In their cottage in the South Downs, when Crowley eventually succeeds in getting Aziraphale to use a laptop, it takes Aziraphale literal hours to get past the default Windows screensavers of picturesque locations because 'oh, look, isn't it lovely, Crowley!'
‘It’s not lovely,’ Crowley argues, peering over his shoulder at the beautiful rugged Cumbrian countryside. ‘Not in real life. There’s a picnic site about five minutes away, rubbish all over the place. I was up there the other day for a minor temptation.’ Quite a good one it had been, too. Small but effective. There was no way that lad with the longing glance and the crooked glasses would have hidden that Folio edition of Something Wicked This Way Comes under his jacket and smuggled it out of Waterstones if Crowley hadn’t nudged him in that general direction. He hasn’t mentioned it to Aziraphale yet, though. He has the sneaking suspicion that the angel might approve. A chain bookseller rather than an independent one, plus the root of the act had been the accumulation of knowledge – both marks against Crowley’s ostensible purpose.
Then again, neither of them are adhering particularly carefully to their respective purposes these days.
‘Oh, this one has cows in it,’ Aziraphale says, ignoring him. Crowley sits down at the other side of the kitchen table and watches him for a moment, the bloom of happiness pinking his cheeks. Aziraphale isn’t doing anything with the laptop. He’s just staring at it with that particular brand of joyful beneficence that by rights, Crowley should find absolutely repulsive. ‘Look at them! So sweet.’
Crowley has a system in place for dealing with moments like these. He developed it sometime in the fifth century, when it became clear that the thoughts and feelings the angel inspired in him weren’t going to go away, and neither was the cast iron certainty that they were largely unreturned. The angel loves him, of course, but only in the slightly absentminded, mandated way he loves all other living things. Crowley has long since made his peace with this. It just stings a bit sometimes, like taking a sip of tea so hot it burns the roof of your mouth. (Not that Crowley himself has had this experience. He has gathered from the mental exclamations of many, many humans, however, that such a mishap brings forth a similar sense of aching hurt, betrayal and a wistfulness that things might be different.)
The best Crowley can do is just let himself feel it – let the love go through him, unnatural and sticky though it may be, always trying to glue itself to the inside of his veins – and wait for it to come out the other side. Sometimes it even works.
‘We should go here.’ Aziraphale points at the screen and turns it around to face Crowley, who scowls at the alarmingly idyllic image of Whitby beach in summer sunshine. ‘Lovely ice cream.’
‘And oysters,’ Crowley can’t resist pointing out.
‘And chips,’ Aziraphale sighs contentedly. He frowns a little. ‘Is that the one with all the Satan-worshippers, though? I’m not sure about all that.’
‘They’re only Goths,’ Crowley tells him. ‘Not nearly as dangerous. At least, not in the traditional religious sense. Most of them are quite forward-thinking, actually.’
‘Oh.’ Aziraphale continues to look perturbed.
‘They’re only native to Whitby around the end of October.’ Crowley sniffs. ‘Like Turnstones that way. I don’t think we’d have a problem, angel.’
‘No,’ Aziraphale murmurs, giving him a brief, considering smile. ‘I suppose not.’
They go to Whitby in the summer, all the better to replicate the vision dictated by what Aziraphale likes to call ‘The Computer’, capitals firmly intact. It had been due to rain in the early afternoon but Crowley had spotted the dark grey clouds approaching and scowled rather intently at them, and they had quickly moved along, making a lot of rustling and sparking sounds that Crowley interpreted as a rightful apology. It was very freeing, not having to wonder what demonic miracle this way or that would be the one to flag him up Below. It was a very agreeable way to live his life, now that he had admitted to himself that that was, indeed, what he was doing.
‘Oh really, old boy,’ Aziraphale had murmured to him when he’d spotted the rainclouds racing each other over the Eastern horizon. ‘There’s no need to go overboard.’
Crowley didn’t bother telling him that there was. Aziraphale very much liked to be made a fuss of right up until the fuss was directly plonked in front of his face, at which point he began to blushingly protest that someone else must have ordered this, it definitely wasn’t him.
‘Nice afternoon,’ Crowley says eventually, staring out at the crystalline blue ocean. Rather disgustingly beautiful, if you ask him. Apart from – he squints at a flailing human shape in the far distance and decides to let it go, for now. It’ll get sorted out if it goes on long enough. One way or the other. ‘No need to spoil it.’
He’s aware of Aziraphale watching him but he doesn’t look. He lets it warm him, just the way it is.
‘Shall we get doughnuts?’ he asks, mostly for the way Aziraphale visibly perks up at the thought.
‘Oh, yes,’ he agrees. ‘Let me just – hmm.’
He lowers his sunglasses – bought for him by Crowley, who was very proud of himself for the lack of indecent comments he’d made at the sight of Aziraphale putting them on – and squints, clearly trying to hone in on the bobbing figure out at sea, who is making increasingly entertaining windmilling motions with his arms.
‘I’ll do it,’ he says, waving Aziraphale’s hand down. ‘You’re useless when it’s more than a hundred yards away.’
‘I am not.’ Aziraphale sniffs, although he’s already let his arms fall back to his sides. ‘I simply do my best work up close, that’s all.’
‘You never think about the bigger picture, that’s your problem.’ Crowley rights the human, course correcting his mental map and sending him zooming back to shore with a sudden burst of energy akin to downing four cans of Monster in thirty seconds. Just a little touch of consequence, to keep things even. ‘You could just think your eyesight better, but you’re too busy worrying about the details.’
‘It’s very fiddly up there, you know.’ Aziraphale protests. ‘All those nerves and neural pathways. One false move and poof! You’ve voided the whole body and have to send it in for repairs. I just don’t want to get it wrong.’
‘You wouldn’t.’ Crowley struggles for a second, then gives in – at last, as always. ‘Here, let me.’
‘Oh, are you –’ Aziraphale flushes, startled and pleased, as Crowley leans in – closer than he really needs to, but he’s only demon, after all – and places both hands gently on the sides of Aziraphale’s face. ‘Oh, thank you.’
‘No problem,’ Crowley murmurs as he sends tendrils of himself into the recesses of the angel’s optic nerve. It’s an unfair use of his power to enjoy it so much but it’s such a delicious thrill, to be so close to him – to be inside, closer even than skin touching skin. The tiniest particles of Crowley can’t help but rebel with joy, sparking along, fizzing up against everything they touch as they repair the slow attrition of time. It’s beautiful in here, they tell him, loud and awed; I know, he sends back, at a lower volume but just as reverent. I know.
When he draws back he knows his cheeks are flushing, because Aziraphale would have to be the dullest wooden board of unreceptive matter not to feel something like that when it was zipping through his own body, and he isn’t. But Aziraphale doesn’t say anything. He makes this small sound as the final burst of Crowley’s atoms leave him, one that in his compromised state Crowley wants badly to keep – to grab out of the air as a bundle of sound waves and lock in a box in the back of his brain. But he restrains himself. He doesn’t do anything untoward.
For a demon, he’s really very good at that.
‘Thank you,’ Aziraphale says again. It’s soft. Crowley can’t look.
‘Think nothing of it,’ he says briskly, already heading back towards town. ‘Doughnuts?’
‘I really do think we should get them something,’ Aziraphale tells him. He’s fussing over a stack of bridal magazines at the kitchen table – actual paper magazines, which Crowley was rather shocked to discover still exist. ‘It’s not so much the etiquette as – oh, you know. That old impulse. Always had trouble shaking it, after.’
‘No flaming swords hanging around this time, though.’ Crowley murmurs. ‘Youll have to settle for a stand mixer or something.’
He’s lying on the sofa flipping through the myriad music channels boasted by their new Sky box. It doesn’t work exactly like it’s supposed to, in that the number of channels actually is infinite in accordance with what Crowley expected when he signed up, but he isn’t to know that. ‘I don’t even remember making most of these. Your work, was it?’
He gestures at VH1, which is currently playing ‘Angel of the Morning’.
‘Oh, no,’ Aziraphale says, frowning at the video. ‘I always thought that one was you. The hair, and so on.’
‘I think it might have been them.’ Crowley gestures vaguely to humanity, which was presumably getting on with its business somewhere in the distance, comfortably far away from their small abode. It wasn’t that Crowley hadn’t liked London while he was living there, but it’s occurred to him since their relocation that he’d been warping the city around his own needs and desires for so long that he no longer knew it particularly well outside his carefully carved corner. He’d been rather startled to discover that he actually did want peace and quiet. He was getting old.
‘It is lovely to see them coming up with things for themselves, isn’t it?’ Aziraphale beams like a proud primary school teacher, turning back to the magazines.
‘They’ve been doing that for millennia, angel.’
‘Oh, I know, but.’ Aziraphale sighs contentedly, taking a sip of his cocoa. ‘It means something a little different now, don’t you think?’
Crowley sits up and turns to look at him over the back of the sofa. It’s nice to see him without the intervention of dark glasses, startling as it often still is; Crowley only puts them on to leave the cottage, these days, but he forgets he isn’t wearing them all the time. Aziraphale forgets, too, Crowley can see it – he doubletakes, some emotion Crowley can’t quite identify passing over his face, before he remembers to smile.
‘Lots of things mean something different now,’ he replies noncommittally. He nods at the magazines as he unfolds himself from his cramped posture and stretches, fingertips almost skimming the ceiling. His spine cracks pleasingly. That was something they didn’t have in either Above or Below, and had never bothered trying to replicate: the pure satisfying physicality of embodiment. Couldn’t beat it, not with an eternity of ambrosia fed to you by shirtless androgynes. ‘I don’t think marriage is particularly one of those things, to be honest.’
‘I suppose not,’ Aziraphale agrees reluctantly. ‘But – look!’ He holds up a glossy picture of two women with short haircuts wearing suits with their arms around each other. They’re both beaming, so happy it practically vibrates off the page. Crowley represses a shiver and, deeper down, a wave of longing. ‘Don’t tell me that doesn’t make your heart a little glad.’
‘It does nothing whatsoever to my heart,’ Crowley lies. ‘Anyway, aren’t you supposed to be looking for presents? Anathema and Newt aren’t a lesbian couple, as far as I’m aware, and they don’t need any help planning the wedding.’
‘The dear girl asked for my help with the flower arrangements,’ Aziraphale corrects him primly, shuffling a stack of magazine cuttings into a neat pile. ‘You remember.’
Crowley remembers. The brilliance of Aziraphale’s joy at merely being asked had been almost too much to bear; Anathema herself had been squinting a bit because of what it did to his aura. Crowley had had to go and make a nuisance of himself over near the birdbath. Adam had been audibly playing in the distance with his friends, but Crowley had frankly had quite enough of them all the last time he’d been in Tadfield, and wasn’t enthused about more.
He pauses, thinking. ‘What about those pretty ones from – oh, hell. Where was it? They went on the water. You know, with the –’
‘Oh, the Egyptian lilies.’ Aziraphale puts a fingertip to his lips. ‘From Cleopatra’s – but you don’t think they’d be too funereal?’
Crowley stares at him. ‘This is Anathema we’re talking about,’ he reminds the angel. ‘I’m not sure there’s such a thing as too funereal. Besides, they’d look pretty, bobbing along.’
Aziraphale smiles at him, pleased; a wave of that goes through Crowley, too. He abruptly turns to put the kettle on before he remembers he’s a demon and doesn’t actually have to flick the switch.
‘Actually,’ he says, pausing mid-impulse. ‘Fancy some lunch?’
‘Ooh.’ Aziraphale smiles even more, which was not Crowley’s intention but which certainly keeps things interesting. ‘Where do you fancy?’
There’s something comforting about the smell of old bookshops. Even now that they’ve moved away from London, Aziraphale’s shop shut up for an unspecified amount of time with a mysteriously off-putting vibe strung around it just in case, Crowley finds himself seeking out its likeness in the nearby village, prowling through stacked bookcases looking for something he never manages to find.
‘Now,’ Crowley hears Aziraphale’s voice drifting out from behind the Classics section. ‘If it’s atmospheric aesthetics you’re in the mood for, then Wilde is absolutely your man, but might I also suggest a spot of –’
‘Poe, is it?’ Crowley finishes, sidling out from between two shelves and provoking a very satisfying startled jump from the angel, who appears to be mid-lecture. His teenage victim rings a bell that Crowley can’t identify until he spots the glasses, and then all becomes clear. The little so-and-so must be moving his base of operations from Waterstones to wilder pastures, an escalation Aziraphale surely wouldn’t tolerate. Unless the kid was stealing something really interesting.
‘My dear,’ Aziraphale addresses Crowley, in a tone of voice which implies he is one wrong answer away from putting his hands on his hips. ‘Whatever are you doing here?’
‘I like it,’ Crowley says unrepentantly. ‘Old books and – things.’
‘And things.’ Aziraphale rolls his eyes. ‘Well, I was just explaining to old Charlie here –’
‘It’s Craig,’ interrupts the child, eyes darting from angel to demon with increasing trepidation. ‘I told you already. Dunno where you got Charlie from.’
‘Ah, yes, ‘Craig’,’ Aziraphale nods, with an outlandish wink in Crowley’s direction. Crowley feels a smile fighting its way to the top layer of skin cells on his face and ruthlessly suppresses it. If the angel had been born a human, he would have found his way to pantomime theatre as unerringly as baby turtles find their way to water. ‘I was just explaining to Craig that –’
‘That we don’t steal, is that it?’ Crowley interrupts. Charlie/Craig’s eyes widen. ‘That we save up our pocket money and buy the books, yeah?’
‘Er,’ says Charlie/Craig. ‘Yeah. That’s right.’
‘Right.’ Crowley picks up the nearest copy of Aesop’s Illustrated Fables. ‘£29.99 for this old dross? Angel, really.’
‘I don’t set the prices, you know,’ Aziraphale snaps, then pulls a face. ‘Although that is a bit ridiculous. That one doesn’t even have any good illustrations.’
‘You miss it, don’t you?’ Crowley asks him later, when they’ve sent Charlie/Craig off with a slapped wrist, a leatherbound edition of Frankenstein and a promise to obtain a library card. ‘Putting the fear of God into people about collectibles? Tiptoeing up behind people while they’re reading the dirty bits and making them jump?’
‘Oh, a bit,’ Aziraphale says. He smiles a little guiltily. ‘But you know as well as I do that most of the time, I wasn’t actually selling anything.’ He heaves a sigh. ‘It was more about the storage space.’
Crowley hums, and they walk the rest of the way home in comfortable silence.
A week later, Aziraphale comes back from town with the shopping at exactly the wrong moment, walks through the open doorway of the study chattering about the price of milk these days, and gasps.
‘Crowley –’ he starts, and then, of all things, starts tearing up.
‘Oh, no,’ Crowley says hastily. He’s holding up a stack of rare first editions with one metaphysical hand and an antique magnifying glass with another, and he isn’t sure which to put down first before going over to comfort the angel. Not that he’s sure how to do that, either, after so many centuries of being incredibly careful of how and when to touch. ‘It’s alright, it’s not – it’s not a big deal, really – don’t –’
‘Not a big deal?’ Aziraphale sniffs. His bags have gone somewhere – with any luck, he won’t have sent them back where they came from, or that cow is going to have a very uncomfortable afternoon. ‘Why must you always employ horrible American phrases at the most inopportune of moments, Crowley?’
He’s scanning the room as he says it, noticeably phoning in his irritation as his eyes get bigger and more overcome. Crowley supposes he can understand that: he’s got to divert all those excess emotions somewhere as his eyes skate over the supernaturally enlarged room, the new cabinets with their pristine and not-so-pristine selection of collector’s editions. The way Crowley has bent the sunlight streaming in through the windows so that it illuminates the room but won’t cause any of the books any harm.
‘You just said,’ Crowley says awkwardly, after some time has passed, ‘that you missed it a bit.’
Aziraphale turns to look at him. Crowley sets down the books and the magnifying glass. He knows it isn’t enough – no angel or demon or even human in their right mind would accept an answer like that. Crowley wouldn’t.
‘I know it’s not the same,’ he tries to explain. ‘No London bustle, or – you know. Customers. But I thought, well. Anyway.’ He scratches the back of his head. ‘If you don’t like it, we can always change it back.’
‘Don’t you dare,’ Aziraphale cuts in, savagely. He steps over several piles of Shakespeare folios, his eyes drawn to them as a moth to a flame. He visibly shakes off his fascination and comes to stand next to Crowley so that they can survey the room together. He touches Crowley’s elbow, and Crowley feels it through every inch of his stupid, longing physical form. Aziraphale’s hand is trembling, his voice still threatening to break when he says again: ‘My dear boy, don’t you dare.’
They still go back to the Ritz every now and then, of course. They trade off on the miracle to get them there every time, although Crowley has the sneaking suspicion that he’s been taking rather more than his fair share of the journeys, given the number of times Aziraphale complains about the effort giving him indigestion.
‘Do you ever wonder what it would have been like?’ Aziraphale asks, apropos of nothing, one evening after Crowley’s just polished off his third glass of wine.
‘What what would have been like?’ Crowley asks without looking at him. He knows, of course, but there’s something satisfying about making Aziraphale say it after they had to fight so hard to keep it all intact. Mentioning the possibility shouldn’t be easy, not for anyone. Not when they almost lost so much.
Aziraphale shifts in his seat. ‘The end of the world, of course. Oh, you already knew that. You just like to make me say it.’
‘No comment,’ Crowley says serenely, pouring out another glass. ‘Anyway, no. I don’t. Think about it, I mean.’
This is a lie. Crowley thinks extensively and creatively about the end of the world, but not for any reasons he is keen to discuss with the angel. The kind of nightmares he has about it are staying firmly between him and the four walls of his skull.
‘I think you do.’ Aziraphale gives him a look. ‘There’s no shame in it. Although –’ his nose wrinkles. ‘Don’t you find that the memory of it gets a little muddier each day, somehow? A little more hazy?’
‘Memory of what?’ Crowley jokes, then sighs when Aziraphale shoots him another look. ‘Fine, fine. I have noticed it, but I wouldn’t worry much about it, angel. It’s only the engine of this reality driving us farther away from the potential of that one. It’s a good thing. It means it’s definitely not going to come back to bite us on the arse.’
Aziraphale fiddles with his serviette, avoiding Crowley’s eye. ‘I don’t want to forget it,’ he says. There’s something in the tone of his voice which makes Crowley want to sober up, so that he can access the levels of this conversation currently unavailable to him. ‘Important things were – were said. And done. I don’t want to forget.’
‘I haven’t forgotten.’ Aziraphale’s face when he said I don’t even like you! Miserable but determined. It would take more than the inexorable propulsion of the universe to wipe that from Crowley’s memory. ‘You can always rely on that, angel.’
Aziraphale looks at him quickly and then flushes, the corners of his mouth turned down. He’s very beautiful when he’s sad, of course – Crowley has had more than enough opportunity to notice that over the centuries. But he much prefers it when Aziraphale is happy. The way it shines under his skin, Crowley is never quite sure how everyone in his immediate vicinity doesn’t catch on to exactly what he is. It’s as if somebody bottled starlight and poured it into a mortal vessel.
‘I don’t know if we’re thinking of the same things,’ Aziraphale says. Crowley has the odd sensation that he’s choosing his words incredibly carefully, until he gives up with the next line. ‘I – oh, never mind. Would you like to split a dessert?’
‘With you, angel? Always.’
Crowley lets him order the crème brulee. Aziraphale eats all but one bite, for appearance’s sake, but that’s alright. Crowley’s never had much of a sweet tooth.
It’s a beautiful ceremony, Crowley can set aside his sense of professional cynicism for long enough to admit that.
Anathema is wearing a dark green garment that neither Crowley nor Aziraphale understand, something with lots of hooks and straps which nonetheless looks charming; there are spring flowers woven into the rich dark cloud of her hair and she is wearing her glasses. Newt spends the entire ceremony watching her as if he’s been recently hit over the head.
‘Poor kid can’t believe his luck,’ Crowley comments to Aziraphale. ‘Mind you, I don’t blame him. He’s punching above his weight there.’
‘Oh, hush,’ Aziraphale says without heat. He’s eating one of the mysterious vol-au-vents that have been circulating on trays. The trays are undoubtedly attached to waiters, but no one can seem to remember their faces as soon as they’re out of sight, and Anathema doesn’t actually remember ordering any such catering service. The salmon and cream cheese puffs are delicious, though, so she holds her tongue. ‘It’s not all about looks, you know.’
‘I know,’ Crowley intones with a wicked grin. ‘That’s my point.’
Aziraphale rolls his eyes and elbows Crowley in the ribs, hastily swallowing the rest of his vol-au-vent when the music for the first dance softly begins to play.
‘Oh,’ he says softly, watching the dancing couple. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’
He has a couple of flakes of pastry caught at the edges of his lips. Crowley heaves a great sigh and turns back to Anathema and Newt, their arms wound around each other.
‘Yep,’ Crowley replies. ‘Wonderful.’
They stand there watching the young ones dance for a long time.
‘I suppose you don’t,’ Aziraphale says. He swallows and licks the crumbs of pastry from his lips then tries again, although it takes a couple of false starts. His voice is fragile and wobbly. ‘I suppose you’ve never – there’s never been anyone, for you?’
Crowley turns to look at him head on, certain he can’t be hearing correctly. It’s one thing for Aziraphale to let Crowley wander along behind him in helpless adoration out of a sense of misplaced angelic pity; it’s quite another for him to start rubbing it in Crowley’s face.
‘Of course there has,’ he says eventually. ‘You know there has. Don’t start acting stupid now, angel.’
Aziraphale opens his mouth and closes it again.
‘I’m not acting stupid,’ he says, sounding a bit wounded. ‘I mean it. I was – asking.’
And he really is, Crowley realises, with all the wonder of the first days of the world. The way his voice is shaking, his cheeks pink – his fingers tangling and untangling in the chain of his pocket watch. He really is asking.
‘I’ve been waiting,’ is all Crowley can think of to say. His voice comes out in a croak. ‘I thought you knew.’
‘I’ve been waiting,’ Aziraphale says, turning to him at last, almost petulant. Petulant with how much he wants, oh – Lord and Satan and all the rest of them. Crowley forgets how to make his body breathe. ‘I’ve been waiting since the end of the world, Crowley. And you never did anything.’
‘I can’t be expected to do everything,’ Crowley protests, no longer entirely sure why they’re arguing. ‘Wait, so you’re saying you – you do?’
Aziraphale’s bottom lip trembles and Crowley has to swallow the urge, even at such a pivotal moment, to take it back – to make things easier on the angel, the way he has always longed to do. ‘I do,’ he says after a moment. ‘I do, Crowley. I have for – oh, quite a long time, I think.’
‘Angel,’ Crowley says helplessly, and Aziraphale says, ‘darling,’ in that beloved, beautiful way of his – the one that always knows, even when Crowley doesn’t, how to make things better.
‘Do you think we should –’ Aziraphale asks, his hands fluttering about from Crowley’s cuffs to his collar, unsure about where to land.
‘If we don’t, I think I’m going to explode,’ Crowley says, quite honestly. It makes Aziraphale laugh, which isn’t what he was going for but he’s thankful for it, nonetheless. There is nothing in the world quite like making Aziraphale laugh.
‘Alright then,’ Aziraphale says. He sounds slightly out of breath. ‘After you.’
Crowley stares at him and swallows.
‘Alright,’ he says hoarsely.
It’s nothing like he thought it would be, in the end – this funny human thing, kissing. He’s always been confused by the impulse even as it infected him, a presumed side-effect of inhabiting a mortal body for so long. The desire to shove yourself so close to someone else’s body that your mouths meld, your skin sticks together, you exchange saliva – it always seemed like such a bewildering urge. So messy, so literal.
But it doesn’t matter what body it is, he realises now as Aziraphale’s lips touch his own. It only matters that Aziraphale’s soul is in it.
‘Oh my,’ Aziraphale murmurs when he pulls back, blinking hard. ‘Is that – do you think that’s – is that it, do you think?’
‘I think so,’ says Crowley, who couldn’t explain what Aziraphale means for love nor money nor any other wildly ridiculous human thing, but still knows exactly what he’s talking about.
‘So then should we – do it again?’ Aziraphale asks. He’s still holding tightly to Crowley’s sleeves, although he doesn’t seem to realise he’s doing it. He looks as if he wants to do it again quite desperately, and Crowley wonders how he didn’t realise what that look meant every time he’s seen it on Aziraphale’s face for the last year, and the years before that. He wants to know when this look invented itself, he wants to know when Aziraphale first felt it, he wants to know everything.
‘Oh, yes,’ he says, smiling because Aziraphale is smiling, because he can’t stop himself. ‘Yes, angel. We should.’
And then they do.