“There,” Crowley said. “I’ve won.” He pointed down at the couple who were beginning the act of knowing one another in the biblical sense.
Aziraphale shook his head. “I’m afraid not, my dear.”
“Um. Excuse me? That’s lust, if ever I saw it. One sin to me, so I get all the royal parks.”
“It’s not a sin,” Aziraphale raised a single, manicured, finger. “If it’s love.”
“Pfft. They’ve not said a word.”
“They don’t have to. It’s in their hearts. Can’t you feel it, Crowley?”
Crowley looked back at the couple. The old oak tree atop the hill gave a wonderful vantage point for gazing over the city, or else down on unsuspecting couples having a literal roll in the hay. The bet had been on all day, and Crowley had been certain that he would win, right until this moment. In the distance, the chimes sounded out for ten.
“That’s time,” Aziraphale gave what might, on any other face, be called a smug grin.
“Let’s not do that again,” Crowley sighed. He stepped off the branch, and walked out into thin air. “You cheated, I’m positive.”
“I can’t, and don’t, cheat,” Aziraphale clicked his tongue. “But I was hopeful they’d say it out loud, just to rub your nose, er, in it.”
“So, it doesn’t matter if they say it aloud, or not?” Crowley walked down through the air as if it was a staircase, and Aziraphale followed him until they reached the ground.
“No, it doesn’t matter. So long as it’s clear in their hearts. And they each know how the other feels, of course. That’s not to say it’s always a sin even if there’s no deep, heartfelt, love. There can be love in the appreciation of –”
“Thank you, that will do,” Crowley put his fingers to his temples. “I don’t need any of that soaking in, thank you.”
They walked back to the road, which was still a dirt track, but give it another few hundred years and there’d be asphalt and pollution and dead wildlife and fumes and Crowley could almost sense the potential in it. He’d always liked roads.
“Until next time, then?” Aziraphale stretched, and there was a shimmer in the air beyond his arms, as if his wings were stretching, too.
“No more bets,” Crowley said, looking away. “All bets are off.” He picked a piece of invisible dirt from his sleeve. “But, yes. Next time.”
“Be good, won’t you?” Aziraphale said, starting to walk.
“I’ll do no such thing,” Crowley muttered, before vanishing.
It stayed with Crowley, that night in the oak tree. It stayed with him like one of those recurring spots on your chin that fades away a bit only to come back throbbing and irritating and begging to be picked at the moment your attention wanders.
It’s not a sin, if it’s love.
That much was disgustingly obvious.
But love depended very much on a myriad of factors, to the point where Crowley was almost certain Heaven was making some of them up for larks. He, for instance, loved everyone and everything, apparently. And so did His lot. Aziraphale certainly reminded Crowley on a regular basis that he loved everything, even customers, though that didn’t mean he had to deal with them if he didn’t want to.
When it came to Crowley’s side of things, love was a slightly non-alcoholic version of lust, with a shot of envy, some adultery, and quite a deal of pride available if you gave the right (or wrong) people the right (or wrong) sort of nudge. You could make people do very interesting things if they as much as thought they were in love. It was a wonderful bit of arsenal in a demon’s bag, but then angels turned up and claimed they’d been the ones to include it on the inventory list in the first place.
You just couldn’t win.
Which, Crowley supposed, was the whole point. He didn’t suppose this very loud, of course. You never knew who might be listening.
And anyway, if you were going to start having thoughts about love, it was best to remember the sort your side approved of.
Crowley could remember perfectly the first time the angel said it. They were in the shop, of all places, Crowley turning all the proper nouns in a Folio edition of some classic novel into increasingly childish and rude words, when Aziraphale laughed softly at he’d said, and sighed:
“I love you.”
It might have sounded awfully quick, to human ears, but for Crowley there was a pause, or mental blockage, between the last two words. A pause that felt about as long as the last Ice Age, to be specific. Plenty of time for him to realise what the last words was going to be, and to formulate a proper, demon-like response.
“I know,” he shrugged.
Aziraphale stared, presumably having a mental Ice Age of his own.
Crowley snapped shut the book he was holding. “You love everything. Don’t. You.”
The angel blinked. “Of course.”
And that was that. And there was no talking about it, because they were both standing on a knife-edge, and although it was sharp and unpleasant and painful, it was at least solid and familiar ground, whereas if they fell…
Crowley had already done that once, and he didn’t think Aziraphale would like it, much.
And he knew for certain that he would not enjoy whatever treats were in store for a demon who decided to give any form of love that wasn’t based strictly on personal or physical gain, a try.
So, when Aziraphale said it again, a few months later, Crowley just nodded and carried on vanishing important post from inside pillar-boxes as they walked.
He wondered if the angel could feel the Catch-22 of the situation.
Except Catch-22 hadn’t been written yet.
But the point still stood.
After about a century, it got extremely trying.
Crowley tried to avoid the angel, but he also hated being away from him (he told himself it was because he could be up to anything, if left unsupervised and alone with nothing but good deeds to keep him occupied). He hated – hated – the idea of Aziraphale spending his time with other people, and even deleted the bookshop from various map records, which meant Aziraphale had no customers for a solid fortnight.
And he had the gall to thank Crowley for it.
“It was a wonderfully quiet two weeks, dear boy. I do thank you. If it wasn’t too much trouble?”
Crowley shook his head, whether in disbelief or not he wasn’t sure.
“Well, I do have that case of Lafite that needs finishing up,” the angel smiled. “If you’ll allow me to return a kindness?”
“I’ll let you let me drink your wine,” Crowley shrugged. And arrangements were made for later in the week, when the demon came back, walking straight through the locked door and ignoring the ‘Closed’ sign as he headed into the back room.
“Is that you, Crowley?” Aziraphale called from upstairs.
“No, it’s burglars,” Crowley said, squinting at the rather sad-looking armchairs and melting them together into a long and squashy sofa that shouldn’t, by regular laws of physics, have fit into the room at all. He gave Aziraphale's black-and-white television a poke, and it flattened and widened into something approaching acceptable for ten years ago, before he stepped over the new coffee table and let the bag of tapas he’d collected unpack itself and arrange itself neatly over the surface.
“Rather poor burglary,” Aziraphale said, coming into view. “And what have you done with my armchair, Crowley?”
“Improved it,” the demon said, collapsing onto the sofa as if no one in the known universe had had a more difficult week than he. “Wine?”
Two bottles (each) later, and a great deal of the tapas consumed, the television was playing some nature documentary (Crowley hated it, but Aziraphale was enraptured), Crowley was laying stretched out as if he was under a heat-lamp, swirling the wine around in his glass, pretending to watch a tiny ship bobbing about on the surface.
“I’m not sure about olives, you know,” Aziraphale said, as he picked up the last one. He chewed it thoughtfully, and swallowed. “They’ve never tasted quite right.”
“And yet you’ve eaten the entire dishful.”
“Well, one has to make sure. I might just be waiting for the right one.”
Crowley drained his glass, the imaginary ship disappearing down his throat, along with a lot of screaming passengers. “Seems to me that you either like something, or you don’t. You can’t force yourself to feel differently about it. You like wine. You don’t like olives. It’s not a sin not to want to eat everything.”
“Quite the opposite, in fact.”
“Gluttony is so boring,” Crowley groaned, sinking further into the cushions. “It’s so circumstantial, too. You’d think these days with your Burger Lords and your America and your ice creams sandwiches –”
“You can’t put ice cream on a sandwich,” Aziraphale said, horrified. “It would melt!”
“It’s in between wafers.”
“That,” the angel said, primly, “is not a sandwich. A sandwich isn’t just one thing between two other, identical, things. That’s madness.”
Crowley tried to remember what he’d been saying, but now all he could think of was sandwiches. He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.”
Aziraphale picked up another bottle from beside the sofa, and uncorked it somehow without using a corkscrew.
Crowley watched him pour it out, one for you one for me. Then reached out, and caught the angel’s hand, still around the bottle, as he moved away.
Aziraphale froze. “What?”
Crowley just looked at their hands. “… you know, don’t you?”
The angel blinked. “I know… what. Crowley.”
“If you know,” Crowley said, choosing his words carefully, “then you know I… can’t… say.”
“I’m not sure I do know, my dear.”
Aziraphale made a confused face. “Have I missed something, old boy?”
“Oh, come on,” Crowley took his hand away, and snatched up his wine glass. “You honestly think they’re listening right now? It’s Friday night. They’re all out to dinner.”
“First of all, they are all in for dinner,” Aziraphale said. “And of course they’re listening, they’re always listening.”
“Sure about that, are you?”
“And even if they not,” the angel went on, “He is. He knows all the secrets of our hearts, and He would not stand for it.”
“Stand for what?” Crowley grinned, sure he was getting his own way, before Aziraphale plucked his glass from his hand.
“You know where this will lead, and you know that it violates The Agreement. You don’t get to do this, Crowley.” He looked so deadly serious that Crowley sat up.
“This… was never in the agreement.”
“I’m not tempting you,” Crowley said, surprised at his own honesty.
Aziraphale stared. “…yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not, I’m not turning it on, I swear to…. You.”
There was a very awkward pause. So awkward that the reds on the television screen got slightly redder.
Aziraphale handed the wine back. Crowley nodded, and took a sip.
“I’m sorry I accused you.”
“I don’t plumb to those depths very often,” the demon shrugged. “Only on special occasions.”
Aziraphale looked back at the screen. “You know there are rules, of course.”
“I remember them. Got a new set, now. Almost the same, in fact. The punishments are probably a little more colourful.”
Aziraphale hummed. “Your rules…”
On the screen, a butterfly began to emerge from its cocoon.
“Dear boy, I do love you,” Aziraphale said to it.
Crowley sniffed, and watched the tiny beastie fly away.
And after the end of the world didn’t come, they went to The Ritz.
“You’ve not heard a single thing?” Crowley asked, kedgeree sitting untouched in front of him.
Aziraphale shook his head. “I thought… Well, it wasn’t exactly going against the rules to try and take him on, but… given the circumstances… it was probably frowned upon.”
“Unless it was part of the plan, like you say…” Crowley forked some of the food up, but didn’t put it in his mouth. He was watching Aziraphale slice up his seeded flatbread with unnerving precision. “I don’t know why I’m still here,” he said, finally. “Hastur wasn’t in my ansaphone, and after the business with the tyre iron… none of this makes sense,” he gestured with his fork, and kedgeree went flying across the room.
The angel vanished it before it hit someone. “I don’t claim to understand it, but… I rather like to think that boy had something to do with it.”
“What – he got me a get out of jail free card with his dad?”
“So to speak. Or else he made it seem like you weren’t worth bothering with,” the angel sipped his wine.
Crowley ignored the insult. “So.” He put his fork down. “What do we do now?”
“Carry on, as the posters say,” Aziraphale said. “If you’re happy with The Agreement.”
“I don’t know if I am, actually.”
“Well, you’d better toddle off somewhere before I find the time to thwart you, then,” Aziraphale sighed.
“That’s not what I meant,” Crowley said. “I meant… us. The rules. The rules rules.”
“Ah, those rules…” Aziraphale mused. He looked over at Crowley. “They still apply, you know? And both of us are on thin ice as it is.”
“They don’t care, anymore.”
“But, you said,” Crowley blurted. “You – you said.”
“I said what, dear boy?”
“You said… you said it wasn’t a sin if it was love,” he hissed.
Aziraphale sat up. “I did,” he nodded. “I also said that it would take all or both parties knowing and accepting it in their hearts, even without a declaration.”
Crowley flicked his teacup-handle.
“Accepting things can be very difficult,” Aziraphale said, as if commenting on the weather.
“Seems to be like you’ve won this one, again,” Crowley said, bitterly. “You get to do it all, and all you need is the other person to not be terrified of the consequences.”
“My dear,” Aziraphale reached across the table, and took Crowley’s hand. “You don’t think I’m terrified?”
Crowley looked at their hands, then back to the angel’s face. “You?”
“You think it’s not frightening to love someone who may never love you back?” he whispered.
“But… you love everyone.”
“To varying degrees. But yes, I do. Which means I love you.”
Crowley bit his lip for a moment, before squeezing Aziraphale’s hand. “You know I can’t say it. You know I can’t even think it. I can’t entertain the idea in passing.”
“You could always repent,” Aziraphale shrugged.
Crowley snorted. “As I recall, you have to really mean it.”
Aziraphale smiled. “What do you want, Crowley? Sins of the flesh? Nights of sweat and passion?”
Crowley considered. “I…”
“Or do you want afternoons at The Ritz, feeding the ducks, wine and television and conversation and familiarity and… this?”
The demon stared.
“Because you have this,” Aziraphale pointed out. “You’ve had this for centuries. I’ve loved you since before you fell, but only in the same way I loved all the others. But now… Now I love you because you’re Crowley. And all the things that make you Crowley. Even if those things mean you’ll never say anything like this to me, that’s alright. Because I still love you. I know some things are easier for me than they are for you. But that’s alright, my dear.”
Crowley’s eyes hurt. He considered taking his sunglasses off, then thought better of it. “Aziraphale…”
“Come on,” the angel stood, pulling Crowley up with him. “There’s a bakery near the shop that sells cake made with peanut-butter fudge.”
“That has to be a sin,” Crowley said, as they walked out without paying, as always. But this time, unusually, they were holding hands.
“You do love me, you know,” Aziraphale said, a few weeks later. “I can tell.”
“Don’t shout it around the world,” Crowley hissed, looking in from the bathroom. “Anyway, that’s your opinion.”
“It’s a fact,” Aziraphale spread his wings, arching them as high as they would go as Crowley walked in, pulling a disgusted face.
“Pride, is that?” he snorted, keeping his own wings out of sight.
“Call it self-indulgence.”
Crowley stood eye-to-feather with a wing, giving it a disapproving look. He watched Aziraphale fold them down, and then away out of sight, leaving only soft skin behind.
He leaned in, and kissed the angel on the cheek.
Aziraphale beamed. “Took you long enough.”
“Yes, well, that’s as fast as I’m going, thank you,” Crowley rolled his shoulders back, and a suit draped itself over his body. “One sin at a time.”
“I told you,” the angel said, picking up his glasses and pushing them up his nose, “it’s not a sin, if it’s love.”
Crowley looked at him. “Angel.”