraphale closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m very sorry. This isn’t going to work. It’s nothing to do with you. I just—there’s someone else. That I—er.”
“Oh. You mean, we shouldn’t date?”
Aziraphale winced. “I am very sorry.”
It was Gerry’s soft laughter that made him look up. He had a hand to his head, but he didn’t look too upset. “I’m actually relieved.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, having several different reactions to that.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Gerry said quickly, holding out his hands. “I just meant, I don’t think romance is my kind of thing. At all. But, please don’t take that personally. I think it’s just the way I am.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, laughing now, feeling immense relief that at least one thing hadn’t ended horribly. “That’s good, then. That’s very good, in fact.”
“Yeah. And, really, it’s not personal at all. I’d still like to be friends.”
Aziraphale smiled. “I’d like that, too.”
Love dwells not in our will.
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.
The day of the trial arrived. Aziraphale no longer had any doubts about what he had been tasked to prove. He knew.
He had faith.
He only hoped he didn’t have to be too specific when describing who he had fallen for. He didn’t know what they would think of it, or if it would put Crowley in any danger. He had already decided that he would do whatever it took to keep things between him and Crowley completely normal. He wouldn’t let anything happen to jeopardize their friendship.
But half an hour earlier, he had been firmly convinced that telling him the truth would be the best decision. A part of him knew that no matter how firmly convinced he was at any given moment, he would revert to the other way of thinking within a few hours, and this would be his life for as long as he loved Crowley. Which would be, he knew, forever.
Aziraphale walked into the courtroom. It seemed he was one of the last people to arrive. Ruth was already there; she was being held by the door, so he had to walk past her to get to his seat. She looked up when he entered and stared at him entreatingly.
“Well?” she whispered.
“It’s all right,” he told her. “It will be all right.”
At first, she grinned. Aziraphale knew she could tell by his expression that he had succeeded. Then, her face fell. She looked worried.
“Are you okay?”
“Oh no.” She tried to take his hand, but the angel guarding her wouldn’t let her. She stared at his face. Aziraphale wondered if he really looked that bad, or if Ruth was just especially perceptive, particularly since she had felt something like this, too. “Aziraphale. What have I done to you?”
Aziraphale was ushered away before he could answer. The trial was ready to begin. The judge from before had taken his place.
“Well,” he said, “since the outcome of today’s deliberation rests on the statement of one witness, I suppose we might as well get to it. Aziraphale, have you—confirmed the existence of this soul-mate-love business?”
Aziraphale bit his tongue. He tried to read the other angels around him—how curious would they be? How mistrustful? Would they immediately assume he had done something terrible if he said ‘yes’, and interrogate him? He couldn’t let anyone know about Crowley. But he remembered how they had spoken about his task before. They hadn’t cared who he fell in love with. They probably would hardly think of it now. They were much more concerned with what an angel was capable of feeling, what they were all capable of getting themselves into. What he had gotten himself into. They wouldn’t understand the important part, because they couldn’t. They wouldn’t know that, no matter how strong the feeling part of it was, the other person was what really mattered.
“Come along, now. It does you credit that you want to help your fellow angel, but if you haven’t witnessed it yourself, it’s best to get the truth out now.”
“I don’t believe we should punish Ruth,” Aziraphale said cautiously.
“Because she has had a trustworthy character up until now?”
“Because I understand what she has been saying about love,” Aziraphale replied. “From personal experience.”
Once again, the court had clearly expected him to say something else. The judge stood with his mouth open for a moment before clearing his throat, trying to look impartial.
“Ah. I see.”
The other angels murmured. Some looked disapproving, but most looked fascinated. Some even looked excited. Aziraphale hoped he hadn’t encouraged dozens of other angels to try to fall in love with poor, unsuspecting humans.
“You mean you’ve—?”
“I made an effort,” Aziraphale said lamely.
“And it succeeded?”
Aziraphale sighed. “You know? It really wasn’t all that difficult.”
The other angels were getting restless now. Some were attempting to reach Aziraphale and ask him questions. Most were things like ‘does it hurt?’ and ‘do you really break out into song when you think about them?’, but a few actually asked whom he loved. Luckily, the judge was calling for order.
“Do you really mean it is possible for a person to have enough power over an angel that they might cause them to disobey orders?” he asked. He peered at Aziraphale closely. He could tell he was being judged carefully, and, along with him, the idea of romantic love entirely. Was it too dangerous for an angel? Should it be banned? Aziraphale squirmed. How had he come to be the one person on whose actions rested the entire future of romantic love among Heaven’s angels? Crowley was how. Of course he was.
At the thought of him, the corners of Aziraphale’s lips curled, just slightly. He looked back at the judge.
“All I can tell you,” he said, “is that romantic love—is strange. It varies from person to person. It’s—difficult to define.”
The judge raised an eyebrow.
“Listen,” Aziraphale said. “Ruth didn’t mean to hurt anyone. In fact, she hasn’t. Love may be a risk—but, I dare say, it’s worth it. It’s something strong—I don’t know why it’s that strong. Except—” He thought of Crowley. “—except that I know why it is, for me. And maybe the feelings people have really do come from trying to imitate something they heard about somewhere, sometime. Maybe Ruth and I, we only decided to place all of this—this emotion—on one person, because we already had it in us, and all we had to do was pick someone. But the people we picked—I know they’re worth it.”
“How—” the judge began, but Aziraphale kept going before he could ask questions.
“The point is, people really do form these attachments to one another. They’re drawn to each other, and want to be around each other, and their own emotions express this in different ways, whether it’s wanting to hold their hand, or sighing at the mere thought of them, or, or being willing to do absolutely anything for them.”
“But, really,” said someone from the jury. It was the angel who had explained romantic love to the judge from before. “I’m sorry, but it seems like too much. I simply don’t understand. I mean, could any of you really imagine wanting to, say, kiss someone? Because that’s what they do, you know. Could any of you imagine it? Could you?”
They stared at Aziraphale, who was having a moment. Kiss Crowley? he thought. His brain had stalled. He had to blink several times before being able to draw his attention back to the crowd now watching him very closely. He shook himself and coughed.
“Well, as I said. There are many ways to express their feelings. Erm, physical closeness is one of them.” How could he make them understand? The only way he knew. “There’s a quote,” he said, “from a great piece of literature. It says, ‘If it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.’ Well, it is true.”
To his surprise, the judge, and the rest of the court, were beginning to seem appeased. He turned and dared a glance at Ruth. She was looking the most relaxed she had since he had first seen her. The judge, though, still had questions.
“Maybe this is more innocent than I’d thought,” he said. “Perhaps it is not so disturbing as I once feared. Perhaps it does not come from any—selfish or indulgent place. It appears, though, that this way of loving people can hold power over you. Could this really be a good thing?”
“I believe,” Aziraphale said, “that whether or not romantic love, the way humans go about it these days, is an invention or not, it leads to people caring about each other very, very much. This person I care for—I, I love. I would do anything for him. And I’m glad of it. I suppose the thing they call love could be nothing more than a celebration of that very thing.”
“I promise you,” Ruth said, the angels guarding her finally allowing her to speak up. “It does more good than harm.”
It was time to decide.
The jury and the judge deliberated. The whispers seemed to last only a moment. Aziraphale was stunned when the judge turned and shrugged at them.
“All right then, I guess. Ruth, you may go.”
Aziraphale walked out of the courtroom in a daze. Most of the rest of the angels had already gone. He’d thought Ruth had been the first to leave. Before he could head for the portal back to Earth, however, she approached him.
“Aziraphale. I need to thank you.”
“It’s all right,” he said. He mind was still foggy. He had so much to adjust to.
“No. I called you here without even asking you if you would help me.”
“Any angel would help another.”
“And you had to go through so much. I had no idea they would ask that of you—they just don’t understand—but when they did, I could have told you not to bother. I was just—”
“You were scared,” Aziraphale said. “It’s all right. I’m glad I could help.”
“But you fell in love,” Ruth said. “You did, didn’t you?”
“I could have just copied any of what I said out of a book.”
“But you didn’t.” She frowned at him. He was remembering everything, what he had to return to. The decisions he still had to make. The fact that he couldn’t—he still couldn’t tell Crowley. He tried to hide it, but he knew she could see how he was feeling. “You love someone. Do they love you back? Do they even know?”
Aziraphale opened his mouth, but couldn’t think of a reply.
“You have to tell them,” Ruth said. “They need to know. If Rajesh hadn’t told me, I—I would never have tried.”
“I don’t want—” Aziraphale cut himself off. He had to try to keep his voice from breaking.
“What have I done to you?” Ruth echoed, her voice low.
“Nothing at all,” he said with a small smile. “I chose this. Really, my dear. You’ve done nothing at all to me that I would change.” That was a lie. No, it wasn’t. His own heart couldn’t decide. “As I said before. I am very glad I could help you.”
Ruth smiled. Aziraphale told her to go, and she did, but not before thanking him a dozen more times.
…and you fall from the sky
with several flowers, words spill from your mouth
in waves, your lips taste like the sea, salt-sweet (trees
and seas have flown away, I call it
loving you): home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name
Crowley was fed up. He had phoned Aziraphale three times today, and the angel hadn’t answered. He’d been avoiding him for two weeks. Crowley didn’t like it. He didn’t like it because it made him painfully aware of how hard he was trying to get a response from the angel, and that made him feel needy. But it shouldn’t be that hard, for Someone’s sake, and he had a right to be annoyed. He could have needed him for something—something specific, not just in general. What if he’d been in trouble?
What if Aziraphale was in trouble?
And that was why he’d gotten into the Bentley, grumbling about how, most likely, the angel had just gone out of town and forgotten to tell him, even though he usually remembered, these days, and set off for the bookshop. At least this time it wasn’t rush hour.
Crowley arrived and ignored the ‘Closed’ sign. He also ignored the fact that the door was locked. After all, it could have been an emergency, he thought resentfully as he barged in and sauntered through the shop.
“Aziraphale?” he called. The front was dark and empty, but there was a light coming from the back. He heard a noise, but no response. His heart skipped a beat. His bitterness was momentarily replaced by real worry. He hurried into the room.
Aziraphale was sitting at the table with his head in his hands. He didn’t look up when Crowley entered. He looked like he was shaking.
“Angel, are you—?”
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale sobbed.
Crowley froze. His instincts told him to look around, to take in everything in the room, as though that would help him defend himself from any danger. He saw nothing. He focused back on Aziraphale.
“I messed up, Crowley,” the angel said, his voice muffled behind his hands. He sounded miserable. “I’m afraid I—oh, dear.”
“What happened?” Crowley said. “What’s going on? Are we in danger? Is someone going to—”
“No.” Aziraphale finally looked up, wiping his face with the back of his hand. “No, no. We’re not in any danger. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have worried you.”
Crowley didn’t understand. As though I’m not still worried. “Then, what—?”
The angel’s face was pink. He ran his hand across it again, then stood up. He tried to pull himself together. He looked small. “I’m sorry, Crowley. I’m afraid I may have done something, terribly stupid.”
“Er. We all, uh, make mistakes.” Crowley took a few steps forward. “What did you do?”
Aziraphale stared helplessly at him for a moment.
Then, he told him.
Everything about the trial. About Ruth desperately asking him for help, and him being unable to say ‘no’. About reading for centuries and centuries about this one thing—this kind of ‘love’. About how he had to prove it. About how he had made an effort. About how he had tried to fall in love with a human.
Crowley grew more and more pale as the angel explained himself. Aziraphale was worrying he had guessed what he was going to say next—but Crowley didn’t know this, and he hadn’t guessed. He didn’t understand his own impending dread, either.
“You fell in love,” he said. A bead of sweat appeared on his forehead.
“Yes,” the angel squeaked.
Crowley slowly put a hand to his mouth. He took in a deep breath. “With who?”
Aziraphale frowned. “You don’t know?”
Crowley stared at him blankly. Aziraphale’s face changed. It looked—it looked like what he was about to say was the hardest part of all. Like things were about to get worse. Crowley tried to imagine what that could mean. Had he fallen in love with someone truly awful? Someone Crowley hated? Or worse, someone who hated him?
“With you, m—” Aziraphale managed to stop himself from saying ‘my dear’. He said, even more quietly, “With you.”
Both of them stood without saying a word. Crowley wasn’t reacting as badly as Aziraphale had feared, at least. His silence was terrifying, but at least he didn’t look angry, or sad, and he only looked a little scared. Aziraphale felt his heart breaking. He took a few more steps closer. Crowley didn’t move.
“I’m so sorry,” Aziraphale said. “I never meant to—”
“Maybe I should—” Crowley said, his voice strangled.
“I never wanted to hurt you,” Aziraphale said. He could feel his eyes watering again, and he tried to stop it. “I never wanted to make things difficult between us. I’m so very sorry.”
“Maybe I could, try too?”
Aziraphale stared at him. Crowley couldn’t blame him. Who wouldn’t be surprised by him saying something like that? But he knew what he had said, and he knew he had meant it. And he knew it wasn’t an in-the-moment kind of thing. He knew he would say the same thing, even if he took a month to think about it.
Because here is what had happened: Crowley had just had his best friend tell him that he had fallen in love with him. He had told him, essentially, that things would never be the same again.
So, because Crowley was an optimist, or at least, he was damned well not going to let the world control his entire life—he had immediately started thinking of how he could have some say in how things would be.
“You’d—you’d try?” Aziraphale barely managed to get the words out. He looked completely flabbergasted. Crowley almost laughed.
“I’d make the effort,” he said. He tried not to laugh. That would only make the angel think he had snapped. He needed him to believe that he was being entirely sincere.
“That—” Aziraphale stuttered. He made a strange noise in the back of his throat. He let out a puff of air, his brow furrowed. Finally, he straightened himself up and looked at Crowley in a way with which he was very familiar. It was a normally infuriating ‘I-think-you’re-forgetting-something’ type of way. “This is a bit more than a favor, you know,” he said.
“I don’t think this is the sort of thing that should be done as a favor.”
Aziraphale spluttered again. He took Crowley’s hand—actually took his hand—Crowley didn’t think anyone else had ever done that—and said, “We’d still be friends, you know. If you didn’t feel the same, I mean. I wouldn’t let this break us apart. I promise that.”
“And I appreciate it,” Crowley said. “Really.” Aziraphale was still holding his hand. “But that’s not why I said it.”
Aziraphale was shaking his head, bemused, but Crowley’s mind was racing. Because really, when Aziraphale had first started telling him what he had spent the last month trying to do, he hadn’t been increasingly more nervous because he’d assumed the angel had fallen in love with him. He would never have guessed that.
It had been the idea that he had fallen in love with someone else. And it hadn’t hit him right away why this would be so bad. But he had panicked.
And then the angel had told him who.
“What’s it like?” Crowley said, trying to sound calmer than he felt. “Making an effort?”
“I don’t understand,” Aziraphale said, holding his head with one hand and looking at the ground. His other hand let go of Crowley’s. “Why would you want to—”
“Just tell me, angel.”
Aziraphale did look at him, then. He looked dazed. “It’s—not hard. If you have the right person. When I was trying to love anyone else, it—it simply wouldn’t work. But with you.”
Crowley was trying to sort some things out inside of his own memory. Aziraphale looked at him then, and the way he did, if Crowley hadn’t been shuffling through millennia of thoughts, would have melted him.
“With you, it was easy,” Aziraphale murmured. “All I had to do was think, ‘Now, here’s someone I can talk to.’ It was easy to love you, Crowley. All I had to do was want to.”
Crowley was back in the Garden of Eden. Back in the Beginning, when he had been so alone. He had a memory of trying, very hard, to get along with the humans, an angel, anyone. The humans weren’t like they were now. They didn’t really understand him, and he certainly didn’t understand them. But Aziraphale had been the only one of the angels who had actually treated him like he was worth anything at all. Crowley remembered being so alone, and then, with Aziraphale, thinking, ‘Ah, now this is someone….’
“Really, Crowley,” Aziraphale was saying. He was looking sad again. “You don’t have to do this for me.”
“What did it feel like?” Crowley asked. He said it in such a way that Aziraphale, hesitant as he was, knew there was no point in trying to get out of answering.
“It hurts,” he said, truthfully. “But it’s worth it. I don’t know how to explain it any more than that.”
Crowley remembered hurting, too. Wanting desperately to stop fighting with this angel. He’d thought that it was because he hadn’t liked fighting at all. Things had calmed down, eventually, when they’d realized that fighting wasn't doing any good for anyone. He remembered, in thoughts hidden for a long, long time, that he still had always felt this longing to be around him. Sometimes, most of the time, it was just under the surface.
Crowley felt his cheeks getting warm. “I may have—”
“I don’t want you to have to try,” Aziraphale said. He sounded so hopeless. Crowley wished he was still holding his hand. “It wouldn’t be right.”
“But you tried. Aziraphale, listen. I think—”
“What if you couldn’t?” Aziraphale’s voice was little more than a horrified whisper. “Not me.”
Crowley frowned at him. “What’s it like? Love?”
“It’s—” That seemed to clear the angel’s fear away. His eyes had that look again.
Crowley’s frown disappeared. What’s happening to us? he thought. He should be worried.
Aziraphale smiled at him. “It’s you and me,” he said. “But—different. It’s still us, I promise you that. It’s just, us—differently.”
I should be worried, Crowley thought. And then he thought, Oh, shut up.
“Right,” Crowley said, slowly. Things were falling into place. All those memories were making sense now, and his cheeks started burning again. “I think I—I may have—”
“I think—” Crowley couldn’t say it. It was too embarrassing. He should have known. All those years…
“You don’t have to say anything,” Aziraphale said kindly. “I don’t need an explanation from you. You’ve always been a good friend to me. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
“No, you—” Crowley couldn’t say it. But he couldn’t let Aziraphale go on like this. “I—”
Aziraphale’s eyes were tearing up again, in spite of the reassuring smile he was desperately trying to hold onto. Crowley couldn’t tell him that he may have made the effort millennia ago, from the very start, without even knowing. He couldn’t. So instead, he took off his glasses, put them on the table, and kissed him.
He could feel—everything. Aziraphale’s shock at first, the way he froze. His mingled disbelief and hope in the broken gasp he gave when Crowley let go. But he kissed him again, because the first time hadn’t been quite right, because he had to try it, to know what it was like. This time, Aziraphale kissed him back. He had his hands on Crowley’s shoulders. Crowley wrapped his arms around the base of the angel's back. He leaned into him. He couldn’t help it. He was overwhelmed by how warm he felt, like they were burning. This is….he thought, but he couldn’t finish the sentence. Aziraphale, somehow, was smiling. He backed away just enough to take a shallow breath, then kissed Crowley again. Crowley was going weak at the knees. He kept thinking words and phrases, simple and repeating, like angel, and I want, and finally, and Aziraphale, and simple as they were, when his brain said them, his heart ached so bad it scared him. But the more he thought them, the more the ache went away, and the voice in his head became a whisper, and then a sigh. Aziraphale kissed him one last time, lightly, and Crowley shivered. He leaned back just enough to where he could focus on Aziraphale’s face. The angel looked the way he felt.
“Woah,” Crowley said.
They took a moment to let it sink in. Aziraphale sniffled, then smiled.
“Yes,” he said, nodding.
A laugh escaped from Crowley, a quiet one that was mostly hisses. Aziraphale’s smile widened, incredulous and bright. He looked—overjoyed. That was the way he was looking at him. Crowley couldn’t believe it.
“Are you sure you don’t mind—us being—this way?” Aziraphale asked. He still had one wrinkle of worry on his brow. “It might change things.”
“Things always change,” Crowley said. “The thing is—”
They looked at each other. They looked back over the years, and then at each other, right now.
“The thing is,” Crowley said, “any experience, I want to experience with you. Anything. All of it.”
He hadn’t realized how true it was. Over the centuries, humans had changed. He got along with a lot of them now. It didn’t change the fact that all he wanted was to see what they were up to, to live through every new invention of this world, with the angel, to go through it all with him. With all his nitpicking, their debates, all their differences, and oh, Someone…with Someone he could talk to.
“I guess,” he said, with a slow smile, “that’s how I love you.”
Aziraphale was crying again. He covered his mouth, trying to keep himself together, but tears welled out of his eyes. A nervous laugh bubbled out of Crowley.
“Gosh, angel—for Someone’s sake—what do I have to do to stop making you cry?”
“Oh, Crowley…” he said, in such a voice, and with such a smile. And this time, Crowley did melt.
They were going to the Ritz, together, like they always should. They were holding hands, because Crowley had admitted, more bashfully than Aziraphale had ever seen him while they were sitting on the sofa closer than they ever had, that it made him feel like—….
And then he hadn’t been able to find the word for it. But Aziraphale understood, from the way he sounded, and from the look on his face.
He’d taken off the demon’s shades, a little after their first day together, to look into his eyes. They were stunning. The two of them hadn’t lasted the full two minutes—they had better things to do, and besides, it was hard to keep eye contact when your faces were so close together that it was difficult to focus. They would have plenty of time to try again.
They were walking to the restaurant. They didn’t have to drive through traffic that way, but they took their time, nonetheless. It wasn’t as though they ever needed reservations.
“Oh, bugger,” Aziraphale said, stopping in the middle of the street. Crowley, not letting go of his hand, was yanked backward.
“What? What is it?”
“Onslow?” Crowley said. “What about him?”
Aziraphale hadn’t told Crowley the specifics of his courting adventures. It had been far too embarrassing, and he’d planned on saving it for a later day. “I could have sworn he wasn’t interested,” he murmured. “But he seemed so angry when I brought Gerry there. I might have to—oh.”
He understood. Onslow had known how things should have been before he had himself. He’d known all along.
“’Oh’, what?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale pressed his lips together, but still could not keep back his smile. “I think I owe our waiter an apology—and some good news.”
First quote from William Blake's "The Clod and the Pebble".
Second from "Love and Death" by Lord Byron.
Aziraphale's quote at the trial is from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
The last quote is from "You, Therefore" by Reginald Shepherd.