The city was hard to settle on. With the start of the holiday rush, Crowley got just as busy as Aziraphale, though they'd begun to notice over time that their duties tended to take them into the same territory every couple of weeks. Even a few centuries ago, this might have been an irritation, but in recent years, they'd come to value it as a convenience—and a necessity. It was late November, and, finally, after three weeks of comparing abnormally erratic schedules, they were both set to be heading north.
"Just when it's getting rainy, too," said Crowley, gloomily. He sighed into the phone, leaving an odd, static-lined echo in Aziraphale's ear. "This kind of work calls for snow."
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow, checking items off his to-do list as he listened.
"This kind of work? I didn't realize that snow is requisite for effective temptation."
Crowley made an exasperated noise—rather nice, that static, or maybe it had just been too long since they'd last seen each other. "Snow is requisite this time of year," he corrected Aziraphale, sounding for all the world as if he was hiding something. "It has nothing to do with temptation, angel."
Aziraphale shivered, pleasantly, wondering if he ought to get his phone replaced.
"My dear, I hate to press the issue, but are you absolutely sure you can get away—"
"Yes," replied Crowley, with mild annoyance. "I double booked myself for the three days after, I'll have you know."
"Oh," Aziraphale murmured, setting his pencil down. "You didn't have to do that, you know. I could very well come along and take—"
"No," said Crowley, hastily. "Not necessary. Three days is going to set both of us back far enough as it is. Although, if you find that you need a hand, I suppose I could—"
"Three days," said Aziraphale, rubbing his temples. "Is that all the time we have?"
Crowley sighed again, closer this time, the static spiking out of control.
"Until after the twenty-fourth, yeah."
"Well, that goes without saying," said Aziraphale. "We've got the Ritz scheduled as usual."
"Listen, that's a month off. We've got to worry about this weekend, or it's not going to happen at all."
"Right," sighed Aziraphale, flipping the page of his notebook. He picked up his pencil again and moved the point down the list of names and numbers, frowning. "You realize that only a few of these places are, as you would say, up to snuff?"
"Of course. It's Yorkshire."
"Now, don't be rude. Just because you were on the wrong side of the fence in the thirteen-eighties doesn't mean—ah, there it is. The Royal York. It's next to the railway station, which would be very convenient for me, of course, and—"
"With a name like that, it's trying too hard," muttered Crowley.
"I suppose you're right," Aziraphale said. "And I imagine it gets a bit noisy." He struck it off the list and frowned, skipping down a few more. "What about the Seahorse? Terribly small, of course, but there's a pub downstairs and it's well located."
"Student central," said Crowley, flatly. "No way."
"You're making this more difficult than it needs to be."
"Why don't they just have done with it and get the Ritz up there?"
"Because there's nothing wrong with the Royal York," Aziraphale reminded him.
"Except the noise."
"Mightn't that be an advantage?"
"I can't believe you just said that."
After a few moments of awkward silence, Aziraphale said, "There's always the Judges' Lodgings."
Even Crowley's silence exuded confusion.
"Judges' Lodgings. Very quaint, as I recall. Historic structure, restaurant and lounge, live jazz on weekends—"
"It's not near the university, is it?"
Aziraphale bit down on the pencil eraser and counted to three, then let out a deep breath.
"No, dear boy, it's not," he reassured Crowley, beaming.
"That sounds fine. Good work. Er, speaking of, I really ought to get…"
"Back to it," said Crowley, sheepishly. "I overslept."
"When things are this busy, you have no business napping."
"When things are this busy, you have no business not napping."
"That's what a holiday's for, yes?"
"I want to actually see you, angel."
"You will," said Aziraphale, firmly, suddenly wishing they weren't half the island apart and booked up to their teeth with Yuletide responsibilities. "Friday afternoon. I'll make the reservation."
"Do you need my card or something?"
"No," Aziraphale said. "I'll take care of it."
"Have you been working overtime again?" asked Crowley, suspiciously.
"That's none of your concern," said Aziraphale. "Now, you've got things to do, and so have I."
Crowley made a frustrated noise. Crackle.
"Have I ever told you I'd like to tell your people off for coming up with all of this?"
"Repeatedly, and need I remind you it was humans, not Heaven?"
"Right, whatever," muttered Crowley. "Friday, Judges' Rooms or whatever. York proper?"
"Yes, that's where I'll be anyway."
"Damn you. I'll be in Leeds."
"I know, but you have a car."
"Fair enough," said Crowley. "Time?"
"Four o'clock ought to work. What do you think?"
"Three days? It's more like two and a half."
"Don't remind me, please," Aziraphale sighed.
"Sorry," said Crowley. It's just—"
"Friday," Aziraphale repeated, and hung up on him. There was a blue light flickering impatiently between two of the bookshelves, as if browsing the titles—an irritation to be rid of as soon as possible.
"Terribly sorry," he said, hastily flipping the notebook back to the previous page. "Regular client. It's all settled. Can I help you?"
Heaven had the irritating habit of checking in when things got overly busy, which wasn't every year, but it was often enough to be unpleasant. Aziraphale always had the feeling that they didn't quite have faith in him anymore, asking if he needed reinforcements and rubbish like that, but his protestations and proof of how busy he kept usually got whoever-it-was off his back. He could never tell precisely who was on the line.
Thankfully, Gabriel was fed up with his desk job and easy to get rid of.
The week passed slowly, each day filled with odd jobs more tedious than those the day previous. After a while, visitations felt like the easy bit. The guidelines were to wait till the recipient was in the proper frame of mind—asleep or stoned, ideally—give whatever message or reassurance it was they'd been praying for, and get the hell out of there. Not the way Heaven's handbook put it, of course, but once you had Crowley bluntly spell it out for you, there was no turning back. Still, it was hardly the trickiest thing that people expected around the holidays. There were the inevitable healings, as you couldn't let the season pass without a handful of people miraculously recovering from terminal illnesses. There were also the gift requests—in severe cases of need, of course—that didn't get filled by charities or other generous individuals, and which Aziraphale felt vaguely obligated to help along. If he approved of any part of the whole busy lot, it was the giving.
Crowley's duties, on the other hand, ran slightly to the opposite effect. Not in the sense that he was preventing the terminally ill from recovering or anything like that—it was more along the lines of perpetuating the less desirable traits that the season inevitably inspired in humanity. Aziraphale had been hearing about consumerism and holiday advert campaigns for so long now—usually in the context of Crowley complaining about how much work they took—that he'd almost become desensitized. Better not to admit that he had, at least not to Crowley. It was bad enough that he'd helped with them from time to time; it was things of that sort that drove you easily into overtime with your own work out of little more than sheer guilt. Crowley disliked children, but at this time of year, he had to deal with far more of them than Aziraphale did.
On Wednesday, Aziraphale took care of his last London appointment (Mrs. Oliver of Covent Garden, who insisted upon her yearly dream-vision Christmas card from her dearly departed husband) and took a northbound train from King's Cross to the very end of the line. Scotland was beautiful in winter, if a bit wet, and it was best to get the jobs in the hinterlands out of the way before he was due in York. Crowley had never quite forgiven him for taking (and maintaining) the northern stronghold, but in later years, when things—most notably Milton Keynes—had got complicated, he hadn't cared as much.
"It's not fair," Crowley had snapped, once. "Who do you think kept the invasions coming, eh? It wasn't your lot, that's for certain."
"The vikings," Aziraphale had replied, matter-of-factly, and poured him another cup of tea. Crowley could get dreadfully agitated when he was overworked, the poor dear. What he didn't know about Rome and the Normans couldn't hurt him.
Aziraphale sighed, staring out the train window. It would be a long two days.
In Scotland, you got some strange requests. There were your inevitable barking mad tourists to the Loch, insisting that they ought to be able to catch a sighting in the off-season. Aziraphale hated those the most, because Nessie was about as moody as they come, and if Crowley had taught him anything it was that you didn't go around disturbing people's sleep. One year, though, he'd convinced the old girl that appearing for a fiercely determined mute boy couldn't hurt. The trip had been his Christmas present.
Edinburgh, at least, was good for clothes shopping. On Thursday, after a morning of invading half-awake dreams and retrieving holiday cards lost for years in the back rooms of post offices, Aziraphale took the afternoon off and went looking for bargains. He'd been wanting some new jumpers, and Crowley kept complaining of the cold. He couldn't understand why the demon refused to wear a proper coat. Stylish did not equal warm.
Aziraphale wound a thick, charcoal colored wool and cashmere scarf around his neck and decided that he wouldn't be leaving the shop without it. He asked the clerk to have it wrapped, but the jumpers, he left as they were. Crowley wouldn't have any interest in them, though Aziraphale was prepared to offer one. Crowley shivered so.
That night, Aziraphale didn't return to the hotel room he'd booked until the early hours of morning. The universities were difficult; you had young people awake until all hours trying to meet deadlines, and that was the ones doing what they were supposed to be doing. There were overdoses to prevent, and homesickness to cure. There were ten-pound notes to tuck in places so that some would be able to eat in the morning. There was alcohol to spirit away, because Aziraphale would be needing it.
For the first time in a very long while, Aziraphale set the hotel alarm clock. He turned down the sheets, turned out the lights, and slept until early afternoon. As much as he wanted to hit the snooze button, he couldn't. He'd miss his train.
Aziraphale drifted in and out of sleep, his forehead resting against the window glass. The landscape seemed bleak, somehow, and colorless. It wasn't the clean, white colorlessness that ideally came with winter. It was the tired, sullen shade of frost on dead fields. Crowley was right about the snow.
York seemed happy to see Aziraphale, which was a pleasant change. Sometimes, when a place knows and remembers you, it's possible to drop what feels like a century in a second. There, the bleakness somehow wasn't as bleak even though it had settled on the city as much as on the countryside. Aziraphale tightened his hold on his small suitcase, glancing offhand at the tiny cholera cemetery that now lay stranded as an island between the lanes of the roadway. For what it was worth, he wished its occupants peace and rest.
It was chilly enough that he felt a measure of discomfort, but the distance wasn't far enough to justify the expense of a bus or even one of the cabs that had been waiting at the station. The queue for one had been rather long, and Aziraphale felt as if he was running behind as it was. He was halfway to the hotel, maybe, and Crowley would be arriving there in half an hour's time. For all that he knew, Crowley was already there.
Aziraphale had stayed at the Judges' Lodgings before, and it seemed to him that it was a lovely compromise where comfort and location were concerned. He collected the keys, then took a brief wander about the lobby, wondering why he'd even bothered to suggest the Royal. They'd be well put up, nobody would ask stupid questions, and Crowley's inexplicable need for frequent room service wouldn't be an issue. Aziraphale sat down in one of the chairs, tucking the keys into his coat pocket. No use in going to the room; Crowley would want to get dinner first, and he'd have no more luggage than Aziraphale.
Somewhere between the thought and dozing off, Aziraphale felt a hand on his arm.
"You've been working overtime," said Crowley, bending over him slightly. It wasn't a question. His sunglasses were slipping down his nose, and anybody close enough with a mind to stare would notice the startling brilliance of his eyes. He wasn't smiling.
Aziraphale stretched, carefully lifting Crowley's hand away, letting their fingers touch a moment longer than was necessary. He stood up and straightened his coat, yawning.
"As I said, it's none of your concern," he said mildly. "You look a bit ragged yourself."
"Don't ask, don't tell," replied Crowley, somewhat testily. "Have you got the keys?"
"Yes," said Aziraphale, patting his pocket. "We ought to have supper. The menu looks divine."
Crowley glanced at Aziraphale's suitcase and hefted his own impatiently.
"We ought to take these upstairs, don't you think?"
Lately, Crowley had caught on to getting his meaning across without being blatant about it. Aziraphale nodded and reached over, trying to take Crowley's suitcase. Crowley resisted, grabbing Aziraphale's wrist instead. There was something about his demeanor much tetchier than usual, and if he needed to vent in private for a while, he was probably right about holding off on dinner. Better the room sustained damage than the lobby.
Much to Aziraphale's surprise, Crowley led them to the stairs rather than the lift.
"Second," said Aziraphale, holding the door for him.
"I hate how this place makes you feel like being chivalrous."
"Shhh," murmured Aziraphale, taking hold of his hand. They had two flights to climb. It was easier to do this without people watching; it wasn't such a surprise that Crowley had avoided the lift after all. He was quiet the whole way up the stairs, squeezing Aziraphale's hand as if to say what he'd really wanted to stay downstairs.
It didn't usually happen like this, tense words and silence before the slot of the key in the lock before it got dropped on the bedside table and the suitcases abandoned. The moment of standing there empty-handed and still suited up against the cold wasn't usually so hesitant, and Crowley usually didn't close the curtains with such a hurried glance.
"Hell," he muttered, shrugging out of his coat, leaving it where it fell. "Job from hell."
"But that's normal, isn't it?" Aziraphale removed his coat and draped it over one of the armchairs, then bent to retrieve Crowley's and drape it over his own. By the time he straightened up, Crowley's shoes were the only thing left where Crowley had been standing, and the bathroom door was ajar, light leaking out into the dim room.
Aziraphale peered inside hesitantly, watching Crowley scowl at the mirror and loosen his collar. He had a clean washcloth bunched up in one hand, and the cold water was running. He looked ready to eviscerate something, which wasn't quite what Aziraphale had in mind for the night's activities. He edged his way inside and stood behind Crowley, arms folded across his chest. Crowley ignored him, dampening the cloth.
Aziraphale tried again, determined to help.
"Would you like to tell me what's going on?"
"It's in the suitcase," said Crowley, grimly, face buried in the cloth.
Curious, Aziraphale left him to himself for a moment and dropped to his knees beside the suitcases. Crowley's was slightly larger than he usually preferred to carry, and the clasps didn't seem to be fitting quite right. Aziraphale moved his hands to open it, and it fell apart at the slightest jostling. Red and white faux fur spilled in every direction.
"You would be surprised," came the muffled, contemptuous answer, "how readily those department store Santas will sell their souls if you promise to cover for them for a week."
The relief was inescapable, as was the urge to laugh, but Aziraphale somehow managed.
"My dear, you could do worse."
"Yeah, and you could do better than tell me that."
"Oh, enough," said Aziraphale, shoving the unfortunate costume back into Crowley's suitcase. He rose to his feet and stepped back into the bathroom, finding Crowley busy unbuttoning his shirt, still dabbing at his neck with the cloth. His pale skin had a prickly, irritated flush to it, and Aziraphale suddenly felt much, much sorrier for him.
"You can say that again," Crowley muttered, re-wetting the cloth.
"Give it here," said Aziraphale, and gently took the cloth out of Crowley's hand.
It wasn't usually so difficult. Crowley was still tense when Aziraphale slipped one arm around his waist, and even nuzzling the faintly damp hair at Crowley's nape didn't get him to relax. Aziraphale kissed his hair and whispered that it was all right, he could rest now, and ran the cloth slowly down Crowley's chest. At that, Crowley shivered and went still, loosening a bit. Better, Aziraphale murmured, letting the cloth drop into the sink. Better. He took hold of Crowley's shirt at the shoulders and tugged.
Much to Aziraphale's relief, Crowley didn't need any more coaxing than that. He turned around, awkwardly, and struggled out of the shirt, eyes harsh in the fluorescent glow of the bathroom light. They drifted shut when Aziraphale kissed him, a fine tremor through his whole body. Under Aziraphale's questioning hands, Crowley's skin answered with tentative warmth. Something about the costume was uncomfortable even when Crowley wasn't wearing it, and for the first time, Aziraphale wondered if they could have allergies.
"I'm sorry," he was saying against Crowley's mouth, smoothing his hands along the waistband of Crowley's trousers while Crowley's hands fumbled at Aziraphale's shirt. "My dear, I'm so sorry. I could have come earlier, you should have said—"
"Shut up," said Crowley, hoarsely, finally getting Aziraphale's shirt out of the way. "We both had work, so just stop talking like a bloody idiot before I agree with you."
Aziraphale thought about his shoes going to join Crowley's, and they did. The bathroom's tile floor was cold, but it had a just-cleaned feeling to it, and a quick glance at the large tub told him that Crowley would be getting some ideas. Aziraphale shivered.
"You're in approximately four jumpers," Crowley said, poking at Aziraphale's sides. "You can't possibly be cold. That's my job."
Aziraphale set a finger on Crowley's lips and kissed his cheek, murmuring, "Let's not talk about jobs anymore." He felt Crowley's hands tighten on his waist, trying to work up his jumper, vest, and shirt all at once. Aziraphale caught his wrists. "There's a lovely four-poster out there, you know. This establishment has its advantages."
"I don't know about you, but this feels pretty advantageous to me," said Crowley, impatiently, and snapped his fingers. More than half of Aziraphale's clothing vanished, and Crowley's hands snaked from Aziraphale's waist and slowly up his back.
"The sink's cold," Aziraphale croaked, trying to coax Crowley toward the door even as Crowley's hands traced their way back to his waist and, slipping between them, got his trousers open with a complex, ticklish gesture against Aziraphale's belly.
"You're not," said Crowley, sounding much more cheerful now, and shifted his weight backward to rest on the edge of the porcelain. It was a rather large sink.
Aziraphale took a deep breath, then said, "Right."
Crowley pulled him in for a kiss, long and unhurried this time. There was far more logic in this than Aziraphale wanted to give him credit for. Being more or less precisely the same height made this sort of thing easy, and Crowley being perched on the edge of the sink made it even easier. Cautiously, Aziraphale caressed Crowley's stomach until the sounds he made into the kiss were less ones of contentment than of urgency.
"I thought you'd want to rest," admitted Aziraphale, attempting to unfasten Crowley's trousers. The task was difficult with Crowley trying to help. Aziraphale got his hand out of the way and slid his arm around Crowley's waist; a few finger-taps at the small of his back, and turnabout was foul play. Crowley's trousers fell in a harmless bunch on the floor, and, as an afterthought, so did Aziraphale's. If Crowley was in a hurry, there was no need to go on being a tease. There were few things as satisfying as the way Crowley hissed and wrapped around him, hungry for the feel of Aziraphale's skin.
"Ah," he sighed, more a groan than a hiss, his forehead pressed to Aziraphale's cheek. "That's—yesss. I mean—"
"Crowley, what do you want?" asked Aziraphale, quietly. He turned his head just enough to press his lips to Crowley's forehead, reveling in the unexpected stillness.
"Thisss," he whispered. "Just this, angel. All weekend, if possible."
Aziraphale shivered again, hitching Crowley up tighter.
"No dinner?" He worked one hand in between them, seeking and tentative.
"No," Crowley gasped, moving in such a way that made coherent thought nearly impossible. "None. At all. Nothing, ssssso—oh. Oh."
Aziraphale lightened his touch—difficult, keeping your hand in that position for very long—and listened to the way Crowley's moan dropped off in frustration. He squeezed again, gently, nuzzling Crowley's ear. He was reminded of the phone static.
"And if I want something?" he ventured.
"It's yours," Crowley said, voice tight. He fanned his fingers at Aziraphale's shoulder blades, massaging just where Aziraphale's wings would be.
"My dear, there's not enough room."
"Fine, then, you can have your bloody bed."
"Mm, yes," murmured Aziraphale. "Much easier."
Crowley kissed him again, which ensured that the process of untangling themselves took longer than necessary. Aziraphale was accustomed to Crowley's enthusiasm by now, but there was something ridiculous and absolutely endearing about being led by the hand to bed. He let go of Crowley's fingers and turned down the covers before Crowley could protest. This was his seduction, and he wasn't about to let Crowley think anything more was expected of him than climbing onto the mattress and lying back.
Crowley shed the last of his clothing—shirt, socks—and crawled under the covers, intently watching Aziraphale. "Have you brought it along," he asked, "or am I going to have to come up with something on the spot?"
Aziraphale brought his suitcase closer to the bed and fished through his clothes until he found the small jar. He tossed it up to Crowley, then removed the last of his own clothing and laid it half-folded on top of the mess inside his suitcase.
"Been a while, hasn't it?" Crowley muttered, turning the jar over in his hands.
"Not so long," said Aziraphale, and took it away from him. The sheets were soft, fine cotton, and the mattress was suitably firm. He set the jar up beside his pillow and tugged Crowley in with a sigh. A month was, in fact, long, and Crowley was trembling with it.
Despite the sense of urgency, it was somehow easier to notice things that he'd begun to take for granted. Crowley's lips had a particular shape to them, soft and well defined, that he doubted he'd find anywhere else should he have bothered to go looking.
Crowley shivered and pressed close, his tongue slipping deftly past Aziraphale's.
"Lovely," Aziraphale murmured, after a few long moments, and gave Crowley a good, firm nudge in the side. As expected, Crowley didn't need much coaxing. His back was smooth and warm against Aziraphale's chest. Aziraphale reached for the jar.
"If you're thinking about taking your time, I suggest you stop thinking," Crowley said, squirming in Aziraphale's hold. He took the jar back and opened it for him. "Here."
"Thank you," murmured Aziraphale, and didn't hesitate to put the contents to use.
Crowley hissed under his breath, softly, and quieted as Aziraphale kissed his shoulder.
It wasn't the most comfortable of positions, but Aziraphale could easily touch the hand Crowley used to brace himself against the mattress—or his chest, or his belly, or anything else Crowley happened to beg for. It was just as well Crowley had abandoned the idea of wings, because, under the circumstances, those tended to get in the way. Aziraphale pressed his lips to the back of Crowley's neck, trembling with the effort of each thrust. Crowley was already groaning into the pillow, his movements erratic under Aziraphale's touch.
"Shhh, there you are. Yes, there you—" Aziraphale sucked in his breath, tightening his unsteady grip "—Crowley. Crowley."
Once his heartbeat slowed, there was the hazy, familiar sense of exhausted comfort. Crowley shifted carefully away from him, wincing as they separated, rolling to lie on his stomach. Instinctively, Aziraphale curled half over him, stroking Crowley's shoulder.
"Thanksss," panted Crowley, turning his head with an effort. "I needed that."
"My dear, come here," Aziraphale sighed, working up just enough strength to roll onto his back, beckoning. Crowley yawned and followed him, snuggling up in the crook of Aziraphale's arm. His fingers drifted from Aziraphale's collarbone to his bellybutton, lingering.
"As I was saying, it's a bloody wretched season," Crowley yawned.
Gently, Aziraphale pinched the back of his thigh.
"Ow. All right, no more, I get the point."
"I should hope so," murmured Aziraphale, and kissed his forehead.
Much later, Crowley opened his drowsy eyes and pointed to the window.
First thing in the morning, Aziraphale decided, he'd wrap Crowley in the scarf.