It doesn’t take him long to understand the Fall took far more from him than the Grace of God; than that quiet inner certainty that She loved him; than the radiant light that warmed him from the inside out. He can’t feel Her anymore and in the beginning, before he'd grown too angry to care, that pierced through him like a lance - the sudden stark cold of Her absence. He’s hardened himself to what he lacks by the time he meets the sweet-faced Guardian of the Eastern Gate, barely even remembers what it is he’s supposed to miss so much.
Until they’re sitting side by side, their legs dangling over the side of the wall as the very first rain falls in a light drizzle around them. Crawley huddles under the angel’s sheltering wing, still a touch bewildered that he’d even been offered protection in the first place. He can hardly believe his luck, managing to stumble across the only decent angel about the place. There isn’t much about Heaven he has allowed himself to remember but the memories he does have contain quite a lot of complete tosspots.
Crawley extends a tentative hand, letting the rain spatter onto his upturned palm. Its cool and wet and when he brings his hand up to his face, he can smell the clean, earthen scent of petrichor. “Hmm…” He studies his hand curiously, watching the water slide down his palm and along his wrist. “S’nice.”
“Really?” The angel doesn’t sound convinced, eyeing the rain with the sort of wariness Crawley would never expect from one who’s supposed to worship every half-arsed project Heaven churns out. He lifts a hand to the wispy blond curls framing his head like a halo and mutters, “I don’t think I like what it does to my hair.”
Crawley blinks at him and feels a slow, delighted smile curl his mouth. What an odd creature he’s managed to befriend. Hoping to reassure him, he says, “Nah, still looks fine.” The angel doesn’t seem to hear him, prodding experimentally at a curl just by his ear. Crawley nudges him. “Oi, erm - bugger, what’s your name, angel?”
The angel turns to him, eyes widening and a little flush coloring his cheeks. “Oh, I didn’t tell you, did I? I’m so sorry - that was terribly rude of me.” He wring his hands, glancing out toward the horizon where they can just make out the distant figures of Adam and Eve trudging through the sand. “Long day, you see.”
Crawley shrugs, making a noise of agreement. “Course. Completely understandable…”
“Aziraphale,” the angel supplies, still looking a bit mortified by his own manners.
“Aziraphale,” Crawley repeats, rolling the name around on his tongue.
The angel smiles, just a touch self-deprecating around the edges. “A mouthful, isn’t it?”
“S’not bad.” Crawley isn’t sure why but the need to put this angel at ease has quickly become very important to him. He brushes his arm against Aziraphale’s and tilts his head, grinning. “I think I’ll learn to love it.”
And then he can’t say anything at all. The pain steals his breath, so sharp and so sudden as it slices through his chest that it feels like Falling all over again. The sudden absence of light and warmth, the cold dark of knowing he will never feel love again - never be worthy of it. He curls in on himself, a whine escaping his lips. His vision goes fuzzy at the edges and for a moment he feels consciousness slipping through his fingers.
Until a gentle, cautious hand lands on his shoulder. “Crawley?”
Awareness comes slamming into Crawley once more, pain loosening its wrathful grip around him until he feels like he might be able to breathe again. He slowly uncurls from the fetal position and blinks away the lights dancing in front of his eyes.
“Are you quite alright?”
“M’fine,” he manages, relieved when his voices comes out relatively normal. “Sorry.”
“Oh, no need for apologies.” Aziraphale’s hand slips away and Crawley bites down on his lip to stop himself from asking for his touch again. “These bodies can be so fragile, I’m told. Perhaps you’re hungry?”
Crawley stifles a pained noise in response. He’s been hungry since the Fall and it’s never once made him feel like this - like one wrong move will turn his whole body inside out, leaving his nerves raw and exposed. “Yeah,” he lies, still waiting in fear for it to happen again. “Must be.”
“Allow me.” Aziraphale plucks a piece of fruit out of thin air - not, Crawley notices with bleak amusement, an apple - and offers it to him with a sunny smile. Like he’s being helpful. Crawley can’t remember the last time anyone wanted to help him so he takes the fruit with a weak nod of thanks. He bites into under the angel’s watchful eye, feeling juice drip down his chin. Later, he’ll learn the fruit is called a peach but right now, he just munches on it quietly and watches the rain fall. The pain in his chest lessens more and more with each accidental brush of Aziraphale’s shoulder against his own.
Considering Crowley is a demon, it takes him a century or so before he utters the word enough times to make the connection between when he says it and when he feels like dying. And he says it often enough around Aziraphale that it takes even longer to understand his inability to voice a single word of love applies to more than just a soft-eyed, blond-haired angel with a wide, bright grin. Once, he’d drunkenly proclaimed his love for a certain drink in the middle of a tavern and spent the next several days coughing up blood.
When he catches on, he all but purges the word from his vocabulary. It doesn’t even occur to him to try saying it any longer but the more time he spends around Aziraphale, the more impossible it becomes not to think it. The looming threat of searing pain and the memory of blood pouring out of his mouth is enough of a deterrent to keep Crowley from ever daring to attempt it again but nothing -
not even God Herself -
could stop him from showing it.
i. 48 BC
Caesar’s men had only torched the ships but the idiots hadn’t counted on the fire actually spreading. It devours everything in its path and when Crowley realizes the Library isn’t going to be spared, he can only think of the silly angel he’s run into a few times by now. He loves to read, anything and everything he can get his soft little hands on. Crowley scarcely sees him anymore without a book of some kind at his side.
Aziraphale is around here somewhere, following Pompey about like it’ll make a difference. They’d run into each other just a few days ago in a bathhouse and shared a bottle of wine like they were friends. It won’t take long for news to reach him of what Caesar’s done. He’ll be devastated when he finds out. Crowley imagines the look on his face when he discovers how many of the finest books and scrolls have gone up in flames and - goddamn it.
Hissing curses to Caesar and Ptolemy and anyone else who had anything to do with the whole sodding mess, Crowley steps into a burning warehouse and wades through the fire. Inside is a tiny microcosm of hell. The dark and the thick black smoke would suffocate a human before they could venture more than a few paces but Crowley simply holds his breath. He squints through the ash clouding the air, watching flames lick across the floor and up the shelves - disintegrating valuable scrolls in seconds.
Debris fills the air as the fire consumes everything, wooden beams splintering and falling from above. Crowley barely dodges a section of collapsed ceiling before it rains down on his head. The heat is blistering, flushing his skin and bubbling the blood in his veins. He grits his teeth and moves for the nearest shelf, grabbing anything salvageable. The higher shelves are still mostly untouched so he focuses on those, sweeping book after book into his arms.
The fire creeps close enough to flirt with the bottom of his robes and singe the hair on his arms before he finally stumbles out of the warehouse laden down with enough books and scrolls to educate a small village. Crowley shakes the ash from his hair and allows himself a moment to breathe in clean air, still feeling the heat of the flames at his back.
A small crowd has gathered to watch the place burn by now but he pays no mind to the stares - at least until the smoke clears from his vision enough to catch sight of blond curls among the onlookers. Aziraphale stands just in front of everybody else, as though he’d been about to run in himself - the idiot - watching his favorite place in the world go up in smoke. He seems to spot Crowley at the same time Crowley sees him, swaying in place as he stares. Crowley wonders what he must look like, a demon covered in soot and holding an armful of literature. For a moment, he fears Aziraphale will get the wrong idea and believe he started the fire in the first place.
As he walks slowly toward him, Crowley frantically tries to compose an explanation in his head that doesn’t make him sound insane, besotted, or both. Nothing much comes to mind. Even the truth would be humiliating. I just happened to be nearby when the blaze caught and I couldn’t stand the thought of the look on your face so I ran inside and risked discorporation to save anything I could because I think you’re my best friend and I want you to be happy and sometimes I think about what you might taste like. Yeah, Crowley is pretty sure he’d rather confess to torching the place.
Luckily, Aziraphale doesn’t look angry as he approaches. He only watches, gaze unreadable, as Crowley drops everything at Aziraphale’s feet. He dusts off his hands, wrinkling his nose when it produces a cloud of ash. “Thought you might like these,” he says, as though he’d just picked them up at a market and not run into a burning building for them.
“Crowley…”Aziraphale stares at him, his eyes wide and his lips parted. “You shouldn’t have —you could have been — I don’t know what to — thank you.”
He flinches. “Don’t. Just didn’t have anything better to do.”
His robes are still smoldering faintly and it’ll take him days to get the smell of smoke out of his hair. His face feels sunburned and he knows his skin will start peeling in a matter of hours. And he really, really doesn’t care. Because Aziraphale smiles at him - slow and wide and so blessed happy that it crinkles the corners of his eyes and his whole face damn near shines with it.
“Right. Of course.” Night is falling over the city but Aziraphale, still beaming, asks him, “Lunch?”
Crowley shrugs, like his heart hadn’t just skipped several beats. “Could eat.”
The books and scrolls sit between them, safe and unharmed on the ground. And the warmth Crowley suddenly feels seeping into his bones doesn’t burn at all.
The streets are lined with bodies, piled three and four high. The sun beats down on them, baking the corpses in the high heat of the afternoon. Bonfires burn in the distance but it’s impossible to keep up with the number of deceased. Must be in the thousands by now. The foul stench of decay and burning flesh fills the air, making the back of his throat tickle with the need to heave. Those who aren’t ill either hide away in their homes hoping to survive or wander the streets in a grief-stricken stupor. The air is still and the sound of weeping is impossible to ignore.
In the middle of all this, Crowley finds Aziraphale.
He sits beside an ailing woman lying on a blanket in the middle of the lane, wiping the sweat from her brow with a limp cloth. Last Crowley heard, the doctor had run out of beds and started turning people away. Not like there’s anything he can do for them. Humans are so fragile even on their best days, but against this plague they’re dropping like flies. At the rate they’re going, Crowley has begun to wander if they’ve pissed the Almighty off again. It all feels unsettlingly familiar to that unfortunate Ark business.
Aziraphale doesn’t look up when he approaches, though Crowley’s shadow falls over him. His shoulders droop just a little, however, like he knows he can relax. Like he knows it’s only Crowley. Using the cloth to stroke the woman’s hair from her pale brow, he says, “I can’t save them.”
Crouching beside him, Crowley sighs. “No, angel. You can’t.”
“I did try.” Aziraphale stiffens, as though Crowley might think he’s just been sitting here feeling sorry for himself. “I even healed a few of them but-” He purses his lips in that way Crowley has come to recognize as silent disapproval at his superiors. “I was reprimanded.”
The wounded confusion lacing his words makes Crowley flinch. He had long ago lost any belief that Heaven is any different from Hell in the grand scheme of things but seeing Aziraphale start to understand it makes him want to set fire to something. He stares at Aziraphale’s trembling hand as he dips the cloth back in the bowl of water at his side and bites down on his tongue hard enough to taste blood filling his mouth.
Aziraphale finally looks up, the light all but gone out of his eyes. It’s difficult for Crowley to see this kind of suffering on such a massive scale so he can’t fathom what it must be like for an angel created to guard and love humanity. “If it’s in my power, why shouldn’t I save them?”
Crowley swallows down the lump in his throat. “Careful,” he murmurs. “Questions are a dangerous thing for an angel. Best just think of it as….”
He can’t actually bring himself to say it but Aziraphale does. “Ineffable. Yes.”
He blinks rapidly and for a moment Crowley worries he might cry. It’s only as he sits there waiting for the angel to compose himself, that he truly looks at him. Once he starts, it’s impossible not to notice how tired Aziraphale looks. His curls are limp and the dark circles under his eyes only highlight the lack of their usual sparkle. He looks thinner than usual and the apples of his cheeks have lost the pinkish hue that Crowley has always secretly thought made him look rather charmingly innocent. His hands tremble with exhaustion as he curls them into fists on his lap.
Crowley frowns. “How long have you been out here torturing yourself, Aziraphale?”
“I’m perfectly fine.” Aziraphale brushes him off with a wave of his hand, biting his lip as he stares at a passing cart piled with bodies. “I have to help.”
With a groan, Crowley curls a firm hand around his shoulder. “You can’t help them. Heaven doesn’t even want you to — you said so yourself.” He casts his gaze over the woman on the blanket beside them, suspicion confirmed when he finds her eyes closed and her chest still. Gone. Just like all the others before and all the ones yet to follow. “You’re going to drive yourself mad. Come on, angel.”
Without waiting for Aziraphale to muster up another half-hearted excuse to sit here and watch the humans die, Crowley climbs to his feet and pulls the angel up with him. He staggers weakly once he’s on his feet but Crowley wraps an arm around his waist to steady him. “Crowley, I can’t just leave them-”
“Course you can,” Crowley says, dismissive. It makes Aziraphale huff. “The Almighty did, didn’t she?”
For that, Aziraphale has no answer. Crowley leads him away from the corpses littering the ground and the scent of decay in the air, Aziraphale leaning heavily into his side as they go. Despite his initial protest, the angel does not utter another word to try and stop him. They make their way through the deserted streets together until they come to the very outskirts of the village, where Crowley has been staying since he arrived.
The smell of death isn’t as thick out here and the bonfires are barely visible in the distance, just black smoke curling high into the air. Crowley guides Aziraphale into the house and slams the door shut with a snap of his fingers. It isn’t much - just a place to sleep and eat when the mood strikes him - but it’ll do for a bit of angelic rehabilitation.
When he nudges Aziraphale gently in the direction of the bed, he finally tries protesting again. He digs his heels in and stalls their progress. “Crowley, you know I don’t care for sleeping.”
“Yeah,” Crowley mutters, pressing a hand into the small of his back to propel him forward again. “And I don’t care for the thought of you discorporating from exhaustion. It’ll take ages before they send you back and I don’t like drinking alone. So lie down before you collapse, angel.”
He isn’t sure when it happened but angel has gradually become less a statement of what Aziraphale is and more of an endearment. Crowley likes how the word rolls off his tongue, dripping with fondness Aziraphale doesn’t even seem to notice. It’s a bit of a thrill every time he uses it, the same exhilarating feeling of getting away with something he shouldn’t. No one can stop him from saying angel, even if he secretly means something else when he says it.
Aziraphale sniffs primly, making a show of perching reluctantly on the very edge of the bed. As though he’s merely humoring Crowley for the time being until he can make his escape. Crowley turns away only long enough to grab a pitcher and a cup, miracling the tepid water into something stronger. If he adds a bit of a sleeping draught, Aziraphale is too exhausted and disillusioned to notice.
“Drink.” He pushes the cup into Aziraphale’s hands and doesn’t take his eyes off the angel until he lifts it to his lips with a put-upon sigh. “You can sleep here, if you like.”
“I don’t need to sleep.” Aziraphale drains the cup and offers it back, his fingers brushing Crowley’s briefly. “And I don’t believe my side would be thrilled to discover that I-”
“What?” Crowley lifts an eyebrow. “Slept in a demon’s bed?”
Aziraphale flushes, pursing his lips. “Quite.”
“Hardly counts if I’m not actually in the bed with you, does it?” Crowley watches in amusement as Aziraphale ponders this, his eyes already growing heavy. He blinks a few times, rapidly, and frowns. Using his best tempting voice, he murmurs, “Just a quick kip. No one will notice.”
With a yawn, Aziraphale admits, “I suppose I could rest my eyes for a moment. Just this once.” He blinks again, clearly struggling to remain upright and awake. “Heaven couldn’t be angry if I don’t actually sleep, could they?”
Crowley nods solemnly. “Very sensible.”
“Yes, I think so.” Aziraphale wriggles back from the edge of the bed, intending to get more comfortable. “Only a few minutes, mind you. I’ll be up and off again in two shakes of a lamb’s-”
He trails off, asleep before his head even hits the pillow.
Crowley stares, something uncomfortably warm unfurling in his chest at the sight of Aziraphale asleep in his bed. He reaches out a hand and strokes his fingertips down the angel’s pale cheek. Aziraphale tilts his head into the touch with a blissful, oblivious little smile and Crowley feels that forbidden, beautiful word heavy on the tip of his tongue. He drops his hand, sighing.
“Sleep well, angel.”
When word reaches him of another British naval ship captured and commandeered by pirates, Crowley doesn’t initially think much of it. Though he’d taken credit for piracy when the commendation arrived, he hasn’t really paid much attention to it since the mid-1700s. In another decade or so, pirates will be all but extinct in these waters. Hardly worth his time. At least, until news of the passengers taken hostage starts to trickle in.
In the middle of a mission in the West Indies, Crowley sits in a crowded pub sulking over a botched temptation and the complete overabundance of rum. He hasn’t had a decent drink since he arrived. On his left, a couple of lads who work around the docks are recounting the latest news from afar. Sober and irritated, Crowley listens for lack of anything else to do.
“Course the officers all have wealthy families that’ll pay ungodly amounts of coin for their safe return,” one of them points out, drunkenly waving his cup in the air for emphasis and nearly smacking his counterpart in the face. Rum sloshes over the sides of his cup, dripping onto the dirty floor. “But the prissy fellow-”
“Nobleman,” the other one says, looking only slightly more in control of his faculties than his friend. “British, I think.”
The clumsy one waves his cup again. “Won’t even write a ransom note to his family. And apparently, by the look of ‘im, they must be swimming in money up to their bleedin’ eyeballs. Keeps sayin’ Gabriel won’t give a single gold coin for ‘im anyway.”
Crowley straightens from his slouch against the bar, his stomach twisting into knots.
“Dunno, must be his brother or somethin’.” The clumsy one gulps what’s left of his rum, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. “Anyway, keeps going on about paperwork and how terrible the sea air is for books. I reckon he’ll walk the plank soon if he doesn’t start cooperatin’.”
Crowley hisses out a breath between his teeth. Aziraphale, you blessed idiot.
That night, he sneaks down to the docks and steals a small vessel he can manage on his own. While he doesn’t have an exact destination to aim for, it’s easy enough after thousands of years to just close his eyes and search out Aziraphale by feeling alone. If asked to put it into words, Crowley couldn’t say exactly what the feeling is — just that it’s warm and bright and the closer he gets to it, the more he feels like he’s coming home.
With a bit of miraculous wind, it doesn’t take him long to reach Aziraphale. He comes across the pirate ship by the time dawn is breaking over the horizon. He can tell it’s the right one without even checking - Aziraphale feels so close Crowley can practically reach out into the ether and touch him.
Lowering a rowboat into the water, Crowley grumbles about careless angels always getting themselves into trouble without the sense to get out of it again while he rows toward the ship. He doesn’t exactly have a plan in mind, despite having all night to think of one. He’s really more of a act like you know what you’re doing and hope for the best type of demon anyway.
Waves lap gently against the sides of his boat as he moves through the water and the salty air tickles at his nose. The wind carries the sound of angry voices toward him and when Crowley glances up, he sees the deck of the ship littered with people. Fingers tightening around the oars, he scans their faces and sees Aziraphale almost immediately.
Though his clothes are filthy, probably from being locked up in the bilge for Someone knows how long, he’s easy enough to spot amongst the crew of raggedy pirates when he’s dressed from head to toe in French silk. A bearded man in a big hat - the Captain, Crowley assumes - has the angel at sword point as he ushers him toward the plank.
Clutching a satchel that Crowley just knows is full of books, Aziraphale swats at the blade with an offended huff. “Really now, this is completely uneccessary. Do you have any idea the strop Gabriel will be in if I’m murdered by pirates?” He yelps when the tip of the blade prods mercilessly into his back. “Have a heart, my good man.”
Floating unseen just beneath the plank now, Crowley snaps his fingers. Overhead, the angry shouting stops. The only sound for miles is the creaking of the ship and the sea washing against the hull. Lounging against the side of his rowboat, he calls out with a smirk, “They’re pirates, angel. Heartless is practically their middle name.”
Aziraphale whirls from the frozen pirates on deck and peers over the side of the ship, looking a bit like a startled bird. “Crowley?” His eyes widen when Crowley waggles his fingers and the bright, relieved smile that lights up his face makes the whole sleepless night searching the endless waters for him entirely worth it. “What are you doing here?”
“Thought I might try deep sea fishing,” he says dryly, arching an eyebrow. “Want to join?”
Still beaming, Aziraphale tosses down his satchel. It hits the bottom of the boat with a heavy thunk and Crowley rolls his eyes. Yup, definitely books. He shoves the satchel beneath the seat and holds out a hand to Aziraphale as he climbs down, helping him settle into the boat without tipping them over.
Up close, Aziraphale is as unkempt as Crowley can ever remember him being. His clothes are dirty and torn, his cheeks smudged with dirt, and he smells strongly of rum. His blond hair is mussed and growing in ringlets longer than Crowley has ever seen them - long enough to tumble over his forehead and into his eyes as he looks at Crowley and says, “Thank you, my dear.”
How can he manage to look so fucking perfect after being kidnaped by pirates? Mouth dry, Crowley rubs uselessly at his sternum. His chest feels tight and full, like his heart is going to burst out of it and land at Aziraphale’s feet. Perhaps he could tuck it into his satchel alongside his books and keep it safe. Maybe then Crowley would stop feeling the urge to blurt out something that will only bring him pain.
“Don’t mention it.” He clears his throat, forcing his gaze away. “Ready?’
At Aziraphale’s nod, he snaps his fingers. Time begins again. On deck, the Captain of the ship who had been threatening Aziraphale at sword point finds himself standing on the farthest edge of the plank. In a moment of startled panic, he loses his balance and tumbles headfirst overboard.
As a great splash sprays sea mist in their direction, Crowley blinks water from his eyes and clucks his tongue. “He should really learn to watch his step in the middle of the ocean like this. Just asking for an accident.”
“Quite right.” Aziraphale clasps his hands together and looks at Crowley with a hopeful smile. “Did you bring anything to eat? The service on that ship was appalling.”
With a wink, Crowley produces an apple.
Aziraphale has made a habit out of meeting his favorite authors, collecting their signatures on the inside covers of all his first editions like children hoard baseball cards. He’s had tea with Jane Austen, edited Billy Shakespeare’s manuscripts, and shared cigarettes with Mary Shelley. Crowley doesn’t even want to think about what he got up to with Oscar bloody Wilde and that tart Lord Byron. His current infatuation with The Beautiful and the Damned means that Crowley’s frequent association with the American called Fitzgerald is a matter of outright, total awe.
It isn’t often Aziraphale looks at him like that - admiration and delight and a little bit of envy. Well, not unless Crowley is holding crepes, anyway. Having something Aziraphale wants is a sensation like no other. It gives Crowley the feeling of decadence, like lounging naked on silk sheets or sipping champagne in a bubble bath. Being in possession of something the angel finds desirable is, to Crowley, the epitome of the sin long ago dubbed Pride. It puffs out his chest, makes a smirk curl his mouth. It makes him magnanimous enough share, the offer dripping off his tongue like a temptation.
The thing is, the moment Aziraphale accepts, Crowley regrets offering.
Scott Fitzgerald isn’t the worst person Crowley has ever met and he’s certain Aziraphale is well used to what terrible people writers can be. And it isn’t his job to shield Aziraphale from it anyway. He’s a demon. If anything, he should at least feel a flicker of anticipation for the moment the angel realizes his latest favorite author is a bit of a prick.
But fuck it, Crowley has long ago resigned himself to being a bit too soft when it comes to Aziraphale. He’s dreading this dinner. Dreading the way Aziraphale’s sweet smile will drop off his face like it always does when he’s disappointed. And Crowley is under no delusions about Fitzgerald. Aziraphale is going to be disappointed at some point during the evening.
Fidgeting on the doorstep of the New York City penthouse, Crowley mutters, “Just remember, I was against this.”
“You’re the one who suggested it, if you recall.” Aziraphale sighs. “You’re always going on about the parties they throw.”
“They throw a brilliant party - lots of gin and dancing and orgies in the pool.” Crowley sniffs, ignoring Aziraphale’s unimpressed glance. “But they’re best in small doses. Otherwise, it’s all a bit much.”
Aziraphale stands beside him, clutching his best copy of The Great Gatsby and a bottle of wine, bouncing a bit on his toes in excitement. “Oh, buck up, Crowley. It’s only dinner.”
Crowley gazes at him, too charmed by his boyish enthusiasm to utter another protest. “Whatever you say, angel.”
Before either of them can say anything else, the door swings open and Zelda squeals at the sight of him. She steps forward with none of the social niceties her parents had tried so hard to ingrain in her, throwing her arms around Crowley’s neck and lifting her feet off the ground. Forced to wrap his arms around her or tumble to the floor, Crowley hugs the small woman to him, wrinkling her cocktail dress and his own suit in the process. Smirking at Aziraphale over her shoulder, he says, “Angel, this is-”
“Zelda Fitzgerald, obviously.” Aziraphale tosses him a warm, slightly exasperated glance. “I know exactly who she is, dear.”
Zelda finally relinquishes him, turning her wide smile on Aziraphale as she reaches out and clasps his hands in her own. “Hello, Mr. Fell,” she says, her honey-thick Alabama accent still prominent despite her best attempts. “I feel as if I know you already too. I swear, Anthony talks of little else but you, sugar.”
Aziraphale lifts an eyebrow. “Does he now?”
Crowley glowers at the back of Zelda’s blonde head, feeling his cheeks grow warm. Making a series of noises in the back of his throat, he shoves his hands into his pockets and says, “Yeah but she failed to mention I’m always talking about your terrible fashion choices.”
Zelda rolls her eyes, tucking her arm into Aziraphale’s and leading him inside. “I assure you, he thinks you hung the stars.”
“Oh no,” Aziraphale says, blinking innocently. “That was all him, I’m afraid.”
Zelda coos at him, utterly charmed. Of course.
Trailing behind them, Crowley sighs. It’s going to be a long night.
Aziraphale is suitably starstruck when he meets Scott, shaking his hand and gushing over his work, but it’s clear to Crowley that Zelda Fitzgerald is the one who has entirely endeared herself to him. She always does — with her spirit and her fire, the way she can make the most innocent things sound utterly outrageous. When given the chance, she completely outshines her husband with her wit and her insight. If Zelda is in the room, no one really sees Scott. That’s probably why her husband seems to resent her so much.
Scott drinks steadily all through dinner, though he manages to be a lively part of the conversation anyway. He can be nearly as charming as his wife when he isn’t in one of his moods. Accustomed to the mercurial nature of the man by now, Crowley keeps an eye out for trouble on the horizon but things continue to be… fine. For one god-blessed moment, he thinks he might actually have managed to give Aziraphale a pleasant evening with one of his favorite writers.
And then —
“Oh, my dear. You simply must show me some of your work.” Aziraphale clasps a hand over Zelda’s, smiling encouragingly at her. “I had no idea you were a writer yourself.”
Zelda waves her cigarette at him, blowing a ring of smoke toward the ceiling. “It isn’t much just yet,” she says, shrugging. “But I hope I can get Scott or a publisher to have a look at it someday.”
“She paints and dances too,” Scott says, reaching across the table for her hand. “A woman of many interests, my Zelda.”
Zelda beams at him.
Scott winks, squeezing her hand. “Unfortunately not much talent but I suppose she’s far too beautiful for that.”
The smile slips from Zelda’s lips and she yanks her hand back into her lap. She takes another slow drag of her cigarette, her eyes glittering. “Not beautiful enough for you,” she says, and Crowley recognizes the hint of steel in her voice. He grimaces. So much for that pleasant evening. The demonic part of him rejoices. The part of him hopelessly gone for an angel heaves a disappointed sigh. “But I suppose you’d prefer something a bit more masculine, wouldn’t you, darling?”
Scott stiffens, his face turning an ugly red. “How dare you-”
As he lunges forward, hand outstretched toward his wife, time seems to slow. Crowley may or may not have a hand in this. He spares a glance at Aziraphale. Unmoving, his lips pursed and his eyes narrowed, he suddenly looks every inch the Guardian he once was. He looks ready to lunge between them and shield Zelda from harm. Crowley sends a brief thanks out into the universe that he’d lost that flaming sword because otherwise, he’s pretty sure Aziraphale would be wielding it right now.
And Christ - Satan - Somebody, Crowley loves him. The words have never been so crowded on the tip of his tongue before, like he’ll scatter into a thousand pieces if he doesn’t say them. But words won’t do either of them any good. And Aziraphale doesn’t need a sword these days. That’s what Crowley is for.
With a flick of his wrist, the candle on the table nearest Scott flickers and sparks, catching on his sleeve. Set alight, he shouts and staggers back from his wife in surprise. He looks a proper idiot, cursing and flapping his arm around, screaming for a pitcher of water. As Zelda leaps to help him put out his flaming sleeve, Aziraphale doesn’t move a muscle to assist. Instead, he relaxes back into his chair and glances across the table at Crowley with something like gratitude in his eyes.
It isn’t until he’s sitting on an Oxford bus headed for London with Aziraphale sitting beside him, still smelling faintly of holy fire, that Crowley privately admits to himself that he might have a very different definition of The End of the World. For everyone else, the start of Armageddon had been on an airbase in Tadfield with four children facing off against the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. For Crowley, everything had ended as he sat on the floor of a burning bookshop in Soho.
He lifts the wine bottle to his lips, taking a generous sip as he stares out the window. He and Aziraphale had raided a shop back in Tadfield as they’d waited for the bus. Crowley had stolen the wine and some Hobnob biscuits for Aziraphale, who always got tetchy when he was hungry. Aziraphale had fussed the whole time about breaking and entering, and left far too much money on the counter on the way out to compensate for his guilt.
Though he does seem appreciative of the Hobnobs, which he’s happily munching on beside Crowley as the bus trundles toward London. His shoulder brushes Crowley’s every time the driver makes a sharp turn, reminding Crowley every so often that he’s actually here. That he isn’t imagining him like he thought he was when Aziraphale first appeared before him while he was drowning his sorrows in a pub.
Crowley listens to to him hum after every bite and thinks: I almost lost this. For several hours today, he thought Aziraphale was dead. No more dropping by the bookshop hoping Aziraphale would invite him to tea or lounging on the settee during shop hours, listening to the angel try to persuade customers away from buying the books. No more trying to hide a smile when Aziraphale made those little noises of distress if Crowley pushed the Bentley past 90 through the city. No more looking across the table at any given restaurant and watching Aziraphale wriggle in his chair while tasting a particularly good slice of cake. No more beaming smiles that make him feel like he never Fell at all.
After thinking he’d never have any of that again, the relief of having the angel so near is knee-weakening. He isn’t safe, not yet. Neither of them are. The threat of both Heaven and Hell is still imminent, looming over them like a dark cloud. But for now, all that matters is that Crowley is tired down to his very old bones and the warm, familiar weight of Aziraphale pressed against his side is reassurance enough that he isn’t going anywhere.
Luckily for him. Crowley isn’t entirely certain what he’d do if Aziraphale insisted on something ridiculous like staying at a hotel instead of his Mayfair flat but he has a feeling it would be something undignified and embarrassing. After today, he doesn’t want to let Aziraphale out of his sight ever again. His penchant for getting himself into the absolute worst trouble is becoming a point of anxiety for Crowley.
He takes another swig of wine and pushes the thought aside. Nothing is happening to Aziraphale. They’ll go back to Crowley’s place and drink some more and hopefully figure out Agnes Nutter’s final prophecy. Crowley will order takeaway from that Indian place on the corner Aziraphale is fond of and maybe entice him into watching a few episodes of Great British Bake Off just to watch the angel wring his hands and sigh every time he thinks Paul Hollywood is too harsh on a contestant.
And maybe, if Crowley is in very good standing with the universe, Aziraphale will refuse to allow him to sleep on the sofa when the bed is plenty big enough for two. Crowley imagines climbing into his usually empty bed and falling asleep with Aziraphale close enough to reach out and touch, probably clad in soft tartan pajamas and reading a book by the light of the bedside lamp. The domesticity — the intimacy — of such an end to this hellish day forms a lump in his throat.
A soft touch to the hand not clutching the wine bottle for dear life startles Crowley completely out of his spiraling thoughts of keeping Aziraphale safe by locking him in the Mayfair flat forever and fortifying the place with demonic wards. Crowley blinks tiredly, turning his head away from the window. And stares. Aziraphale has taken his hand and laced their fingers tightly together.
For a moment, Crowley wonders if he might be so drunk he’s hallucinating. He slowly lifts his gaze from the warm hand gripping his to gape at Aziraphale. If he is hallucinating, he expects to see something ridiculous - like Aziraphale with a clown nose or a maybe a colorful, exotic bird perched on his head. The angel sits as prim as ever beside him. He’s staring at his knees, a faint blush on his cheeks, and there are biscuit crumbs on his waistcoat. And Crowley isn’t hallucinating.
His chest swells and tightens, like his fragile human body is too small to contain all the love within it. And fuck does he love Aziraphale. He loves him so much that he’s tempted to actually say it, to endure pain and sickness and suffering just so the angel can hear it. He wants to lift the soft hand twined with his to his lips and press a series of kisses along his knuckles. He wants to drop the wine bottle in his other hand, climb into Aziraphale’s lap, and wrap around him like he’d wanted to when he was still a snake in the Garden.
Crowley feels so full of love and adoration and hopeless devotion that he expects his vessel to start breaking apart at the seams any moment, spilling all his embarrassing feelings out at Aziraphale’s Oxford-clad feet. But with the ease of six thousand years of practice, he swallows it all back and simply squeezes the gentle hand tucked trustingly into his.
Once. Twice. Three times.
I. Love. You.
Smiling faintly, Aziraphale swipes his thumb across his knuckles and Crowley hopes with all the strength left in his exhausted body that just maybe the angel might understand all the things he cannot say.
Crowley could say a lot of things about Aziraphale - he forgets to breathe when he’s reading a good book; for all his love of food he cannot even scramble eggs without inciting a fire incident; despite being a creature of divine love and mercy, he can hold a grudge like it’s an Olympic sport; and nothing at all will ever convince him that Lin Manuel Miranda isn’t secretly working at the behest of the Almighty Herself - but he cannot say that the angel doesn’t keep his promises.
Sprawled contentedly across a picnic blanket beneath a shade tree in the middle of St. James Park, Crowley quietly lets go of the last of his lingering heartache. You go too fast for me, Crowley, he’d said. But there had been a promise too — one that he had held onto, that perhaps one day Aziraphale wouldn’t be so afraid to be seen with a demon. And now here they are, munching on little sandwiches and sipping from thermoses filled with tea.
The park is quiet today, enough that Crowley can make out the faint quacking of ducks in the distance. Above their heads, leaves rustle with the light summer breeze. He closes his eyes and basks in the sun slanting through the branches. Autumn will be here soon. Crowley wonders if Aziraphale might fancy a trip to Tadfield in October. He can’t imagine a better way to spend Halloween than with the Antichrist himself.
He’s about to mention it when Aziraphale shifts on the blanket beside him. Crowley opens one eye to peer at him, watching the way he smoothes down his waistcoat and straightens his bowtie. He knows the angel well enough by now to realize he’s about to say something so he tucks thoughts of a road trip aside to be brought up later. He closes his eyes again and waits.
Aziraphale clears his throat softly and the sound is so hesitant that Crowley feels the corner of his mouth twitch with the urge to smile. He muscles it down, wondering what on earth there is to be unsure about after everything they’ve been through. Maybe he’s thinking about a trip to Tadfield too and thinks Crowley will be resistant. Maybe he wants the last raspberry torte and thinks it might be ill-mannered to say so. Maybe he’s about to admit that after some careful thought, tartan isn’t all that stylish after all.
“I can’t imagine I’ve been terribly subtle all these years,” Aziraphale finally begins, interrupting Crowley before his theories can get any more ridiculous. His voice is soft and wobbles a little around the edges, like he’s terrified even as the words spill out of his mouth. Intrigued, Crowley opens his eyes again. Aziraphale sits stiffly beside him, wringing his hands. “But after all that has transpired these last few weeks, I feel the need to say it.”
Crowley raises an eyebrow in silent, bemused encouragement.
Aziraphale bites his lip, darting a quick glance at him. “I do love you so dearly, Crowley.” He twists the ring on his pinky finger, oblivious to the blood draining away from Crowley’s face. “Rather a lot more than I ought.”
Gaping at him wordlessly, Crowley slowly pushes himself upright. “You…what?”
“You know, you gave me so many reasons to agree to save this world with you,” Aziraphale says, as though Crowley isn’t rapidly losing any hope of ever being cool again. “But the only reason I truly needed was the one you never bothered to mention. You. You’re a part of this world, Crowley. So of course I wanted to save it — if only to never be parted from you.”
“Ngk.” Crowley shakes his head, mind reeling. In all these years — centuries upon centuries — it had never once occurred to him that he might be faced with the possibility of actually hearing those words from Aziraphale and not being able to say a damn thing in response. He wants to scream. He wants to say it back. So he braces himself and tries. “Aziraphale, I lo-” Sharp, stabbing pain blooms in his chest. Crowley chokes on a whimper, clutching a hand over his spasming heart. He hisses through his teeth. “Fuck.”
In front of him, Aziraphale’s face falls. The light leaves his eyes entirely and the lovely hint of pink in his cheeks begins to fade as the wringing of his hands intensifies. “Oh.” He breathes out a shaky sigh, forcing a little smile. “I’ve gotten it wrong, haven’t I?”
“No, wait. Angel-” Crowley reaches out blindly, grasping at Aziraphale’s hand to keep him from turning away or getting up and leaving him. His chest still aches, burning through him like holy water, but he forces it aside. The pain always leaves eventually. What worries him is that Aziraphale might too. “I can’t say what you want me to say.”
Aziraphale nods, that forgiving, self-deprecating little nod he always gives Gabriel because he thinks he isn’t owed any better than whatever he gets. And Crowley hates himself. And Heaven and Gabriel and the Almighty Herself for taking everything from him. For making him hurt Aziraphale. “It’s quite alright,” he says, and his smile wavers. “I understand-”
“No, you really don’t.” Crowley scoots closer across the blanket, gripping Aziraphale’s hands tight enough to hurt. Tight enough to startle Aziraphale into really looking at him. Crowley peers at him desperately over the rim of his sunglasses. “I need you to listen to me very carefully, angel. All right?”
With wide eyes, Aziraphale says, “All right.”
“What you said just then — about…how you feel. About me.” Crowley licks his lips, the words tripping off his tongue in a halting, unsteady progression. “I can’t say it. I mean, I physically can’t. That ability was…taken from me when I Fell.”
“You-” Aziraphale shakes his head, brow furrowing. “But that’s — you’re not…” He grips Crowley’s hand, fingers digging almost painfully into his skin. “Have you tried?”
“Course I’ve tried,” Crowley scoffs. “Never ends well, trust me.”
Aziraphale swallows audibly, looking more distraught by the second. “What happens?”
“Hurts.” Glancing away, Crowley shrugs. He has a feeling going into detail will only make the nauseated expression on the angel’s face worse and he’s reluctant to make this conversation any more difficult than it needs to be. “Sometimes it makes me physically sick. Threw up blood once.”
Stricken, Aziraphale presses his trembling lips together. “So, you can’t ever… love me.”
Crowley groans and snatches his glasses from his face, tossing them onto the blanket and allowing Aziraphale to see him fully. “Fuck’s sake, angel. Of course I-” He snaps his mouth closed and clenches his teeth, forcing the words back down his throat. Heaving up blood all over their picnic spread won’t help anything. “Just because I can’t say it doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.”
Aziraphale watches him earnestly, his eyes wide and soft with hope. “Really?”
Knees drawn up to his chest and lanky arms folded on top of them, Crowley scrubs a hand over his face. “The humans are brilliant but I didn’t try to save this planet for them. I did it because the thought of not seeing you any time I wanted was unthinkable. I didn’t go to Alpha Centauri because…because there was no point in surviving the end of this god-blessed world if you weren’t in it.” He huffs out a humorless laugh, his throat burning. “You’re…angel, you’re everything.”
Gazing at him wordlessly, lips parted and flush returned to his cheeks, Aziraphale sits utterly still.
Crowley sighs, carding a hand through his hair. “I’m just sorry I can’t say it. It isn’t fair to you when you can tell me so easily and all I can do is-”
“You reassured a frightened angel who had just given away his flaming sword.”
Startled, Crowley glances up from glaring at his knees and finds Aziraphale watching him with wonder in his eyes. Warily, he admits, “Well, I didn’t want you feeling bad about it.”
Aziraphale smiles. A slow, radiant grin that only grows with every word he speaks. “You ran into a burning building to save books for me when we barely knew each other. You’ve rescued me from pirates and Nazis and the French Revolution. You call me angel like others say my love.” Crowley flushes, caught, but Aziraphale goes on, breathless and beaming. “You once set fire to F. Scott Fitzgerald because I looked upset.”
Crowley ducks his head and mumbles, “He was a pillock anyway.”
“Darling,” Aziraphale whispers, and kisses him.
Crowley feels his whole body go into shock at the soft lips against his and the gentle hands cupping his face. He leans helplessly into it but otherwise doesn’t move, too worried he’ll frighten Aziraphale away. But the angel doesn’t seem interested in going anywhere, stroking his thumbs over Crowley’s cheekbones and pressing sweet little kisses at the corner of his mouth. Crowley latches onto the sleeve of Aziraphale’s coat and trembles, a pathetically needy whimper caught in his throat until Aziraphale takes pity on him and turns his head to kiss him properly again.
“What an old silly I’ve been," Aziraphale says when they eventually part. "I thought I was being brave today but…you’ve been saying it long before I ever found the courage. You’ve been saying it since the start.” Aziraphale bumps his nose almost apologetically against his and the quiet sigh that leaves his mouth sends a shudder through Crowley. “I’m sorry I didn’t hear it.”
Breath coming in short, shallow gasps, Crowley tries with little success to swallow the lump in his throat. His eyes sting no matter how he tries to will it away. The relief of being understood is nearly unbearable. He turns his cheek hungrily into the soft warmth of Aziraphale’s palm and breathes in the scent of old parchment clinging to his skin. “S’alright,” he murmurs. “So long as you hear it now.”
“My dear Crowley,” Aziraphale says, his smile blinding. “It’s the only sound in the world.”
I love you, he thinks, wildly. I love you. I love you.
And at last, Aziraphale listens.