London. 1814. The Romantic Age. In the Byronic sense, but also, yes.
Demons do not write poetry. Hell can claim most of the greats, of course, the poets across the centuries. Like composers and tune-writers, poets lend themselves to temptation at an impressive rate. But poetry is not a skill that can be absorbed by association. Heaven has all the best choreographers but angels cannot dance; likewise, Hell has all the best sonnet-spinners though demons cannot fashion a rhyming couplet to save their immortal non-souls.
They lack the imagination, is the thing.
You've met Crowley, though. You know he is a demon of a different breed. Saunters to his own drumbeat, so to speak. Has an imagination, a rather big one. And my, can he use it.
For example: he can imagine what it might be like to take an angel by the hand and say in his most un-trembling voice, "I'd very much like to kiss you, Aziraphale. 'M curious how you might cast your ballot, if it's up for a vote."
I know. Such scandal.
Crowley could imagine doing such a thing as that, which means he could also imagine how such a thing might turn out: not well. And that would not do. He was very sweet on this particular angel, had been for some time, and wanted nothing more than to preserve their singular friendship with its strange arrangements and furtive meetings. You can't tell a being forged of heavenly light that you'd like to snog and not expect some repercussions.
And so Crowley did what any poor lovesick, unrequited bastard would do.
He wrote poetry.
He scraped out the meat of his heart and slathered it on the page like pâté on a cracker. Every burble of emotion, every frisson of feeling was set down in black ink. He expressed all the things he loved about Aziraphale, and all the things he hated too, which only served perversely to make his love grow. Crowley sat at his ornate desk in his Mayfair townhouse and stayed up all night, quill in hand, scribbling out verse after verse. Hoping (imagining, perhaps) that if he worked hard enough, the feelings would eventually leave him, dissipating like dew in the morning sun.
Alas, it does not work that way. We know that, but nobody had bothered to tell Crowley. And so he wrote and agonized and loved and wrote some more.
Some of it was not very good. The poetry, that is. Yet it came from the heart, and even the harshest critic would have to admit there was a sincerity to Crowley's poetry that some of the masters lacked.
A sample fragment:
When we two wandered in the garden
I looked upon thee, bathed in light,
And burned to reach out to touch
Thy burnished hair of gold cloudwhite.
Angel, would thee ever dare
With thy visage beyond compare
And thy skin, so aching fair—
Permit me touch one strand of hair?
You get the general idea.
This would have continued on as a harmless if tragic pastime except for one thing.
Crowley owed Hell a report on his work. He was late in furnishing it, what with his busy nights and constant heartache, and when the Duke of Hell communicated to Crowley via a corner flower seller's patter that his paperwork was missing from that month's batch and he really should get on with it, Crowley rushed to fulfill the order. He gathered up his halfhearted notes from his desk and in his haste—
Well, you can see where this is going.
Beelzebub appeared to Crowley the following day in the guise of a street urchin hawking newspapers.
"Late edition, late edition! Americans defeated, capital captured! Read it all here!" Then, turning to Crowley with a mean look on that grubby little face, "And you, Crowley. What are you playing at with this latest report of yours?"
"Why, I play at nothing, your Disgrace," Crowley said, tipping his hat with all due deference. He'd stopped being shocked at the use of possession as a means to communicate topside a long time ago, but that didn't mean he had to like it. For Crowley, the radio could not be invented soon enough. "Did I forget to number my pages or something?"
The newsboy Beelzebub produced a sheaf from their newspaper bundle. Crowley's handwriting littered the pages entirely. "You've shoved in this—this stuff. What's the meaning of it all? Do you think this is some sort of joke?"
Crowley paled as much as was possible for him. (Pallor was so fashionable at the moment.) "Ah. Well, you see…" His mind churned overtime. The aforementioned imagination kicked in.
"You see," he said, straightening, "it's all part of my report. Perhaps in my haste I didn't explain it very clearly, but this, Lord Beelzebub, is our next best weapon in the war for human souls."
"What is it?" asked the fearsome demon, scrunching their adorably sooty nose at the pages.
"Poetry," Crowley said, clearing his throat. "Love poems. Humans go mad for them. All the rage these days. The trick is to publish them anonymously, right? Have them all fighting over who wrote what and for whom. It's got everything. Jealousy! Drama! Loathing! Probably result in a murder or three. Certainly a dozen cases of madness. And all it takes is a few farthings to hire the printing press."
"Oh?" said Beelzebub suspiciously. Hell was often suspicious of Crowley's plots. They were too subtle—too imaginative—for most demons to really get behind. Crowley held his breath in anticipation that this wheeze, too, would be shot down as another one of his hare-brained schemes unfit for Hell's attentions.
"Actually," Beelzebub buzzed, "that sounds like a good idea."
Crowley's eyes bulged from behind his dark glasses. "It does?"
Beelzebub flipped through the pages again, giving each verse the hairy eyeball. Crowley cringed and hoped against hope that he hadn't been too obvious when describing the way Aziraphale sipped his tea. "Who wrote these, then?" they asked.
"Erm, had them commissioned," Crowley said weakly.
"Well, get more of them." Beelzebub smashed the pages into Crowley's stomach, and Crowley obediently clutched them there. "I want to see these 'love poems' flooding the streets of London within the week. I want riots in ballrooms. I want knives drawn in gentlemen's clubs. Chaos, Crowley. We must foment it."
"Sure," Crowley agreed.
"And make sure you include these ones specifically. We'll need copies for our records."
"I want a full report within a fortnight."
"And no dawdling, Crowley."
"Good." Beelzebub scowled up at Crowley, adjusting their little cap on their borrowed tousled head. "You know, you've come off as a bit distracted of late. I'm glad to hear you're exerting yourself. Really leaning in."
"I try," Crowley croaked.
Demons do not say goodbye when they sign off, so the next noise produced by the newsboy was a shrill cry to buy his paper or else face the possibility of being the most uninformed man in London. He screamed this not at Crowley specifically but to the world at large.
Crowley dabbed at his sweating brow with his handkerchief and hurried on. He'd stepped in it before, but never so deep as this. He willed himself to be calm as he threaded his way through Soho. It wouldn't be so bad, he thought. His poetry wasn't actually very good, after all. (In addition to imagination, Crowley possessed a talent for self-critique.) He could have a few chapbooks printed up, get some lads to distribute them on one or two street corners, furnish a copy to the head office to prove he'd done the thing, and then in two weeks' time write a somber report. Well, we gave it our best try, didn't we? The market is just very competitive at the moment. Hell would file the paperwork under the heading Not to Be Tried Again. Everyone would be, if not happy, at least satisfied.
So back to the Mayfair townhouse, where Crowley scooped up his remaining bits of poetry along with the wad already thrust upon him by Beelzebub. Then to some unseemly warehouse situated on the banks of the Thames to see about a very limited printing—a hundred should do nicely, Crowley thought. He paid the ink-smeared printmaster a few coins and arranged to come by to view the proofs the very next day, then a mere five days later the copies themselves would be ready. Marvelous things, these presses, Crowley thought. So much devilry could be done when one's nefarious messages could be spread in only a matter of days. Once this plot failed, he planned to give it another go with political screeds instead of poetry.
A week after Crowley's near-disaster with his boss, it all played out accordingly. The cockney children successfully handed out every copy of Crowley's anonymous Odes of Love. Of course, Crowley could have just dumped the tracts in a rubbish tip and it would have had the same intended effect. So why didn't he? Thorough professionalism? Fear of being found out? Or perhaps it was some small latent wish to have someone, even a complete stranger, know a little of what he was feeling.
At any rate, Crowley was fairly pleased with himself as he ambled into the bookshop of A.Z. Fell and Co. later that afternoon. He tossed his hat on Aziraphale's coat stand in a jaunty arc. Really put some spin on it.
"Angel," he called into the recesses of the place, as Aziraphale was cloistered as he often was in his back room, "there's not a cloud in the whole damned sky. Want to go for a little walk with me?"
"Oh, is that you, Crowley?" Aziraphale's faint voice echoed in return. "Where were you thinking?"
"Eh, whatever you fancy." He beetled over to a leaning stack of novels and began picking them up one by one to examine their covers. He liked to keep tabs on Aziraphale's latest reads, though he'd never cared for fiction personally. "St James'. Hyde Park. Anyplace you like."
"Well, in that case, we might walk through Russell Square. A new coffeehouse just opened next to the hotel. I hear they're serving Indian food." The delight in Aziraphale's voice made Crowley smile to himself. He could picture exactly the look that would be in those bluesky eyes. Hearing footsteps, Crowley turned so that he might catch a glimpse of that infectious joy Aziraphale could exude like perfume.
His small smile quivered as he saw Aziraphale appear in the doorway, exuding as he'd suspected. And then, seeing what Aziraphale was holding under his arm, Crowley's face fell.
"Where did you get that?" he asked, fighting to keep his tone level.
"Oh, this?" Aziraphale held up the little white chapbook with the words Odes of Love printed in flowing script across its face along with one or two floral motifs. "It's the most marvelous thing. A customer came in today and— Now, you know how normally I don't care for customers barging in here, but she'd just read this and asked if…"
At about this point, Crowley stopped listening. Not because he didn't want to hear Aziraphale, but because his ears (along with his mouth, brain, and nervous system) had ceased to function. Everything turned into a sort of blur, a hum of white noise that made Crowley wonder if one could discorporate merely from embarrassment.
Crowley shook himself from his stupor. Aziraphale's tone was sharp and concerned in a way that meant he'd probably been saying Crowley's name for some time.
"Yes?" Crowley ventured.
The concern did not abate. Aziraphale approached with the chapbook clasped to his bosom, his face the definition of worry. "Are you all right? You seem so out of sorts all of a sudden."
"No! No, not out of anything! Sorts or otherwise." Crowley suppressed a grimace at his own foolishness. "You, erm, you were saying?"
Aziraphale brightened. "Yes, about these poems." He held up the chapbook again. Crowley fought a wave of nausea at the sight. "This little collection seems to have taken London by storm," said Aziraphale. "Everyone who is anybody is reading it. Shrouded in mystery, you know, completely anonymous. People are making their own handwritten copies since I suppose there weren't enough printed to meet demand. It's all anyone is talking about at my club." He paged through a few leaves, tongue poking from the corner of his mouth in thought. "Their money is on Shelley but I have my doubts."
"Shelley?" Crowley yelped. He was dismayed to hear his work might be attributed to that bedroom-eyed fop. (They'd had a run-in at a tavern in Glasgow; Crowley didn't like to dwell on it.)
"Yes, but as I said, it doesn't seem likely to me. Now the real question is, who is the subject of these poems?" One soft, stubby finger stuck itself in the air as Aziraphale read. "If it is Shelley's work, then I suppose the answer could be anyone."
"Wha—? Hold on." Crowley pinched the bridge of his nose, causing his dark glasses to ride up to his brow. "You. Don't know. What these poems are about."
"No, my dear boy, nobody does," Aziraphale said gently. "That's what makes them such delightful fun."
Crowley scowled. Miles away in Mayfair, a collection of potted plants trembled. Crowley's rage reached the very outskirts of London, in fact. Here he was, putting his whole bloody heart on the page—only for it to be called a bit of fun. Not that he wanted Aziraphale to discover his secret but, well, he'd thought his poems were frightfully plain in their intention and it was frustrating to hear his muse was still cheerfully clueless. All that work and for what?
Aziraphale's smile wavered at Crowley's darkening expression. "Oh, but you don't care about any of this, do you? Forgive me; I'm sure to you, poetry is just sentimental nonsense." He closed the chapbook and rolled it into a cigar, which he slipped into his coat pocket.
"I didn't say that," Crowley said, still scowling.
"You don't have to say it, Crowley," said Aziraphale. "I can see by the look on your face that I've bored you quite enough." He did that thing where he looked away, then looked back at Crowley, then looked away again as if embarrassed. "Come along. Let's take that walk now." He retrieved both their hats from the stand with an air of finality.
Crowley snatched his hat from Aziraphale's hand. "Can't." He stuffed the topper onto his head. "Just remembered. Got things to do. Must run."
"Must—?" Aziraphale's eyes went all round and hurt. "But you've only just arrived!"
"And now I've only just departed," Crowley said. "Good day, angel." He made his escape and prowled his way back to the townhouse, where he flung himself onto his desk and began scribbling out even more poems. What else could he do in the face of such raw hurt?
He also began to drink. The more Crowley drank, the easier it became to put pen to paper. The words veritably flowed from him. Whiskey, if you didn't know, has been many a poet's supportive pal, always encouraging them further than they might normally go. It's difficult to second-guess your use of the word "refulgence" after four or five quick belts of the stuff. Besides, what the Hell else rhymes with "indulgence?" Crowley nodded to himself as he composed the unfortunate couplet.
His thoughts continued along the same roundabout track as he worked. If the blasted angel couldn't see himself in Crowley's lines, then—! Well, he would make damn sure there would be no mistaking—! How dare Aziraphale even be so, so, so, so—! Honestly!
Page after page filled with ink. The sun, giving it up as a bad job, saw himself out. Crowley lit a few lamps and kept right on writing until, papers crumpled around his ankles and words slashed out with vicious pen strokes, he produced a final draft.
"Right," he said, blotting his work with drunken enthusiasm. "That should do it." He took the pages, stumbled his way down to the embankment, and paid the printmaster double for a rush job. In the morning Crowley would not be able to recall what was said, but that evening he left instructions for urchin distribution and left plenty of coins to cover the costs. With the satisfaction typical of the completely plastered, Crowley toddled back to Mayfair, fell into his soft bed fully clothed, and slept until noon.
Look, you can judge if you like but we have all been there. And if you have not, well, no one likes a braggart, Amy.
When Crowley finally woke it was to the dreadful feeling deep in his gut that he should be ashamed about something, though he couldn't remember what. He knew he'd spent a lot of money because his purse was light. It was obvious he'd spent the evening at his desk because his fingertips were ink-stained. But beyond that, he couldn't fathom what he'd done to deserve this existential unease on top of his vicious headache.
Demons have the ability to shake off shame (and headaches) fairly quickly, which is nice for them. Crowley was freshly clean and dressed before the grandfather clock struck two, at which point he put on his hat and gloves and grabbed his walking stick to set out for Soho. He had an inkling he should visit Aziraphale and make up for his sudden disappearing act the day before. How silly he'd been, storming out like a jilted— Well, what have you. He squinted up at the gray sky from behind his dark glasses. Yes, he would swing by the bookshop and offer to take Aziraphale to that new coffeehouse, and Crowley wouldn't need to explain himself, and Aziraphale would forgive him anyway, and everything would be just fine.
"Fine poetry! Get your fine poetry on the subject of love!" shouted an urchin on the street corner. "New works by the anonymous poet of Odes! Fresh off the presses!"
Oh no. Surely not—
"You, sir!" the little child called, thrusting a chapbook at Crowley. "You look like you could use some love, sir, if you'll pardon my saying so!"
Like a man trapped in a nightmare, Crowley watched himself hand the boy a ha'penny and take the offered tract. This one was covered all over the front with tiny printed roses. More Odes to Love, it said in an effusive script, by the Same Nameless Poet. At the bottom, printed in a less slanted font: You Know the One.
Crowley just barely fought the urge to crumple the damn thing in his fist. Blood crept up his neck and suffused his face until surely his countenance matched his hair. How could he have done such a stupid, stupid thing?
He walked swiftly away from the busy street corner and ducked into Grosvenor Square. Perching on a park bench, he tore open the little book and read with increasing horror the words printed therein. Each one was worse than the last, soppy and sloppy and fucked full of love, but the thing culminated in one final sonnet that had Crowley reeling in despair.
Reproduced here for your elucidation is that poem. It was titled, with no subtly whatsoever, "To an Actual Angel."
So long I laboured in fire dark
Mine robes all 'round me torn
Suffering 'neath the blackest mark
A pain for eternity borne.
Bracing always for cold scorn
Then awakened in thine light
Like drinking clear water from the horn
Where before was only blight.
Thou taught me of wingless flight
As the earth instructs the flower;
Released was I from my plight
And led shaking to thine bower
My heart then cried, clear as a bell—
And I spake thy name: Aziraphale.
Not many ways to interpret that one, is there?
Okay, Crowley thought. Okay. Right. Okay. All right. Think. Got to think. Must be something you can do to fix this.
You have to fucking fix this, you useless excuse for a shitheap!
Crowley sprang from his bench and raced back to the street corner, where the urchin was still standing, counting coins.
"You there! Boy!" Crowley fished for his extremely lightened purse. "How many more of these things do you have? I'll take the lot."
"Just these two left, sir," said the kid. He held them out in his grubby hands. "That's one penny, then."
"Only two!?" Crowley gaped. "What happened to the rest?"
"Sold like hotcakes, sir. No accounting for taste, if y'ask me."
Crowley took a deep breath and reminded himself that, while punting the little bugger down the street might make him feel better in the moment, it would do nothing to solve his problem. Besides, the kid had a point. "And how many," he asked evenly, "did you sell, lad?"
"All that I was given, sir. Five hundred copies."
"Five...hundred?" Crowley's knees turned to water. "Five hundred of these things were sold in the city?"
"Oh, no, sir! Not at all."
A sigh of relief coursed through Crowley. Of course. The silly boy must have been mistaken.
"I'm only one member of the dedicated distribution team, sir," said the boy. "So altogether that's about—" He counted on his fingers. "Three thousand, five hundred copies."
"And five hundred," the lad added helpfully. "It was to be an even four thousand, but Billy tripped and got his all scattered along the pavement outside of Saint Paul's. Folks just scooped 'em up, so no sales there." He scratched his nose. "Shame what the world's come to, isn't it, sir?"
Crowley was not listening. He was too busy breathing hard in a panic. Four thousand copies floating about London. He had to find Aziraphale. Maybe he could convince him to pop over to Barcelona for the month, try some of their fine ham. Anything to keep this thrice-damned chapbook from falling into his angelic hands!
Throwing a penny to the ground and snatching up the last two copies from the lad, Crowley sprinted down Piccadilly toward Soho, holding his top hat in place as he ran.
"Aziraphale!" he cried as he burst into the bookshop. "Are you in? Where are you?" He spun in a circle, looking all round the empty storefront. "Aziraphale, listen—" He pushed his way into the back room and stopped short.
Aziraphale sat in a cozy armchair with his tiny reading glasses balanced on his nose. A cup of something sat on a table at his elbow, though whatever it was didn't appear to be steaming any longer. His eyes were looking up at Crowley in mild astonishment. And in his hands….
Crowley bit back a growled curse. More fucking Odes.
"Hello, Crowley," said Aziraphale in a rather odd tone of voice. Like he wasn't sure if Crowley was really standing there and was too polite to ask. He set the chapbook aside, his fingers lingering on the cover before rising to remove his glasses. "I've been reading," he said.
Crowley's mind raced. What was the use of having an imagination if it couldn't save him from certain doom? Think, you stupid demon, think.
"There is a sonnet," Aziraphale said with careful deliberation, "toward the back."
"You're mentioned by name," Crowley said, because there was no sense in denying it.
"Yes." Aziraphale stared down at the little tract. "So the poems, at least in part, are about— Me."
A horrible silence overtook the room. Crowley felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Come on, brain, he hissed to himself. Come up with something!
"Crowley—" Aziraphale began to say.
"I know who wrote them!" Crowley blurted out. "The poet. I know who it is."
Aziraphale blinked up at him, lips parted. "Yes?" he prompted.
"Erm." Crowley tugged at his black cravat with one finger. Bloody thing was too tight today. "Yeah. His name is...Alfonso."
"Alfonso." Aziraphale waited for two or three moments before contributing again. "The poet who is writing poetry about me is named...Alfonso."
"Yes." Crowley breathed out in a whoosh. "Exactly. He's just mad for you. Pining! From a goodish distance. Oh, it's really something." He nodded a few times. "I got curious when you mentioned the thing the other day and I—" A vague hand gesture indicating demonic works. "Made some inquiries."
"Oh," said Aziraphale, looking somewhat disappointed. Perhaps just confused. He gazed off into the middle distance, a small frown on his lips. "I see." After a bit of staring, he looked back to Crowley to ask, "And why won't this Alfonso come tell me of this himself?"
"Well, he's been scared to, hasn't he?" Crowley hedged. He rocked his hip out to rest against a curio cabinet, arms crossed over his chest in what he hoped was a casual air. "You, uh, steal his breath, angel. He's completely," he shrugged helplessly, "useless."
"Ah." Aziraphale planted his hands on his chair's armrests and seemed to gather the strength it took for him to rise from his seat. "That's that, then, is it?"
He sounded so forlorn, so saddened at the prospect, that Crowley couldn't leave well enough alone. His throat worked. His imagination worked even faster.
"He wants to meet you, though," he blurted again.
Pale eyebrows rose in surprise. "He does?"
"Of course he does," Crowley said, picking up steam. "It's all he talks about. That's why I'm here. He wanted me to ask you if you'd be amenable." Belatedly he realized he was still wearing his hat and took it off. "Didn't want to come in person if you weren't. A true gentleman, this Alfonso."
"Is he really?" Aziraphale's eyes took on a determined sheen. He pursed his lips and regarded Crowley with shoulders squared. "All right, then. Tell this Alfonso I would love to meet him."
"Great," Crowley drawled.
"Any specific time and place?" Aziraphale pressed.
"Tomorrow about noon," Crowley ad-libbed. "Russell Square."
"Oh, lovely. He can take me to that coffeehouse." This was said with a tone that, in later days, might be described as bitchy.
Crowley nodded. "Right." He hesitated, remembering his original purpose in leaving the house today. "Sorry I vanished on you like that yesterday, angel. Tell me if the food is any good; maybe we can lunch there sometime."
"Perhaps," said Aziraphale. He toyed with the gold ring he wore on his little finger. "If I am not otherwise engaged."
Crowley knew a dismissal when he heard one, so he said farewell and replaced his hat, loping out of the bookshop and back into the street.
Where he proceeded to have a mild fit.
"Alfonso?" he hissed, smacking his palm atop his topper. "Where am I going to find an Alfonso by noon tomorrow?" He cast his eyes about the bustling sidewalk as if a solution would walk right up to him.
It did not, but what Crowley did see was an urchin wearing a sign that advertised the latest entertainment at the theatre on the corner.
"Of course," he muttered, walking faster. "Actors will do anything for a guinea." And he went to go find one. Actors and demons, as you must be aware, generally occupy the same spaces in society and know each other pretty well.
It did not take long to find someone to play the part. Cuthbert Weatherby was a chisel-chinned sort with a ready smile and full head of wavy dark hair. His dress was fashionable but not ostentatious, which Crowley thought Aziraphale would appreciate. He enunciated well enough, and he had all his teeth. He was also between jobs and didn't seem to mind the idea of taking the role of besotted poet tragically in love with a man-shaped scene partner.
"I've played Horatio," said Cuthbert offhand. "All the same, really."
He pocketed Crowley's money—half up front, half upon delivery—and absorbed his instructions without question.
Well, one question.
"Yes?" Crowley growled when he saw Cuthbert had raised his hand in the air like a schoolboy.
"Will I be required to recite any poetry?" he asked. "I have a few bits memorized, you know. The classics. But original stuff is another story."
"Ah. Well." Crowley twitched in thought. "You might have to come up with something off the top of your head, if asked."
"Hm." Cuthbert's lips turned a bit fishy. "Does it have to be good?"
"Yes, of course it has to be good!"
"Hm," Cuthbert said again, and Crowley despaired.
"Aziraphale is expecting it to be good," he said firmly. (And thought, privately, that Aziraphale deserved something good.) "You can't just spout some nonsense and then take your leave."
"Might need your assistance with my lines, then," the actor said.
Which is how Crowley ended up crouched behind a hedge in Russell Square with Cuthbert stationed several feet away on a convenient bench.
"Now remember," Crowley said from his hiding place, "he'll be the one dressed all in white. Or beige. Or that color that very light cats are. Tawny? Think it's called tawny."
"I believe I see him." This said with an actor's skill from the corner of his mouth.
"Well, quick! Call him over here!"
Crowley listened to the greeting and Aziraphale's answering cry. He sounded happy, so that was good. Ears straining, Crowley watched as a beetle crawled up the side of his shoe. He flicked it away before it could forge into his sock.
Aziraphale's voice floated through the bush. "So you're the great poet everyone is talking about, Mister…?"
"Alfonso, please," Cuthbert replied smoothly. "I was so bold as to use your given name in my little collection, therefore I must insist you use mine."
Aziraphale laughed. "I admit I was a bit shocked, seeing my own name staring back at me. How do you know my given name, anyway? Are we members of the same club? Perhaps patrons of the same salon?"
Cuthbert's practiced lines flowed from his lips just as Crowley had directed him. Unseen in his hedge, Crowley mouthed along. "I fear I must confess something to you, dear Aziraphale. You and I do not move in the same circles. I am but a penniless poet who chanced to see you walking in the park one day and was struck by your singular beauty." A pause where a blush should go. "You must think me very foolish. It sounds very strange when said aloud, does it not? But I assure you, I never meant to cause you any distress with my attentions. I just couldn't help myself when it came to putting it all down in verse."
Aziraphale made a few sounds that indicated modesty before saying, "Well, now that I am aware of your attentions, and you have mine at the moment—" A charming laugh from them both. "I must know, Alfonso. Why me? And don't say it's because I am beautiful; there are far more striking beauties to be had in London."
"Yes but none so—" Cuthbert faltered. Crowley grimaced in his hiding place. This was getting into territory that they had not had time to cover in rehearsal. "None like you," he finished.
"But what do you mean?" Aziraphale asked. "How am I at all special?"
Crowley shifted in his uncomfortable crouch, trying his level best not to rustle the leaves. He heard Cuthbert give the signal, two short coughs, and then the man stood and paced as if in deep thought over to the hedge.
"Well, it's not easy to put into words," he intoned meaningfully.
"But I can try," Crowley whispered so that only Cuthbert could hear. The actor repeated everything Crowley said, word for word, adding his own gestures and emphasis but for the most part sticking to the script: "I've been watching you for some time now. Not in a sinister way, just— Because you are fascinating. I have never known a thing as kind and as fussy. As smart and as silly. I could talk for ages about the way your hair catches the light; the way your eyes get crows' feet when you smile; how intently you can just sit and read for hours; the sounds you make when you finish a good meal. You are the most gentle, the most lovely. And just to be near you is…"
Crowley suddenly could not speak around the lump in his throat. Cuthbert paused, waiting for his line, as Aziraphale stood with a creak of the bench.
"Is what?" Aziraphale asked.
"It's all I could hope for," Crowley whispered so softly that even Cuthbert could not hear him.
"It's, erm." The actor improvised, which is always cause for alarm. "It's jolly nice, I suspect."
It was a decent hedge, at least, Crowley thought as his eyes squeezed shut. Good thing, too, since he'd be living in it for the rest of time.
He could hear Aziraphale's sigh. "All right, I think that's quite enough of that, dear boy." Then, louder: "Crowley, are you behind that bush? Or up a tree? Do not make me come get you."
Crowley bit back the retort that he couldn't possibly leave since he lived here now, and, sloughing off the last of his dignity, crawled out of the hedge.
"Angel," he said stiffly, his knees cracking as he gained his feet.
Cuthbert looked back and forth between them. "Will I still be getting paid the other half, then?"
"No," Crowley snapped at the same time Aziraphale said, "Yes, of course." They shared a glare.
"Oh, come now, Crowley. Pay the young man."
"He didn't do the damn job!"
"Well, his working conditions were abominable. Don't be a miser."
With a grumble, Crowley produced his purse and doled out the requisite coinage. Aziraphale gave him a stern, high-browed look and he added one more than necessary, snarling all the while. Cuthbert pocketed his earnings, tipped his hat to them both, and exited stage right.
Hold your applause.
"So," Aziraphale said. His hands perched on his hips, but then migrated to clutch at his middle. "So," he said again.
"Yeah," Crowley agreed, staring at the grass.
"It was you. With the poems." Aziraphale cleared his throat. "Both times?"
"Mm." Crowley squinted into the distance. Lots of carriages wheeling around this square. Maybe if he was lucky one might run him over and spare him this conversation. Horses go wild all the time, he thought, so why not now?
"I thought as much," said Aziraphale. "I mean, demons can't write poetry, so I supposed I was going rather mad, but—" Something caught in his voice.
Crowley looked up. His heart sunk to the tips of his shoes. Aziraphale was beyond saddened, he was past upset. There were tears in his eyes and Crowley was the cause. He felt all of an inch tall.
"Aziraphale?" He glanced about at the dozens of people promenading along the square. It seemed too horrible that they might see this angel crying, and so Crowley exerted his will with enough force to freeze them all in their tracks. Everyone around them stopped. Only the two of them kept going. "Please don't cry," Crowley said, though it felt inadequate. He took a black handkerchief from his pocket and held it out.
Aziraphale hesitated for only a moment before taking it. Dabbing his eyes, he said, "Thank you." He folded the thing up into a neat square and held it in both hands, contemplating it like a nun does a rosary. "Just tell me one thing, Crowley." He looked up, eyes edged in red. "Was this meant to be a very cruel joke?"
"What?" Crowley whispered. "No. No, never."
"I wondered," said Aziraphale. "You're never cruel, not with me. But if not that then…?" He took a small step closer. "Did you mean it, darling? Those things you wrote?"
Darling? Hope bloomed red in Crowley's chest. He forced his dry tongue to speak. "Every word."
"So why not tell me? Why have me read about it in some borrowed pamphlet? Why—?" He flapped the handkerchief at the bench where Cuthbert had been. "This whole production, what was the point?"
Crowley swallowed. "Didn't want to tell you if you weren't...amenable. Completely useless, that's me." May as well say it, he thought, since I've said everything else. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't. You stole my breath, angel."
"Crowley…." Aziraphale put deed to word. The black handkerchief fell to the grass as the angel pitched forward into Crowley's arms. They kissed there in the sunshine, right in the middle of Russell Square for anyone to see—if anyone around them wasn't frozen in time, that is.
"Tell me of poetry," Aziraphale said right against Crowley's lips before diving in to taste him again. "All those lines about love and aching, won't you read them to me?"
"If you like," Crowley murmured. His hands had found a place to hold at Aziraphale's soft waist, and he was debating whether he might negotiate a permanent position for them there. "We can go back to the bookshop. I'll make you a cup of something nice and I'll lay with my head in your lap and I will read you every stupid, badly written poem I ever wrote."
"They weren't that bad," Aziraphale gasped in consternation. "Just because you rhymed sluggard with buggered—"
"Fucking hell." Crowley winced. "Is that how you knew it was me?"
"Dearest Crowley," Aziraphale said. His soft white hand cupped Crowley's face. "I had hoped. So very fiercely."
What could Crowley do but kiss him again? This time so hard both their hats tumbled to the ground to join the handkerchief.
That day, about sixty-seven Londoners found that they had lost about an hour and a quarter's time. Well, that's just the fast pace of the world now, isn't it? You think you're going somewhere and then before you know it, time just slips away from you. None of them noticed when they rejoined the flow of the clock and began walking and talking and living again.
And certainly none of them noticed the very odd pair, one all in black and one in shades of cream, walking arm in arm toward Soho with matching smiles on both their knowing lips.