It should never have worked.
They were different in every respect. One was Heaven, the other Hell. Crowley had a watch that told the time in twenty-one different countries and was built to withstand pressures that would have given the Kraken itself a dose of the bends. Aziraphale’s watch still had a chain.
Crowley was The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Lou Reed. Aziraphale was Puccini, Sondheim and Boccherini. Crowley was skinny jeans, black leather and pierced ears, while Aziraphale still clung to the belief that tartan was stylish. Crowley was digital. Aziraphale was resolutely analogue, although sometimes Crowley had to admit there was something to be said for analogue. At least with Aziraphale’s collection of old vinyls, you didn’t have to worry about messages from Hell.*
Heaven was a second hand bookshop, where the kettle was always on and Billie Holiday sang crack-throated, tender songs about cigarettes that bore lipstick traces. Heaven smelled like book dust and Darjeeling, and sometimes it pushed its bare toes into your lap, curled them knowingly against your fly, and smiled. Heaven was Aziraphale snoozing on the lumpy couch, with his mouth open, his little round glasses sliding off the end of his nose and an open book face down on the slight pudge of his belly.
The angel had learned how to sleep.
It had taken him about six millenia, but once he’d got the hang of it, he turned out to be very good at it. He had emptied his upstairs bedroom of the ceiling high stacks of books, revealing a walnut Art Nouveau bed frame and an ancient horsehair mattress that smelled, in Crowley’s words “like Seabiscuit probably smells now.”
Crowley had feared Aziraphale was going to hang onto the thing, but the next time he walked into the bedroom the mattress had been replaced by an expensive posturepedic number with countless pocket springs and a thick, squishy layer of memory foam. It was, he had to admit, even better than his own.
“There’s no sense in getting a bad back on top of everything else,” said Aziraphale. “We’re not exactly spring chickens, my dear.”
And so the angel had set about feathering his nest. Crowley had been the one who had turned Aziraphale on to the pleasure of slipping naked between cool sheets, but Aziraphale – sneaky, guilty hedonist that he was – was the one who splurged on the pricey mattress and had the bed frame professionally cleaned until the complicated curves of the old wood shone with the rich patina of precious things. Aziraphale bought creamy-gold coloured sheets with a thread count that would have given a theoretical physicist a headache. He bought memory foam pillows and a thick, fluffy duvet, and scatter cushions that they frequently scattered in their haste to get into bed and get at each other.
Afterwards Aziraphale would sleep, and Crowley would lie awake and watch him, because Aziraphale slept like…well, like an angel. He radiated such an air of perfect contentment that Crowley could have sworn he glowed.
The cynical part of Crowley – the one last part that still felt something about the importance of striking a pose – said this was simply just a symptom of being in love. None of the other parts of Crowley were listening to that part. They were deaf to anything other than the sound of Aziraphale’s voice, especially on those occasions when Aziraphale stopped talking and simply made noises instead.
“It’s all very foolish really,” Aziraphale said, on one of those happy afternoons when he couldn’t be bothered to pretend to run a second hand bookshop and instead decided to rampage through Crowley’s sexual proclivities like they were items on a luxury dessert menu. “Love, I mean. I’ve read almost everything ever written on the subject and when all’s said and done it’s all simply a matter of friction.”
“I know. And it’s fantastic.” He toyed with Crowley’s nipple, pinching it to stiffness. “Simple pleasures of the flesh.” He lowered his head to lick and suck.
“You’re very good at them,” said Crowley, squirming gently.
“Do you think so? I’m so glad. I was hoping I was starting to get the hang of them.”
“Oh yeah,” said Crowley, sighing as Aziraphale headed south. It made a strange kind of sense that Aziraphale – who had spent centuries looking for interesting things to put in his mouth – should have eventually lit on Crowley as another one of those interesting things.
“Just a matter of swelling, when it comes down to it,” said Aziraphale, between licks that Crowley knew meant he would never be able to watch the angel enjoying an ice lolly ever again without thinking of this. “Swelling…” Lick. “And spurting…” Slurp. “And it makes…” ohfuck “…such a mess. And yet it’s sublime.”
“Do The Thing,” said Crowley, clutching the headboard.
Aziraphale raised his head. “I really don’t think I should.”
“Please? You know I love it when you do The Thing.”
“Darling, the last time your earrings melted. Molten silver doesn’t just stain, you know. It went all the way through the memory foam.” Aziraphale shifted back up the bed and settled beside Crowley, his hand replacing his tongue. “Besides, I like all this human stuff. Your body is so interesting. And delicious.” He smiled, watching Crowley shudder. “And it likes me. It’s like eating a filet mignon that somehow reciprocates your feelings towards it.”
“All right,” said Crowley, sitting up. “If that’s not an invitation to sixty-nine, I don’t know what the fuck is. Come on. You can have the pillow end.”
Afterwards they dozed, and Crowley – to his everlasting delight – got to be the little spoon. Aziraphale curled Crowley’s chest hair between his fingertips, his breaths slow and deep against the back of Crowley’s shoulder. “What time is it, anyway?” he said, stifling a yawn.
Crowley reached out and glanced at his watch on the bedside table. “October,” he said. “Almost November.”
“Oh dear. I feel like I’ve been almost continuously naked since June.”
“You have,” said Crowley, rolling over.
Aziraphale’s eyes lit up. “Have I been a very bad angel?”
“Appalling. Absolutely disgusting.”
“Tell me.” Aziraphale snuggled in, stealing kisses.
“You’ve been a very naughty principality. Your sexual curiosity would make a succubus blush, and I should know – I was a succubus for a while.”
“How do I compare to a Renaissance pope?”
“Pfft. Amateur night, compared to you. You’d have the Borgias taking notes. You’re a filthy, depraved little pervert…” Crowley broke character and laughed, amused by the angel’s rapture. “You get such a kick of this, don’t you?”
“I can’t help it. You have no idea how good it feels to be a little bit bad. It was like that time with the bathtub. On one hand I was terrified that they’d somehow guess what we’d done, and on the other hand it was incredibly liberating to just…be you.”
Aziraphale had always had low-key theatrical ambitions. In some other universe, one where he actually was a second hand bookseller instead of an angel pretending to be one, Crowley felt sure he was a member of at least one amateur dramatics society.
“It was the performance of a lifetime,” said Aziraphale. “You should have seen it. I threatened to splash them and everything.”
“I’m sorry I missed it.”
“You know, I never did ask you what mischief you got up to when you went Upstairs.”
“Well, obviously I farted in the lift,” said Crowley, convulsing Aziraphale.
“Is that all?”
“What do you mean, is that all? If a demon farts in your lift, that lift stays farted in for several centuries. You’re not getting that out with a bit of Febreze.” Aziraphale looked unimpressed. Crowley lifted a cheek. “Don’t make me demonstrate.”
“Don’t you dare,” said Aziraphale, swatting him with a scatter cushion. “Not in our bed.”
Crowley’s heart did a sudden and unexpected impression of butter in a microwave oven. “Our bed?”
Aziraphale softened and turned quietly pink. “Well, you know…” he said, vaguely waving a hand around the bedroom. “Before all this I just used to use this as another place to stack books. This bed was standing around collecting dust. I really only made it presentable on your account, so…” He went even pinker and snuggled close. “I suppose that makes it ours, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” said Crowley, and his voice came out high and tight. He nosed in even closer and found Aziraphale’s lips, trying to make his kiss say all the things that were just too big for words. “I suppose so.”
Sometimes they went to Crowley’s place, but it wasn’t the same. Crowley’s bed was big and modern and expensive. It was the kind of place where a millionaire rock band manager or stockbroker was supposed to rest his money hungry, coke-addled head at night, and it suited Aziraphale like a pair of PVC trousers and a nose ring. You don’t belong here, Crowley wanted to say, when the angel was lying beside him, flushed and fluffy and rumpled from yet another toe-curling, wall-shaking sexual experiment. And yet that wasn’t right, either, because Aziraphale did belong here. He must have done, because otherwise Crowley would never have gone to the trouble of lugging an entire church lectern to his flat as a…a memento? He wasn’t even sure himself any more.
“Do you like this place?” Crowley asked, one time, when the puzzle of his own discomfort had become nearly unbearable. “This flat, I mean?”
Aziraphale hesitated. “Your kitchen is magnificent,” he said, diplomatically. “And I didn’t even know you could cook.”
“I can’t,” said Crowley, feeling stupid and unaccountably sad all of a sudden. Aziraphale was right there beside him in the bed, where Crowley had always wanted him, but all Crowley could think about how he’d looked that night when they hatched their plan to foil the forces of both Heaven and Hell. Poor angel had been scared stiff, and it had showed. And not only scared, but bereft, too. Those books had meant so much to him and his palpable sense of loss had made the elegant minimalist spaces of Crowley’s flat look nothing less than bleak.
Crowley lay there for a while on the crisp, white sheets, unable to get that picture out of his head. Aziraphale, perched stiffly in the middle of Crowley’s uncomfortable, expensive couch, clutching a glass of sixteen year old Lagavulin like it was a life preserver. Out of place and out of sorts.
What if we’re just too different?
As soon as the thought occurred to him, Crowley wanted to beat it to death with a hammer and stuff it into the waste disposal unit, but then Aziraphale stirred from his doze and everything was bliss again. If watching an angel sleep was fascinating, watching him wake was a revelation. At the first shiver of an eyelash, Crowley was there, watching, gazing, tracing the shape of Aziraphale’s parted lips with the tip of his finger. Half asleep, Aziraphale began to suck, first reflexively, then – as his eyes flickered open – more deliberately, as though he were trying to learn the lines of Crowley’s fingerprints with the end of his tongue. Beneath the covers, his hand fumbled its way to Crowley’s cock, working slowly but with a touch that had become practised with startling speed. That was the thing with Aziraphale: under that slightly dotty façade was a fierce angelic intellect, and he learned fast.
“Do you think,” he said, his hand working smoothly and the tip of his nose touching Crowley’s. “You could do that thing with your tongue again? The one where it feels like it’s wrapped all the way around me?”
“You know there’s a reason why it feels that way, don’t you?” said Crowley, pushing with his hips. “Next time, look down. It’s only fair. I’ve been watching you stuff your face for centuries, after all.”
Aziraphale quietly clicked his tongue. “Such filth,” he whispered, pretending to be prissy, as though he hadn’t fucked Crowley on almost every available surface in the bookshop. He’d even – and this was the real shocker – cleared some new ones.
Crowley returned to loafing around the bookshop.
Aziraphale didn’t mind loafing. If anything, he passively encouraged it. Crowley’s somewhat sinister presence was an excellent customer deterrent, so Crowley obligingly loafed. Sometimes he made tea. Other times he read restaurant reviews in the newspaper and made dinner plans, and on other occasions he practised throwing darts at a dusty board he’d uncovered in the depths of an unspecified section that – going by the eclectic contents of the shelves – could just have easily been Geology as it could have been Witchcraft.
But most of the time he simply loafed.
Every now and again he’d catch Aziraphale looking at him, which was still extraordinary to him. Six thousand years and somehow they weren’t sick of the sight of each other yet. Stranger yet, they’d discovered a whole new language of looks that they had never had before. There was expectant one that usually meant Aziraphale wanted Crowley to put the kettle on, then there was the impish I-can’t-believe-what-we-did-last-night look, and then there was the one that Aziraphale had given Crowley shortly before he’d hooked two fingers under Crowley’s belt and dragged him behind the Travel section.
Despite Aziraphale’s best efforts, a customer had drifted in from the street. The young man – tight jeans, bad tattoos, reek of bubblegum vape juice – had been hovering around the Seamus Heaneys for some time now. Aziraphale, nose deep in the Decameron, sat wearing his best second-hand-book-seller expression, a combination of mild annoyance and withering disdain for whatever selection the customer brought to the desk. From long experience, Crowley knew exactly how this worked. No matter how rare or interesting or obscure the volume, Aziraphale would greet their selection with the same degree of exhausted contempt as he would have done if they’d walked up to the cash register with a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Crowley, who had just finished making a cup of tea, slunk over to where Aziraphale was sitting. The young man gave Crowley a quick once over. Aziraphale, who had been radiating disdain at a higher frequency than usual, laid a proprietory hand on Crowley’s bum. “Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?” he said, in tones of desolate boredom.
“Just…just browsing,” said the customer, and sidled out of the door.
Crowley blinked, grateful that his sunglasses at least partially concealed his astonishment. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“You just grabbed my arse.”
“He’s been in here before,” said Aziraphale. “Looking at you. And I thought it was high time he knew that you were my boyfriend.”
Crowley swung a leg over Aziraphale and slithered into his lap. “Boyfriend?”
“Yes. I think so. I mean, that’s what…what other people have called you in the past. What else would you be?”
“Not a boy,” said Crowley. “I’m over six thousand years old.”
“So am I. But what else was I going to say? ‘Please stop ogling the six thousand year old entity with the wiggly hips and the sunglasses. He’s mine.’”
“Works for me, although don’t get me wrong – I did enjoy the arse grab.” Crowley, straddling Aziraphale’s lap like a dancer in the kind of gentlemen’s club where nobody learned to gavotte, removed his sunglasses. “Sort of enjoying the whole boyfriend thing, too, while we’re on the subject.” Aziraphale’s lips were still hot from the tea he’d been sipping. Crowley grabbed a handful of blond curls and held him there, snaking his tongue into the warmest depths of Aziraphale’s mouth. “Do you want to stop pretending to run a bookshop for a bit?”
“Do you want to take me upstairs and make me come?”
Aziraphale, his glasses skew-whiff on the end of his nose, licked his lips. “Tempting.”
“No. Tempting is subtle. I’m not subtle. I’m in your lap.” Crowley wriggled. “What are you up to, anyway?”
“A new translation of the Decameron,” said Aziraphale.
“Yes.” Aziraphale removed his glasses, which were beginning to steam up. “It’s one of those things I always wanted to do, but I was always too busy with our little arrangement. Didn’t you have those things you wanted to?”
“Hm…yeah. There was the thing with the Golden—”
“—Syrup. Yes, I know how much you wanted to do that. But don’t tell me you’ve been wanting to do that for centuries, because they didn’t even have squeezy bottles back then.”
Crowley shifted his weight and perched on the edge of the table in front of Aziraphale. “I’m sure I did,” he said. “Now that I think of it I had lots and lots of things I would rather have been doing than doing what I was supposed to be doing, but you know what the weird thing is?”
“You can’t remember any of them?”
“Yeah. Exactly. Drawing a complete blank.”
“Yes, it’s one of the perils of retirement, I’m told,” said Aziraphale.
“I think we might be. Let’s face it, we are a bit long in the tooth.”
“No, fuck that,” said Crowley, getting up from the table and pacing. “I’m not retired. I’m…resting. And I’m not that old.” He passed an old speckled Georgian mirror and peered nervously into it, patting the scant flesh under his chin. “I look all right with it, don’t I?”
“Not a day over two thousand, darling.”
Crowley raised a middle finger. Aziraphile just smiled.
“The important thing is to keep your mind active,” the angel said, turning the page. “Cultivate new hobbies.”
“What? Like sex?”
“Well, yes. But I’m sure there are other things you could do.” He waved a hand around the shop. “You could always read.”
“Nah. I don’t read books.”
“I don’t know. Just never…had time.”
“You have time now,” said Aziraphale. “Try it. I’ve tried new things, like sleep. And rampant fornication.”
“You’re very good at them, for what it’s worth,” said Crowley, idly examining the spines of the books in front of him. L’Art de la Cuisine Francaise. A dull spark of something like inspiration flickered at the back of his mind, but it was swiftly extinguished by the hope that he might be able to persuade Aziraphale to come upstairs for a spot of – if not rampant, then at the very least energetic – fornication.
But Aziraphale had his glasses back on, and was smiling seraphically into the pages of one of the several volumes piled up on the desk. Crowley’s throat did something strange and lumpy.
What if we’re just too different?
The thought popped into his head again, and this time it came with reinforcements, like What If It Doesn’t Work? and What I’ve Just Set The One Meaningful Relationship I’ve Ever Had On A Course To Certain Disaster?
Crowley shook himself like a dog that had just had a bath, slunk back out of the cookery section and over to the desk. “All right,” he said, picking up a book. “What’s this all about then?”
“It’s Boccaccio. You’ll like it. It’s very funny.”
“I like funny.”
“I know you do,” said Aziraphale. “I know you like television but…”
Crowley groaned. “Please don’t give me that tired old line about books being better than television, because there’s no limit to your imagination.”
“I wasn’t going to,” said Aziraphale. “I was going to say this is better than television because demons can’t come on the screen and start telling you the ways in which they’re going to melt your face from your skull.”
“Right.” Of course he was. “Analogue.”
Crowley picked up the book.
That was how they started reading in bed.
After finding the Decameron as funny as advertised, Crowley was forced to admit that some good things had happened in the fourteenth century after all. Even better than that was the frank and wholesome delight Aziraphale took in Crowley’s enjoyment of something that he liked, and so Crowley dipped into Dante and paddled around in Petrarch until the pile of books on his side of the bed almost rivalled Aziraphale’s.
He kept drifting back to the cookery section for some reason, perhaps haunted by the ghost of his vast, empty, expensive kitchen, in which no food had ever been prepared. While Aziraphale sat purring with pleasure over his medieval Italian, Crowley puzzled over the unfortunate things that had happened to gelatin in the previous century, or worked his way through the lengthy works of Careme. Sometimes they sat tucked up side by side like an old married couple. Other times, like tonight, Aziraphale – pinkly naked in nothing but his glasses – lay stretched out on his stomach with his feet in the air. A box of chocolates lay open on the bed between them. Aziraphale had bought them for Crowley and Crowley still wasn’t entirely sure what to do with that gesture. He’d bought Aziraphale chocolates before, but he’d spent so long chasing Aziraphale that it hadn’t even occurred to him that one day the angel might turn around and chase him right back.
Aziraphale glanced at the card that came with the chocolates. “Cherry in Kirsch,” he said. “Is that one of your special favourites?”
“Why? Do you want it?”
“No. Not if you do.”
“Oh, don’t do this,” said Crowley. “Otherwise we’ll get into an endless argument about who wants it or doesn’t want it. Just eat the damned chocolate.”
“Eat it,” said Crowley, tapping him lightly on his dimpled behind.
“No. You like the ones with alcohol in them. I know you do.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“I was being polite.”
Crowley leaned back on the pillows and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
Aziraphale reached for the card again. “Orange creme,” he said.
“Have at it,” said Crowley, shuddering. “Can’t stand them. That was your lot, and I know it.”
Aziraphale glanced over his shoulder. “It was not,” he said, with every appearance of genuine offence.
“Really? I always thought orange cremes would be right up Heaven’s street. Sickly sweet and not remotely concerned with good taste.”
“Absolutely not. I always thought they were yours.”
“As if,” said Crowley. “I’m a demon, not a complete monster.” He glared at the orange creme. It turned into a cherry in Kirsch, and he ate it, wondering why the solution hadn’t occurred to him up until now.
He reached for The Joy Of Cooking and opened it up. A folded piece of paper slid out. Crowley recognised it at once. It was the same pale cream paper that Aziraphale had been making his notes on. If Aziraphale had heard Crowley open the note, he gave no indication that he’d done so. He went on reading, swinging a bare foot back and forth behind him.
Crowley blinked several times, trying to bring the lines on the page into focus. The light fittings began to shake and Aziraphale glanced up. “Crowley?”
Crowley blinked again. “Did you…?” he said, feeling lightheaded. “Did you write me a fucking sonnet?”
“Yes.” Aziraphale sat up. “Oh dear. Did I do it wrong?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realise you’d get so emotional.” He wiped Crowley’s cheeks with his hands. The bed shook. “Deep breaths. That’s it. Let it out. Don’t want to shut the whole Northern Line down for a week. Again.”
“I’m okay,” said Crowley, getting a hold of himself. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Poor you. You do have a lot of feelings, don’t you?”
“I do when people write me sonnets in medieval fucking Italian,” said Crowley, admiring the rhyme scheme. “Petrarchan, too.”
“Did I do it right? I’m still getting the hang of this whole…courting thing.”
“Yes,” said Aziraphale, utterly guileless. “I think that’s what I’m doing. I know you’ve been doing it for a lot longer than me and you’re much better at it…”
“Angel, if you get any better at it, we’re going to have to move to Outer Mongolia. Permanently.”
“I know it’s foolish of me,” said Aziraphale. “And I’m not even a very good poet, but I think love should be a little bit silly now and again. It can’t all be flasks of holy water and daring escapes from the guillotine, can it?”
“You can be as silly as you damn well like. I don’t mind at all.”
The next day Crowley, still feeling somewhat shaken, left his angel sleeping and went back to his own place in Mayfair, if only to be sure that it was still standing.
The heavily traumatised houseplants had killed themselves. Dust had settled on the shiny glass table tops and on top of his expensive stereo. He wandered from room to room, gathering up the dead plants, drifting past all the valuable and sentimental things he’d collected over the centuries – the genuine Leonardo, the suggestive statue, the lectern he’d taken from a bombed church in the Blitz.
He went into the bedroom, where he’d left the bed unmade in his haste to get back to Our Bed. A white feather, shed in a moment of near-seismic passion, lay on the modish, charcoal coloured rug. Crowley sat down on the bed and buried his face in the sheets, trying to find the scents of tea and antique books and warm, squishy angel flesh, but of course they were long gone by now.
Once again he thought of Aziraphale, sitting stiff and frightened on the uncomfortable, expensive couch. And finally he identified the emotion that had been chasing him for so long. Embarrassment. Shame. The kind of concentrated cringe that occurs when someone who knows you – really, truly knows you – catches you out in your affectations.
This whole flat was an affectation. Out of the handful of things that really meant something to him, most of them were there because they reminded him of Aziraphale.
Feeling faintly queasy, Crowley went into the kitchen. The place had become accustomed to his absence and everything perishable in the fridge had turned into a science project. Stomach churning in earnest now, Crowley extracted a couple of bottles of excellent champagne and resolved to take them home.
All of a sudden, he needed a drink. He opened one of the bottles and the convivial pop of the cork rang out loud and sarcastic in the cold, empty kitchen. Had the place always looked so bloody bleak?
“It’s fine,” he said, out loud. “Just looks different without the plants. Be much better when I get some new ones in. Better ones. Ones that do as they’re told. Then you’ll be sorry.”
He addressed the last to the corpse of a swiss cheese plant on the kitchen island, but it had long since joined the choir invisible, or the plant equivalent thereof.
“Your kitchen is magnificent,” Aziraphale had said. “And I didn’t even know you could cook.”
Funny that Aziraphale had never learned how to cook, either. Crowley assumed Aziraphale had a kitchen somewhere, but like most of the rooms in his place it had been swallowed by the steady acquisition of books. The closest thing Aziraphale had to a kitchen was a galley sized back room in which there was a kettle and a small fridge for pastries and sandwiches. Strange that a being who so loved to eat should have been so unconcerned about the mysteries of how food came into being.
Crowley, on the other hand, had bought just about everything. He had Le Creuset pans and five different kinds of blenders, depending on what kind of smoothies were currently in vogue. Not that he’d ever drank a smoothie in his life, or had any inclination to do so, but a state of the art blender felt like the kind of thing that Antony J. Crowley should have in his flat.
“Pretentious,” he muttered, as he glugged his champagne. “Pretentious. Moi.”
He looked around the kitchen in desperation, trying to find something that meant anything to him, and lit on a set of unused Sabatier knives. These he actually liked. They had clean, sharp edges and called to mind words like flensing, words that made the demon part of him curl its toes and shiver happily, like a peckish angel sinking his teeth into a Portuguese custard tart.
Crowley took the knives and the wine and headed back to Soho, making a small detour to pick up some Portuguese custard tarts on his way back to the shop. Aziraphale was somewhere. His glasses were on the desk and his notes on Boccaccio were spread out all over the table.
After a moment or two he wandered in, frowning. “Caro,” he said. “Hai visto i miei occhiali?”**
“Sulla scrivania,” said Crowley, pointing to the desk.
Aziraphale fluttered and retrieved his glasses. “Ooh. Italian. Crowley, how nice.”
“You started it.”
“Did I? Sorry. I was so caught up in Boccaccio. I got to the Friar’s Tale, do you remember?”
Crowley laughed. “The one where he convinces the woman that the Angel Gabriel is in love with her?”
“Yes. And pretends to be Gabriel so that he can have his way with her. Can you imagine?”
“Nope.” Crowley flopped onto the lumpy couch and tried to picture it. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around how the Annunciation went down. I mean, they sent him?”
“I have to admit,” said Aziraphale. “I was always confused by that particular policy decision.”
“Seriously,” said Crowley, rummaging around in the bakery bag. He plastered an ingratiating grin to his face and imitated Gabriel’s perky, abrasive cadence. “‘Hi, terrified teenage girl. You have been chosen to bear the son of God. And for some reason they sent me, the one with the personality that’s a cross between a game show host and a bucket of sand.’”
Aziraphale reeled over to the couch in hysterics. “My dear, you are savage. That’s him to the life.” He sat down, his upturned nose already twitching at the contents of the bakery bag. “What have you got there?”
Crowley opened the bag. “Portuguese custard tarts,” he said. “Open wide.”
He stuffed a custard tart into Aziraphale’s mouth and leaned down to remove his boots. Thin winter sunlight trickled reluctantly through the bookshop windows. Dust motes danced. Crowley tried to think back to a time where he would have protested that the presence of so many books gave him a headache, but he couldn’t do it. Over the years this place had become a kind of sanctuary to them both, a place where they could fraternise, drink themselves witless and do rude impressions of their superiors.
He tried to imagine his flat burning down the way the bookshop had burned. He would have been slightly annoyed by the loss of the Mona Lisa, but that was about it. Once he might have been devastated by the idea of losing the eagle shaped lectern that reminded him of a dark night that smelled of explosives, when the angel had looked at him with love in his eyes.
But not so much now. Sentimental reminders paled compared to the real thing.
Aziraphale pulled Crowley’s feet into his lap. He glanced at Crowley’s bag and spotted the handles sticking out. “Knives?” he said. “What did you bring those for?”
“They’re good knives. The ones in your kitchen are crap.”
Aziraphale frowned. “I wasn’t aware I had a kitchen.”
“You’re barely aware you have a flat. It’s more of a sort of literary oubliette.”
“I know. I’m very lazy. Force of habit, I’m afraid. I can’t keep a place nice like you do.”
Crowley shook his head. “Nah. My place is nice because I only sort of existed in it now and again. It wasn’t…lived in.”
“Oh, don’t say that. It’s very…elegant. And your beautiful houseplants. How are they?”
“Dead,” said Crowley. “Mass suicide. Like one of those space cults where they think they’re going to hitch a ride on a passing comet.”
“Meh. It used to be an outlet for me – screaming at philodendrons. And now I’m…I don’t know. Different.”
“Is that a good thing?” said Aziraphale.
“Of course it’s a good thing. I have you.”
Aziraphale sat quietly for a moment, massaging the balls of Crowley’s feet. “Look at us,” he said. “Talking about our feelings.”
“I know. It’s very worrying.”
There was another brief hush. Aziraphale’s eyes lingered too long on the knife handles, and Crowley wondered if that was why he didn’t seem to have anything sharper than a butter knife in what passed for his kitchen. The last time Aziraphale had been entrusted with a blade he had – with only the very best of intentions – caused an unholy amount of trouble.
“Do you think they’ll come for us, eventually?” he said, in a small voice.
“Oh, sooner or later,” said Crowley.
“When they do they’ll try to use us against each other. Again.”
“Whatever happens, Crowley, I want you to know that this time with you—”
“—I know. I know, angel.”
Aziraphale lifted Crowley’s legs off his lap and stood up. “Come on,” he said, holding out a hand. “Come with me.”
Hand in hand, they walked up the book encrusted stairs. Crowley was already thinking ahead to the bedroom, to how he might use his hands and tongue and body to assure Aziraphale that their love meant everything to him. He was surprised when Aziraphale stopped short in front of the kitchen door.
It was a far cry from Crowley’s immaculate steel and granite kitchen. Every available surface was covered in books. Books almost completely obscured the window, so that the scant natural light came in through the pigeon-spattered glass roof of an old Victorian extension.
“Right,” said Aziraphale, decisively. “Where do you think I should start?”
Crowley, his arms around Aziraphale’s waist, sucked his teeth in thought. “I think you should take the books out of the oven,” he said.
“Good idea. Let me find the broom.”
Crowley prowled into the kitchen. Once more he felt that fragile, guttering spark of inspiration. There was potential here. So the overhead pulleys meant to hold pans had been repurposed as book holders, but it only took a tiny bit of imagination to picture his Le Creuset pans dangling from them. Room for a kitchen island, too. Maybe something really flash with a central hob and a shiny steel extractor hood. New worktops. Black granite. A whole new floor.
A sickly looking aloe stood on the windowsill. It was supposed to have been green with white spots, but it was yellow. The spots were grey. Crowley took off his sunglasses and blinked at it in much the way a bored cat blinks at a small, caged bird. He hissed. The plant quivered.
“Well, well, well,” he said. “Look who’s not been pulling their weight…”
Some old habits died harder than others.
“I don’t see why we can’t just miracle it,” said Aziraphale. He had long since given up what he was supposed to be doing and now lay sweaty and irritable on the floor of the hallway.
“Because I thought we were trying to keep the miracles down to a minimum. Easier to keep our heads down, you said.”
Aziraphale moaned. “I know, but really? Where on earth is this bit supposed to go?” He held up an indeterminate thing that had been a whole lot less indeterminate before Aziraphale had gone through all of Crowley’s carefully organised bits and pieces and mixed them all up.
“It’s in the book,” said Crowley, through gritted teeth.
“It is not in the book. The book doesn’t even have any writing.”
“It doesn’t have to have any writing. That’s the point. You can follow the instructions in any language.”
“It’s fu…it’s ridiculous,” said Aziraphale, sitting up and glaring at the book. “Why am I even doing this?”
“Because it’s a two man job,” said Crowley, pointing to the line drawing of two little men smiling at each other. One had a hammer, the other had a pencil behind his ear. “Come on. Surely a being of your intellect can figure that part out.”
“Maybe. But we’re not technically men.”
Crowley took the pencil from behind his ear and drew wings on both of the figures. “Better?”
Aziraphale looked like he very much wanted to swear. “This was you, wasn’t it?” he said. “IKEA instructions?”
Crowley grinned. He always liked to take credit for bad work.
“I knew it,” said Aziraphale. “Driving people slowly insane with affordable Swedish furniture. Of course it had to be you.”
“Look, you were the one who said I should get a hobby.”
“Yes, but this?”
“You have too many books and not enough shelves. This is a shelvi—”
Aziraphale held up a hand. “—Crowley, so help me God, if you use the words ‘shelving solution’ in my presence I will not be held responsible for my actions.”
“Look,” said Crowley. “It’s very simple. It’s just that bit and that bit and then you need those screws and…wait, where are the screws?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere.”
“What have you done?”
“What have I done?”
“I had all the bits laid out in order. And you went and muddled it all up…”
“Me?” said Aziraphale. “But why do you assume it was me?”
“Because I know it wasn’t me. Oh, for fuck’s sake. I have no idea where anything is now. It’d take a fucking mira—”
And suddenly there was an affordable Swedish bookcase standing against the wall of the hallway.
“I don’t care,” said the angel, unrepentant. “I was this close to saying a rude word. And look, I broke a nail.”
Crowley leaned forward to inspect the damage. “Poor baby,” he said, kissing the tip of Aziraphale’s finger. He caught Aziraphale’s eyes and couldn’t resist, nibbling gently and sucking the finger into his mouth.
Aziraphale, who knew very well what that look meant, shook his head. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m not doing The Thing now. I’d probably only flood you with heavenly wrath, and I know you wouldn’t enjoy that.”
“You’re not wrathful, angel. You’re just…annoyed.”
“Heavenly annoyance, then. It still wouldn’t be pleasant.”
“I’ll take my chances. You haven’t done The Thing in ages.”
“I’m not doing it now,” said Aziraphale. “I’m in entirely the wrong mood. Besides, now that we’ve built that bookcase we need to fill it.” He sighed. “Really, my dear – I don’t know why you’re so set on doing all of this the human way.”
“Because I like it,” said Crowley. “And you do, too. No, don’t look at me like that. You enjoyed picking out all those things you got for the bedroom. Feathering your little nest. You loved it.”
“I suppose I did.”
“I know you did,” said Crowley, and got up from the floor. “Come here. I want to show you something.” He led the somewhat grumpy angel to the kitchen doorway. “Look.”
“At what? The kitchen? I know what my kitchen looks like. Well, sort of.”
“Look again,” said Crowley. “Use your imagination. Imagine new cabinets. Dark oak. Glass fronts.” He stepped into the kitchen, in the newly cleared space, with its peeling old linoleum and disturbed banks of thick dust. “Put in an island, just here. Granite worktops. Central hob. A double oven, with no books in either of them.” He waved to the ancient pantry cupboard. “Temperature controlled wine room. Big fuck-off fridge, full of all your favourite sexy desserts. New toaster. One with no moths in it. New tiles, new plumbing. Can you see it yet?”
Aziraphale joined him in the kitchen. Yes, he could see it. It was written all over his face. Little hearts were blooming in the centre of his pupils once again. “And what about you?” he said, hooking two fingers under Crowley’s waistband. “Where will you be in this picture?”
Something seismic was occurring, and not in the usual, literal way. Crowley wasn’t completely sure what it was, but it was big. He lowered his head, pressing his forehead against Aziraphale’s, his hands on Aziraphale’s face. “I’ll be wherever you want me to be,” he said.
Aziraphale leaned in and up. His lips were warm and soft. Almost everything about him was soft. Soft mouth, soft tongue, soft curls, the soft squish of his belly pushing Crowley backwards against the sink.
“I love you,” he said, his eyes bright.
“I know. I love you, too.”
His fingers were at work on Crowley’s fly, unzipping and sliding inside. His hands were soft, too, his grip firm but gentle as he pulled Crowley free of his jeans. Crowley moaned into the kiss and tugged at the angel’s blond curls, already thinking ahead to how it was going to be, just like this, up against the kitchen sink, sweaty and human and tender. But then – between breaths – Aziraphale reached up and knowingly ran the tip of his index finger along Crowley’s jaw, finding the corner of his mouth and stroking along the length of his lower lip.
“No,” said Crowley, shuddering into the touch of his other hand. “Don’t tease me. Don’t tell me you’re going to do The Thing unless you’re really going to do it.”
“I am,” said Aziraphale. “Kneel. You know your knees always give out.”
Crowley obediently dropped to his knees in front of the kitchen sink. Aziraphale was making quite a tent of the front of his trousers but The Thing always made Crowley oblivious, ravenous and shamelessly selfish. He swayed on his knees, his eyes fixed on the tip of Aziraphale’s finger, his tongue halfway out of his mouth.
“Now,” whispered Aziraphale and touched his finger to the tip of Crowley’s waiting tongue.
The first time he’d had done this, it had been an accident. And he’d almost set fire to Crowley. In a heated moment, they’d touched hands and a torrent of heavenly love had come pouring out of the angel and into Crowley, who – being a demon – had been left literally smoking by the encounter. Later, they swapped notes. “Mine doesn’t work like that,” Crowley had said. “When I tempt someone I let it all out in a trickle, not a tidal wave. Slow and steady. That’s the way it works for me.”
And so Aziraphale, once again learning at a speed that made Crowley dizzy, had figured out how to trickle.
It flowed slowly from Aziraphale’s fingertip. They had tried doing it mouth to mouth at first but it had proved too much and they had almost set the bookshop on fire again. This was how they did it now, the end of a finger, the end of a tongue, a narrow bottleneck of contact through which Aziraphale could slowly pour his love.
Crowley held the fingertip between his teeth and reached up with both hands to hold it in place. Golden heat melted over his tongue and down his throat, filling his belly and pooling in his balls. His first orgasm burst out of him and he felt it in the centre of his brain like a great sudden feathery unfolding of wings. “Gently, my love,” Aziraphale said, his other hand tight in Crowley’s hair. “Gently.”
But it was no good. Crowley fastened on the finger in his mouth and sucked for all he was worth. Heavenly love was a heady enough pleasure for a demon denied the light for six thousand years, but Aziraphale’s love now came with several huge heaped side dishes of heavenly lust.
And Aziraphale was good at lust. Okay, so he’d spent the best part of six millenia taking his unlabelled fleshy yearnings out on baked goods, but as soon as he had a willing naked demon in his bed, he’d got the hang of lust almost immediately. Where there had once been a pure stream of heavenly love was now a tarnished gold trickle of emotions informed by Aziraphale’s most private and intense feelings about Crowley.
Crowley moaned as he saw himself astride the angel, snaking his hips round and round and up and down. He saw his face flushed against the pillows as he hitched his feet higher in the air. He felt himself from the inside, the way Aziraphale felt him, tight and hot and hungry, and tasted parts of his body he never thought he’d be able to reach without actually changing shape or spending the best part of a century learning yoga. He was loved. He was desired. He was the object of an angel’s lust.
He looked up into Aziraphale’s eyes and saw a flash of alarm there. For the first time in who knew how long, something was sizzling in Aziraphale’s kitchen: it was Crowley.
“Slow down,” Aziraphale said, but Crowley was coming again, the climax sweeping up from the base of his spine, swelling under his ribs and – as it exploded from him – making him cry out. Aziraphale pulled his hand away, breaking the connection. The linoleum beneath Crowley’s knees was melting, but Crowley wasn’t done. Gasping, he tore open Aziraphale’s trousers, yanked them down to his knees and – opening his throat – swallowed the angel whole.
It caught Aziraphale off-guard. His breath came out in a soft, surprised “Oh,” and he swayed far enough on his feet to have to reach out and grab the edge of the sink behind Crowley. He was hard enough to burst and the eager, brackish taste of him made something dark and dirty rise up and snarl in Crowley.
“Do it,” Crowley said, coming up for air for a second. “Pull my hair. Fuck my mouth. I know you want to.”
Most of the time Aziraphale approached sex with the bright, candid curiosity of the unfallen, but Crowley – who was all too accustomed to rummaging around in the darkest corners of the id – knew that sometimes all Aziraphale wanted was permission to be filthy. He gave it now, with his forked tongue and his bottomless throat and his fingertips digging into the flesh of Aziraphale’s thrusting hips. And he trickled, releasing a slow, sticky black stream of delicious guilt.
…bad angel dirty angel drawers round your knees and your cock in a demon’s mouth and you’re pulling his hair and yes you want it yes you do you shameful thing wanna come in his mouth don’t you you…
Crowley smiled around his mouthful and swallowed. Aziraphale shuddered and sagged, his fingers relaxing in Crowley’s hair. His knees trembled and Crowley kept going, licking him clean past the point where he winced and withdrew. Aziraphale sank to the floor alongside him and they lay there on the partly melted linoleum for a long while, exchanging kisses as their panting breaths slowed. Crowley’s eyes stung and he wasn’t completely sure that it was something to do with the smell of burning flooring. Whenever Aziraphale did The Thing he always felt a little fragile afterwards, like he’d been shaken up and rearranged and wasn’t quite sure how all the pieces fit together afterwards.
“I’m an idiot,” he said. “How can I even question how you feel about me when you can do that?”
“Well, I can’t do it all the time,” said Aziraphale. “If I did we’d have to keep replacing the linoleum.”
“Linoleum? No, no. Think bigger. I’m thinking marble. Welsh slate.”
“You know what I mean,” said Aziraphale, making a token effort at tidying himself up. “You’re the one who keeps talking about how satisfying it is to do things the human way. And humans don’t do The Thing. They write each other poetry. Buy chocolates. Send flowers…”
“…suck each other off until their eyes roll back in their heads?”
“Also that, yes.” He gave one of those slightly flustered, incredulous little post-sex smiles that made Crowley’s toes curl. “The things you can do with your mouth…”
“Well, one doesn’t like to brag, but when you have a long tongue and no gag reflex…seems a pity not to put it to use.” Crowley discreetly miracled a charred stain from the collar of Aziraphale’s shirt. “But does this mean you’re not going to do The Thing again?”
“No. I’ll still do it now and again,” said Aziraphale, wrinkling his nose. The smell really was quite awful. “Just…not where there’s linoleum.”
“No, fair enough.”
“I love you very much, but I’m afraid even I can’t find the smell of melted linoleum erotic by association.”
The kitchen was still a work in progress by the time Crowley’s impatience got the better of him and pushed him to do the thing he’d been quietly wanting to do for some time.
He was cooking.
Nothing fancy. His first experiments, conducted in deepest secrecy in the kitchen of his flat, had been catastrophic. It turned out that keeping an eye on about four different things at once – all variously baking, simmering, toasting and marinading – was a lot more complicated than it seemed. And – as he grudgingly admitting to himself – maybe fillet of salmon on a pan seared tartare potato cake with a pea and asparagus velouté might have been a case of trying to run before he could walk.
And so he found himself cooking the eternal dish of every first year university student away from home for the first time – spaghetti bolognese.
They had replaced the kitchen floor. Slate – Crowley’s choice. The new kitchen island was in, but the old cabinets had yet to be replaced. The windows had been cleaned, and – best of all – the room smelled agreeably foodlike.
“That plant’s perked up a treat,” said Aziraphale, glancing at the aloe on the windowsill. “Maybe it likes the music.”
“I’ve been playing music in here. I heard it does plants good. Thought I’d try it.”
Crowley sideeyed the aloe. “What music?”
“Mozart, mostly. Così Fan Tutte. Oh, and a little bit of Figaro.”
Crowley waited until Aziraphale had left the room, then leaned in and menaced the plant with a parmesan grater. “Così Fan Tutte, eh?” he said. “We’ll have words later, you and I. Ti piace l’opera in italiano? Fidati di me – non vuoi sapere cosa ho fatto a un geranio a Milano.” ***
Aziraphale came back in, his arms full of white roses. Crowley turned, the cheese grater behind his back, and smiled.
“Flowers?” Crowley said.
“You’re cooking. I felt as thought I should do something special too.”
“I should warn you, I have no idea that it’s going to be edible. I mean, it smells like food, but that might be where the resemblance ends.”
“I’m sure it will be wonderful,” said Aziraphale, reaching for a vase.
It wasn’t. It was okay. Nothing special, but Aziraphale, who was nice on a molecular level, acted like it was. And he did tend to get even more effusive with his praises when the Barolo was flowing freely.
“I’ll think I’ll simmer the sauce for longer next time,” said Crowley, watching unsteadily as Aziraphale filled his glass again.
“It was very good. You’re awfully talented.”
“You’re already soused, aren’t you?”
Aziraphale swallowed a hiccup. “A bit, yes.” He buried his nose in his glass again and sighed happily. “Do you remember that place in Florence?”
“With the chicken. Smelled amazing. Whole city smelled amazing, now that I think of it.”
Memory stirred. Tuscan sunshine. A succulent chicken dish drenched in white wine. A strange, cooked smell. “Like barbecue,” said Crowley.
“Yes! And that chicken. With the pine nuts.”
“Oh, yes. What that what it was?”
“Pine nuts and rosemary,” said Aziraphale. “Lots of rosemary. And a sort of white wine sauce.” He sighed. “Don’t suppose we’ll ever be able to find the recipe.”
“I love you,” said Crowley. “You have the best memory. I don’t even remember why we were there.”
“Ahh. That was the barbecue smell.”
“What? He was a horrible man.”
Aziraphale stared into the bottom of his glass for a moment and conceded. “No, you’re quite right. He was.”
“That’s fanatics for you. Never pleasant.”
The angel burped discreetly and sat back in his chair. “Ah, the Renaissance, though.”
“I know, right? The trousers were a bit stupid, but the popes…oh, the popes. Such a pushover for a demon like me.”
“Which ones, just out of interest?”
Crowley topped off their glasses again. “Bagged me a Borgia.”
“Aaa-nd two Della Roveres and a handful of Medicis.” Crowley took another swig. “Oh, and the other guy. Whatsisname. Johnny Food.”
Aziraphale cracked up. “Johnny what? I don’t remember that pope.”
“No, that wasn’t his pope name. It was his proper name. Meant John Food in Italian.”
“That’s the one.”
“Innocent the Eighth?”
Crowley laughed. “Yeah, he wasn’t. Malleus Malleficarum and all that.” He sighed. “I just remember being childishly amused that his name in English was John Food. Isn’t it funny how the stupid little things stick in your head long after everything else has faded away? Like Florence. I remember the chicken, but not the guy being set on fire.”
“I know,” said Aziraphale. “It’s shameful. Gutters of Paris running red with blood, and my overriding memory of the Reign of Terror is still—”
Crowley nibbled on an olive for a moment. “Are we just a couple of gutbuckets troughing our way through history, do you think?”
“We might be,” said Aziraphale, and leaned forward with an alcoholic urgency burning in his eyes. “Listen to me, my love. I’m quite drunk, but I’m also quite sincere. This might be the best meal I have ever eaten with you.”
Crowley thought of the Ritz and started to giggle. That night they’d had dined on ballotine of duck liver with cherry and pistachio, tournedos of beef with smoked bone marrow, and Grand Marnier soufflé. And here was Aziraphale comparing it to his mediocre spaghetti bolognese. “Yeah,” he said. “I…no…really?”
“I’m not talking about the food itself—”
“—yeah, I was gonna say—”
“—but nobody’s ever done this for me before, you see.” Aziraphale was drunk, but not so drunk he couldn’t do the heart-eyes thing. If anything, alcohol seemed to give him an edge. His eyes looked like Valentines. “In six thousand years, you’re the only person who’s cooked me a meal in my own kitchen. Slept beside me in my own bed.”
“No…” said Crowley, gulping. “No, don’t do this, because I’m shitfaced and you know I get emotional when I’m drunk.”
Aziraphale reached out, his hand curling around the back of Crowley’s neck. “No, please listen to me. I know you’ve got a much nicer place than this—”
“—I told you, it’s not that nice. And I…I filled it with things that made me think of you.” He pressed his forehead to Aziraphale’s, and their winey breaths mingled. “Other than that it was…it was just the kind of place I thought the human I was pretending to be should have, you know? And I didn’t really know who I was. Maybe I never have.” He looked up, feeling something seismic shift once again, although to be fair he was getting to the point where the floor was about to start moving all on its own. “I think the only thing I’ve ever really been – for certain – is yours.”
Aziraphale drew in a ragged breath. “You’re putting an awful lot of faith in me, Crowley.”
“Nah. You walked through Hell for me. I think I’ll be all right.” He leaned in even closer and planted a boozy, garlic flavoured kiss on Aziraphale’s lips. “I love you, you love me…”
“Does this mean you’ll stay?”
“Of course it does.”
“‘Come live with me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove…’”
“Donne,” said Crowley. “No. Marlowe.” Aziraphale gave a small, soft laugh and Crowley couldn’t believe how much it pleased him to get that right. If this was all it took – to just pick up a book and cook spaghetti once in a while – how could something that felt so big be made of such little things?
“Do you want to know a secret?” Crowley said, Aziraphale’s flushed, boozy cheek a blaze against the palm of his hand.
“I was starting to hate my old place.”
“Oh, don’t say that. It was very chic. And you had all that art. You must bring that with you.”
“Well, obviously I’ll bring the Leonardo…”
“No, I was thinking of the statue,” said Aziraphale. “The one with the two angels fucking.”
“The two angels fu…they’re not fucking, angel. They’re fighting.”
Aziraphale gave him an uncertain, unsteady look. “Fuckiest looking fight I ever saw,” he said.
Crowley laughed. “Okay, you are officially pissed. You’re not only swearing, but you’re swearing creatively. Do we need to sober up?”
“Absolutely not,” said Aziraphale, and lit up. “I know. Let’s have drunk sex. I’ve never had drunk sex before.”
“Because I’ve never done it before,” said Aziraphale, and got up. “Are you coming?”
“Yeah, in a second.”
“Good. I’ll be in the bedroom, drunk and naked.”
Crowley hung back for a moment to stack the plates. As he did it he realised he’d never done such a thing in his life before, but suddenly he cared that he left the kitchen reasonably tidy. His kitchen. Our kitchen.
He gave himself a small shake, put the plates ready to wash beside the sink and went into the bedroom.
Aziraphale was, as advertised, drunk and naked. He was also unconscious. He lay face down on the bed, one arm dangling down, so sloppy-drunk that he’d lost control of his wings. They swivelled awkwardly in their sockets, as if confused about why they’d suddenly been given the run of the place when their owner was in no state to fly.
Crowley shook him gently by the shoulder. “Aziraphale…”
“You’ve passed out. Wake up and sober up, or you’re going to have a hangover in the morning.”
“Never had one before,” said Aziraphale, surfacing slightly. “Whole new experience.”
“You won’t enjoy it.”
“Mn. Trying new things.” He smiled to himself and zonked out again with a snort that told Crowley that not only had the angel learned how to sleep, but he was well on his way to learning to snore.
“Oh well,” said Crowley, and sat stroking Aziraphale’s baffled wings. Some things you had to learn the hard way.