"Well, I should probably be getting on before the rain gets much worse," the Serpent said. "Hell will want to hear how it went and all."
"Smashingly, I should say," Aziraphale said, feeling more morose than sarcastic. He had been on Tree duty. "You'll likely get a commendation."
The Serpent — Crawley — lifted his eyebrows consideringly.
"A commendation!” he said. "Think of that. You know, I might." He smiled and ruffled his wings a little, as though Aziraphale had been trying to encourage him. Aziraphale didn't have the energy to argue the point, really.
"It's been a pleasure, angel," the demon said, and Aziraphale was still thinking Really, that's a bit of a stretch, isn't it, as Crawley tilted his head and inspected him with wide yellow eyes, his mouth turned up at one corner.
"You know," he said, "I think I might end up in love with you, if I'm not careful."
There was nothing Aziraphale could do but stare, as the Serpent turned and shimmied back down the wall of Eden.
It was another thousand years before the topic came up again.
When Crowley joined him under the tree, Aziraphale was almost expecting him. The rain had been pelting the vast valley below for the better part of a day, now, and the distant Tigris River was starting to rise.
"Still here?" said Crowley.
Aziraphale shrugged miserably. A leaf above him was dripping cold water down the back of his neck, but there was nowhere else to sit under the tree that was any drier. The Ark, of course, would have been dry, but… Well. Compared to some, damp robes weren't really much of a hardship, at the end of the day. Or the end of forty.
"Is this an assignment, sitting here watching, or some kind of penance?" Crowley demanded.
"There's nothing I can do," Aziraphale snapped, irritated he'd guessed it so close. "It's the Plan."
"Angels," Crowley snorted.
"I am an angel, that's the point," Aziraphale shot back. "You should know better than most what happens when an angel decides to disregard the Plan."
There was silence between them for a minute before Aziraphale glanced over. Crowley's face was tight, and Aziraphale regretted speaking, then resented his regret.
" You could do something," Aziraphale muttered, and then immediately winced again under the demon's incredulous stare.
"Oh, I should go save some human lives, should I? And you would, what? Just not thwart me?"
Aziraphale said nothing.
In the distance, thunder rumbled.
Crowley shook his head. "You might be my embarrassing little weakness, angel," he said, "but I certainly can't do this."
Aziraphale's stomach lurched. He meant to say Your what? but it came out instead as a slightly panicky "Do what?"
He ignored the relief that followed when Crowley gestured out to the rising flood.
"Sit and watch all this with you," he said. He started stalking down the hill, and didn't turn around to deliver his parting words. "Enjoy the view. I'm going to find a Great Plan to impede."
Aziraphale watched him go, the heart in this body thudding strangely, and absolutely did not wish he could follow.
It continued on that way, meetings and passings. Crowley didn't seem to hold a grudge about their disagreement by the Tigris, for which Aziraphale was grateful to a degree he did not want to inspect too closely. The world, or the part of it that was getting blessed and tempted anyway, was fairly small yet — small enough, at least, for Crowley to keep turning up every century or so with his golden eyes bright and crinkling. He'd badger Aziraphale into conversation, or sitting down with a flask of wine or a handful of dates. Maybe lunch. Maybe dinner.
If Crowley was with him, Aziraphale reasoned, he couldn't very well be out being wily. And maybe it was nice to see a familiar face, after all. It's not like the demon was getting any celestial secrets out of Aziraphale. It's not as if anyone told Aziraphale any celestial secrets.
Until Sodom, that was.
He didn't know why he'd been selected to go with Gabriel and Sandalphon to speak to the Only Righteous Household in the Five Cities, any more than he knew how Heaven had determined this to be the Only Righteous Household. Lot certainly seemed to disagree.
"Plenty of my neighbors are good people," he pleaded. The angels sat on cushions in a row in Lot's home, while his children peeked in and his wife, Ado, scuttled about offering them drinks and looking near tears. Aziraphale accepted a tea, mostly out of mercy.
"Well," said Gabriel brightly, "I'm sorry to say the whole plain has been slated for destruction."
"I think I'll help Ado with that tea, actually," said Aziraphale, and fled the room.
He paid the maidservant's little boy a piece of silver to find the man with the yellow eyes, and hoped against hope that it was here Crowley had mentioned settling, and not in Zeboim down the river. Aziraphale went back in to sit and sip his tea while Lot tried to bargain for lives. Gabriel and Sandalphon were close-lipped, but Aziraphale nodded and smiled as reassuringly as he could, Yes that certainly seems reasonable, doesn't it, a dozen people? We could spare the cities for a dozen people I think, surely.
When Ado stood in the kitchen doorway and met Aziraphale's eyes to jerk her head toward the back door, Aziraphale didn't try to deny his relief.
"The whole valley? So much for the rainbow," Crowley growled when Aziraphale had caught him up in hushed tones.
"For Heaven's sake, be quiet," he whispered. "There's two archangels in the next room. Lot — he's the Noah this time round, apparently — he's trying to talk them down from it."
"It won't do any good," Crowley said, as though he knew for sure, as though his story was the only one there was. But Lot was virtuous, he had the favor of God, and everyone knew Mercy came from their Side, and maybe even if there were just a dozen good people, maybe they could save a dozen.
" Maybe there are a dozen," Crowley hissed as Aziraphale peered nervously back over his shoulder. "Maybe not. I've been here a while, and I tell you I never taught them the things they learned." His face was grim, wan in the long shadows of coming evening.
"If they do it, it'll be before morning," Aziraphale whispered. "I — I think they mean to save Lot, but…" But maybe they don't, he didn't say. Maybe they don't care, really. "Maybe there are more."
"It's a city of cruelty," Crowley said. "The ones who aren't cruel are the ones they keep around to be cruel to, and they're more frightened by that than they are of holy fire. No amount of my banging on doors will make them run."
Aziraphale didn't know how to convince the demon to do this.
"Try," he begged.
Crowley's eyes shone in the dim like lamp flames. He ran a forked tongue over his dry lips, suddenly haggard, as though he could already feel a long night behind him, and nodded.
"Okay," he said, his voice rough. "Be careful, angel. I love you."
When Aziraphale went back in to join Lot and the angels, his hands were shaking so badly he didn't dare pick up his tea.
In the end, of course, Gabriel and Sandalphon stood and brushed off their robes and walked out of Sodom alone. They didn't look back to see Crowley hurrying Lot and his family through the dark streets. Fire fell from the sky and Aziraphale tried to think about ineffability and perfect divinity, and not yellow eyes in a long, pale face.
In the morning he found Crowley sitting on a hill outside the ruins, staring at a pillar of salt and looking tired.
Normally it was Crowley who found Aziraphale, but in Rome, Aziraphale found Crowley. It was a scant few years after that whole unfortunate business with the Nazarene, but besides that they hadn't seen too much of each other for a while. Crowley seemed to have done very well for himself in Egypt, but the Plagues had been… well, hard on both of them.
(Aziraphale hadn’t been there for the Red Sea, although he heard it was quite the sight. He had stayed behind to salve the hearts of bereaved mothers cradling their firstborn sons, and Crowley had been the one to leave with the Israelites.)
Now here Crowley was, drinking something he did not seem to be enjoying, and sniping at Aziraphale for harmless conversation openers.
The oysters serving to cheer Crowley up was entirely incidental. He only ate a few, but to be fair, they were very good oysters. The point was he was finally smiling again, that tiny smothered smile, and the further point was it made no difference to Aziraphale of course whether a demon smiled or not.
Crowley didn’t say much, just listened and let Aziraphale talk. Aziraphale ended up in some little rant that started out being about humans and ended up somehow being about a rather snippy memo he'd gotten from head office last week.
"Way it sounds," Crowley put in, leaning on his elbows and sipping a cup of something fermented, "you might just be the only decent angel Heaven's got left."
"Oh, of course not," Aziraphale said automatically, frowning. "That's…" Well, it wasn't exactly blasphemy, was it? "There's plenty of…" He thought about it for a second, and then huffed an impatient breath. "Well, you could hardly be expected to have anything impartial to say on the subject." What would a demon know about the angels heaven's got left? Or decency, for that matter?
"S'pose so," he said, lifting his drink to his lips again, gaze fixed over Aziraphale's shoulder on the opposite wall. "Considering I'm in love with you."
Aziraphale froze, a chunk of bread halfway to his mouth. It dripped olive oil onto his toga.
Crowley's smoked spectacles had slid a little down his nose, so his eyes were visible as they rose to meet Aziraphale's.
"Er," said Aziraphale.
Crowley's mouth twitched in a sort of misfired smile before he looked down to Aziraphale's plate to snaffle an oyster.
He'd only ever said it and left before, had never sat there looking at Aziraphale like he expected a response.
(He’d said it at Babel, in a language that no one had ever spoken before. He’d said it as they parted from a chance meeting in the court of Devorah. He hadn’t said it at all before he left Egypt.)
Crowley looked up again at Aziraphale, who was suddenly aware of staring. Crowley managed the smile this time as he pushed his spectacles up, but it wasn't much, just a flat, humorless quirk of lips, not anything to disavow what he'd just said.
Aziraphale smiled uncertainly back.
"The oysters are pretty all right," Crowley said, swirling the remains of his drink, "but the wine could do with improvement." He looked down into his cup for a second, blinked deliberately, then tasted it again. "That's better," he declared, and refilled Aziraphale's empty cup with the bottle in the middle of the table.
Aziraphale supposed he was allowed to ignore it, then. That was a relief.
As it turned out, ignoring it did not make it go away.
Aziraphale found him in a gutter in Madrid at the end of the fifteenth century, mud in his hair and his fingers clamped around the neck of a bottle that wafted an unhealthy smell.
"Crowley? That's you, isn't it?" Even under the mud, that hair could hardly belong to anyone else. He still held out hope until Crowley's face lifted from the ground, and yellow eyes stared through him blearily behind cockeyed dark glasses. There was a leaf stuck to his cheek.
"Good Lord, what's happened to you?" Aziraphale demanded. He grabbed one of Crowley's arms and pulled him awkwardly upright. The demon's head lolled on his neck, and it occurred to Aziraphale the unhealthy smell might not be coming from just the bottle.
"Tr'bunal 'fthe Holy Order'f the Inquisition," he muttered. Then he giggled.
For a second, Aziraphale was terrified. But if Crowley had actually ended up on the wrong side of the Inquisition, he wouldn't be here. Aziraphale didn't know what they would do if they got their hands on an actual demon, but they probably wouldn't buy him a drink.
He glanced around, but the two of them were alone on the misty, dawn-greyed street. He took off Crowley's glasses with one hand, his other hand still on his arm, trying to balance him upright. Crowley swayed dangerously for a moment, then settled himself back on his heels, kneeling in the street like the pious in church. Not that Aziraphale intended to share that comparison, he thought as he plucked the leaf off Crowley's cheek.
"I think it was a great deal of Spanish liquor that happened to you, actually," Aziraphale tutted, frowning. He fished his handkerchief out of his jacket and held Crowley's face still with one hand on his jaw as he rubbed at the smudges and filth.
It took Aziraphale a second to notice the way Crowley was looking at him — naked eyes wide and dazed, expression not far removed from that church metaphor. Aziraphale had never been the sort of angel people put in stained glass. Was this what it was like?
It was only then, of course, that he remembered.
He released Crowley's face at once, stepping away and pulling his hands back like someone who'd just recognized the markings on a strange snake. Crowley teetered under the loss of the hand, and then balanced himself again. He blinked twice, slowly.
"I do hate to see you like this, dear boy," Aziraphale blustered, keeping his eyes on his handkerchief as he miracled it clean and tucked it back away. "Is there anything you need?"
Crowley considered this.
"More alcohol," he declared, and wobbled decisively to his feet. He planted his face firmly into Aziraphale's shoulder for a second, making the angel stagger, but promptly peeled himself off again. "Ssssorry," he muttered, and spun around.
"I don't think that's probably a good idea," Aziraphale pleaded, following after him. "Are you living around here? Do you have rooms you could go to? I really think you ought to get some rest."
Crowley liked to sleep, didn't he? Aziraphale didn't understand the appeal, but he was pretty sure Crowley did a lot of it. But Crowley only shook his head without turning around or diverting his winding path to the nearest tavern.
"Can't!" he said, throwing in the air the hand that still grasped the empty bottle. "Celebrating my commendation!"
Aziraphale frowned. A commendation from Hell was unlikely to be news the angel would enjoy.
"What for?" he asked anyway.
Crowley slowed, and threw a look over his shoulder that suggested he thought Aziraphale was maybe a little bit thick.
"Tribunal'a the Holy Order the 'quisition," he said. Aziraphale's blood ran cold.
"Oh Crowley," he breathed, "you didn't," and the new look he got over the shoulder at that was dark and accusatory and felt a little unfair.
"Course not," Crowley said. "What do you take me for?"
"A demon," Aziraphale said immediately. Without the spectacles between them, Aziraphale had a perfect view of the hurt that lanced through his face. He felt suddenly ashamed, but it was only the truth, wasn't it?
Crowley continued his stumbling progress forward and Aziraphale followed, holding out his hands halfway between them as though that could keep Crowley from running into a wall. Crowley scoffed.
"A demon. Well surrre, must be the demon's fault," he slurred. "Probably your lot, really. Pope's cert'ly a big fan. I'd'n't even heard about it. All I know is, mindin' my own business — not Hell's businesssss, y'know, mine — 'n here they are, 'Gotta commendation! 'Ceptional work!' Whadda I say, I say 'thanks' and come to see what it is I'm sssspost've done."
He stopped walking suddenly and turned on his heels to look at Aziraphale, his serpentine eyes wet.
"They call it 'conversion,'" he croaked. "Where I come from, we called it ssssmiting.”
Aziraphale didn't know how to respond to that, except to step forward and hold out Crowley's glasses. Crowley swallowed and took them.
"Thanks," he mumbled, and shoved them onto his face.
In the end there didn't seem to be much Aziraphale could do besides follow Crowley to a tavern and watch him order the proprietor's first bottle of the day.
Aziraphale sat down on the stool beside him. Something didn't sit right with him about all this.
"You're… sad," he tried. Crowley snorted.
"No, didn't you hear me? 'm celebrating."
"Yes, of course," said Aziraphale. "Only this looks a little less like celebrating and a little more like trying to discorporate yourself with alcohol poisoning."
"Can't," he said, and burped a little. "Would've bit it Tuesday, otherwise."
"Tuesday?" Aziraphale exclaimed. "How long…?"
"Was a big commendation," Crowley replied, and he looked a little miserable. "Lotta evil."
Aziraphale sat and watched him drink from the bottle, ignoring the glass the bartender had dropped off with it.
"Not sad," Crowley asserted to the mouth of the bottle after a minute. "If I was sad that'd be… empathy, 'r something. A virtue."
"One of them, yes," Aziraphale said slowly, with less skepticism than he meant to put in it. "'The greatest of these,' I believe."
He was used to Crowley not reacting well to the occasional suggestion he might be less than truly Evil. Crowley was the Adversary, of course, but… well, he was allowed to be the best specimen of Adversary available. That was probably all right. He was good for conversation, after all, and perspective, and under normal circumstances, excellent taste in wine, today being excepted.
Instead of taking umbrage, however, Crowley's mouth gained a sardonic tilt.
"What, like Charity?" He rubbed at his face with one hand, only serving to streak something over his chin.
Aziraphale sat and looked at the streak.
"Like Love?" Crowley said, and Aziraphale glanced up quickly into the flat black reflections of Crowley's glasses. The reflections looked back at him for a long moment.
Finally Crowley turned away, dragging the bottle toward him again.
"Both know 'm already n'infernal disappointment on that front, angel," he muttered. "Have some heav'nly mercy on... on my reputation, yeah?"
Aziraphale sat with him in the empty bar, and said nothing, and hoped that was merciful.
The centuries passed.
The Arrangement was born. There were confessions, direct and less so. (Aziraphale had never been so glad Crowley didn't like the gloomy ones as when Aziraphale went to the theatre alone and Romeo dropped the line about his bright angel. The next time they met, he had no idea how to ask what Crowley had been talking to his new friend William about.)
There were dinners and lunches and jokes and favors, by chance and impulse. They weren't friends, of course — neither of them could risk that — but he wasn't sure they were enemies any longer, which was almost as dangerous.
He didn't know what exactly Heaven would do if they heard he'd been fraternizing with a demon. But Crowley? Crowley who shouldn't even be able to feel such things as he claimed, who probably couldn't but thought he could and volunteered this breathtaking weakness with nothing to gain?
Hell would destroy Crowley.
Still, it was hard to fear Hell when Crowley was pushing his leftover pudding across the table to Aziraphale, when Aziraphale was pouring Crowley a drink. Times like that, both the celestial and the infernal felt far away. The Arrangement was, in the end, a simple thing to fall into. Crowley's company was easy to get used to, a temptation all its own.
But the fact of the matter was, of course, that demons couldn't love.
Today they'd run into each other, apparently by chance, out by Canary Wharf, and Aziraphale had determined that whatever Crowley was being sketchy and evasive about was probably best thwarted by getting him out of the neighborhood and into a restaurant.
Now Crowley was sitting across a white tablecloth, tipping something from a flask into his teacup and halfway through a story about cutting a carriage horse loose on a busy street.
Everybody knew it, about demons and love, Heaven and Hell alike. Aziraphale could admit, to himself if to no one else as he watched Crowley gesticulate, that he liked the demon well enough. But this business about being in love was either a temptation or a lie.
He wasn't sure which one was worse. Neither one sounded like Crowley.
Which was a ridiculous thing to think because Crowley tempted, Crowley lied. Not when it was important. He even tempted Aziraphale, even lied to Aziraphale. Not about this. About plenty of things.
Not about this.
They couldn't overcome their natures. There was no point thinking about it. But then, it'd be easier not to think about it if he'd only stop saying it.
"Angel? Are you even listening to me?"
Aziraphale blinked the room back into focus. Crowley's face had an air of great amusement, and Aziraphale flushed before he'd really made sense of the question.
"Of course I'm listening," he blustered. "The carriage horse."
Crowley was truly grinning now. "The carriage horse was ten minutes ago," he said. "Since then I have unspooled for you such a list of sin and temptation that if you had been listening, you would have been forced to smite me."
"I would never," Aziraphale blurted, even though he knew it was a joke. Crowley's smile took on a slightly different quality, no less pleased.
"Well, report me to someone in the smiting department, anyway," he said, but Aziraphale was already shaking his head insistently.
"No," he said. "I wouldn't."
Crowley folded his arms and leaned on his elbows, looking at Aziraphale over the tea cakes. The warmth in his expression stoked a small, answering warmth behind Aziraphale's ribs, entirely without permission, and which was quickly spreading over his face.
"You haven't heard the sins," Crowley said.
"Well," Aziraphale huffed, clinking his teaspoon busily in his lukewarm tea. "I doubt anything you do could surprise me anymore."
"That's probably true," Crowley agreed softly. "I suppose you do know all my secrets."
Aziraphale refused to look up at Crowley, knowing he'd only be met with the blank lenses of his spectacles. This restaurant was really very warm.
"I suppose I do," he said.
He wouldn't lie about this.
It didn't change anything. Whether or not he meant it, whether or not he felt it. It didn't matter because if Hell found out, they wouldn't differentiate.
Aziraphale knew without meeting them that other demons were not like Crowley. They didn't have empathy, or Charity, or love. They neither asked for nor delivered mercy. And even if Crowley wasn't a usual demon, he was still a demon, would always be a demon, and Hell would always be his master. There was nothing Aziraphale could do to make them leave him alone.
Even if it was Crowley's only way out, Aziraphale couldn't let him have the holy water.
So Crowley was angry about it. Fine. He wanted Aziraphale to take this responsibility too, he was always putting these things in Aziraphale's hands and acting like it was cruel of Aziraphale not to want them, not to know what to do with them. He hadn't heard from Crowley since. They'd gone much longer without seeing one another, of course — it had only been about six months since Aziraphale had stormed out of St. James Park — but this time the absence grated. Plenty of people to fraternize with! Who? Humans?
It took an hour of digging before he found the calling card with Crowley's current address.
The cab let him off at a fashionable address with a slate gray door. He checked and double-checked the calling card before drawing himself up and pounding a fist on the door, indignant enough to ignore the heavy brass door knocker.
"Crowley!" he called. "Crowley, it's me. Open the door."
There was no response.
Aziraphale banged the knocker, just in case it was easier to hear inside. "Crowley!" he tried again.
"You can't just avoid me!" he called angrily. People on the street were starting to turn and look. Aziraphale huffed, and did a quick miracle on the door.
The hall he stepped into was so dark and quiet, he wondered for a moment if Crowley had moved without telling him. "Crowley?" he called out. He pushed open the heavy curtain on a window by the door, and a shaft of late afternoon sunlight lit up a flurry of dust motes.
"Your housekeeping is atrocious," he shouted. "Crowley? You have to talk to me sometime!"
By the coat rack was an umbrella stand, which contained a single crow-black umbrella, and Crowley's walking stick. He was at home, then.
"I know you're here!" he said, pulling his gloves off as he walked to the end of the entrance hall and peered around the corner into a darkened parlor. "You can't be angry with me forever."
The parlor was as shuttered and empty as the hall, with the pale grey smell of a place that needed a good airing and the rugs beaten. It bothered him, to think of Crowley living in a place like this. It seemed so unlike him.
"I wasn't angry at you,” he called out to Crowley's empty rooms, uncomfortably aware that he already sounded like he was pleading. "I wasn't angry at all. It was only that… well, holy water, my dear."
There was nobody in the dining room either, just a fine layer of dust over the sleek mahogany surface of the long table. There were rather a lot of chairs around it. Plenty of people to fraternize with. But none lately, apparently.
"It isn't me I'm worried about," he said to this cavernous house. Not in the kitchen either. Which seemed unlikely anyway, but if he was hiding... "Surely you know that. And if anything happened to you, it would be—"
He stood at the head of the table, with his hand on the back of one stately chair, and tried to gulp around the sharp stone suddenly in his throat.
"It would be because of me," he said, hardly loud enough for even the other end of the table to hear.
But that wasn't fair, because he had come here to — well, to shout at Crowley, but. Crowley deserved the truth. That'd only ever been what he'd given Aziraphale, really. He walked out of the kitchen and passed back through the parlor.
"You'd be punished because of me," he said, his voice falling flat on the shadowy walls. "Of us. What I… did to you." He lit the gas lights with an absent snap of his fingers, illuminating a few cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. Nobody in what was apparently the linen cupboard, or an elegant, sparsely furnished morning room.
"And I understand why you'd want another option," he said, starting down a corridor. "But you can't put that on me too. I'd know for eternity that I was the reason you were gone, and you can't ask me that, Crowley."
On the other side of the next to last door he found a spare room, with the furniture covered in sheets, and no demon.
"I'm not like you, my dear. I don't have plenty of other people," he said, turning around to try the last door. "It's just you."
Behind the last door was the bedroom, and in it, Crowley was sleeping.
Aziraphale entered without thinking about it, his eyes falling on the figure in the great four poster bed. The light from the sputtering lamps in the hallway spilled into the room, as close and stale as the rest of them and too cold by half. Under a dark duvet was Crowley, his face relaxed and his chest rising and falling so slowly, Aziraphale didn't think it would have sustained a human.
There was dust on the headboard, on the smooth surface of the unadorned duvet. There was dust on Crowley's hair.
"Crowley?" he tried. Crowley didn't stir.
"Oh, my dear boy," Aziraphale sighed.
He hesitated for a moment, then brushed the dust from the demon's hair with careful fingers. Aziraphale shivered, and eyed the dark fireplace in the corner. But as deeply as Crowley was sleeping, there was no way to be certain it would be safe, even with a miracle. Instead Aziraphale opened a chest in the corner and fetched out a quilt, which he spread over the enormous bed.
He would tell Crowley when he woke up. Perhaps.
Aziraphale couldn't find the breath to respond or the means to move his feet until Crowley was almost disappearing around the corner of a half demolished building.
"Wait!" he gasped, finally shaking a thought out of his head like the last sticky boiled sweet from a jar. He stumbled through the rubble of the church after Crowley, inexplicably breathless.
Crowley paused at the corner and turned on one heel, watching across the street with clear amusement as Aziraphale tripped on the building's cornerstone and barely caught himself. By the time he reached Crowley, Aziraphale was both winded and scarlet in the face.
"Ah, yes please," Aziraphale said, with all the dignity he could manage. "About the lift."
"I wasn't going to leave without you," Crowley smiled. "I was going to wait for you to catch up."
Aziraphale's throat was very dry.
"Thank you," he said.
It was so good to see his face again. It was so good to see his smile. He wished Crowley hadn't put on his glasses; it was good to see his eyes, awake and especially his. Aziraphale had checked up on him, over the years — every now and then, when he remembered. At the turn of the century, he had opened the doors and windows, swept the floors, dusted the paltry collection of curios. Crowley had never woken up. The house had never gotten less gloomy.
Crowley stopped in front of a sleek black car and opened the door with all the air of a father holding his new baby.
"Oh! It's very nice," Aziraphale said obligingly.
"Course it's nice," Crowley snorted, but he seemed pleased.
Aziraphale felt so full of white light, he was almost afraid of attracting another German bomb.
They sat in silence as the car rumbled through the dark streets, headlights off. Aziraphale kept his hands wrapped tightly around the handle of the bag in his lap, and his eyes on Crowley's profile.
He'd spent more than a millennium puzzling out whether Crowley really did love him, whether he could, what it meant.
As incredible as it seemed now, he'd somehow never stopped to consider the opposite question.
Crowley didn't like books. At least, he claimed not to; he certainly had never understood Aziraphale's fascination with prophecy, with the way the only thing humans like more than free will is predestination. Crowley didn't like books, but he secretly liked being read to, and he liked dry red wines and Mozart and children, and when Aziraphale was fretting Crowley knew how to draw him out of his own head like a wild creature from a burrow.
Crowley didn't like books, but he'd saved Aziraphale's, and Aziraphale was the most incredible idiot the hand of the Almighty had ever formed.
"I got it in '26, right off the factory line," Crowley said. Aziraphale was disoriented for a moment before he realized he must be talking about the car. He must have been awake for almost twenty years, then. "Still runs like a dream. Given it an update or two since then, but it's not the sort of machine you trade in with the fashion. It's going to be a classic."
"It's very nice," Aziraphale replied, and cringed as he remembered he'd said the same thing earlier. Crowley didn't seem to have noticed, though. He grinned through the windscreen, and Aziraphale looked at him and thought his chest would burst.
This, then, was what Crowley felt.
Aziraphale had not even begun to untangle the mess of things hiding behind his ribs before Crowley was pulling up to the curb outside his bookshop.
"Here you are," he said. "I'd invite myself in, but honestly I'm knackered. Going to go home and soak my feet."
The tone was flippant, but something underneath it ached in Aziraphale's bones. It was the kind of voice Crowley usually used to say things Aziraphale usually didn't know how to hear.
Crowley paused, and then offered his right hand out into the space between them. Aziraphale's hand left the bag handle as if on its own and slid into Crowley's, their fingers interlacing.
Crowley's face, surprised, spasmed blank, and Aziraphale saw his mistake immediately.
"Oh!” he squeaked, mortified, "A handshake—"
He tried to pull his hand away, but Crowley's closed tightly over it.
The atmosphere in the car was suddenly still. Aziraphale exhaled shakily, and sat looking at their joined hands for a long, silent minute. In the distance, the sound of German bombers was receding, and yet only now was Aziraphale more frightened than he'd ever been in his life.
When he looked back up again, Crowley's forehead was puckered. Crowley wet his lips and took a breath.
"Aziraphale," he began, voice low, but Aziraphale bit the inside of his cheek and shook his head desperately.
"Please," he choked. "No, please. Don't say it again. Not right now, I can't bear it."
Tension ticked in the line of Crowley's jaw for a second or two before he nodded and released Aziraphale's hand.
Aziraphale clutched the handle of the book bag with both hands again, his knuckles white, as Crowley reached across him and opened the car door. He offered Aziraphale a small, encouraging smile.
"I'll see you around, then?" Crowley said hopefully.
Aziraphale wrestled the thing in his chest far down enough to smile back.
"Bound to," he replied. "City's still not nearly as big as people like to say."
He could have said I'm glad you're awake. He could have said I'm glad you're not angry with me anymore.
He didn't say either. Aziraphale nodded and got out of the car and went into the bookshop, and then leaned on the other side of the door as he listened to Crowley drive away.
"Are you free Saturday evening?" said Crowley one afternoon in '55 as they were parting in St. James Park. Aziraphale frowned.
"I don't know why I wouldn't be," he admitted.
"Perfect. I'll be there at seven," Crowley said, straightening his shirt cuffs. "Try to wear something from this decade, at least."
It was a strange request, in opposition to their usual modus of bumping into each other, especially since seven was fairly late for supper. It made Aziraphale a little nervous. He did his best with the clothes, anyway — he peeked through the curtains of his bookshop at the passersby, and miracled a few updates to a good suit. There really wasn't much to be said for the fashions lately, whatever Crowley might say.
Twenty after seven, the bell above the shop door jingled. Aziraphale looked up and pulled off his reading glasses.
"You didn't say black tie from this decade," he said, irritated. Crowley's tuxedo was snugly tailored and had sharp black satin lapels, with jeweled cufflinks and a gold watch chain gleaming against his vest. Aziraphale tried not to stare, but goodness knew it was hard. Crowley looked, sometimes, like stars in the dark.
"And yet you're in a bow tie anyway," Crowley shot back. He surveyed Aziraphale critically behind his shades. "There was never any chance of losing the tartan, was there?" he sighed, and Aziraphale drew himself up, offended.
"Sure. We're going to be late."
"Hardly my fault," Aziraphale grumbled, but stood and followed.
It was not a late supper but a concert hall they walked into, gleaming with the golden light of chandeliers in high ceilings and smelling of expensive cigarettes.
Crowley guided them to a pair of plush seats.
"I don't think I've been to a concert since 1911," Aziraphale said, pleased. Crowley smiled. The lights and the curtain came up.
Sitting in the dark with a hundred other people in a room full of music made Aziraphale feel strangely human. The armrests of their seats were built together, and so narrow they could barely share the space; Aziraphale's arm was hanging off the edge of his, and their sleeves were still touching. Crowley liked to say he was cold blooded, but Aziraphale thought he could almost feel his warmth radiating through the fabric of their jackets.
He dared a quick glance at his companion's face. Crowley's eyes were fixed on the orchestra, his expression relaxed. Aziraphale took a surreptitious breath and shifted in his seat, allowing his arm to resettle on the rest, pressing a gentle line of contact to Crowley's.
He waited for Crowley to move his arm away, or shove Aziraphale's back over, or to look over and ask with his eyes what Aziraphale was playing at. But he didn't do any of it. Aziraphale thought he heard or felt Crowley’s breath hitch, but the cellos hit a long rising note that vibrated in the walls and he might have imagined it.
The strings and the horns and the people and all their breath and heat left no room in this place for Heaven or Hell. Aziraphale pretended, just for a minute, so quietly within himself that maybe even the Almighty wouldn't hear, that he and Crowley were two humans. How simple, not to have Sides, or created natures, or hereditary roles! If Aziraphale were human, he knew, he would only ever worry about food and sleep and shelter. Not what he was, or what the being next to him was. Not what it meant for their arms to touch.
Aziraphale uncurled his fingers on the armrest, and let the edge of his knuckles brush Crowley's, and listened to the music, and blasphemed as silently as he knew how.
It was more than twenty years after Aziraphale asked him not to before Crowley said it again.
They were sharing a bottle of wine in the back of the bookshop, something that had happened a few times at this point. Aziraphale didn't really invite Crowley over, but sometimes he'd ring him to ask for a favor and Crowley preferred to chat in person, or Crowley dropped by the shop with some news or other and the evening got long, and as long as Aziraphale was going to open up a bottle of wine for himself, he might as well pour a second glass, mightn't he?
"Wins a few Pulitzers an' then he dies and suddenly everyone's a fan," Aziraphale was griping, tipping more wine into his glass. "People coming in, 'Ha' you got any Frost, you got A Witness Tree?' No, bloody well haven't! Self-centered small-minded sentimentalist," he declared.
"Nice alliteration," Crowley said, smirking into his wine glass. His nehru jacket had gone totally unbuttoned early in the evening, and his hair was in disarray over his forehead. Aziraphale hoped he wouldn't notice and fix it.
"Thank you," Aziraphale sniffed as he settled himself back onto the sofa next to Crowley. He was rather proud of himself for getting that out drunk. "'N' that yellow wood business duzz'nt even mean wha' anyone thinks it does. Where's Hart Crane's Pulitzer, I sh' like to know? Ten times th' modernist ten years earlier." He let his head fall back and closed his eyes.
"'Inf'nite consa— consanguinity 't bears this tendered theme'f you that light retrieves fr'm sea plains, where the sky…' something, something. 'Permit me voyage…’" He cut himself off and raised his head to take a gulp of wine.
"Not sure necessarily follows tha' it was Bobby who got Hart's Pulitzer," said Crowley, but when Aziraphale cracked open an eye he was still smirking. His shades had been discarded to a table atop a pyramid of books, so Aziraphale could see his bright eyes crinkling with humor.
"Not saying he did," Aziraphale replied, closing his eyes again. "Saying 's overrated. And don't call him Bobby, or I'll think you like him."
"Dunno," Crowley drawled. "One could do worse'n be a swinger of birches."
Aziraphale sat up to shoot Crowley a betrayed glare, and Crowley tipped back his head and laughed. His throat was long and pale, and the rare spread of his wide smile sprouted a rich warmth in Aziraphale's chest.
"That's why I love you, angel," Crowley chuckled.
For a second, Aziraphale went very still.
A second later, Crowley's hand stuttered on its path to the wine bottle on the table. His face was tight and his eyes wide as they flicked up to Aziraphale's face… And then in the next second everything was as it was before, besides a coiled invisible tension in the demon and a keen new awareness in the angel of the space between them on the sofa.
And Crowley wasn't laughing.
He filled his wine glass silently as Aziraphale watched. It was Aziraphale's fault, somehow, that Crowley wasn't laughing anymore. It never felt like this when Crowley had said it before.
Not knowing what else to do, Aziraphale reached over and patted Crowley's arm twice. Crowley looked up, startled, and Aziraphale directed him a sad, slightly sozzled smile that, after a moment, flickered across Crowley's face too.
Aziraphale had heard about the heist, of course. It was more than a little ridiculous, but it was dangerous too, and he couldn't... He couldn't…
Three days later, Aziraphale stepped out of the Bentley, leaving his favorite tea thermos behind and shaking so badly his knees wobbled as he walked.
He couldn't lose a world with Crowley's rare and golden laughter. He had to trust Crowley wouldn't take it from him unless he had to.
The end times came.
"I'll be damned."
"It's not that bad, when you get used to it," Crowley smiled.
Aziraphale's stomach lurched, the small hope in him stumbling for a moment. If this didn't work…
He looked at Crowley, whose fond, patient smile hadn't changed.
Well. Nothing to say it wouldn't work, really.
"I love you, angel," Crowley said quietly.
Aziraphale sucked in a breath.
"My dear," he said, floundering just as he ever had. "I—"
"I know, he said. "Just… Apocalypse, yeah? And I like saying it."
Aziraphale's throat went tight, and he curled his fingers in the fabric of his trousers.
"Is that all right?" Crowley said, so, so gently.
Aziraphale tried to speak, and found that he couldn't. He nodded instead. And oh, it was worth it, no matter how much it hurt, for Crowley's smile.
Maybe it was the illusion of safety in wearing their assumed identities, or the reassurance of having a plan in hand against Armageddon, but the years in between, watching over Warlock, had the strange feeling of a holiday. Crowley didn't stop saying it, and while Aziraphale never responded, he was getting better, he supposed, at hearing it.
"Afternoon, Brother Francis," came a Scottish accent curling around his ear. "I don't believe we've met yet. I'm Miss Ashtaroth."
Aziraphale rolled his eyes, sitting back on his heels and tossing a handful of weeds in the basket at his side.
"There isn't anyone about but us, my dear, which I think you know perfectly well."
"No such thing as too careful," Crowley smirked, not dropping the accent. She was wearing her glasses, of course, but behind them Aziraphale knew her eyes were twinkling. "Enjoying yourself? Nobody's gardened like that in a hundred years, I hope you know. Not an estate, anyway."
"I'm connecting to the Almighty's creation," Aziraphale sniffed.
"Making your own little Eden, hm?" The prim posture and tone of 'Nanny Ashtaroth' was at odds with the glint of teeth in her demonic smile. Aziraphale shook his head.
"Don't be blasphemous," Aziraphale chided. "And you're going to scare the child if you smile at him like that."
"Only you, angel." Her demeanor shifted just slightly toward sincerity and she cleared his throat, a tiny sound that was all the warning Aziraphale received.
"Love you," she said, voice only a low rumble. Aziraphale startled and glanced quickly around, and Crowley laughed softly.
"There isn't anyone about but us, my dear," she said with a little lopsided smile, imitating Aziraphale's earlier cadence a little too well. Aziraphale harrumphed uncomfortably.
"No such thing as too careful," he mumbled.
He bent to pull another weed, and when he sat up again, Crowley was already disappearing down the path.
"I should be getting back. Warlock will be home from school soon." Crowley threw back the rest of her tea and stood up. "I might send him out to you later — he was a bit of a hellion yesterday. Could use some leveling out." She brushed invisible biscuit crumbs from her dress. "Tell him some stories with morals, or something."
"Yes, of course," said Aziraphale, trying to call up some stories with morals suitable for children. He began to stack the tea things back on the tray. The groundskeeper's shed wasn't the most hospitable place when they'd taken the jobs, but a couple of modest miracles had made it a cozy enough place for a midday break. It had only become more pleasant ever since a disused cupboard door near the nursery started opening onto it on regular occasions.
"Oh, my dear, I meant to ask," Aziraphale said as Crowley patted her immaculate hair into place. "Mrs. Dowling is in a state about the roses looking just right for the garden party. I was going to go into town to check on the shop this weekend, but I'm afraid she won't have it."
"Just miracle her some award winners. She won't notice."
"She'll notice if I'm not here fussing over them and reassuring her they will be award winners, no matter how they look," Aziraphale explained patiently. "Could you just look in on it, please? Collect the mail and such?"
Crowley smiled an indulgent little smile, her eyes rich with the same tenderness Aziraphale was always surprised they could hold.
"Anything for you, angel," she said, in that voice that meant she was saying Something Else. Aziraphale felt his face flush, and he bobbed his head in acknowledgement.
"Y-yes, well. Thank you," he stammered.
Crowley nodded, and slid her sunglasses onto her face, and walked out through the cupboard door again, leaving Aziraphale blinking at the teapot.
Aziraphale found the mail from the shop sitting on the shed table on Monday, with a small unsigned note on top. Aziraphale's heart lurched to see it, for all the wrong reasons. Or the right ones, or something. It wasn't exactly left in the open, but it was extremely foolish to commit something like that to writing. The last thing they needed was for Hell or Heaven to get their hands on hard evidence of...
He picked up the piece of paper, and allowed his thumb to brush lightly over the few words scratched there.
A candlestick on the table lit itself, and Aziraphale held the paper in the flame, watching it catch with a pang behind his lungs. He dropped it in an empty teacup to burn out just before it got to his fingertips.
It didn't do to get complacent.
The holiday was over.
From the moment Gabriel and Sandalphon showed up in his shop, Aziraphale could feel himself sealing something away.
He knew how to talk to other angels: the Enemy, the Adversary, the Plan. The War. It was different than the way he talked in his own head. It was different than the way he talked to Crowley.
He expected Crowley talked a different way to the lords of Hell than he talked to Aziraphale. He certainly hoped so, anyway. They had their roles, and they both knew how to play them.
Except it wasn't a game. This was the Plan, the War had come, the Enemy was gathering its weapons, the Adversary was coming into its power.
Maybe they could still stop it, but if they couldn't? Aziraphale would line up on one side of a battlefield and Crowley would line up on the other and there would be no Arrangement, no tender words falling from Crowley's lips to rattle around in Aziraphale's ribs.
Crowley had always been incautious. Aziraphale had no idea how incautious until Crowley called him to the bandstand.
"We can go off together!" he pleaded.
"Go off… together?" Aziraphale repeated faintly and of course Aziraphale heard it, after all these years of hearing it even when Crowley didn't use the words. Of course he knew what it meant.
I love you.
For just one fraction of a second, he let himself feel it. He let the words stop rattling and settle into the slot in his chest shaped for them, let himself imagine crossing the gazebo in three long strides and putting his hand in Crowley's and saying Yes, together, I don't need the shop or the books or one last bottle of wine for the road, let's go now.
Let himself picture being loved.
"Listen to yourself," he croaked.
Crowley didn't flinch. Six thousand years. Crowley really measured their friendship so far back? Maybe he was right. Aziraphale felt he'd probably been saying things other than what he meant since the wall of Eden, and maybe after all that time Crowley could hear the unsaid as well as Aziraphale could.
Crowley would keep hearing something else, then, until Aziraphale meant it.
"There is no 'our side,'" he choked out. "Not anymore. It's over."
Crowley actually staggered, taking a step back and catching himself. He stared and oh Lord, for once Aziraphale was grateful for the dark glasses shielding both of them from each other.
No, he wasn't. Would Crowley wear his glasses to the Battle? When had he last seen Crowley's eyes, without realizing he would never see them again?
He expected Crowley to object again. But why should he, when Aziraphale had meant it?
He felt his throat closing up as Crowley turned and walked away, as though to prevent him from calling after him. No, Aziraphale wouldn't call. At last, for the first time since he'd given away his sword, here he was, an obedient servant of Heaven. Maybe that was why Crowley hadn't asked him just once more — maybe Aziraphale had finally snuffed out the one thing about him Crowley had loved.
The demon disappeared from view. The angel sat down heavily on the bandstand steps, and put his face in his hands, and wept.
Aziraphale had never seen the point of sleeping.
A lovely evening and a good bottle of wine was only cut short by stretching your long legs out on the bookstore sofa and starting to snore. And an evening that tumbled your life down around your ears couldn't be escaped just by laying down in the dark, still and silent as though the world had already ended.
So Aziraphale passed a long night in his darkened bookstore, staring unseeingly at the words of Agnes Nutter and thinking about Armageddon, and pain in a face more familiar than his own. When the sun came up, the angel had pretty well changed his mind about how this was all going to go.
The Almighty would fix this, if Aziraphale only asked, only explained. She liked to be asked. He doubted anyone had bothered. The Lord loved Her creation, or She wouldn't have made it, surely. So Aziraphale would explain, and then he would find Crowley and do whatever he'd done to make Crowley love him the first time. Whatever he had to do. He'd get everything back where it was, and then he'd… and then he'd figure it out from there.
If Crowley hated him now, Aziraphale could hardly blame him. He'd been disappointing his friend for millennia, but Crowley had already lost everything Aziraphale had always been afraid of losing, and it had taken Aziraphale so long to believe there was anything left to lose after that. But there was, there was, there had always been Crowley to lose, and Aziraphale had lost him.
At least, until he pulled up on the side of the street in Soho. Apologizing.
Aziraphale didn't want to run away to Alpha Centauri. He wanted to stay right here on an intact Earth with Crowley, with wine and first editions and pushing 90 through the middle of London at rush hour, with all of it. He could fix this, and if he had to go to Alpha Centauri to get Crowley afterward, that's what he would do.
He had something he needed to say first, though.
"I forgive you," he said, looking into the dark circles of Crowley's glasses. He tried to do what Crowley did sometimes, to put the other words in it, to make it mean what he couldn't say, not yet.
If Crowley heard it, the sentiment was unwelcome. He pulled back, grimacing, and fled, and promised Aziraphale would never cross his mind again.
Maybe he wouldn't. If Aziraphale really cared, he'd hope it was true. Maybe Heaven and Hell would overlook one lone demon on a distant planet. Crowley deserved the warm glow of an orange star, and peace from any angel that didn't know his worth, even if that angel was Aziraphale.
But maybe he would.
On a small town airfield, Aziraphale stood with his chin high against the assembled hordes of Heaven and Hell waiting just on the other side of reality, and dared them to cross.
For the feeling of Crowley standing solid and alive next to him, Aziraphale would face the Almighty Herself.
He hoped it wouldn't come to that, though.
A bus came trundling around the bend, beaming "Oxford" like a strange benediction. Like glad tidings of great joy.
"He'll go to London anyway," said Crowley. "He just won't know why." To the bus driver, Aziraphale supposed, it must seem something like an ineffable plan.
They didn't have sides anymore; there was no longer anyone to disappoint, any explanations that had to be made. That could be made. No possible combinations of lies, or half-truths, or groveling, or negotiating could put either of them back in the favor of Heaven or Hell now. Aziraphale had made it to the other side of Armageddon with everything he wanted, and nothing to lose.
It was a funny thing, surviving.
The two of them trudged on board the bus in silence and Aziraphale thought, He'll say it any moment. It's always a moment like this, when he could hardly say anything else, he saw that now, and this time Aziraphale knew exactly what he was going to say back.
They sat down midway back on the bus. As they began rolling toward London, Aziraphale did what he had wanted to do again since 1941, and reached out and wrapped his unsteady hand around Crowley's.
Crowley's hand was stiff for a moment, and then folded around Aziraphale's. His eyes, however, stayed staring out the bus window, his elbow propped on the sill and his face leaning on his loosely curled fist, as though the hand Aziraphale was holding had nothing to do with the rest of him.
Aziraphale squeezed his hand and Crowley squeezed back instantly, unmistakably, but made no other movement except something at his throat. The moment Aziraphale loosened his grip, Crowley did too, but neither let go.
Crowley cleared his throat and opened his mouth to speak, and Aziraphale's heart leapt.
"About this prophecy, actually," Crowley said. "I think I might have an idea."
"Right, yes," Aziraphale said, trying not to feel disappointed. Crowley would say it. He always had. They just had a few things on their plates to deal with.
The bus puttered through the night, and when the sun yawned hazy over the approaching shape of London and they finally let go of each other's hands, they were different hands than the ones they'd taken in Tadfield.
Aziraphale stood at a London bus stop and looked into his own eyes and reflected on how odd it would be to hear the words from his own mouth.
Instead Crowley tugged at his tartan bowtie and said "Meet up at St. James at ten? I can't imagine they'll take long to move, but might as well size up Adam's brave new world in the meantime. The M25 certainly didn't seem any worse for wear, coming in."
"Yes, of course," Aziraphale said, and then remembered himself and tried to shake some of Crowley's looseness into his joints. "Yeah," he amended.
Any moment now.
"Right," said Crowley. "Good luck."
Aziraphale watched him walk away, unaccountably disoriented.
Aziraphale skimmed his fingers over the cool surface of the holy water, and smothered a grin. Centuries of worrying and wishing for some way to protect Crowley were worth it, in the end, for this. Aziraphale made sure to meet the eyes of every lord of Hell, and then turned to direct a cool stare at Michael for good measure, until both the occult and the ethereal knew not to touch his demon.
Champagne at the Ritz had all the flavor of victory that Miss Device's table wine at the bus stop had lacked. They toasted and Aziraphale felt his heart would burst.
"To the world."
Crowley was going to say it, right now, Aziraphale could see it his face, and he wouldn't catch Aziraphale wrongfooted or frightened or confused, because they were safe, truly and finally. Crowley was his, like he'd never been before, because Aziraphale had guarded him from harm in a way he'd never been able to do for humanity, for Eden. Now he was Aziraphale, Angel of Crowley, and he knew exactly what to say.
Crowley smiled, and sipped his champagne.
The pianist wrapped up a Vera Lynn number and started in on some Gershwin. Crowley topped up their flutes.
The pianist moved on to Perry Como.
They finished the bottle in what Crowley seemed to think was companionable silence. When it was gone, Crowley paid the bill, then stretched luxuriously and smiled.
"Shall we go to yours, then? I'm sure you'd like to see the old place, and I rather fancy a post-Armageddon nap."
Crowley must have taken Aziraphale's wordless dismay as assent, because soon he was trailing after Crowley to his car, and then getting out double-parked on the street in front of the bookshop.
All the times in the last few days that they could have never seen each other again, and Crowley was going to just…?
Aziraphale didn't spare a glance at the shop's new stock as he followed Crowley into the back room. Watching the demon spread himself out on the sofa like jam on bread was truly the last straw.
"You're really not going to say it?" Aziraphale blurted.
The self-pleased, catlike smile dropped off Crowley's face in a moment. He lifted his head off the armrest and frowned at Aziraphale where he stood in the doorway.
"Say what?" he said, and really, that was too much.
"The world nearly ends, you and I are sentenced and almost executed for treason, and none of that warrants a... a declaration?" Aziraphale demanded, throwing his hands in the air.
There was a pause while Crowley processed this. Then he suddenly swung his legs off the sofa and sat back up, sputtering indignantly. "You— wha— declaration—" He ripped off his sunglasses and fixed Aziraphale with an incredulous look. "Six thousand years— six thousand years of declarations and you want to hear it again? For the occasion?"
"No! I mean, yes," Aziraphale shouted back, wringing his hands, and he knew he sounded petulant, but he thought of Crowley walking away from the bandstand and he couldn't help but be afraid. "It's only that I was going to say it back this time!"
As soon as he'd said it Aziraphale froze, his heart stopped midway through a beat.
Crowley looked like he'd been hit with a brick.
He looked at Aziraphale. Aziraphale looked at him.
Crowley's face had gone rapidly bloodless, the whites of his eyes wide circles around the yellow, his jaw tight and starting to tremble.
"You what?" said Crowley, in a very small voice.
Aziraphale felt his cheeks start to go red.
"Really," he mumbled, pulling his chin in to his chest, feeling sick and stupid. "This isn't how it was supposed to go at all."
Crowley made no response, besides to keep staring, unblinking and perfectly still. After a minute, Aziraphale drew in a painful breath.
"You don't have to," he said, "if you don't want—"
Crowley rocketed up off the sofa, holding out a hand as though Aziraphale were preparing to flee.
"No!" Crowley said quickly. "No, I—" He wet his lips, and swallowed. Aziraphale clasped his hands together and waited, trying to make his suddenly restored heartbeat slow down.
Crowley took one step forward.
"I love you," he said, his voice a little wobbly. "Aziraphale."
Aziraphale felt something new root and grow in his chest and blossom slowly across his face. He hadn't guessed how it would feel the first time, free to really hear it.
The pause went on a second too long, and Crowley dragged a hand down his face, looking beleaguered.
"I swear to Somebody, angel…" he muttered through his fingers.
Aziraphale hurriedly crossed the room and folded Crowley's other hands in his own. It was so easy this time — eighty years of wishing, and here he'd held Crowley's hand twice in twenty four hours. Crowley's fingers convulsed around his, cool and slender.
"Oh my dear, I'm sorry, I love you too,” he said, rushed and breathless. “Of course I love you."
"Of course," parroted Crowley, and made a sound that wasn't really a laugh. He stared down at their joined hands, as though his was operating independently from him again as it had last night. Aziraphale ran his thumb over Crowley's knuckles.
"Of course," Aziraphale agreed quietly.
Crowley's other hand came up and clutched over top of Aziraphale's, his eyes gone abruptly stricken.
"No, wait," he pleaded. "Wait, how do you mean that? You mean we're — you mean we're allies, right, we're friendssss?" His voice was ragged, his grip tight on Aziraphale's hands, and Aziraphale's chest ached. I don't even like you. "Do you mean that I'm your friend?"
Aziraphale thought of the first time he'd heard the words. Not from Crowley — the very first time, in the Garden, how the first two humans had looked at each other and invented something, an emotion that wasn't celestial benevolence or companionable fellow-feeling. He remembered a touch, a hand resting on a face. There was so much he'd never let himself wish for before now.
He tugged one hand gently out from under Crowley's, who released him immediately as though afraid to be caught holding onto Aziraphale longer than Aziraphale held onto him. Aziraphale recaptured one retreating hand, and reached up with his other to trace his fingertips down Crowley's temple. Crowley squeezed his eyes shut, his face creased as if in pain.
"I mean it how you mean it," Aziraphale said. "Did you think, all this time, that I wasn't listening?”
He cupped Crowley's cheek, and a shudder ran through his demon. Crowley didn't open his eyes, but tipped forward and touched his forehead to Aziraphale's.
It was only when he felt something damp touch his thumb that he realized Crowley was crying.
“Oh my love,” Aziraphale sighed. “Oh my love, I’ve made a mess of everything, haven’t I?” He wiped gently at Crowley’s face with his fingertips. “But I couldn’t bear it, the thought that Hell would make you suffer for the sake of me. I told you so, once, but you were sleeping. In 1862, you know.“
Aziraphale felt his own eyes start to sting. He bit the inside of his lip and blinked rapidly, gripping Crowley a little tighter, bumping their noses together. “But I’ve made you suffer for my sake anyway, I suppose. It was never my intention to—”
Crowley pressed forward the scant remaining space, and kissed him.
It took longer than it should have to process Crowley's mouth on his, Crowley's tears wetting his face. Only when Crowley started to pull back did the thought finally crystallize, in Aziraphale's mind and along every nerve in his corporation, and the angel surged forward.
Crowley let out a high quiet keen against his mouth and dropped Aziraphale's hand to clutch at the front of his jacket with both hands as their lips parted. Aziraphale wrapped his freed arm around Crowley's back and pressed him close. He thought he could probably spend decades discovering things like this that he had never dared to want.
Crowley was trembling against him now. One of his hands had slid up from Aziraphale's lapel to the back of his neck. Aziraphale pulled away a little, and Crowley gave one swallowed sob followed by a small, shivery sigh, cool against the overwarm skin of the angel's face. Crowley had dared, Aziraphale realized with a pang. Crowley had wanted.
Crowley's eyes opened, yellow from corner to corner and glossy with tears. Aziraphale stroked a thumb over Crowley's cheekbone and smiled.
"Your eyes," he said. His voice was less steady than he would have liked it to be. "They used to look like that in Eden."
Crowley stared at him dumbly for a second before seeming to connect meaning to his words. He shook himself, frowning and looking embarrassed, and blinked hard once, twice. On the second, the yellow in his eyes contracted into a more human-looking iris, but it did not serve to make him look any less dazed. Aziraphale tried not to be disappointed.
“I only meant it was good to see them again,” he said. “I love every part of you, my dearest.”
A muscle in Crowley's face twitched under Aziraphale’s hand, and then Crowley sighed. He closed his eyes again and leaned his cheek into Aziraphale’s palm.
“All this time,” Crowley murmured, almost inaudible, and Aziraphale’s heart clenched.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He wanted to say I wasted so much time, but how long had they been safe? How long, even, had Aziraphale known his own mind? He wanted to say I wish I hadn’t kept you waiting, but would he have changed a single choice for risk that it would not lead them here, now?
“I could have said something," he said anyway. A faint smile flickered onto Crowley’s face.
“You certainly could’ve just said it first,” Crowley murmured. “You didn’t have to make me say it again.”
“Well, you waited so long for a reply, sweet,” he said, feeling even as he did that it wasn't a particularly good reason. “I wanted to give you one. It had… symmetry.”
Crowley leaned forward and pressed his lips to the side of Aziraphale’s neck, almost lightly, almost sweetly. A shallow breath rasped out of Aziraphale’s lungs, and nothing seemed to come in to replace it.
“You know what has symmetry, angel,” Crowley said into the skin just below Aziraphale’s ear, at the corner of his jaw. “You catching up to my number after six millennia.”
Aziraphale thought of a million glances, of a thousand smiles, of a hundred gestures. Of three words. He wasn’t sure he could ever catch up, really, but he was willing to spend another six millennia trying.
"I love you," he whispered into the shell of Crowley’s ear. Dust swirled lazily, invisibly in the warm air of the bookshop. “I love you,” he breathed against Crowley’s temple. It was worth waiting for, the two of them here together, nobody watching, the whole lovely old world going on spinning under them. Forever and ever, Amen.
“I love you.”