It got so quiet I asked God
about the afterlife. Its existence, human continued existence.
He said Oh. That. Then sent his angel again. Who said Ummmmmmm.
I never heard from God or his rookie angel after that. I miss them.
Like creatures I made up or found in a book, then got to know a bit.
- Chen Chen, I'm not a religious person but
Angels didn't kiss, and when demons did it wasn't for pleasant reasons.
So after the apocalypse was averted, Crowley and Aziraphale didn't have a passionate embrace. There was no hedonistic slide of lips across lips, even though that would have been the appropriate response had they been humans harboring similar affections for one another. In a hypothetical universe where Crowley and Aziraphale were merely humans, it's certainly what they did. Messrs. C. R. Lee and A. Z. Fell, wealthy bachelors living in Soho, fell to their knees on the cracked tarmac and reached out. Dr. Lee clutched the back of Dr. Fell's collar, twisting it in his fist until the starched fabric pulled at Dr. Fell's neck, and they opened their mouths to each other. Dr. Fell framed Dr. Lee's face between his hands, thumbs smoothing the hair at his temples, and sighed against him with such love and contentment that the whole world stilled around them.
Crowley and Aziraphale, angel and demon, instead took a very confused bus back to London. They did sit side-by-side in one of the narrow double seats, even though there was space to sit across the aisle from each other. When the road bumped and their shoulders brushed together, Aziraphale glanced at Crowley with wide, apologetic eyes. After that, the road became miraculously smooth.
Once home, they parted ways. Crowley slept for the better part of a decade to recuperate, while Aziraphale discovered that eBay could be used to procure rare books.
They next met up again, most of ten years later, because Aziraphale couldn't remember the name of the 1980 French gold-medalist in fencing. He was stuck on his crossword puzzle. The fifth letter was a Q. The across clues were all references to pop culture since the 1960s, and thus were not helping.
France's first gold medal for foil was claimed by Pascale Trinquet-Hachin. She and her sister, also an Olympic fencer, now ran the Pharmacie du Trinquet in Paris. It had a neon green sign that flickered a little, and down the street was a butcher shop that specialized in charcuterie.
The Trinquet sisters won their medals and were utterly forgotten. Forty-three Down was a terrible clue. The constructor of Aziraphale's crossword must have been very determined to make her puzzle all but unsolvable by anyone other than a select few.
Crowley was one of those few. In the old days, he had often been dragged out to watch the bloodsport du jour with Hastur and Ligur. Even then, humans were inventing ways to hurt each other faster than demons could think up new tortures. Hastur and Ligur liked to take notes. Crowley was unimpressed by their lack of creativity. Eventually, human sport became less openly barbaric; the maulings were traded for torn rotator cuffs and repeated brain injury, and it was all less useful for hell's brainstorming sessions. The Dukes of Hell got bored and ceased to attend, but Crowley had inadvertently begun to quite enjoy fencing, and still watched it.
Crowley was not watching fencing when Aziraphale called for help with his puzzle. He was reading an argument on Twitter about the ethics of vegan cat food. There was an entire side argument about honey he was saving up to look at later.
"I'm in a bit of a pickle, my dear," Aziraphale said over the telephone.
Crowley was seized by immediate fury. Not even a decade, and they're at it again, he thought viciously. You'd think they'd be embarrassed enough to stay out of things for a few centuries at least, after botching the apocalypse like that.
"Who's done something to you?" hissed Crowley.
"Ah," said Aziraphale, in the quiet tone of someone who didn't mean to learn someone else's secrets and was mildly sheepish about it. "This crossword clue — I'm stuck — 1980s French fencer, thought you might know. It's eight letters and has a Q in it."
"Trinquet," Crowley snapped, in the tone of someone who had revealed one of his secrets and was annoyed about it.
"Oh, thank you, that fits perfectly." There was the scratching of a pen against newsprint in Aziraphale's bookshop. Then a pause, while Aziraphale decided if he should hang up on this awkward note or try to drown out the discomfort with more conversation. He chose the latter. "What are you up to, these days?"
"Not much," said Crowley. He was wasting a lot of time on Twitter, but wasn't going to admit that. @SerpentsGarden — used mainly to provide specious plant care advice — was his personal vice, and as a demon having vices was encouraged. "You?"
"Not much either. Bit stifling in the book shop these days, if I'm being perfectly honest. It's odd, not having any miracles to do and memos to write, isn't it? We don't even need the Arrangement anymore, not really."
Aziraphale was handling retirement more poorly than expected. He was used to avoiding as much work as possible, but in the absence of anything to avoid the not-working felt dimmer, somehow. Aziraphale, for the first time in his life, was bored.
Aziraphale snapped his exquisitely manicured fingers, alight with an idea. "We should have drinks," he said. "And come up with a new Arrangement, now that the old one is out of date."
Aziraphale told himself, several times, that it was ridiculous to be nervous about drinks with Crowley. They had known each other for six thousand years, for Goodness' sake. Nothing had changed.
Nothing had to change.
This was not precisely true. But Aziraphale hadn't quite put his finger on the root cause, and Crowley hadn't either. Neither of them had much experience with urgency. It was a consequence of spending a great deal of time taking eternity for granted.
There had been a long stretch of eternal goings-on before those first seven days of And-God-Saw-That-It-Was-Good. Imagine planning the largest convention in the history of all conventions, which hadn't been invented yet, for an infinite audience with all the very most important people speaking, trying to make sure nobody violated the fire code, and the only saving grace was that there wasn't much of a deadline, except that God was starting to look a bit impatient and Lucifer Morningstar was getting tetchy. Creation was much worse than that. Like many things, existence was characterized by long stretches of dullness followed by upheaval and a mad scramble of activity while everything changed.
Of the three cosmic upheavals so far, the first two had no bearing on the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale because they hadn't met yet. Their story started approximately a quarter of an eternity after Upheaval One (i.e. The Fall), and exactly eight and a half days after Upheaval Two (i.e. Creation). The apocalypse-that-wasn't (i.e. Upheaval Three) marked the first time anything had ever shaken their friendship on a scale that truly meant something to angels and demons. This was new territory.
Aziraphale spun the stem of his wine glass between his fingers. It was just Crowley, Aziraphale's dear old serpent. And now he was sprawled comfortably in Aziraphale's desk chair while Aziraphale sat in the chintzy armchair amongst his collection of eighteenth-century poetry, fiddling with his glass.
"I had to sell two books today," Aziraphale complained. Complaints were a safe topic. "I didn't mind parting with the Dune sequel, but the other was my hagiography of St. Martin! Darling Sulpicius had such a wonderful way with words, you know. And the man who took it looked like some sort of academic."
Crowley made a drawn-out sympathetic noise. "You could've said it wasn't for sale, angelcakes."
"If I didn't let people buy things from time to time, it wouldn't be a bookshop," said Aziraphale, huffing strongly enough to make the labels on the shelf beside him flutter. They were affixed with curling, yellowed tape, faded enough to be almost illegible and a few more strong breaths away from falling off entirely. It would have been a kindness to the customers if they had, given that the labels and the contents of the books on the shelves bore little resemblance to each other.
"Of course, course," said Crowley, patting the stack of receipts Aziraphale hadn't bothered to total up yet. "Functionally. Definitionally. Categorically. Categories always seemed horribly important to people. I'm not sure if I ever agreed with that."
"You have to have categories," said Aziraphale. "That's how you know what's good and what's bad." He sketched a circle in the air, then sliced his hand through it, cutting across left to right.
He covered it quickly by downing the last of his wine in one long swallow, but Aziraphale noticed anyway (never let it be said that the angel was dull) and the way Crowley's shoulder had twitched away from him, however slight and swiftly-muffled, cut at Aziraphale's heart.
"Maybe that's not right," Aziraphale said slowly. "We don't fit very well these days, do we?"
Crowley pushed his sunglasses up to rest on top of his head and treated Aziraphale to a careful, sidelong look. "Not so much, no."
Aziraphale fished a fresh bottle of wine from the crate beside his chair, almost upsetting the stack of books balanced on top of it, and busied himself finding the corkscrew, which he had dropped down between the cushions of the armchair. Crowley watched him, and wondered tipsily what it meant that he wanted to coil around Aziraphale, to sink claws and teeth into his flesh until Crowley and Aziraphale became a single unit, latched together at a hundred sharp points. Surely it was something evil. Nothing good could ever come of wanting to hold someone so close it became impossible to tell where the ethereal edged over into the occult.
Aziraphale pulled the cork free with a pop and waggled the bottle at Crowley, who held out his glass to be filled. "Have you heard about microtransactions?" Crowley asked, through a grin. "You'll hate them. If I still had superiors, I could have written such a memo."
They spent the next hour trading petty evils and small mercies, and dedicating themselves to getting much drunker. Aziraphale countered Crowley's microtransactions with his success at getting the EU to ban microplastics, which were doing something bad to the oceans. Crowley got points for shaving another two and a half inches off of the average airplane's leg room, while Aziraphale gloated that at least nobody had to use fax machines anymore.
"‘Cept when dealing with the NHS," Crowley pointed out, sitting back and raising a lazy eyebrow. Crowley loved to brag about the National Health Service bureaucracy, especially the bits on the phone.
"Why are we still doing this?" asked Aziraphale suddenly. "We're — we're retired, you could be going on long drives and winning medals at car shows, I could be a food critic, have a column in the newspaper, and instead here I am with you."
"Ohhhh," Crowley drawled, half-starting several words while he worked through a series of ill-conceived answers to Aziraphale's question, including: firstly, that Crowley liked Aziraphale's company and had missed him fiercely the past decade, secondly, that it was in their nature as angel and demon and they couldn't help it, thirdly, that it had been working pretty well for the past several millennia and Crowley was loathe to fix what wasn't broken, or, given his line of work, break what already needed fixing.
He clicked his tongue several times and then settled on saying, "I suppose, Angel, that you carry on doing good out of an in'splicable desire to help people and create a better world, while I enjoy making people miserable."
"No you don't," Aziraphale said automatically, easily, as if he was brushing aside a claim that the sky was paisley.
"I could delight in suffering, you don't've any evidence otherwise. Total — um — sadist, me."
"Pish-posh, dear. I have plenty of evidence that you are, despite yourself, a very kind person. But I don't need evidence. I don't doubt you."
Faith, that was the word for it, this thing Aziraphale was doing to Crowley. Angels remembered the trick to unquestioning belief. Demons didn't.
"Don't —" Crowley said, meaning for it to come off playful and sliding uncomfortably close to desperate. He coughed and tried again. "Don't say pish-posh. 'S absurd."
"I'll say what I like," Aziraphale said, meeting Crowley's begging gaze with his all-too-knowing one.
Crowley grabbed a fresh bottle of wine, frowned at it until the quality of the vintage improved, and swigged down a third of it in one go. "You drive me to drink, Aziraphale," he mumbled into his elbow as he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"I suspect neither of us is well-suited to endings, or non-endings, as it were," Aziraphale mused. "There are perks, though."
Crowley nodded enthusiastically, buoyed by alcohol and the change of subject. He sloshed more wine into Aziraphale's glass and kept the bottle for himself. "No more Dukes of Hell popping by for tea. Ligur smelled like over-cooked hard boiled egg, yolk all grey-green and the white all rubbery. Well, no, less a smell, more an abominable air-texture, but, but, the point is: rubbery."
"Every time Gabriel came by the shop my cocoa would turn into carob. Every time! And all of my romance novels would censor themselves. They come up with the most atrocious euphemisms, those books, when they're nervous."
"Archangel Gabriel," Crowley slurred, "is a tit."
Aziraphale gazed mistily at the ceiling. "I haven't had to bless any baptisms in years. Wet babies. Never liked them."
"No more dragging out to hell-knows-where to tempt some local parishioners into lusting after goats. I don't understand the livestock thing, really, people were getting on just fine lusting after each other's husbands. They didn't need my help."
"Mmmmm, yes. No more administrations of divine ecstasy," Aziraphale said.
"What's wrong with that?" Crowley asked.
"I always felt odd about it, I suppose," said Aziraphale, rocking his wine back and forth in the glass. The wine was still rather surprised, given that it had been a bottom-shelf merlot five minutes ago, and now was a very sophisticated Spanish red blend. "It's not that they didn't enjoy it, but it never seemed completely the up and up. One moment, they're having a quiet dream about whose turn it is to bake bread for the hungry, the next it's bathe in your heavenly reward and convulsions of pleasure. Sometimes the nuns woke up convinced they knew Jesus very intimately, and it was just me. Didn't seem quite right."
Crowley licked his lips. Aziraphale looked just as he always did, stuffy and familiar. He was wearing a tartan bow tie, for goodness' — badness' — whatever's sake. His round face was pink at the cheeks, and there was dust smudged on his temple where he'd wiped his forehead after rummaging around in the back room.
Listening to Aziraphale talk about convulsions of pleasure was unsettling, is what it was.
"Did'ja — did you know," said Crowley, "that's one of the ones I can't do anymore? Poof, n'more divine ex — etsa — the holy bliss stuff."
Crowley was more drunk than Aziraphale. He was fine with that. He certainly wasn't prepared to have any kind of conversation like this while sober.
Aziraphale squinted, trying to process this new information. Crowley noticed how this made his cheeks bunch up and crinkled the skin next to his eyes, just like when he smiled.
"I thought your sort would need it. Temptations of the flesh, ‘n all that."
"Oh, that's easy. You jus' point something out, you know? And say, oh, look there, lookit, um, that bit of stale scone you left on the side table, wouldn't it feel good to sink your teeth into it, and buttery crumbs, what's that in there, currants? Anyway, currants, good, tart fruit, people're easy for fruit, fruit's got allure, got metaphor n' shit."
Looking at his leftover lump of scone, Aziraphale's face went hot. I didn't finish it this morning because it was too dry, he thought. Now it is more dry! This is ridiculous, I do not want the rest of that scone, I should have put it in the bin hours ago.
"There's an occult bit as well," Crowley said lazily, closing his eyes and waving vaguely in the direction of Hell. "More work though."
"Do you think it would work on angels?" Aziraphale asked. Oh dear, he thought. I must be entirely pickled.
Crowley's eyes snapped open. He leaned forward with the same intent hunger he'd worn when Aziraphale admitted a long time ago that he'd given away a certain flaming sword. His eyes were very golden and his bottom lip was slightly damp. "Do you want to try?"
"No!" Aziraphale said, and looked for something more interesting than Crowley's face to study. There wasn't a single conveniently compelling object in the room. Aziraphale looked back at Crowley, whose face had gentled in the moment Aziraphale glanced away.
There was only one dance whose steps both Crowley and Aziraphale had memorized. They'd worn a groove into this particular dance floor, a perfect circle around what really it meant when Crowley offered Aziraphale a lift home and Aziraphale demurred with his heart in his throat.
Crowley wished a few more inches of wine into the bottle and handed it over to Aziraphale. As Aziraphale took it, his last two fingers caught over Crowley's knuckles. For a breathless moment, neither moved. Aziraphale's hands were meticulously soft; Crowley's knucklebones were sharp enough to split lips. The dust motes froze in the air as the world took a moment to hope this would be the time gravity took hold and they tipped into each other. Aziraphale's expression trembled on the edge of something profound.
The wide gold ring Aziraphale wore clinked against the neck of the bottle as they parted.
"Just posing a theological question. A thought experiment," Aziraphale said, composing himself.
"I hate theological questions," said Crowley, retreating into amicable contrariness.
"Of course, darling, of course."
In all their joking back and forth about temptation, Crowley had never done it to Aziraphale for real. The thought alone made his stomach crawl like it contained a live, squirming thing. It would have been unsporting, ugly: a violation, and exactly the kind of thing Hell would have wanted him to do.
With a little more imagination, Crowley's superiors could have sent him with instructions to play the long game. Befriend the angel, gain his trust, worm into his heart and seed a canker of doubt within him. Draw him away from God and then, in a searing moment of betrayal, dash the angel against the cliffs of Damnation. Craftsmanship at its finest.
What slimy animal would Hell affix to Aziraphale's head? What pustulant boils would they paint across his skin? Would he forget his name so completely that even if Crowley whispered it in his ear a thousand times, the syllables would distort into a hiss of She found you Unworthy and static? Would he ever call Crowley his darling again?
Never, never, never, Crowley silently swore.
But if Aziraphale asked, if he ever wanted to know what real temptation felt like — Crowley would say yes in an instant.
"Should be getting on," Crowley said, making a show of checking his watch.
"Oh no!" Aziraphale said, "I forgot completely about our new Arrangement. We haven't discussed it at all."
"I'll come back, angel," said Crowley. "Don't get your pinions in a twist."
"Allow me to see you to the door, then," Aziraphale said, and stood up. He listed alarmingly to the left and promptly sat back down. "Perhaps I should be less drunk, first."
"Perhaps," Crowley echoed obnoxiously. Aziraphale kicked Crowley in the ankle, then fast-tracked all the ethanol in his bloodstream through his liver. It turned obligingly into sugar and water (which was not exactly what a liver was meant to do with alcohol, but it was close enough for miraclework).
Aziraphale scrunched his nose at being abruptly sober. To Crowley's horror, he found it adorable.
Some weeks later, Crowley arrived at Aziraphale's doorstep holding a glossy potted plant. One of the leaves was faintly powdered with white mildew, and overall it was starting to droop, already resigned to its fate.
"Look here, how lovely, another plant!" Aziraphale said, taking the pot with the deep reluctance of someone receiving yet another casserole from an enthusiastic but culinarily challenged neighbor. He smiled, or rather, pulled his lips against his teeth and tilted his head to the side in a jerky simulacrum of graciousness. Aziraphale's preferred method of being rude was to pretend to be polite and do it poorly. Crowley let his mouth fall open in a delighted grin at how his offering was being received.
Aziraphale was not good with plants. The calla lily in his hands was doomed to sit in the shop window for about a fortnight, becoming progressively crispier as it succumbed to the dust, dim lighting, and lack of watering that characterized Aziraphale's plant care. Aziraphale felt terribly guilty about killing Crowley's plants. He never meant to. There was even a watering can tucked away in the back room; the tag was still looped around its handle, declaring the price to be one florin.
Crowley's houseplants were well-informed that the punishment for mildew, spots, or pests was to be gifted to Aziraphale.
"Put that on the windowsill," said Crowley, "and come along to lunch."
Aziraphale picked up a stack of books and placed it atop another, taller, stack of books to make room for Crowley's naughty plant. It strained weakly at the meager sunlight as Aziraphale scooched it into place. "There. Looks wonderful, thank you very kindly, so thoughtful of you. Now! Where are we going to eat?"
And then, just like that, the frequency of their rendezvous ticked up from their customary lackadaisical once every couple of decades to once a week — perhaps twice if Crowley was bored or there was ballet to see. It was as if the hangover from the apocalypse-ish had lifted all at once, and they had awoken fresh and more themselves than ever. If there was an air of desperation about them, a greediness akin to that of men trying to quench their thirst before the well ran dry, neither was in any mood to acknowledge it.
Aziraphale suggested they take an afternoon for a quick jaunt to the southern seaside. Crowley agreed straight away — he liked visiting Lyme Regis to have a laugh at the fossils. The Jurassic Coast was two and a half hours' drive from London, more distant than most people would term a ‘jaunt,' but most people did not drive like Crowley. Twenty minutes after picking Aziraphale up from the bookshop, the Bentley crunched up to the narrow gravel trailhead that led down the cliffs of Dorset to the beach.
Aziraphale stepped out of the passenger side wearing dated swim trunks, a horizontally striped tank top, and a wide-brimmed sunhat. Crowley refused to bow to the customs of beach-going, and wore his familiar black on black on black. He leaned on the side of the Bentley as Aziraphale fussed around with sun cream. The angel didn't need sunblock any more than a fish needed thumbs but dutifully applied it anyway, because that was the done thing.
"Missed a spot," Crowley pointed out, raising one eyebrow at a pale smear of lotion between Aziraphale's shoulder blades, just above the stupid low-slung back of his tank top.
Aziraphale spun round, craning his neck, trying to see the spot, then pursed his lips in defeat. Here come the eyes, Crowley thought, a moment before Aziraphale's expression became limpid and pleading. "I don't think I can get it myself," he said.
Crowley twirled a lazy finger — fine, yes, come here and turn around — and Aziraphale presented him with his back. The two bands of metaphysically complex skin where Aziraphale's wings sometimes sprang forth were bared by his tank top. Hypothetical feathers brushed Crowley's shoulders. He swiped his thumb through the offending sunscreen, kneading it into Aziraphale's warm skin. Touching Aziraphale felt like the moment a storm broke, all-encompassing and satisfying as a long-anticipated shift in atmospheric pressure. Aziraphale's skin was a thunderclap. Crowley assumed this was true for everyone whose hands brushed against the divine. (It wasn't.)
Aziraphale didn't make a noise, but if he had, it would have been a choked-off little groan of pleasure, the kind of sound that says oh, yes, keep doing that, it feels wonderful, those clever hands of yours. It would have been the sort of inviting noise that promises more to come, if only Crowley would keep digging his thumbs into the soft flesh on either side of Aziraphale's spine. A throaty, encouraging kind of noise. It would have been followed by Crowley's constricted gasp, I want — I want, I want, hissing wordlessly across the pharynx. But he didn't.
Crowley smeared the rest of the sun cream into a rude sigil.
Lyme Regis beach was littered with sea glass and ammonites. They walked along the edge of the surf, picking around the clumps of kelp revealed by low tide.
"Funny, knowing it's all a lark," Crowley said, watching as Aziraphale plucked a fossilized shell from the sand. "Awful lot of trouble, filling all these rocks with imaginary bones."
Aziraphale considered the ridged shell in his palm. He picked a flake of crumbly rock away from the edge with his fingernail. "I suppose…it keeps the paleontologists busy. And does certainly provide the young people with magnificent creatures to fashion their toys after."
"Lotta trouble," Crowley repeated, still looking at Aziraphale's hands.
"That's just how She is," Aziraphale whispered, turning the ammonite between his fingers. It gleamed, polished smooth by the sand and the waves. Aziraphale got like this sometimes, soft and sentimental about the wonders of creation.
It made Crowley feel instantly nauseous, for three reasons. Firstly and mainly, because Aziraphale was capable of dreadful, tooth-rotting sap. Secondly, Crowley was prone to mistaking unexpected swells of love for intestinal problems. Thirdly, and best hidden, was the tiny ulcer of sorrow eating away at the lining of Crowley's stomach, much reduced over the years but not healed, that twinged whenever Aziraphale reminded him what it had been like to have faith.
Crowley was viciously jealous of Aziraphale's manicurist, his barber, and his tailor; he was jealous of every salesperson who upsold the idiot, of every single human being who took advantage of Aziraphale's hedonism to tempt him into another indulgence. A waiter came by and twinkled a dessert menu at Aziraphale. Crowley thought about giving him acne and tinnitus for a month. Aziraphale considered the dessert options with transparent delight.
"Apricot and custard tartlets with fresh mint leaves," Aziraphale whispered, closing his eyes as he imagined what that would taste like. It would have an edge of sourness from the apricots, and then the decadent smoothness of custard, followed by a flaky crust that would be just firm enough to resist the edge of his fork as he cut through the tart, so that the metal clinked brightly against the china.
I want you to look like that when you think about me, Crowley thought, and promptly bit his tongue.
Aziraphale did, in fact, consider Crowley with the same covetous desire he lavished on restaurant menus. He just made sure not to do it while Crowley was watching. Every June since 1972 he'd been quietly attending the London Pride Parade. Among the floats and banners, he would twist his fingers together, shut his eyes, and feel bitterly, unfairly envious of every glitter-drenched couple holding hands.
"But they have gelato as well," Aziraphale said, genuinely distressed at the number of options on the dessert menu. "Stracciatella, even, oh, they only make that flavor on special days when their pastry chef has an extra half hour in the morning."
"Help me choose," said Aziraphale, flapping the menu in Crowley's direction.
"Sinfully silky dark chocolate flourless torte."
"They don't have that, you didn't even read it."
Crowley raised his eyebrows. "Really? Everyone has that on their menu, and they all name it something naughty. It's a universal constant."
"This restaurant is upscale," Aziraphale sniffed. "Flourless chocolate cake is no longer de rigueur."
Aziraphale hemmed and hawed over the six options, and ended up asking the waiter what his favorites were anyway. They had an animated discussion about mouthfeel. Crowley dipped his finger in the condensation left on his wine glass and drew an occult symbol on the tablecloth. Every other diner in the restaurant found that their food and drinks were suddenly room-temperature.
"Absolutely scrummy!" Aziraphale declared when he had finished, checking his shirtfront for stray crumbs.
"Please, no, don't say scrummy. You speak every language on earth except for French, surely there are other words you could use to describe your dessert."
"It's scrummy," Aziraphale said stubbornly. "That's the most accurate descriptor out of all the adjectives in the world, excepting the possibility that they have a better name for it in Paris."
"I believe the French you're looking for is tu me fais chier, mon Ange."
"My dear, I know what that means," Aziraphale scolded. "And it's not very nice."
"I'm not supposed to be nice, angel." He would have protested more, but Aziraphale looked so pleased with himself, sated with food and wine and Crowley's company, that it was devilishly hard to resist being charmed, even if one was a demon with an image to maintain.
Aziraphale brought Crowley a plant. It wasn't alive — as previously established, Aziraphale had no truck with keeping houseplants healthy. Instead he presented Crowley with one of the last genuine vegetable lambs. In the fourteenth century, while Crowley slept, Sir John Mandeville went to Tartary and reported how tiny sheep grew inside of gourds, which in time split open to reveal tiny lambs. Aziraphale had been friendly with Mandeville, despite his propensity for outrageous lies, and had followed him to what had not yet been Mongolia. There he collected a few specimens of the vegetable lamb before they went extinct, wiped out by the over-harvesting and scientific doubt. The one he was giving to Crowley was preserved under a glass dome, curled white and fluffy at the top of a woody stem.
It was an odd little piece of Aziraphale. For anyone else, it would have been a bewildering, unwanted gift. For Crowley, it was perfect.
Aziraphale loved many things in the general. He knew the name of every kind of tree — be it black locust, kauri, or ginkgo — and cared deeply for them all. He enjoyed gardens, forests, and meadows, provided the weather was fair. He was made of love, and it blanketed everything around him. Aziraphale adored in toto.
Crowley, in contrast, loved only a few things, but he did it with specificity. He loved as an arrow-point. Crowley cared for the pansies in his neighbor's window-box, which bloomed purple and yellow-kissed, the peacock plant in his entryway whose second common name was the cathedral fern, and the patch of mint that plagued R. P. Tyler's front garden and refused to die; he was entirely indifferent to rainforests.
Crowley nestled the vegetable lamb on his bookshelf (fashionably devoid of books), and Aziraphale's gift joined the things that Crowley sharply treasured, another star among the pinpricks of devotion that tied Crowley to Aziraphale, and the world.
In accordance with the cultural norms of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Crowley and Aziraphale didn't touch terribly often. There had been a time when Crowley would throw his arm over Aziraphale's shoulder, leaning in close to examine whatever the angel was reading (or writing, or fussing over, or eating). Often, Aziraphale would absentmindedly catch Crowley's hand and anchor it there, easy and satisfied in friendship. Aziraphale fondly remembered the Baths of Caracalla, mineral-steeped water lapping at his shoulders, Crowley's head heavy and damp against his chest as he half-floated in the warm water. Crowley had liked the place for the grand cultish statues of handsome men holding snakes; Aziraphale was partial to the heated marble floors in the cold Anatolian winter.
But social mores shifted, and they found themselves separated by propriety.
Aziraphale in particular, being a creature of excess, found that scarcity could make a thing agonizingly precious. So when Crowley was hit by a careless cyclist in the nineties (Aziraphale had been on an eco-friendly transport kick), it gave Aziraphale the rare chance prod up and down Crowley's sides, looking for sore spots to miracle away. He tried very hard to feel appropriately terrible that his friend had been hurt, and couldn't quite manage it.
Shortly after it became taboo for Aziraphale to lean into Crowley's lap, Crowley made a point of taking Aziraphale to the Scenic Railway at Dreamland Margate, having learned about rollercoasters in America and immediately imported the idea. It wasn't the most diabolical plan he'd ever executed, but it was selfish, which suited his nature. The carnival barkers were all cheats, at least. Hundreds of children inflicted their parents with unexpected prize goldfish. He'd made it look good in the memo. The true reason he dragged Aziraphale out to Dreamland was because during the drops, Aziraphale would clutch at his sleeve. Sometimes, at the crest of the hill, he would even grab Crowley's hand and squeeze all the blood out of it in anticipation. Aziraphale claimed that he found all the rides dreadful, dangerous inventions.
A few days after their lovely outing to the beach, Crowley barged into the bookshop, in a foul mood and drenched from the soles of his shoes up. He ripped his sunglasses off as soon as the door slammed behind him. "Can't see a blessed thing," he snarled, wiping them vigorously on the hem of his wet shirt. It only smeared the rain around, adding water as quickly as it mopped it up.
Aziraphale shelved the book he was holding and put down his pencil on top of the shelf. He'd been crossing out the prices on the inside covers and writing in higher ones, as inflation had made some of his prices much too reasonable over the past few decades. Crowley dripped onto his floor and scowled.
"Do stop that," said Aziraphale, clucking over how sodden Crowley had gotten himself. He tugged the glasses gently away from Crowley. Then he flushed, because he'd never — Crowley didn't like people touching his sunglasses. Crowley met his eyes, water dripping outrageously from his eyelashes, sticking them together in dark points and pasting his eyebrows flat against his skin.
Aziraphale produced a handkerchief and dabbed the drops of water away from Crowley's glasses. When Crowley took them back, the nicks in the lenses had been mysteriously smoothed away.
He didn't put them back on. He folded the arms in with a quiet click of metal and set them down atop a pile of books.
"Cocoa?" Aziraphale asked, whispery and distracted over the uninterrupted cut of Crowley's cheekbones glistening with fallen rain.
Crowley made a sputtering scoff. "Cocoa — I — this is — you offer me cocoa! In this weather? Hell's sake, fetch me a coffee, angel. An Irish coffee!" He shivered, damply. "A very Irish coffee."
"As you like."
Aziraphale produced cocoa, coffee, and whiskey. He handed Crowley the coffee and whiskey to mix in whatever ratio he pleased, and heated up the cocoa for himself. The mugs in Aziraphale's possession were, to the last, kitschy and unmatched. This time, Crowley got the kind with a figurine affixed to the bottom, so that it was revealed in the bottom of one's cup as they finished their drink. This particular mug had a chubby, misshapen cherub poking up out of Crowley's coffee. Its porcelain face had the pink cheeks painted too high, coloring it its eyes and giving it the look of having a bout of hay fever. Crowley sloshed whiskey into the mug, drowning its horrible angelic smile. Aziraphale's mug was a limited edition 1966 World Cup souvenir. It was very colorful.
"Let's get the rest of you taken care of," Aziraphale said, and clicked his fingers. The water weighing Crowley down zipped itself off to the Thames, leaving him so dry his clothes crackled with static.
They found themselves ambling through one of their well-trodden drinking games, where Crowley pointed out an oddity of nature and Aziraphale tried to divine what the Almighty had been thinking when She made that one. Aziraphale was forced to admit that Her divine will included a deep vein of inscrutable humor.
"How come elephants don't get cancer?" Crowley demanded. Aziraphale had spent three years making social calls on Pliny the Elder, explaining what elephants looked like so he could finish his Natural Hiftories. Pliny had never quite gotten the trunk right, or the feet. He did, at Aziraphale's behest, put in a bit about serpents being the elephant's oldest foe.
"Elephants don't get cancer?" Aziraphale asked, revealing that perhaps Pliny's difficulty describing elephants was because Aziraphale didn't know very much about elephants.
Stumped, they went through all of their respective experiences with elephants, including a diversion through whether or not mammoths had actually existed. On the one hand, fossils, hah. On the other, the last mammoths had presumably lived until sixteen hundred BC. Crowley said he'd seen one.
This took several hours, and by the end they'd had several very Irish coffees apiece, and didn't remember where they'd started.
"You never said how you like my new cologne," Aziraphale sighed. He pouted, as if Crowley hadn't noticed a new haircut. Nevermind that Crowley had kept track of Aziraphale's precise smell for fifty centuries.
When Aziraphale first discovered men's fragrance in 1934, Crowley had taken one sniff of him and sneezed at the change. "You smell like crushed velvet and human," he'd complained.
"It's cologne. The first scent crafted specifically for the discerning gentleman!" said Aziraphale, plucking a bottle out of his pocket. It was the sort of satisfying object he always found himself collecting if he didn't keep an eye on it. The perfume inside was delicate green; the thick, wavy glass sat heavy and glittering in his hand.
"Hmph," Crowley had said, but by the end of the next decade the cologne had worked its way into his hindbrain, along with a library of every other scent that had ever clung to Aziraphale. Crowley didn't bother much with perfume for himself. Wearing cologne gave him a headache; the strong smell coated his tongue and pushed its way into his brain until he was fuzzy-headed. But if a man or a woman walked by wearing even a hint of something Aziraphale had been partial to, Crowley would know the scent by name.
Aziraphale's current signature scent was pleasant but not adventurous. It suited him well; Aziraphale's barber had top notch taste.
"You must try it," Aziraphale said, brightening up. He popped into the powder room and came back brandishing a rectangular bottle made of smoked glass. Crowley stared into his darkling reflection in the polished black stopper.
Aziraphale covered the mouth of the bottle with two forefingers and tipped it upside-down, wetting his fingertips, so taken with the excitement of a new fashion that he didn't think for a moment about human custom. "Tip your head to one side, there's a dear."
He stopped bare inches from Crowley's neck. The smell of dark, oiled wood coiled over Crowley's palate, suffusing his nose and throat with the already-familiar perfume. "Ah, I've forgotten my manners," he said softly, tsking lowly at himself. "Here, you're welcome to put it on yourself."
"Well," said Crowley, catching the tail end of the word between his vocal cords and audibly chewing on it for a long moment, "you don't want to waste what's already on your hand. Let's have it then."
Aziraphale's gaze darted from Crowley's neck, to his eyes, down to his mouth and back up again. Then he leaned in and wiped cologne over the thin skin just under Crowley's jaw. Crowley was sporting a roguish shadow of stubble, and it scraped, light and sandpapery, under Aziraphale's fingertips. Crowley swallowed. He could feel his pulse fluttering against Aziraphale's fingers as his arteries clenched with the tempo of his heart.
Aziraphale turned Crowley's head the other way with a touch of his dry hand on Crowley's chin, and did the left side as well.
Without being asked, Crowley held up his wrists out for Aziraphale to anoint with cologne.
Aziraphale took Crowley's hands one by one and rubbed them with what was left of the perfume oil, like he was signing a bookplate in permanent ink. It smelled subtly different on Crowley's skin. The notes of suede and amber stood out more sharply, and the faint sweetness of violets receded. The aroma, made volatile by the warmth between Aziraphale's hands and Crowley's bare wrists, suffused the atmosphere of the bookshop. Crowley's head swam, full of perfume. He scratched at the serpent tattoo on his temple and was hit with a sinus-full of Aziraphale.
"So? How do you like it?"
"Ah, hmmm, huh?" Crowley mumbled, dizzy.
"I want to know what you think of the cologne, Crowley."
"It's, I dunno, it smells like you, I like it, alright?"
"Oh," Aziraphale said, shoulders bouncing once in satisfaction. "I'll keep wearing it then."
That winter, the Royal Shakespeare Company put on a stellar performance of Henry IV Part I. Crowley and Aziraphale went to see the play together, and, as a matter of course, talked throughout the entire production. Aziraphale was polite enough to make sure the rest of the audience couldn't hear them, but it was hard to break old habits, and it wasn't like they needed to hear the lines. They'd seen Henry IV twenty or thirty times apiece, in many different versions.
"I liked it better when they called him Oldcastle," said Aziraphale, in the middle of one of the funny bits.
"That's because Shakespeare wrote Falstaff as a fat old bastard, and you never liked the actual John Oldcastle, because — why was it again?"
"His translation of the Bible was very poor."
"Didn't he also say that the Godly weren't supposed to have all the plush, comfortable trappings of —"
"Do shut up and watch the play," Aziraphale said, and smacked Crowley several times in the arm with his playbill.
They got ripping drunk during the intermission, since both agreed that old Bill always accounted for the audience getting rowdier in the second half, and thus acts three through five were best enjoyed while sloshed. They stumbled out of the theater, leaning on each other just a bit, arguing amicably about the moral character of Prince Hal.
"I think," Aziraphale was saying, head tipped back to look for stars in the smoggy winter sky and swerving a little, "that a young man deserves a chance to become kingly in his own time. Hal was — he fell in with a bad crowd, you know, but when need arose he put it all aside for the greater good."
"…No," Crowley declared, after pronouncing the entire ellipsis, "Prince Hal. Is — entirely — a scoundrel."
"Only until he learns better. Then he sheds all of that and becomes quite the king! Nobility grown from the rejection of villainy is more potent than that which was noble from the start."
"He's a conniving little shit."
"I don't understand why you're being so difficult about it. You like conniving."
"You don't lie to your friends," Crowley said.
Aziraphale knew what a touchy subject looked like, even while plastered, and staged a conversational swerve to the left. "Do you remember that movie with the evil computer named Hal?"
"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do," Crowley sang.
"I never liked the end of Two Thousand And One A Space Odyssey," Aziraphale said. "The colors make me queasy. Homer wrote a much better version."
"Angel, you're drunk. Not everything with Odyssey in the title is about the Odyssey."
Aziraphale grumbled in disagreement. "All stories are about the Odyssey."
"There were no misanthropic robots in Troy."
"There could've been. As a metaphor. Could've been an oracle, or — um — a magic loom. Computers are descended from looms, did you know? Invented to make it easier for weavers to make complicated patterns. Awfully clever of the humans, if you ask me."
"An enterprising bunch, for sure."
"We'll be on their side, when the big one comes, won't we?" Aziraphale asked, blinking into the chill wind. He was suddenly worried that he wouldn't be brave enough to do it without Crowley by his side. "We'll stand up for the world again."
"Of course," said Crowley, and what he meant was I love you. Crowley didn't know that. He thought he meant you idiot, those bastards aren't fucking up my car again without a fight.
Up ahead, a Christmas market sprawled across the square. It twinkled with strands of fairy lights strung over their heads between two rows of white-canopied tents. London pedestrians wandered through, now and then drawn over to the tables laden with spice cakes, nutcrackers, and hand-pulled candy canes. One booth sported a small army of Santa figurines; another bracelets and earrings made of tiny round bells, the seller festooned and jingling with her own wares. Somewhere nearby, a boombox piped out tinny carols. Crowley flicked a wicker reindeer statue in the red pom-pom nose.
"Your people could exercise a little more restraint with the Christmas spirit garbage. It's barely November yet. Give a demon a break, four weeks of holiday cheer is more than enough already. I can make do with greedy children driving their parents nuts asking for the new playstation and elderly relatives showing up at your door with complaints about how you've hung the eaves, but eventually one runs out of material."
"I thought that was your people. So tawdry and endless, it's horrible. I'm expected to have a tree in the shop, which drops needles all over the floor and is absolutely a fire hazard — I'm still sensitive about that, can't imagine all my poor books up in flames again — and then last year some American tourists came in and asked if I had a copy of Elf on the Shelf. The nerve!"
"What self-respecting denizen of Hell wants more of — of — " Crowley casts about to find a particularly offending object to make an example of — "snowman cookie jars with gumdrop buttons and precious knitted mittens!"
Aziraphale hmphed over the sight. "Well, it's not much to my taste either."
On the corner was a white and silver truck steaming with the smell of caramelizing sugar. Aziraphale wanted hot candied almonds, and chatted easily with the vendor as he filled the paper cone with a small copper scoop. By the time Aziraphale paid for his nuts, he'd learned three generations worth of praline recipes and was tutting sympathetically about the poor manners of health inspectors. At home that night, the man would find his tip jar filled with unexpectedly large bills.
Aziraphale pulled off his pale lambskin gloves to eat; he promptly burnt his fingers. Crowley rolled his eyes fondly as the angel didn't even pause before trying to pick up another almond, and burnt his fingers again. Aziraphale blew on his fingertips to soothe them, then blew on the nuts as well to cool them off. Crowley took them on another trip around the block so he could watch Aziraphale happily savoring his candied almonds, crunching obnoxiously and licking his fingers clean between bites.
If they'd been human, Crowley might have taken this perfect moment to catch Aziraphale's free hand in his. Aziraphale's fingers were cold without his gloves, and he would have welcomed the shared warmth. But — well — they hadn't been touchy people for the past several centuries, and it was a difficult thing, changing what one thought of as his nature. So instead, once Aziraphale had finished his snack, Crowley said, "put your gloves back on, angel, let's go home," and steered them towards the Bentley.
Crowley itched. Hell had invented most allergies and skin conditions; Crowley himself had thought up the way it felt when wet sand got into bathing suits. Knowing the sensation was his side's fault didn't make it more bearable.
He thought he might be in shed. He stood in front of the mirror and peered at his eyes, pulling one eyelid down to check for cloudy blueness, but they looked as golden as always. Crowley bared his teeth at them. He made an effort and coaxed his pupils into roundness. He darkened his irises from canary-yellow to whiskey-amber, and stared into a face that was almost familiar. It was like breathing in a scent he was just barely incapable of naming, like feeling the rush of old, dusty emotions associated with a song but being unable to recall the melody. He couldn't keep it up for long. Changing his eyes made them feel impatient, like a knuckle that needed cracking and just wouldn't pop.
Crowley let his pupils snap back to normal and stalked off.
He tried switching his clothes from leather and tight denim to swishy silk robes, open in the front, in delicate patterns that caressed his skin. He tried wrapping himself in furs: mink and fox and Russian lynx.
It was worse around Aziraphale. His skin felt urgent under his clothes but had nothing to focus on, only tiny pinches and chafes that were wholly unsatisfying. He was a live wire with no way to the ground. Everything was too distant, too isolating, too vague.
In Aziraphale's bookshop Crowley hovered over the angel, palms prickling with emptiness. By Crowley's reckoning, Aziraphale was doing something esoteric with stinking chemicals for no earthly reason. From Aziraphale's point of view, he was doing book restoration the proper way. This particular volume was filled with striking intaglio prints depicting illustrations of Armageddon. One of the pages had been eaten practically into dust by silverfish, thanks to a previous careless owner who had left it somewhere damp. There were cheap mass-produced reproductions available, but Aziraphale wasn't going to settle for anything less than hand-made. So, he prepared a copper plate, a diamond-tipped needle, and a pan of etching acid. It was a long, painstaking process, but it produced a highly satisfying result.
Aziraphale scratched one last line into the printing plate and brushed it carefully clean. "Does that look sufficiently faithful to the original?" he asked, tilting it into the lamplight.
"How would I know?" Crowley asked, irritable after an hour of watching Aziraphale bent over his desk making tiny chicken-scratches and ignoring him.
Aziraphale puffed out a satisfied noise, uninterested in Crowley's assessment, and put the plate down, turning his attention to the acid bath. He paused, then breathed a small, ah yes, and worked the gold ring off of his pinkie finger.
"Hold onto this?" Aziraphale asked, already dropping the ring into Crowley's cupped hands. "For safekeeping," he added, something aching and tender passing feather-light across his face.
Aziraphale's ring was heavy and warm.
Acid fizzed, biting into the metal plate. Aziraphale checked the time and moseyed off to make more tea. Crowley stayed where he was, heart in his hands.
Four days before Adam's twenty-first birthday, Aziraphale and Crowley met in their mutual favorite boutique liquor store. Specifically, they met in a full-body thump: Aziraphale saw someone reaching for the Chardonnay he'd been eyeing and charged forward without checking who it was. Crowley almost went down in a jumble of ungainly limbs, and was only saved from becoming the demonic equivalent of a game of pick-up sticks by Aziraphale's hand fisted in the front of his shirt.
"Oh, goodness me, apologies, my dear," Aziraphale said, setting Crowley back properly on his feet and smoothing his shirt back into place.
"Mmm, yes, quite, um," said Crowley.
It had been ten years to the day since the end of the world. The ex-Antichrist was graduating from uni with a first and getting drunk in celebration. Crowley and Aziraphale had ignored Adam's teens entirely. Perhaps this was excusable, given that they had met Adam only briefly, under extreme duress, on the tarmac of an airbase. They had also ignored young master Warlock's adolescence, and they'd had a much larger role in his upbringing, but this was definitely excusable, because neither had particularly liked the boy. A decade was a very long time, when one was a child, and wasn't very long at all when one was immortal. For them, decades passed like Sunday afternoons.
Crowley and Aziraphale, who were not terribly adept at giving gifts, were buying what they themselves would have most liked to receive from guilty relatives who had forgotten several birthdays in a row: extremely expensive alcohol that Adam was unlikely to appreciate. Crowley bought a single malt that tasted like licking a river stone while a hundred and eighty decibels of girlpunk blasted six inches from your left ear. Aziraphale found a Barolo that had been socked away in the cellars of Giacomo Borgogno's vineyard in 1971. It tasted like black cherry, cloves, and running your finger along the blade of a perfectly honed knife.
Aziraphale made such eyes at the selection of Grand Cru Champagne that Crowley snatched two bottles off the shelf as well, for personal consumption.
When Crowley and Aziraphale arrived at Adam's party, Adam took one look at them and said, "Whoa."
"Who are these weirdos?" asked Pepper.
Adam stuck his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "Family friends. Kinda uncles, I guess."
Crowley and Aziraphale set their presents on the table beside the cake: one sleek box in matte black, one heavy green bottle in a pristine white paper bag.
Adam was home for the summer before going off for one last year of schooling, getting a masters in London. For the past three years Adam had been making an absolute nuisance of himself at uni. He was clever at his classes, ran several student organizations, and knew all the fun places to break into. The anatomy lab in particular had stinking bags of organs and an old dusty dolphin skeleton and weird things in the back of the fridge. Adam Young threw the best parties, knew where to get the best weed, and was secretly very, very homesick.
The rest of the Them carried on according to their natures. Pepper had earned a series of accelerated degrees, learned three languages, and was splitting her time between clearing minefields in Cambodia and shouting at Parliament about women's rights. Wensleydale was in accounting, but had a side hobby in breeding parrots that would, in several years, become much more important to him than moving other people's money around. Brian played video games professionally, a career choice that his parents deeply disapproved of until he showed them the ad revenue from his online streams.
This summer was different from the others, not because Adam was turning twenty-one, but because this summer, along with his usual stack of classics texts, Adam brought along a girlfriend. She liked rock climbing without ropes, Paradise Lost, and breaking into the anatomy lab with Adam.
Watching Adam argue with his new girlfriend about how much icing should go on a birthday cake (lots, they agreed, unless it was lemon glaze, in which case: what was the point), Aziraphale felt hungry. This made no sense. He and Crowley had seen more of each other in the past several months than they had in the entire fifteenth century. Aziraphale had never felt impatient before. All things would come in their due time. Adam's girlfriend dropped her fork on the grass and Adam passed her his without a second thought, then bent and picked hers up from the ground for himself.
After a few hours of lingering — malingering, in Crowley's case — on the edges of Adam's life, Crowley and Aziraphale retreated out front of the Young household to lean on the roof of the Bentley and smoke. Aziraphale watched Crowley's hands, and how the sweep of his hair cast a shadow across the planes of his brow in the perfect summer sunlight. Crowley finished his cigarette and flicked the butt onto the grass; Aziraphale pouted at him until Crowley rolled his eyes and snapped it off to Somewhere Else.
The beauty of ducking out to grab a smoke was that it put everyone on the same team. Outside of a bar, in the alley between skyscrapers, fifty feet from the entrance to a hospital: the smoking area found its people. Humans were bound together by ritual from the very beginning, and passing a lighter back and forth was as much of a ritual as anything involving chalk sigils and virgin blood.
Aziraphale handed Crowley a fresh cigarette; Crowley flicked his thumbnail against his forefinger and a small flame danced to life above his fingertip.
Aziraphale stared at Crowley with longing thick enough that it could have been plucked from the air and carded into wool. He had a second theological question creeping around in the attic of his mind.
There was the familiar, would temptation work on an angel? And now, footsteps creaking along the floorboards, would holy bliss work on a demon?
Aziraphale had always tried to make it pleasant for the nuns and the mystics. He cloaked himself in light, put on soothing pan flutes in the background, and if there was any business with levitation he did his best to set them down gently. But the entire point was for the experience to be holy — the original definition of holy, meaning apart from all human understanding, meaning beyond, meaning indescribable and sublime. Humans weren't built to hold the holy in comfort. They just weren't big enough on the inside.
He'd felt frankly terrible reading the accounts from St. Theresa of Avila. All that thrusting and dragging of entrails and exquisite pain. And the less said about the Venerable Agnes Blannbekin and her — ah — Holy Prepuce fixation, the better. He hadn't been lying when he told Crowley he was glad that the split with Upstairs meant he wasn't tasked with any more divine ecstasies.
And yet, well.
In the sixteenth century the body thrashing and choking on the divine had been a plain medieval woman whose breath stank from fasting. He'd been filled with pity, mainly. Now he couldn't help transposing a different person into the scene. In Aziraphale's mind, Crowley's back arched up from the thin woven mat covering the cold convent floor. Aziraphale hushed him, even while he flooded his body with more unbearable golden bliss. Crowley grasped for purchase on the stone beneath him, at first frantically enough to scrape the skin from his fingertips, then more weakly as his strength faded. His eyes rolled back into pale, fluttering crescents, blind by Aziraphale's hand. Don't be afraid, dear, he whispered in Crowley's ear. It's only a blessing. A reward for your devotion. Spoken to Crowley, the words wouldn't be about devotion to God.
Aziraphale had thrown a sheet over these thoughts and pretended they weren't there. He was good at that. If Aziraphale's mind was like a grand chateau perched on a verdant mountainside, a significant subset of the rooms looked ready for re-painting, all the furniture draped and shoved away from the walls, the windows taped off with butcher-paper so no-one could look in on the half-finished clutter.
Now he'd seen Adam's girlfriend snatch a wasp out of the air and stuff it under the Antichrist's shirt, and it had thrown the windows open. The golden breeze of love in Tadfield lifted the heavy curtains, kicked up the dust, and Aziraphale brimmed with wanting.
Crowley breathed out steel-blue smoke. Aziraphale tapped the ash of his cigarette against the wrought iron gate. The reedy notes of Happy Birthday rose thinly over the garden wall.
"I know you hate theological questions," Aziraphale said, "but what about practical explorations?"
Crowley looked sideways at him from behind his sunglasses. "Depends on what they're about."
"I was wondering about…the occult bit."
One of Crowley's sharp-boned shoulders lifted and fell. "I think Adam still puts a thumb on the scales from time to time, but I can't sense anything dangerously non-human around him."
"No, not Adam, not — oh, bother, I am not doing this very well," Aziraphale said, drooping.
Crowley didn't move, but his entire posture still shifted, like his very bones were zeroing in on Aziraphale. He made to lift his sunglasses, thought better of it, and turned the motion into another drag on his cigarette. Aziraphale drew small fretful patterns on the roof of the Bentley. He was not very good at hiding things from Crowley, despite having had a long time to practice, he never wanted to — even when he should — he just — it was no good, not with Crowley. Six thousand years was a long time to know someone, and Crowley had been paying attention the entire time. Aziraphale was very afraid that he was looking at Crowley the same way he'd looked at that stale scone, piss-drunk in the back room of his bookshop.
"Tell me your practical theological question," Crowley said.
"How did you get Eve to eat that apple?"
Crowley squirmed. He still wasn't sure if it had been the wrong thing to do, and it was a sore spot. "Mostly we had a frustrating conversation — explaining the finer details of rebelling against the status quo is difficult when your audience doesn't know the difference between good and evil."
"And then you did the occult bit?"
Crowley's spine acquired several new points of articulation to allow him to squirm in additional directions. He would rather Aziraphale not bend the full power of his nontrivial intellect towards the question is The Serpent, aka Crawley, aka Crowley, Anthony J. irredeemable vis a vis apples, vis a vis Original Sin?
Determined to approach this with his customary aplomb, Crowley slouched against the car and continued to explain. "Eventually Eve got annoyed with me hissing in her ear and, honestly, I was annoyed about getting her hair stuck to my tongue. So she asked if the apple would make it easier to understand my damn argument, and I said yes, that's literally the point, of course it would make it easier, so she plucked it off the tree, ate it, and winged the core at my head. I don't cheat, not on things that are important. Not on things that might hurt people. They have to choose it, themselves, that's been the whole point of everything, from the Beginning. So no, not technically, I didn't. Not with Eve."
Aziraphale was starting to feel like Eve, listening to Crowley talk himself into knots. The demon was vibrating slightly; watching him made Aziraphale's teeth hurt like he was leaning his head against a bus window as it drove down an uneven road. It was intolerable, and Aziraphale's angelic patience was worn thin: by the sunshine he felt he ought to be enjoying more, by the too-tight waistcoat sensation of time moving faster than expected, by Crowley being so close and also exactly the same distance away as always.
"What I want to know," Aziraphale huffed, completely fed up, "is what temptation feels like. So you should describe it to me. Or try it. On me."
Crowley's mouth fell open in soft shock. "On you?"
"Yes — I — I want to give it a go. Before we run out of time."
"We're not going to run out of time," Crowley said, so gently, like the grip of a half-grown child who'd been handed an infant and admonished to watch his head. "There's no hurry. No rush."
"We've been waiting awfully long," Aziraphale said. "Maybe I'm tired of it. I think I want to try something new."
"Yeah, alright then." said Crowley, quite proud that it came out only half-strangled. The birthday party was ending — soon the front garden would be dotted with people heading back to their cars.
"Lift home?" Crowley asked. It meant the same thing it always had.
"Your place, I think," said Aziraphale.
Crowley nodded, flicked the rest of his cigarette out of existence, and broke quite a few traffic laws on the way back to London.
Once they arrived, Crowley disappeared briefly to freshen up. Not out of any personal hygiene concerns — he didn't have those — for Crowley freshening up meant hissing at the plants to behave, followed by a quick circuit around the flat checking for things he didn't want Aziraphale to see. Namely, anything overly sentimental, or worse, books.
When he returned he discovered that Aziraphale had made himself comfortable in the kitchen and was assembling a charcuterie board. When nervous, Aziraphale could always turn to tapas.
One could be forgiven for assuming Crowley's flat would be devoid of foodstuffs, given that he didn't eat much, but in fact his refrigerator was quite full. It was packed precariously with takeout boxes, alcohol, and packages wrapped in butcher paper. Like all refrigerators of this kind, it was possible to find almost anything inside of it, provided the person hunting wasn't afraid of knocking a few things over. Among the bottles of champagne, white wine, and non-dairy creamer Aziraphale had unearthed a variety of cheeses and cured meats. He was, at that moment, cooing over a pot of cornichons.
Crowley picked a small pickle out of the vinegar and crunched on it. Aziraphale halfheartedly swatted at him — "wait until I'm finished, dear!" — and Crowley promptly stole another, on principle. Food was alright, provided it was expensive and came in small portions.
Aziraphale arranged pickles and aged cheese on the charcuterie board, cut into pleasing bite-sized pieces. Then he took a long, thin knife and drew it deftly across the leg of cured ham. Prosciutto fell to the cutting board in a curling ribbon, so thin that it draped like satin. Aziraphale added slices of bresaola, mortadella, and coppa di testa, all laid out in translucent piles.
They leaned on the counter as they snacked, and spoke mostly of history. There was so much past, for each of them. They could fill the air for hours with do you remember? Aziraphale ate with his hands, sighing occasionally about protein crystals and marbling. Crowley picked at the meat and cheese, but mostly he watched.
Once finished, Aziraphale licked grease from his fingers, and they drifted into the dining room.
"Do you remember those oysters in Rome?" Aziraphale asked.
"Your first temptation — not something I would forget."
"Oh, it was hardly a temptation," Aziraphale protested. "More of a — hm — a peace offering, certainly. Closing a hole in your knowledge of the world. A good deed, one could say!"
"Oysters are an aphrodisiac," Crowley said, gently teasing.
"That is a lie told to sell oysters."
Crowley shrugged. "Whatever gets the job done. I'd dock you points, honestly, angel, for not mentioning that at the time. An accomplished tempter would definitely stir in a little sex."
"Of course," Aziraphale said dryly. "You're the expert."
"Ready for a demonstration?" Crowley asked.
Aziraphale glanced away and smiled, a small inward expression, coy and tinged with sneaky glee. Then he looked slant-wise back at Crowley. "Is there anything special you need? What do you use for it?"
"Anything, really," said Crowley, tapping one fingernail against his teeth. "Temptation is about the wanting, not the having, so the object of desire is inconsequential. It could be a rubber chicken, or a trip to the moon." But even as he said it, Crowley already had a fruit in mind.
Figs were, after all, very traditional. Second only, perhaps, to apples.
Crowley picked up a plate of figs from atop his pristine porcelain-topped dining table. The table had arrived in Crowley's apartment fifteen years ago, imported from a glass and ceramics studio in Japan that specialized in avant garde furniture. It had cost ten thousand dollars, not including the shipping. The figs arrived from a tree in Turkey the moment Crowley reached for them. They were from the best, most beloved fig tree in the world, which produced the best, most delicious figs. The tree grew in the backyard of a small Kurdish family who had defended the property from developers for the past seven generations. The children who lived there would boost their cousins up to its top branches to pluck ripe figs long before they were strong enough to climb on their own. Across the continent, its leaves swayed, suddenly unburdened.
The figs were soft, velvety purple-black, and still warm from the sun. They were so heavy with ripeness that the fruit had just begun to split at the bottom, clear sap beading sweetly on the dark skins. The plate was a delicate china saucer, ringed in gold filigree that looked like feathers, or scales, depending on one's frame of reference.
"Those are lovely, aren't they?" said Aziraphale. His grey-eyed gaze was already fixed on the plate in Crowley's hands. It was never difficult to make Aziraphale want something. He desired things like hand-stitched lapels, antique chess sets with all the original pieces, and clever little music boxes with mechanical swans on the lid, their hinged wings stroking against a non-existent wind while bright notes plinked into the air.
Crowley liked very much to watch Aziraphale absorbed in anticipation. It showed plainly all over his face, when he bent over a bowl of pho or a platter of pakoras, in the quirk of his cupid-bow mouth and the pleased shimmy of his shoulders.
"May I have one?" asked Aziraphale, already reaching out. "I would like it very much — is this you? Are you doing it?"
"No," Crowley said. He covered the figs with one hand, so that Aziraphale couldn't get to them, and with a quick occult twist, made them irresistible.
"Oh," he said, soft and awed. "It does work."
Crowley hadn't been entirely truthful — temptation was about wanting, but there was a second part, which was the forbidden. So Aziraphale couldn't have any, not just yet. Crowley ran one fingertip over the skin of the figs, appreciating how the dusky coating rubbed away under his touch. Figs weren't fruit, on a technicality. Look for flowers on a fig tree and none would appear. The fig itself was the flower — an inflorescence, seeds and petals inverted — sweet and grotesque at the same time.
To grow a fig required the death of a wasp. Because the flower was inside out, the only way to get to the pistils and stamens was to crawl inside. A female wasp, her body covered in pollen, pushed her way inside, leaving fertility in her wake. She laid eggs and expired, energy all spent. Her children would hatch inside the fruit, consume their fill of nectar, and copulate. The sons then died, flightless, beside their mother, in the place they were born. The daughters coated themselves in pollen and flew away, to find their own figs; their own resting places.
Demons knew how sex and death were entwined. It was why humans touched each other, and those born of angelic stock did not. Without one, it was difficult to imagine the other, and angels didn't die.
But Crowley had brushed close to losing Aziraphale, and Aziraphale had looked into a seething mass of Hell screaming for Crowley's ending, and now — now Aziraphale had stopped looking at the covered plate in Crowley's hands and was gazing into his eyes. Crowley was wearing glasses, as always, but a mere physical object was a trivial obstacle for an angel's sight.
"You can't have them," Crowley said into Aziraphale's pleading face. "It's a sin to eat of this flesh. Impure. Carnal, debauched. You must resist, angel."
And, oh, Crowley did not want Aziraphale to resist. He'd trapped himself in his own net once again. But this was the game, and it wouldn't be the same without struggling. Now Crowley had his own struggle, trying not to fold like wet paper and deliver unto Aziraphale anything the angel desired.
Crowley's temptation had filled Aziraphale's whole body with longing. It pulled at him like a cord threaded through his veins, filamentous and taut, on the edge of tearing free. He thought Crowley might have made a mistake with his aim, because the thing he wanted wasn't the taste of the fruit. He wanted Crowley to feed him figs until his lips stung.
"It's not a sin," Aziraphale said. His voice cracked breathily over the denial. "It's only fruit."
"It's not only fruit."
Aziraphale's hand covered Crowley's, not touching the figs, his eyes very grey and very soft. "Then it is love, and love cannot be wrong."
"Please," Crowley asked, thick with entreaty, unsure what he wanted anymore and drowning in it. What would happen if Aziraphale shook from head to toe, broke away, and overcame what Crowley had to offer? What if Aziraphale's will was sundered by Hell's power and he was never the same again?
In the rainforest there was a type of fig vine that grew up a tree and wrapped around it so tightly that it killed its host. By the time the trunk rotted away, the strangler fig had grown strong enough to stand on its own as a hollow cage of woody stems, nourished by the nitrogen left by the decomposing wood. But sometimes the vine's scaffolding instead protected the tree beneath it from storms, safe and upright in its embrace.
"Fuck it," Crowley said, echoing the words of Eve, millennia ago: "It's only a damn fruit."
Aziraphale sank into one of Crowley's mid-century dining chairs and breathed deep in anticipation.
Crowley split one of the perfect figs with his thumbnail and tore it open. The pink meat inside was a nest of delicate curls, soft as jelly.
He fed Aziraphale figs until only pith and skin remained.
Once sated, the temptation broke; it faded away into the air, purpose fulfilled, and left knowledge in its wake.
Aziraphale touched his lips.
What was it that humans did after something like this? Crowley wondered, trying to remember. They had a cigarette, he was almost certain.
"Do you have any more cigarettes?" Crowley asked, dishearteningly certain that he'd left his pack in the Bentley.
Aziraphale patted around his waistcoat, then shook his head. "Why?"
"Human tradition. You're supposed to have a smoke after sex."
"I don't think that's what this is," Aziraphale said smartly. "It was just an...experiment."
Crowley shrugged eloquently, but didn't feel up to arguing semantics.
"I did think of a second practical theological application," Aziraphale said, his tone softening into a peace offering. "If you're amenable. I've been wondering what would happen if we did the opposite. The part that you lost. The ecstasy bit. If I —you know — did that to you."
"You want to do what?" Crowley asked. He'd meant to come across casual and instead sounded like he had choked on a sneeze.
"Bless you," Aziraphale said.
"It's a bit risky," said Aziraphale, when Crowley didn't respond right away. "Given the effects of holy water — I understand entirely if you'd rather not."
"No, no — I'm thinking," said Crowley. "Give me a moment."
Given the opportunity to try something new, Crowley was sure to take it. This was because, when it came down to brass tacks, he was quite brave. Crowley didn't like people to notice this. If you asked him, he would say he just got fed up with the normal way of doing things. He'd rather be a greasy smudge of smited ash than bored.
But new and interesting ideas were actually quite frightening. It must have taken some nerve, for instance, to set forth in an outrigger canoe with a song about the positions of stars and faith that the birds were coming and going from somewhere.
The discovery of the Pacific was a purely human endeavor. And Crowley was a little more human now than ever.
"I'm free to call on you Thursday afternoon," he said.
"Really?" beamed Aziraphale. "Splendid — that's just splendid."
Thursday arrived in unremarkable fashion. The day was fair; the traffic was atrocious. Crowley arrived on time regardless.
"I've never done this of my own choosing before," Aziraphale said, standing in front of Crowley in the bookshop, wringing his hands and dithering. "It was always on orders, you know. No different from handing out a touch of grace. Obligation of the job."
There were many things that Crowley resented Heaven for; the heavenly host were obstinate, boring, and not a blessed one of them had heard of subtlety in the entirety of their immortal lives. But sometimes Aziraphale said things in his mild, familiar voice like he'd never even considered that Heaven might have wronged him along with the hapless nuns, and Crowley was enraged anew.
"You don't have to do anything for them any more," said Crowley, and meant it.
"I suppose I don't," Aziraphale said. "Should we, er, now?"
"Lay it on me," Crowley said, letting his head loll back until his hair brushed against the bookshelf behind him. The bookshop was perfused with the faint scent of vanilla, as the oxygen in the air ate into thousands of pages, turning gluey lignin into bookish perfume. It was the same smell that followed Aziraphale everywhere, fainter than his cologne but more consistent. Perhaps spending so much time among the books caused the scent to cling naturally to Aziraphale, impregnating his clothes and skin, or maybe Aziraphale considered the smell of old paper such an unquestionable part of his identity that he generated it himself, the kind of small thoughtless miracle that dogged angels and demons everywhere.
Aziraphale didn't have a bed. He spent nights reading, mostly, and sometimes listening to the radio. He'd never bothered with procuring a flat — he could have, there was nothing stopping him from clearing out some of the storage above the bookshop into a proper living space, arranging it into things like a kitchen or a bedroom — but the bookshop suited his needs perfectly well. If he'd had someone else sharing his life, maybe he would order things differently. He was perfectly familiar with the normal trappings of domesticity, and had tried them on before like ill-fitting shirts, but the rooms for sleeping and eating and entertaining inevitably fell into disuse, then were slowly filled with books and antiques and items from Aziraphale's collection habit du jour, bookish angelic silt settling on the banks of a slow-moving river of years.
So Crowley was sprawled across his dusty mustard-colored couch, one leg propped up on the cushions. Aziraphale sank down next to him, closer than he ever would have dared on a public bench. He was framed by Crowley's legs, in fact, given that they took up at least three quarters of the couch. One of Crowley's knees was tucked between Aziraphale and the back of the couch, and the other brushed his thigh.
Aziraphale laid his palm over Crowley's breastbone, in the vee of his low-cut waistcoat. Crowley was unexpectedly warm to the touch. His ridiculous metal tie was cool against Aziraphale's wrist, but his skin was smooth and feverish.
"You're so —"
"Warm, yes, odd for a snake," said Crowley with a wry smile. "Hellfire's hot."
Heaven was chilly, at least in the portions Aziraphale was familiar with. It had the atmosphere of an American supermarket in the height of summer: blessedly cold the moment one left the heat of the parking lot, but stay too long and it got into your bones.
"This might be a terrible idea," Aziraphale warned. "I would be horribly upset if I crisped you as an experiment."
"Nothing ventured —" Crowley said, waving his hand at the rest of the phrase. "Besides, angel, I trust you."
Aziraphale rubbed his thumb back and forth across Crowley's skin, dithering. Crowley's trust settled over his heart, a soft, precious weight. It was going to be very embarrassing if it turned out he had Fallen in the meantime and couldn't do it anymore. Crowley had taken off his glasses and was looking at him, focused and unblinking.
"All right then," Aziraphale said softly.
He drew a thread of divine light from the core of himself. It spun out gossamer and golden, stretching towards Crowley from somewhere as close as Aziraphale's breath and simultaneously somewhere impossibly far. It did not break.
For a moment, Aziraphale wondered how Crowley had lost the trick of it. Did the connection snap as Crowley pulled on it, or had he lost track of the light? Both possibilities struck him as awfully sad.
The thread twisted down Aziraphale's arm and buried itself in Crowley's warm skin.
Crowley gasped and arched against Aziraphale's hand. "Christ in Heaven," he swore.
"Are you hurt?" Aziraphale asked, drawing away.
Crowley's hand shot out and wrapped around Aziraphale's wrist, pressing him back close.
"Oh," Aziraphale said. "Well, then. In that case."
Aziraphale had always known he was a hedonist. But in the face of Crowley's pleasure he found himself more covetous than ever; in an instant he would commission a glass-front cabinet for it with cut-crystal panes, hide it greedily in the back room, and never let a single soul touch it. Crowley's fingers were tight around Aziraphale's forearm, a band like sun-heated metal.
"Aziraphale," Crowley whispered, closer to worship than Aziraphale had ever seen him, and oh, Almighty, Aziraphale thought, he would let me do anything to him. It was heady, beyond being drunk, knowing that he could use that power to tell Crowley he was precious, and kind, and worthy.
Crowley mewled and Aziraphale's soul clenched. "Dear one," Aziraphale whispered back, "you can bear it. Hush, hush, you are doing so well. She's not lost to you. Not while you have me."
It was a risky endeavor, telling Crowley the truth about himself. Aziraphale had tried many ways: in secretly-earnest jest, in loving glances, in ways direct and oblique, but Crowley would only sneer or sigh or push him up against a wall and dig his heels in even further. Now, with this, Aziraphale had a new tool. He wrapped Crowley in cords of light and bound him fast to the fact of his own goodness.
The human body was an imperfect vessel for the full force of ecstasy, but Crowley's earthly form was more robust, and Aziraphale took full advantage. He poured grace into Crowley until it glowed from the back of his throat and the beds of his nails, turned his voice into the shout of a choir, and struck the sight from his eyes.
On the receiving end of golden light, Crowley was discovering why saints wrote of ecstasy as a spear. Aziraphale pierced him, parting his flesh, and pinned him steady. The wonderful agony of being impaled, he learned, wasn't the cut through the body. It was every movement that pressed the edges of the wound against the unforgiving harpoon. Crowley's insides felt shoved out of place, and with every shudder and groan they stretched and pulled against the white-hot bliss of Aziraphale. He was shocked any nun had ever mistaken this for a Son of God. It was Aziraphale, so pure and recognizable that it burned. It was the feeling of watching Aziraphale's hands tap along his bookshelves, and Aziraphale sitting in the Bentley arguing that ducks couldn't jump; the faint, fresh smell of soda ash that rose off his rumpled shirts and the worried set of his eyes when he did something that was good and kind but not Right.
Aziraphale wrapped an arm around Crowley's shoulders as he slid down to lie flat on the couch, chest heaving, limbs slack and uncoordinated. Aziraphale knelt over him and brushed his fingers up and down Crowley's sternum. He wasn't going to be able to look at Crowley's ridiculous unbuttoned shirts without thinking of this, not ever again. The outline of Crowley's wings flickered on the edge of existence. They were a queasy, uncertain color, like the dark circles that flash in the corners of an optical illusion, simultaneously black and white and skipping over grey entirely.
I am not supposed to see this, Aziraphale thought. This was one of the wonders of the universe, Crowley loose and unguarded in pleasure. Crowley made a small sound, a gasp of gutted joy, and Aziraphale discovered he had never heard anything more fascinating.
And then, looking upon Crowley teetering on the edge of the divine, Aziraphale became afraid. This was too much knowing, even for an angel who, by his nature, knew more than all earthly beings combined. He asked for it, Aziraphale thought, reassuring himself, but then the thought continued, he asked, but we didn't know it would be like this, and he was disturbed again.
As gently as he could, Aziraphale tempered the flow of light and blessed euphoria until it ebbed from a downpour to a gentle rain, and finally the last handful of droplets fell like stars into a glassy pool and rippled into stillness.
Crowley groaned and patted his chest, making sure all his ribs and giblets were in their correct places. He hadn't gone scaly anywhere, which would have been unfortunate. Above him, kneeling with their legs still entangled, Aziraphale bit his lip and glanced around, clearly flustered.
"You did that to nuns?" Crowley croaked.
"I told you, it was very uncomfortable!"
Crowley blew out a loud breath. "I see your point." He was exhausted and curiously unsatisfied. It was hard to imagine wanting it to be more — being overwhelmed by all-encompassing holy light wasn't a halfway kind of experience — but he felt unfinished. Lacking.
"I wonder — I wonder if we shouldn't have," Aziraphale said.
"It's just — it feels like rushing, like water through a space that is too narrow, all tumbling white and blue-green, doesn't it? This must be why they call them rapids, hah. We're going too fast, and I think I may hit a rock."
"You won't hit anything. There isn't anything to hit — it's all cleared up! Smooth sailing, from here to the horizon. Anything we want — we can do it."
"We can't be certain," Aziraphale protested.
Crowley snapped upright and threw up his hands, lips pulled back in a snarl of frustration. "Oh for — I don't have patience for this. Don't you get it? It almost ended. All of it. I thought you were gone!"
Aziraphale put his hand to his chest, taken aback. Crowley had never been disagreeable about Aziraphale's leisurely pace through life before.
Crowley was breathing hard. The rise and fall of his ribs reminded Aziraphale of Crowley gasping in holy bliss, and he wanted to have that again, as badly as he'd wanted to sink his teeth into the ripe fruit Crowley had proffered; only this time Crowley wasn't doing anything, Crowley was just furious with him, flushed with emotion, his eyes wet and sparkling gold and Aziraphale didn't know what to do.
"You've never lived with it," Crowley accused.
"With finality. You didn't Fall, O Principality of the Eastern Gate. You don't know what it's like to not be able to go back! God giveth and God taketh away and She doesn't do second chances!"
"Nobody is taking me anywhere," Aziraphale declared, rising sharply to his feet. For a moment he looked like what he really was: not a bumbling middle-aged pansy in a tweed jacket, but an emissary of the Lord, bright and shining, as immovable as the core of the earth. He was beautiful. Then he softened again, and Crowley blinked away the afterimages of wings and heavenly fire until he was only looking at Aziraphale, his hair catching the light of the window behind him in a fuzzy halo. "Except perhaps you. I think you could drag me to the very ends of the Earth if you had a mind to, and I would barely notice it was happening."
"Then let me," Crowley said. "Before something else goes wrong." Before we run out of time.
"It's just love! It can't be wrong — you said that yourself, remember?"
"Love?" Aziraphale echoed. His voice wavered, and Crowley recognized the tone, the same shiver of disbelief as when he'd repeated go off together and Crowley's heart sank, its hull torn through and left in splinters.
Aziraphale smiled — tight, false and sorrowful — and said, "Don't be silly, now. That's not possible. You're a demon, and I'm — I'm — "
"Above all that," Crowley finished acidly. "Don't worry, I remember."
It was even money, actually, if Aziraphale's sentence would have ended with I'm an angel or I'm not worth it. Unfortunately, Crowley could only hear the first. It would never have occurred to him that Aziraphale was unworthy of anything.
"I'm going home, angel. I have foul deeds to commit."
"I forgive you," Crowley hissed. "But that doesn't mean I have to stay."
In the mid-1960s, Aziraphale had gone on a vacation to New Mexico. Crowley made an unexpected trans-Atlantic flight three days into Aziraphale's trip, because Aziraphale got into trouble with a very specific species of cacti.
This was an expected part of their relationship. Aziraphale would amble happily into a pit of vipers, and Crowley would come and fish him out.
Not this time.
In his bookshop, after Crowley took his leave, Aziraphale had seriously considered getting magnificently sloshed and banishing the entire endeavor to a dusty corner of his mind where he wouldn't trip over it unexpectedly. That would have been easiest, certainly. Nothing had to change.
Aziraphale didn't expect sharp distinctions between before and after. People lived and died, but to Aziraphale human friendships, even if they spanned years, were much like having a nice chat with someone on a bus. Interesting, enriching, and fundamentally brief. I hope I meet them again, Aziraphale would think, and half a century later he'd chance across their grandchildren and be delighted to see the echoes of someone he once knew. He had been on earth for eighty lifetimes of men, and had existed for many, many times that. Immortality came two-for-one packaged with the assumption that things would carry on.
They'd kept the world spinning. Humanity persisted in the general sense — there were still elderflower liqueurs and buskers on street corners, still bronze sculptures with their hands and noses worn golden by the touch of passers by — so Aziraphale had half-assumed that the same would remain true for humanity in the specific. It surprised him that while there were still eleven-year-olds getting grubby in back gardens, there was no longer an Adam Young scooping frog eggs out of the creek to hide in his room and raise in a bucket. Adam was kissing girls (and sometimes boys), going down the pub on weekdays, buying his first car.
Aziraphale logged on to FaceBook and looked up Madame Tracy. There were lovely pictures of her and Sargent Shadwell on a seniors couples cruise. Aziraphale sighed in relief that they looked largely the same, so he scrolled through her earlier posts, looking for more photographs, and saw that Shadwell was doing very well on his new blood thinning medication, and the stroke hadn't slowed him down at all.
It almost ended. You don't know what it's like to not be able to go back!
There were things to fear besides moving too quickly. There were kinds of regret Aziraphale didn't know.
The next afternoon, Aziraphale waited in the park. He had heard somewhere that bread was bad for the ducks, so he had purchased a bag of frozen peas and was throwing them into the water. They sank, naturally, so the ducks were getting a diving workout, but they accepted the offering with only mild befuddlement. It was no CIA ciabatta, but it was novel, at least in temperature. Spies didn't have anything frozen on offer.
That morning, Aziraphale had phoned Crowley, gotten the answering machine, and asked if they might meet in the park that afternoon. Crowley hadn't called back, but Aziraphale went to stand by the pond anyway, in hopes that maybe — he hoped maybe — maybe the ducks would like some peas regardless.
Crowley had spent the entire morning in a magnificent strop. He felt guilty, which he didn't like, and was angry with Aziraphale, which he liked less. He'd listened to Aziraphale's message precisely once, committed it to memory, and had been trying to keep it from playing on loop in his head ever since.
— know how to leave a voicemail, Aziraphale's familiar voice had said. Would you meet me in the park tomorrow? Teatime, usual spot. I — I would very much like to see you.
"Very much like to see you," Crowley echoed snottily, mimicking Aziraphale. "What in Heaven and Earth is that supposed to mean?" The empty flat had no reply.
Among Crowley's damnable traits was curiosity. He'd poked his nose into every forbidden corner of the globe, and taken every experience offered to him for a spin; twice, in fact, in case the first bite was just whipped cream. It had landed him in hot water more than a few times, although he was always capable of slithering his way free. Now and again he'd stick around, just to see what would happen when the consequences struck.
One of his less damnable traits was hope, and it got him into trouble much more frequently, with fewer options for escape.
Therefore, Crowley was going to meet Aziraphale. His one concession to being upset with his angel was to make sure he was atrociously late. This was because he wanted Aziraphale to stew, not because he was nervous.
The sun was high when Crowley arrived, past its zenith but still summer-strong. The ice cream cart was doing a brisk business. A handsome young man reclined shirtless on the lawn, flicking through pictures of nearby available men on his phone. A pack of teenagers raced past, carrying a stolen traffic cone and laughing madly.
Aziraphale cut a lonely figure, attended only by a handful of ducks who particularly liked vegetables. Crowley approached warily. He wasn't keen on having a repeat of last night's row out in public. Passersby would look on with pity at what they assumed was a lover's spat, and their misconception (so close to true, and so far) would hurt more than the argument itself.
"Angel!" Crowley called.
Aziraphale turned. He always turned towards Crowley's voice. Every time: like clockwork, or a Great Plan.
"Crowley!" said Aziraphale. Delight and worry danced in his eyes.
Crowley circled around to Aziraphale's left. "So. What's this about."
Aziraphale wrung his bag of peas, visibly dithering. He looked Crowley up and down, blushed, and twisted the peas again. "I — um — oh, Hell."
Aziraphale had put so much strain on the bag that it burst, scattering frozen peas all over the path. A crowd of ducks and one very large goose flocked to the mess, waddling busily around Crowley and Aziraphale's legs. Aziraphale lifted one foot to let a duckling past, then stumbled as he tried to find a place to stand that wasn't occupied by waterfowl.
Crowley caught him.
They were very close.
"I don't know what I'm doing," Aziraphale admitted, eyes wide and wild.
Then he grabbed Crowley by the ears and kissed him soundly on the mouth.
In the history of kisses, there had been some real stunners. Antony and Cleopatra were responsible for several of them. Gertrude Stein and her beloved Alice made the list, and the Curies' passion was quite literally radiant. The best kiss in all of history was shared between Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera, two days after she wrote him a letter calling him a shit. The kiss between Crowley and Aziraphale was not among the greats. For one thing, they were both woefully lacking in practice. Aziraphale wasn't sure if he was supposed to open his mouth or not; it was unclear what the protocol was for first kisses in the park. Crowley's hair had puffed up in surprise and was only just starting to calm down when Aziraphale slipped him some tongue.
The girl minding the ice cream cart watched in delight.
u will not believe this, she texted her best friend.
tell me immediately
u know those two old queens who feed the ducks and make tragic eyes at each other
the fussy one and the pipe cleaner one?
Crowley and Aziraphale were unaware of their effect on the park regulars. Crowley had gotten his fingers hooked into Aziraphale's braces and wasn't letting go. Aziraphale's mouth was clumsy and too wet, but his hands were gentle on Crowley's face. The ducks plucked at Aziraphale's trousers to inform him that they had run out of peas and would appreciate some more. The goose, being braver than a duck and considering itself a force of darkness on par with demons, made an attempt to bite Crowley's jeans, but they were too tight for its beak to find purchase. Had Crowley been paying any attention, this would have earned the goose a sharp punt into the drink. Instead it hissed in thwarted aggression and wandered off in search of a toddler to frighten.
Oblivious to propriety, Aziraphale's hands had found their way to Crowley's backside. In response, Crowley did something adventurous with his tongue that made Aziraphale squeak. It still wasn't a kiss for the history books, but it was rapidly ascending from the ranks of adolescent fumbling in the backseat to newlyweds on their honeymoon who were starting to get into the swing of things. Not yet competent, but so tender and suffused with love that its shortcomings were easily forgiven.
theyre still at it
if they dont come up 4 air soon i think the skinny one is gonna pass out
what a way to go tho
Between one breath and the next Crowley snapped them into Aziraphale's bookshop. Aziraphale stopped kissing him in favor of blinking owlishly. "Dear, the people in the park will have noticed that."
"They didn't," Crowley said hoarsely. "Made sure." The implications of whipping them away to a private place struck Crowley like a cyclist into an open car door. He cleared his throat and twitched his shades back into place. "Uh. Do you want — coffee?"
Aziraphale looked around, then wrinkled his forehead. "This is my shop," he reminded Crowley. "You can't offer me a drink in my own home. That's absurd."
Trust Aziraphale to come up with some procedural stumbling block. There were only so many overtures to intimacy that Crowley could come up with under duress. Not that kissing Aziraphale counted as duress, precisely, but — "I could make you want coffee," Crowley grumbled.
"Oh," Aziraphale murmured, clearly taken with an idea. His face lit up with avarice. "You could indeed. Or —"
"I know where you hide the good stuff," said Crowley, casting about for the hatbox that lived on top of the screenplays shelf where Aziraphale stashed his special occasion coffee.
"You like giving me what I want," Aziraphale whispered, uninterested in Crowley's coffee plan. He was plotting his own course of action. Were Aziraphale a teenager in a university coming-of-age film, there would have been a smash cut to his three best friends giving a presentation on How To Get Laid 101.
Unaware of Aziraphale's inner machinations, Crowley replied, "tch, angel, anyone would like that." He didn't think of the way Aziraphale looked when he watched Crowley do something kind, how it felt like redemption and indulgence all at once. Every waitress and cashier felt the same when Aziraphale took his change and said thank you with a glowing smile.
"Not the point," said Aziraphale. "The point is — correct me if I'm wrong but — from your reaction to my, er, physical advances, I assume you are amenable to — we could — do the figs thing again. But not with fruit. With you."
Crowley did a quick mental calculation and came up without even a foggy sense of what Aziraphale was getting at. Not with fruit — if there wasn't a plate of figs or an apple or a rubber duck for Aziraphale to want, then there was a critical variable missing — with you — of course he was going to be there, temptation was a two-man game, that didn't solve the equation at all — and now Aziraphale was waiting for him to respond.
"Huh?" Crowley said intelligently.
"I want you to convince me," said Aziraphale. He licked his lips and lifted one hand cup Crowley's chin, infinitely gentle. In six thousand years, not a single scar had dared persist on Aziraphale. Even when he did stupid, idiot things, like testing the sharpness of a razor with the pad of his thumb or pulling fox kits out of tangled football nets without gloves. "Use all your tricks and wiles until I forget every reason I ever had to pick something else. Make me want you, and then give it to me."
Crowley stood poleaxed.
"Ah. I mean. If you please," added Aziraphale, remembering his manners. "I figured it all out, you know. About endings. I promise not to get cold feet again."
This is it, Crowley thought. Don't cock it up. He thought of Alpha Centauri, his failed attempt to whisk Aziraphale off into the stars. He thought he'd begged with everything he had. But — not quite, actually. He hadn't brought his most potent advantage to bear, which was a bone-deep knowledge of Aziraphale. Aziraphale was largely indifferent to the stars. His indulgent pleasures were all of the world.
"Come with me," said Crowley, leaning into Aziraphale's touch. "I'll take you to Paris. Somewhere with a balcony and linen curtains. There'll be a cafe downstairs, the kind of place that will serve you tiramisu after midnight. Or mille-feuille, or clafoutis, or madeleines. Coddled pears. Macarons flavored with crushed rose petals and orange blossom. Anything you like."
"And you?" echoed Aziraphale, eyebrows raised in entreaty. "You'd be there?"
"Where else would I be, angel? Antarctica?"
"You hate the cold, don't be ridiculous."
Crowley hissed a little in annoyance. Aziraphale had gotten distracted almost immediately. He needed something else — and all at once he knew what it should be. It was a risk. Thinking about in too much detail made his stomach flip like a carnival goldfish in a leaky bag. But at the same time, he knew as well as he knew his own soul that Aziraphale would be overwhelmed by it, overtaken and transfixed.
Very slowly, Crowley went to his knees and bent his head. He folded his hands together.
Time almost stopped on the tableau. A demon knelt in prayer to an angel of the Lord in the center of a dusty bookshop, the pile of the carpet under his knees worn short by a century and a half of use. The angel caressed his cheek with aching reverence.
"Oh," said Aziraphale. "Oh."
"My good Angel, shelter me under thy wings," Crowley whispered. "Light my path and direct my steps. Do not leave me; stay by my side and deliver my soul so that it may praise, love and contemplate the goodness of the world."
Crowley still remembered every prayer. He could hear them, sometimes, echoes in the back of his mind as mortals knelt in entreaty to the angel he used to be.
"Angele Dei, qui custos es mei, me tibi commissum pietate superna; illumina, custodi, rege, et guberna."
The familiar Latin rolled off his tongue, leaving the usual burn of holiness and ritual in its wake, but it felt different. This time he was speaking to someone who was listening.
Aziraphale shivered from wingtip to wingtip.
Crowley had him.
"This is what you want, hm? I'm defenseless, here on my knees — that's godly, isn't it, handing yourself over on faith. But it's not God, not for me. For me it's you. You could cut out all my veins, one by one with a scalpel, and you would do it with such precision that not a drop of blood would spill. I would let you flay me into my component working parts, isn't that frightening? There's no terror in Heaven and Hell that could match the fear of what I'd do for you."
"That is very blasphemous, dear," said Aziraphale, pink and breathless. "Don't stop."
"Is this how they were, the chosen mortals you bestowed God's ecstasy upon? Only they were baring their souls to Her, and this time it's for you. You're greedy for praise and nobody ever gives you enough, you perfect, holy bastard. But I will. Don't you want that? Don't you want to reward me for worshipping you?"
Crowley stripped off his glasses, tossed them aside with a clatter, and looked up into Aziraphale's eyes. He drank in Aziraphale's gaze, feeling the weight of Aziraphale staring back at him. A demon could locate the knots of desire inside a person and wind them tighter and tighter, until they sang in the agony of being so, so close to what they wished for and still tenuously clinging to their convictions. Crowley reached into Aziraphale's yearning and balanced him on the edge of it.
"Please, angel, I beg you. Oh, God, please."
Aziraphale smiled, beatific, then fell to one knee and pressed Crowley to his breast, saying, "Yes, yes, yes, my love, always yes."
Something gnarled unwound inside Crowley. He shoved his nose into Aziraphale's daft velvet waistcoat and breathed in as Aziraphale's hand clasped the back of his neck. With a sob of relief, Aziraphale unleashed the Lord's exquisite agony, piercing Crowley's spine and replacing it with sweet, unbearable ecstasy. Liquid gold ran down Crowley's skin, from the hollow of his throat to his navel. Heavenly light curled in his belly. He was weightless; tethered to the earth by only Aziraphale's hands, cradling the back of his head and bearing down on the meat of his shoulder.
"Ngk, ah, fuck," Crowley choked, and fisted his hands in Aziraphale's coat. He moaned and shuddered, limbs kicking out, uncontrolled.
"Oh, darling, you're beautiful."
"Don't take the piss," Crowley gasped, too stupid and vulnerable with bliss to stand up to teasing. "At least ss-say handsssome."
Aziraphale kissed Crowley's temple and stitched the demon's skin with golden joy under his lips. "Shhh, it's true. Relinquish your fears and let yourself have all that you deserve. Do not doubt me, for I know your soul."
Although he arranged it to be easy to forget, Aziraphale was a thing of holiness. Underneath the foppish bookkeeper there was an adamant pillar of divinity, much belittled by his peers but still shining, unassailable. Sex had a way of revealing one's insides. For mortals this meant pressing into each other with mouths and fingers, laying themselves bare at the mercy of a million neural impulses. Humans were made of sensitive membranes and hot, wet spaces — but Aziraphale wasn't human. So where humanity gave over control to their flesh, Aziraphale lost himself in the heavy cadences of God. His skin took on the sheen of gilded reliquaries lit by altar candelabras; the air flooded with incense and the smell of liquid wax.
"Angel," Crowley said, more true and fervent than any prayer that had yet passed his lips. His eyes pricked with tears and his lungs hitched on the precipice of a sob.
And then, like reaching the peak of a virtuosic guitar riff, Crowley knew the trick of delivering ecstasy. He only had to call on the light and believe it would come. He was shocked he'd ever forgotten.
Aziraphale had just enough time to widen his eyes in surprise, and then Crowley dragged him down with him onto the carpet.
Crowley, still shaky with divine pleasure, rolled Aziraphale onto his back, then threw one knee over the angel to straddle his hips. Aziraphale pressed up into him, and Crowley had a blissful flash where he understood the human way of doing things: slick, base and vulgar. He pushed Aziraphale's coat off his shoulders until it caught against his upper arms, then pulled his tie undone (the silk slithering almost like dry scales under his fingers). Buttons found themselves quite useless fasteners as Crowley pulled Aziraphale's shirt and waistcoat open, yanking the shirttails out of his trousers, then peeled the vest up off Aziraphale's chest. Finally he was able to spread both hands over Aziraphale's bare skin.
Then, with a look what I can do grin, he gave Aziraphale a taste of his own medicine, as it were.
Aziraphale arched against him with a cry. "Holy — oh, fuck."
Then he melted under Crowley's hands, luxuriating in pleasure as if he was built for it. If Crowley felt ecstasy as a spear, Aziraphale experienced it as a steaming bath, hot enough to scald, the heat permeating all the way into his bones. Aziraphale groaned, chest rumbling like the lowest note of an organ. Crowley knelt transfixed as Aziraphale sighed and bit his lip beneath him.
"Crowley," Aziraphale gasped.
"I'm here," Crowley told him. "I'm yours. I remembered."
After, lying side by side on the rug, Aziraphale miracled up a pack of smokes.
Crowley waved his hand in Aziraphale's face until Aziraphale relented and supplied him with a cigarette. He lit it with a snap, then did Aziraphale's too, for good measure. Tobacco smoke curled up toward the skylight.
"I'm a rubbish angel," Aziraphale mused, crossing one ankle over the other.
"Wouldn't like you if you were a good one."
"I love you terribly," said Aziraphale, soft. "You ought to be afraid of it."
"I'm a demon. We don't go in for ought to."
Aziraphale rolled his head to look at Crowley's profile. It was as craggy and dear as always.
Crowley stretched his neck, which had the beginnings of a stupendous crick in it. "Why did we do this on the floor instead of in a bed like sane people?" he asked.
"I don't have one," said Aziraphale.
Crowley groaned. "Of course you don't, why would you ever have something as normal as a bed. Sleeping is beneath you. What do you even do with yourself all night?"
"Read, mainly," said Aziraphale, breezing past the obvious innuendo without even noticing it was there. "The humans produce so much writing these days, it's very difficult to keep up. Sometimes I do macrame."
"Macrame," Crowley echoed under his breath.
"If you're so bothered by the lack of a bed, we can do it at your place next time."
Crowley's eyebrows shot up. He propped himself up on one elbow and looked Aziraphale up and down, a smile sneaking across his face. Aziraphale was missing several articles of clothing, leaving him more disheveled than Crowley had ever seen him. There was a pleasing fuzz of hair across his chest and belly, and he was still flushed pink across the collarbones. "Next time?"
"If you like," said Aziraphale, batting his eyes and looking coyly up at Crowley through his eyelashes.
"If I — for — if I like, he says to me," Crowley sputtered. "I begged you, angel, did you miss that part? On my knees, in Latin, and you ask me if I would like to do it again. Lord in Hell, don't be daft."
"Delightful," Aziraphale said. He lifted his chin and adjusted the set of his shoulders, like nothing so much as a duck re-shuffling his feathers. "I expect we can make a nice arrangement out of this. Since the old one is out of date."
"You snogging me in the park and then shagging me within an inch of my life?"
"You don't have to be crude about it."
"What would you like me to call what we just did? A little afternoon delight? Praying with the knees upwards? Some horizontal tango? The ol' rumpy-pumpy?"
"Making love," said Aziraphale.
Crowley gagged and rolled his eyes. "Do not say that."
"That's what it is," Aziraphale insisted, and set to re-buttoning his shirt. "I could go in for a bit of tea and a biscuit — you?"
"Yeah, suppose I might," said Crowley. He levered himself up off the floor, then offered Aziraphale a hand up. Aziraphale winced as his joints creaked. Definitely a bed next time.
"You know, you could grow your hair out again," Aziraphale suggested as he filled the electric kettle.
"Hmm?" answered Crowley, who had been appreciating the curve of Aziraphale's lower back and thinking impure thoughts.
"I always liked it long. It makes you look happier, somehow."
"Noted," Crowley drawled, noncommittal, but on his way home he snagged a Vogue, just to see what was in fashion.
The next spring, they went to Paris. It was lovely: Crowley visited the Mona Lisa to gloat, again, that the sketch hanging in his flat was better; all the food was cooked in duck fat and a splash of wine; they were surrounded with buff marble and the sound of water falling into fountain-basins. Crowley kept his demonic hand in by lighting the roof of Notre Dame on fire. Aziraphale, who had been distracted by eclairs, hastened to make sure all the spire's statuary had been taken out for restoration the week before.
Initially it was reported that the north rose window had been destroyed by the fire, but by the afternoon it became clear that the stained glass was intact, spared despite chunks of burning timber falling around it. The window's briefly interrupted existence could have been the doing of angel, demon, or indifferent chance. Some things are, after all, ineffable.
Footnotes: Click [return] to go back to the footnote in the main text.
1The invention of online shopping had caused a significant uptick in souls for the Other Side. Crowley had taken credit for all of it, even though he was really only directly responsible for Craigslist. Aziraphale considered the books worth the minor sin of using the tools of the Adversary.[return]
2Dedicated crossword solvers called places where two obscure proper nouns crossed each other in the grid a "natick." It was generally agreed that crosswords containing naticks were "bullshit," "poor craftsmanship," and "on a Tuesday puzzle no less!"[return]
3Aziraphale had a way of saying ‘academic' that made it sound like a dirty word. Like many intellectuals, he held little fondness for his peers.[return]
4Aziraphale wasn't entirely clear on how glitter was poisoning the sea, but the people involved seemed very passionate.[return]
5Closing his eyes was a deliberate dramatic gesture, and thus did not count as blinking.[return]
6Crowley had, in fact, once eaten a live mouse as an ill-considered experiment. It is up to the reader to consider if it is more likely that Crowley attempted this feat in his human form or in his snake one. Either way, the experience had surely been fuzzy and unpleasant.[return]
7A rendezvous, one could say.[return]
8Being an angel, Aziraphale was immune to burns from anything except flaming swords and hellfire. Also, it was cloudy.[return]
9The most comprehensive theory of angel wings (and their demonic cousins), posited that they were, in fact, present at all times, spread and glorious, just impossible to notice unless their owner wished it. Much like electrons and lonely trees falling in the forest, angelic wings lived within an observational paradox.[return]
10Tom Ford Grey Vetiver: hot and grassy, with notes of citrus and orris, evoking the classic colognes of 1960's urbane masculinity. The very same cologne, in fact, that his barber had recommended approximately ten years ago, two weeks before the Apocalypsish. Aziraphale still considered this a recent development.[return]
11The last time Aziraphale had tried a new hairstyle was in 1054, and he hadn't fancied it.[return]
12Pour Un Homme de Caron: top notes of lavender and mid notes of vanilla over a strong base of cedar and musk.[return]
13Aziraphale did not consider it odd for the back of a bookshop to contain a neatly-appointed staff-only powder room.[return]
14Yes, that was one of his too.[return]
15Not for birthday cake.[return]
16No relation to Agnes Nutter. Agnes Blannbekin produced no prophesies, accurate or otherwise. She was, however, responsible for a great deal of commotion over the Foreskin of Christ, which only ended when Pope Leo XIII stepped in and declared that any more discussion of His Holy Dicktip would result in immediate excommunication.[return]
17Aziraphale's mind was nothing like a chateau, or any other sort of earthly structure, but the metaphor was apt.[return]
18Crowley had given up on trying to keep fresh milk or cream a long time ago, since it spoiled every time a black rooster crowed within the City of London. Like clockwork.[return]
19Crowley's nails were sharp as anything when he willed it.[return]
20Arguing semantics with Aziraphale was a sucker's game.[return]
21This was a universal truth, excepting culinary delights. It took Aziraphale all of two minutes to decide he'd like to try uni bruschetta, and the only reason it took that long was because he was deciding between that and the wagyu beef tartare. Crowley was suspicious of lobster for two centuries. "A rich and delicious excuse to consume butter! Ingenious!" said Aziraphale. "Ocean bugs in sauce," said Crowley, and ordered an old fashioned with no cherry and extra bitters.[return]
22The heavenly host and the forces of darkness had all of these things in common, especially the last bit.[return]
23Having lived for many centuries when laundry was soaked in lye made from wood ash, Aziraphale still expected clean clothes to smell a little bit sharply.[return]
24No longer a Madame, but Aziraphale had always been rubbish at names changing.[return]
26Alas, spectacular kisses did not a healthy union make.[return]
27Aziraphale wore a damnable number of layers.[return]
28One might have argued that Aziraphale would prefer a stovetop kettle, but in fact the electric kettle had existed for well over a century, and therefore was well within Aziraphale's technological purview. Also, he was British.[return]