Crowley is keeping a secret.
Come now, you old fusspot, Aziraphale scolds himself immediately after the initial thought. It’s not as though we live in each other’s pockets. A fellow is allowed to have his own life.
It’s just that— well, there’s no reason to live separately anymore, to be apart, not really. Weeks after the almost-end of the world, they’ve settled into the same side, their own side. There’s no need to be skulking about at odd hours so their superiors don’t get the wrong idea, no need to force distance and affect indifference.
And Crowley is such a darling now that he has room to be. Slinking in to share Aziraphale’s company every evening— and then, soon after that, to share his bed. He presses into Aziraphale’s hands at night, into the curve of his body, like a heat-seeking missile, like a creature left out in the cold. Not entirely sure of his welcome, not quite yet, but coming closer with every morning he wakes up in Aziraphale’s arms.
(They kiss, and they hold one another, and they go no farther than that. Crowley isn’t interested in carnal pleasures, and Aziraphale would only be if he was. It’s a blessing just to have him; to reach out and trace the curve of his cheek or the red of his hair and feel him lean into the touch; to finally love him as he deserves to be loved, utterly and with gleeful abandon.)
This intimacy they have found is something precious to the both of them. Aziraphale doesn’t want to begrudge his snake a single thing, but he doesn’t understand what place any secret might still have between them.
He brings it up to the Reading Circle one dreary Thursday morning, hoping for advice.
They’re a group of six or so seventy-something year old women who have taken to the shop twice a week ever since the church whose basement they used to meet in snubbed Greta’s gay granddaughter and henceforth incited the Circle’s collective, not-inconsiderable wrath.
The women refer to Crowley as Aziraphale’s “charming young man,” and keep Aziraphale up-to-date on all of the juicy Soho gossip, and have never attempted to make a single purchase. He quite adores them.
To his immediate consternation, the women exchange weighted, knowing glances.
“Well,” Laura says, “he’s a flash young thing. It could be that he’s not quite ready to settle down yet. Lord knows my Hector was flighty at that age.”
It takes Aziraphale longer than he’s proud of to realize what they’re implying, and then his first impulse is to laugh aloud despite all the feathers he ruffles in doing so.
“Forgive me,” he says, pressing a hand to his mouth. “Oh, dear. I’m afraid you’ve got quite the wrong idea about my Crowley.”
After six thousand years of not-very-subtle adoration and foolhardy devotion, the demon’s commitment can hardly be called into question; but Aziraphale can’t very well explain as much to the ladies in his shop. He pours out more tea and smiles to himself while they witter, deciding he might as well stop beating around the bush and just ask Crowley directly when he comes— here, a happy thrill at the concept— home.
And so that evening, after dinner together and a half a bottle of very fine red wine, he does. Crowley doesn’t look surprised to be caught out. He rubs a hand through his hair thoughtlessly, leaving it a charming mess, and can’t seem to meet Aziraphale’s eyes even from behind those silly glasses.
“I’d hoped to get away with it for just a bit longer, angel.”
Aziraphale is more relieved than anything that it wasn’t just the product of a restless imagination. He sets aside his crossword and beckons Crowley closer, having had quite enough of him existing outside of arm’s reach.
Crowley slinks across the room readily, climbing over the angel’s lap to get to the corner of the sofa he prefers. Tucked up against Aziraphale’s side, under his arm and against his chest, the tension ebbs out of his body like water down a drain.
“This is the part where you yell at me, I’d imagine,” he mumbles into Aziraphale’s shoulder.
“I should certainly think not,” Aziraphale says primly.
They bicker over just about everything— from any manner of theological issue to whose turn it is to pay the cheque at dinner to who cheated who in an Olympic game they both competed in nearly three thousand years ago— because it’s fun, even at its most annoying. Aziraphale’s fellow angels are humorless, and Crowley has implied that a disagreement in Hell is likely to spiral into a knife fight within the space of a few ill-chosen words, so they tend to pounce on any argument that lands between them with all the full-ahead eagerness of jousters in a tiltyard.
But they don’t raise their voices in true anger. It would hardly be worth the two steps back, when each step forward is a thrilling victory. It would be hard to summon the vitriol in the first place, really, when life is so pleasant anymore.
It’s still raining outside, and Beethoven is playing on the gramophone in the front room, and even Crowley’s plants are waving ever so slightly back and forth in perfect contentment.
Aziraphale says, “Tell me, love. I’m listening.”
Nanael has discovered poetry. They have spent countless hours curled up in an overstuffed armchair with a pile of books that refuses to shrink, doing nothing but drinking in the art of language that humans have dreamed up.
They are new to the concept of time, of seasons and changing things, but it has been about a year since they arrived in London. A year and four days, to be precise, marked by Crowley coming by with a clear pastry box containing a Battenberg cake that he plopped without ceremony on top of the jigsaw puzzle Nanael was picking their way through.
It looked very much like the same cake they’d eaten on their very first day here at the shop, right down to the expertly quilted pattern on the white marzipan.
“What’s this for?” Nanael asked, touching the green ribbon gingerly.
“Sort of your birthday, innit,” the demon had muttered before stalking off to the back room, leaving a fondly bemused Aziraphale to explain the concept of anniversaries and celebrations and birthday gifts.
Four days later, Nanael still smiles when they think of the cake. They have been on earth for a year, and they’re beginning to understand why Principality Aziraphale, Guardian of the Eastern Gate, never came home. There are certainly no birthday gifts in Heaven.
The bell above the door rings, and Nanael looks up from their book in time to watch a man step inside. At the very least, they mentally amend a moment later, a man-shaped person. He isn’t doing a very good job of suppressing his demonic energies, letting them flare and catch about Nanael’s periphery like fire.
Nanael tenses, but doesn’t leap from behind the counter or issue any Holy demands. They’re a little bit embarrassed about that sort of thing now, and waits instead for the demon to make his own introduction.
“To hear Hastur tell it, Crowley’s lost the plot,” he remarks snidely, by way of hello. “Far as I’m concerned, this sounds like the place to be. Where is he?”
His— her, Nanael can see now— voice is incongruent with her form, not entirely human, as though she hasn’t quite mastered this whole mortal flesh malarkey. It’s reminiscent of Poe, and makes Nanael think of talking ravens, and they’re rather charmed by the whole thing where they should probably rightly be horrified.
“Oh, you know Crowley,” Nanael says, relieved. “He and Aziraphale are out to lunch.”
Nanael was invited along, but one of the ladies in the Reading Circle gave them a Meaningful Look and said it was important for couples to have Alone Time every now and again. Nanael isn't sure what they meant by that, because there’s no stopping Aziraphale from looking at Crowley as though he hung the stars even when they’re surrounded by company— and that’s perfectly reasonable, Nanael thinks fairly, because Crowley did— but they went alone to lunch, anyway, and Nanael got to know Yeats instead.
And that is why, now, they are alone in the bookshop with an unfamiliar demon. They don’t regret it, though; Yeats has been worthwhile.
(There is a whole stack of nineteenth century poets, shelves and shelves of them, and Aziraphale says they’re dear to him; he says they kept him company when he was quite lonely, but he never says it when Crowley is around to overhear. For this reason, even though Nanael doesn’t fully understand it, those poets are dear to them, too.)
“Out to lunch?” the demon looks nonplussed. It’s a more pleasant look than the sneer had been. “Is that code for something?”
“What would it be code for? They went for Italian.” Nanael doesn't know if that meant an Italian restaurant nearby or the country of Italy, and they didn't think to ask.
“The Serpent doesn’t eat, ” the demon says. She sounds as petulant as a child Nanael overheard the other day, discussing the existence of Santa Claus with her mother. “It’s one of the oldest curses in the Book. ‘On your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life.’ The punishment for creating original sin would have to be steep, wouldn’t it?”
She says it with a strange, backwards sort of delight, almost awe. Nanael’s heart— fragile, unreliable human thing that it is— gives a painful lurch.
Surely not, they think, but it’s more out of reflexive horror than anything else, desperation to deny the very idea.
All of those pleasant afternoons at all of Aziraphale’s favorite restaurants swim to the front of their mind; trying dish after dish of unfamiliar cuisine with their fellow angel while Crowley only nursed a glass of wine.
They think of their birthday cake.
Hands curled into loose fists, Nanael’s eyes stray from the stranger before them and toward a certain selection of books at the back— books that they were told to steer clear of until they had a better grasp on things.
“Tricky business, occult science,” Aziraphale had said. “You’re just as likely to lay a curse as break one if you don’t get the inflection right. Best keep out of it for now, hm?”
Nanael, in what was becoming habit, had looked to Crowley for the final word on the matter. Crowley leaned back on his elbows and said, “No knowledge is off-limits, Feathers, but you wouldn’t give an eight-year-old a book on astrophysics and expect them to work it out for themselves, would you? If there’s something you want to know in particular, just ask.”
And that had been that. But now… well, things have changed, haven’t they? That’s what things do, here on earth, is change, almost constantly.
The demon leaves with an unsettling lack of farewell, but Nanael hardly notices her go. They’re venturing into the stacks they’ve never ventured into before, abandoning their poets to reach instead for a book in weathered blue binding. The title has mostly faded; all that’s left of it reads Tractatulus Hyprocratis, and Nanael isn’t sure what that translates to.
But there are dictionaries here. There are encyclopedias and thesauruses. One of the first things Nanael learned was how to learn, and they lock up the shop with a thought and circle back to the chair that has become theirs.
If Crowley is cursed, it hardly seems fair that Nanael should have to sit around all this knowledge that might be of help to him and not be allowed to pursue it.
“I heard your parents are sending you away,” Roman says in a rather nasty tone of voice.
Warlock sizes him up, and Roman sees him sizing him up and puts a healthy extra step of distance between them. It isn’t that Warlock is very big or very strong, it’s just that Warlock doesn’t think twice about starting fights, and he’ll go to twice as much length as anyone else will to finish them.
“Whoever told you that’s a liar,” Warlock bites out. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He’s thirteen now, with grades near the top of his class after that dismal year between ten and eleven. His teachers aren’t sure what to make of him, but he’d tell them if they just asked; that Nanny said Warlock could do much better than he’d been doing, that it’s one thing to punish the people who hurt you but a whole ‘nother when that punishment bends back around onto you.
It wasn’t hard to tidy his grades up after that. He’s not an idiot.
“That’s not what dad said,” Margo pipes up. “Dad told me your dad told him that you’re on the waiting list for a program for troubled youth. Very private. Almost like they want to keep you a secret.”
The rest of the group gets a big laugh out of that, and Warlock glares at the bunch of snow weighing down a low-hanging branch above the sidewalk, willing it to fall on their heads.
Whether by nature or influence, it does. They shriek in surprise, and it’s Warlock’s turn to laugh.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says again, just so they don’t get any more stupid ideas. “I’ve got plans, you see.”
And then he rushes the rest of the way home, careful not to slip on the icy pavement, because it’s Friday, and Friday means Nanny will be there to pick him up after school.
“Oh, I forgot,” Nanael says. They’re hiding whatever book they’re reading in an open magazine, and Aziraphale hasn’t come around to asking why yet. Some things are better left untroubled. “Crowley, someone came looking for you. A demon. I didn’t get her name.”
Aziraphale sharpens, pen going still above his ledger. Crowley doesn’t look half as worried. He hardly looks up from his phone.
“As long as it’s me they’re looking for,” he says. “I’ll tighten up the wards tonight.”
“As long as— “ Aziraphale frowns mightily. “Danger to you is still danger, Crowley. We’ll tighten up the wards right now.”
“It's not as though they'll be back before dinner,” Crowley grumbles, but he picks his feet up off the ottoman and pushes himself upright nonetheless. He makes a show of it, making sure to look impossibly put-upon, and Aziraphale feels himself bristling.
“After what happened the last time we had unwanted guests,” he says tightly, unhappy, “I hope you’ll forgive my taking extra precautions.”
Crowley winces. Nanael looks stricken, and then miserable. “I’ve told Daniel not to come here again,” they say, picking guiltily at the edge of their strange amalgamation of reading material. “She promised she wouldn’t.”
“Well, that’s one angel we can cross off the list, then. We only have the rest of the combined forces of Heaven and Hell left to worry about.”
Aziraphale bustles into the front room, feeling prickly and restless. The idea of danger looms in all the dark corners of the dimly lit shop. Crowley follows, as silent as a winged creature, or in this case, one with scales.
He steps into Aziraphale's space, looping those long arms around his middle, and Aziraphale is distracted by him, the warmth of him. His hands come up almost on their own to hold Crowley where he is.
“You’re working yourself up, angel. There’s no need. We’re safe as houses, here in your little shop. I’d like to see old Michael take a swing at one of us behind these walls.”
“Don’t tempt fate,” Aziraphale murmurs. “The last thing we need now is to invoke one of them.”
“We’ll tighten the wards,” Crowley says, giving, as always, where Aziraphale is stubbornly set in his ways. He's rubbing small circles against Aziraphale's back, the original tempter, convincing him to let go of all this reasonable worry despite himself. “Not even a mouse will get in without our knowing about it."
"I'm hardly worried about mice, my dear," Aziraphale says sternly, but it's a losing battle. "If anything were to happen to you— "
"I know, Aziraphale." Truly, he must. He watched the shop burn down and for a few bleak hours believed half of his soul was lost for good. Aziraphale can barely stomach the idea of such grief, and holds him tighter, as if to make up for not holding him then. "Nothing will. As long as we're together, we can weather anything they throw at us. It's worked out this far, hasn't it?"
"For better or worse."
Crowley leans back, eyes fully yellow, pupils round in the low light.
"They won't take me," he vows, vehement, full of a caring that crouches in his chest like a creature with teeth. "And they won't touch you. I swear it."
And what could he say? Aziraphale leans in to kiss him when the words all fail, on the corner of the mouth, the cheek, the stark lines of his tattoo, the lid of his eye, that stubborn brow. Faith and love and trust coalescing inside him into something fearsome, something next to divine.
He's afraid he's gotten used to being afraid, but for Crowley, Aziraphale would brave anything.
“Oh, darling, there was no need for secrecy and subterfuge. You need only tell me these things.”
Crowley squirms. Aziraphale lifts his sunglasses away with a proprietary air, then lifts his chin and holds him there. He strokes Crowley’s bottom lip with the pad of his thumb, one of those throwaway moments of intimacy that still blow Crowley’s mind. He hasn’t reconciled himself to this new normal as easily as Aziraphale has. He has to fight not to shiver when all of the angel’s attention or affection bends his way.
“After six thousand years of doing whatever I’d like to do,” Aziraphale says fondly, “it’s rather past time I indulge whatever whims of yours that I can, hm?”
“This is more than a whim, ” Crowley hedges. He was expecting more of an argument; he doesn’t know what to do with such an easy victory. “It’s a— it’s a whole kid.”
“He's important to you,” Aziraphale says, as if it’s that simple.
And so Warlock Dowling comes to the bookshop in Soho for a visit, wide-eyed and clutching to the hem of Crowley’s jacket, incredibly small, infinitely human.
But there is nothing fragile in the way he lifts his chin and seems to dare Aziraphale or Nanael to tell him he isn’t welcome. As though a child should expect to be told he isn’t welcome.
“Hello, dearest,” Aziraphale says. Crowley can see him remembering the boy when he was very young, when he still toddled around the gardens asking about all the flowers and bugs. “I’m not sure if you remember me.”
Something like fondness springs into Warlock’s eyes, as if it was just waiting for the invitation.
“Brother Francis,” he says promptly, a smile lurking in the corners of his mouth. “Nanny said you fixed your teeth and left the church.”
Nanael makes a noise like a cat whose tail has just been stepped on, and turns bodily away to look with such pointed indifference at a shelf of self-help books that it’s obvious they’re suppressing laughter.
Aziraphale says “oh, really ” and Crowley favors him with his most devil-may-care grin.
“Nanny said I could call him Crowley now, but it’s okay if I don’t,” Warlock goes on. “Is there something different you want to be called, too?”
A polite little Hellspawn when it suits him, Crowley thinks with displaced pride. He can see Aziraphale melting like butter, opening his mouth presumably to tell Warlock he can call him by whatever name he’s most comfortable with, when someone knocks on the shop window.
She’s a harried looking middle-aged woman, tapping her knuckles right next to where the Closed sign is hanging and seeming adamant about coming in anyway.
Warlock glares, and the shade comes crashing down with enough force that it knocks the window display clean over. The tapping, at least, stops dead.
“Oops,” says Warlock, shamefaced. He scurries over to pick up the fallen books, though he doesn’t bother lifting the shade. “Sorry.”
Crowley glances back at Aziraphale to find him stunned, staring at the books on the floor in bewilderment. Crowley rubs the back of his head, and says, “Yeah, um— there’s that, too. I think we may have believed in him a bit too much, during his formative years. Put some thoughts in his head that, er, took root.”
“I see,” Aziraphale says faintly. He comes to stand at Crowley’s side, watching Nanael crouch next to Warlock and show him how much more fun it is to order reality about with a snap of one’s fingers rather than a glare.
“If you’re Crowley’s child, you’ll pick it up right away,” Nanael says with perfect confidence.
Warlock brightens, and Crowley pretends not to notice the way Aziraphale is smiling at him.