Actions

Work Header

knowing this will I reach for you

Work Text:

EDEN, 4004 BC

Crawly stood under the shelter of a wide, white wing, watching the first rainfall, and waited for the other shoe to drop.[1] But the angel didn't take back his wing. The storm rolled in, rain pattering against feathers overhead.

Crawly glanced sideways at his companion, who was looking out over the wall, watching Eve and Adam walk away. He still couldn't quite wrap his head around the fact that the angel, meant to be shining with the terrible judgment of the divine, certainly tasked by God Herself to drive the humans from the Garden, had instead helped them. Crawly hadn't, until this meeting, conceived of an angel who would look upon cast-out creatures with kindness.

It occurred to him that he'd given his own name without getting one in return. It probably didn't matter in the long run, but Crawly wanted to attach a name to that softly worried face, rather than always thinking of him as the Angel of the Eastern Gate. "So," Crawly said, "what next?"

"I'm to guard the gate," the angel said, "and await my next assignment."

He said it like someone who was hoping against hope that there might be a next assignment. Uncertainty was a novel look on an angel. "Same with me," Crawly said, "minus the guarding bit, obviously. I expect there's still lots of trouble I could make up here. I might be seeing you around." He gave the angel a prompting glance.

"Aziraphale," the angel said.

That seemed like rather a lot of pressure, name-wise. Too many syllables, the description of a function that seemed unfairly vague. Crawly didn't remember what name he'd awoken to at the moment of his own creation, whether it had been maker-of-stars or asker-of-too-many-questions, some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy since excised from his mind.

He decided not to think about it. "Aziraphale," he repeated, pressing the name into memory.

They stood there for a while longer, the hems of their robes growing damp, as the world turned on to the dark and stormy night. Aziraphale didn't remove his wing and, despite himself, Crawly felt comforted.

 

MESOPOTAMIA, 3004 BC

When the floodwaters rolled back, Crawly returned from the highlands, where he'd spent some damp and miserable months watching the shimmer of water over the drowned world below. He hadn't seen any rainbow, whatever that was supposed to be. He had considered going somewhere else -- China was probably perfectly dry and un-depressing -- but he wanted to see it through.

He'd received a commendation. He was Hell's agent on Earth, and he'd done such a cunning and excellent job that almost every local human had become so wicked that the Almighty was moved to drown them and start the whole thing over. Crawly had kept his head enough to say thank you, instead of what he was really thinking, which was: he hadn't done anything. Yes, he'd pointed out the apple and got the ball rolling, but in the millennium since, he had mostly wandered the world and been impressed with all the strange, clever things the humans were coming up with. Agriculture, alcohol, murder, stories, acts of creation and destruction far beyond anything any angel had ever invented. Crawly had made the occasional suggestion in a receptive ear, but he was only one demon, and he couldn't possibly account for even a fraction of the things humans did when left to their own devices.

Still seemed a bit of an overreaction, drowning all of them. During his months in the damp highlands, Crawly thought of his commendation, and felt unaccountably angry. He thought of all the humans down below, flailing helplessly in the endless water, dying without reason or warning, and he felt angrier, incandescently angry, burning up with it. It was tiring, and familiar, and it kept Crawly there until the waters receded.

He expected the world below to be a wasteland of mud and half-decayed bodies, but the Almighty had apparently seen fit to leave the land lightly water-washed, pristine, and eerily empty. Crawly wandered abandoned barley fields and orchards where apples had run riot, and did his best not to feel spooked. Spooky should have felt right at home for a demon.

Crawly was just so angry.

Eventually, he found Noah's family in Sippar. By then, Crawly was used to the horrible silence, and the first bray of a donkey almost made him jump right out of his skin. He followed the commotion to a makeshift corral, which was made of repurposed beams from the Ark, lashed together on the outskirts of an existing stable. Milling about inside were pigs and horses and goats and chickens and sheep and--

There was the angel, feeding the animals.

He'd become so used to being the only living entity for miles that Crawly had neglected to do a metaphysical check on Sippar when he'd arrived. Now that he'd laid eyes on Aziraphale, he could also sense him: a blaze of light in his mental map, bright as magnesium.

Crawly was so angry.

It would be wiser not approach the Enemy when he was feeling like this. But Crawly hadn't ended up where he was by making careful, reasoned decisions, so he came out from the shadow of the building and leant against the fence, staring at Aziraphale from across the backs of the animals.

Aziraphale didn't notice him, being otherwise occupied scattering grain across the ground for a flurry of chickens. He had the same worried stiffness to his shoulders that Crawly remembered from their previous meetings. Maybe he was still awaiting his punishment for giving away the sword. Maybe he was bracing himself against the realization that the Plan was horrible and unfair because, well, they both knew what happened if you let yourself realize something like that. It didn't matter much to Crawly either way.

"Hello, Aziraphale," Crawly said, pitching his voice over the barnyard noises.

Aziraphale startled and looked up at him. "Crawly!" he said. He looked ... tired, maybe. Red around the eyes. Had to be exhausting, didn't it, ministering to the only people the Almighty found worthy for five months on end. Crawly wondered whether Aziraphale had attempted sleep yet, or if that sort of thing was below an angel.

"So that went well, eh?" Crawly said.

"I -- suppose so, yes," said Aziraphale. "There was a rain-bow. It was very nice." He shifted uncomfortably under Crawly's flat stare. "I didn't realize you'd stuck around."

"Thought I might watch the drowning of the wicked," Crawly said. "A real bounty for Below, you know." The angel blanched, and Crawly felt suddenly, unaccountably awful.[2] It was one thing to receive a commendation from Hell without protest. It was another to, even by implication, allow Aziraphale to think he'd somehow driven everyone between here and the Tigris to such evil that their murder had been justified. "They did it themselves, you know," Crawly added, and that was even worse. "And they still didn't deserve this."

Aziraphale's gaze flicked up to his, and away, and back. The shine in his eyes was threatening to spill over, and Crawly stopped pretending that they were red-rimmed because the angel hadn't discovered sleep. "It won't happen again," Aziraphale said.

It didn't have to happen at all, Crawly thought. You could have done something, saved some of them, Crawly thought, even though that was unfair, because the same was true of him, and he hadn't dared set foot in that blessed Ark, let alone attempted to smuggle in any kids.

That moment on the wall of Eden had been a fluke. Crawly had always known that. There had been one single spark of glorious, rebellious kindness in Aziraphale, and that was all. It had been foolish to expect that it meant anything. Crawly looked at Aziraphale, who still had tears in his eyes and was meeting his gaze anyway.

The anger drained out of him, leaving only the bitter dregs of disappointment in its wake. Crawly pushed back from the fence. "Well," he said. "Good talk."

"Oh," Aziraphale said. "But--" and then he visibly thought better of it. "Yes. Good to see you, Crawly."

What a ridiculous thing to say. Crawly kept thinking of it, later: the shock of Aziraphale's hair in the sunlight, the brightness of his eyes, the way that, despite Crawly's coldness, there'd been something hesitating and gentle in his voice at the end. Good to see him. Ridiculous.

 

KINGDOM OF EDOM, 2100 BC

Wind howled across the plain. The houses used to provide a windbreak, Crawly thought numbly. There were no houses now, not even the suggestion of buildings. Ash drifted through the air in swirling eddies, carrying with it the scent of char and brimstone. It smelt almost like Hell, but somehow worse: underlying the sulfur was ozone and the cold of the upper air. It felt like divine wrath, an aftertaste of righteous fury. Crawly couldn't breathe -- it was so close to what he was missing, what he didn't even really remember how to miss, and he hated that he could feel something like longing when the scene around him was nothing but horror.

There had been war in Heaven. Crawly did remember that, even if he didn't remember the name he'd had then, even if the only real recollection he had of the Presence was this, the echo of divinity carried out in vengeance by Her messengers. There had been war in Heaven, and Crawly didn't recall the particulars, all the specifics scrubbed away by the shock of what came after, but his essential being could feel what had happened here, and shivered towards it, and recoiled from it.

There was nothing left for miles and miles, only rocks and burnt rubble and, off to the north, an incongruous glittering-white pillar of salt. No insects, no small creatures.

Crawly left.

He walked until he came to Zoar, and in Zoar he walked until he reached a market, and at the market he was about to buy some wine when, far too late, he registered an angelic presence. The fact that it was Aziraphale, who historically had made absolutely no move to smite him, didn't stop Crawly's instinctive flinch.

It took him a moment to realize that Aziraphale hadn't noticed him yet. The angel was hunched in a corner between two stalls, staring intently and unhappily at the ground. His clear distress argued that he hadn't had anything to do with the fire-ruined slag that used to be a city. His presence, so nearby, argued that he must have had something to do with it.

All of Crawly's instincts told him to avoid Aziraphale. All of Crawly's instincts had told him the same thing, back in the Garden.

Then it was too late, because Aziraphale looked up, and their eyes met. Crawly clenched his fists and went over to the angel. "So," he said.

"Crawly," Aziraphale said.

"Was it you who destroyed those cities, then?" Crawly asked conversationally.

Aziraphale had the grace to wince. "No," he said. "No, I believe it was, er, an angel name of Sandalphon. Rather fond of smiting." He pressed his lips together, in an unhappy way that was becoming familiar to Crawly. "Been in Sodom or Gomorrah recently?"

Well, obviously, Crawly nearly said, before he realized the implication of the question. "Was I going around tempting them, you mean," he said. "Some of them. Not two whole cities, can't say I'm that effective. What did they do, anyway, to deserve getting smote? Smited? All burned down?"

"A hospitality issue, I believe," Aziraphale replied. "Or possibly something about the sort of sex they were having. I'm not entirely clear on the details."

"Huh," said Crawly. Hell had sent out a memo about human sex once, noting that people tended to make reckless, selfish decisions concerning the other people with whom they were copulating, and that if the decisions were bad enough, it could result in all kinds of soul-tarnish. Crawly wondered if this Sandalphon had decided the solution was to kill all the humans before they could have more bad-decision sex. This seemed like a very drastic way to solve a minor problem. "You know just as much as I do, there."

Aziraphale made a noncommittal noise.

"So, what," Crawly found himself saying, "did you watch?"

Aziraphale winced again, less a facial expression than a full-body recoil he quickly attempted to suppress. Crawly tried to feel viciously satisfied, and mostly felt directionlessly awful. He didn't know what he wanted, anyway: for Aziraphale to say he'd seen it and done nothing, or for Aziraphale to say he'd come too late and that he wished he could have stopped it.

"No," was all Aziraphale said, very low, and that didn't tell Crawly anything at all. He imagined Aziraphale seeing it coming, and turning his face away. He tried to set this image next to the one he still had in his head of Aziraphale on the wall in Eden, and he couldn't make the two thoughts match up.

"What are you doing around here, then, if you didn't have anything to do with the cities being destroyed?" Crawly asked.

"Oh, there's a family," Aziraphale said. "The Almighty has taken a particular interest. I'm just supposed to stay in the area for now."

Interesting, the way Aziraphale kept being placed in the path of humans with particular importance to the Almighty. Do you think She's testing you, then? Crawly wanted to ask, but that felt like going much too far, even given how raw he felt about those no-longer-cities out on the plain. He wondered whether Aziraphale had ever stepped out of line again, after that first time. He wanted to ask, but Crawly had been in the temptation business long enough to know when to press upon a sore point and when to leave it well enough alone.

So Crawly said, "Hard luck for that family, then. Can't imagine the Almighty taking an interest will make their lives any easier."

"No," Aziraphale said. "No, I don't suppose it will."

 

ALEXANDRIA, 48 BC

The fire was caused by human error. Or, more accurately, the fire was started as a military decision and had, as these things tended to do, immediately escaped any kind of strategic control. It was currently raging through Alexandria's entire warehouse district, reflected flames casting an eerie orange glow over the harbor.

Crawly, watching it from the semi-safe distance of the royal quarter, wondered whether he could get a commendation for it. If he played his cards right, Hell might believe he'd whispered in Caesar's ear until the fellow made a destructive decision in desperation. He watched the roof of a nearby warehouse collapse into the blaze, and thought about granaries: this sort of fire could cause famine. Human misery. Well done up there, old boy.

He had been in Alexandria for a temptation, though of a much less ambitious nature. He'd spent an enjoyable few decades lurking around Athens and encouraging people to ask every question they could think of, but no one had needed much prompting from him, and inventing philosophy didn't actually sound very demonically impressive. Crawly had decided that he needed to branch out, and was starting to experiment with concepts like Pile-Ups of Minor Annoyances and Coveting Things You Can't Have. He'd been hard at work on the latter, in fact, by spending the last few days with a group of young men who were fascinated with his hair[3] and were, as a collective, growing increasingly frustrated with Crawly's willingness to flirt and his unwillingness to do anything more. (Crawly had, by this point, done more. On occasion. But not often, given that his own hands knew what he liked better than a fumbling mortal did, and never for work. The temptation was in the wanting, not the having.)

He'd been having a pleasant week. Crawly liked being surrounded by a buildup of frantic frustration, and he'd been sure that any day now some of it was going to go off in unexpected directions. Humans were so clever when they took out their bad feelings on one another. It would have been interesting to watch. But bloody Caesar had set fire to the ships and now all Hell, as it were, had broken loose.

Crawly was debating whether it would be worth it to encourage the fire to spread faster, or if he should just give the whole thing up and wander off to Cairo, when he saw a figure running into one of the warehouses. This was interesting enough behavior that Crawly took a step in that direction as his metaphysical senses reached out to investigate. He was expecting to hit an aura of reckless bravery, or of panic; instead he felt the magnesium-flare of a familiar divine presence.

"Huh," Crawly said, and allowed his feet another step forward, and another. He wondered whether he should try to stop whatever Aziraphale was doing. That was the general idea, after all: to counter the Enemy.

He was within range of the near-infernal heat of the warehouse by the time Aziraphale emerged from it, looking rather toasted around the edges. The angel was holding armfuls of scrolls, and frantically beating sparks out along the top edges of one of them.

"Huh," Crawly said again, and, somewhat louder, "Need a hand, angel?"

"Oh no, I think that's most of them," Aziraphale answered distractedly. Behind him, the building collapsed with a roar. He looked up at Crawly, and surprise registered on his face. "Why are you here?"

The accusation was plain. Crawly supposed that was fair enough. "I'm only here for a temptation," he said. "Pity about all the ... whatnot. Whatever's been stored in these warehouses."

"Mostly grain, I should think," Aziraphale said, sounding as though this were an abstract consideration. "And some overflow from the Library." He hefted his armful of scrolls in demonstration. "Someone had to prioritize rescuing these."

"I'm sure they'll be grateful," Crawly said politely.

"Oh, I'm not giving them back," Aziraphale said, seemingly shocked at the very idea. "No, the Library's been in decline for some years, I'm afraid. You can't trust humans to do any kind of proper preservation. These will have to go into my private collection until they show the sort of consideration necessary for me to give it all back."[4]

"Right then," Crawly said, baffled at this particular demonstration of angelic priorities. He didn't know what he'd expected. He didn't know why he kept expecting -- what? For Aziraphale to show him the same worry over the correct course of action that he'd shared with Crawly when they were both new to the world? For Aziraphale to prove that his reckless kindness hadn't been a one-off? Crawly already knew that it had been. Aziraphale had given away his sword, and Aziraphale had allowed everyone in Mesopotamia to drown, and Aziraphale had looked the other way while one of his own smote whole cities to ruin, and Aziraphale would run into a flaming building for human knowledge, but possibly not for people themselves.

"I should get them away from the fire, I think," Aziraphale said. "I'll see you around, then?"

"Sure," Crawly said.

He stood among the burning warehouses for a while after Aziraphale left. First he tried to sort out how he felt. Then he gave this up as a bad job, and instead mentally composed the memo he would send to Hell. The cataclysmic burning of the Library of Alexandria: all that irreplaceable knowledge gone in a single night. A slow decline was, to Crawly's mind, more depressing, but everyone loved a disaster. He could get centuries of mileage out of the human despair that would result from a story about how things might have been saved, if only they hadn't, in one moment, gone so terribly wrong.

 

ROME, 41 AD

Having been on Earth for roughly four thousand years, Crowley had on occasion sampled earthly pleasures. Some of them were really excellent: sleep, for example; alcohol; luxury fabrics. But he'd never really understood the appeal of eating. He could grasp, conceptually, an appreciation of a variety of interesting tastes and textures. But there were just as many interesting things to drink, with the added benefit that liquid didn't sit in Crowley's stomach like lead and make him feel lethargically sleepy.[5]

At this particular moment, however, Crowley was coming to understand the appeal of watching someone else eat.

He had no idea why Aziraphale had been so insistent, especially given Crowley's terseness, especially given that they'd last seen each other at sunset on Golgotha, and Crowley had been unwilling to be pleasant just because the angel had also shown up to bear witness. Not consulted on policy decisions, like that was any kind of excuse. But here they were, less than a decade later, and Aziraphale had remembered to call him Crowley now, and somehow they were sitting in a restaurant with a jug of wine and a platter of oysters between them.

Crowley ate exactly one, for politeness' sake. It was briny and slimy and Crowley didn't get what was so great about it.

Aziraphale tipped an oyster into his mouth and, upon swallowing, made a soft noise of unmistakable pleasure. That was ... unexpected. Who knew an angel could even make that sort of sound. "I am glad the rumours were true," Aziraphale said. "Remarkable. What did you think of it, Crowley?"

"Dunno," Crowley said. "Not like I have any other oysters to compare it to. 'S fine, I suppose." The inside of his mouth was still briny. He washed it down with some wine. "Drinks are all right," he allowed.

"Well, do have as many as you like," Aziraphale said. He ate another oyster. The soft, pleased noise repeated itself. It was so quiet, in fact, that Crowley wondered whether Aziraphale was even aware he was doing it, and that -- was worse, somehow. That made it unguarded, and intimate.

Crowley, feeling unaccountably warm, took another gulp of wine. "So," he said, casting about for something to talk about besides the oysters, "what is it you're doing in Rome, apart from trying out the restaurants?"

"Just the odd blessing, here and there," Aziraphale said. "Encouraging people to pursue the arts, that sort of thing."

"Sounds pleasant," Crowley said, and then, before he could stop himself, "Must be a nice break for you. Got tired of showing up at disasters and justifying why they're for the greater good?"

The smile slipped from Aziraphale's face. "I am sorry about Joshua, Crowley," he said, low. "It did all work out in the end, you know."

Crowley made a noncommittal noise. Aziraphale hadn't been there. The most infuriating part of being a demon on Earth was knowing, knowing that God wasn't kind or merciful or likely to protect anyone from anything, and being surrounded by people who hadn't realized it yet. The floodwaters rose on humans who didn't know they were unforgivable, towers were cast down, whole towns were reduced to ruins of fire by righteous angels, and Crowley had come across Joshua bar Joseph sitting in the desert, trusting.

There never had been another cataclysmic flood, after the rainbow. What had come for Joshua was, in its own way, another natural disaster, and afterwards there had been another promise from the Almighty to never do it again. That sort of bargain didn't seem fair to Crowley, never had.

"Doesn't matter," Crowley said. "It's done now, anyway."

"So," Aziraphale said, brightly, a transparent change of subject, "not planning to stay in Rome after that temptation?"

"Ah, no, temptation's already been done," Crowley said, suppressing a grimace of distaste. Caligula had needed exactly no demonic prompting to be horrible. At least he could report the temptation a success. "Not sure where I'm off to next. I hear Gaul is nice this time of year."

"I suppose," Aziraphale said, sounding dubious. "Pity you're not going to be in Rome longer. There are so many restaurants I've been meaning to try, and that's much better done in company." He shot Crowley a sideways glance.

Crowley had no idea what he was playing at. It was one thing to sort of ... run into one another, in the course of their Earthly duties. It was another thing entirely for Aziraphale to tacitly invite him along to further meals. The basic idea of eating still held very little appeal, but Crowley didn't want to say so. Aziraphale probably wouldn't ask him again if he did, and Crowley found he wanted him to, because -- because this was the first time Aziraphale had surprised him, since that moment on the wall in Eden. Aziraphale didn't have any reason to be consorting with the Enemy. He was clearly interested in simply being social.

Feeling suddenly and distinctly wrong-footed, Crowley blurted, "I didn't realize angels were even interested in food. Do angels eat?"

"Well," Aziraphale said, only a little defensively, "I do."

"Obviously," said Crowley. He pushed the half-eaten platter of oysters closer to Aziraphale. "Go on, then."

Aziraphale's smile came back full-force. He had another oyster. Again, he made a noise of pleasure, absolutely unconscious of it. Crowley's skin felt tight. He sat there, and he watched Aziraphale eat the rest of the oysters, the contented flutter of his eyelids as he tasted each of them, the glide of his throat as he swallowed them down. Crowley hadn't the faintest idea why he was so riveted. He'd seen plenty of humans eat and thought nothing of it. Maybe it had something to do with the obvious delight Aziraphale was taking in the experience. Maybe it was because he was witnessing the Angel of the Eastern Gate thoroughly enjoy something Earthly, and the incongruity was fascinating.

At the end of the platter, Aziraphale sat back and licked his lips in satisfaction. Crowley was transfixed by the wet pink of Aziraphale's mouth. He felt much too hot.

Aziraphale said something.

"Huh?" Crowley said, wrenching his gaze from Aziraphale's mouth up to his eyes.

"We could go to the theater," Aziraphale said, obviously repeating himself, but not bothered to be doing so. "Euripides' new play is out. I hear it's very good."

This could be so much trouble, Crowley thought. Aziraphale was the Enemy. They couldn't just keep each other company without at least attempting to find some professional reason for seeing one another.

Crowley could probably do a couple of temptations at the theater. "Sure," he said. "I wasn't planning to leave for Gaul 'til the morning, anyway. What's the new play?"

 

KINGDOM OF NORTHUMBRIA, 816 AD

Everything on this wretched island was damp, and smelt of sheep, including the humans, who were astonishingly bad at bathing, as humans went. Crowley missed deserts. He hadn't gone somewhere nicer only because Hell had given him a few local assignments here and there, and more recently because loads of Danes had taken it into their heads to come across the sea and start raiding monasteries. Crowley knew a good opportunity when he saw it, and he'd sent a memo Downstairs claiming responsibility, which meant he was stuck until the Danes packed it off home again.

He hadn't, until now, actually seen a raid taking place.

But he'd been near the dioceses at Hexham, keeping his hand in by making some shepherds covet each other's flocks, and -- well. It turned out a raid was loud, on account of the screaming. Crowley supposed that his reports to Head Office would have a ring of truth to them if he saw a raid in person, so he made his way up a damp grassy hill, towards the screams.

From the top of the hill, he could see the monastery. There was a great deal of activity happening in the front courtyard, of both the fighting and fleeing variety. Some of the monks had swords, but most of them were simply trying to get out before the Danes cut them down. It wasn't worse than any number of other battles Crowley had witnessed; it also wasn't better.

Crowley's metaphysical senses caught up with his physical ones, and he realized that one of the figures in a cassock had the flavour of a divine presence. It was bright on his mental map, and his eyes could fill in the rest: the figure's hair was pale, and somehow, in the places he hurried, the Danes' swords missed monks.

Something funny happened in Crowley's chest.

It was like he'd been looking for something for nearly five thousand years, and had tripped over it unexpectedly. It was the same kind of cautious, confused hope he'd felt during that first rainfall. It was -- difficult to feel, somehow, like a limb that had been asleep a long time. Yes, he'd been interested when Aziraphale had offered to share a meal with him: that had felt intriguing, and like something Crowley might be able to work with. It felt like something else entirely to watch the angel using his body and his miracles as a shield between mostly-unarmed humans and a hard death.

Right, Crowley thought. So Aziraphale hadn't liked his suggestion when they'd run into each other a few hundred years back, of simply packing it in and covering for each other while doing whatever they wanted. At the time Crowley had given it up as a bad job, and supposed that Aziraphale's interest in socializing with him had been a one-off, much the same way his kindness in Eden had been. Now...

He watched Aziraphale usher the last monks out the back of the monastery, and hurry off with them, leaving the building to the Danes. His kindness hadn't been a one-off. It was possible that Aziraphale had been tasked with saving the monks, but that didn't matter. Disobedience had never been what Crowley was looking for when he ran into Aziraphale.

He watched until Aziraphale and the monks had disappeared over the horizon. He watched the Danes loot the monastery, and filed the details away for his next report Downstairs. He thought about what he should do next. What he wanted to do was to follow Aziraphale, ask him for a drink, try to find another angle by which to convince him to compare notes and pick up the slack for one another, convince him that Crowley was also interested in being social. What he ought to do was his job. There would be plenty of time to find Aziraphale again later.

In the golden sunset, he set off back down the hill and towards the nearest village, to tell them about the raid and spread around a bit of fear and unease. That should cover it.

 

LONDON, 1020 AD

Aziraphale was at the Christmas feast for Cnut's London court, looking quite the courtier himself, though in paler fabrics than his fellows. Crowley had his suspicions about the potential outside influences that had made Cnut sole king of England, and seeing Aziraphale there, happily eating his portion of boar's head, answered the question neatly.

The courtier to Aziraphale's left very suddenly had urgent business with a chamber pot. Crowley slid into his vacated seat. "Hello, Aziraphale."

"Crowley!" Aziraphale gave him a bright smile that turned almost at once into a look of suspicion. "What are you doing here?"

"Thought I might spend some time at court," Crowley said. "Good work fomenting peace, I have to say. One English king, all tied up with a nice treaty and a bow. Raids down. Everyone feasting and merrymaking and -- celebrating the birth of the Saviour, that sort of thing."[6] Crowley waved a hand to vaguely encompass the court. "Above must be really pleased."

"One does one's best," Aziraphale said, preening, and then caught himself and gave Crowley another suspicious look. "And one's work is never done," he added, "so whatever you're planning, I shall be here to thwart you."

"Yes, yes, of course," Crowley said. "And I'd better start some political intrigues or it'll look like I'm not doing my job. But I still don't see why we can't both be here quite comfortably and just ... balance one another out, you know, without doing much of anything."

"We can't not do our jobs," Aziraphale protested. "That's the whole point, Crowley. We have to offer them choices. When a human is good or bad, it's because they want to be. People like you and me, well, we've been set in our ways right from the start." Aziraphale seemed to be warming up to his theme, and said, with confidence, "People can't become truly holy unless they also have the opportunity to be definitively wicked."

Crowley stared at him. That was the general idea, yes, he knew that, but for one thing, people tended to mostly just be people, whether or not he or Aziraphale interfered with them. For another -- "Hang on," Crowley said, "that only works, right, if you start everyone off equal, okay? You can't start someone off in a muddy shack in the middle of a war zone and expect them to do as well as someone born in a castle."

"Ah," Aziraphale said, looking pleased that Crowley had hit upon a talking point to which Aziraphale already knew the party line, "that's the good bit. The lower you start, the more opportunities you have."

"That's lunatic," Crowley said flatly.

"No," said Aziraphale, "it's ineffable."

"Oh, not that again," Crowley groaned. "Look, all right, maybe we do have to keep our hand in, and make sure the humans have choices, and whatnot. But it still seems like a lot of work, just to cancel one another out." Aziraphale was right about one thing, though: if either of their respective superiors discovered them hanging about Cnut's court, enjoying themselves, and in one another's company, no less, they would be in a whole lot of trouble. But if it looked like they were working hard -- "Tell you what," Crowley said. "I'll trade out with you."

"You'll what?" said Aziraphale.

"Who needs blessing this week?" Crowley asked. "I'm meant to be whispering treachery to this fellow Thorkell. Anyone I can ... I don't know, give the supernatural aid of Cnut's favour, to balance it out?"

"Could you do that?" Aziraphale asked doubtfully.

"It's all miracles," Crowley said, shrugging. "Just depends on the direction. Who needs blessing this week?"

"I was thinking that young man," Aziraphale said, indicating the courtier in question with a tilt of his head. "Leofric. I'm meant to ensure the line of succession in Mercia -- terrible mess there a few years ago -- so a blessing of Cnut's favour might be just the thing. But Crowley, I really can't ask you--"

"Sure you can," Crowley said easily. "We can make a little arrangement of it. Next one's on you."

"I really don't--" Aziraphale said, but he was wavering. Crowley knew a token protest when he saw one, and it was obvious that the notion of taking it in turns, and of relaxing and enjoying their time on Earth, held just as much appeal to him as it did to Crowley.

"No one has to know," Crowley said, gentle and persuasive. "I certainly won't be telling. And we'll both still be doing our jobs. We're just making it a bit easier on ourselves."

"Well..." Aziraphale wavered for a moment longer. Then he huffed and said, "Fine. Worth a try, anyway. But it will be on a strictly trial basis, and if it looks as though it might be dangerous, we shall stop at once."

"Sounds entirely reasonable," Crowley said.

They shook on it. Crowley spent the rest of the feast feeling wonderfully pleased with himself. He whispered in specific ears, and performed small miracles, and came back to the banquet table to watch Aziraphale eat. It seemed the trick to convincing Aziraphale was to wear him down by degrees and different angles of attack. Crowley could work with that.

 

CANTERBURY, 1186 AD

Whenever Crowley went somewhere new these days, he had developed a habit of checking whether Aziraphale was there too. Their superiors tended to give them assignments in the same general geographic area, which Crowley was willing to chalk up to Above and Below having plans and counterplans that centered around particular places.[7] In any case, it worked out well for their fledgling Arrangement.

Crowley had just arrived in Canterbury. He performed a quick metaphysical check of the city, and was unsurprised when he felt the magnesium-flare of angelic presence. He was long past the time when he would have felt cautious, braced for anything from general unpleasantness to the possibility he'd have to actively dodge a smiting. Aziraphale no longer felt exactly like other angels: there was a specificity to him, a flavour less of ozone than of burnt sugar and petrichor.

He found Aziraphale at an inn, crowded with the evening audience for a troubadour singing something mildly catchy about courtly love. Crowley wove his way through the crowd to where Aziraphale was settled on a bench, nursing a mug of ale and looking engaged in the performance. He looked up at Crowley's approach, his face lighting.

"Hey, angel," Crowley said. "This seat taken?"

"Not at all," Aziraphale said, obligingly scooting over along the bench. Crowley perched next to him, and waved down a passing barmaid for a mug of ale of his own. Aziraphale politely waited until Crowley had taken a sip before asking, low enough to not interfere with the troubadour, "What brings you to Canterbury?"

"Big pilgrimage spot these days," Crowley said. "The thinking is, anyone who comes pious and leaves corrupted, advantage to Hell." He glanced sideways at Aziraphale. "You?"

"Oh, much the same," Aziraphale said, "in the other direction, of course. I'm here to reaffirm the faith of the devout. There's a lovely nun name of Alice I'm supposed to visit this week."

"Huh." Crowley considered suggesting that neither of them bother, in that case. Several fabricated reports to head office, and both of them could bugger off to London, where the drinks were better and the troubadour songs more varied. But the idea of neglecting his duties entirely was still a difficult sell where Aziraphale was concerned, and their Arrangement felt too new for Crowley to push that particular angle. Possibly, Aziraphale would be more amenable to the idea later if Crowley offered to do twice the work now. "Tell you what," Crowley said, "any faith needs reaffirming, you pass them along to me. I'll do both a temptation and a miracle, this time, and call it in later."

"Oh, no," Aziraphale said, "thank you, but not this one, I'm afraid."

"Why not?" Crowley asked, rather offended.

"Well." Aziraphale seemed to be flushing a bit, although it was difficult to tell in the flickering torchlight. "I'm meant to give Alice a touch of divine ecstasy." He must have read polite incomprehension on Crowley's face, because he sighed, sounding mildly put out, and explained, "It's right there in the description, Crowley. It's a channeling of divinity. It isn't really something a demon can do."

There was something about how Aziraphale said the word demon, with faint distaste. It was a perfectly reasonable way for an angel to say it. It was a perfectly reasonable thing Aziraphale was saying, in that it was quite literally true that Crowley couldn't channel divinity. Crowley said, nettled, "Look, if some nun needs divine inspiration, it should be easy enough to give her a vision that shows her -- whatever it is she's interested in ... What are nuns interested in? Illuminated manuscripts? Anyway. A vision that shows her what she's interested in, and then of glories yet to come, that sort of thing."

"Well, yes," Aziraphale said, "but this is, er. It's a, ah, it's rather more intimate. It's not a vision so much as a ... full-body experience." He fidgeted. "I really do appreciate it, Crowley, but it's also meant to have something of a personal touch, and I would hate for anyone to notice it had been you. I can't get you into trouble over something like this."

Crowley blinked.

A full-body experience, he thought, putting two and two together and coming up with a sum he was quite sure was correct. He felt rather shocked. He'd been in close enough proximity to angels summoning their full power to know that an angel's intimate visitation would feel like the terror at the moment of a lightning-strike, like the breathless wonder of a view from a high mountain, like something much more than a mortal body was supposed to contain without attempting to translate it into terrible pleasure or wonderful pain. Divine ecstasy. Oh.

"Oh," Crowley said. "What will they think of next."

"I'm sure I don't know," Aziraphale said, not meeting his eyes.

Crowley was abruptly grateful for that. He found that he was imagining, in great detail, not the abstract idea of an angelic visitation, but Aziraphale, specifically, patiently pouring agony and rapture into someone. He found it suddenly difficult to breathe, as though his own stupid human body didn't quite know how to contain even the idea of it.

"Right, fair enough," Crowley said, setting his ale down and sloshing some of it among the reeds on the floor. "Look, it's been great -- good drink, good talk, 'bye, Aziraphale."

He didn't wait for Aziraphale's reply. He was already out the door, and leaning against the wall outside, trying to catch his breath in the chill evening air. He felt embarrassed, and irritated with himself over how flustered he was. He seemed to be going hot and cold and hot again, and it wasn't as though he'd never -- it wasn't as though there weren't times when he watched the shape of Aziraphale's mouth, or thought of the frankly obscene little sounds he made while he ate. It wasn't as though his interest in Aziraphale was entirely appropriate. Of course it wasn't bloody appropriate. He was consorting with the Enemy, nothing about it was appropriate.

But there was a huge difference between idly lusting after Aziraphale over the course of a meal, and whatever -- whatever that had been. Crowley wasn't interested in the idea that Aziraphale was channeling God; he wasn't that much of a fucking masochist. He wasn't even really interested in the idea of Aziraphale cloaked in shining radiance and glowing with terrible power -- except, bless it, he obviously was, because Crowley's breathing was going ragged again at the thought. He certainly didn't want Aziraphale to smite him, and he hadn't found himself grasping for the feeling of the Host and being left bereft for centuries, possibly for millennia at this point. Whatever was going on, it wasn't about that.

Crowley hoped, without much expectation, that he might figure out what it was about. Once he knew, he could stop feeling whatever huge and terrifying thing he was feeling, and everything about Aziraphale would be simple again.

 

CASTILE, 1484 AD

Crowley did happen to be in Spain when he received the commendation, which came straight from Lord Beelzebub. The moment that conversation was over, Crowley went to take a look at the Inquisition for himself, partly to learn the details so that he would have accurate information if he ever wanted to make a formal report or brag about it in Hell, partly from sheer curiosity about the latest human horror.

You had to hand it to them: it was horrible.

He'd gone to look ... a week ago, probably. Crowley was a bit hazy on the details. Crowley was a bit hazy on everything, and also fairly sure that the only reason he hadn't discorporated or at least been violently sick from alcohol poisoning was because he believed it wouldn't happen. Instead he had spent the last indeterminate stretch of time drinking an unquantifiable amount of wine, occasionally slipping into a dreamless sleep, and clawing his way back to consciousness in time to grab a bottle again when his thoughts started to go sharp at the edges.

It was the best Crowley had felt in a while, in that he wasn't feeling much of anything.

At this particular moment, it was daytime, and Crowley's bottle was empty. He tried to miracle it full again, and made the exciting discovery that there was a threshold over which he was actually too drunk to perform a miracle. "Wassa use of you, then," Crowley said disapprovingly to the bottle, and wove his way down from his room and next door to the cantina.

Sitting at the bar with his newly acquired wine, Crowley briefly contemplated the wisdom of attempting to pour it into the provided glass, and gave it up as a bad job. Tasted just as good straight from the bottle, anyway. Even that needed all his concentration and hand-eye coordination, so he didn't immediately register someone sitting down next to him. Then, when he did realize he was no longer alone, it took Crowley a moment to sufficiently focus on the newcomer.

"Aziraphale!" he said, fairly certain this was the correct identification.

"My dear, what on Earth," was his companion's reply, so yeah, definitely Aziraphale.

"Wanna join me?" Crowley asked. He hadn't said much that wasn't a request for another drink in a while, and was a little surprised at how difficult it was to make all the right mouth shapes to form a series of intelligible words in a coherent order.

"No thank you," Aziraphale said. Crowley squinted at him, making sure it actually was Aziraphale, who had never before, in Crowley's memory, turned down an invitation to food or drink. It certainly looked like Aziraphale, with puffy white sleeves and intricately brocaded pale doublet and worried expression. The way he kept splitting into two images and sliding apart in Crowley's vision probably wasn't his fault. "Are you all right?" Aziraphale asked, which was rude. How dare he go around asking Crowley questions.

"'S my job," Crowley protested. "I ask the questions."

Aziraphale's lips pressed together. Somehow Crowley managed to focus on that, even though looking at things was a lot of effort. "I don't see why I shouldn't take a turn," Aziraphale said, "given that we've begun taking on roles for one another."

"Point," Crowley said, impressed with Aziraphale's rhetorical cleverness before it was almost immediately chased away by a sudden wash of fear. He grabbed for Aziraphale, and missed, and flailingly caught himself on the edge of the bar. "Listen," he said. "Lisssten. Don't do that. Questions will -- whole lotta trouble. Do that and you'll end up ... They'll say, there you go, that's where you belong for -- That's what you did, course humans couldn't come up with it on their own, take a look, what'll they think of next, we could take some tips from Torquemada down Below--"

"Crowley," Aziraphale interrupted, very gently. "I'm sorry, I really don't follow. Would you please sober up? I don't think we can have a sensible conversation like this."

Crowley opened his mouth to suggest that Aziraphale get drunk too, which would also level the conversational playing field, but even inside his own head that sounded horribly like let me drag you down here with me. He also suspected that Aziraphale understood what he was saying perfectly well, and this was another rhetorical strategy to trick him into being sober. Crowley gave Aziraphale the coldest, steadiest stare he could manage[8] and took another swig from the bottle.

"Can't," he said, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. "'Mazing discovery. Gotta thres -- theso -- level of drunk and miracles don't happen."

"Well, I can't very well do it," Aziraphale said. "Heaven would notice if I performed a miracle of kindness on a demon."

"There you go," Crowley said. "Problem solved." He took another drink.

"Crowley, how long have you been here?"

"A week?" Crowley guessed. "Dunno. Lost track." He couldn't bear the expression starting on Aziraphale's face, gently concerned but not pitying. Pity, Crowley could have taken, but compassion was too much. He could feel something in himself cracking under that look. He turned away, taking a long pull from the bottle, far past the point when swallowing repeatedly could hurt him at all. Crowley set the bottle unsteadily on the bar, only just managing not to knock it over, and said to it, "Did you see what's been going on?"

A long silence. Then Aziraphale reached over and wrapped a hand around the bottle, pulling it towards himself. "Yes," he said.

Don't join me down here, Crowley thought wretchedly. "Why are they like this?" he said aloud. "Who looks at another person and says, well, they're different from me, can't have that, let's break out the rack? Y'don't -- no one changes their mind because you hurt 'em, all you get is miserable people who're different from you--" He made a grab for the bottle, which Aziraphale had made no attempt to drink from. Aziraphale let him take it back.

Crowley took a drink and spluttered. "Wine into water?" he demanded.

"I don't know why they're like this," Aziraphale said, still horribly gently. "And I'm sorry, Crowley, but it's past time you were cut off. Where are you staying?"

"Round the corner," Crowley muttered, gesturing vaguely. A panic was threatening to seize his heart: how was he supposed to deal with this? He really was too drunk to perform any kind of miracle, so the water-filled wine bottle remained full of water, and he had the horrible suspicion that if he attempted to flag down the bartender, Aziraphale would stop him. "Why'd you even come here?" Crowley groaned. "You're awful."

"I was in the area," Aziraphale said. This seemed disingenuous. Crowley wondered whether Aziraphale knew how to lie. Probably. Crowley wondered whether Heaven had sent Aziraphale to put a stop to the Inquisition, and knew that couldn't possibly be true, and then he wondered whether Heaven had also sent Aziraphale a commendation -- this was all being done in God's name -- and rather thought that couldn't possibly be true either, because even Aziraphale, who floated through the world with a very deliberate obliviousness, couldn't stay sober in the face of something like that. Crowley wondered whether Aziraphale had come looking for him specifically, and he had to stop thinking about that very quickly.

"Come on," Aziraphale was saying, soft and solicitous. He placed a steadying hand under Crowley's elbow and levered him firmly upwards. Crowley went, from surprise more than anything else, and because Aziraphale was suddenly the only stable point in the spinning world.

He hadn't told Aziraphale which rooms were his, but somehow the angel figured it out anyway: several half-remembered minutes later, Crowley was sprawled on a brocade sofa, still clutching his useless water-filled wine bottle, with Aziraphale perched next to him. The surroundings were the familiar ones of the past week, and slightly more stationary than Crowley was used to.

"You don't," Crowley said, attempting again to focus on Aziraphale. "Do you think I did this?"

"The whole..." Aziraphale pressed his lips together again, the way he did when he was upset and buying time to find the right words. "This Inquisition business, you mean?" Crowley nodded miserably, and Aziraphale sighed. "Of course not. And I shouldn't like to meet the demon who did."

Crowley stared at him. "There wasn't," he said.

"Wasn't what?" Aziraphale said. "You should drink more water."

"Wasn't another demon," Crowley said, ignoring this. "It was -- it was just the humans. Came up with it all on their own." An emotion managed to push its way up through the sea of wine, and Crowley jabbed a finger at Aziraphale's chest. "Go on," he said. "Tell me about the Ineffable Plan, then. Everything running the way it should?"

"More water, Crowley," Aziraphale said firmly.

Crowley snarled at him, but did as he was told.

Aziraphale made no further attempt at conversation, but he stayed. That was the oddest thing of all. He stayed for hours, until night fell and Crowley could only see his face by the illumination of a single candle, which traced the contours of his nose and lips in gold and made Crowley feel a different sort of unsteady. He sat with Crowley until enough of the cottony distance of inebriation fell away, and the only choices left were to escape him in search of more to drink, or endure the slow creep of a hangover for the chance to be in Aziraphale's company longer, or sober up.

Crowley, wincing, reluctantly miracled himself sober.

"All right, then?" Aziraphale asked.

"Eh," Crowley said, not wanting to meet his eyes. He was abruptly aware of what a shamble he was in, and that there was no reason at all for Aziraphale to have stayed with him. There was, of course, the Arrangement, which couldn't very well go forward if Crowley were too sozzled to stay upright, but that thought wasn't fair to Aziraphale. Aziraphale hadn't stayed because he was being lazy, or lonely, or even because he was kind. Kindness was leaving Crowley with enough water and going on his way. This was--

Aziraphale liked him, Crowley realized, stunned, the whole thing made absurd by the fact that Aziraphale apparently still liked him even after witnessing him nearly crying into a bottle of cheap wine in a cantina.

"I," Crowley said. He considered saying thank you, and knew he couldn't. "Look. I should ... get on."

"Yes, I think I'm done with Spain for a while too," Aziraphale agreed, quite quickly. "What do you think of Tuscany? I hear they have excellent pappardelle there nowadays."

That hadn't been what Crowley meant at all. It also sounded wonderful.

"Yeah," he said. "Haven't had a pappardelle before. Lead on."

 

FLORENCE, 1504 AD

Were Crowley asked, he would have said that he was carrying out a long-game temptation, the sort that had been especially in vogue five hundred years previous and was still popular with the more conservative Lords of Hell. Crowley would have said that the long walks, the longer talks, even the portrait sessions, were all part of a scheme to secure a particular soul for Below.

In reality, Crowley was trying out human friendship.

At this particular moment, he was wandering the morning market and listening with half an ear as Leo, between grocery purchases, explained to Crowley that the fossil record in no way supported, and in fact argued strongly against, any instance of a great flood like the one described in the Bible.

"Maybe it was localized," Crowley suggested, obligingly taking the overflowing basket Leo handed him. "Suppose everyone over in the Turkish Empire got caught up in it, but everywhere else did all right."

"A good thought," Leo said, "although I still don't think that entirely explains the discrepancy of -- look, Antonio, birds!"

Crowley, by now used to Leo's abrupt changes of topic, followed him as he made his way over to the songbird vendor. This was, no question, his favourite thing about Leo: the man would buy as many birds as that month's budget allowed him, and in the late afternoon he would take a carriage out of Florence and release the birds back into the wild. At first Crowley had been dubious -- it was hardly a kindness to take a creature that thought it was going to be safe and fed and cared for, and throw it out into the wilderness -- but Leo assured him that most of the poor songbirds were caught by the vendors, not bred, and he was only restoring the natural balance of things.

Today Leo bought five birds, exchanging pleasantries with the vendor, and carefully stacked their cages in the little cart he'd built specifically for the purpose of transporting them. Then there was a last stop at Leo's favourite corner wine shop, and they were making their way back out of the market and towards his house. It was slow going, as Leo seemed to know half of Florence, and was known by reputation by the rest. Crowley didn't mind. He liked listening to Leo argue about the sovereignty of animals, or ask after someone's family, or debate which plaza would be best suited to house the David.

"Ah, Signor Fell!" Leo said, in greeting to the latest approach, and Crowley's head snapped up.

It was indeed Aziraphale, in fashionable clothes that were unfashionably pale, saying, "Signor da Vinci!" with evident delight as his lips brushed the air by Leo's cheek. This gave him a perfectly good view of Crowley, and he stiffened a little in surprise, but said to Leo, "I see you have another batch of songbirds."

"Yes! Free by nightfall, if I have anything to say about it." Leo smiled at the birds and added, as he had for every other conversation, "Have you met my friend? Signor Crowley."

"Hi," Crowley said, playing along, at exactly the same moment that Aziraphale, bless it, said much too quickly, "No, we haven't met." He should have just nodded and carried on, and Leo wouldn't even have noticed. Instead Leo's eyebrows went up, and he glanced between Aziraphale and Crowley. Crowley could see his clever mind calculating Crowley's casualness and Aziraphale's awkward deflection, and adding the things that Leo thought he knew about the human Anthony Crowley, which Crowley had done nothing to disprove.[9] Very likely he was also adding the things he, and probably everyone within a ten-mile radius, thought they knew about the human Signor Fell. Crowley watched him reach a perfectly reasonable conclusion.

"Ah, too bad for you, Signor Fell," Leo said cheerfully. "Signor Crowley is a delightful friend."

"I'm sure he is," Aziraphale said, throwing Crowley a slightly scandalized look. Crowley raised his eyebrows back, knowing very well that Leo was watching this interaction with mounting amusement, and that he was far too clever not to read a deep familiarity in every part of it. Aziraphale wrenched his attention from Crowley. "I really shouldn't keep you," he said to Leo. "Lovely running into you. Shall we do lunch soon?"

"That sounds magnificent," Leo said. He paused, and in the pause Crowley wondered whether Leo might try to invite them both. He saw that Aziraphale was wondering the same thing, a look of dawning alarm on his face, and Crowley thought, a little hysterically, that it might be good fun to spend time with someone who knew them both and assumed they'd shared a particular sort of intimacy. But, "I'll be sure to make some time for you on the weekend," Leo was saying, leaning forward to kiss the air by Aziraphale's cheek, and then the bustle of the crowd separated them from the angel.

Crowley wrestled the cart full of songbirds over a difficult kerb, following Leo's back as closely as he could. Eventually they were out of the press of the market, and walked together on the street towards Leo's house. Crowley rather thought he should think up an explanation for knowing Aziraphale, and came up entirely blank. He chose not to say anything. Leo could ask, if he liked.

"Signor Fell, then," Leo said. Well, Crowley had expected it.

"Yeah," Crowley said. "Er. Probably best it doesn't get about that we know one another."

"Hmm." Leo gave him a sideways look. "A family issue, or something that troubles Signor Fell personally?"

Crowley laughed. He couldn't help it. That was the question, wasn't it, even if what Leo thought he was asking wasn't quite the reality of the situation. It would be so simple if all they were worried about was getting into trouble for having the wrong kind of sex. "I don't know," he said. "Both, more or less. He's a soft touch. More worried about me than himself half the time."

They were at Leo's front door. Leo stopped in the doorway, and turned to put a hand on Crowley's forearm, his grip firm and reassuring. "You're a good sort, Antonio," he said. "You don't have to be understanding, but here you are."

Crowley swallowed his protest at being called good. "Yeah, well," he said. "Help me get these songbirds inside? Least we can do is feed them lunch before we let them go."

"With pleasure," Leo said, smiling, and dropped the subject.

He never did bring it up again, and Crowley always felt relieved and disappointed about that in equal measures.

 

LONDON, 1601 AD

"Packed to the rafters!" Aziraphale said happily. "You quite outdid yourself."

"Yes, well," Crowley grumbled, trying very hard not to bask in the pleased glow Aziraphale was giving off.[10] "Could've done without nearly every character kicking it by the end." It had been good, though. Shakespeare's company had given a marvelous performance, spurred on by an appreciative audience. Crowley had even enjoyed himself, the lead's unhappy soliloquies aside, until Ophelia had wandered out crying for her destroyed family. It had been less fun after that.

"I suppose," Aziraphale said. "Still, very clever, wasn't it?"

"Sure, sure." At this point the crush of the crowd exiting the theatre had thinned, some of them heading back across the bridge, others vanishing into Southwark's various alehouses. Crowley was unsurprised to see that Aziraphale was beginning to drift towards one of the nearer alehouses himself, and Crowley followed, assuming the implicit invitation.

Seated in a smoky corner, Aziraphale focused on his fish and bread, while Crowley discreetly made sure their wine was of a nicer class than was strictly available at this particular establishment. He sipped at his, and watched Aziraphale over the rim of his cup. Aziraphale sopped his bread crusts in the juices of the fish, meticulously gathering every last bit of food. As he ate, he gave little sighs of satisfaction, noises much too quiet to be heard over the ambient din of the alehouse, but for the fact that Crowley was specifically listening for them, and drinking in the sounds like they were meant for him alone. It was wonderful.

Ridiculous. Awful, really.

Technically, they had met at the play not to see Crowley's handiwork but to check in about Aziraphale's temptation. Work stuff. That ought to get Crowley's head on straight. "So," he said, "how was Edinburgh?"

"Oh, all right, all right," Aziraphale said. "The temptation was a success, no need to worry about any bother from your lot there."

"Great." Crowley took a sip of wine. Something was, roughly five hundred years belatedly, occurring to him. Obviously, he and Aziraphale had the same means to achieve miracles, even if theirs each came from different sources, but it wasn't the mechanics of the thing that Crowley found himself wondering about now. "Aziraphale," he said, "what is it you actually do to tempt people?"

"Well, what do you do to bless people?" Aziraphale returned at once, sounding a bit flustered by the question.

"It's sort of the same thing, isn't it," Crowley said, shrugging. "Just -- small things to make people better and kinder to one another. Snowballs like anything. Good weather, crops that succeed, important meetings that get met. Making everything a bit more pleasant, so it's easier for them to think well of the universe and pay the good forward. 'S the same thing in reverse to what I usually do." He leant forward, propping his chin in his hand. "So. What about you?"

"Well," Aziraphale said again. To Crowley's astonishment, he blushed. "You're better at causality than I am, I think. For me, it's a lot easier to sort of -- get in there." He shifted uncomfortably. "That temptation of the clan leader. Stealing the cattle. How would you have done it?"

"Easy," Crowley said, the whole thing spooling out in front of him. "I'd have fatted those cows and made it convenient for him to steal them, made sure no one was home as he was walking by. He could put the thought in his own head." He gave Aziraphale a sharp grin. "What did you do?"

"I, er." Aziraphale shifted in his seat again, looking embarrassed. "I went to his castle, and brought him news about the rest of the countryside. I asked whether everyone there was comfortable and happy, and he admitted that the last winter had been a bit thin. And I said, oh, what about those cows the Campbells have." Aziraphale's voice dropped, going soft and sympathetic. "They must have been lucky. You poor things, you're just as deserving as they are. It does seem a shame they won't even be neighborly and share." He met Crowley's eyes and said, with absolute guileless earnestness, "You're lovely. You deserve that bounty."

Crowley abruptly realized that he'd been leaning further forward in his seat, drawn in, warmth rising under his collar. "Angel," he breathed, "oh, you didn't, that's beautiful."

"Do stop," Aziraphale said, rather sharply, with a look of deep discomfort on his face. "I would much rather turn those particular skills to good."

That wasn't at all how Aziraphale went around doing miracles, though. Aziraphale, in his day-to-day life and in his duties as an angel, was polite and gentle and kind, but he wasn't -- wasn't whatever that had been. Intimate. Crowley felt himself flushing hotter, the sort of heat that settled into his lower belly and would, if Crowley allowed the physiological response, become arousal.

Crowley, who had a healthy sense of self-preservation, didn't allow it.

"Huh," he said. "Well. Bad job well done. Cheers."

They finished their drinks and said their goodbyes soon after. Crowley sensed that he'd put Aziraphale rather out of sorts, and resolved not to ask him any more probing questions about the specifics of his temptations. This was, obviously, for Aziraphale's comfort, and for maintaining the peace so that the Arrangement could carry on.

But, Crowley realized later, lying in his narrow bed, it might also be best for his own continuing self-preservation. He'd enjoyed Aziraphale's recounting of his temptation far more than he should have, and for all the wrong reasons. It was, possibly, within acceptable bounds for a demon to corrupt an angel to do his dirty work -- except that framing the Arrangement that way even inside his head made Crowley feel squirmy and uncomfortable, no matter how much he liked to pretend that it had been a temptation like any other. And it wasn't at all the thing for a demon to feel overheated and breathless because an angel had murmured sweetly at him from across an alehouse table. But Crowley was obviously a rubbish demon, because here he was. He had a storing-up of memories of Aziraphale, a small private collection, and tonight might be one of the best yet: Aziraphale's understanding gaze. The earnestness in his tone. You deserve it.

That coiling heat was still there in his belly, and it was becoming more effort than it was worth to stave it off. Crowley shuddered, rolling sideways, and shoved a hand down his breeches. Now that he'd allowed it, his cock was already half-hard in his hand, and sensitive enough that Crowley had to bite his lip to keep from groaning aloud. He closed his eyes and imagined Aziraphale looking at him -- looking down at him, that was it, go with that -- with a smile that, in reality, he only gave in brief flashes: the sort that lit up his whole face, the one he gave when Crowley had said All right, my treat, offering the miracle of Hamlet's success. How delighted he'd looked, and how pleased with Crowley.

Crowley was hot everywhere now, embarrassingly gone for how little he'd touched himself, for simply thinking of Aziraphale being pleased with him.

He stroked himself slowly, and thought: Aziraphale smiling down at him. A hand in Crowley's hair, cradling the back of his head, not so much guiding as suggesting, asking in that delicately careful way he had. Crowley on his knees -- where were they? No, that didn't matter, what mattered was Aziraphale's hand in his hair, and his mouth on Aziraphale's cock -- Crowley on his knees, taking Aziraphale as deep as he could, looking up at Aziraphale and watching the smile on his face go slack with lust and astonished joy. Aziraphale's breathing going shaky, but his voice still steady when he said, You're doing wonderfully, Crowley, you take me so well, now touch yourself for me, go on. Crowley's hand sped up, his heels digging into the mattress, wanting more than anything to keep pleasing Aziraphale and doing exactly as he said.

This was a weakness, absolutely it was, it was absurd and dangerous, but no one ever had to know. It was for Crowley to keep close, and to imagine Aziraphale, in the same gentle voice he'd used in his temptation, murmuring, Yes, that's it, keep on exactly like that, you're lovely--

Crowley nearly arched off the bed from the force of his orgasm. He collapsed back, shuddering, and pressed his hot forehead to the crook of his arm. That was stupid, he told himself. Aziraphale would probably hate him for it. He couldn't do it again. He had to stop this.

Damn, damn, damn.

 

LONDON, 1753 AD

There was an open-air market Aziraphale wanted to try. Around the Christmas holidays it was filthy with slush, and some of the vendors had taken their stalls out onto the frozen Thames. Humanity did the same things over and over, looping back to new iterations of the same idea in a way Crowley found charming and comforting: two hundred years ago the London Bridge had been packed with vendors, and in the 1200s in Ánslo everyone had built great winter fires on the frozen water to communally cook fish, and in Babylon the stalls had been crammed together just like this, full of foods and textiles and all sorts of clever human inventions. Now here they were, sliding through the snow out to a candied nut shop. Aziraphale was wrapped in an entirely unnecessary tartan scarf, and his eyes sparkled.

Crowley paid for the grease-paper bag of nuts, and Aziraphale set to eating them as they walked along the ice. The candied nuts were piping hot, and Aziraphale blew on his reddened fingertips in between bites.

"Why don't you just miracle it the perfect temperature?" Crowley wanted to know.

"This is the way humans eat them," Aziraphale said happily. "Burning one's fingers is part of the whole experience." He observed his fingertips. "Although I wouldn't call it a pleasant part of the experience, exactly. Ah well. Know better next time."

"You're ridiculous," Crowley said. Aziraphale was still holding up his hand, so Crowley leant over and blew on his fingers, just the touch of a miracle to get them undamaged. He made sure to get the candied nuts with the same miracle, so they'd still be pleasantly warm but wouldn't harm Aziraphale's fingers again.

Aziraphale gave him a quick, darting smile from under his lashes, and took another handful of nuts. Crowley concentrated on not slipping on the ice, since his legs had gone a bit weak from that look.

They reached the bank and wandered up towards Westminster. "Where to next?" Aziraphale asked. "I've heard the coffeehouse by St. Anne's is serving hot chocolate. I'd very much like to try it, if you're not busy."

"Nah, not busy at all," Crowley said. He still felt so bowled over from the smile Aziraphale had given him that he forgot to fall back on the easy pretext of the Arrangement. They'd gone so long without getting caught that sometimes, Crowley almost didn't worry that they would.

"Lovely," Aziraphale said. He continued eating his candied nuts. Crowley watched him sideways, trying not to be too obvious about it. By now he knew everything there was to know about Aziraphale's corporation, visually speaking: that Crowley would be seeing this particular beautifully-embroidered cream coat for years; that Aziraphale's hair always looked exactly the same, a bit haphazard and too short to be fashionable; that, when he didn't think Crowley was looking, Aziraphale darted a smile at him, pleased and contented. None of it was new. All of it made Crowley feel sort of wrenched apart, the way he'd felt hundreds of years ago when he contemplated Aziraphale visiting divine ecstasy upon someone, except that Aziraphale wasn't doing anything and Crowley felt like this all the time.

They walked together through the park in the gathering dusk. Aziraphale finished his snack and miracled the empty grease-paper bag out of existence. "Delightful," he pronounced. "Just the thing for a winter evening."

It was getting properly cold, now evening was coming on. Crowley, who was after all a bit reptilian, staved off the creeping feeling of torpor by believing he was a perfectly comfortable temperature, and shoved his hands into his coat pockets for good measure. "So," he said. "Hot chocolate at that coffeehouse? I don't think I've had any since I was last in Spain."

"They sweeten it now," Aziraphale said. "I hear it's astonishingly good."

"Then I'll--" Crowley started, and cut off abruptly as Aziraphale went stiff beside him. He'd been about to say I'll prepare to be astonished or something equally pointless, filling the space between them with pleasantly meaningless talk, but the very tenor of the air had changed. Crowley followed Aziraphale's line of sight.

Ah.

In this park -- indeed, in any number of London parks, for as long as London parks had existed -- various parties who could not otherwise safely meet would come together in furtive corners under the shadows of trees and the coming night. The parks were a haven for anyone who wanted to conduct themselves undisturbed: spies, prostitutes, government agents, sodomites.[11] The parks were, therefore, also a hotbed of blackmailers and police constables, equally eager to sniff out and take down people going about their clandestine business. Crowley, it went without saying, was all in favour of clandestine business, and against law enforcement of all kinds. In theory he was also in favour of blackmailers, but he found the ones in parks rather distasteful.

Looking where Aziraphale looked, Crowley spotted three constables. They were moving with intent, evidently having spotted prey. Aziraphale was absolutely motionless, his expression bland, as he tracked them with his eyes. He breathed in, slow and ominous and measured.

Crowley felt it as a barometric pressure change centered on Aziraphale, a gathering storm of ozone and lightning and righteous fury. Aziraphale was watching the constables with that entirely bland expression still on his face, cold anger underneath it. He'd never sensed that from Aziraphale before. Crowley felt lightheaded. Being in the presence of that angelic anger, being within arm's reach of it, made Crowley's sense of self-preservation light up with alarm. His essential demonic nature was almost paralyzed with fear, his limbs heavy with it, his confused human body buzzing with undirected adrenaline. But it was Aziraphale, and that got all the signals confused. Crowley simply felt lit-up and dizzy with exhilarated terror.

Then Aziraphale sighed, and the heavy pressure drained out of the air. On the other side of the path, the constables looked suddenly confused, and turned by mutual baffled agreement in a different direction.

It took Crowley's body a long moment to settle. He still felt dizzy, and more than a little grateful that it would take a conscious act on his part to be physically aroused. "What was all that, angel?" Crowley murmured, once he was reasonably sure the question wouldn't come out breathless.

"It bothers me," Aziraphale said, in a stunning understatement. "The poor things can't even find one another safely without going out into the dark, and even then, it isn't really safe, not when half the time they're bound to run into someone trying to arrest them."

"There are the molly-houses," Crowley pointed out, not entirely sure if he meant it as an argument or a reassurance.

"Yes," Aziraphale said, brightening, "one does do what one can. But it is difficult, trying to keep an eye on all of them, and now and again raids slip through."

Crowley blinked. He rearranged some mental furniture to make room for the idea that Aziraphale had positioned himself as the guardian of London's sodomites. He wondered whether this was something Heaven had specifically told him to do, and discarded that idea out of hand. He was still feeling the buzzing aftereffects of having been so close when Aziraphale had been seriously thinking about smiting the constables, and that sensation collided with the sudden near-vicious fondness Crowley felt when he thought of Aziraphale as the molly-house guardian angel. It left Crowley a bit staggered, and he was afraid that if he opened his mouth, he would say something true and mad that he wouldn't be able to take back.

"In any case," Aziraphale went on, rescuing Crowley from whatever he might have been about to say, "no one's going to be caught and sent to the pillory tonight. Everyone undisturbed. Those constables won't see a thing."

"Right," Crowley said. His voice cracked on the word, and he cleared his throat. "They deserve to be left alone."

"They deserve rather more than that," Aziraphale murmured, but not as though he thought Crowley would disagree. Crowley didn't. He gave Crowley a quick smile. "Still up for that hot chocolate?"

"Yeah," Crowley said. "Lead on."

They walked through the rest of the park without incident, both of them quiet. Crowley found himself thinking of Hell's memo about sex, all those thousands of years ago. The memo had said that sex caused humans to make reckless, selfish decisions, and that those decisions could result in soul-tarnish. Right, Crowley thought now, except -- except maybe it wasn't about sex at all. Maybe the people having the sex were just doing what made them happy, soul-tarnish-free, and the people trying to harm them for it were the ones making the truly wicked choices.

He thought about Sandalphon, who might have smote Sodom for exactly the same reason those constables were patrolling the park. He thought about Aziraphale, gathering up the full furious brunt of his power and then releasing it again, and about how humans had to make their own choices.

As they stepped back onto the street Crowley left a quick miracle behind, reinforcing Aziraphale's, to make doubly sure all the sodomites in the park were safe.

 

LONDON, 1862 AD

They were meeting too often.

In the last two months, they had met on three separate occasions. They had gone to see the Exhibition,[12] because both of them enjoyed looking at presentations of human cleverness and Crowley was curious about engines. They had gone to one of the public garden fairs, where Aziraphale ate everything that looked interesting and Crowley let several of the less venomous animals out of their enclosures, enjoying the ensuing small scenes of chaos. They had, just earlier this evening, gone to see something that billed itself as Shakespeare, but had lost so much of the original text that it hardly counted.

"I mean, what's the point if they're not even bothering to, you know, do the play?" Aziraphale asked plaintively. At this moment, he was asking it from across a table in the cozy corner of a restaurant, the lamplight gilding his hair.

"'S not that bad," Crowley said placatingly. He wasn't actually attempting to be placating, and he watched with satisfaction as Aziraphale puffed up in indignation at both the words and the tone. "I mean," Crowley said, "there was a lot of talking in the originals. This saves time."

"It saves time that gets taken up with moving all those sets about, and doing all those elaborate costuming changes!" Aziraphale returned, very wounded. "The costumes aren't even historically accurate, Crowley."

"Well, they can't know that," Crowley said. "They weren't there."

"That's no excuse," Aziraphale said.

"Anyway, they're just trying to make the soliloquies the highlight of the show," Crowley added. He'd read that in a playbill.

"That just shows they have no idea about the point of the soliloquies!" Aziraphale said, properly warming up to his argument. For the next few minutes, Crowley was treated to Aziraphale's opinions of Shakespeare's soliloquies, their correct function in a play, how plays should be staged around them, and finally what Aziraphale's favourite soliloquies were. Crowley listened to all of it with half an ear, not feeling the need to contribute his own opinions. He sipped his port, feeling an overflowing of fondness as he watched Aziraphale. It was the best thing in the world, sitting across a table from Aziraphale and being allowed to watch him.

Crowley thought, almost absently: I would crawl across glass for him. I'd walk through fire. I'd do anything he asked.

Of course Aziraphale would never ask him to. Aziraphale would never ask Crowley to do anything harmful or dangerous, for all that he did sometimes end up in ridiculous danger -- France during the Revolution came readily to mind -- and Crowley had to pull him back out of it, but that was all right. That wasn't much.

Nothing would be too much, Crowley thought, sitting across from Aziraphale in a cozy little restaurant while Aziraphale made some point about a speech involving willow cabins, and he felt a sort of jolt as he realized exactly what he was thinking. It felt familiar, like Crowley had somehow thought I'd do anything so many times that it had worn a neural path through his brain, but he'd never thought it so clearly that he'd noticed before. He didn't know how that had happened. He didn't know when it had happened. He didn't--

"Are you all right, Crowley?" Aziraphale asked.

"Huh?" Crowley's face must have been doing something, although nothing too alarming: Aziraphale looked mildly puzzled, not worried. "Oh. Yeah. 'The reverberate hills.' Riveting stuff, angel."

"Well, you don't have to be like that," Aziraphale huffed, but when Crowley grinned at him, he returned the smile easily, taking Crowley at his word.

They parted ways after dinner, Crowley declining the offer of another drink at Aziraphale's bookshop. He was still thinking I'd do anything for him, and he was also thinking that they were meeting too often, and with those two thoughts sitting next to each other, he didn't feel entirely safe following Aziraphale back home. Instead Crowley went to the flat he'd rented in Mayfair, and lay down on a wall so he could comfortably stare at the wall opposite and try to sort through things instead of simply panicking.

The facts, as far as Crowley could figure, were these:

1. He would do anything for Aziraphale.

2. Aziraphale might know it. He got himself into the sort of trouble he could probably get himself back out of, and didn't. He asked Crowley for all sorts of things, in a sideways way. He always looked so happy when Crowley got him out of trouble or gave him things.

3. It didn't matter whether Aziraphale knew it, because he would never take advantage of it.

4. If anyone else discovered that Crowley would do anything for Aziraphale, they would be in very bad trouble. They'd always run the risk of getting into trouble for their Arrangement, of course, but at least it was a mistake on a professional level. The Arrangement had the veneer of pragmatism, no matter how they might punish Crowley for it. This--

5. Hell could use Aziraphale as leverage and Crowley would do anything.

6. If Hell came for them, Crowley would need insurance.

"Oh bless it," Crowley groaned.

He rolled off the wall, reasserting his centre of gravity to the floor. He shuffled about his desk for a calling card. He scribbled on it St James Saturday 11am. He waved a hand at the card, which disappeared from his desk and reappeared on Aziraphale's, tucked just under the inkwell where he knew Aziraphale would find it when he went to do the nightly accounts.

Crowley knew that it usually took a few tries before he could convince Aziraphale to agree to something. He only hoped it would go a bit faster this time.

 

LONDON, 1941 AD

"Would you like to come in?" Aziraphale asked. He had been silent for the whole drive, barring an occasional indrawn breath when Crowley veered around a tight corner, and Crowley had half-expected that he'd only get a muttered thank-you while Aziraphale fled the car. Instead, Aziraphale was still sitting in the passenger-side seat, his eyes on Crowley's face in the dimness, his fingers white-knuckled around the handle of his book bag. "I've got a Petrus I set aside in eighty-seven."

"Yeah," Crowley said. "Sure."

He followed Aziraphale inside, stepping gingerly on his seared feet while trying to look as though he wasn't doing anything of the kind. The bookshop was cozily lit,[13] though none of it had shown through the windows, blackout-regulation by way of minor miracle. The interior was much the same as it had been in the 1850s, although the volume of books seemed slightly higher. It smelt of dust and binding glue and comfort, and the past eighty years collapsed in on themselves, meaningless in the face of something that felt like familiarity and home. Even the throbbing of Crowley's feet faded to inconsequence.

He sat in his old spot on the sofa, and watched Aziraphale putter around, gathering glasses and bottle. Aziraphale kept throwing Crowley little glances, as though he couldn't quite believe Crowley was really there, or as though he expected Crowley to pick up the thread of their argument again. His hands shook a little, pouring the wine.

Crowley wondered whether Aziraphale's hands were trembling from the leftover adrenaline of performing a miracle to spare them both from discorporation, or if he was simply that nervous to be around Crowley again. Crowley rather hoped it was the last reason. He hoped even more that it wasn't.

"Here you are," Aziraphale said, handing Crowley his glass. Their eyes met for a moment, and Crowley's breath hitched at the naked gratitude on Aziraphale's face. That was -- He knew Aziraphale appreciated that the Nazi spies hadn't shot him; he suspected Aziraphale also appreciated that nice touch with the books. Still. It was more than Crowley had expected, and it took him a moment to find his voice.

"Cheers, angel," he said.

Aziraphale settled opposite him, on his usual armchair, and sipped his wine in appreciative silence. "How have you been?" he asked.

Where have you been, he meant. "Oh, keeping busy," Crowley said. "I took a bit of a nap for a while. Glad I didn't sleep through the war, though. It'd be a bit difficult to take credit for it if I did that."

"You're taking credit for it," Aziraphale said, his tone sliding dangerously towards disapproval.

"Well, sure, but the humans got there first," Crowley said hastily. He couldn't be bothered to be stung by Aziraphale's assumption that he'd been manipulating those Nazis, just as he hadn't bothered to be annoyed by Aziraphale's willingness to credit him with the Reign of Terror, or anything else, on and back. He knew Aziraphale was only doing it reflexively. Still: "They also got to the Great War by themselves," Crowley felt he should add, "which I'm happy to say I was napping through."

Aziraphale grimaced and took another decorous sip of his drink.

"Just proves my point, though," Crowley said. "Enough little things pile up, and then someone shoots one Archduke and suddenly everyone's dying in trenches." He caught the look on Aziraphale's face, which wasn't unhappy, exactly, but was beginning to go horribly far away, and Crowley steered sharply into a conversational turn. "I was awake for the twenties, though. Fantastic decade. Was Prohibition yours or ours?"

"Ours, I'm afraid," Aziraphale said, visibly coming back to himself and looking rather sheepish. "But -- Crowley, does that mean you missed the eighteen-nineties?" At Crowley's nod, Aziraphale looked positively horrified. "Oh no, that is a shame. There was such good poetry, and -- have you seen anything by Oscar Wilde?" He must have known Crowley was going to answer in the negative, because Crowley only just had time to make an apologetic noise before Aziraphale was going on, happily, "Oscar was a wonderful wit, and he threw just the best dinner parties. A pity you weren't there, but no matter, I can still take you to see a play. You know, nearly as soon as the original production of Earnest was shut down, they started staging revivals, so once the war's over they should be trotting it out in the West End again."

So far, Crowley had been more or less able to follow from context, but as Aziraphale's enthusiasm grew, he seemed less inclined to explain than to simply talk, a great outpouring of eighty years of stored-up conversation. He told Crowley about Stoker and Doyle, about Whitman and Tennyson, about Verne and Eliot, names running together into pleasant meaninglessness. The topic of all the literature Crowley had missed[14] carried them through several glasses of wine, while Crowley leant further and further forward on the sofa. Aziraphale kept smiling at Crowley, as though there really was nothing that made him happier than sitting together in the back room and catching up on the minutiae of decades. Crowley gazed at Aziraphale's dear face from behind his glasses, memorizing all the small changes to his appearance and speech, and all the ways he was still wonderfully familiar. Crowley ached.

Eventually, Aziraphale rambled to a natural pause. Rather than offering Crowley another drink, he looked him up and down with a faint frown. "I'm afraid I've been a terrible host," he said. "I meant to ask as soon as you'd settled in, but -- well, no matter, here we are now. How are your feet, Crowley?"

"Nothing wrong with them," Crowley said, reflexively defensive, and realized immediately that this was the worst possible tack. Aziraphale's face hardened at once into stubbornness. Crowley blessed himself for a fool. The soles of his feet still hurt like anything -- walking on consecrated ground wasn't exactly something he could fix with a demonic miracle -- but he'd planned to ice them back at his flat, and expected he'd be fine within a week. But he hadn't deflected properly, and now Aziraphale was going to fret, and probably blame himself for something that was Crowley's fault entirely. "Really, angel, it's fine--"

He stuttered to a halt.

Aziraphale, seemingly without thought or hesitation, had risen from his chair and gone to his knees before Crowley. Through the ringing in his ears, Crowley faintly heard Aziraphale saying, "Please, do let me see."

It wasn't as though Crowley could stop him. All Crowley could do was clutch the sofa cushions and watch in disbelief as Aziraphale bent his head to the task of unlacing one of Crowley's snakeskin shoes, and gently tugging it off his foot, black sock following. He gave an indrawn breath of sympathy, his hands cupping Crowley's heel with infinite care. His hands were warm and gentle, and it took all of Crowley's willpower to refrain from making some kind of strangled noise, shocked and panicked and wanting. A white light spilled out from Aziraphale's palms, washing the singed bottom of Crowley's foot in cool relief, and the touch rushed up through Crowley's body, leaving him lightheaded. It all happened much too fast for Crowley to protest, to say a word, to remember how to breathe.

And Aziraphale was going to do it again, setting Crowley's foot down and beginning the same unwrapping process on his other shoe. Crowley held still and let him. Another bomb could drop right on their heads and Crowley wouldn't move. The world could be ending, and Crowley wouldn't move. He couldn't see Aziraphale's expression, only the pale crown of his head and the immaculate buff of the nails on his careful hands.

The light spilled out into Crowley again, and this time he had to bite his cheek, hard, to keep from making a sound. He had no idea whether it would have been a sob or a whimper or a moan, but it would have been desperate with longing, and he was very grateful to have held it in. He swallowed the taste of blood and found his voice.

"Nice," Crowley said. It came out slightly too nonchalant, but that was better than the alternative. "Feels fine now. You really didn't have to."

Aziraphale did look up at him then. There was something in his face Crowley didn't recognize, tenderness of a kind he hadn't known Aziraphale possessed. Crowley was terrified to look at it, and terrified to look away. "Yes, I did, Crowley," Aziraphale said, soft and sincere. "It's on my account you were in that church in the first place."

His thumb was pressing very gently against the delicate bone of Crowley's ankle. His hands were still so warm. This was the longest they had ever been in contact, skin-to-skin, and if it kept on, Crowley was likely to do something very stupid. He felt like his chest was collapsing. He felt like he might explode. It was the best feeling in the world. "Nuh," Crowley said. "It's not a big deal, angel."

"Isn't it," Aziraphale murmured, and exhaled, a little unsteadily. Then his hand was gone and he was getting up, retreating to his armchair and retrieving his glass of wine.

That was fine. Crowley could breathe again. He leant down, reaching for his socks. His hands weren't even shaking that badly while he laced his shoes. He still felt filled up with light, dizzy with it, drunker than the amount of wine he'd consumed could account for. He wanted--

Bless it, he wanted what he had for centuries. He wanted to do anything Aziraphale asked of him, anything at all, for even just one more second of Aziraphale looking at him the way he'd been doing as he knelt at Crowley's feet. He hadn't known Aziraphale could look like that, and now he was going to be chasing it for the rest of time.

He was so utterly fucked.

"So, er," Aziraphale was saying. "Shall I top you off? I'd love to hear what you were up to in the twenties."

"Right," Crowley said, his voice only scraping a little. He held out his glass, and if both of them were still a little shaky while Aziraphale poured him more wine, neither of them mentioned it. He should go, he really should, but if Aziraphale was willing to keep talking with him until dawn, nothing could have dragged Crowley away. "Ta, angel. So. Best part of the twenties: ever been to a house party in New York?"

 

LONDON, 1979 AD

It was Aziraphale's decision to go to the Ritz. Crowley was trying not to read anything into it, even if every detail of a particular night nearly two decades before was seared into his brain; even if, down the phone line, Aziraphale's voice had gone a bit unsteady when he'd said, "Shall we meet at the Ritz, then?" Even distorted by the telephone speaker, Crowley had heard how desperately Aziraphale was trying to sound as though this were a normal thing to say, as though he'd said it dozens of times already, as though it didn't mean anything out of the ordinary.

Crowley could do that. Both of them were very adept at pretending that nothing remarkable was happening. Today, at the Ritz, Crowley was pretending that they'd met up to talk about the M25 London orbital motorway project. The Arrangement was still in place. Aziraphale deserved a courtesy warning.

"So when I'm done," Crowley explained, "it'll form the dread sigil Odegra. Hail the Great Beast, devourer of worlds. Designed to work like a prayer wheel, when everyone's driving on it. Clever, eh?"

"Yes, rather," Aziraphale said, giving Crowley a mildly disapproving look and dabbing at his lips with his napkin. "You know I'll have to do more blessings in the greater London area just to make up for it."

"I can lend a hand with that," Crowley said, waving this aside. "Anyway, it's only a theory. Might not work as well as all that."

"It will," Aziraphale said darkly. "You're a terribly clever old serpent. It'll work."

While Crowley was trying to figure out what to do with his face in the wake of that backhanded compliment, Aziraphale returned to his tart, taking a bite with a soft noise of ecstasy around his forkful. Crowley's fingers dug sharply into his jeans. This was awful. This was awful, he thought, sitting trapped in a fancy room that was weighed down with a terrifying significance they were both pretending to ignore, watching as Aziraphale ate the rest of his tart with slow, reverent contentment. This was awful.

Aziraphale would never ask him to do anything harmful or dangerous, but Aziraphale had asked him to go slow. Aziraphale had asked him to go slow, to hold back, to be careful, and now that Crowley had his insurance against Hell, locked up in a tartan thermos in his flat, he'd run out of every reason to be careful but the most important one: Aziraphale had asked him to. It felt like crawling across glass after all.

Crowley wouldn't give up a damned second of it.

"I have, er," Aziraphale was saying. "I have some bread I was keeping for the ducks, if you'd like to go down to the park with me. And you can tell me all about the timeline for the construction of that infernal road of yours, so I'm properly prepared to counteract all the evil it generates."

"Yeah, all right," Crowley said. He made sure to sound put-upon, like he had other, better things to do, but he could spare a bit more time to make sure Aziraphale knew the details of the M25 project. Crowley snapped his fingers, and a waiter quickly appeared at his elbow with the bill. Crowley paid it. Crowley stood up, and Aziraphale did too, and they strolled out of the Ritz together, as though everything was normal.

They fed the ducks. Crowley sank several, just to listen to their angry quacking when Aziraphale bobbed them back to the surface. Crowley outlined the timeline of the M25's construction. Aziraphale listened. Someone wandered by with a boombox on their shoulder, the sounds of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" trailing along behind. Several swans swam up to the shoreline, the ducks making way around them, and solemnly accepted the bread crusts that Aziraphale threw down to them. Aziraphale seemed wholly absorbed in the act of feeding waterfowl, content and relaxed, so Crowley had successfully got them through dining at the Ritz and Aziraphale didn't feel the need to give him any sideways looks, either nervous or, infinitely worse, longing.

Crowley wanted to pull Aziraphale to a corner of the park under the shadow of the trees, as people who wished to conduct themselves undisturbed had been doing for centuries. He wanted to unbutton Aziraphale's waistcoat, and get his hands between the layers of his clothes. He wanted to be on his knees in the damp grass with Aziraphale's hands in his hair, and he wanted Aziraphale to make the sorts of noises he reserved for good food. He wanted Aziraphale to say the Ritz had all the weight of meaning both of them were pretending to ignore, and he wanted it soon, he wanted it now, he wanted.

In the distance, the boombox switched to playing Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Aziraphale ran out of bread crusts. He looked up from the ducks, and he smiled at Crowley, and Crowley smiled back, helplessly. Anything, he thought, and meant it.

 

SATURDAY NIGHT

It was possible that they were going to make it.

Aziraphale held Crowley's hand for the entire hour-long bus ride from Tadfield to London, his fingers laced tight with Crowley's. Today had already been the absolute longest of Crowley's life, and his poor human body had very little left to give in the way of adrenaline, so all he could dredge up was a sort of tired, happy disbelief. He dozed against the window and memorized exactly how Aziraphale's hand felt, all the way down to the individual molecules, because it was possible they were going to make it, and it was equally possible that the world would survive but that both of them were utterly fucked. Either way, Crowley would still have this hour on the bus, learning everything there was to know about Aziraphale's warm hand in his.

The bus driver, deeply confused, dropped them off at a street corner in Mayfair. Aziraphale let go of Crowley's hand in order to disembark, and he made no move to take it again when the bus roared off, leaving them on the midnight street.

"Ah," said Crowley, once they were both in the lift and rising towards his flat, "there's -- there will be some melted Duke of Hell in the foyer."

"Melted--?" Aziraphale repeated, with mild alarm.

"Yeah." Crowley drummed his fingers against the wall of the lift, trying to distract himself from how much he wanted to take Aziraphale's hand again. "After I'd. I'd gone round to yours, and I knew Hastur had figured out I'd mucked up their plans for the Antichrist, so--" The lift arrived at his floor, and Crowley stumbled out, so tired his body was moving drunkenly. He let them into the flat and went on, over his shoulder, "Amazing how effective a bucket above a door can be."

"Yes," Aziraphale said, coming up behind Crowley in the corridor and staring down at the sodden remains of Ligur's trench coat in the doorway. "I see." He was close enough that Crowley could hear him take a steadying breath. Then Aziraphale snapped his fingers, briskly, and Ligur's coat was gone, along with whatever remained of the holy water.

"See," Crowley said, "the holy water came in handy, didn't it." He risked a glance at Aziraphale's face.

Aziraphale happened to be risking a glance at his face at the same time, and the raw vulnerability there made Crowley's chest ache. "What will they do to you for this?" Aziraphale asked, the concern in his voice familiar, and real now, in a way it never had been when he was only fretting over the Arrangement.

Crowley shrugged. Some of it was the habit of bravado, but the truth was, he'd passed beyond fear hours ago. The events of today were far too much to look at straight on, and to understand as something they'd both survived. Hell, Crowley had no doubt, could still destroy him, but right now he could hardly dredge up the dread necessary to worry about it.

"Eternity in the deepest pit?" Crowley suggested. "A punishment that fits the crime?"

"Ah," Aziraphale said, and Crowley discovered that he could still feel fear, transmitted through the medium of Aziraphale's, as vividly as though it were his own. "Then what do we--?" But Aziraphale didn't even finish the thought; instead, he stopped speaking and breathed in sharply. Crowley could see the rapid calculation in his eyes. "Crowley," Aziraphale said slowly, "an angel wouldn't be hurt by holy water."

"No," Crowley snapped, reading the entirety of Aziraphale's suggestion in a moment, and hating it. "You are not going for me! What if I'm wrong? What if they do just want to throw me into some oubliette--?"

"Then you'd come for me," Aziraphale said, simply, with perfect faith.

"Of course I would," Crowley said at once, his protest collapsing in on itself.

They both went very still.

Of course, Crowley had said, of course. Aziraphale could ask anything of him, and he'd do it. But Aziraphale didn't -- he never said so; Aziraphale asked and implied and hinted, but he'd never before said outright that he knew Crowley would do anything for him, without question. And Crowley had never agreed so swiftly, without even rolling his eyes or pretending exasperation or making light of the whole thing. They'd just -- they'd both said it. It was said.

"Then we're resolved," Aziraphale said, only a little breathlessly. "We'll choose each other's faces."

Crowley felt he should argue this. There was the very real danger they'd be found out. But he also knew that Aziraphale, stupid clever angel, might have worked out what Agnes' prophecy was hinting at, and he didn't have any better ideas. And he would harrow Hell to get Aziraphale back, without hesitation, without doubt or regret, and they both knew it.

"Yeah," Crowley said. "All right, then."

They were still standing in the doorway where Aziraphale's holy water had melted Ligur. Aziraphale's eyes were shining too brightly. He looked rumpled and tired and lost, and he -- he was willing to go to Hell to spare Crowley, Crowley realized, long seconds past when he should have. He forgot how to breathe, in a dizzy, human sort of way. Crowley spent so much time thinking about everything he'd willingly do for Aziraphale, and here Aziraphale was, with Crowley, after the end. He'd held Crowley's hand on the bus. Crowley could still feel it.

"Angel," Crowley said, voice cracking.

Aziraphale reached for him, took his hands, both of them this time, and held on hard. Or maybe it was Crowley who was holding him so tightly that it nearly hurt. Aziraphale stepped toward him, and Crowley wouldn't have moved for the world. Aziraphale pressed his forehead to Crowley's, careful and intimate.

"I think," Aziraphale said, "that we stand a very good chance of surviving this. But there is -- I mean, it's a possibility -- this might be our last night together."

"Don't say that," Crowley said. Aziraphale's face was too close to look at properly, so he stared down at their joined hands, at the way Aziraphale's grip was just as white-knuckled and sure as his own.

"I'm not," Aziraphale protested. "I mean, what I'm trying to say is, given the possibility, I -- I wouldn't want to waste it." He drew an unsteady breath. "I should hate to go my entire existence never having kissed you."

Crowley continued looking at the clasp of their hands. His brain, helplessly, tried to process that. He'd imagined Aziraphale saying all kinds of gently filthy things, but in several thousand years of fantasies, he'd never come up with Aziraphale saying I want to kiss you. That request was prelude, an overture for something real, an actual beginning; all the stories Crowley told himself were in medias res, without the useless torture of trying to figure out the steps that their real selves would have to take to get there. And now--

"Yeah," Crowley heard himself saying. He was astonished that he was managing any degree of cool at all. "Go on, then."

"May I--?" Aziraphale said, and Crowley said "Yeah," again without even caring what he was agreeing to. It seemed to be Aziraphale letting go of his hands, and pulling back enough to reach up and carefully slide the sunglasses from Crowley's face. Crowley made himself meet Aziraphale's gaze, and Aziraphale smiled at him, a cautious, hopeful smile, crinkling the corners of his eyes. He cupped Crowley's cheek with one hand, so lightly Crowley might almost have been imagining it, and with that touch alone he drew Crowley's face to his.

They kissed.

Crowley had imagined kissing Aziraphale before, even if he hadn't imagined the steps that would take them to it. He'd imagined them kissing in the upstairs rooms of taverns and in alleyways, in St. James's Park, in the bookshop up against the shelves or sprawled on the sofa. He'd never imagined them in this doorway in his flat. He'd mostly imagined the kissing as deliciously filthy, something that was going to turn into sex at any moment or something that happened in the breathing space between one act and another, something open-mouthed and hungry.

This kiss was none of those things. Their mouths came into soft alignment, and Aziraphale made a quiet noise of inexpressible relief. Crowley understood: it was as though an immense weight of wanting and holding back had been lifted off him. It was overwhelmingly wonderful, the worn fabric of Aziraphale's waistcoat under his fingers and the warm pressure of Aziraphale's mouth against his own. Aziraphale wrapped his arms around Crowley, pulling him close in the doorway, and Crowley felt as thoroughly wrenched apart as he ever had. But now there was this: they kept kissing, an unhurried exploration of one another's lips, Crowley's hands curled into fists in Aziraphale's waistcoat and Aziraphale's hands carefully stroking Crowley's back. He felt, horribly, as though he might start crying from the gentleness of it.

Aziraphale stopped kissing him before this could actually happen. They were still holding one another close, breathing each other's breath, but their mouths were no longer quite touching. "Crowley," Aziraphale murmured, the word turning to warmth in the slight space between their lips. Nothing more than that: only his name, said with awe and reverence. It sounded like a prayer.

Crowley trembled. It was only for a moment, but Aziraphale's arms were around him, and he couldn't possibly miss it. Aziraphale didn't say anything, but his hold tightened just a little. The understanding in that gesture steadied Crowley, enough that he could manage to speak.

"What do you want?" he asked. His voice sounded as broken open as he felt. "Anything you want."

"Oh, Crowley," Aziraphale said again, tender and reverent still, and Crowley worried that he wouldn't be able to survive it. Aziraphale pressed another light kiss to the corner of his mouth and said, "Is there somewhere we can sit down? I'd like to rest, and prepare for tomorrow."

"Sure," Crowley said. There was going to be a tomorrow. Nothing was quite holding itself together in his mind. The only chair in the flat wasn't a suitable place for them both to sit, but he did have a bed, which was exceptionally comfortable when he wanted it to be, and had charcoal-grey sheets with a criminally high thread count. He led Aziraphale to his bedroom, which was not something he had ever imagined doing. Aziraphale sat down on the bed, leaning carefully back to rest on the elaborately carved black headboard, and then he opened his arms, as though he expected Crowley to tuck in against him.

Crowley slouched into the circle of Aziraphale's arms, into the warmth of him, into the steady rise and fall of his unnecessary breath, and somehow Crowley managed to survive it.

"We'll have to swap first thing in the morning," Aziraphale said quietly. "We'll do this as safely as possible. I will be coming back to you."

"You'd better," Crowley muttered.

"I will," Aziraphale said again. "Crowley." He fell silent, and Crowley had almost stopped expecting him to go on when he said, "You know, I think I may be in trouble too. With Heaven."

He'd wondered whether Aziraphale was going to face that. "Yeah," Crowley said quietly. He didn't know if he should say more. There was little to say in the way of comfort to an angel who was looking clear-eyed at Heaven's rejection. He'd already said the only thing he could think of, back in Tadfield, groping for meaning and coming up with the slimmest possibility that this had always been the Plan. That was all he had to offer.

But Aziraphale asked, very gently, "Will you be all right up there?"

It took Crowley a long moment to recalibrate. He'd been expecting Aziraphale to be grappling with his own metaphysical state, and instead -- "Sure," Crowley said. "What are they going to do, throw me out?"

Aziraphale gave a rueful huff of laughter. "Probably," he said, and he didn't sound sad or scared or sorry. "Do look after yourself, my dear."

Crowley made a vague noise of agreement. He wondered what it would be like up there if Heaven did come for Aziraphale. He wondered whether it would be cold, the way the upper air was cold. He wondered whether he would feel that displaced, useless longing, even after all this time.

He was in the circle of Aziraphale's arms. That feeling of longing was something that happened to another Crowley, who didn't know how Aziraphale felt when brimming with righteous fury, who didn't know the exact temperature of Aziraphale's palm and the taste of his lips, who had never been coiled up against Aziraphale in his own bed, on the other side of the end of the world. Crowley didn't remember the particulars of Heaven, all the specifics scrubbed away by the shock of what came after. He knew, as surely as he'd ever known anything, that it had never been even a fraction as good as this.

"It'll be fine," Crowley said, noticing the expectant quality to Aziraphale's silence. "There's nothing they can do to me anymore."

Aziraphale pulled Crowley a little closer, a reassuring weight and warmth at Crowley's side. Crowley felt a brief desire to turn his head and kiss Aziraphale again, properly, thoroughly, right here in his bed. He didn't; he suspected Aziraphale still felt as fragile as he did, and when he'd offered Aziraphale anything he wanted, Aziraphale had asked for somewhere to rest. Crowley leant into the embrace, his eyes drifting closed. The exhaustion was creeping back in around him, and Crowley didn't see any reason to stave it off this time.

"Wake me when we're gonna swap?" he mumbled. The last thing he heard was Aziraphale's quiet noise of agreement. Crowley slept.

 

SUNDAY

They dined at the Ritz. Every time they'd gone before, they'd both made a game attempt to pretend it didn't mean anything more than dining elsewhere would have, but now there was no need for that. There really were no more reasons to be careful. Both of them were giddy with champagne and relief; Aziraphale looked relaxed and radiant, and kept darting Crowley brief hungry glances that made Crowley feel inarticulate even inside his own head.

When the last of their little desserts were gone, Aziraphale sat back with a contented sigh. "Would you like to come back to the bookshop, my dear?" he asked. "I have a very nice Château Lafite that I, well, I set it aside eleven years ago. I rather thought ... wouldn't it be nice, to have a celebratory drink after the world doesn't end?"

"Sounds perfect," Crowley said. He would have said that about nearly anything. He felt absurdly fond of Aziraphale for keeping to the script and inviting him over for a drink. It was steadying, in a way: everything was different, but they still had lunch together, and Aziraphale invited Crowley over after. They had centuries and centuries of habit to fall back on.

They strolled together up the street into Soho, the evening lights of London coming on around them, familiar and unfamiliar. Everything still felt slightly too real: the honking traffic, and all the lighted shops, and Aziraphale walking along beside him. They'd gone several blocks when Aziraphale's hand slipped into his, almost shyly. Crowley held it tight, so that Aziraphale would know it was all right, and Aziraphale's grip became assured. They held hands all the way back to the bookshop.

"After you," Aziraphale said at the door, smiling at Crowley as he had hundreds of times before, still sticking to the script. Crowley went inside, his heart racing, wondering how long they would keep on like this, whether Aziraphale would need more time and delicate handling, and thinking that it didn't matter; it was all wonderful. They could spend the next century simply holding hands while Aziraphale gazed at him adoringly, and Crowley would feel wound tighter and tighter with longing, and he'd be happy for every second of it.

Aziraphale latched the door. "Crowley," he said.

Crowley turned, and felt a burst of shocked delight as Aziraphale grabbed him by the lapels and pressed him back against the nearest wall. Crowley went willingly, and had one glorious moment to take in the look of tender covetousness on Aziraphale's face before Aziraphale was pressed full-length against him, kissing him thoroughly.

This was not the careful brush of lips they'd cautiously attempted the previous night. This was the sort of kiss Crowley had imagined in dozens of darkened rooms with his hand on his cock, biting into his wrist to muffle the noises. Aziraphale's tongue was in his mouth and Aziraphale's hands were in his hair and Aziraphale's thigh was wedged between Crowley's as though he wanted to be considerate and give Crowley something to ride up against. He couldn't have stopped himself making an effort under this onslaught if his life had depended on it. He kissed Aziraphale in return, keeping up only by dint of his own desperation, briefly astonished that Aziraphale had somehow been holding this back, before all articulate thought was drowned out by sensation.

It was, on the surface, only kissing, but it was so much. The way Aziraphale was gripping his hair was sparking through him and making his knees feel weak. He writhed against Aziraphale's thigh for a long glorious moment and then, by sheer force of will, drew back to suggest they move this somewhere further from the shop windows and take all their clothing off immediately.

"Wanna--?" Crowley started, and choked on the rest of his proposal; Aziraphale, beaming at him, slid to his knees. "Uh," Crowley said.

"Do you mind, Crowley?" Aziraphale asked, in the same hungry, hopeful tone he might have used to ask for the last chocolate in an assortment. He palmed Crowley's cock through his jeans, and Crowley bit back a whine, hips jerking forward only half-voluntarily.

"Yeah," Crowley said. "I mean, no. Don't mind. Anything you'd like, go on."

Aziraphale smiled up at him with that look Crowley was always chasing, joy and tenderness and gratitude all at once. It was so terribly much. All Crowley could think, looking at Aziraphale on his knees, was: this was the sort of thing you did if you'd imagined doing it. He'd thought of going to his knees for Aziraphale, loads of times, and Aziraphale had too.

He reached out to touch Aziraphale's jaw with shaking fingertips, and Aziraphale leant into it with a sigh of happy contentment, his hands going to Crowley's fly. Crowley couldn't look away. All he could do was watch, mesmerized, as Aziraphale pushed Crowley's jeans down his thighs,[15] and ran his palm wonderingly up the half-hard length of Crowley's cock. Crowley swallowed another helpless noise and tried to lock his knees, doing his best to stay upright when it was difficult to remember how to stand or breathe or do anything but be a conduit for the specific sensation of Aziraphale's hand on his cock, his touch warm and maddeningly light.

"Oh, my dear," Aziraphale breathed, "it's wonderful."

"Nngh," Crowley agreed. He suspected that Aziraphale would have said exactly the same thing no matter what he'd found in Crowley's trousers, and he wanted, in a flash of urgency, to try out every human genital configuration and beg Aziraphale to get his mouth on all of them. "Angel," he said, "Aziraphale, please."

Aziraphale darted another smile up at him, positively wicked, and leant forward, his grip firming, his breath agonizingly hot on the head of Crowley's cock. Crowley had a moment to realize, with a flash of near-panicked excitement, that Aziraphale knew what he was doing and was going to be good at this. Then Aziraphale's mouth slid down over him, an exquisitely tight wet heat.

Crowley's vision blurred. He threaded his shaking fingers in Aziraphale's hair, not wanting to change anything Aziraphale was doing, but simply to ground himself. Aziraphale's free hand rubbed gently up and down Crowley's thigh, which was comforting for a brief time before Aziraphale took Crowley deeper, swallowing in a way that cheerfully ignored the concept of the human gag reflex, and Crowley curled around him, moaning.

Aziraphale made a happy encouraging noise that vibrated up through Crowley's cock, pulling off a little and then taking him deep again, nuzzling up against Crowley's belly. "Fuck," Crowley panted, "Aziraphale--" and couldn't remember any more words. They didn't seem necessary. He sagged against the wall, gasping, his legs starting to shake. His own hand and occasional fumblings with humans hadn't prepared him for this. He hadn't known how devastatingly good it could feel to have Aziraphale at his feet, his mouth not-quite-gentle and relentless, making those soft satisfied noises that Crowley had listened to longingly across a thousand tables. He hadn't known what it would be like to have this, for Aziraphale to set upon him like a feast. Aziraphale's cheeks were flushed, and he darted a look up at Crowley, pleased and somehow coy even with his lips stretched obscenely around Crowley's cock. Heat washed through Crowley, his legs trembling harder.

"Angel--" he said, half warning, half plea.

Aziraphale gave another encouraging hum, pulling Crowley's hips closer, and Crowley's orgasm took him in wracking pulses, rolling all the way up from his toes and leaving him half-collapsed over Aziraphale.

Aziraphale lapped at the underside of Crowley's cock even after he'd gone limp, and Crowley wailed softly, twitching with overstimulation. Aziraphale pulled off with obvious reluctance, and more or less caught Crowley in his arms as Crowley's legs finally gave out, depositing him in a tangle of limbs with his jeans caught around his knees. "Fuck," Crowley said again, with great feeling, and leant heavily against Aziraphale's shoulder. His skin was buzzing. This was probably the best sex he'd ever had. Certainly it was the best he could recall, and he felt a little drunk with it. "You," Crowley said, trying to pull the blissful tatters of his thoughts into some kind of order. "How -- how are you?" He tilted his head to look at Aziraphale's face.

"I'm very well, Crowley," Aziraphale said warmly. He looked it. His hair was sticking up in several directions in the aftermath of Crowley's grip, and his mouth was red, his lips puffed up with friction. Crowley's cock gave a hopeful twitch, and Aziraphale saw it and smirked, before the expression gentled back down into an adoring smile. "I want to do all sorts of things to you," he added, with a kind of matter-of-fact earnestness that made the words much more devastating than they might have been if Aziraphale had said them like a line.

"Oh," Crowley said. "Do. Yes. What do you want? Whatever it is, let's do it."

"Ah," said Aziraphale. He looked briefly overwhelmed, not as though Crowley had offered him something unexpected but as though he had a banquet laid out before him and hadn't yet figured out where to start.

Crowley still felt only half-coherent with pleasure, but in the face of Aziraphale's hesitation he wanted to offer some kind of helpful direction, and long habit won out. "Use me," he said, before his brain could catch up with his mouth and feel shocked. "Have to start somewhere, yeah? Get me all spread out on a bed."

"Crowley," Aziraphale said, obviously aiming for scandalized and landing at delighted. "If you're quite sure--"

"Never been more sure of anything," said Crowley, who was committed now, both because of the hungry longing on Aziraphale's face and because his own heartbeat had kicked up, the suggestion he'd made hitting him all at once. He wanted everything Aziraphale might wish to do to him, starting with Aziraphale pressing him down into a mattress, the lovely weight of him atop Crowley, another fact that would help turn Crowley's ongoing sense of stunned disbelief into something solid and real.

Aziraphale was still looking at him with absolute delight, and it came to Crowley that he didn't have to simply content himself with gazing back. He surged forward the scant inches between them and kissed Aziraphale, a little sloppy with the sheer urgent happiness of it. Aziraphale's hands were immediately back in his hair, pulling him closer. Crowley tasted himself on Aziraphale's tongue and whimpered, less because it was filthy than because it was undeniably happening.

"I believe you mentioned a bed," Aziraphale said against his lips, a bit breathless. That was wonderful too: that Aziraphale could sound like this, like he wanted Crowley enough to be knocked off-kilter from it. He disentangled from Crowley, getting to his feet, and pulled Crowley up after him. Crowley rose unsteadily, still shaky on his legs, hitching his jeans awkwardly up with his free hand.

Aziraphale, meanwhile, seemed almost unaffected aside from the unsteadiness of his breathing. Crowley flicked his glance downward and saw that Aziraphale was hard in his nice pressed trousers, which had to be uncomfortable, or at least distracting. When he looked back at Aziraphale's face, Aziraphale simply gave him a beaming smile, lacing the fingers of their clasped hands together.

He tugged Crowley through the shop, on back and up the stairs to the flat above. Crowley concentrated on staying upright. If he actually thought about what they were doing, and what they intended to do, his legs might give out entirely. He followed Aziraphale through the flat's kitchen and into the bedroom, which did technically have a bed, and even a downy checked quilt atop it, although as usual this was almost entirely covered in stacks of books.

Aziraphale snapped his fingers and the books disappeared, which told Crowley more than anything else about how Aziraphale must be feeling. Aziraphale didn't usually risk displacing physical objects, especially his books, with miracles. He opened his mouth, half-intending to say something gently sarcastic about angelic priorities, and at once Aziraphale was kissing him again. He backed Crowley up until his knees hit the bed, and Crowley fell back willingly, Aziraphale following without breaking the kiss.

Here was his weight atop Crowley, warm and solid. Crowley managed to get his hands between them, fumbling to undo Aziraphale's bowtie. The way Aziraphale was sucking on his lip was very distracting, but after several false attempts Crowley managed untie the knot, the tie ends hanging loose around Aziraphale's collar. Crowley got started on his buttons from the throat downwards, caught on Aziraphale's waistcoat, started on those buttons, made a noise of frustration against Aziraphale's mouth. But he didn't stop kissing Aziraphale, and he didn't stop undressing Aziraphale the human way, either. He was desperate for Aziraphale's skin, but he wanted to do this properly, layer by sensual layer, exactly as Aziraphale would like.

It didn't matter that Crowley's hands felt uncoordinated and clumsy with want. It didn't matter that he could have got rid of all the clothing between them with a thought. The only thing that mattered was the way he could feel Aziraphale trembling with every button Crowley undid, and that Aziraphale made a soft lovely noise into their kiss every time his fingertips brushed skin. By the time Crowley had Aziraphale's shirt all the way open, Aziraphale was gasping, his mouth open and distracted on Crowley's, his hands grasping Crowley's shoulders.

He wanted to tell Aziraphale how beautiful he was like this, but Crowley had sped past wordlessness several exits ago. All he could manage was the language of his hands. He ran them reverently over Aziraphale's exposed skin. He wanted to memorize every new piece of Aziraphale: the way Aziraphale gave a shocked happy whimper, hips jolting into Crowley's, when Crowley's nails scraped his nipples; the way he breathed a laugh, shuddering at the touch, when Crowley's hands skimmed the undersides of his ribs; the way the noises he was making started going ragged when Crowley's fingers reached the waistband of his trousers. Crowley fumbled with the fly, mostly managing to get it undone, his knuckles brushing against Aziraphale's cock in the process.

Suddenly, Aziraphale was exploding with movement, rearing up and away from Crowley, frantically pulling his shirt and waistcoat from his shoulders. He was naked from the waist up by the time Crowley even registered what was happening. Oh, thank someone, finally, Crowley thought; going slow and sensual until he drove his angel mad was well and good for undressing Aziraphale, but Crowley didn't see the point of that sort of thing for himself. He snapped his fingers, and was as naked as Aziraphale by the time Aziraphale had kicked his trousers away.[16]

Aziraphale looked down at Crowley, and breathed in sharply, taking him in. "I was looking forward to undressing you," he said, sounding as though Crowley had denied him a treat.

Crowley made an apologetic noise, not quite up to talking, and Aziraphale's face softened with affection. Somehow that look was more difficult to endure than anything else, and when he'd banished his clothes, Crowley had got rid of even the flimsy barrier his sunglasses afforded him. But Crowley managed, and his reward was Aziraphale coming back down to him, skin-to-skin this time.

Aziraphale's chest hair scraped against Crowley's collarbone as he settled, his knee bumping Crowley's thigh until Crowley opened his legs to give Aziraphale more room. Crowley had never thought about the actual details of their human bodies adjusting to one another, figuring out the angles, making space, learning. He loved it. He loved that it was awkward and imperfect, and that it still felt wonderful. He arched up against Aziraphale, experimentally, testing out the friction of his cock trapped between their bellies, and couldn't stop a full-body shudder.

"Oh," Aziraphale said. "Do keep moving, my dear, that's very nice."

Crowley squeezed his eyes shut, in a vain attempt to keep the words from hitting him quite so hard. It wasn't exactly what he'd imagined -- the Aziraphale in his mind was certainly more deliberate about it -- but both the praise and the instruction were close cousins to fantasies he'd actually had. Crowley did as he was told, rolling his hips up to meet Aziraphale's. Aziraphale moaned happily and began pressing gentle, sucking kisses to Crowley's neck, as though he intended to thoroughly taste all of him. Crowley panted up at the ceiling, hardly able to do anything under this onslaught of sensation.

Eventually, Aziraphale returned to Crowley's mouth. Crowley did his best to kiss him back, and to keep moving under Aziraphale as he'd asked. At least the latter wasn't difficult: the friction felt incredible, and Crowley's body was doing an excellent job of chasing it without much direction from his brain.

"Crowley," Aziraphale said, and then kissed him again. It took him some time to surface. "Crowley." He cupped Crowley's jaw in his hand and said, "We had a plan."

"Uh huh," Crowley agreed. He was currently spread out on Aziraphale's bed. Aziraphale could use him however he liked. The plan seemed to be going exceptionally well. But Aziraphale looked as though he was trying to go somewhere specific with this, so Crowley stilled his hips and managed to scrape together a sentence. "Said you could use me, go on."

Aziraphale's expression was already one of fondness and desire, and it didn't change, but Aziraphale's cock pulsed against his thigh, and Crowley experienced a flash of smug delight. "Might I," Aziraphale said, and swallowed. "Might I fuck you, dearest?"

In absolutely none of Crowley's fantasies, no matter how filthy, had Aziraphale said that.

"Nngh," Crowley said. "Yes."

This earned him another one of Aziraphale's wonderful smiles, as though by agreeing to what he desperately wanted he was somehow giving Aziraphale a gift. Aziraphale kissed him again, slow and thorough, shifting his weight to one side. His fingers traced down Crowley's ribs, skimmed the bones of his hips, brushed against his cock in a brief tease, and slipped lower.

Crowley had a sudden premonition that Aziraphale had every intention of leisurely fingering him, which in theory would be extremely nice; in practice, now that they'd decided to do this, Crowley felt half out of his mind with desire. He really needed Aziraphale to nail him into the mattress in the next thirty seconds, if not sooner. He broke the kiss to say, the words coming out in a rush, "You don't need to do this the human way--"

"And we needn't go fast," Aziraphale said. He was still smiling as he said it, nearly glowing with pleasure and anticipation, and Crowley realized that he wasn't going to win this one. Aziraphale had asked him to go slow over fifty years ago, and somehow he'd done it. What was a few more minutes, really? "We have so much time," Aziraphale added.

This was something Crowley understood: they'd survived. There was no deadline anymore. Aziraphale wanted to savour it, and that was enough to steady Crowley. He could do this.

So Crowley obligingly bent one knee up, offering himself to Aziraphale. He couldn't help cheating just a little, expecting that Aziraphale wouldn't find any resistance when he pushed his fingers inside. Aziraphale must have been expecting it as well, because he led with two fingers at once, both of them sliding easily into Crowley.

Crowley breathed out shudderingly, hands gripping the sheets. Aziraphale was inside him. Aziraphale was twisting his fingers carefully, feeling out the bounds of him, filling him up, there was no space between them--

"Yes," Crowley gasped, "Aziraphale, angel, please, please, give it to me--"

It wasn't really that he was asking for something. It was simply that Aziraphale was inside him, was taking up space inside Crowley, and it felt indescribably good. Crowley had spent so long gritting his teeth against begging Aziraphale for exactly this that now he'd started he didn't know how to stop. Aziraphale was watching him with riveted delight, still moving with thoughtful slowness, a gentle, thorough thrusting. He curled his fingers deliberately, sending a jolt of pure pleasure through Crowley.

Crowley wailed, tearing at the sheets, and Aziraphale's movements went back to that gentle, exploratory thrusting. "You're being lovely, Crowley," he murmured. "I know you want this badly. You're very good to indulge me."

Crowley couldn't stop the shocked, incoherent noise that tore from him. He flung an arm over his face, the world going comfortingly dark, and through the roar of blood in his ears he managed, "More of that."

Aziraphale stilled. Crowley risked raising his arm to look at Aziraphale, and saw that his eyebrows had gone up a little. "Oh," Aziraphale said. He curled his fingers again, and as Crowley gasped and arched into it, he said, "You're doing so well, my dear, I know you'll keep being good for me no matter how much time I take with you."

I'm not that good, Crowley thought, uselessly. He'd been knocked quite beyond speech again. He'd gone beyond nearly everything besides a boundless willingness to do exactly as Aziraphale wanted. He lay there, eyes half-shut, allowing Aziraphale to take his time. Aziraphale continued to alternate between a gentle opening twist and the near-painful spike of pleasure when his fingers curled unerringly, while his other hand rubbed grounding circles on Crowley's hip. He carried on murmuring to Crowley that he was lovely, that he was good to Aziraphale, that he was doing so well. It was magnificent, and a little bit awful even though he'd asked for it, and Crowley did his best to simply take it.

By the time Aziraphale gently extracted his fingers, Crowley was limp with drifting pleasure, his cock entirely hard against his belly, but no part of him felt urgent. He came back to himself a little, surprisingly empty with Aziraphale's fingers gone, his body by now convinced that Aziraphale belonged there. Aziraphale's hands slid under the small of his back, gently enough that Crowley realized he must look in need of delicate handling. He pulled himself together and helpfully canted his hips.

Then Aziraphale was sliding into him, filling him up again. It was much more than Aziraphale's fingers had been, and Crowley was pinned by it, pressed down into the mattress, nothing left in the world but the scent and feel of Aziraphale, the burnt-sugar-and-petrichor flavour of him mixing with entirely human notes from the fine sheen of sweat on his skin. Crowley whimpered. Aziraphale pulled him close, his face pressed to the crook of Crowley's neck. He could feel Aziraphale trembling.

There was so little separating them from one another. It felt wonderful, and agonizing, and not even remotely enough.

Aziraphale began to move. It was only a gentle undulation, something slow and sweet and only just hard enough to not be a tease. A desperate whine rose in Crowley's throat. He hooked his ankles over the small of Aziraphale's back, wanting to be even closer, anything, everything.

"You don't -- you don't have to hold back," Crowley said, only half-knowing what he meant. He didn't really mean harder, but he did mean more.

Aziraphale gave a shivery sort of sigh, like he had been holding back. And--

It began slowly enough that it took Crowley a long moment to understand what was happening. At first, he thought that he was simply half-delirious with pleasure, and that everything only felt as though it was glowing because he was feeling overwhelmed. But each time Aziraphale rocked into him it grew a little brighter, and Crowley's eyes, which had been drifting shut, flew open again.

Aziraphale's vessel was brimming with light. Crowley gasped, clutching at his back. "Angel--?"

Aziraphale looked down at him, and Crowley relaxed. He'd been half-afraid that there would be something distant and horrible in Aziraphale's eyes, but Aziraphale was gazing at him adoringly and a little anxiously, his face gone soft with pleasure, still with Crowley. There was simply more of him in the room than there had been, the edges of his human form no longer quite containing him. "I'm not," Aziraphale said, and licked his lips nervously. "I'm not hurting you, my dear?"

"Not yet," Crowley said honestly. It came out breathless enough that it sounded like anticipation.

"Ah." Aziraphale was still moving, a slow, hypnotic rocking, the light spilling out of him going steadily brighter. "Tell me if--" He swallowed. "If you need me to stop."

Not if I hurt you. Crowley nodded frantically, grateful for Aziraphale's understanding. His body was thrumming with fear and excitement.

Aziraphale took a deep breath, gathering Crowley close. His thrusts went hard and deliberate. With each snap of his hips, more light poured forth from him, and now, rather than suffusing the air, the light was filling Crowley up.

An angel's intimate visitation was like the terror at the moment of a lightning-strike, like the breathless wonder of a view from a high mountain, like something much more than a mortal body was supposed to contain without attempting to translate it into terrible pleasure or wonderful pain. Crowley was a demon, and that gave him some measure of understanding and defense. It also was not even remotely enough to stop Crowley's mortal body from feeling it like a wracking agony, something so wonderful it was entirely past endurance; it didn't stop him from feeling the ecstasy of it all the way from his curled toes to the tips of his hair.

Crowley didn't scream. He didn't make any noise at all. He lay there with his head flung back, his fingers claws on Aziraphale's arms and his legs locked tight around Aziraphale's waist, shaking uncontrollably with pleasure, and he felt perfect.

His confused, overwhelmed human body came almost at once, in a way that felt nearly incidental. Aziraphale fucked him gently through it, the light still pouring into Crowley with every thrust. The buildup of pleasure felt much deeper than their vessels alone could hold, and Crowley strained towards it. There was so little separating them from one another. He wanted to be closer, he wanted every part of him to touch every part of Aziraphale, he wanted--

For one blinding moment, there was nothing between them. Aziraphale still had the flavour of petrichor and burnt sugar, but with a thousand notes Crowley had never noticed before: the dust and binding glue of the bookshop were ground right into him, and the aftertaste of lightning, and the first bloom of a truly excellent wine on the tongue, and the wood polish and velvety anticipation of the front rooms of playhouses. He was petty and impatient and anxious and stubborn, and all of those things were right at the steel core of him, and Crowley knew all of this but he could feel it now, with total precision, from the inside. And there was something else: Aziraphale also felt like long rainy afternoons, and a reckless restlessness, and the comfort of the leather interior of the Bentley. He felt like Crowley, not because of this momentary commingling, but because Crowley had somehow been stamped onto his soul. He felt like joy, and love, and home.

The light dissipated around them in a shower of sparks.

Crowley took stock of himself. He seemed to have all his limbs, which seemed to belong only to him, and felt heavy in a way that usually came after a truly excellent orgasm. Aziraphale was collapsed atop him, a comforting deadweight, his breathing steadily slowing. They were both slick with sweat, and the space between them was exceptionally sticky. Crowley felt deliriously happy.

"Oh God," Aziraphale panted, and Crowley couldn't help cackling, giddy with perverse delight.

Eventually Aziraphale rolled sideways, slipping free, though he immediately drew Crowley close again. Crowley settled bonelessly against him, his eyes drifting shut, and Aziraphale stroked a hand down his back, touch simply for the sake of touch.

"That was," Aziraphale said.

"Yeah," Crowley murmured.

"And you're all right?"

"The besssst," Crowley assured him.

"It wasn't ... too much, was it?" Aziraphale asked. He sounded as though he felt much too good to be worried, but like he was considering it.

"Nope." Crowley kissed Aziraphale's collarbone, and his neck, and briefly caught his lips. "Fucking amazing. 'M considering being jealous of those old mystics."

"Never gave any of them as much as I just gave you," Aziraphale said, the hint of a possessive rumble in his voice, and Crowley shivered with pleased aftershocks. "And none of them could ... reach back," Aziraphale added. "I've never felt anything like it. You're beautiful, my dear."

Crowley had no defense against that. He made a helpless little noise, less protest than pure reaction, and Aziraphale seemed to understand that he'd come up against the limits of Crowley's endurance. He didn't say more. Instead he kissed Crowley's hair, drawing him closer. Their breathing settled. Crowley drifted, feeling sort of floaty, still tethered to himself mainly by the continued stroking of Aziraphale's hand down his spine.

He thought dreamily about the blurred edges of things. He could remember that moment in 1862 when he'd realized that he was Aziraphale's, wholly and dangerously, and that he hadn't been able to pinpoint when exactly he'd fallen. He was only mostly sure his limbs were his own, and that he and Aziraphale weren't still spilled into one another just a little. He didn't think he'd mind if they were.

"Angel," Crowley said, slow and sleepy, "when did you know?"

Aziraphale made a quiet thoughtful noise. "Nineteen forty-one, I think," he said. "I mean, that was when I realized that you really were just being kind to me. That you didn't have an ulterior motive. And when I realized that, I -- well, I knew. I'd been pretending I didn't for quite some time."

Crowley huffed a laugh against Aziraphale's shoulder. If that was the measure they were using, he'd realized Aziraphale was simply interested in his company, without ulterior motive, back in Rome. "You," he said, "were flirting in the year of our Lord forty-one. That's nineteen hundred years earlier, angel. That's quite some time."

"Oh, well, if we're talking about attraction," Aziraphale said. "If that's the case, well, you were gorgeous in Eden."

Crowley drew back to stare at him. "Eden," he said.

"I was intrigued!" Aziraphale said. "If we're talking about attraction, then yes, Eden." His look softened. "If we're talking about love, I really don't know. It came on so gradually, and by the time I noticed, I really had no way to stop."

"Yeah," Crowley said hoarsely. He swallowed. Aziraphale had been inside his soul; he knew intimately how Crowley felt. It was still difficult to say. "Same here," he managed.

He watched the smile spread across Aziraphale's face, sweet and fond and unsurprised, and he couldn't help smiling back. He burrowed back into the circle of Aziraphale's arms, into the shelter of him, and felt wholly comforted.

 

______________
1. Shoes hadn't actually been invented yet. By the end of the week, Adam would kill several more hungry predators with Aziraphale's flaming sword, discover the blisters forming on his feet and Eve's from the hot desert sand, and put two and two together to make the world's first rough fur boots. [return to text]

2. He always made a game attempt to embrace his nastier impulses, but he'd never got the hang of being cruel and enjoying it. [return to text]

3. They were all absolutely convinced he hennaed it. Crawly thought henna was probably some kind of chicken. [return to text]

4. AZ Fell & Co's private collection, as of 2019, boasts the only extant copy of the Alexandrian critical edition of Sappho's lyric poetry. In Aziraphale's estimation, humans have yet to show the necessary consideration. [return to text]

5. Possibly the trick to eating was to respond to food like a human might, rather than as a snake did. [return to text]

6. In general terms, Crowley, being a demon, was obligated to disapprove of humanity's rejoicing in Christ. In specific terms, Crowley still thought fondly of Joshua, and was rather tickled that humans kept throwing him birthday parties on top of their older solstice festivals. [return to text]

7. Neither Heaven nor Hell really paid enough attention to them for this theory to hold much water. Crowley didn't specifically recall whether he'd known if the Almighty had a sense of humour, back before the Beginning, but millennia of observation suggested that She did, and that it might be at Crowley's expense. [return to text]

8. This was somewhat ruined by Crowley's dark glasses, but Aziraphale had known him long enough that they both tacitly understood the effect Crowley was going for. [return to text]

9. He had, on occasion, wondered whether he'd let Leo down gently if he decided to proposition Crowley, or if he'd go for it, no matter how much it might hurt later on. But it had never come up, as Leo seemed content to treat Crowley as a confederate and drinking companion with a tacit understanding of their shared proclivities. [return to text]

10. Metaphorically, of course. Literal glowing was gauche, and generally when Aziraphale did it he found himself saying things like "Be not afraid." [return to text]

11. Crowley and Aziraphale had both privately been rather surprised when the term sodomite came into vogue in reference to men performing sexual acts together. Funny, the things that stay in a story four thousand years after the fact. [return to text]

12. Crowley joked that it wasn't as Great as the previous year's had been. Aziraphale gave him a very stern look. [return to text]

13. The lighting was electric, to Crowley's surprise. Aziraphale had updated it in the 1930s, not by means of an actual electrician, but simply by assuming that the light sources should match those of his neighbors. [return to text]

14. And would also never read, at least not where Aziraphale might notice and later corner him into having opinions. [return to text]

15. As a rule, Crowley miracled his clothing rather than purchasing it, and he didn't usually bother with underthings. On this particular occasion he was extremely grateful to not have bothered. [return to text]

16. Crowley didn't know what had happened to Aziraphale's shoes. Neither did Aziraphale. It took him a week to find that particular pair, wedged into a shelf among books on seventeenth-century fashion. [return to text]