Mr. Graves entered his flat and walked into the kitchen, setting his book bag on the island. He carefully pulled out the stolen Wilde, and opened its dusty cover to read the inscription again.
Ezra told him that an ancestor of his had been a close friend of Wilde’s. A first edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol was quite rare, and even more so, a first edition with a personal message from the author himself.
He had a friend who was an acquaintance with a Sotheby’s dealer and this friend had passed along a message to an auctioneer. He would have it auctioned through Sotheby’s and have enough to leave the country, with Christie at his side.
She had played her part well as the poor student. She distracted Ezra with a story about a thesis and a long-awaited stipend, and my, when she summoned those fake tears! And the grateful hug to the kindly bookshoppe owner was just the perfect cherry on top.
Mr. Graves could sell the Kipling book as well, although he wouldn’t get much off it, but a pound is a pound.
He shut the book and turned to check his answering machine. Its red light was blinking and he smirked, knowing who had rung him.
He pressed the Play button.
“Oh...sugar! I hate these things. Sterling, I’m not sure if you can hear me, but I know you have my Oscar Wilde. Please return it to me promptly or I will send the authorities after you--”
He giggled and deleted the message.
The room suddenly became warmer, and then there was a faint sound, like that of a baby’s rattle.
Damn thermostat on the blink again, he thought. Need to have that fixed.
The sound grew louder, however, and he realized it was coming from behind him.
Mr. Graves turned back to the kitchen island and there, on top of the book, was a diamondback rattlesnake, staring into him with glowing yellow eyes. Its tail was straight up in the center of its thick, coiled body and was emitting the low rattle sound with fervor.
He inhaled and held his breath as he backed away to stand against the wall.
This was couldn’t be. A rattlesnake in London? Possibly escaped from a zoo, but still...how did it get in his flat?
He cautiously reached over to his cordless telephone, picked it up from the receiver, and backed out of the kitchen and into the den.
Mr. Graves frantically dialed a number and when it was answered, he whispered, “Hello, yes, I need...well, I need animal control or something...there’s a rattlesnake in my flat and I---yes! I said a rattlesnake! Well, I don’t know how it got in! It’s in my kitchen and--”
The cordless phone grew hot to the touch and he instantly dropped it, but instead of it breaking on the floor, it flew back into its receiver and the phone cord ripped out of the wall.
“Hello?” he called out over the growing volume of the rattle. “Show yourself...whoever is here, show yourself, you bastard!”
The noise ceased and around the corner came a tall, thin man with pale skin and ginger hair that was pulled back into a loose ponytail. His glasses were dark and his frown was deep.
Mr. Graves gasped. “You...I know you…”
With a wave of the man’s bony hand, Mr. Graves was thrown back onto his sofa where he couldn’t move his limbs.
He began to panic. “What the bloody hell is going on? What are you doing in my flat? How did you bloody know where I---”
Crowley sneered and pulled his fingers along his own mouth, as if pulling a zipper, and Mr. Graves’ lips were abruptly glued shut.
He tried to pull against his invisible restraints but he was stiff as a board, and he could only grunt and moan his pitiful protests against his sealed lips.
Crowley cleared his throat and sat in front of Mr. Graves on his antique carved mahogany coffee table.
“Sssso,” he began, in a low voice, “you think I’m shady.”
It wasn’t a question; just a mere acknowledgement, and Mr. Graves stopped grumbling and stared at his captor.
Crowley leaned forward and folded his hands. “Do you often steal rare bookssss from unsuspecting shopkeepers? Or is...Ezra...just extra special to you?”
He leaned in closer and sniffed.
“Funny...that’s not Ezra’s smell. I don’t remember him buying any Gloria Vanderbilt.” He sniffed again. “Ah! I have smelled that somewhere, quite recently...it was in the shoppe today...when your little actress came hopping around, looking for Kipling--no one looks for Kipling, mate!”
Crowley sat up and crossed his arms. “So who is this girl, anyway? The love of your life? So much so that you’re willing to stalk a naive shopkeeper until you have a chance to steal his rare books and stuff the money in a mattress so that you two can take off somewhere?
“Let me ask you something, Sssterling,” he growled. “Is this the first book you’ve taken from Ezra?”
Mr. Graves blinked hard but he didn’t move his head to affirm or deny.
“Here’s an easier one: do you even like men?”
The gentleman’s eyes suddenly cut away from him, making Crowley grunt.
“Ngk. You are despicable.”
He suddenly stood and Mr. Graves whimpered as Crowley plopped down next to him on the sofa, putting an arm around him.
“Then again...you’d do well where I come from. I’ll put in a good word.”
He propped his feet on Mr. Graves’ coffee table.
“Here’s the thing, though: you haven’t stolen just any book, and you haven’t stolen from just any old shopkeep either.”
He clutched a handful of Mr. Graves’ hair and leaned into his ear, making him shake.
“You’ve stolen a rare gift,” Crowley growled, “and you’ve ssstolen...from my angel . ”
Another whimper escaped Mr. Graves and he shut his eyes tight as Crowley gestured over his mouth, unzipping his lips.
He took a quick breath. “I’m sorry!” he declared. “I’ll give the book back, I swear!”
“I don’t trust you, Ssssssterling.” Crowley tutted and rolled his eyes. “Ssssterling…Sssssterling….Gravesssssssss. Is that even your real name?”
“Yes! I swear it! Please don’t hurt me!” He swallowed and found that his throat was dry. “Take the book and don’t hurt me, and please take the snake with you!”
Crowley cocked his head. “What snake?”
“The rattlesnake, for God’s sake! Get it out of my flat!”
“Ohhh,” the demon said, delighted. “Scared of snakes, are we?”
Mr. Graves slowly nodded as his heart pounded.
“Oh, well, you’ve nothing to worry about!” Crowley announced with a smile. “I happen to be quite the charmer...of snakes, mind you.”
Mr. Graves gasped as Crowley jumped off the sofa and glared down at him, his dark glasses staring into his own soul.
His heart beat faster as something slithered out of the far end of the sofa and he rolled his eyes in its direction.
It was a black snake with a grey belly and it oozed out from between the cushions and toward him. He whined and choked back a cry of fear as the snake slid onto his lap and looked up at him with deep black eyes.
It had to have been twice as long as he was tall, and it opened its mouth as it raised itself up to be face to face with him.
“Sssssterling,” Crowley hissed. “Meet the black mamba.”
Mr. Graves’ eyes grew wider as he stared into the snake’s pure black mouth.
“Oh, you’ve heard of her, eh?” Crowley smiled, crossing his arms. “She doesn’t just bite once, did you know that? Black mambas like to play with their prey, and within ten minutes, your blood will boil, your muscles will seize, and within mere hours you go into cardiac arrest.”
He gazed lovingly at the serpent. “Beautiful, isn’t she? One of the most venomous snakes in the world, aren’t you, my darling?”
He stroked the snake’s head and she closed her mouth. She slithered higher up onto Mr. Graves’ chest and over his shoulders where she made herself comfortable, curling the rest of her length tightly around his neck.
His cheeks were now moist with tears and Crowley’s smile disappeared, replaced by another frown.
Crowley leaned into him again, placing both hands on the either side of him to lean onto the sofa until they were nose to nose.
“But,” he whispered, “do you know what’s even deadlier than a black mamba, Sssterling?”
Mr. Graves carefully replied, his chin trembling. “T-two black mambas?”
If he could jump, he would, because Crowley’s sudden and sharp cackle frightened him.
“Oh, Ssssterling! You're a card! No...no, my good man...what’s deadlier than a black mamba…”
He brought a hand to his dark glasses and pulled them off his face.
Mr. Graves’ heart wanted to leap out of his chest as he stared back at glowing yellow eyes, the same he had seen on the rattlesnake.
Crowley gave him a broad smile, opening his mouth and unfolding long, needlelike fangs. A forked tongue leapt out of the smile and Mr. Graves couldn’t breathe.
“...is me. ”
The woman in the flat below heard shrieking, but she chalked it up to the feral tom cats that frequented the alley.
She took a drag from her cigarette and turned up the television.
Hours had gone by since Aziraphale reached out to Crowley over the telephone, and he was now sitting in his chair with a mug of hot cocoa cradled in his hands.
He had spent most of the evening pacing about the shoppe and casting glances at the front door, and before finally sitting down, he had conjured a special glass case with a lock and key and placed his remaining Wildes into it.
Aziraphale stood and took a sip of cocoa before walking from the back room again and into the shoppe to gaze at his now locked away treasures. The empty spot in between the books taunted him and his naivete.
“Oh, Oscar…” he whispered. “Maybe if I hadn’t panicked that night then...well, surely, Crowley could understand why I did. It was different in our day, wasn’t it, my dear? Discreteness was key and that’s---well, I guess that’s stuck with me, hasn’t it? In a way, it’s required in a position like mine.”
He placed his fingertips to the glass. “But it’s different today, mostly. I see couples in the park or out shopping and...I see them holding hands, some of them without fear. Every now and then, they steal a quick kiss while in a crowd. Sure, Crowley and I have been as clandestine as possible, and we’ve been quite fortunate, but, sometimes, I see those couples and I...well, I wish I had their courage.”
He paused and took another sip of cocoa. “I do wish you were still here, Oscar. I could use a witty jab at my nonsense.”
There was a soft knock at the back door and he gasped. He knew it was Crowley with his book, but he couldn’t get his feet to move.
Another knock, louder this time, but Aziraphale wouldn’t budge.
He closed his eyes and the door lock clicked. The door creaked opened and then shut softly, and footsteps slowly entered.
Aziraphale opened his eyes and gripped his warm mug. He cleared his throat.
“In here, dear.”
There was silence before the footsteps sounded again, and he turned away as Crowley’s form rounded the corner of the bookshelf.
He stopped at the end cap and took off his sunglasses. “I, uh...I took care of Graves. He won’t bother you anymore.”
Aziraphale licked his lips. “What did you do?”
“Just scared him a bit,” Crowley explained, “told him to get out of London, and to never deal in books again.”
“You think it worked?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it worked.”
Aziraphale sighed. “Thank you.”
Crowley took a step closer, but then backed away. “I’ll just put it on the counter then.”
Aziraphale turned around. “No, wait. I’d like it in here, please.”
He motioned to the new glass case and Crowley joined him by his side.
“Finally taking my advice, I see,” he said with a small grin.
“Yes, well…” Aziraphale agreed, “it’s a good investment.”
He could feel the demon’s warmth beside him and his arms began to ache.
Crowley opened the glass door and carefully placed the book in its rightful place. After closing it, he finally turned to look at Azirpahale, and the angel’s bright eyes met his.
Crowley could see the redness in them, how distraught the lines in his face were, and he wondered how long he had had them.
Aziraphale wondered, too, when the last time Crowley had properly slept, as there were dark circles forming under his eyes. His human body was accustomed to sleeping regularly, but he could tell that he was denying himself that bit of respite.
“Would you like a drink?” Aziraphale managed to ask through his voice breaking.
Crowley smirked and put his hands in his pocket. “Yeah, alright.”
He followed Aziraphale to the back room, and while the angel was pouring his Scotch, he gazed down at the old sofa for a moment before finally sitting.
“Here you are, dear.”
Crowley took the drink and sipped it. “Mm, thanks.” He set it on the table in front of him and rubbed his hands together as Aziraphale returned to his chair.
They sat there with only thick silence between them until Aziraphale asked, “How’ve you been?”
Crowley couldn’t help but grin at Aziraphale ignoring the obvious, but that was his way.
“Fine, I guess.”
“Been keeping busy, or…”
There was another moment of awkward silence until Aziraphale put down his cocoa mug and stood. He hesitated and then crossed the room to stand in front of Crowley, who did not look up at him but continued to rub his hands.
Aziraphale’s breath hitched and the demon’s eyes began to burn with the start of tears.
“I...I’m sorry. This was all my fault.”
Crowley finally looked at him. “Angel, I don’t blame you for anything.”
“Well, you should!” Aziraphale declared, pulling his handkerchief from his pocket. “I’m such a damned, proud fool, and I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I can’t go on without…”
His voice trailed off and he wiped his eyes.
“Why do you think I wouldn’t forgive you, angel?”
Aziraphale grinned sheepishly. “Oh, well...I didn’t think demons were capable.”
“Just like they’re not capable of love?”
Aziraphale sniffed. “I was wrong, Crowley,” he admitted as he shook his head. “I know you can...I’ve felt it before...many times, from you and...I never knew what...how to handle it, even after all these centuries. Perhaps…”
He paused and wringed the handkerchief. “Perhaps I was so alarmed at my own actions, that...I wanted to make sure you felt it, too...oh, darling, I called you such horrible things!”
Crowley wiped at his left eye. “I know that now, angel,” he said. “I was alarmed, but only about how you reacted. You wanted to make love, Aziraphale; I would never force you into that.”
“I know, dear. I was being selfish.” Aziraphale gave him a sad grin. “Not very angelic of me.”
“I wouldn’t have you any other way, my love.”
He stood from the sofa and took a deep breath as he pulled a folded paper from his blazer pocket.
Aziraphale watched him in silence.
Crowley cleared his throat to stave his coming tears, and he gave a quick glance to his angel before reading:
“The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—”
“Oh...Crowley…” Aziraphale wiped his eyes again as he continued:
“See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?”
Aziraphale let out a soft wail from behind his handkerchief, and Crowley put his arms around him, squeezing him close and cradling the back of his head.
They stood in silence embracing one another, finding relief in their long-awaited touch.
Crowley let the poem fall from his hand and to the floor so that he could pull Aziraphale closer.
“You say I don’t feel love,” he muttered, “but I went to that posh Foyle’s and ripped that out of one of their expensive books for you.”
Aziraphale suddenly laughed aloud against him and this made Crowley smile.
“I’ve missed you, my angel,” he whispered against his cheek.
Aziraphale squeezed him back. “I’m so sorry, love,” he cried. “I was so cruel to you! I didn’t know what I was saying.”
Crowley sighed. “I’m sorry I destroyed your flat.”
The angel grinned. “It was an easy fix, dear.”
“Not for me. A part of me wanted to hurt you, as well. But I couldn’t do it.”
“This is my fault,” Aziraphale said, “and, I put the blame on you…”
Crowley stroked his blonde hair. “Shh, darling.”
The angel sighed against his neck before pulling away and looking into his golden eyes.
Crowley grinned and took his handkerchief from him to wipe Aziraphale’s face.
“I do love you, my angel.”
Aziraphale smiled and cupped Crowley’s cheek.
“And I love you, too,” he told him, his voice trembling.
A tear fell from Crowley’s right eye, but Aziraphale’s thumb swiped it away.
He leaned into him and lightly kissed his lips.
Crowley caressed Aziraphale’s neck as he pulled away. “We can slow this down, if you’d like.”
Aziraphale hesitated, but then nodded. “Well, maybe a bit. Perhaps keep the...well, you know, our intimacy to a minimum. Not that I didn’t enjoy what we did, but...I think it’s best if we stay...near-celibate?”
Crowley smiled again. “I can do that, angel. I would do anything for you, you know?”
“I know for a fact you would, darling.” He took his hand and stroked it. “But...for now, I’d like for you to come upstairs with me.”
Crowley laughed. “Wait, weren’t we just talking about celibacy?”
“ Near -celibacy. And that’s not what I meant by coming upstairs--”
“Oh, angel, I really have missed you,” Crowley teased as he kissed his forehead.
“I just want to hold you.”
Crowley picked up his drink and took his hand. “Lead the way.”
They entered the bedroom and the sky emitted no thunder.
They got into bed and the earth did not split.
Aziraphale held Crowley as he pressed into his side, and their hands rested together on his chest.
The angel felt his light return, and the demon slept peacefully.