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and the world is the mollusc of your choice

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"Warm baths," Aziraphale said wisely. "For the oysters, don't you know. Warm hanging baths."

Crowley blinked at him. They were in the lovely stage where they had gorged themselves on blue-eyelashed oysters, dipping them in creamy lovage sauces or tipping them into their mouths whole, and had long stopped watering down their wine. Needed something strong tasting to counter the sea salt taste of the oysters, Crowley had reasoned, and Aziraphale had been of the opinion that it was an insult to Petronius's vintage Sorrentine wine to water it down.

"Oysters don't need baths. They're already clean, comes of living in the water." Crowley wrinkled his forehead, deep in thought. "Humans. You're thinking of humans. Humans need baths or they get all stinky. They have these new, new, smaller heated baths. That's what you're thinking of. Much more private than the public baths. Not that you use the public baths, least not that I can tell," he added mournfully. "Never found you there. Three months we've both been in Rome, never run into you in the baths."

"Oysters, I tell you. They have warm hanging baths in winter, to keep them alive. Clever, clever inventors, humans."

"They have libraries in the baths. Well, not in the actual water. In the bathhouses. You like libraries." Crowley seemed a little distracted. He drained his mug and gestured for more. His eyes, imperfectly concealed behind circles of dark glass, lit up with sudden enthusiasm. "Should come to the baths with me. Right now. Nice books. You can read. And, and have a massage and a bath. With me." The thought seemed to delight him for some reason. He snaked to his feet and leaned over the table, offering a long lean hand. Long and lean like all of him. "Come on, 'zir'phale."

Aziraphale ignored him and swallowed a spoonful of pudding, sweet and fluffy on his tongue. He looked up to see Crowley's hand had dropped to his side. The demon was staring at him intensely. Probably plotting to use his fiendish wiles to find out Aziraphale's mission in Rome. Aziraphale knew all about Crowley's own mission, from his drunken confidences on their first meal together. Aziraphale had sadly reported Caliluga to Headquarters as a lost cause, secretly a little relieved Crowley had no active part in that young man's decisions.

The demon had confided the whole mess to him, just as if this was not at all a strange thing for a demon to do. It had been that way since Eden, an anxious demon slinking up to a worried angel for reassurance as if they were natural allies and not fated enemies at all. The worst of it was that Aziraphale felt the same way. They were on opposite sides, but it was also us and them in the sense that they were fellow agents working for distant bosses who didn't understand what things were like on the ground.

It was past time to sober up because some thoughts should not be expressed in words, even in the privacy of his mind. Aziraphale had learned, since the confusing uncertain days in Eden, Eden, that even if they were all technically doing the Almighty's will, comradeship with a demon was frowned on.

Crowley was watching him with a slight smile on his long reptilian mouth, and Aziraphale found himself wishing once more that Crowley wasn't so outwardly kind. He might be a devil, but he was a charming and sympathetic one.

"Gonna build my own hanging bath and feed you honey cakes there," Crowley muttered.

"Ah, I know you. I can resist the wiles of evil, dear."

The lenses were inadequate to hide the widening of Crowley's eyes. Dear. Why had he let it slip out? Why was he dining with a demon in the first place? Fraternising with the enemy. Surely he wasn't that lonely. He had his human charges and his knowledge that he was doing his holy work. That was enough company. He should never have given into the burst of joy exploding his heart when he heard Crowley's voice in that tavern, that feeling of recognition. Hello. It's you again. The only you.

The thought You who are dear to me was unfortunate. If only Crowley wasn't so friendly and accommodating and oddly fragile. The ginger hairs on the back of his arms were burnished gold by the summer sun. Aziraphale had never seen his hair so short without a wig, and the kiss-curls framing his face were even more vulnerable than the exposed throat. A serpent. Aziraphale had to remember that. Slender and pretty and could kill you with a strike, squeeze the life out of you.

"Come back to my place," Crowley said abruptly.

"No, I really shouldn't."

"Got some Faustian wine in. Just the colour of my eyes. Older'n most of the humans here."

"I really think I shouldn't drink anymore."

"That's the whole point. Can sober up home. Can't do it here, they'll be building a shrine to Bacchus and there goes your nice oyster restaurant and you'll probably get a write-up for doing miracles on behalf of false gods as well." Crowley reached out his hand again, and Aziraphale knew he shouldn't take it, even though wine the colour of Crowley's eyes seemed very alluring right for some reason.

He had no explanation for finding himself hurrying alongside Crowley, his quick small steps trying to keep up with Crowley's long strides.

Crowley was muttering to himself as if trying to keep up both sides of a conversation. "Clever humans, they take fruit or honey or grain and ferment it, make drinks. Can't get a decent drink in Hell."

"No, I suppose not."

"S'posed to tempt humans into having fun and then give them a bad time in Hell. Well, all right, someone's got to do it, it's the Great Plan. But they all act like it's wrong—right—oh, heaven, 'cuse my language, you know, something—to have fun. No reason we can't have fun. What's the point of escaping Heaven if we're going to be miserable about it?"

"Evil is a punishment in itself, and—"

"Only one enjoying herself is Dagon, and that's only 'cos she's a sadistic little bitch. And the imps, they like to go ice-skating. You, you enjoy yourself, don't you, angel?" Crowley stopped stock still and jabbed a finger at Aziraphale as he stumbled to a stop.

"I am always filled with the happiness of virtue and a job well done."

"That pudding was a job well done." Crowley grinned at that thought, for some reason. "Humans, too. Remember before there was all... This. Clever buggers. Viaducts, booze, nice warm baths for oysters. But they don't remember."

"Well of course not, they only..."

"That robe makes your skin look like a peach."

"Crowley."

"Bitable."

"Watch your words, snake," Aziraphale said, a bit desperately.

"I like them."

"Snakes? Peaches?"

"Humans." Crowley leaned conspiratorially close. "Don't tell anyone. Not supposed to like 'em. And you like them too."

"It's my job to love them." Aziraphale felt on safer grounds with this than peaches and biting.

"Yeah. But you like 'em. And you like me. And you're like me. Catch you with a harp singing glory glory, not when there's pudding down here. Got more in common with me than with your lot. Just like I've more in common with you than with them." He still seemed to be talking more to himself than to Aziraphale, as if he was arguing with himself. He started walking on again. "Dear!" he added explosively. Aziraphale was beginning to regret that slip. They marched on in silence for a while, turning into an alley.

"Oysters."

"What?"

"Uranus threw Cronus's testicles into the ocean."

"Oh, really. I'm not following you at all."

Crowley, two strides ahead, was apparently drunk enough to find that funny. "Aphrodite. Aphrodisiac. Tempting me to oysters. S'posed to be an angel."

"I am an angel," Aziraphale said testily. He felt it was beyond time he reasserted that point. "And you are—"

"A demon, yeah. Your dear demon."

"I apologise."

"For being my dear friend?" Crowley whirled on him, and Aziraphale found himself pressed against a wall, Crowley's breath smelling of sweet spiced white wine and a little of seawater.

Aziraphale felt he should feel afraid. The glass circles were doing nothing to hide the golden eyes, stretched wide and bulging and inhuman. He felt no fear, just a sharp awareness of Crowley's closeness, the perfume of his hair oil, the musky human scent under it all, the sense of wings stretching away into another dimension behind him. He was summoning up the hardness of heart to deny any friendship, to remind him they were enemies, working acquaintances at best, when Crowley said "My only friend," and the words died in a rush of feeling.

Crowley was gripping his shoulders, hard and tight, and the ginger head with that ridiculous ostentatious crown fell to Aziraphale's shoulder. Aziraphale couldn't be blamed, he told himself, for wrapping his arms around the thin back, holding him close. Wasn't it his role to offer comfort and compassion, even to sinners? It didn't matter that his heart was pounding, that his own loneliness and tenderness and longing was choking him, that for the first time in four thousand years his corporation seemed to have awoken to the concept of human desires. He was just being kind. He was giving a hug to this poor lost creature, who had shifted his face to press his mouth against the smooth skin where Aziraphale's shoulder curved into his neck. Well, that was all right. They were in Rome. The Romans had very little idea of personal space. Aziraphale had seen men and women chastely kiss the side of each other's necks to greet kinsmen and friends in greeting and affection and gratitude, just like this. He'd been working among the small groups of Christians and he had been kissed frequently by them, sometimes they went into absolute frenzies of kissing to prove that everyone was equal in each other's eyes. Aziraphale was sure his neck had never been this sensitive, why were some simple friendly kisses on his neck making him tremble? A warning, surely, about accepting tokens of friendship from a demon.

He felt warm dampness on his neck as Crowley parted his lips, touched his tongue against his skin, sucked, avidly and gently, as if he was breakable. No, this was a little beyond polite affection. Aziraphale thought he should object, but Crowley's mouth was moving up his neck, stopping to deposit kisses and possessive tender bites, his breath rasping, and somehow Aziraphale couldn't move except to tighten his arms around Crowley's back, change the weight on his feet to slide his thighs slightly apart and let Crowley press closer, so Aziraphale could feel just how lacking in chastity the kisses were.

"Good Lord," he said weakly. "Crowley, we're on the streets."

"S'right angel," Crowley whispered against his skin, and 'angel' didn't sound like a curse at all. "My friend, my..." He shuddered deeply and kissed his way up Aziraphale's jaw. "No one will know. I'll look after you. Make it so good." He caught Aziraphale's earlobe between his teeth and tugged gently, and how could something so simple, a place no one thought to cover in modesty, send a burn like liquor through him. "Always look after you." His lips found Aziraphale's cheek, kissed his eyelids closed. "Keep you safe, keep you happy." His voice broke. "Do anything."

Aziraphale opened his eyes, to see if Crowley was weeping, but the demon was flushed and serious and staring at his mouth. Aziraphale realised he was going to be kissed. Not a kiss of friendship and greeting, something ardent and desperate and...

...it would all be over. He would open his mouth, and kiss back, and there would be no going back, because he would be opening his heart to a demon.

"You can't keep me safe," he said, his voice shaking. "How could you possibly think that? You're a lower rank demon. What could you possibly do against the Host?"

Crowley looked as if he had been slapped. "I will. I'll protect you."

"And what will you do? What if they come after you?"

Crowley's mouth worked in something like panic, but it was the wrong panic. Not fear of Heaven or Hell. Not useful fear that would lead him to protect himself. The silly, reckless boy, all he cared about was being pushed away, as if that mattered. What did Hell do to traitors anyway, in the deep pits? It didn't bear thinking of. How could Crowley risk that, just to be with him?

"I'll find somewhere to keep you safe. Why not? What have we got to lose?"

Everything. Aziraphale began to shake.

"Infernal fiend, tempting me with gluttony and inebriation." Please respond properly. Please give me one of those sly smiles and tell me I don't need much tempting, and step away, and we can go back to where we were. Crowley just stared at him, his eyes blank and golden behind the glasses. "I can resist you. Even when you tempt me with l-lust, you terrible serpent."

Crowley stared at him while Aziraphale prayed—oh, perhaps it was blasphemous, but the habit of an existence—for him to understand. If they really did have a connection.

Crowley grinned, a wicked grin below tragic eyes. "Nearly had you, angel," he said, and beneath the surface of the cheerfulness was a note that broke Aziraphale's heart. "Tempt you to some more wine instead?"

"Perhaps not tonight," Aziraphale said, and Crowley nodded, a barely perceptible gesture of acceptance. He pushed himself away, still gentle, and turned away.

"Wait!"

Crowley froze, and Aziraphale, before he could doubt himself, kissed his lips. A chaste kiss of friendship. A kiss of longing, and tenderness, and please understand I am not rejecting you, please. You're not the only one to want to keep the other safe.

"Same time next week?"

"Yeah. Yeah, Aziraphale, I'd like that."

They stood for a moment, breaths shared, and then Crowley swayed into the night.

-----

Many years later, when things had been dared and survived and they were as safe as they could be, Crowley sat across Aziraphale's lap, undoing his bow tie. "Got to find you a fashion less tight around your neck, love. Not that I don't enjoy undoing your ties and collars, but it would be useful to have more access in public. All I could do not to rip this thing off in front of that human that wanted their estate assessed."

"Hush," said Aziraphale, blushing a little. "You shouldn't be kissing my neck in front of people anyway. It embarrasses them."

"Perfectly chaste place to kiss you."

"Not the way you kiss me." Aziraphale blushed a little, and could feel the lips against his skin slide into a smile. Crowley smiled a lot more, these days. "Always did have a thing about necks."

"'m a vampire. Live off angel blood."

"Don't be ridiculous. You never hurt me."

"Only yours, anyway, not necks in general. Can't help it if you have a pretty neck. Delicious."

Aziraphale was quiet for a moment. "You do know..." He let it trail away, and Crowley adjusted to his mood, settling even closer.

"I did then, too. Kept hoping you'd change your mind about what to do about it, but I knew. You kissed me of your own accord. You called me your dear, and I'm a demon. You like me."

"I love you."

"Yeah, me too, but you like me as well." Crowley kissed his closed eyes. "Different. And I like you, too. Like you enough for forever. Do anything for you, angel, always would. My friend. My love. "

Aziraphale put the words my love and my friend together with forever in his head. He said, feeling shy, feeling again as if there might be a smiting, as if he didn't know that if God was going to smite him for anything he did with Crowley he would have been ended in the last week or two, "Husband?"

Crowley leaned his forehead against his. "Yeah, 'spose, if you like," he said casually, then gave up any pretence at being cool and kissed him properly.

There was salt in his kiss, and if it came from tears, perhaps they were just there to remind him of oysters.