Antique shops made Crowley sneeze, and had done since the first time he’d curiously poked his nose into one. It wasn’t just that everything inside them was old, and dusty, and stale—irritating to the corporeal nose. The real problem was that when enough aged, opinionated human property got jumbled together, it started to clash and vibrate defensively. Each piece had been someone’s treasure once, and each piece resented its reduction in status.
Some of the more stubborn pieces could become quite insufferable as they ranted about going home. They hadn’t done anything to deserve being tossed in with the rubbish, had they? Still perfectly serviceable, if only given a chance, a little polish, a bit of mending, perhaps. Still valuable. Still worthy of more than this, surely.
Crowley, who had tried that argument a time or two, knew the feeling. It made him sneeze.
On the other hand, neglected piles of tchotchkes were ripe ground for temptations. Plant a valuable painting here, a bit of gold there—the end results were certain to satisfy Crowley, even if they didn’t impress his bosses in Hell.
Not that Hell was paying much attention anymore.
In the absence of oversight, Crowley had experimented with ignoring his work more than usual. That turned out to be boring. More urgently, it left him with less to discuss over wine with the angel. After a few weeks, he’d taken the work back up at the lowest possible level. He tempted just enough to entertain himself and annoy Aziraphale without rippling Hell’s feelers.
So: antique shops. He’d found one with a nice number of shadowy corners, perfect for his needs. He’d just snuck a piece of artwork stolen from an American museum into one of its many cluttered backrooms. Now it was time to wait, see where it landed. Half the fun would be in debating the results with Aziraphale. Crowley was very hopeful that the painting would move quietly into the collection of a rich hoarder. The angel would be deliciously irate.
The wrinkle in Crowley’s plan was a book.
Most antique shops did very little business in books. A few aesthetically-pleasing but common classics over here, a few tattered pulp novels about the American West over there—nothing a bookseller would find particularly interesting. Or, nothing a particular bookseller would find interesting.
This particular book, however, felt interesting.
On its surface, it was just a Bible. King James, a few centuries old, leather and gilt. Even an angel who owned a bookshop would have passed it by without a second glance.
What had attracted Crowley’s attention was an air about it. An aura of mischief. This Bible had been in one person’s hands for a very long time, and that person—an impish young girl who’d become an impish old woman—had cheerfully questioned every word.
The Bible’s years of exposure to good-natured irreverence meant that thumbing through it hardly hurt Crowley at all. He read quite a bit as he stood hip cocked in the aisle, scoffing at everything generations of liars and translators had gotten wrong.
“Can you believe what they’ve said about Sodom and Gomorrah?” he asked one of the dozens of elderly women and tourists who’d been trying to politely ease around him. He stood still as a stone, knee cocked out, arms akimbo. Unless someone knew him well, they’d have thought him oblivious to the traffic jam he was causing, blocking the whole aisle with his long limbs.
But the corner of his mouth twitched.
Someone who knew him well would have spotted that. They’d have sighed, and said, “Oh Crowley, you fiend,” then opened a miraculous path around him. But that one was busy tending his own books. Crowley was alone—bored—ready to enjoy even the most minor irritations immensely. He waved the Bible in the air, causing more than one old woman to duck or risk losing her hat. Then he flipped to a new page and started reading again. His lips formed the words, lingering on the sibilants in a way that made everyone in hearing distance uncomfortable.
He licked his fingers and turned the page with a shake of his head. “Oh, this is good. I can’t believe I didn’t take credit for this.”
The elderly women and tourists glanced at each other, then silently and mutually agreed that other stores—stores without stylish men in dark glasses shouting about Sodom and Gomorrah—were more the thing for a quiet Wednesday afternoon.
Crowley noticed his audience trickling away and let them go, focused on the mischievous Bible. It took a certain amount of attention to read it without destroying it. The binding was falling apart. The front cover had a broken corner. The gold leaf flaked. A few pages had been taped when they tore, but the tape had lost its adhesive qualities. It wasn’t an attractive or important book. It wasn’t even thoughtful enough—or amusingly thoughtless enough—to be a good gift.
Crowley bought it anyway.
“Look at this wretched thing,” Crowley said, dropping a package on Aziraphale’s desk. It thumped heavily and sent up a cloud of dust.
Aziraphale set down the book he’d been cradling in his hands and sat back in his chair. He cocked his head at the demon who had suddenly slithered in through the locked door of the bookshop, hours early for the dinner reservation Aziraphale had worked so hard to procure. Since the Armageddon, he had been experimenting with living more like the humans did. It made life vastly more difficult in some ways—tables at good restaurants were booked much further in advance than he’d remembered—but there were advantages. Teasing Crowley felt less dangerous, for one.
Well, differently dangerous, Aziraphale thought, as he looked up at Crowley through his lashes.
“Not me, angel,” Crowley snapped. The corner of his mouth twitched.
Aziraphale took a moment to enjoy the results of his little joke before glancing down. “Brown paper,” he noted. “Tape. A business card—an antique market? Crowley, whatever were you doing at an antique market—they make you sneeze.”
Crowley stared at Aziraphale over the top of his glasses. “Don’t look at the wrapping,” he said. “Look at the contents.” He moved over as Aziraphale came to stand beside him, muttering, “You're a shallow creature, that's what you are.”
Aziraphale shot him a sidelong smile. He dug through the clutter on his desk—itself an antique dealer’s dream, where lovely and useful items mixed with menus from restaurants that offered delivery at all hours—until he’d found a letter opener. He cut through the tape, peeled the paper back, and revealed a Bible.
Well. Crowley had brought a number of items into the shop over the years, but mostly ingestible ones, of varying potency and legality. Rarely books. Very rarely books. Aziraphale picked up the Bible. He noted the damage and assessed the commercial value with gentle hands and professional interest. Meanwhile, he explored its more metaphysical qualities with enthusiasm.
“What a prize,” he told Crowley, even as he winced at the last owner’s gratuitous use of cellophane tape, delicately prying a piece away. “Of course there is an abundance of atheists’ and agnostics’ Bibles, but rarely are they so much fun. This is a charming present. I’ll enjoy restoring it.”
Crowley recoiled. “It’s not a present! It’s work. It’s a useless wassste of time for when you should be doing something more practical, like selling books.”
“Ah, I see,” Aziraphale said, lips curving. “Well then. No time like the present to not sell a book, I suppose.” He smiled over his shoulder as he brought the old Bible to his workspace. “Would you care to watch?”
Crowley made a face but followed Aziraphale deeper into the back room of the bookshop. He slouched into an armchair and tossed one long leg over an arm of it, spotlighting the boneless length of his sleek, strong body.
Of course, the furniture had been arranged long ago—well before the end of the world. It hadn’t been set up to intentionally give anyone a very pleasing view of somebody else. It hadn’t been nudged, over the years, to suit someone’s vanity. After all, Aziraphale and Crowley had done very little intending in the history of their mutual existences. They were the angel of accidents and the demon of coincidences. All the rest was purely happenstance.
“Needs more gilt, does it?” Crowley asked as Aziraphale made a fussy show of gathering his supplies. He folded his hands behind his head, his eyebrows rising. “Not enough gold in the world to suit your tastes, hmm? All that wanton greed just building up and up in the old angelic stock—don’t forget that I’ve seen the cathedrals. Well,” he corrected himself. “The one cathedral. Made quite an impression, as you know.”
Aziraphale stared at him over the gold rims of his reading glasses. “I should have let it impress the top of your head,” he said lightly. He’d relaxed a bit, knowing the eyes of Heaven were turned away from him. Or perhaps Adam’s new iteration of his old body had lower cortisol levels. Maybe his brave jaunt as Crowley had left a residual spark of sarcasm. Whatever had induced the change, Aziraphale was determined to enjoy it.
He took down a few more sheets of gold leaf—entirely necessary, of course—and set to work, pleased by his own sassiness, and the sound of the demon chuckling.
The sun rolled past the shop’s windows and hid behind the building. The dust motes settled. Aziraphale had gotten lost in his project, his face quiet and contemplative, although for once he didn’t expound upon whatever he was contemplating. His gold ring glowed in the gentle light. His fingers—pale, manicured, surprisingly elegant—made neat work of the book’s pages. Crowley watched him separate them with infinite patience, smoothing them down and mostly performing physical repairs, although one or two seemed to require more miraculous help.
The whole process made Crowley sleepy. It began to feel like Aziraphale was smoothing down his eyelids, urging him to close them each time he turned a page.
But memory tugged at his pleasant lassitude. The book repair reminded him of something he couldn’t quite place, and that mild irritation kept him from falling asleep. He took off his glasses to squint at the angel, wondering.
Where had he seen such careful patience before? An artist, perhaps—no, the most graceful artist’s hands had nothing on those of an angel. A mother brushing out her child’s knotted hair—no, no mortal ever seemed prepared to spend an eternity on a single task. One of the human machines, then—perhaps a loom—no, machines lacked the tenderness.
Grace, time, and tenderness. Crowley sat up as straight as he ever had, making a startled noise that broke the spell of the angel’s silence.
”Are you grooming that book?” he asked Aziraphale, baffled.
The angel glanced at him, then down at his hands. Crowley followed his gaze. The pages Aziraphale had already been through gleamed in the softening afternoon light. Their edges lay flat and perfect. In contrast, the pages still to go were a mess: tattered and gray.
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, surprised. “I never noticed. Yes, I suppose?”
Crowley surged up out of the armchair and paced closer, then away. Newly excited dust motes swirled around him. An observant physicist could have won a Nobel for describing the way particles flowed in the wake of a bothered demon, but Aziraphale hadn’t let a physicist into the shop since the time of the atom bomb.
Crowley whirled around and pointed an accusing finger. “Isn’t that—doesn’t that strike you as sacrilegious?”
Aziraphale blinked. “That’s quite conservative of you, Crowley. It strikes me as a pleasant replacement for one of the best parts of being an angel.” He chuckled: too hearty, a bit loud. “Not a lot of volunteers around to sit in this book’s place, you know.”
I’m right here, Crowley thought wildly, then banished the thought with the brutal efficiency of old habit.
He whirled, taking in the angel’s full collection of novels, and histories, and memoirs, and dictionaries, and—and Bibles. Two floors of books. They circled the walls, filled bookcases, were illuminated in glass cases. “Did you groom all of these books?”
Aziraphale’s gaze followed Crowley’s. “I...can’t say, really. I never thought of it that way, but now that you mention it—I did the same for most of them, I imagine. May I ask what your point is, my dear?”
Why waste time on these pale substitutes! his point howled, and Crowley shoved it down.
He prowled the edge of the bookshop. Now that he was thinking about it—perceiving it—the books did have the air of angel wings: none of them perfectly maintained, but all of them perfectly lovely. Crowley suddenly wanted to shake a few off their shelves, just to show them their place, but he knew Aziraphale would look at him with baffled disappointment.
And still won’t groom you!
Crowley wrestled that thought into the silence at the back of his mind, put a lock on it, put locks on the lock, and said, “My point is that I saw your wings during the Armageddon, angel, and they looked a little worse for the wear. Color good, but a bit ragged. Unkempt. Even for an angel.”
Aziraphale tsked. “We have different priorities, Crowley.”
True enough. Crowley remembered that angels tended to groom to express divine love for the work of God, not for the look of the end result. Demons—perfectionists to a fault, since the devil was in the details—groomed quickly and roughly, and left each other’s wings as sleek and gleaming as glass.
“Exactly,” Crowley said, the point rattling its cage. “If grooming the wings of these books is your priority—well, whose priority is grooming yours?” He threw his hands out to the sides as he slunk around the angel. “Book’s not going to do it. Antique Bible is not going to do that for you.”
Aziraphale blinked at him, then looked down, lashes obscuring his eyes. “I told you, Crowley. It’s not as if there are a lot of other angels here to help. Gabriel was the last to—”
“Gabriel.” Crowley staggered back a step. He had experienced many, many ridiculous urges in his long lifetime. The one currently in his chest seemed like the stupidest one yet. It pressed against his ribcage, the kraken rising from the deep. It freed the point and dragged it up with it in long claws that wrapped around his ribs. It moved toward his mouth with ravenous determination.
He had finally seen how Gabriel treated Aziraphale. To think of Aziraphale handing his wings over to that bastard was too much. All wrong. He had a thing or two to say about that—
“I have to go,” he said abruptly. The kraken was a painful lump in his throat. “I forgot I had—I had a thing. Something.”
“We have dinner plans, Crowley,” Aziraphale objected, head tilted in confusion. “You know I didn’t even miracle these reservations.”
“Gotta thing,” Crowley insisted. He was still holding the kraken behind his teeth, but it was such a near thing. It hurt, it physically hurt his dumb, frail, human body, which might die of being prodded by the point. “Ugh. Yeah. Later. Probably. Probably later.”
If I live through this, he thought furiously, and he stumbled out the door to the Bentley.
The wheel felt hot in his hands. The car roared through the London streets back to his building. No one died, but not for lack of wild, malevolent energy.
“Gabriel! Grooms my—the angel’s wings!” he said to the Bentley. The car shuddered sympathetically around him.
Gabriel was many things an angel was supposed to be—morally uptight—upright—intelligent, fastidious. He was also mean. He probably groomed more like a demon than an angel. And yet he had taken responsibility for grooming Aziraphale’s wings.
And Aziraphale—an angel who spent too much time with only his books and a demon for company—Aziraphale had let him.
Had to let him, because of course an angel turned to another angel to meet his needs. Of course he’d never ask a demon. That would be ludicrous. He’d never asked before, had he? No, Crowley had always taken it upon himself to know what Aziraphale needed, and when, and deliver it with a smirk on his face and satisfaction in what passed for his heart. The idea of Aziraphale asking him was preposterous. Sacreligious.
“I consider it a challenge before the whole human race,” the radio shrieked—Adam had restored the car without the Queen-transformation tic, but Crowley missed Freddie and had pirated a few CDs—“and I ain’t gonna lose.”
Crowley growled through gritted teeth, and snapped the radio off. Freddie had always known just what to sing, but this was different. This was a challenge he could never accept. A challenge he’d already lost when he Fell.
“How odd,” Aziraphale said as Crowley disappeared. The Bentley careened past the window, and he winced. “Everyone will make it home just fine tonight,” he reassured himself.
This incidentally made the statement true, as headlines the next day proved. A million social media accounts took up the mystery of The Peaceful Night, but Aziraphale, busy grooming Crowley’s gift with slow, thoughtful motions, didn’t notice.
After a contemplative week holed up in his bookshop with a handwritten Closed sign taped to the door, Aziraphale stepped out into the busy Soho streets. He made one stop: a florist. Then he caught the bus just as it pulled up and arrived at Crowley’s building twenty minutes later calm, collected, and carrying a peace lily.
He took the elevator up. The doors took slightly too long to open as he reached Crowley’s floor—this, Crowley had admitted proudly, was one of his refinements. He liked when people got frustrated and mashed buttons. Aziraphale resisted the temptation out of old habit, and stepped off into the hushed hallway outside the demon’s flat.
The young man overseeing the lobby had already let Mr. Crowley know that Mr. Fell was coming up, of course—he had waved Aziraphale on with a smile and an offer to find someone to help with the lily—so it was no surprise to either of them when Crowley threw open the door as soon as Aziraphale knocked.
The demon wore red silk pyjama bottoms and a faded T-shirt advertising one of his bebop bands. His hair was tousled. He squinted at Aziraphale, glasses in his hand, as if he’d snatched them up on his way to the door, but forgotten to put them on. Aziraphale wondered how long he’d been asleep. Hopefully not the whole week, but Crowley was fond of a long, petulant nap.
“Pax?” Aziraphale asked. He hefted the lily up higher and smiled hopefully over its bobbing leaves.
Crowley sniffed at him. “A peace lily?”
“Your garden could use some flowers,” Aziraphale said. “Oh, stop being a stubborn old snake, Crowley. This is heavy—let me in.”
Crowley pursed his lips and touched one deep green leaf, which shivered. “I won’t be nice to it if you leave it here,” he warned, but stepped aside.
“It’s a sturdy thing,” Aziraphale said. He bustled into Crowley’s hot, dark, sleekly elegant apartment, heading for the hall where Crowley did his gardening. “Where should I—ah, yes. That’s perfect.” He placed the pot in an empty corner and raised his eyebrows at the demon. “It’s almost like you made a space for it while I was coming up.”
“Hardly,” Crowley said, haughty. He shifted the pot a centimeter to the left.
Aziraphale stepped back and let Crowley adjust the peace lily to his satisfaction. The garden had grown since the last time he’d been to Crowley’s flat, he noted. A few new additions. And one of the plants the demon had banished to the kitchen had been reunited with its friends. It all looked very lush and lovely, set in sharp contrast to the flat’s barren expanse of concrete walls.
Aziraphale clasped his hands behind his back—he’d been forbidden from touching anything after the Leggy Rubber Plant Incident of 2004—and explored the edges of Crowley’s little Eden.
“The Bible you brought me cleaned up nicely,” he said. “Retained its mischievous glow even after I repaired the spine.”
“What Bible.” Crowley lifted a leaf on the tip of his finger and narrowed his gaze. He looked at Aziraphale out of the corner of his eye, then carefully but pointedly trimmed away an imperfection.
“That one wasn’t even a little brown. I checked them all myself before I bought it,” Aziraphale chided him. “Anyway, after I finished that book, I went through the rest of the collection. You were right—I’d been grooming them all along. To think I didn’t notice before our last conversation!”
“What conversation.” Crowley continued not looking at Aziraphale directly. “That leaf had a spot.”
Aziraphale ignored him. “But as fresh as everything looks now, I still find myself with a most annoying problem.”
He took a step back and judged the space. The atrium was longer than it was wide, a sort of hallway between one concrete space and the next. Plants rustled on both sides. Still, there was plenty of clearance.
The angel took a deep breath. He shook his shoulders, reached into the fifth dimension, and spread out his wings.
“I can preen as many books as I please, and it almost suffices. But I can’t ignore my own wings any longer, Crowley,” Aziraphale said, his eyes wide. “And as hard as I try, there are some spots that I simply can’t reach.”
Crowley shook his head. Aziraphale took a step closer to him, held out a hopeful hand, and said, “We just aren’t built to do this alone.”
Crowley stared at the angel. He looked at Aziraphale’s face, and then at his trailing feathers—which were a little dustier than they’d been the last time he’d seen them, and in entirely reachable locations, if the angel had put in a little effort. He took in Aziraphale’s his outstretched hand, and then glanced back to his face again.
The eyes were a sham, Crowley thought. The angel had taught puppy dog eyes to puppies. That pleading look had been perfected long ago, and Crowley had never minded being gently manipulated by it. He’d always enjoyed the hint of bastard underlying the angel’s good nature. He’d played along.
But the flush on Aziraphale’s cheeks—the way he bit his bottom lip—there was danger there. Crowley took his hands off the peace lily and flexed his fingers.
“So go get Gabriel,” he hissed, taking a step back.
Aziraphale took a step forward. “Gabriel was far too rough before Armageddon,” he said, his eyes huge and pleading.
“I’m rough,” Crowley argued. “A rough beast, and all that. Well,” he corrected himself, “an agent of the rough beast. Well, an associate. It’s all very complicated, as you bloody well know. Regardless, I’m a fallen angel, Aziraphale. A demon. You wouldn’t like the way we do this. Put them away.”
Aziraphale took another step. “I thought about that,” he said. “After you left the bookshop the other day, I was thinking about how long I’d—well, sublimated my instincts, I suppose, given the lack of appropriate outlets. And as I thought, it occurred to me to wonder—well, whose wings does Crowley groom?”
“Beelzebub’s,” Crowley said promptly. “Hastur’s, before Ligur came along. Oh, and Astaroth, who wasn’t so bad about it, really, but did like to talk maths at you while you worked.”
Aziraphale looked thoughtful. “And how long ago was that? The last time you groomed anyone?” he asked. “Certainly not since the Armageddon. Not since before you got this flat, I imagine.”
Crowley glanced around, bemused. “No, not since the flat, although I fail to see how that signifies,” he said.
“It signifies because once you got this flat, you started caring for your garden,” Aziraphale said. He fluttered his wings and gave Crowley’s plants a meaningful look.
Crowley blinked. He looked at his plants with raised eyebrows. They all stood up a little, shivering, their leaves crisp and gleaming under his thunderous gaze.
“Well, aren’t you clever,” he said sharply to Aziraphale. “You really ran your squeaky little thought processes through their paces on this one, didn’t you. Well, the wheels have come right off, angel—I’m not like you. The plants aren’t substitutes for anything.”
Aziraphale gave him a look of such soft affection that Crowley almost transported himself to Antarctica by reflex. He said, “I hate to call you a liar, Crowley—”
Crowley recoiled. “I’m very much a liar, in fact!”
“—but the plants are arranged in the shape of wings.”
Crowley stared at him. “They aren’t even—how dare you—” He spun around, ready to point out the angel’s obvious stupidity. Once they’d gotten that straightened out, he’d send Aziraphale home and spend another week in bed, recovering from the appalling depths of his wrongness.
“—oh,” he said.
Behind him, Aziraphale made a sympathetic noise. He said, “Are you certain you haven’t been sublimating some urges of your own?”
Crowley, who had been sublimating all kinds of urges for thousands of years and wasn’t about to stop even in the face of clear evidence of that fact, put his shoulder to the wheel. “Means nothing,” he dismissed. “Happens all the time. Natural feature of floral displays. Check Pinterest. Probably find fifteen angel wing-themed wedding posts, top of the page.”
Aziraphale smiled at him with gentle radiance, even as he sprang a trap: “I never said they were angel wings, Crowley.”
“Oh, bless it,” Crowley said, caught. Much to his own surprise and mortification, he felt himself blush damningly.
“Fine. You may have a point,” he gritted out, furious. “But don’t be smug about it. This isss a natural inssstinct, and without—without any demonic pals hanging about locally, of course I’d—but it means nothing, and I’m certainly not going to—with an angel!—how would that even work!”
“Very well, I imagine,” Aziraphale said. His smile was beatific, and his eyes glowed. The dusty whiteness of his wings offset the cream and roses of his coloring. Crowley remembered the long-ago touch of angelic hands on angelic wings, and felt the monster he’d been repressing come roaring into freedom, all teeth and grasping claws. It howled At last! as it dragged his wings into the human world.
“You can’t mean that. You’ve never seen a demon groom another demon—you’ve never—it’s mean, angel—what we do to each other is very bad,” he said, resisting with all his strength.
He wasn’t made for resistance.
Aziraphale looked over Crowley’s shoulder at his blue-black wings, eyes gleaming. “I’ve never seen it, but I’m not surprised,” Aziraphale said very softly. He looked away from Crowley’s feathers and met his gaze with an expression of tender forthrightness. Crowley’s wings, which he’d mostly gotten under control after the initial eruption, flared again.
Aziraphale smiled at them appreciatively. “As long as your hands are as gentle with me as they are with your garden,” he said, “I think we can manage the rest.”
Aziraphale’s appreciation was very sincere. Crowley’s dark wings were lovely against the rich green of his plants, with the grey concrete behind them. It all reminded him of the Garden during the first storm. He should have guessed he’d make Crowley this offer eventually, considering how willing he’d been to share his wings with the demon from the start.
“I’m not gentle with this garden,” Crowley argued desperately. “I threaten it. I yell. You’ve heard me! I’ve banished perfectly innocent plants for next to no reason at all. Gentle—well, good luck with that.”
“Everything you’ve banished has done quite well in the kitchen.” Aziraphale hoisted one wing up, trying to look over his shoulder at the underside of it. “It would just be nice to have the itchy spots scratched,” he said, woeful. “And of course I don’t think you’d hurt me,” he added. He kept his voice light, but glanced at Crowley sidelong.
His reassurance seemed to ratchet up Crowley’s tension, rather than releasing it. Crowley wheeled away.
“You don’t think I would hurt you,” he growled. “As if there’s any question? As if there’s any doubt? I’m a demon.” He paced away, his head down, scoffing. His wings were tucked in close behind him.
“After all we’ve been through together, I’m rather certain we aren’t capable of hurting each other, Crowley,” Aziraphale said. He pursed his lips. “Annoying each other is another matter.”
Crowley ignored him. “As if I’d be stupid enough to groom an angel,” he muttered, then wheeled back around and came closer, shaking his finger. “I won’t be like that with you, angel. I refuse! I’d rather—I’d rather drink American beer,” he said, belligerent. He reached out and twisted Aziraphale’s collar to drag him up onto his toes: nose to nose, eye to wild eye. “I’d rather fly my car to Mercury!” he hissed, stabbing his other hand towards the window.
There was no doubt in Aziraphale’s mind that Crowley had pointed to Mercury with unerring accuracy. Crowley had assisted in the design of the celestial spheres, after all—beautiful work, Aziraphale had told him when the demon mentioned it one night, casually, over champagne and some very fine strawberries. He’d been impressed despite himself. Crowley had promptly ruined the mood by admitting he’d also started the trend of asking people for their star signs in bars, which led to an argument that lasted three years.
But Aziraphale wasn’t going to be distracted by a swift little retrograde planet too close to the sun. He hung motionless in Crowley’s grip, his eyes on Crowley’s face. He left his own wings softly spread. He waited for Crowley to come back into his orbit.
Crowley’s snarl softened into something bemused. “You haven’t been dissuaded.”
“You haven’t been convincing.” Aziraphale reached out and took Crowley’s lean, artfully stubbled face between his hands. “American beers, Crowley,” he said, affectionately. “Really, sometimes you go too far,” and, while Crowley was drawing a breath to hiss at him, he stretched up just a little for a kiss.
Crowley’s wings flared out with a snap, lifting him briefly off his feet. Aziraphale’s hands on his cheeks kept him grounded. For a moment, they froze like that—and, although they didn’t know it, the whole world froze with them. Birds paused in flight, clouds hung motionless, a humpback whale floated weightless as it breached, and all the cities of all the nations were silent.
It was a marvelous kiss, Aziraphale thought. He wasn’t sure there had ever been another one like it.
Then Crowley’s hands closed over his wrists, scrabbling. He came back to earth with a thump, and yanked Aziraphale’s hands out to his sides, as if they were dangerous artifacts to be kept at the furthest possible distance.
“What was that?” he said through gritted teeth. “What do you think you’re doing, angel?”
“Being persuasive.” Aziraphale smiled, as full of mischief as the unnamed reader of Crowley’s Bible. He’d quite liked her gumption. “Haven’t I convinced you? Should I tempt you next? I think I have an idea of how to try.”
Crowley’s eyes widened, the pupils broad and dark. “Oh, blast me straight to—wherever. I should have known better than to teach an angel how to wile.” He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against Aziraphale’s. “All right. But don’t blame me if your wings go bald. I want it noted in Hell’s—no, in Heaven’s—in someone’s books that I tried to resist.”
“I’ll write it down in my new Bible,” Aziraphale promised, and patted Crowley’s shoulder. They both shivered as his knuckles brushed the soft darkness of the demon’s wing. He murmured, “But if you’re really so very nervous, I suppose I could go first to show you how it’s done.” And with that he led Crowley, grumbling, down the hall.
Crowley sat on the edge of his bed, legs stretched out before him, facing his elaborate headboard. He let his head fall forward as Aziraphale stood behind him and patiently sorted out his wings.
He settled into being groomed by Aziraphale the way humans settled into a hot bath: first it was almost too much, and then it was definitely too much, and then his nerves submitted all at once.
Aziraphale rested a hand on the nape of Crowley’s neck to give himself the leverage to deal with a particularly stubborn feather. He hummed thoughtfully while Crowley did his best not to discorporate, and asked, “Do all demons have wings this lovely?”
Crowley would have shrugged, but so few messages were getting through his overloaded nervous system. “Haven’t seen them all, have I?” he said drunkenly. “Dig in a little more, just there.”
Aziraphale dug in a little more, but with the very edges of his short, manicured nails—a light, sharp pressure, rather than a bruising force. Crowley made a noise that had never been made by a demon before, and shivered.
“I suppose I wouldn’t find Beelzebub’s wings so pleasant to touch,” Aziraphale said. “Half the charm of this is getting to do something nice for you.”
Don’t do me any favors, Crowley thought. Aziraphale dragged his nails through the down on the underside of the crook of his wing, and both of them gasped. Or then again, do.
He flexed his fingers in his lap. When Aziraphale was done with him, he would get to groom the angel’s wings. He’d be free to slide those long, dusty primaries through his fingers—he’d comb through his down and feel its softness. Would Aziraphale let him keep a few—perhaps he’d sneak a molted feather away and—he could hide it in—where, the plants? No, Aziraphale would see it. In his astronomy book, right inside the entry for Alpha Centauri, to bookmark his favorite stars—
“What a charming sheen you have now,” Aziraphale said, pleased. He smoothed his hands over the neatened feathers, his fingers spread out wide. Crowley felt the touch across his entire body, as if Aziraphale had stroked him from his collarbone to his ankle in one tender motion. It was unbearable. Insults and pulled feathers would have been kinder. How dare the angel remind him of what he’d lost in his fall from grace?
Although…wasn’t there now an angel grooming his wings, just like in the old days? Except this was an angel he had very specific feelings for, rather than the generalized love he’d felt when he was an angel himself. An angel he’d tempted and teased, but never pulled down; an angel who had charmed him and challenged him for millenia; an angel who, at the worst of times, had taken up a sword to fight beside him instead of against him.
None of that had ever happened in Heaven. No one in Heaven had ever tempered their gentleness with an edge of teasing, of knowing. No angel had ever kissed him, or touched his corporeal body with their gentle hands.
Wasn’t what he had almost better than what he’d lost?
“And now that you’ve seen how lovely this can be, it’s my turn!” Aziraphale said brightly.
Yes, Crowley thought. My turn.
He left his wings out—they felt too big, too soft to put away—and slithered off his bed. His knees took a second to remember how the whole thing worked, but that wasn’t unheard of, and they caught a clue before he needed to miracle a solution. When he turned and looked at Aziraphale, the angel was looking back at him—cheerful, soft, relaxed. He’d truly enjoyed grooming Crowley’s wings, and the pleasure of it suited him.
Crowley felt a bit like he was going to discorporate if he met Aziraphale’s gaze for more than five more seconds. “Get on the bed,” he ordered, for his own safety. Aziraphale beamed at him, and did.
He copied Crowley’s seating position and scratched the nape of his neck, where even the shortest white hairs threatened to curl. “I’m looking forward to this,” he said dreamily. “You can’t know. It’s been so long. And Gabriel never asked what I needed groomed, and always did what he thought best, which of course—”
“Don’t talk to me about Gabriel grooming your wings right now,” Crowley said. Aziraphale looked at him over his shoulder, and shut up. Crowley hesitated, looking at the spread of feathers in front of him—opalescent, but also dusty—and was that potting soil? They looked all right collectively, but there were disorganized and even broken barbs here and there. “He wasn’t even good at it,” he muttered, and started his work at the base of Aziraphale’s left wing.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Aziraphale said philosophically. “Oh, my.”
Crowley grinned with his tongue between his teeth, and worked his way up the arch of Aziraphale’s wing. If the angel had been Beelzebub or Hastur, he’d have yanked and pulled and twisted and cursed his way through. He’d have threatened the feathers until each one lay perfectly, shining with dark light. He’d have hated every second of it, and thought that was natural—that being forced to treat someone else’s wings terribly was a requirement—one of Her punishments. Diabolical, even.
With Aziraphale, however, the work was nothing like it had been for thousands of years. The feathers didn’t sting his hands. They didn’t awake in him some instinct to destroy. He didn’t even want to be unpleasant about it. The urge to tease Aziraphale rose and subsided, almost comfortably. Each feather restored to a healthy gloss felt as good as a successful temptation. Better, because he didn’t even have to question why he bothered. The answer was there in the lovely, shining results.
Best of all, he thought smugly, were the noises. Perhaps he had made a sound or two not before heard in Heaven or Hell, but Aziraphale was making a dozen of them. The angel had something unique for each different type of feather. He was filling Crowley’s bedroom with an aura of warm, golden bliss, and Crowley hadn’t even gotten to scratching the downy bits yet.
“I thought you were afraid you’d be unkind,” the angel said, on a huffing breath.
“I was. I am. It’s taking a lot of self-control to be so nice to you,” Crowley lied. He reached up to scratch the downy bits, and—as expected—Aziraphale found a new way to moan. He melted backwards and Crowley had to press against him, belly against his back—caught between the white expanses of the angel’s wings—to keep him from sliding off the bed.
Crowley ran his nails into the angel’s hair, scruffing it up and smoothing it again, much as he’d done the down. “I’m going to have to sleep for a month to get my strength back up,” he said, smirking fondly as Aziraphale wiggled into his touch. “I’m going to have to tempt a dozen priests. I’ll have to be extra strict with my plants for a year.”
“Hmm.” Aziraphale straightened. He stretched out one wing with easy languor, then the other. The feathers slid past each other without a single snag. He sighed, pleased, before drawing away to turn and look at Crowley with raised eyebrows. “You can’t tease me with threats to your garden, Crowley. Not now that I know how much you care for each and every leaf.”
“If I’m going to follow through, then it’s not just a threat to tease you!”
“Sounded like it, just now,” Aziraphale said primly.
Crowley bared his teeth. “I said I’d have to be strict with them! To make up for this! That’s very serious stuff, angel. You’re deliberately misinterpreting what I said to suit your own needs.”
Aziraphale’s brows arched. “Am I?”
"Of course you are!" Crowley said, and then paused, struck by the thought. He wrestled his blissfully limp wings back into the fifth dimension and scented the metaphysical air with a flickering ribbon of demonic energy.
Oh, there it was, all wrapped up in the warm golden glow from the angel's halo: it was Crowley who was being teased. Aziraphale’s ethereal being was dappled by the hint of mischievousness that had made the old Bible such a perfect gift for him, along with the shadow of selfishness tied into his desire to please, and the light pouring through the crack in the gate that had once separated them.
Was Aziraphale misinterpreting Crowley to suit himself? Certainly. He could be a bit of a bastard, after all. And wasn't that something worth savoring until the next end of the world?
"Well, well, well," Crowley murmured, charmed. "Misinterpret this, angel.”
He wove closer, crowding back up against the angel. Aziraphale had just enough time to tuck his wings away before Crowley, his lips twitching, struck.
They fell together, rolling on Crowley’s mattress, grappling until Aziraphale triumphed. He straddled Crowley's hips, while Crowley looked up at him indulgently.
Aziraphale wriggled to settle himself, then cleared his throat and looked down with a serious face, composed and officious. His eyes shone. "Shall I assume this means we've entered into a new, mutually beneficial arrangement? Perhaps with a bit more leeway on what precisely we mean when we say, 'I'll do yours, if you do mine.'"
Crowley raised his brows. "I'd certainly say we have." He sat up, jostling Aziraphale into his lap. He slid his hands up Aziraphale's solid back, scraping his nails across the angel's shoulder blades and then further, into his hair.
"You just try to get your grooming done somewhere else now, angel," he said with a narrow, crooked smile, and he drew the beaming angel down to kiss him.