It should stop coming as a surprise, Aziraphale thinks, but he still can’t help the way his cheeks flush, the way his heartbeat—crowded as he is inside this mundane frame—trips and doubles over itself.
Crowley’s left cut flowers in the vase by his register again.
Somewhere in the shop, there will be a new book: this Aziraphale knows. The flowers are a decoy, a pretense: the leftover instinct of a trickster serpent who for all his mischief and all his wiles can’t muster anything but good intentions.
Aziraphale will find the book today, or tomorrow, or maybe the next. It will be stuck near the bottom of a towering stack, or filed away neatly on a shelf, piled in as though it’s always been there, but it won’t be on the inventory lists and the cover will be free of dust. Crowley leaves first editions of Tennyson and Whitman, Byron and Keats—the poets he slept through, the century he missed, a silent promise to never do it again—and pretends he doesn’t.
The flowers are irises, tall and stately, with dark crinkled petals and a smell like spring rain. They’re beautiful.
The book, when Aziraphale finds it, will be too.
The cup of tea is already at Aziraphale’s elbow when he thinks to look for it. It’s still hot, steam curling up from it like a finger crooked in invitation.
“Thought you might be wanting that,” comes a voice from the door to the backroom. Crowley is there, all long lines and cocked hip and teasing grin. “Locked up for you too—you were open nearly twenty minutes late, angel. Any manner of hooligan could’ve come waltzing through.”
Aziraphale feels the delight cross his face and does nothing to stop it. The tea is perfect: steeped on the stronger side, lightened with milk.
“Thank you,” he says, and means it.
Crowley’s grin is crooked and fond. “Must be a good book, to have you so enthralled.”
The sofa has, in its way, always been Crowley’s: loaded with down pillows, heaped with soft knit blankets over the back. Crowley sits in it like a threadbare throne, nestles himself down into it. The chill hasn’t quite gone out of the early spring air, and Aziraphale watches, his chest swelling along all his seams, as Crowley arranges himself among the throws and the cushions.
He settles. Something in Aziraphale settles too, and he turns his eyes back to the page.
“Darkling,” he reads out loud, softly, and a lazy sort of smile spreads across Crowley’s face: it’s the Keats. “I listen.”
The poem is not long after that, and in the silence afterwards, Aziraphale listens to the sounds of Crowley breathing, to the rustle of his fingertips and the whisper of his eyelashes. If he listens hard enough, he can hear the drumming ba-bump of Crowley’s heart, needlessly strong, inhumanly slow, but steady all the same.
They are the nightingales, the winged immortals, but Aziraphale looks at Crowley curled beneath knits and flannels, and he does not feel alone.
Dinner stretches on; there’s nowhere else to be. The tables around them fill and empty, fill and empty. Aziraphale hardly notices.
The Ritz may be the most beautiful dining room in London, but it has nothing on the places Crowley finds on nights like these: little places tucked away down side-streets, dark corner booths lit by guttering candles. The noise of the kitchen staff laughing filters through the swinging doors, a family of both blood and bond, piecing their stories onto mismatched plates and asking to be heard.
These places always taste like memories: dolmadakia that taste like warm salty breezes more than a millenia away, pollo al ajillo that smells like the baking afternoon sun of centuries past, apple tarts that feel like a decades-late homecoming.
Crowley watches him over the rim of his wine glass. “Do you remember,” he asks, speaking low, telling secrets across the tablecloths. He picks the best memories and asks, a laugh already in his mouth. “Do you remember that time when—?”
He has spent six thousand years chasing after Crowley, six thousand years running ahead of him. He has spent six thousand years in orbit around Crowley’s strange eyes and dark wings, the gravity of one another stringing taut as they go around and around, ever-closer, rushing up to near-collision and missing by inches, skittering away.
Sometimes he just wants to stand still.
“There’s a bottle of Château Lafite, back at mine,” he offers. “If you’re not in a rush.”
Crowley leans back in his chair, decadent with satisfaction. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
iv. words of affirmation
He’s never imagined all the things that this phrase can do: twist and contort, stretch and strain. It hangs heavily in the open air, calcifying under the exposure as the significance reaches into the space between them like roots through dark, black soil, searching for the one thing it so desperately needs without knowing if it’s there to find.
He’s listened to confessions before, but none like this.
I should really stop being surprised, Aziraphale thinks, but he’s stopped breathing anyway.
They sound like a fire in Crowley’s mouth when he says them. They sound like an inferno, burning him from the inside with bitterness and shame, with the condemnation inherent in the daring of a demon that would put voice to such a thought. He says them like they make him a criminal, full of ferocity and despair at the same time: a guilty plea writ large over an apology for having said it out loud.
He says them as though he is falling all over again, stepping out into the ether and understanding, for that first and everlasting time, that no one will catch him.
It seems like it takes forever for him to finish saying them.
Then Crowley closes his eyes and waits, head tilted up, accepting whatever retribution, whatever vengeance might be coming. As if Aziraphale is going to pull the flaming sword and burn him through with holy fire; as if Aziraphale would carve out the part of him, beating and bloody, that gives voice to these words. His wings are tucked away on some other plane, but they’re still visible in his shadow, cast dark upon the walls; he holds himself perfectly still, but his feathers tremble.
Aziraphale gets to his feet.
“Do you trust me?” he asks.
There’s a long, impenetrable pause. Aziraphale thinks about the silence of a city after a tragedy: the long, hushed nights of Alexandria with the embers still floating in the air; the pestilent fogs of Florence unbroken by the bells ordered silent in their churches; the ominous lapping of floodwaters against the windows of Hankou.
Crowley opens his eyes. He says, “Yes.”
There are certain things Aziraphale can know, if he wants to know them.
There are certain things in the catching of a breath, in the flute and flex of muscle. Certain things that only exist in the raising of goose-flesh, in the baring of teeth, in the palpitation of a heart. Aziraphale can know them, if he wants. He can speak their language: he can translate.
“May I?” he asks, his fingertips hovering above Crowley’s wrist. The skin there is pale and thin, his lilac veins too close to the surface; nothing about him has ever seemed fragile until just now.
Crowley’s breath shudders in the quiet, but he nods.
His skin is warm.
His skin is warm, and Aziraphale drifts his fingers over those veins, catching Crowley’s shivering pulse: these trembling reminders of the thunderous heart buried deep inside, these black-and-blue confirmations that Crowley is, aside from everything else that everyone else might demand that he be, he is alive.
Aziraphale can know the balance of a scale, the weight of a feather, if he wants to, and in this moment, in the dust and the dark of the bookshop, with Crowley’s eyes lingering on the place where Aziraphale’s palm is slowly closing—gently, gently—over his wrist, Crowley’s soul soars.
He wonders what Crowley can feel through this touch. He wonders if Crowley can feel him back.
“I’ve never felt anything like you,” he finally says, looking up to meet Crowley’s eyes. They’re wide, awaiting judgment: something in them is terribly resigned, but when Crowley tries to draw his hand back, Aziraphale doesn’t let him go. Instead he steps in closer and says, at nearly a whisper so as not to startle, “What I mean is, you’re beautiful.”
There is a pause, and then Crowley says, soft with surprise, “Oh.”
Aziraphale kisses him.
There are certain things that can never be spoken. There are certain things that can never be told.
There are certain things that can only be felt, and standing there with Crowley, his palm over Crowley’s wrist and his mouth over Crowley’s mouth, Aziraphale feels them all.
It’s breathtaking, the crescendo of it, the rush and tumble of it, the cacophony of it. It’s blinding and it’s brilliant and it’s every question they have never asked and every answer they have never given and every moment of the last six thousand years that should have been drawn out into this one, all the rage and all the grief and all the terror, yes, but also all the wonder and all the laughter and all the hope, the burnt soles of Crowley’s feet and the easy edge of Crowley’s smile and the endless, ancient love that twines around Crowley’s ribs, holding him together, pulling Aziraphale in, the confession repeated, repeated, repeated: I love you, I love you.
“I love you too,” Aziraphale says, out loud, and Crowley makes a sound in the back of his throat like it hurts. “I didn’t hear you—I don’t know how I didn’t hear you.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Crowley says, rushed, and it does, it really does, but he’s stepping in again, his fingertips on Aziraphale’s face, and now that it’s been said, Crowley can’t seem to stop saying it. I love you, I love you, his fingers say, his eyes say. I love you, his mouth says, but not with words.
Aziraphale kisses Crowley, and Crowley kisses him back, and he feels everything.
There are hands. There are hands, and there are hips, and the curve of Crowley’s thighs and the dip of Crowley’s clavicle, the spread of his wings and the flush of his chest, and Aziraphale feels everything, the press of Crowley’s body and the wrench of Crowley’s voice and the hands, oh, there are the hands, Crowley’s fingers touching and grasping and reaching, the sound of Crowley’s breath and the taste of Crowley’s jaw and the scent of Crowley’s skin and the sight of Crowley’s neck, thrown back, and Aziraphale feels everything, the clumsy exploration and the quiet awe and the heat of Crowley’s forehead against his own, the gasp and the strain and the shift and the rhythm, the please, Aziraphale, please, and Aziraphale feels everything, the need and the want and the now and the forever and then: one moment, crystalline between them, and afterwards, the silence.
He keeps a hold of Crowley, keeps him in his hands, against his chest, and breathes.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, quiet against his cheek. “I’m listening.”