Chapter 1: Trivia Night
Crowley worked in Sales. He had never intended to work in Sales. It had just sort of happened. One moment, there he’d been, a newly minted university graduate off to change the world, exquisitely useless Philosophy degree in hand, and now here he was, having sauntered vaguely downwards into a Hell that consisted mainly of cold-calling new customers and sucking up to existing ones.
He’d been in his current job, at the appallingly misnamed Celestial Paper Company, for almost five years now. It wasn’t a good job, even by Crowley’s now basement-level standards. His boss was an idiot, his coworkers were incompetent, there wasn’t even good office coffee. He should have found another job a long time ago. He could have, even. Crowley wasn’t a particularly good salesman, but he had an instinct for when to push a sale and when to let it be, and he interviewed very well. He could, he was fairly certain, go somewhere else and make twice his current (crap) salary, could have a better title, could even, maybe, have his own office instead of half a desk in an open floor plan.
But Crowley had no intention of leaving CPC, for several not-very-good reasons and one Very Good Reason. The Very Good Reason’s name was Aziraphale, and he was the receptionist. Aziraphale was blonde and wore a bowtie every day and had a distressing tendency to smile at people as though they were the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Crowley had borne the full force of one of those smiles on his first day at CPC, and had promptly fallen headlong in love. He’d thought that maybe familiarity would breed contempt, but, instead, his initial infatuation gave way to an enduring fondness. Every ridiculous and annoying habit that he discovered only served to endear Aziraphale to him more.
Unfortunately, on that first day, when Crowley had only just recovered from the full-force dazzle effect of Aziraphale’s smile, when his thoughts had just begun to morph from a silent scream of oh my GOD into a hazy fantasy about getting married on a hillside surrounded by ducks, he’d received the New Employee Manual from Beelzebub in Personnel and learned that intra-office relationships were strictly forbidden at CPC.
So Crowley had, for the last five years, existed in the torturous balance of knowing that he would never be able to date Aziraphale so long as they both worked at CPC, and fearing that if he were ever to leave the company, he’d lose the certainty of seeing Aziraphale every weekday between eight-thirty and five-thirty.
And all of that was without even getting into the glaring fact that Crowley wasn’t at all sure whether Aziraphale reciprocated his feelings. Or was even aware of them. Oh, there were the smiles, of course, and the way that Aziraphale always seemed genuinely delighted to see him in the morning. There was the softness in his voice when he thanked Crowley for picking up a coffee for him at the cafe downstairs, and the way he laughed even at Crowley’s not-particularly-funny jokes. But all those things could have, Crowley told himself stubbornly, whenever he was feeling particularly gooey and hopeful, just been Aziraphale being Aziraphale. After all, he smiled like that at everyone. Crowley thought the smiles that he got were different, but that was probably just wishful thinking. He had a tendency to do a lot of that, around Aziraphale.
So he lived in a state of painful uncertainty, plucking the petals off of an imaginary flower and hoarding every held glance and brush of fingertips and secret smile like they were priceless treasures, as though enough maybes might someday add up to yes.
And when the branch manager of CPC Swindon, Gabriel, came out of his office to announce that his latest stupid team-building idea was a Sales versus Operations trivia contest, Crowley’s first thought wasn’t how the hell is that supposed to facilitate team-building, or what bored demon invented team-building anyway, or I wonder how I can screw this up for everyone else. (Those were all thoughts he had; they just weren’t the first.) His first thought was, Aziraphale and I are going to be on different teams.
“So,” said Gabriel, in the cheery boom of someone who had no obligations outside of work and had certainly never considered that anyone else might, “we’ll all go down to the pub tomorrow at six. Trivia starts at six-thirty, it’ll be fun! Any questions?”
“Yeah,” said Michael in Accounting, “is this mandatory?”
A general murmur of assent rippled through the office.
“Well,” Gabriel said, as though he hadn’t even considered that anyone might not want to give up their Friday evening for a work trivia night (which, to be fair, he almost certainly hadn’t), “uh, I don’t know if it...I mean, can I…” He glanced over at the Personnel corner, where Beelzebub was emphatically shaking her head no. “Uh. No. Not mandatory, I guess.”
“Great,” said Michael, “then I’m out.”
“But!” Gabriel said hurriedly, “the prize for the winning team is an extra day off. With pay. So. Keep that in mind.”
The rumble of discontent turned quickly to a rumble of interest. Crowley could see Beelzebub practically smacking her head against the wall of her cubicle, presumably at the thought of all the paperwork an extra vacation day for half the office would cause. “Gabriel,” she said, with forced calm, “if I could have a word?”
Gabriel looked at her with the expression of a child caught with one hand in the cookie tin. “Uh. Can’t. Very busy. Right, so, back to work, everyone, and get ready for trivia night!” he said, and retreated quickly into his office. Beelzebub actually smacked her head against the cubicle wall.
Crowley let his gaze gravitate where it always did, to Reception. (He’d developed a crick in his neck from perfecting his watching-Aziraphale-without-looking-like-you’re-watching-him angle.) Aziraphale was typing industriously away on his computer, at what looked from a distance like work, but was probably the draft of the novel he’d told Crowley he was writing but had never let anyone read. With forced casualness, Crowley rose from his chair and strolled the few meters to reception, apparently (he hoped) solely engrossed in choosing which candy to pick from the bowl Aziraphale kept on his desk. (In fact, Crowley hated candy. He had, nevertheless, gained five pounds and two cavities since the beginning of his employment at CPC, because the candy dish proved an excellent excuse for conversation with its owner.)
“Oh, hello, Crowley,” Aziraphale said, as though this was the best thing that had happened to him all day.
“‘Lo,” Crowley muttered, stuffing a Werther’s Original into his mouth. “Wild about this trivia night thing, mmm? Are you, erm, are you thinking of going?”
“Oh, yes, I think so,” Aziraphale said warmly. “I’m quite good at trivia, actually. Are you? Going, I mean?”
Yes, Crowley wanted to say, I’d go anywhere you went. “Eh, not sure, day off sounds nice,” he said, instead.
“I think you—” Aziraphale’s phone rang, and he touched a finger to his lips and held it up to Crowley in a wait-a-minute gesture. “Celestial Paper Company, how may I direct your call?”
Crowley sucked on his candy and tried not to think about the way Aziraphale’s mouth had looked when he’d brought his finger up to it, about the way his lips had pursed, in a way that, if one were a stupid idiot reading signs that almost definitely weren’t there, one could interpret as a kiss.
“I’ll transfer you, please hold,” Aziraphale said, and dithered over the buttons of his phone for a few seconds before pressing a few of them and gingerly placing the phone back in its cradle. “Anyhow,” he said to Crowley, smiling slightly, “you should come. To trivia night. It’ll be fun.”
Crowley could imagine few things less fun than forced socializing with his co-workers, but he nodded anyway. “Yeah, I don’t think I’ve got anything—”
He was cut off by Aziraphale’s phone, ringing again. Aziraphale rolled his eyes and smiled a little and picked it up. “Celestial Paper Company, how may I—oh, it’s you again. Oh, it didn’t go through. Oh, I’m very sorry. If you’ll hold for just a moment—”
That was the thing about Aziraphale—he was a truly terrible receptionist. Crowley couldn’t count on his hands the number of clients he’d lost due to dropped calls and misplaced memos, faxes that had never reached their destination, mail that went mysteriously missing. It was a miracle, really, that he hadn’t been fired years ago. Crowley suspected this was largely due to Gabriel’s own incompetence, which apparently shielded him from seeing Aziraphale’s in a sort of double-jeopardy effect. Aziraphale seemed profoundly out of place, both in his job and in their office in general. He should have been a million other things, Crowley thought, a used bookstore owner or an absent-minded professor or a kindly librarian. Jobs that didn’t involve being organized, and keeping track of schedules, and understanding technology, none of which were Aziraphale’s forte. The man had apparently been born sixty-five. He still made notes on paper, for Heaven’s sake.
Aziraphale placed the phone down again, this time with a more triumphant air. “I think that’s done it,” he said, a note of doubt creeping into his voice. “You don’t think they’ve changed the commands again, do you?”
Crowley forbore from replying that “they” hadn’t once changed the phone commands in his whole tenure at CPC. “Could be,” he said neutrally. “Well. I just came by to get my, uh, my candy—” he gestured awkwardly to the lump in the corner of his mouth— “and I s’pose I’ll see you, then. At trivia night.”
“You’ll see me trounce you,” Aziraphale said, and sighed deeply as his phone rang again. “Celestial Paper—oh, it didn’t? I’m very sorry, phones must be acting up again…”
Crowley grabbed a Post-It note from Aziraphale’s desk and scrawled “It’s Transfer then 2 then the extension” on it, then slapped it to Aziraphale’s monitor.
Aziraphale mouthed “Thank you so much” silently, then said, “Oh yes, I see the problem now, this should do the trick,” pressed the buttons decisively, and placed the phone back down again. A few desks away, Hastur’s phone rang. “Oh, it worked,” Aziraphale said, delighted. “Thank you, you’re so clever.”
Crowley made a not-clever-at-all sort of noise and shrugged. “Maybe you won’t quite trounce me at trivia, then,” he said, “if, y’know, they have questions about phone commands—”
Aziraphale reached out towards his computer, delicately un-stuck the Post-It note, crumpled it up, and threw it in Crowley’s face. “Somehow I doubt that,” he said haughtily.
“Ow,” Crowley said, dramatically, despite the complete lack of pain induced by Post-It note assault. “Well, we’ll see tomorrow, then, won’t we?”
“I suppose we will,” said Aziraphale, and Crowley slouched back to his desk, the last few bits of sweetness from the candy sinking into his tongue, leaving behind only the sharp edges that pricked and stung.
In the end, just about everyone showed up for trivia night. The pub Gabriel had chosen was terrible, of course, with kitschy decor and too-expensive drinks and a clientele composed almost exclusively of businessmen in ill-fitting suits, because, really, who did trivia night on a Friday? Friday, Crowley thought, was for getting properly drunk, not for answering questions about who’d won the 1982 World Cup.
Gabriel had chivvied them all into sitting with their teammates, Sales at one table and Operations at another. Crowley looked around at his table and decided they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning. He wasn’t much for trivia, himself, and he couldn’t believe that Hastur and Ligur, the two senior salesmen, were, either. Gabriel had declared himself part of the Sales team, despite the fact that he hadn’t actually sold anything since his promotion. While Crowley was a little more willing to believe that he might have a heretofore-unseen store of trivia ability, he didn’t hold out much hope. As for Sandalphon, who had started as a junior sales rep at the same time as Crowley and toadied his way up to become what he referred to as “Gabriel’s right-hand man” and Crowley referred to as “Gabriel’s errand boy,” he probably had some trivia knowledge. It just wasn’t likely to be anything you’d be asked about in a bar.
The Operations team, on the other hand; now that was a team that had a shot. Aziraphale had probably read the encyclopedia cover to cover and retained every detail (except the bits about how to avoid replying-all on an email), Michael and Uriel in Accounting both had maths degrees and certainly acted like they knew a lot of facts, Dagon, in customer service, was apparently a sports trivia fiend, and Beelzebub—well, Crowley wouldn’t put anything past Beelzebub. Underestimating her was a fool’s game.
“Right,” came an uncertain voice from near the bar, “I’m your host for tonight’s trivia game, I hope you’ve all brought your thinking caps and are ready to have a good time!”
Crowley glanced over to see what sort of sad sack was spending his Friday night hosting pub trivia, and saw pretty much exactly what he’d been expecting—a tall, skinny young man with messy dark hair and spectacles, who was apparently reading off a cue card.
“My name’s Newt,” the host continued— of course it is, Crowley thought—“and tonight’s game has eight rounds. As a reminder, after each round, the team with the highest score in that round gets a free round of drinks—so you’ve always got a chance! Now, erm, categories for the first round. We’ve got: Shakespeare, James Bond, History Since 1950, and The Book of Revelations. You have two minutes to assign a point value to each category based on your confidence level. And time starts...now.”
Crowley considered the sheet in front of him. “Let’s do James Bond for four points,” he said, grabbing the pencil, “I’m pretty confident—”
Gabriel cut him off. “Yes, yes. Bond at the top, then the recent history category, then Shakespeare, and we’ll do Revelations at the bottom, pretty sure no one knows anything about that.”
“Actually,” Sandalphon started, “I did a paper in school once—”
“Put it down last, Crowley,” Gabriel said, shooting Sandalphon a “shut up” look. Sandalphon shut up, and Crowley put Revelations down last.
“Right,” came Newt’s voice over the microphone, “that’s the two minutes up, time for the first question. Category is Shakespeare, question is: In which play can you find the line All the world’s a stage, and, for a bonus point, what character says it?”
“It’s As You Like It,” Sandalphon said immediately, “put As You Like It.”
Crowley put “As You Like It.”
“Anyone know what character?” he asked, looking around.
“Jaques,” said Hastur, and every head at the table swiveled to face him.
Crowley recovered from the shock the fastest. “Uh, right, I’ll put that down, I guess—”
“Hang on,” Gabriel said, pointing an accusing finger at Hastur’s lap. “You’re not allowed to Google it.”
Hastur quickly shoved the offending cellphone back into his pocket. “Worth a try,” he grumbled.
“Do not put that down,” Gabriel told Crowley. “We are not going to win by cheating.”
We’re not going to win at all, Crowley thought, without much bitterness. He glanced over at the other table, where Aziraphale’s blond head was bent over their sheet of paper, writing furiously. After a second, he glanced up—as though he could feel Crowley’s eyes on him—and smiled, and come on, that smile had to be for Crowley, it wasn’t self-delusion to think so, he was looking literally right at him—
“Hey,” Gabriel said, kicking Crowley under the table, “what’s the name of the love interest in Thunderball? Since you’re so confident.”
Crowley blinked, and lost eye contact with Aziraphale, and felt suddenly as though he’d been plunged into a bucket of cold water. “Huh?” he said.
“The love interest. In Thunderball. James Bond?”
“Uh. No idea,” Crowley said, not even lying, because at the moment his head had gone completely empty of everything that wasn’t Aziraphale smiled at me, right at me.
“Useless,” Gabriel muttered, “thought you knew things, went to university and all.”
Crowley had the dim realization, somewhere in the back of his brain, that it was potentially Not Good that Gabriel now thought of him as useless, but couldn’t bring himself to care.
He did, however, notice when the Sales team came in dead last after the first round. Operations was winning, of course, not just over Sales but over every other team at the pub (to be fair, there were only about four other teams, and two of them had mixed up Malta and Yalta in the History Since 1950 question, so the competition wasn’t exactly fierce, but still). Newt welcomed them up to the bar for their free round of drinks, and Aziraphale stopped on the way back at the Sales table to clink his gin and tonic against Crowley’s barely-touched glass of terrible wine. “See? Trouncing you,” he said, under his breath.
“Being trounced,” Crowley said, raising his glass to Aziraphale in a kind of salute.
The Operations team proceeded to win every single one of the next six rounds. Which meant that, in the span of just over two hours, Aziraphale had acquired seven gin and tonics, and was what Crowley would (delightedly) describe as sloshed. (None of the other Operations team members had taken quite as full advantage of the free-drink-every-round winner’s perk as Aziraphale had. Crowley was pretty sure Michael had been drinking seltzer from the get-go, and Uriel had talked the bartender into letting her swap three free drinks into one actually top-shelf whiskey. Dagon had simply declined to go up after the first two drinks, electing instead to nurse an Irish coffee that had to be cold by now, and Beelzebub had been yielding half her drinks to Gabriel, a move that had puzzled Crowley at first, but that now, as an inebriated Gabriel botched a question on Queen’s Greatest Hits, made perfect, diabolical sense.)
“Okay,” said Newt, running a hand through his hair and matting it down again, “final round. Uh, we’ve got CPC Operations with a commanding lead, but don’t forget, winners of this round still get free drinks…” He looked nervously at Aziraphale, who was bobbing back and forth and humming something tuneless. “Although the bartender would like me to remind you that he reserves the right to refuse to serve anyone for any reason, thankyouverymuch. Onto our final categories, which are, uh, Elvis Presley, nineteenth-century literature, reptiles, and cricket—”
From the corner of his eye, Crowley saw Aziraphale lurch out of his chair, stumble into a wall, giggle to himself (apparently unhurt), and wend his way unsteadily towards the men’s room. And Crowley’s glass of wine must’ve had more of an impact on him than he’d realized, because without even really thinking about it, he muttered an excuse under his breath and followed.
The bathroom was completely empty except for Aziraphale, who was standing in front of one of the sinks, fully clothed, looking in the mirror.
“You all right?” Crowley asked, softly, letting the door fall closed behind him.
Aziraphale turned to look at him with a widening smile. “I am beating you,” he said, proudly, “might not know how t’transfer a call but I know my Shakespeare,” and he took a step towards Crowley, whose brain went into fight-or-flight mode and somehow managed to select freeze.
“Didn’t really doubt you,” he managed to say, “congratulations on the extra day off.”
Aziraphale stepped closer, again; he was close enough to touch, now, and mercifully Crowley’s brain hadn’t figured out how to send signals to his limbs yet, or he’d have reached out and taken Aziraphale’s face in his hands and—
“Look,” Aziraphale said, as though he’d suddenly discovered something astoundingly beautiful, “I’ve made sexy Crowley from Sales congratulate me—”
Crowley felt a whoosh somewhere at the base of his stomach, and he could tell that the sensation was about to spread to all sorts of extremely inconvenient places, starting with, but certainly not limited to, his heart. He finally, finally managed to get his arms working again, and he was just beginning to lift one hand (solely for the purposes of placing it reassuringly on Aziraphale’s shoulder) when Aziraphale abruptly turned a funny colour, said “Oh dear,” and vomited all over Crowley’s feet.
Crowley unceremoniously regained complete working control over all his limbs and used it to steer Aziraphale in the direction of the nearest toilet. “Come on,” he said, nonsensically, “that’s all right, just breathe, now.”
Aziraphale vomited again, this time, mercifully, in the toilet. Crowley saw that he had latched on well enough to the bowl and got up to grab a paper towel, which he dampened with warm water. He returned to the stall where Aziraphale was hunched over, gripping the toilet with both hands, and carefully placed one hand on his back.
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said wretchedly, “I’ve probably ruined your shoes.”
He had, and they had been far more expensive than Crowley could afford, but he just made a soft generic comfort-noise and reached up to dab at Aziraphale’s face with the damp paper towel. Aziraphale let out a little sigh, and Crowley jerked away in surprise, but Aziraphale turned his head away from the toilet bowl to face him and said softly, “Oh, please don’t stop, it feels nice, that’s all.”
So Crowley sunk from his awkward crouch into a fully seated position, and resumed patting at Aziraphale’s face, until he was reasonably sure no more vomiting was going to occur.
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said, again, once Crowley had risen to throw out the paper towel.
Crowley just sort of shrugged— he’s not going to remember any of this tomorrow anyway, he thought, half-relieved, half-disappointed—and said, “Happens to all of us,” and then, allowing himself to smile directly at Aziraphale, “and besides, there’s a silver lining.”
“What’s that?” Aziraphale asked.
“Well, you’ve won an extra day off, haven’t you? So you’ve got an extra day to recover.”
“That’s right,” Aziraphale said, smiling again, “I have.”
“D’you need a ride home,” Crowley asked, cautiously, “or—”
Aziraphale shook his head, winced, and shook it again, more carefully. “Michael’s got me, she lives nearby. Actually—” he staggered to his feet— “should prob’ly go find her, make sure she hasn’t left.”
“Right,” said Crowley, and he was seized with the impulse to shake hands, or something equally definitive and ridiculous. “See you Tuesday, then, I s’pose.”
“See you Tuesday,” said Aziraphale, and walked carefully out of the bathroom.
Crowley stared after him a minute, then set about the task of de-vomiting his shoes. They hadn’t even been waterproofed, he realized.
All the same. The night hadn’t been half bad.
This chapter is loosely based on the Office episodes "The Dundies" (American version) and "The Quiz" (UK version).
10,000 points to anyone who gets the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend reference I threw in there!
Title is from "At My Most Beautiful" by REM.
Chapter 2: Downsizing
On Tuesday, Crowley came in to find a cheque on his desk, signed by Aziraphale, for an amount that was simultaneously far less than his shoes had cost but also far more than he suspected Aziraphale could easily afford. He glanced automatically up to Reception, but Aziraphale was pointedly looking at his computer screen and typing very quickly. Crowley could take a hint.
He stuck the cheque in his briefcase (of course Aziraphale wrote paper cheques) and turned on his computer, glancing over at Reception every few seconds as he did so. Aziraphale steadfastly refused to return his gaze, and Crowley was left wondering exactly how much of Friday night he remembered. The cheque certainly seemed to indicate that Aziraphale remembered vomiting all over Crowley’s shoes, and the lack of acknowledgement this morning—Aziraphale’s “Good morning!” when Crowley had walked in had been several shades less enthusiastic than usual—might, Crowley worried, be due to day-after regret. If Aziraphale remembered calling him sexy Crowley from Sales in the bathroom that night, and if he now felt embarrassed about it, wanted to take it back—well, that could easily explain the lack of eye contact.
Crowley couldn’t pretend that he hadn’t devoted a truly absurd amount of time to analyzing that sexy, and an even more absurd amount of time daydreaming about what might have happened if Aziraphale hadn’t vomited (nothing, nothing would have happened, he was drunk, you know that). But he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, trade that glimmer of hope for his easy friendship with Aziraphale.
So he opened up Slack, and sent Aziraphale a direct message:
CROWLEY: hey...thanks for the cheque. but, totally unnecessary, you know that, right? happens to the best of us. for my money, the best thing to do is that we both pretend the whole thing never happened, yeah? as far as i’m concerned, trivia night ended after round 7.
He hit send, and was rewarded, a second later, by Aziraphale’s head swiveling to face him, pure gratitude written all over his features.
AZIRAPHALE: Oh, thank you ever so much, it’s dreadfully embarrassing and I would be frightfully obliged if we could consider that whole evening forgotten.
CROWLEY: what whole evening? ;)
AZIRAPHALE: Thank you. I mean it.
Crowley looked over at Reception again, and saw Aziraphale smiling at him. Crowley would gladly have committed murder for that smile. Never mentioning sexy Crowley from Sales again was a far lower price. (And, to be honest, Crowley wondered whether he’d ever have screwed up the courage to bring it up, anyway. What would he have said? Hey, uh, you know how you called me sexy the other night? Funny story, turns out I’m hopelessly in love with you, fancy dinner sometime?)
AZIRAPHALE: If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.
CROWLEY: right, i’ll keep that in mind. actually, you know what, i feel like sandalphon needs to be taken down a peg again. may need your help arranging a little something.
AZIRAPHALE: I could be tempted…
Crowley grinned at his computer screen. Aziraphale loved messing with Sandalphon, who had an irritating tendency to treat Aziraphale like his personal assistant. (Sandalphon tended to reap his own mis-filed rewards, however, due to Aziraphale’s incompetence.) He exited the Slack chat window and began absentmindedly answering client emails while brainstorming the perfect prank.
He was interrupted by the sound of Gabriel violently slamming his office door closed. Crowley looked up, startled, but saw no signs of what might have caused this.
AZIRAPHALE: What’s going on with him?
CROWLEY: no idea. any odd memos run across your desk lately?
AZIRAPHALE: You know I’m not allowed to say.
AZIRAPHALE: But no.
AZIRAPHALE: I did transfer a call from head office a few minutes ago, though. Perhaps that?
CROWLEY: you don’t think he’s been fired, do you?
AZIRAPHALE: Oh, I certainly hope not!
CROWLEY: lol what why? he’s a dick to you
AZIRAPHALE: Well, I wouldn’t want anyone to lose their job, regardless of whether or not they’re a…
CROWLEY: a dick?
AZIRAPHALE: You said it. Not me.
CROWLEY: and i’d say it again tbh
AZIRAPHALE: You know, he likes you. You should go in and ask him.
CROWLEY: hahahah what. he does not like me.
AZIRAPHALE: He does! He thinks you’re cool! He told me so.
CROWLEY: what? huh. well, i mean, as you know i’m very cool, so can’t really blame him
AZIRAPHALE: Go ask him what’s going on!
CROWLEY: uhhh no way. regardless of how cool gabe may or may not find me, i’m not bothering him when he’s like this
AZIRAPHALE: Please???? I’m so curious
CROWLEY: four question marks? you really are desperate huh?
He glanced up at Aziraphale, who was looking at him with what could only be described as puppy-dog eyes. Crowley felt his mouth twist into a smile. God, he really was hopeless, wasn’t he?
CROWLEY: oh, all right. although i think he’s still mad at me for not being the trivia whiz he hoped for, so if he gets angry again i totally blame you
AZIRAPHALE: Oh, thank you!!!!
Crowley stared at those four exclamation points for a second, trying to lock the image of them in his mind. (Given that Crowley’s brain was pretty much just a constant stream of exclamation points whenever he was around Aziraphale, it wasn’t particularly hard.)
CROWLEY: All right, here goes.
He rose from his chair and headed for Gabriel’s office, winking at Aziraphale as he passed Reception. Aziraphale’s eyes practically twinkled in response.
Crowley rapped on Gabriel’s door.
“Who is it?” came the irritated response, then Gabriel’s head appeared in the window. “Oh. Crowley. Come in.”
Crowley entered, glancing around for any signs of what might’ve caused Gabriel’s door-slam.
“Noticed you seemed a bit upset,” he said, “wondered if there was anything I could do to help.”
Gabriel let out a long-suffering sigh. “There’s nothing anyone can do. We’re in for it, Crowley. This is the end.”
“The end?” Crowley asked, alarmed. “What d’you mean?”
Gabriel looked at him appraisingly. “You promise not to tell anyone?”
“Sure,” Crowley said, lying.
Gabriel beckoned him closer. “I’ve just got a call from head office,” he said, “that there’s going to be downsizing. I’m going to have to fire someone.”
Gabriel nodded vigorously. “I know! I mean, come on, how is it fair that I should have to go through that? I have to pick someone, and then I have to sit down with them and tell them they’re fired! Do you have any idea how emotionally taxing that’s going to be?”
“I meant more that it’s awful for the person getting fired,” Crowley said, half under his breath.
Gabriel ignored him. “I think Beelzebub should do it. She’s Personnel, isn’t she supposed to be the mean one? I’m supposed to be the fun one.”
“Do you know who it’s going to be yet?” Crowley asked. “I mean, is it going to be based on sales numbers, or…” He was pretty sure his numbers were better than Hastur’s.
Gabriel looked at him, betrayed. “You sound just like head office,” he said accusingly. “So cold.”
“So, no, then?”
“You can’t measure a person’s value to this office in terms of numbers.”
“Literally thought that was the purpose of numbers,” Crowley said, “but you’re the boss.”
“Being the boss is hard,” Gabriel said, pouting. Crowley noted that it was significantly less effective than Aziraphale’s pout.
“Well,” he said, “if I can be, y’know, helpful at all—”
Gabriel groaned. “Leave me to my torture,” he said, waving a hand at Crowley to dismiss him.
“Right,” said Crowley, “see you later, then,” and beat a quick retreat before Gabriel could decide to fire him just for being there.
“Well?” Aziraphale hissed as Crowley passed his desk.
“Downsizing,” Crowley said, drumming his fingers on the desktop.
“Do you know whom?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley shook his head. “Don’t think he’s decided yet. Knowing him, it won’t be anything logical. Whoever has the bad luck to piss him off first, I’m guessing. So. Consider yourself warned.”
Aziraphale looked nervous. “I know I’m not the most efficient receptionist—” understatement of the century, Crowley thought— “but it’s not as though letting me go would really accomplish anything, would it? I mean, they can’t very well go without anyone at the front desk. Although there are those automated phone systems, now, press one for customer service, and all. But I think my presence gives customers that personal touch. The kind the bigger companies can’t achieve.”
“Course it does,” said Crowley reassuringly. “I’m sure you’re safe. He’ll have to pick someone from one of the departments that’s got multiple staff members. Like Accounting. Or Sales,” he added darkly.
“Oh—” Aziraphale’s features were writ with concern— “oh, I’m certain you’re safe. You’re a brilliant salesman. They can’t let you go.”
Crowley shrugged. “Yeah, hope not.”
“Oh, so do I,” said Aziraphale with worry. “I don’t think I could bear it here if you left.”
Crowley’s heart turned over. “Same to you,” he managed to croak out. The speed of his fingers drumming on the reception desk increased.
Aziraphale reached out and placed a hand on his to stop the drumming. “You’re nervous,” he said, surprised.
Crowley’s whole world narrowed to Aziraphale’s hand on his, the warmth of his fingers on Crowley’s, the softness of his palm. Every nerve told him to look down, to see their hands touching, but he thought if he did that he might literally catch fire, right there in the office. So instead he looked into Aziraphale’s eyes, which was overwhelming enough in itself. “Nah,” he said weakly.
“All right,” said Aziraphale, not sounding convinced. He gave Crowley’s hand a pat and let it go.
Crowley withdrew his hand from the reception desk with the faint idea that he might never wash it again. “Back to work, then,” he said.
Aziraphale nodded in response, and Crowley could feel his gaze on him all the way back to his desk.
He turned the possibility of getting fired over in his mind. On the positive side, he’d finally be free from this Hell of a job, presumably with a decent severance package, able to do something actually interesting with his life. (What precisely that might be, Crowley had no idea. But almost anything had to be better than selling paper.) And if he were no longer employed at CPC, the intra-office no-dating policy would no longer apply, and he’d be able to actually ask out Aziraphale. Buoyed by Friday’s sexy and today’s I couldn’t bear it if you left, he let himself wonder whether Aziraphale might actually say yes. The negatives were slightly more obvious. No income, for one. No immediate prospects for other employment. And, of course, Aziraphale might well say no, might well not want to date him, and then Crowley’d be left both without a job and without the only thing that made that job worth having.
Overall, he decided he didn’t want to get fired. So instead of continuing to browse the Internet for inspiration for his next Sandalphon prank, he picked up the phone and began dialing a customer’s number.
Ligur poked him in the stomach with a pencil.
“Ow,” said Crowley, and put down the phone. “What was that for?”
“I heard you talking. To Aziraphale,” Ligur said. “About downsizing.”
“And?” Crowley asked with forced nonchalance.
“And it’s happening? There’s going to be downsizing?”
Crowley shook his head. “No, no, no. We were discussing the 2017 Matt Damon film Downsizing. Look it up. It’s not bad.”
Ligur snorted. “Nice try.”
Crowley did his level best to look innocent. “Why would I lie to you, Ligur? Colleague of mine. Brother-in-arms. Dare I say, friend?”
“You better not,” said Ligur, suspiciously. He turned around to whisper something to Hastur, and Crowley silently cursed. The last thing he needed was Gabriel blaming him for the news getting out.
AZIRAPHALE: Oh dear, did they overhear us?
AZIRAPHALE: So now it’ll be all over the office by lunch?
CROWLEY: see above
AZIRAPHALE: And Gabriel will blame you, won’t he?
CROWLEY: i mean i do have a glimmer of hope that gabriel’s reasoning skills are weak enough that he’ll fail to realize that i’m the only person who could have leaked it
CROWLEY: but it’s really just a glimmer
AZIRAPHALE: I’ve got an idea.
CROWLEY: uh oh
CROWLEY: never want to hear those words from you
AZIRAPHALE: Do you want me to try to help, or not?
CROWLEY: ofc i do
AZIRAPHALE: Then less of the mockery, please.
Aziraphale rose from his desk and leaned over the cubicle wall to Accounting, sending Crowley a glance as he did so. “Psst!” he said, softly enough that it sounded like he was trying to be quiet but loudly enough that everyone could hear him anyway. “Michael!”
Michael poked her head up over the wall. “What?” she asked, sounding annoyed. But then, Michael always sounded annoyed.
“I’ve just seen this memo from head office,” Aziraphale said, overacting outrageously, “and apparently there’s going to be downsizing.”
“Why’re you telling me?” Michael asked. “And not your pal in Sales over there?”
Crowley panicked. For some reason, the most logical course of action seemed to be to crawl under his desk. So he did.
“What are you doing?” Hastur asked, kicking at him.
“Dropped a pen,” Crowley said, wishing he owned a pen.
“Well, I thought you might have more information,” Aziraphale was telling Michael. “About the budget. Being in Accounting, and all.”
Crowley couldn’t see from under his desk, but he imagined Michael shaking her head as she said, “No, I haven’t. Is that all? Some of us need to get back to work. We can’t spend all day chatting.”
“That’s all,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley stayed under his desk for another moment, until Hastur kicked him again.
“Found that pen yet?”
“Do you know,” said Crowley, crawling out, “I think I left it at home.”
“Oh,” said Hastur, and Crowley resumed his seat.
He had one new direct message.
AZIRAPHALE: Michael’s already told Uriel. So it’ll still be all over the office by lunchtime, but at least Gabriel won’t know it was you.
CROWLEY: but won’t he blame you? instead?
AZIRAPHALE: Well, I wasn’t told not to spread it around, was I?
Crowley frowned. Despite what he’d said earlier, he was by no means sure Aziraphale’s job was safe. Oh, it wouldn’t have been logical to eliminate the receptionist position, that much was still true, but he really didn’t trust Gabriel to be logical.
“Wait a minute,” Hastur said. “That doesn’t make any sense. If you dropped your pen—”
The news about downsizing was indeed all over the office by lunchtime. So when Gabriel finally emerged from his office around two, Sandalphon immediately stood up.
“Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“The downsizing,” Sandalphon said. “Not that I’m afraid. With my numbers. But some people have been talking.”
Gabriel sighed. “This is exactly what I didn’t want.”
“Then it is true?” Uriel asked. “How many people are being let go?”
Gabriel nodded distractedly. “This is going to tank morale around here.”
“What’s going to tank morale,” Uriel said acidly, “is lack of communication.”
“Where’s Beelzebub?” Gabriel asked. “Why can’t she answer your questions?”
“Annual leave,” Sandalphon said. “Off to Dollywood.” (Crowley had so many questions.)
Gabriel groaned. “And you all look so glum now. Ugh. Bummer. You know what? I’m going out, and when I come back, I’m going to have a surprise for everyone that’s going to turn your frowns upside down.” He grabbed his coat and darted out the door.
AZIRAPHALE: Well, at least he didn’t seem particularly concerned about how the information got out.
Instead of writing back, Crowley just looked up and smiled at Aziraphale in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. Aziraphale’s returning smile was much weaker than he would have liked. However, this was not a good time to be fielding comments from Michael about how much time he spent at Reception vs. his own desk, so instead of getting up he just settled in to actually focus on work for once.
Gabriel returned a little over an hour later, carrying an unmarked brown paper bag. He disappeared into his office for a few minutes, and emerged bagless.
“All right,” he said, clapping his hands together, “I have some good news.”
“There isn’t going to be downsizing?” Dagon asked.
Gabriel shook his head. “But I can report that the decision of who to let go has been made very easy for me. I’ve discovered that we have a thief in our midst.”
Crowley’s whole body relaxed. That was okay, then, probably one of the accountants embezzling or something, nothing to worry about—
“Aziraphale,” said Gabriel, pointing an accusing finger. “You’re fired.”
“What?” said Aziraphale, standing up.
“You’re fired,” said Gabriel again, doing what was presumably meant to be a Donald Trump impression. “For theft.”
“I’ve never stolen anything,” said Aziraphale, outraged, “you can’t do this, you can’t fire me, not on a false accusation. That’s ridiculous! I will be—you know what? I will be contacting my union representative, that’s what I’ll do, and together we can look into this baseless charge. I’ve been at this company seven years! And I’ll call my solicitor, as well—”
“Yes!” cried Crowley, whose mind had, as soon as Gabriel pointed at Aziraphale, experienced a critical systems failure and was only now rebooting. “Yeah, uh, I know a solicitor, actually, a really excellent solicitor, she’s won tons of employment law cases, and she will take this company for everything it’s worth. I will have you know,” he continued, standing up and striding over to Reception, “that I have received multiple comments from clients about the outstanding job Aziraphale does at reception. I had one of them tell me,” he said, inventing wildly, “that every time he comes into the office and Aziraphale greets him, and, and smiles at him, he feels important for once in his life. Like, like everything has meaning all of a sudden.”
Crowley looked over at Aziraphale. He wasn’t sure what reaction he expected, or even what reaction he wanted, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of the look on Aziraphale’s face. Surprise, certainly, and a touch of annoyance, and something else Crowley couldn’t identify.
“What are you doing?” asked Aziraphale quietly.
“Trying to help—” Crowley started.
“Well, you’re not.”
There was a moment of silence, during which Crowley yearned for the floor to open up into a swimming pool, It’s A Wonderful Life- style, and accomplish the dual goals of making him disappear and cooling the hot flush of embarrassment that was rapidly overtaking his body.
“Gotcha!” Gabriel said, loudly.
Aziraphale looked at him blankly.
“Gotcha!” Gabriel said again, as though he weren’t quite sure he had the words right. “Got you so good...it was a prank!” He beamed at Aziraphale, and at the office generally. “Fake firing. Prank! To boost morale!”
“I cannot believe,” said Aziraphale, softly but with immense disdain, “that you could have possibly thought that might be funny.” His eyes icy cold, he took his coat from the rack and strode out the door without a glance behind him.
Gabriel sighed. “Geez, he really doesn’t have any sense of humour, does he? Oh! Hang on, surprise part two.” He ducked into his office and came back out with the paper bag. “Look! Fudge!” He offered the bag to Crowley.
Crowley pushed it away. “I have to—” he said, quietly, and then, heart racing, headed out the door after Aziraphale, not bothering to finish the sentence.
He caught up to him in the car park.
“Aziraphale!” Crowley called. Aziraphale whirled to face him. “I’m sorry if I, uh, crossed a line back there, I didn’t mean—”
“What did you think you were doing?”
“I’m sorry,” Crowley said again, “I panicked, I was just trying to help—”
“Well, you didn’t .”
“I know. I’m sorry. I just—” Crowley exhaled. “Look, you’re the only decent thing about this place, I couldn’t deal with the thought of you getting fired.”
Aziraphale’s face softened the slightest bit. “You know I—” He broke off, and shook his head, continuing in a different tone. “You didn’t have to make an exhibition of yourself like that. As though I weren’t capable of handling the situation on my own.”
“No, of course,” Crowley said, “it’s not that, I only wanted to, to—”
“To protect me? That’s not your job,” Aziraphale said. “I’m not your boyfriend, Crowley.”
Crowley recoiled, feeling as though he’d just been hit by some particularly heavy object. “No,” he managed to say. “I—uh—no.”
And he must have looked remarkably pathetic, standing there stammering, because Aziraphale’s face softened again, no anger or annoyance left, only that expression Crowley couldn’t quite place. He said, almost too faintly to hear, so quietly that Crowley wondered whether it might only be his imagination, “I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t appreciate it. You, coming to my defense. It was very, well...Anyway, what I mean to say is, I am grateful. I just...you heard what Michael said, earlier, and after Friday, when I made such a fool of myself, I can’t...I can’t be seen as anyone’s accessory.” He sighed. “Gabriel’s the one I’m really angry with, you know. Not you.”
Crowley shook his head. “No, I...I was out of line. I’m sorry. Really.”
Aziraphale nodded. “I’d better get back up, then.” He hovered a second in implicit invitation.
Crowley stuck his hands in his pockets. “I’ll be right up,” he said.
He hadn’t meant it as retribution—the opposite, in fact. He’d wanted to demonstrate just how little he viewed Aziraphale as an accessory, but from the injured expression on Aziraphale’s face, it seemed he’d messed up again.
Crowley stayed in the car park, alone, for another five minutes or so, walking in circles and trying not to think.
When he came back upstairs, Gabriel had withdrawn into his office, and everyone appeared to be working (or not working) as usual.
Crowley went directly to his briefcase and pulled out the cheque. He turned towards Reception, making direct eye contact with Aziraphale, and, holding out the cheque so that he could see, tore it up.
CROWLEY: are we even now?
AZIRAPHALE: We’re even.
This chapter is loosely based on the Office episodes "Downsizing" (UK version) and "The Fight" (US version).
Chapter 3: Off the Clock
once again, thanks to weatheredlaw for beta-reading!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It had been three weeks, now, since the news about downsizing had leaked, and still no one had been fired. Beelzebub had returned from vacation and immediately gone into damage-control mode, assuring everyone that any dismissal decisions would be made based on objective criteria and would be communicated privately and compassionately. (Given that Gabriel was apparently still responsible for said communication, Crowley had grave doubts about this.)
For some reason, everyone interpreted “objective criteria” as “sales numbers,” despite Beelzebub’s refusal to confirm or deny anything. Crowley had to admit, it made sense. After all, how would anyone have objectively measured, say, Dagon’s customer service performance? (There were evaluation surveys, but the only people who ever filled those out were the ones annoyed that they hadn’t gotten free product out of their call.)
So the sales team, which had never been the most collegial group in the first place, was now taken over by all the petty sniping, undermining, and one-upsmanship that Crowley was most desperate to avoid. He tried to keep his head down and work, at first. Started spending less time reading threads on r/AmITheAsshole and recaps of American reality shows (this season of 90 Day Fiance was apparently wild) and more time actually following up with clients and closing sales.
This state of affairs could only last so long, however, and after Sandalphon made yet another pointed comment about how his sales numbers were unimpeachable, and Ligur poached a client, and Hastur completely threw off Crowley’s extremely scientific non-existent filing system looking for an order form, Crowley snapped.
He grabbed a random sheet of paper and headed up to Reception. “Aziraphale,” he said, loudly enough for the rest of the sales team to hear, “be an angel and photocopy this for me, would you?”
Aziraphale gave him a confused look. “You never ask me to photocopy things for you.”
This was true. In the first year of his employment at CPC, photocopy requests had been Crowley’s go-to excuse for trips to Reception. And while Aziraphale had always been willing to oblige, he’d also always returned from the copier with everything inexplicably printed out on 11x17 paper, and the original document having somehow vanished entirely. Crowley had switched to just doing his own copying, since by then he and Aziraphale were friends anyway and the excuse wasn’t really needed.
“You’re right,” Crowley said loudly, again for Sales’ benefit, “why don’t you just show me how to do it myself?” He jerked his head meaningfully in the direction of the copy corner.
Aziraphale caught on. “Oh yes, quite right,” he said, getting up from his desk. Crowley shot him a you-got-it wink, and together they walked over to the copier.
“Sorry,” Crowley said, once they were safely out of earshot of everyone else. “I’d have Slacked you, but I caught Hastur reading over my shoulder again this morning. Didn’t want to risk it.”
“That’s all right,” said Aziraphale, “here, why don’t I make it look—” He took a step towards the copier, brushing up against Crowley as he did so. The copy corner, which had seemed to be a completely reasonable size for two people just seconds ago, suddenly felt scandalously cramped. Crowley took a breath, and instantly regretted it, because had Aziraphale changed shampoo, or what, he didn’t know, all he knew was that his hair smelt wonderful, and Crowley wanted to lean down and bury his nose in it and then—
“Anyway,” Aziraphale said, closing the copier lid, “what’s going on?”
Crowley took a step back out of self-preservation. “Right,” he said, forcing his thoughts back on track, “my colleagues over there are driving me absolutely batshit insane, and I could use a bit of help getting back at them.”
Aziraphale’s eyes lit up. “Oh! What did you have in mind?”
Crowley smirked. “Well. I have one we can do now and one that’ll take a little while, which do you want to hear?”
“Well, both,” Aziraphale said. “I’m sure they’re both splendid.”
“Dunno about that,” Crowley said, “but all right. First one’s pretty straightforward, I was thinking we could get a wireless mouse, then you distract Hastur while I plug it into his computer and we watch him go mad trying to figure out why all his programs keep closing.”
“I like it,” Aziraphale said, thoughtfully, “especially if while you’re in there you also change his email signature to something truly terrible.”
“See?” Crowley said. “This is why I need you. Those little touches that elevate things from good to brilliant.”
“It’s nice to be needed,” Aziraphale said, so sincerely that Crowley staggered backwards and into the copier, hitting several buttons at once. An alarming number of things went beep.
“Oh dear,” Aziraphale said, “are you all right?”
“I am,” Crowley said, “the copier I’m not so sure of.”
The machine was now spitting out copies of whatever the random document was that he’d given to Aziraphale, and was continuing to give off inexplicable noises.
“Hmm,” said Aziraphale, “let me see,” and peered at the screen. “Oh, it says to open tray one, do you think I ought to?”
“I don’t think there’s a way for you to make it worse,” Crowley said doubtfully.
“Well, I’ll follow the directions, how difficult can it be?” Aziraphale said, opening Tray One. The copier abruptly ceased all operations.
“See?” Aziraphale said, smugly. “It worked.”
“Very good,” Crowley said, sarcastically. “You’re a copy-whisperer.”
Aziraphale just beamed. “Now, let’s see, what next?” He looked down at the screen again and started opening more trays—Crowley hadn’t realized copiers had so many trays — and closing them again. “Anyway. Tell me the other idea. The one that’ll take a while.”
“Right,” Crowley said, “I read about this one online. What you do is, you buy some old keys, not ones that open anything in particular, just random keys. Lots of keys. And you mix ‘em up, and put them on keychains, and we’ll put Sandalphon’s phone number on all the keychains, and then leave them all around town.”
Aziraphale looked up from Tray 57, or whatever it was, to smile at him. “And people will find them, I suppose, and call the number, and— oh, he’ll have to pick up, won’t he? Because he doesn’t know they’re not clients.”
“Exactly,” Crowley said, “and have you ever known Sandalphon to ignore a call from a client?”
Aziraphale straightened, apparently having opened and closed every possible tray on the copier, and said, with mock thoughtfulness, “Why, no, I believe I haven’t. In fact, if I recall correctly, he was boasting rather openly the other day about that very fact.”
Crowley grinned. “Exactly. So. You ready to help?”
“Oh, yes,” Aziraphale said. “I’m afraid I don’t know much about where to acquire a wireless mouse, though.”
“No,” said Crowley, “I didn’t really think you would.”
Aziraphale looked at him suspiciously. “What precisely are you implying about my competence in the realm of office supplies?”
“Nothing!” Crowley said, spreading his hands wide in a gesture of innocence. “Nothing at all. However, it is now—” he checked his watch— “ten past eleven. I’ll be taking my lunch break at twelve-thirty—”
“As you do every day,” Aziraphale said, fondly, and Crowley’s heart swelled.
“As I do every day,” he conceded, “and instead of taking my usual sandwich to the lunchroom, and instead of listening to your unnecessarily judgemental comments on it—”
“Look,” Aziraphale said, “deli meat and mayonnaise on white bread is not only nutritionally dubious but a culinary travesty—”
“And instead of listening to your rant,” Crowley continued, “I believe I’ll spend my break on a quick trip to Device’s Office Supplies. Where I might, possibly, find a wireless mouse.”
“Ah,” said Aziraphale, “then perhaps I could also be persuaded to spend my lunch break at Device’s Office Supplies. After all, I’ve just been informed that my input on certain people’s food choices is unwelcome.”
“You’re never unwelcome,” Crowley said, without thinking. His brain caught up to his mouth a moment later, and cringed. “What I mean to say is,” he corrected himself, “please do come along. To Device’s. If you’d like.” If it’s not too much to ask, if you don’t mind being seen leaving work with me, if it won’t upset this equilibrium we have right now…
“I think that sounds delightful,” Aziraphale said, “just the thing I need, a little jaunt out of the office.”
“Right,” said Crowley, “twelve-thirty, then?”
“Twelve-thirty,” Aziraphale said. He gathered the sheets of paper that the copier had produced during its meltdown, and offered them to Crowley. “Do you want these?”
“Sure,” Crowley said, and took them, despite having no idea what he would possibly do with fifteen copies of—he glanced at the document—an expense report from 2016. (God, he really needed to organize better.)
Aziraphale gestured towards the main office. “After you,” he said, stepping backward to let Crowley go first.
“Thank you,” Crowley said, and left the copy corner for his desk.
“Where’ve you been?” asked Ligur as Crowley sat down.
“Had to make some copies,” Crowley said, waving the papers in Ligur’s general direction.
Ligur snatched one. “What is this? Why’re you copying an expense report?”
“Oh, didn’t you know?” Crowley asked innocently. “We’re all supposed to archive our expense reports from the last four years. For financial reasons. It’s to do with the downsizing, I think.”
“No one asked me to do that,” Ligur said, frowning.
“Oh,” Crowley said, “well, forget I said anything, then.”
“What d’you think it means?” Ligur asked. “That they didn’t ask me to do it?”
Crowley shrugged. “Search me.”
“Why don’t they need my expense reports?” Ligur asked again, this time more loudly. Crowley glanced up towards Reception, where Aziraphale had resumed his seat and was surreptitiously watching them, visibly restraining himself from giggling. Crowley shot him a wink.
“Well,” Crowley said, carefully, “I didn’t want to say this, but if they were planning to let you go it’s just possible that they wouldn’t need an archive of your spending….”
Ligur scowled at him. “They just forgot to tell me. That’s all. Accounting’ll clear it up.”
“Why don’t you go ask them now?” Crowley suggested.
“Yeah,” Ligur said, “maybe I will.” He headed off to Accounting, and Crowley, satisfied, cracked his back and stretched his hands behind his head.
AZIRAPHALE: I do wish you wouldn’t do that, it’s got to be terribly hard on your spine.
CROWLEY: oh really? huh. guess i’d better stop then
AZIRAPHALE: I’d feel ever so much better if you did.
CROWLEY: anything for you ;)
Device’s Office Supplies was located on the opposite side of the industrial park from CPC. Crowley’s initial instinct was to drive—it wasn’t exactly a scenic walk—but as he approached the car park with Aziraphale, he suddenly became overwhelmingly nervous about the state of his car. This was ridiculous—Crowley took better care of his car than most people took of their children—but he couldn’t stop the image of Aziraphale climbing into the passenger seat and seeing an empty takeaway box, or a used tissue, and deciding Crowley was a slob.
“It’s actually rather nice out,” he said, “y’know, for November. Why don’t we walk over?”
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows, but only said, “If you like.”
“Great,” said Crowley, and then, babbling, “should be good exercise, get the blood pumping, and all.”
Aziraphale looked like he was holding back a laugh. “Well, I wouldn’t want to deny you your exercise.”
“Don’t get enough of it, do I?” Crowley asked, hoping that Aziraphale would launch into one of his speeches about Crowley’s unhealthy diet, or the fact that he hadn’t been to the doctor in three years, both to get the conversation off on another tack and because, honestly, Crowley quite liked it when Aziraphale scolded him. It meant something, he thought, to have another person care about you enough to want you to be better.
But instead, Aziraphale said, “Yes, I imagine you don’t, what with the way you slouch around everywhere. You ought to take up running, I think. You’ve got the physique for it.”
Crowley became acutely aware of his legs, like they’d been running on automatic and now switched to manual and he had to re-learn what all of the muscles did. How was he supposed to walk all the way across the industrial park knowing that Aziraphale was apparently noticing his physique?
He shoved his hands in his pockets and made a noncommittal noise.
“Anyway,” Aziraphale said, hurriedly, almost as though he’d been made as uncomfortable as Crowley, “walking sounds lovely.”
Crowley nodded and strode forward with more purpose than usual.
“So,” Aziraphale said—all right, he was definitely just as uncomfortable as Crowley—“what do you think we ought to change Hastur’s email signature to?”
Crowley grinned. “I was sort of just waiting for inspiration to strike. In the moment.”
“Oh, no,” Aziraphale said. “You’ll only end up with something mediocre that way. You’ve got to maximize this opportunity.” He said this so seriously that Crowley glanced over to check his expression. Aziraphale’s mouth was straight, but his eyes fairly gleamed with mischief.
“Well,” Crowley said, “what d’you think of Hastur, Duke of Poo?”
Aziraphale wrinkled his nose. “It has a pleasing assonance,” he admitted, “but a feces joke is rather juvenile.”
“Right,” said Crowley, “wouldn’t want to ruin this extremely mature venture with something juvenile.”
“All I mean is that surely you can think of something more clever than that.”
“Hastur, Poo Lord Supreme?”
“All right, that’s worse.”
“Hmmm,” Crowley said, pretending to think very deeply. “Hastur, Lord Poo Poo Head?”
“Really, Crowley, must these all revolve around excretion?” Aziraphale shot him an annoyed look and caught sight of Crowley’s shit-eating (or, well, in this case, shit-nickname-creating) grin. “Oh, I see, you’re pulling my leg.”
“A bit,” Crowley admitted, “though, come on, you don’t like Poo Lord Supreme?”
“Well,” Aziraphale hedged, “a little.”
As they entered the shop, a small bell chimed, and the middle-aged woman behind the counter called out in a monotone, “Welcome to Device’s, let me know if I can help you find anything.”
“Thank you,” Aziraphale called back. “Just browsing for now.”
Crowley glanced at him, puzzled. “We’re not browsing. We’re here for the wireless mouse.”
“Oh—” Aziraphale looked down at the linoleum— “well, I thought as we’re here, it might be fun to have a look around.”
“You think it’d be fun,” Crowley asked, incredulously, “to look around Device’s Office Supplies.”
“Yes, never mind, it’s very silly,” Aziraphale said, heading down a random aisle. “Mouses...mice?...let’s see…”
“Wait,” Crowley said, “no, ‘s not silly.”
Aziraphale turned to look at him. “Yes it is,” he said, laughing a little bit, “it’s silly, I just like to look at all the different types of notebooks.”
“That’s not silly,” Crowley said, taking Aziraphale’s elbow and steering him towards the notebook section, “it’s very you, it’s not silly at all.”
“I just,” Aziraphale said, allowing himself to be led, “well, you know I write.”
“Yeah,” Crowley said, letting go of Aziraphale’s elbow (with not a little reluctance) as they reached the notebooks. “You’ve got that novel you won’t let me see.”
“It’s not finished yet,” said Aziraphale, running a finger down the spine of a Moleskine, “and anyway I don’t know if you’d even like it.”
“Of course I’ll like it,” Crowley said, offended, “you wrote it.”
Aziraphale turned his face away from the notebooks to smile at him. “That’s very kind,” he said, softly. “All I meant is I don’t know whether it’s your type of book, let alone whether or not it’s any good.”
“It’ll be my type of book,” Crowley said, with conviction. When Aziraphale had first mentioned his novel, cautiously, several years ago, Crowley had been assailed by the worry that his writing might be bad, and that if he ever read it and didn’t like it that he’d never be able to see Aziraphale the same way again. As time had gone on, however, Crowley’s doubts had given way to the dual assurance that, one, Aziraphale was a good writer, and, two, that Crowley would love anything he wrote regardless.
“Anyway,” Aziraphale said, “I’ve been writing on the computer—”
“While you’re supposed to be working,” Crowley said fondly.
“While I’m taking a well-deserved break from working,” Aziraphale said, “but. When I was younger, I used to write all my stories in notebooks. I still have some of them, I think, hiding in some dusty corner in my house. And, well, I still like writing on paper. Taking notes, jotting things down. So. Notebooks.”
“Notebooks,” Crowley echoed.
Aziraphale’s hand came to rest on a small, spiral-bound notebook, with a cover made of some soft-looking material. “This one, I think,” he said, lifting it off the shelf. “Now. Wireless mouse.”
“You sure you don’t want to look around a little more?” Crowley asked. With me?
Aziraphale shook his head. “It’s past one,” he said, glancing at his wristwatch. “We’ll have to scamper a bit to get back on time, as is.”
“All right,” Crowley said, “let’s scamper, then.” He led the way towards the electronics aisle, where there were a couple of different wireless mice to choose from.
“What do you think the difference is?” Aziraphale asked, peering at the boxes.
“The difference,” Crowley said, picking one of them up, “is that this one is eight pounds, and that one—” he gestured at the box Aziraphale was looking at— “is twelve, and we’re buying the eight-pound one.”
“Shouldn’t we check the, I don’t know, the specs?”
“It’s a mouse,” Crowley said, heading for the checkout, “the only spec is does it click.”
“Well, all right,” said Aziraphale, hurrying behind him.
“Here,” Crowley said, walking up to the counter, “g’me that.” He reached for the notebook in Aziraphale’s hands.
“Why?” Aziraphale asked, holding it away.
“Because,” Crowley said, gently tugging at the notebook, “I want to buy it.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Aziraphale said, but his grip on the notebook loosened enough for Crowley to take it.
“It’s a thank you, that’s all,” Crowley said, handing his items to the cashier. “For helping me get back at Hastur. And the rest of ‘em. That Sandalphon prank’s going to take a bit of time, y’know, you’re not getting this for free.” He shoved his credit card into the reader.
“Very well, then,” Aziraphale said, as Crowley took the bag and receipt from the cashier, and they left. “Thank you very much, have a lovely day,” he added, beaming at the woman. “And thank you,” he said, turning back to Crowley. “For the notebook.”
“Welcome,” Crowley said, and then, more quietly, “somethin’ to remember me by, that’s all.”
They got back to the office around one-twenty, just enough time for Crowley to wolf down his sandwich before heading back to work. Aziraphale elected to eat at his desk while working, instead of, as he put it, committing a culinary felony. Crowley glanced up from his computer to see Aziraphale methodically working his way through a carefully-arranged bento box, inspecting each item before he ate it and taking deep breaths in between bites, and couldn’t help but smile.
They’d agreed that Operation Distract Hastur was best timed for two-thirty, when Hastur took his daily totally-not-playing-Candy-Crush-on-his-phone bathroom break. As he got up from his desk, Crowley sent Aziraphale their extremely subtle signal (saying “Bye, Hastur!” at a deafening volume), and Aziraphale got in position to intercept Hastur, should he come out of the bathroom before Crowley finished.
Sandalphon and Ligur were both out on client calls, thankfully, so no one was watching the Sales area as Crowley scooted his chair over to Hastur’s desk and unlocked his computer. (His password was password, and was also on a sticky note attached to his computer, presumably in case Hastur found himself unable to remember password.)
Crowley plugged the transmitter for the wireless mouse into the USB port and quickly installed the software that would allow it to run. The mouse itself was back on Aziraphale’s desk, safely hidden from view by the reception counter. Crowley gave Aziraphale a thumbs-up signal, and watched as he began to move the cursor around Hastur’s screen. Crowley nodded in affirmation, then opened Hastur’s email. After some debate, they’d decided on “Hastur, King of Poo Mountain,” which Aziraphale allowed despite its, as he said, puerility, on the grounds that it was a Peer Gynt reference. (Crowley agreed and immediately Googled Peer Gynt.)
Crowley quickly changed the email signature, set Hastur’s default font to Comic Sans for good measure, and logged out of the computer just as Hastur returned from the bathroom.
Now, Crowley thought, the fun begins.
Unfortunately, from his position at Reception, Aziraphale couldn’t see Hastur’s computer screen at an angle that would allow him to actually do anything significant. However, just moving the cursor around and clicking randomly seemed to prove sufficient for their purposes, as Hastur began giving his trackpad odd looks and swearing under his breath.
“Computer trouble?” Crowley asked, in tones of faux concern.
“Yeah,” Hastur said, scowling, “stupid mouse won’t work—”
“Let me try?” Crowley asked, winking at Aziraphale.
Hastur reluctantly moved aside. Crowley ran his fingers over the trackpad a few times, opening and closing programs with no difficulty. “Seems fine to me,” he said, shrugging and returning to his own desk.
Hastur frowned. “It was acting up a second ago—” He tried to scroll down the screen as Crowley had just done. The cursor immediately went mad again. Hastur swore, more loudly this time, and smacked the side of the computer. “It’s like it hates me,” he said.
“Maybe,” agreed Crowley, “or maybe it’s a sign.”
“A sign of what?” Hastur asked suspiciously.
Crowley shrugged. “If they’re disabling your computer privileges for some reason…”
“Well, why’s it working for you and not for me? You think I’m getting let go?”
Crowley made a noncommittal noise.
“How’ve your sales numbers been?” Crowley asked instead.
Hastur groaned. “It’s been a rough quarter,” he said, defensively, “for everyone.”
“Sure it has,” Crowley said. “Sure it has.”
On Hastur’s computer screen, the mouse wiggled around in a shape that bore a strong resemblance to a heart.
It took Crowley a great deal more time, effort, and money than he was willing to acknowledge to acquire enough random keys for the Sandalphon prank. By the Monday after their trip to Device's, though, he’d obtained the necessary items.
CROWLEY: doing anything after work today?
AZIRAPHALE: Nothing in particular, why?
CROWLEY: any interest in staying late to help me label 50 sets of keys with sandalphon’s mobile number?
AZIRAPHALE: A great deal of interest, in fact.
CROWLEY: get your hand muscles ready
CROWLEY: for writing
CROWLEY: what did you think i meant???
CROWLEY: you have a filthy mind???
CROWLEY: this is not appropriate in a work environment
AZIRAPHALE: I’m terribly sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable, it truly was not my intention.
CROWLEY: omg i’m kidding
AZIRAPHALE: So am I.
CROWLEY: no you’re not
CROWLEY: you’re really sorry aren’t you
AZIRAPHALE: Shut up.
CROWLEY: *zipped lips emoji*
At 5:45, Gabriel stopped by Crowley’s desk on his way out. “Leaving soon?’
Crowley nodded. “Yeah, just got to finish up a few things. Aziraphale said he’d lock up for me.”
“All right,” Gabriel said, and gave him two thumbs up. “Great hustle!”
Behind Gabriel’s back, Crowley rolled his eyes dramatically at Aziraphale.
“Great hustle!” he said, sarcastically, as soon as Gabriel was out the door. “Ugh. Can we prank him next?”
“I don’t think that’s wise,” Aziraphale said. “Now. Where are those keys?”
Crowley grabbed a plastic bag from his briefcase and thunked it down on his desk. “Behold.”
Aziraphale came out from behind Reception. “Very nice,” he said, picking up one of the keys. “Wherever did you get all of these?”
Crowley shrugged. “Happened to be a car boot sale in my neighborhood, got lucky.” (It had actually been more like seven or eight sales, in a variety of neighborhoods, none of which were particularly near Crowley’s, but Aziraphale didn’t need to know that.)
“Well, excellent,” Aziraphale said, “and you’ve got tags, too, I see.”
“Yup,” said Crowley.
“Nicely done,” Aziraphale said, “this is really going to be something.”
“Sandalphon deserves it,” Crowley said, “heard him telling you to schedule a meeting for him the other day, like you work for him, or something.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, “I do find that irritating.” He took a stack of tags from the bag and sat down at Hastur’s desk, next to Crowley, to begin writing on them. “Sometimes,” he continued, taking out a pen—Aziraphale never used the ordinary office pens, he brought in his own— “this is bad, really, but sometimes I even resent it when Gabriel asks me to schedule meetings for him. Even though that is my job.”
“Course you do,” Crowley said, uncapping his own pen and starting to write, “Gabriel’s a prick.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s not to do with him. It’s just...well, this sounds silly, I suppose, but it’s not like I thought I’d be a receptionist. As a child. Or...well, or until I became a receptionist.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Crowley said, “don’t think anyone does. I certainly didn’t think I was going to end up in Sales.”
“It’s worse than that,” Aziraphale said, looking down at the tag he was writing on instead of at Crowley, “it’s that...well, this is terrible, really, but I feel like I’m too clever to be a receptionist.”
“You are,” Crowley said.
“But administrative work isn’t inherently less valuable,” Aziraphale protested, “it’s not as though receptionists can’t be clever, I don’t mean to think that. But I do think it.”
“Look,” Crowley said, and Aziraphale looked up from the tag, “look, you’re worth ten of Gabriel. Twenty. In intelligence, skill, being a decent human being…So of course you feel like you’re better than doing his errands, because you are.”
Aziraphale smiled. “I’m really not very good at my job, am I?”
“No,” Crowley admitted, “well, not at some parts of it, but you’re so clever, Aziraphale, you really are, I can tell, Gabriel can tell, everyone in this office can tell. Of course you feel like you’re too good for, I don’t know, making copies and answering phones.”
“Well,” Aziraphale said, “I do appreciate that.” He placed the tag he’d been writing on down in a stack. “This feels rather naughty, I must say.”
Crowley laughed. “Well, yeah, for you I’d bet it would be.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Come on,” Crowley said, “like you’ve ever done anything bad.”
“Actually,” Aziraphale said, primly, “when I was younger I was quite the delinquent.”
Crowley snorted. “What’d you do, con the library so that you didn’t have to pay a late fee, or something?”
“No,” Aziraphale said, “I wouldn’t do that, libraries are a public good and I wouldn’t want to con them. No, I, er, I shoplifted.”
“I shoplifted. Not anything major, just, packs of gum, boxes of hair dye, that sort of thing.”
“Yes, I used to dye my hair black, as a matter of fact.”
“I cannot picture that.”
“Well, I do have some photographic evidence, I’ll have to see if I can find it for you.”
“Yes, well, anyway, I got caught, once, and brought into the police station, and interrogated. They let me go, eventually, not enough evidence. But I, well, I came back to the station, later that night, with some of my friends, and we spray-painted a rude word on the wall.”
“Shoplifting and vandalism,” Crowley said. “I’m impressed.” What he was, was realizing that it had, in fact, been possible for him to become more attracted to Aziraphale than he’d already been. It was more than a little thrilling, and not precisely comfortable.
“Yes, well,” Aziraphale said. “One grows out of such things.”
“How did I not know this about you?”
“I don’t exactly go around advertising it,” Aziraphale said. “In fact, I don’t know that I’ve told anyone about that before.”
Crowley, who had been staring at Aziraphale in admiration and awe, looked down at the pile of keys in front of him, in an attempt to quell his overwhelming impulse to throw himself over the desk and kiss him.
Aziraphale seemed to feel something, too, the change in mood, the increase in tension, something, because he coughed a little, and said, “Do you know, I’m rather hungry.”
“Well,” Crowley said, desperately grateful for the change of subject, “I’ve got white bread and deli meat, but…”
Aziraphale sniffed. “I don’t think so, my dear.”
Crowley tried very hard to brush past the my dear and failed miserably. “Urm,” he said, nonsensically, “walrp.”
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow. “Are you having a stroke?”
“No,” Crowley said— my dear, what did that mean— “just. Uh. Lost my train of thought. But. If you’re too good for deli meat—”
“Everybody is too good for deli meat—”
“Then we could, I dunno, go for a takeaway. If you like. Bring it back here. Finish up.”
“That sounds perfect,” said Aziraphale.
So they got their coats, and, for the second time in two weeks (not that Crowley was counting, or anything), left the office together.
The Indian takeaway next door was still open, thankfully (the industrial park, as a rule, more-or-less shut down after five o’clock), and they were the only customers in the place.
“So, you like yours spicy, then?” Crowley asked, as they walked back, nodding to Aziraphale’s box.
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, happily, “it’s very stimulating, I think, really. Makes you feel alive.”
Looking at Aziraphale, at his cheeks flushed pink from the autumn air, at the hungry smile on his lips as he looked down at the takeaway box, Crowley agreed.
When they got back into the office, Crowley started to put his food down on his desk, but Aziraphale stopped him.
“It’s not very late yet,” he said, “we’re almost done with the keys. We may as well eat dinner properly.”
“What d’you mean by that?”
“Well,” Aziraphale said, leading the way into the darkened break room and flicking on the light, “not while working, for one. Not at your desk.”
“All right,” Crowley agreed, “as you like.”
Aziraphale beamed. “I’ll just get us some proper napkins,” he said, and bustled off to the kitchen.
Crowley stared after him, wondering what exactly was happening here. They’d eaten together before, in this very break room, hundreds of times. But never like this: never alone, never at night, never with takeaway they’d bought together.
Aziraphale returned with the napkins, and with real, non-plastic cutlery. “Here,” he said, handing a set to Crowley and sitting down, “Bon appetit.”
Crowley grinned. “Bon appetit,” he echoed, and opened the takeaway box.
It wasn’t a date. He knew that. Aziraphale certainly knew that. Having dinner together was something friends did, all the time. And they were friends. He just happened to very much want to kiss this particular friend silly, that was all.
Still, for the next hour or so, Crowley let himself pretend. And if it had been a date, he thought, driving home that night, if their circumstances had been totally different, if, if, if—if all of that, then, he’d have to say, it hadn’t gone badly at all.
So this one is based on, uh, a LOT of different episodes. Chiefly elements from "The Client" and "Michael's Birthday," but there's a bit from "Email Surveillance" in there as well and a wee flavor of "Conflict Resolution." (All US edition)
I feel as though this is a safe space where I can admit that every example of Aziraphale being Bad at Reception is something I have done IRL at my job...
Also, shout-out to the askreddit thread that was my source for the wireless mouse and keys-with-phone-number pranks!
Chapter 4: Christmas Party
Sorry for the delayed update! I had some writing to do for my class. I don't think it'll be this big of a gap again!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If there was one thing Crowley had come to learn in the last five years, it was that Gabriel took Christmas very seriously. As soon as December hit, the office began to fill up with tinsel, and wreaths, and even mistletoe (for about two hours, before Beelzebub took it down on the grounds that kissing was not an appropriate office activity and really, did Gabriel want them to get sued?). Crowley, who was distinctly not a big Christmas person, gritted his teeth, and picked pine needles out of his coffee, and thanked the God he didn’t really believe in that at least there weren’t carols playing over the PA system.
“Secret Santa!” Gabriel said, waving a box in Crowley’s face. “Pick your name, you know the drill.”
Crowley sighed. Secret Santa, in his opinion, was nothing more or less than a waste of time and money. His first year at CPC, he’d actually attempted to put some effort into choosing a gift for his recipient (he still saw Dagon wearing the hat sometimes), only to end up receiving a half-empty bag of dog food from Ligur. (Crowley did not own a dog. He had never owned a dog.) After that, he’d skated by with just picking up a generic gift card, which people had seemed to appreciate, but which Gabriel had now banned, because apparently that “wasn’t in the spirit of Secret Santa.”
Last year, Crowley’d gotten Hastur a packet of acne remover wipes. He’d received a talking-to from Beelzebub on the subject of respect for others shortly afterwards, but at least it’d been funny.
“Come on,” said Gabriel, shaking the box insistently. “Pick a name!”
Crowley sighed, and reached into the box, and grabbed a slip of paper.
“All right,” Gabriel said, moving on to Sandalphon, “don’t forget, party’s in two weeks, fifteen-pound limit, and don’t tell anyone who you’ve got, that ruins the fun!”
Crowley glanced absentmindedly at the paper, trying to decide whether or not movie tickets counted as a gift card.
He had Aziraphale.
Now, the odds of this—Crowley wasn’t much for maths, but even he could figure this one—the odds of this couldn’t actually be that low, given the limited number of people in the office, and the fact that it had been five years of name-choosing. All the same. This felt like a sign of some kind.
Because Crowley had, of late, started to get the distinct impression that Aziraphale might, well, like him, to be about as juvenile about it as possible. Crowley was, after all, hyper-aware of just about everything Aziraphale said or did, particularly when it involved him, and although he was far from an objective observer in this case, a certain pattern had begun to emerge over the last few months. Item A: Aziraphale had gotten drunk and called Crowley “sexy” in the men’s room of a pub. Item B: “I don’t think I could bear it here if you left.” Item C: “You’ve got the physique for it.” Item D: “I don’t think so, my dear.” And eating takeaway together in the breakroom that night probably comprised items E through Z all on its own. Surely it wasn’t self-delusion to think all of that meant something?
So having Aziraphale for Secret Santa looked rather like an opportunity to, perhaps, send a signal of his own.
AZIRAPHALE: Just saw Gabriel come by Sales. Who’d you get for Secret Santa?
CROWLEY: look i know you like to read so surely you understand the meaning of the word “secret”
AZIRAPHALE: Oh, please. As though you care about rules.
CROWLEY: oh but i do
CROWLEY: love a rule
CROWLEY: the more rules the better, that’s what i always say
AZIRAPHALE: Fine, I’ll go first, I’ve got Ligur. I’ll need your help with that one, I think.
AZIRAPHALE: You have to tell me yours now, I told you mine.
CROWLEY: don’t remember agreeing to anything of the sort.
AZIRAPHALE: You’re not serious.
AZIRAPHALE: Are you serious?
CROWLEY: deadly serious
AZIRAPHALE: You’re not angry with me about something, are you?
AZIRAPHALE: Or are you just teasing?
AZIRAPHALE: If you’re angry, please tell me what I did, I’d like to apologize.
CROWLEY: oh...oh Aziraphale
CROWLEY: you’re literally an angel
AZIRAPHALE: You know that’s not what literally means.
CROWLEY: no i’m not angry at you
CROWLEY: you didn’t do anything
CROWLEY: just trying not to get on gabriel’s bad side for once
AZIRAPHALE: Well, it’s not like I’m going to tell him.
CROWLEY: hmm idk about that
CROWLEY: you might be…a SPY
AZIRAPHALE: Oh, really?
CROWLEY: oh yeah
CROWLEY: our entire friendship has been built on lies, i can feel it
AZIRAPHALE: You’re being ridiculous.
CROWLEY: it’s all part of gabriel’s grand plan. you’re his spy and i am but your pawn
AZIRAPHALE: Stop, you’re making me laugh. I’m supposed to be working.
Crowley glanced up to see that Aziraphale did, in fact, appear to be stifling giggles.
CROWLEY: smh so undignified. you’re the face of this company you know. can’t have a giggly receptionist. what will clients think??? you’re a very bad spy tbh
AZIRAPHALE: I’m not a spy at all!
CROWLEY: see that’s exactly what a spy would say. you’ve been manipulating me this whole time and i’ve been playing right into your hands
CROWLEY: however…what if. you vowed to give up your spy ways
CROWLEY: settle down, get a cottage somewhere
AZIRAPHALE: Well now, that sounds a great deal more pleasant than being a spy.
CROWLEY: you are so easy to reform hahaha. all right then. guess your spying days are done. off to the cottage with you.
AZIRAPHALE: Oh. Won’t you be coming?
Crowley looked up almost without meaning to. Aziraphale was still looking at the computer screen, a slight smile on his face. Crowley’s heart contracted at the thought that he’d been responsible for that smile, that the dreamy expression playing over Aziraphale’s features was the result of the silly fantasy he’d constructed for him.
CROWLEY: didn’t know that you’d want me
AZIRAPHALE: Well, I scarcely think it’ll be any fun otherwise.
The important thing was, Crowley thought to himself, that he’d gotten Aziraphale off the topic of Secret Santa assignments. Anything else was just...extra.
Despite Gabriel’s high level of emotional investment in the CPC Christmas party— “it is,” he’d told Crowley with an entirely straight face, “the single most important social event of the holiday season” —he nevertheless refused to do any of the planning work himself. Instead, he shoved it off on the administrative staff, which was to say, Aziraphale. And given Aziraphale’s general incompetence when it came to anything involving planning ahead, Crowley found himself doing quite a bit of work on the Christmas party. Not that he was particularly organized himself, mind you, but at least he was able to figure out the website to order catering.
“So,” Crowley said, approaching Reception, menu in hand, “I’ve got the hors d’oeuvres sorted, d’you want to weigh in on the dessert options?”
“Ooh,” said Aziraphale, “yes.” He took the menu from Crowley and looked it over, making small noises of approval and disapproval as he did so. “Well, I think certainly something with chocolate, don’t you?”
“Right,” Crowley said, “thought maybe the white chocolate macadamia cookies—”
“Oh, no,” Aziraphale said, “white chocolate isn’t proper chocolate, you know. We’ve got to go dark. The more bitter the better.”
“Dark and bitter?” Crowley asked, without thinking. “Like your chocolate like your men, do you?”
His brain caught up to his mouth a second later. “Oh, God,” he said, mortified, “sorry, sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to, erm, wildly inappropriate, I know—”
But, he realized, mid-stammer, Aziraphale was actually laughing. “Oh, my,” he said, catching his breath for a second before relapsing into giggles, “that is funny. Yes, please, something with chocolate just as bitter as you.”
Crowley filed that away in the To-Be-Obsessed-Over-Later corner of his brain, and confined his visible reaction to a nod. “Right, well, probably the mousse then, yeah?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale agreed, “and then something with fruit, I think, for anyone who doesn’t like chocolate.”
“Heathens,” Crowley said, taking the menu back. “They don’t deserve dessert.”
Aziraphale smiled. “Be that as it may. The mini strawberry shortcakes, do you agree?”
“Yeah,” said Crowley, circling the two desserts on the menu. “I’ll put the order in today, then, shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Thank you ever so much for your help with this,” Aziraphale said, “it’s really been invaluable.”
Crowley shrugged. “It’s no trouble. Certainly better than watching Hastur clip his toenails into our shared rubbish bin, so.”
“High praise,” Aziraphale said, dryly, “but I do mean it. I’ve no idea how I’ll repay you.”
“Well,” said Crowley, “you’ll just have to get me a really good Christmas present, won’t you?”
“Yes,” said Aziraphale, with perfect sincerity, “I shall, shan’t I?”
“Oh—” Crowley cringed at himself, again— “oh, no, I was joking, listen, there’s no need to get me anything, y’know.”
“Oh,” said Aziraphale, smiling in a distinctly mischievous fashion, “no, I’ve actually, I’ve got it already.”
Crowley raised his eyebrows. “Have you really?”
“I have,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley shook his head. “Well, then, I’d better get going with this order, hadn’t I? If I’m to earn...whatever this is.”
“Right,” said Aziraphale, and Crowley headed back to his desk. Hastur had, mercifully, put his shoes back on. Crowley tried very hard not to look into the bin.
He filled out the catering order form online, half his brain still on just as bitter as you and the other half wondering what, exactly, Aziraphale had got him for Christmas. Crowley had spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon searching for exactly the right Secret Santa present for Aziraphale—a book? No, he didn’t trust himself to pick one Aziraphale wouldn’t have already read. Fancy chocolates? Well, now that he knew to go dark and bitter , perhaps that would’ve worked, but he was pretty well satisfied with what he’d found. He’d hit, he thought, all the right notes. It probably wasn’t actually possible for a gift to say “Merry Christmas and also I love you and also we’re at a work event” all at once, but Crowley’d come as close as he could manage. He’d also picked up a card, which sat, still blank, on his desk at home, taunting him. Words—words written down, those were difficult. Those couldn’t be taken back, couldn’t be explained away with plausible deniability or very close friendship. Words were altogether too dangerous, he decided, and let the card languish, uninscribed.
“Oh,” said Aziraphale, as Crowley walked by Reception, “you wouldn’t be able to stay late tonight, would you? I’ve got decorating to do for the party tomorrow, and it does go easier with two.”
“Think I can make it happen,” Crowley said, with feigned nonchalance.
“Oh, good,” Aziraphale said, “the tree’s got to be decked, I’ve got all the ornaments and things.”
Gabriel, who was passing by on his way out the door, eagerly slapped a hand on Aziraphale’s desk. “You got my addition, didn’t you?” he asked, with barely-repressed delight. “The ornament?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, in a tone that Crowley would have described as withering, “I saw your addition.”
“It’s a Santa ornament,” Gabriel told Crowley, “and he’s on a little exercise bike, because, you know, he’s fat, and he wants to lose weight. But, here’s the thing: he’s eating a cookie while he’s on the bike. Isn’t that a hoot?”
“Hilarious,” Crowley said.
Gabriel clapped him on the shoulder. “Exactly! Right, well, I’m off, I expect a full decorated tree when I come in tomorrow!”
“That ornament,” Aziraphale said, as soon as Gabriel was out the door, “is the tackiest thing I have ever seen in my entire life. It’s going to completely throw off the aesthetics.”
Crowley lightly massaged his shoulder, which Gabriel had slapped just hard enough to sting. “The aesthetics? It’s a Christmas tree. Isn’t the aesthetic just Christmas?”
“Oh, no,” Aziraphale said. “I’ve decided to go metallic, look.” He reached under the reception desk and pulled out a box of round ornaments, all gold or silver. “These,” he said, gesturing to them, “are the base, and then I’ve got some accents in different shapes to really make it pop. But the idiotic Santa ornament won’t fit in at all.”
“What’s so funny?”
“Well,” Crowley said, “only that you’ve clearly put a truly remarkable amount of thought into this—”
“I don’t see why that should be funny,” Aziraphale interrupted, “that I should want the tree to look nice—”
“And,” Crowley continued, cutting him off, “that, for this same party, you completely forgot to order flatware. Priorities, Aziraphale. That’s all.”
“Flatware,” Aziraphale repeated, “oh no, it didn’t even occur to me—”
“Don’t worry,” Crowley said, holding up a finger. “Took care of it myself.”
“Oh—” Aziraphale beamed. “Oh, that’s so kind.”
Crowley shrugged. “Well, put enough effort into ordering the catering, didn’t we? Wouldn’t want to not be able to eat it. Purely selfish motives.”
“Right,” said Aziraphale, “of course.” He came out from behind the desk, carrying the ornament box with him. “Shall we get started?”
Crowley glanced around the office. It was only quarter to five, but Gabriel’s early departure had clearly spurred several of the other staff to sneak out themselves. He could hear the faint clatter of a keyboard coming from Accounting—Michael had Opinions about people who snuck out early—but their immediate area, and that surrounding the tree, was empty.
“All right,” he said, taking the ornaments from Aziraphale, “let’s.”
The tree wasn’t very tall, nor very wide, due mostly to limitations on what could fit through the office doorway. From Crowley’s perspective, this had both negative and positive impacts. Negative: The tree being rather short meant that Aziraphale was fully capable of reaching the highest branches himself, and Crowley was forced to abandon his “Aziraphale hands me an ornament and I stretch up to hang it for him” fantasy. Positive: The tree being rather slender meant that two people decorating it at once were quite likely to experience various accidental brushes of arms, and hands, and even, at one point, hips. (Fortunately, that last one took place just after Michael had left, and the office was empty, so that no one but Aziraphale was around to hear the way that Crowley’s breath hitched.)
“All done, I think,” Aziraphale said, stepping back and surveying their handiwork.
Although it was a little too shiny for Crowley’s taste, the ornaments crammed in against each other just a trifle too tightly, their shapes a little too varied, he was, on the whole, quite pleased. Gabriel’s ornament had been relegated to the back, where it didn’t ruin the visual effect.
“Nice job,” he said, grinning at Aziraphale. “All set for the party, then, are we?”
“Just about,” said Aziraphale, “got your Secret Santa gift, have you?”
“I have,” Crowley said, “and don’t you go asking me again who I’ve got, you’ll find out tomorrow with everyone else.”
“Very well,” said Aziraphale, “I shall simply have to anticipate.”
There was a great deal of that going around, Crowley thought, driving home. It seemed ridiculous that he should be attaching so much weight to the CPC Christmas party, an event where nothing remotely interesting had ever happened before. All the same, he anticipated— Aziraphale receiving his present, smiling softly at him across the room, over the heads and behind the backs of everyone else. A spoken thank-you, of course, said with earnestness. A chance to see reflected in Aziraphale’s eyes the adoration that Crowley radiated every time he got near him .
First, of course, he’d have to get through the party.
At least there was plenty of alcohol, and good alcohol, too (if there was one thing Aziraphale could do competently, it was pick wines). Crowley didn’t get drunk, not even close, but a few drinks in and he was just tipsy enough not to be annoyed when Gabriel grabbed the Snackercize ornament and relocated it to a far more prominent position than the one Aziraphale and Crowley had chosen.
Aziraphale, too, seemed to be feeling quite in charity with the world. When Michael (who didn’t drink, of course) made a pointed comment about the tree being overstuffed with ornamentation, Aziraphale, instead of taking umbrage, merely clapped her on the back and told her she could do it next year, then.
The hors d’oeuvres were tasty, the desserts satisfying (watching a slightly-less-inhibited Aziraphale devour chocolate mousse was an experience), and by the time they sat down to do Secret Santa, Crowley was ready to pronounce the party a success.
“So,” Gabriel said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, “who wants to go first?”
There was a minute of resounding apathetic silence before Beelzebub took pity on him and said, “All right, I will. Here you go, Dagon.” She handed over a box wrapped in—did that wrapping paper have houseflies on it? But Dagon unwrapped it quickly enough that Crowley wasn’t able to tell for certain. It likely wasn’t houseflies, though. Right?
“Hanging file folders,” Dagon said, delighted. “Just what I needed!”
Gabriel made a face. “Right, well, gifts aren’t really supposed to be office-related, is the thing—”
“No, I love them,” Dagon said, “Beelzebub got it just right.”
“Ooooh-kay,” Gabriel said, “who’s next, then?”
Gifts went back and forth fairly quickly, then, followed by thank-yous that were mostly polite but occasionally enthusiastic ( how Aziraphale had known that Ligur would enjoy a stuffed lizard so much, Crowley had no idea). Crowley himself received a scarf, from Uriel, that he might actually wear. Overall, for a workplace Secret Santa, an unequivocal success.
They were down to only a few gifts left to give, now, and Crowley could see Aziraphale doing mental calculations about who was left and what that might mean, and decided it was time to act before the element of surprise was completely lost. “I’ll go next,” he said, and picked up his box. “Here, Aziraphale—”
“Oh,” said Aziraphale, who apparently hadn’t quite figured it out yet, “oh, thank you, Crowley.”
“Go on,” Crowley said, sitting back down. “Open it up.”
Aziraphale didn’t tear at wrapping paper, the way most people did. He removed it gently, with maddening slowness and precision, taking care not to rip at or mar any of the edges.
It drove Crowley nearly wild.
At last—at long last—Aziraphale got all of the wrapping paper off, folded it and placed it delicately next to him, and looked down at the box. “Oh,” he said softly. “Oh, Crowley, that’s lovely.”
Crowley’s heart swelled, and his face suddenly felt very warm indeed, and he tried not to think about the fact that their coworkers were all around them. “Glad y’like it,” he muttered.
“What is it?” Gabriel asked, leaning over.
Aziraphale gently pulled his gift out of the box and held it up for everyone to see. It was a Christmas tree topper in the shape of an angel, all white and gold and shining and beautiful. Crowley’d found it in the back corner of a small local shop. He wasn’t one for kitschy decorations, generally, but this angel in particular had a purity about it that he’d found strangely appealing. Looking at Aziraphale now, at the tender joy on his face as he showed off the angel, Crowley had a strong suspicion as to why.
“Thank you,” Aziraphale said, smiling first up at Crowley, then down at the angel. “It’s perfect.”
Crowley considered it a feat of remarkable self-restraint that he managed not to yell “YOU’RE PERFECT!” in return.
The problem with being the de facto party-planning team was that you also became the de facto party-cleaning-up team, Crowley reflected, as the last of their coworkers darted out the door without so much as offering to help tidy.
“Can’t we leave it for the caretaker?” Aziraphale asked hopefully.
“I don’t think so,” Crowley said, “‘s not really fair to them, is it? Not their party.”
“You’re right,” Aziraphale said, and sighed, and began collecting paper plates. “At any rate,” he said, a touch more cheerfully, “seems like the party was a success.”
“Yeah,” Crowley said, “we didn’t do half badly, did we?”
“Thank you again,” Aziraphale said, “I know it’s not your job—”
Crowley held up a half-eaten mini quiche in protest. “Not yours either, really, is it?”
“Well,” said Aziraphale, “no, but I was told to do it—”
“And I wanted to help,” Crowley said, then, after a second, added, “help you.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, “that reminds me.” He put down the clump of tinsel he was holding and bustled over to Reception, ducking down underneath his desk. “I also must thank you properly for the gift, the, the angel,” he said, his voice muffled by the desk, “and apologize for dogging you about Secret Santa, must’ve been terribly annoying for you—” He emerged from the desk holding a box covered in tartan wrapping paper and accented with a bright blue bow. “And,” he said, triumphantly, “I’ve got to give you your present.”
“My present,” Crowley repeated, idiotically.
“Well, yes,” Aziraphale said, “told you I’d gotten you one, didn’t I?” He crossed to Crowley and handed him the box. “Merry Christmas, my dear.”
Crowley took the box, trying not to notice the slight brush of Aziraphale’s fingers against his. Really, he should be used to it by now, it wasn’t like they’d never touched before, but still, he felt a distinct shiver run down his spine, from anticipation or perhaps just attraction.
“Open it,” Aziraphale said, and Crowley ran a finger underneath the edge of the wrapping paper, breaking the seal of the tape. He took the paper off as carefully as possible, but it still tore and wrinkled, and when he’d got it all off he wasn’t sure what to do with it, so he balled it up and tossed it awkwardly into the rubbish bin. The box itself was black, and bore the logo of a store Crowley’d never heard of. He lifted the lid.
Aziraphale had got him a pair of gloves—leather, he realized, picking one up and feeling it, real leather, and decorated with a snakeskin pattern on the outside.
“For your hands,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley considered saying something about “well, didn’t think they’d be for my feet, did I?” But he resolved to, for once, not ruin the moment with an ill-timed joke, not when Aziraphale was standing there glowing at him, looking more like the angel than ever.
“They’re brilliant,” he said, instead, and slipped one of the gloves on, enjoying the sensation of the leather against his skin.
Aziraphale glowed even more brightly. “I noticed,” he said, in what he probably thought was a modestly proud tone, “that you’re always sticking your hands in your pockets, when we’re outside, and, well. Thought I’d help you stay warm.”
“Yeah,” said Crowley, because he couldn’t formulate any thoughts more coherent than that, not with Aziraphale standing there telling him he’d been noticing Crowley’s hands, and thinking about them, and wanting to help.
“Oh!” Aziraphale said, and Crowley jumped a little bit, “oh, I almost forgot! You’ve got an extra gift, it’s in there, too, under the gloves.”
Crowley fished around in the tissue paper, and found a photo, clearly several years old, of a teenage boy with goth-black hair and poorly applied eyeliner, scowling at the camera in an utterly nonthreatening way. “Who’s—” he started to ask, and then looked back and forth between the photo and Aziraphale a few times before bursting into laughter.
“Look,” Aziraphale said, annoyance and amusement mingled in his tone, “you wanted to see it.”
“Oh, I did,” Crowley said, gaining control over his giggles, “lord, didn’t think it’d be this good—”
“It was a different time,” Aziraphale said defensively, “ American Idiot had just come out—”
Crowley stopped laughing, though the sense of near-hysteria, that something was bubbling dangerously close to the edge of his heart, remained. “No, I, I love it, really, it’s perfect, I’m so glad you showed me.”
Aziraphale let out a small contented sigh.
And Crowley, half-drunk on wine and hand touches and my dear and the way Aziraphale kept smiling at him, said, suddenly, desperately, all the love he’d been storing away shooting at once to the surface, overwhelming him with its intensity, “I need to know.”
Aziraphale’s face changed, immediately, became guarded, and if Crowley’d had any sense he would’ve stopped there. “Know what?”
“If you—if this—God, Aziraphale, I need, I need you to tell me that it’s not just me, that I’m not, I don’t know, delusional, that this isn’t all in my head.”
“Crowley—” Aziraphale said, shaking his head, warning him away.
“You have to know,” he said, reaching out and grasping Aziraphale’s hand in his, “you have to, it’s obvious, isn’t it, the way I—that I—”
“No,” Aziraphale said, so firmly that Crowley’s jaw snapped closed of its own accord. “No, don’t do this. Please. Don’t make me—don’t do this.”
Crowley grasped Aziraphale’s hand more tightly, hanging on to it like the only outcropping on a smooth cliff face. “I have to tell you,” he said, and Aziraphale closed his eyes as though at some exquisite pain. “I need you to know, please, I can’t keep going on like this, not anymore, with you sitting right there and being you and me not being able to say what’s been building up inside of me for years—”
Aziraphale wrenched his hand away from Crowley’s. “Don’t say it,” he said, a command, not a request.
Crowley stopped babbling, and watched him, feeling as though his heart, his mind, all of him might crack open right there.
“I care about you,” Aziraphale said, his tone barely controlled, “so much, Crowley, you’re my best friend. Not my best friend at work, you’re my best friend. And I can’t—we can’t—you know the rules. So please, please, don’t say it, don’t put yourself through this, put me through this, when there’s only one way it can end, only one way I can respond.”
Crowley just stood there, miserable and numb.
“We’d lose our jobs,” Aziraphale said, “if we—and if anyone found out—and that’s, it’s not an option. And I, well, if things were different…” He trailed off, and his face took on a dreamy cast that prompted hope to surge up from Crowley’s despair. “But they aren’t,” Aziraphale continued, “and, so, I hope you have a lovely Christmas holiday, enjoy the gloves, please, I’ll see you in the New Year.”
Aziraphale moved slowly, deliberately, over to the coat rack, put on his coat, collected his things, tucked the angel, now back in its box, under his arm. His mouth opened, for a moment, as though he were going to say something else. But he closed it, and just nodded at Crowley, instead, and walked out the door.
Crowley stood there, in the middle of the office, surrounded by the mess of the party, Aziraphale’s photo now crumpled in his hand, and felt a hole open up in his chest, as though there’d been something there once that was now gone.
aaaand I'm sorry.
This chapter is based on The Office episodes "Christmas Party" and "Casino Night" (US version) and "Interview" (UK version).
Come yell at me on tumblr: detectivessantiago
Also this is definitely the angstiest this fic is gonna get, so don't worry, we're staying firmly in sitcom territory!