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In the (Second) Beginning

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They linger at the Ritz far longer than even their usual—never any point in rushing a good meal, they’ve always agreed, even when they could rarely agree on anything. But even so. They don’t usually have four courses, champagne, coffee, and dessert again when the coffee's done, and Aziraphale knows it’s a sort of shaky relief that has them both indulging in all the things they had taken for granted in the weeks and months and years past.

Like each other’s company.

Crowley is himself and not, sly and sharp and wicked, but more prone to quiet than Aziraphale is used to. Listening as Aziraphale talks, lips set in a faint curl that seems...fond, more than anything. And as their lunch stretches on Aziraphale slowly comes to realize that Crowley is—enjoying him. Enjoying Aziraphale’s conversation, and company, far more openly than he has in most of Aziraphale’s memory. And Aziraphale knows that he himself is just chattering on, letting conversational tangents carry him along, and—it’s definitely relief, for him, knowing for the first time in a long time that they aren’t being watched, that no one is keeping score for now.

And perhaps Crowley is feeling that same relief, that he can settle a bit, not have to always be clever and cutting and six steps ahead of everyone else, at least for now. He can sit at their table at the Ritz and drink his coffee and eat bits off Aziraphale’s cake and have nowhere else to be, and behind those sunglasses Aziraphale knows that Crowley is watching him with steady golden eyes.

It’s...warming, to be the center of Crowley’s attention, the focus of his regard. Aziraphale will happily sit and talk about anything, for as long as Crowley wants, as long as Crowley sits and smiles at him like that.

But eventually the dining room begins to empty, and Aziraphale realizes with a self-conscious start that it’s dark outside, and he tucks his napkin onto the table. "Oh, good gracious, I have gone on."

"Hmm?" Crowley looks around, and he sees the night outside and sits up a bit straighter, and that—that touches Aziraphale, deeply, to know that Crowley had been so absorbed. "Oh. Yes, I suppose we have."

We, though Crowley’s barely spoken two dozen words over the last few hours. Aziraphale smiles down at the table.

"Well, you must come back to the bookshop," Aziraphale says, as they gather themselves. "I have to show you the new editions that Adam has graced me with."

Crowley arches an eyebrow, laughs. "Oh, you think?"

"Well, I certainly didn’t have them before."

They’ve walked to the bookshop from the Ritz so many times, in pleasant conversation or chasing each other down the sidewalk with retorts so the other couldn’t have the last word, but rarely have they made the walk in companionable silence such as this. But it’s a warm summer evening, and though they’re both well aware that it’s supernatural in its perfection, it doesn’t mean they appreciate it less.

Aziraphale wishes they had known Adam earlier. He’s a remarkable boy, and Aziraphale understands very much the desire to make everything perfect for the people and places you love.

"Perhaps we can invite him for tea sometime," Aziraphale says, looking up at the clear night sky.

Crowley hums agreement. "He’s got a rosy sort of view, but it’s...charming. I suppose. Should enjoy it while it lasts."

Half a block later, Aziraphale realizes he hadn’t spoken the first half of his thought regarding Adam aloud, but Crowley had known anyway.

Crowley pauses outside the bookshop, at the bottom of the steps, as Aziraphale unlocks the door. He seems to be looking it up and down, reassuring himself of the shop’s continued existence, and Aziraphale lets the bell jingle a bit louder as he opens the door. It shakes Crowley from his reverie, and he smiles briefly at Aziraphale as he jogs up the steps to join him.

Crowley meanders through the shop in Aziraphale’s wake, grinning as Aziraphale points out new old books—things that in all honesty Aziraphale would never have bought on his own, and will likely never read even if he has another six thousand years on this planet. He doesn’t say so, because it seems rude, but Crowley keeps flashing him sidelong, amused looks over the tops of his glasses, and again, Crowley knows what Aziraphale for all his chatter is leaving unsaid tonight.

"Well, I have a great deal to thank Adam for," Aziraphale says defensively, drifting his fingers along the spines of several Robert Louis Stevenson first editions he hadn't had yesterday morning. "I certainly won't scold him for uneducated taste in literature."

He turns toward his back room, thinking vague thoughts about putting the kettle on, and he gets about four steps before he realizes that for the first time tonight, Crowley isn't following along behind him.

He turns back, and Crowley is standing at the table still, staring fixedly at a copy of Treasure Island resting on the shelf above the desk.

"A great deal," Crowley echoes, and his voice has gone thin and quiet.

Aziraphale takes a step toward him. "Crowley?"

Crowley seems to just—fall forward, then, bracing himself with two palms flat on the table, his shoulders trembling, and—

Aziraphale again realizes, for the first time tonight, that Crowley, too, has been leaving a great deal unsaid.

His heart feels too warm and too heavy in his too-small chest, all at once, and Aziraphale takes a careful step towards his demon. "Crowley."

"You were gone," Crowley blurts out, all at once, and his voice is uneven, unsteady. "You were gone, I came in and you were gone, and the place was on fire, and I knew that you never would have let it happen if you were all right so something had to have—"

He cuts himself off, swallows the sudden torrent, his head falling between his shoulders, and—Crowley has been quiet because this was ready to explode from him, and he knew he couldn't stop once he started.

Aziraphale hadn’t seen the aftermath of the fire, hadn’t seen any wreckage; it was dawn by the time they returned to London, and when he came home, the shop was fine, standing as though nothing had ever been awry, save for the new first editions of adventure books beloved by a particular, powerful boy. He would never have known there was a fire if Crowley hadn't said. Aziraphale was honestly grateful he hadn't had to see it, that he could pretend it was just an unpleasant thing that had happened and been quickly undone.

He hadn't quite put it all together that—for Crowley to have known what happened, Crowley would had to have...been here.

"You didn't think," Aziraphale begins, because he thought Crowley had more sense—

"I absolutely thought," Crowley spits, reaching up and clawing his sunglasses from his face, and they clatter to the table as he presses at his eyes with one hand. "It was fire, angel, I didn't know if it was an ordinary fire or holy or hellish or—" He chokes himself back again, the words and another sound that Aziraphale has never heard Crowley make, and Aziraphale is glad he closed the shades, glad that Crowley doesn't have to worry about anyone other than Aziraphale seeing this—

As he'd worried, so much, for Aziraphale already.

"Oh, my dear," Aziraphale says, and places a hand on Crowley's shoulder.

Crowley turns to him blindly and collapses to his knees at Aziraphale's feet.

Aziraphale stares down at him in shock.

Crowley is shaking, his hands clutching at Aziraphale's trousers, and he's—he's shaking, Aziraphale can barely understand it, his face pressed to Aziraphale's hip through the fabric of his waistcoat, and Aziraphale can feel the shuddering violent warmth of Crowley's breath.

"You were gone," Crowley chokes. "You were gone, Aziraphale."

Aziraphale carefully, almost hesitantly, settles one hand on Crowley's shoulder, the other on the back of his head. He's never seen Crowley like this, and he doesn't know—he's almost worried he may break him, somehow, if he touches him.

But Crowley sucks in a ragged, desperate breath at the touch of Aziraphale's hands, clutching him even closer, pressing even tighter, and they have touched many times, over the years, but never like this, seeking the other's warmth and the comfort of their presence. Aziraphale needs to reassure himself that Crowley is truly not shattering into pieces, and Crowley—

"I wanted to burn them all," Crowley says, low and desperate and the words blurring together against the tweed fabric. "In the park, when—I was watching it happen to me, but I knew it was you, and I knew we had to let it happen so we could be safe, but I wanted to burn them all, fire or holy water or—and then Sandalphon, that smile, so eager to see you burn, I wanted to hurt them, angel—" For you, for you, he doesn't say, still choked in his throat, but Aziraphale knows.

Crowley had gone swaggering into the end of the world, Aziraphale realizes, because for Crowley the world had already ended.

"Crowley," Aziraphale says, far more gently than he has ever said it, and pushes a hand through Crowley's hair, soft and sleek like scales warmed by sunlight. Crowley shudders, burying his face in Aziraphale's clothing, and he is still holding onto Aziraphale so, so tightly.

The real reason that Crowley could never be a proper demon, Aziraphale has always known, is that Crowley cares too much. Hatred and evil are apathetic, nihilistic, and Crowley cares.

And Aziraphale has not…

Aziraphale has not, he realizes with a hot flare of shame, shown Crowley how much he cares.

Aziraphale has spent eons trying not to care, if he's perfectly honest about it, trying to tell himself that Crowley didn't, couldn't matter as much as Crowley already did—trying to be Good, trying to be what he was supposed to be.

But now they're free. They're free, and even if it doesn't last, right now Aziraphale is his own ang—his own pers—his own Aziraphale.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to go to Alpha Centauri," Aziraphale says, then, the words somehow difficult to get out, and Crowley goes very still against him. "It wasn't that, Crowley."

Crowley's death grip on Aziraphale's trousers loosens, slightly, and Aziraphale holds him a little closer in exchange.

"I didn't know what you were asking," Aziraphale says.

Crowley takes another rough breath. "I was rubbish at saying it."

"I wasn't listening properly." Aziraphale looks down at him, the russet strands between his fingers and all of Crowley's long lanky angles fallen in a heap at Aziraphale's feet. And he loves Crowley, has always loved Crowley with the kind of Love that he as an angel is meant to have for all living things, a Love that means hope and caring and kind goodwill—

But he loves Crowley, as well. And Crowley loves him beyond all possible reason and has been screaming that at Aziraphale for a week, and he'd stood in this burning bookshop and thought Aziraphale was dead.

Aziraphale takes Crowley's face in his hands and goes to his knees as well. Crowley's hands come up, startled, fluttering at Aziraphale's hands and arms before settling on his shoulders, and Aziraphale rests his forehead against Crowley's. Crowley's breath is a sob against his lips, as Crowley presses his face to Aziraphale's, skin to skin, and they lean into each other for balance.

Aziraphale sighs, his fingers gentle in the fine hairs at the nape of Crowley's neck, and he feels Crowley's face wet against his own, as they rest against each other. "I do love you," Aziraphale says, stroking Crowley's hair. "I do, Crowley, I'm sorry."

Crowley's fingers dig into his shoulders, clutching desperate again, and he rocks his face gently against Aziraphale's, almost nuzzling, holding him fiercely. He is wordless again, either wordless or holding back all his words, and Aziraphale lets Crowley feel him warm and breathing and corporeal and here, with him, until Crowley's shaking has stopped.

Crowley laughs weakly. "Hell of a week."

"Indeed," Aziraphale says, and kisses him.

Crowley's hands fly to the sides of Aziraphale's face with something that feels like alarm, and Aziraphale leans back, looking surprised into Crowley's wide, golden eyes, slitted pupils dilated in shock. "No?"

"I—I didn't say that," Crowley splutters, his cheeks flooding with color, "I only—I mean—you don't—"

"I don't?" Aziraphale says, eyebrows climbing up to his hairline.

Crowley nearly swallows his tongue, stares at him, and says, "I—it's just that you'd never—it's been six thousand years and you've never once said anything about—"

Aziraphale feels something rather akin to glee growing in him, seeing his unflappably cool serpent fumbling and awkward, and Crowley babbles his way to an exasperated halt as Aziraphale's smile grows wider and wider. "Oh, shut up," Crowley says finally, and dives forward to kiss him again.

This is how they are, really.

Aziraphale is breathless with delight, because Crowley shivers under his hands, better than any wine Aziraphale's ever tasted, as Aziraphale strips Crowley out of his jacket and runs his hands over Crowley's back, feeling Crowley's wings jerk and flutter in astonishment in another dimension while Crowley arches forward and pants into Aziraphale's mouth in this one. He's surprised, for some reason, for all that he knows Aziraphale's a sensualist, and Aziraphale is both amused and warmed by it.

"I'm revising my mental history of the last six thousand years," Crowley gasps against Aziraphale's cheek, and Aziraphale kisses the corner of Crowley's mouth and laughs. "How did you get this good at this?"

Aziraphale traces his fingers down Crowley's spine and flexes them, lets them slip through ether to trail sparking energy down the roots of Crowley's wings, and they flash into this world, unfurling with a snap as Crowley cries out, shocked and longing and clutching at Aziraphale's shoulders.

"I don't have to be good at this," Aziraphale says, tracing his nose along Crowley's. "Though, between us, I very much am. It's just that I know you." Crowley shudders, holding him tighter, and that—that was what Crowley had thought he'd lost, the person who knew him best—the only person who knew him, really. His best friend. His better angel.

"I know you," Aziraphale says, low and tender, against Crowley's lips. "I know you."

Crowley lets out a soft sound that's nearly a whimper, almost a whine, and pulls Aziraphale into him. "Aziraphale," he says, urgent and needy, folding black wings around them. "Aziraphale."

Aziraphale does not fall. He tips gently backward, and lets Crowley's weight bear them down.

"The point is," Crowley says somewhat sleepily, later. They're on their backs on the slightly askew rug, wings put away for now, and they've ended up with their heads under the table. Aziraphale has vague ideas about moving to the bed eventually, but Crowley had seemed adamant about being here, in the shop, assuring himself of it and Aziraphale's continued wholeness, and that was fine with Aziraphale. He makes an interested noise, patting at Crowley's ribs a bit sleepily himself.

"The point is," Crowley says again, and when Aziraphale twists his head from where it rests on Crowley's shoulder to look at his face, Crowley seems to be blinking owlishly at the underside of the table.

"Dolphins?" Aziraphale suggests, and Crowley flicks his shoulder in annoyance.

"The point is," Crowley says, tilting his head to look at Aziraphale, "that I really didn't want to go to Alpha Centauri, either."

Which is really the only way Crowley ever may be able to say it, but that's fine.

Aziraphale smiles and settles his head back on Crowley's shoulder. "My dear, I knew that."

"Well." Crowley clears his throat. "I just wanted to be sure."

"I love you, too."