Chapter 1: every line and trick of his sweet favor
“How intolerable it is that I should be forced to meet you always in public!”
Georgette Heyer, The Nonesuch
It’s a few weeks after the end of the world, and Crowley is waiting for Aziraphale.
Not that he hasn’t been waiting for Aziraphale, in one form or another, for as long as he can remember, but just now he’s waiting in a very literal sense for him to get back from whatever errand he’s currently running.
Crowley’s been in the bookshop alone before, of course. He’s had a key since 1948. (Yes, he can open doors with a snap of his fingers, but it’s the symbolism of the thing. Or at least he hopes so. He wears the key on a chain around his neck, tucked under his shirt, and he’s caught Aziraphale eyeing the outline of it from time to time.) But today he feels more restless than usual; still keyed-up, he supposes, from recent events.
Crowley finds himself pacing around through corners of the shop he’s never been in before (or, more likely, simply hasn’t bothered to remember). His wandering takes him into an unfamiliar area, one that’s surprisingly un-dusty despite the obvious lack of foot traffic. There’s a row of books tucked away in a corner, as though their owner especially doesn’t want anyone paying attention to them.
Crowley, naturally, pays attention. What is it that Aziraphale’s hiding? He indulges, for a moment, in fantasies of hardcore pornography, or, even better, truly awful writing. Perhaps both. In fact, by the time Crowley leans down to properly examine the books, he’s all but convinced himself that he’s about to discover Aziraphale’s secret passion for Fifty Shades of Grey.
Instead, he finds what looks like a perfectly chaste historical romantic comedy: Bath Tangle, by Georgette Heyer. Flipping through, he’s disappointed to find that the book’s exactly what he judged it to be by its cover; i.e., precisely the sort of thing he’d have guessed Aziraphale would enjoy. Nothing shocking about it at all.
Still, Crowley figures, he’s got to pass the time somehow. So he opens Bath Tangle to the beginning and dives in, thinking that, if nothing else, it’ll take his mind off things.
Bath Tangle, he discovers, isn’t half bad. Oh, he finds some of the characters intolerably annoying, and he doesn’t quite understand why everyone just doesn’t talk about their feelings (which is rich, coming from Crowley), but all in all, it’s good fun.
There’s something about it, though, something that triggers a thought in his brain. A memory, half-formed. He’s never read the book before, he’s certain of that. But there’s something there, all the same. It’s not a word, or a phrase—it’s an echo, a feeling.
He cudgels his brains for a moment, then gives up, and shrugs, and grabs the next book on the shelf (yes, all right, he enjoyed Bath Tangle enough to want to read another one, what’s the matter with that?). Venetia, it’s called, and he finds it hits a bit closer to home: a girl less innocent than she seems, a devilish sort of man, terrified of corrupting her. They banter back and forth amusingly, and trade quotations, and— oh.
The memory that’s been nudging at the edge of his brain bursts in, all at once: an angel less innocent than he seems, a demon desperately longing for that deceptive purity. Conversations over tea, spirited debates—and things said and unsaid…
And he begins to understand, begins to hope, why Aziraphale might have these books hidden away.
Aziraphale hurried along the garden path, striving desperately to keep up with the young lady ahead of him. Margaret Cunningham walked like she had places to be and no time to get there, which was precisely counterfactual to the reality: she had nowhere to go and all the time in the world.
She also had all the money in Devon, which was why Aziraphale was there, panting and trying to figure out whether short, brisk steps or long strides were faster. Margaret’s father, an outstandingly successful wool merchant, had died three months ago, leaving Margaret the sole heir to his enormous manor house, extensive grounds, and truly obscene amounts of ready money. She was still a few months shy of her majority, but upon her twenty-first birthday she would take full possession of the fortune, making her the richest woman (or man) in the county. Aziraphale’s task was to ensure that she used that fortune for the betterment of the community. He’d not been given specifics, but at the moment he was imagining something in the nature of a free hospital, or perhaps an institute for needy orphans.
Margaret, of course, knew him only as the new vicar, who’d come in to take up the living after the old vicar had mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the night, almost exactly three months ago. (Aziraphale had been relieved to discover that Mr. Belknap had always wanted to go to India, and had taken great delight in fulfilling his wish.) So far, Aziraphale flattered himself that he’d done a quite passable job of ingratiating himself with the young lady, who, although a trifle high-spirited for his liking, nevertheless seemed to have her heart in the right place. His latest report Upstairs had been highly optimistic.
“My dear Miss Cunningham,” he puffed, now, drawing up alongside her as she mercifully slowed to a halt a few yards from the greenhouse door, “if I might beg a word with you?”
“Certainly, Mr. Fell,” Margaret said, striding into the greenhouse. “As long as you can make it quick. I’ve got an appointment for tea.”
“Oh, really?” Aziraphale was momentarily distracted from his mission. “Whom with?”
“Oh, there’s a new gentleman, just moved into that vacant estate two miles away.”
“You’re not having tea alone with him?”
“No, of course not. He’s invited most of the ladies of the village.”
“This is a... single gentleman?” Aziraphale inquired delicately.
“Yes, but it’s all perfectly proper.”
“I have no doubt, my dear, no doubt at all. It’s simply...singular, that’s all, that a bachelor should invite so many ladies for tea. Not really the done thing, now, is it?”
“Oh, Mr. Fell,” Margaret said, fondly. “You mustn’t be so suspicious. I’m certain he’ll have you over for shooting or fishing or whatever it is you do instead of tea. Anyway, I like it. Why stand on ceremony?”
“I suppose,” said Aziraphale. "Anyhow, I wanted to make certain that you were planning to come hear my sermon this Sunday. It promises to be rather enlightening, I think, and I believe you might enjoy it. Now I know—” he held up a hand to forestall her protestations—"I know you do not attend service every Sunday, and pray don't think that I esteem you any less for that. We all have our own ways of connecting with the Lord, you know. But I would be so honoured to see you this Sunday."
Aziraphale had a very pointed sermon planned on the theme "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God," and didn't want it to go to waste.
"All right," Margaret said, "but it's only to please you, you know, Mr. Fell."
"Well," said Aziraphale contentedly. "It does please me."
"Right, if that's all, I'm off then," Margaret said, running her fingers down an orchid. "Can't be late to Mr. Crowley's tea."
Aziraphale nearly knocked over an African violet. "I beg your pardon?'
"Mr. Crowley. That's the name of the new gentleman, the one who's just moved in. What's odd about that?"
"Oh, nothing," Aziraphale said, flexing his fingers to prevent them from forming a fist. "Name just rings a bell, that's all. I expect it's a completely different person."
Margaret shrugged. "It's not that common of a name. Why, old friend of yours?"
"Something like that."
"Why not come along, then? Since you seem so set on the idea of my having male chaperonage. I'm certain that your presence would make the entire affair eminently respectable."
Aziraphale had the distinct impression that she was making fun. "I don't know, my dear. I haven't been invited..."
"Rubbish," Margaret said, taking his arm. "You know you're welcome anywhere."
"Very well, I suppose I could come along." Aziraphale allowed himself to be led out of the greenhouse and up towards the main manor. If it was Crowley who'd moved in—if Hell was intent on corrupting Margaret—it was better to learn about it now. And at the moment he, for once, had the advantage of Crowley. It'd be much easier to nip the demon's wiles in the bud if he were present from the start.
“Mr. Crowley’s” house had lain vacant for several years, Margaret told him as they approached the front gates. “There were rumours it was haunted, you know, and that’s why they weren’t able to find any tenants. For my part, I think it was just priced too high. So this Mr. Crowley must be awfully rich, or awfully stupid, to pay all that money for a place nobody wants.”
“He might well be both,” Aziraphale said, dryly, taking hold of the door knocker and rapping it three times. He noticed, as he let go of it, that the knocker was in the shape of a snake. Well. That was entirely too fitting to be a coincidence, wasn’t it?
So when the butler led them into the parlour, and Aziraphale saw that their host was a tall, thin man, dressed all in extremely fashionable black, he wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised when the gentleman turned around and it was, in fact, Crowley. His Crowley. Well, not his Crowley, but the one he knew, anyway.
He’d changed his hair since the last time they’d seen each other—it was longer, now, falling just shy of his shoulders, and tied back with a ribbon. The cut of his clothing was sinfully modish, the materials luxuriant, and Aziraphale reflected that anyone wishing to discover Crowley’s tailor would very likely be disappointed. Those shoulders hadn’t been sewn by any mortal hand. His eyes were, as usual, shaded by dark glasses, a pair Aziraphale didn’t recognize.
Crowley, for his part, seemed equally unsurprised to see Aziraphale, and the angel bitterly reflected that he’d probably known he was there all along. He waited, a trifle nervously, to see whether or not Crowley would acknowledge him.
“Good day,” Crowley said, taking Margaret’s hand to be kissed, then shaking Aziraphale’s. “So kind of you to join me for my little soiree. You must be the famous Miss Margaret Cunningham,” he continued, and Aziraphale’s shoulders tensed at the way he was smiling at Margaret. “And you, sir...I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Oh, it’s not your friend, then!” Margaret said, surprised, and Aziraphale itched to muzzle her. “I rather thought you recognized him, when he turned around.”
Aziraphale thought frantically. If he admitted to knowing Crowley, he was fairly certain the demon would play along. That would give him an unimpeachable position from which to poison Margaret’s mind against him. Besides, Crowley had clearly decided to pretend they didn’t know each other, and it was quite simply Aziraphale’s duty to scupper his plans.
“I don’t know whether you remember me, Mr. Crowley,” he said, smiling tightly. “Mr. Fell. I’ve been vicar here for a few months now, but before I took orders I lived in Kent, where I believe we were acquainted.”
“Ah, yes,” Crowley said, sending back a smile just as brittle, “weren’t you the gardener’s boy? On our family estate?”
“Yes,” said Aziraphale, through clenched teeth—trust Crowley to give him a menial backstory—“that was me.”
“Right, well, glad to see you’ve done well for yourself,” Crowley said, and, turning to Margaret: “If you care to accompany me to the sunroom, I believe tea should be served shortly.”
Margaret, beaming, took his arm, and they swooped out of the room without a backward glance for Aziraphale, who rolled his eyes and followed.
There were eight ladies in total, at the tea, besides Crowley and Aziraphale, most of them middle-aged. Aziraphale noted that Mrs. Bilkins and Lady Vane, both widows, were eyeing Crowley in an evaluative sort of manner. As was Elizabeth Collins, whose husband was still very much alive. Margaret, however, though she was perfectly polite and laughed at all of Crowley’s jokes, did not, Aziraphale was relieved to note, seem to have been attracted. Crowley was far too old for her, anyway. Well. Obviously.
“How long have you taken Tamberton for, Mr. Crowley?” Mrs. Bilkins asked, leaning forward in such a manner as to strategically display her decolletage.
Crowley sniffed and shrugged. “Well, it’s month-to-month, at the moment,” he said, in a tone that seemed to imply but it could be longer if I were persuaded to stay.
“Well, it’s very kind of you to have us all for tea, Mr. Crowley,” Lady Vane’s fifteen-year-old daughter Charlotte said, “and I do hope that you’ll consider having a ball, if you stay long enough. There hasn’t been a ball here in simply ages.”
“There was one a fortnight ago,” Margaret said, catching Aziraphale’s eye and smiling at him, “but of course, Mr. Crowley, if you were to throw one I’m certain you would be the hero of the village. Certainly Charlotte’s hero.”
The ladies tittered appreciatively.
“I’m not much of a one for dancing,” Crowley said, “but far be it from me to deny the ladies their pleasures.” He said this last bit in what Aziraphale thought was a positively obscene tone.
“Will there be waltzing?” Charlotte asked, leaning forward in her chair. “None of the balls have had waltzing.”
“Charlotte!” Lady Vane said sternly. “Kindly do not pester Mr. Crowley with questions.”
Aziraphale was unable to resist chiming in. “I believe many people consider the waltz most improper.”
Crowley grinned directly at him. “Well, I’ll have to have waltzing, then, won’t I?”
“I don’t think it’s so very improper,” Lady Vane said, looking sidelong at Crowley. “I for one would welcome the opportunity to learn.”
“Waltzing lessons!” Margaret said eagerly. “For the whole village! Oh, Mr. Crowley, that would surely cement your popularity—well, with us young ladies, anyway.”
Aziraphale reflected that Crowley certainly didn’t seem to be having any difficulty cementing his popularity with the ladies.
“Well, Mr. Crowley,” said Mrs. Bilkins, rising from her chair, “it was really too kind of you to host us all for tea. I feel sure that you will be a most welcome addition to our little society.”
“The pleasure was entirely mine,” Crowley said, standing himself.
The rest of the ladies seemed to take that as their cue to leave, and one by one they rose, bid their goodbyes to Crowley, and departed. Margaret and Aziraphale were the last to stand.
“It really was kind of you to invite us all, Mr. Crowley,” Margaret said, “and I hope you haven’t found our company too oppressive. I mentioned waltzing lessons mostly in jest, I should say, and please don’t feel any pressure to arrange for them—certainly not on my account.”
“I wouldn’t worry, my dear Miss Cunningham,” Aziraphale said, shooting Crowley a glance. “From my knowledge of Mr. Crowley, he very seldom allows anyone to pressure him into anything.”
Crowley gave Aziraphale a glance in return that looked more confused than anything. “I promise, Miss Cunningham, only to arrange waltzing lessons if it is something I myself want. Does that assuage your fears?”
“Perfectly,” Margaret said, taking her hand back from Crowley’s. She approached the door, and Aziraphale followed.
“Oh—Mr. Fell,” Crowley said, as though it were an afterthought, “if you have leisure to stay for a little while, I thought perhaps we could renew our acquaintance.”
Aziraphale really didn’t have any reason not to stay, did he? “Very well,” he said, and smiled at Margaret. “I’ll see you in church on Sunday, then, my dear.”
“I’ll be there, Mr. Fell,” said Margaret, and left.
“Now then,” Crowley said, managing to drape himself over his chair in an even more ludicrous fashion than he had previously, “let’s talk. Rev. Fell.”
“What?” Aziraphale asked, taking the chair across from him. “I’m just the vicar.”
“‘Course you are,” Crowley said, smiling.
“And,” Aziraphale continued, “apparently also the gardener’s boy.”
Crowley’s smile widened. “What? You were the one insisting that we knew each other. It was the first thing that came to mind.”
“I would have pretended we didn’t know each other,” Aziraphale said, “only when Miss Cunningham mentioned that a Mr. Crowley had moved into the neighborhood, I regret to say that I was unable to hide my recognition of the name. You, I expect, knew I was here already.”
“I admit that I did,” Crowley said. “I take it you’re here for the same reasons I am. Well. The opposite reasons. But, y’know.”
“I am here,” Aziraphale said with dignity, “to ensure that Miss Cunningham uses her considerable resources for Good. You, I must assume, wish to have her use them for Evil.”
“Well,” Crowley said, drawing out the vowels, “Evil’s putting it a bit strongly.”
“You work for Hell,” Aziraphale said flatly.
“Yeah. But I was thinking, you know, more just some good old-fashioned debauchery. Get her throwing some lavish parties. Frittering away the money on clothes and horses. That sort of thing.”
“Sounds evil to me.”
“She’ll certainly have a better time than if she spends the money on, what, founding an orphanage? What’re you trying for?”
“Orphanage is on the list,” Aziraphale admitted. “But why are you just here now? I’ve been established here for months. You can’t possibly hope to undo all my efforts before she turns twenty-one in June.”
“Oh, can’t I?” Crowley asked. “I know I’m certainly going to arrange for waltzing lessons. She seemed very enthusiastic about that.”
“She wasn’t the only one,” Aziraphale said acidly. “Really, Crowley, the way you were allowing those women to throw themselves at you, it was very unseemly.”
“Well, when have I ever cared about being seemly?” Crowley asked, raising his eyebrows. “But, what I mean to say is, I thought maybe we could set some ground rules.”
“What makes you think I’m going to cooperate with you?”
“Be reasonable, angel. Aren’t you always going on about how people have to choose to be good? Well, is it really a meaningful act of goodness for Margaret to do something charitable with the money if she’s strong-armed into it by a meddling supernatural force? Won’t it be so much more satisfying for you to see her choose to donate it to diphtheria victims, or whatever? You know you can’t have virtue—real virtue—without the option of vice.” He paused. “What d’you think that tree was there for?”
“And I suppose you’re the option of vice.”
“Well. Yeah.” Crowley showed all his teeth. “Chock-full of vice, that’s me.”
“All right,” Aziraphale said, with what he told himself was reluctance. “I suppose I can’t stop you from being here, so we might as well play fair.”
Crowley snorted. “Look, I said ground rules. I didn’t say play fair.”
“Very well, then, ground rules,” Aziraphale said. “And as number one, may I suggest no making up backstory without consulting each other. We’ve got to have agreeing stories, anyway; it’ll only make her more suspicious of both of us if we’re contradicting each other on basic facts. So we might as well negotiate them in advance.”
“Seems reasonable,” Crowley said. “Number two, no directly undermining each other’s character while the other one’s not there. I don’t want you whispering in Margaret’s ear about how I like to kill and eat puppies, or what have you.”
Aziraphale winced. He hadn’t thought of puppy-killing, specifically, but he certainly had planned on denouncing Crowley. Still. He had a lot more to lose, reputationally, if Crowley made up some lurid rumour about him and passed it on to Margaret. Crowley would just look depraved. He’d look like a hypocrite. “Agreed,” he said. “Number three, no tricking her into anything she isn’t fully aware of. You’re making all these points about how important her choice is, but I wouldn’t put it past you to sneak some contract past her and lie about it.”
“Wouldn’t put it past me, would you?” Crowley asked lightly. Almost too lightly, Aziraphale noticed, as though he’d somehow, ridiculously, been hurt that Aziraphale was accusing him of evil intent. A literal demon. “All right, then, no tricks. She’ll fall entirely of her own volition.”
“Like you did, I suppose?”
“I certainly wasn’t tricked,” Crowley said, in a tone Aziraphale didn’t quite understand. “Anyhow. More ground rules?”
Aziraphale hesitated on the edge of saying You can’t seduce her. After all, it wasn’t his business to interfere in demonic temptation tactics. In fact, an attempted seduction would be one of the easier things to arm Margaret against. So then why was his instinct to prevent it? He had a sudden image of Crowley and Margaret, in some corner of a ballroom or parlour, laughing together, his head bent down to hers, their foreheads almost touching, him running one finger down her cheek and under her chin, tilting her face up to his…
“Well?” said real-Crowley, and Aziraphale let seduction-dream-image-Crowley fade.
“Ah. I can’t think of anything else, just now. But I reserve the right to add rules later.”
“Same, then,” Crowley said, and leaned forward in his chair, reaching out a hand.
Aziraphale looked at it. “What’s that for?”
“Shake on it. Seal the deal.” Crowley stressed the vowel sounds, for once.
Aziraphale sighed and put his own hand forward. “Deal with the devil, I suppose.”
“Well,” Crowley said, giving his hand a brief shake and dropping it quickly, as though Aziraphale’s hand was coated in some particularly unpleasant substance, “not the devil.”
“It’s a figure of speech,” Aziraphale said, surreptitiously checking his hand to make sure that it did not, in fact, still have remnants of icing from his earlier cinnamon bun on it. (It did not.)
“Right, ‘course,” Crowley said. “So. Backstory. We might as well agree on the basics, while we’re here.”
“Well, we’ve established that we’re from Kent,” Aziraphale said. He clucked his tongue. “I do wish you hadn’t gone and implied that we’d known each other since we were children. Now we need a whole history between us.”
Crowley shrugged. “I thought it seemed apt. I mean, we have known each other most of our lives. Would be odder to pretend we’d only met in passing, wouldn’t it?”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Aziraphale said. “So. Your family estate is in Kent—”
“The Kent Crowleys.”
“I suppose. And I’m the son of Old Fell the gardener.”
A smile twitched around Crowley’s lips. “You know, I rather think I paid for your schooling.”
“Well, gardener’s boy, you wouldn’t have had many opportunities if the son of the manor hadn’t taken pity on you. I rather think I saw something in you, when we were young. Some potential. I just knew you’d make a fine clergyman. All that stored-up righteousness just bursting to get out.”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes and shifted in his chair. “I cannot believe that in this scenario you’re the well-born gentry and I’m the commoner.”
Crowley recoiled, a small enough motion that Aziraphale might have missed it if he hadn’t been looking. “Sorry I didn’t consult you first. I hope it won’t be too difficult for you to believably treat me as anything other than a social inferior.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Aziraphale said. “Of course, I chose to be a vicar here, which while perfectly respectable isn’t exactly the highest of high society. And you’ve clearly decided to present yourself as some, I don’t know, some wealthy eligible bachelor, and—”
Crowley, who had gone to take a sip of the miraculously still-warm tea, immediately spat it back into the cup.
“Too much sugar?”
“Wha— no, not the tea, the, the thing about—about— what did you call me?”
Aziraphale straightened slightly. “A wealthy eligible bachelor? Is that not what—”
“Eligible bachelor?” Crowley asked, in tones of increasing horror.
“Well, yes,” Aziraphale said, exasperated. “I mean, you move in here, you take the house that’s been left vacant for years at some exorbitant rent, you immediately invite every debutante, widow, and matron in the neighborhood over for tea, you promise to throw a ball and arrange for waltzing lessons, did you think they weren’t all going to immediately start trying to marry you off?”
He bit back a laugh at the look of dawning dread on Crowley’s face. Well, then. Apparently that hadn’t been his demonic stratagem, after all.
“Oh, Satan,” Crowley said, sliding so far down in his chair that Aziraphale was certain he’d fall off any second. “I’m going to have to deal with matchmakers.”
“I’m afraid so,” Aziraphale said, unable to restrain the smug smile that crept onto his face. “In fact, I doubt you’ll be able to get a free moment, you’ll be so inundated with calls from every woman who’s got a marriageable daughter and—” he ran his eyes down Crowley’s lanky form, which by now had practically melted into the chair— “a few who haven’t, as well.”
“And,” Aziraphale said, delighted, “of course I’m only the vicar, and my living, while comfortable, certainly isn’t sufficient to support a wife. But I do have plenty of opportunity for giving Margaret spiritual counsel.”
Crowley, having reached the Point of No Return when it came to sliding down the chair, returned to a more-or-less upright position with apparent reluctance. “Do you think I could lose my entire fortune at cards?”
“You could,” Aziraphale conceded, “although of course any negative consequences that result from your dissipated lifestyle will only serve to dissuade Margaret from adopting it herself.” He so relished the opportunity to show up Crowley that he didn’t realize until after he’d finished speaking that perhaps he shouldn’t be giving the demon advice. “At any rate,” he said, “it seems as though we’ve agreed on the essential points. So I’d better be going on my way. Wouldn’t want to take up any more of your time. I’m certain you’ll have many engagements.”
Crowley squirmed. “Right, then, until we meet again.”
It occurred to Aziraphale, upon returning home, that this would have been an excellent opportunity for Crowley to call upon their longstanding Arrangement—it would, after all, be a great deal easier to simply both stay away from Margaret rather than both try to influence her. He wondered why Crowley hadn’t done so, and came to the conclusion that, after all, Devon was quite lovely this time of year, and the sorts of temptations he’d described were far from the worst things Hell could request. As for himself, Aziraphale had no intention of abandoning Margaret this far in. He might not be the most conscientious angel, but there certainly was potential to do good here, and it would be a shame to waste it.
And, besides. Devon was lovely this time of year.
Crowley’s lost track of how long he’s been reading—two hours? Three? He’s blazed through three or four more Heyer books, thinking furiously the whole time, trying to pull bits and pieces together. He’d headed off to Devon on Hell’s orders, that much he remembered—and had told Aziraphale—but it was, in fact, his own idea. Crowley himself had brought Margaret Cunningham to the attention of the higher-ups. He was exhausted, depressed—his most recent assignment had been on a battlefield, trying to get medics to give up and abandon wounded soldiers, and he was feeling a rather desperate need for something light. So he scouted around for a suitable village, a suitable target, and found, to his surprise and delight, that Heaven had gotten there first. A few months of setting up shop as the local debauched bachelor, throwing money around, and trading barbs with a certain stuffy vicar sounded like just the ticket.
He didn’t realize, he reflects ruefully, that showing up as an extremely wealthy single man would have some... unfortunate side effects. He’d been the object of human affections and desires before, of course, but never as a matrimonial prize. Although it was hard, when it came down to it, not to have sympathy for the matchmaking mothers. They’d only been trying to ensure their children’s way in the world, their future, the best way they knew how—much like, he supposes now, Aziraphale had been trying to do with Margaret.
Crowley is yanked back to the present by a persistent ache in his rear—the unfortunate side effect to reading cross-legged on a wooden floor for an extended period of time. He grabs the next book from the shelf ( Black Sheep, which sounds like it ought to be extremely relevant), and settles in Aziraphale’s desk chair. It’s ridiculous, he realizes, to think that he can feel its usual occupant’s warmth through the cushions. Crowley has only an extremely vague grasp on the laws of physics, but he’s fairly certain heat doesn’t linger for that long.
But he feels warmed by the chair anyway, and settles in for a bit more reading.
It hadn’t been Aziraphale’s idea to go horseback riding. He’d have suspected Crowley of arranging the trip just to annoy him, but he knew quite well that Crowley disliked horses as much, if not more, than Aziraphale himself. No, the riding excursion had, apparently, been all Margaret’s idea, and Aziraphale couldn’t bring himself to turn it down and chance leaving her alone with Crowley.
He had the strong conviction that Crowley was coming along for exactly the same reason (or, well, the inverse reason, but still).
“I’ve heard there’s a very picturesque waterfall to be seen,” Margaret said cheerily, apparently having no trouble at all on her horse.
Aziraphale could hardly say the same for himself. He felt like a particularly ungainly sack of potatoes, at constant risk of thudding to the ground as the horse swayed back and forth. It was a minor consolation that Crowley seemed to be having just as much trouble, if not more. His legs, apparently too long for the saddle he’d chosen, stuck out at odd angles, and as Aziraphale drew closer, wincing slightly with every bumpy step, he could hear Crowley swearing quietly under his breath, muttering curses at the horse, which looked, from its expression, as though it would be cursing Crowley just as strongly, if it could.
“Enjoying yourself, Mr. Crowley?” he asked, as his horse came up alongside Crowley’s.
“Having a splendid time, I am,” Crowley muttered, shooting him what Aziraphale presumed was a death glare from behind his sunglasses.
“You know,” Aziraphale said, loud enough for Margaret to hear, “I remember, when we were lads together, back in Kent, you were quite a dab hand with the horses. I never got much chance to ride, of course. Being only the gardener’s boy, and all.”
“Oh, really, Mr. Crowley?” Margaret asked, brightly. “Are you much of a sportsman?”
“Nah,” Crowley said, smiling in a way that he probably thought looked sincere. “Mr. Fell exaggerates my meager talents.”
“Oh, come now, Mr. Crowley,” Aziraphale said, “you’re being overly modest. I’ve seen him dismount at a gallop and stay on his feet!”
Margaret clapped her hands (how, Aziraphale wondered, was she keeping control of the horse with her hold on the reins so loose?) and cried, “Oh, Mr. Crowley, you simply must show me!”
“I’m. Erm. Quite out of practice,” Crowley protested.
“But surely you could manage just a little gallop?” Aziraphale asked innocently.
“Oh, yes,” Margaret said, “oh, I know, I’ll race you! Just to that tree over there.” She indicated a willow about a hundred yards away. “It’ll do Portia good, to get some exercise,” she said, patting her horse on its flank, “she’s been cooped up for weeks, poor thing.”
Crowley made a sound like a chicken with a sore throat.
“Oh, you can’t say no to Miss Cunningham, surely,” Aziraphale said, with every ounce of angelic virtue he had. “Wouldn’t want to disappoint her.”
“Right,” Crowley said, with the air of someone who’d just stepped into the hangman’s noose but had every intention of carrying the thing out with style, “well then. Racing it is.”
“Excellent,” said Aziraphale, “all ready? Three, two, one—”
And they dashed off, Margaret leaning over her mount like a practiced horsewoman, Crowley lurching wildly from side to side, looking very much as though he might—
The horse bucked, suddenly, and Crowley went flying, landing in a heap against a nearby bush.
“Oh, dear,” said Aziraphale, and kicked his own horse in an attempt to speed it up. “Come on, you silly thing, we’ve got to get there—”
He reached the tangle of limbs and angry noises that was Crowley, and slid off his own horse in a less-than-dignified manner. “Are you all right?” he asked, kneeling down.
Crowley groaned. “I’ve been better,” he said, shifting into something resembling a seated position. “But, bruises only, it appears.”
“Really?” Aziraphale asked, raising an eyebrow. He rather thought he could get away with miracling away any injuries Crowley might have sustained. Fixing a bone or two, that wouldn’t raise any alarms. He just wouldn’t mention that the bones belonged to a demon. “Are you certain you don’t need me to do anything? It is my fault, after all, I goaded you on, I’m dreadfully sorry, really, dear boy.”
Crowley looked almost pleased. “Nah. Really all right, angel. Worth it to see you so solicitous.”
Aziraphale felt himself blush. “Very well, then,” he said, a touch frigidly, and stood up. There were, he noticed with distaste, grass stains on his breeches. Well, that was what one got for falling to one’s knees to help demons, wasn’t it?
“Mr. Crowley!” Margaret, who had apparently not looked back until she’d reached the finish line, reined in her horse next to them. “Are you all right? I didn’t notice you’d fallen, I’m so sorry, can I help at all?”
“Miss Cunningham,” Crowley said, standing up and wincing slightly, “I warned you I was out of practice.”
“It’s my fault, really,” Aziraphale said, “I’d forgotten how very long it had been since Mr. Crowley and I were boys.”
“Yes,” Crowley said, clambering carefully back up onto his horse, which seemed less than pleased by this development, “we’re not as young as we once were, eh, Mr. Fell?”
“It seems so odd to me that you two should have grown up together,” Margaret said.
Aziraphale re-mounted his own horse, surreptitiously performing a quick miracle to ensure a smoother ride. It wouldn’t do for him to be falling off horses. No, for the moment, he had an advantage, however slight, over Crowley, and certainly Heaven wouldn’t begrudge him the miracle in service of winning Margaret over.
Of course, he hadn’t mentioned to Heaven that Crowley was in Devon, so he’d have to fudge the facts a little.
“Well,” Crowley was saying, as they set off again, at a more reasonable pace, for the waterfall, “not together as such. More just...in the same general vicinity. I’d go off with my friends,” he said, sending Aziraphale a mischievous, let’s-see-how-you-handle- this smile, “and I remember seeing Mr. Fell, well, of course, he wasn’t Mr. Fell, then, just Young Fell, I’d see him looking out the window of the gardener’s cottage, watching us, that wistful look in his eyes.”
“Did you never invite him along?” Margaret asked.
Crowley shook his head. “It may surprise you to hear this, Miss Cunningham, but when I was younger I was quite the scamp.”
Aziraphale was unable to restrain an audible snort, but managed to cover it with a cough when Margaret looked at him.
Crowley winked. “But, as I grew up, matured a bit, I realized that poor Young Fell probably just wanted to be included, so I sent him off to seminary and now look at him. Vicar of the parish.”
“Oh,” Margaret said, “that was kind of you.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, seizing the opportunity, “Mr. Crowley is so kind.”
Behind Margaret’s back, Crowley scowled at him.
Undaunted, Aziraphale continued, “And, you know, my dear girl, it really speaks to how much good a person can do in this world, particularly those of us with the resources to do so. Mr. Crowley, here, sent one poor boy to seminary and made such a difference in my life by doing so.”
Crowley mimed vomiting.
Aziraphale leaned in towards Margaret. “You, when you come into your fortune, will have the opportunity to make that difference in the lives of countless children. Ah, yes, Mr. Crowley may appear to fritter away his money on...balls, and diversions, but he knows as well as I do that charity is the first duty of anyone with means. Really,” Aziraphale continued, laying it on with a trowel, as much for Crowley’s benefit as for Margaret’s at this point, “he’s quite good.”
He risked a glance at Crowley and saw that he had unexpectedly stopped making disgusted faces. He still didn’t look comfortable, by any means, but it was more...surprise, really, than disgust. His eyes met Aziraphale’s, and he, unexpectedly, smiled.
Aziraphale was so thrown off by this that he missed whatever Margaret was saying. Something about this ball Crowley was supposedly throwing.
It couldn’t, he reflected, as they rode on, have been that important.
Crowley finishes Black Sheep (and if he has to stop reading, now and then, because a line, or a scene, causes a painful twinge in his heart—well, there’s no one around to see, is there?). He moves on to The Nonesuch, which, it transpires, is about an extremely talented horseman. Now, that’s not something that causes any pangs of familiarity, certainly. He laughs a bit, remembering how idiotic he and Aziraphale both looked, trying desperately to make their horses behave; how he was baited into racing Margaret, how he promptly made a fool of himself, as usual, and fell (always falling, Crowley is), landing awkwardly beneath a tree.
And he remembers the surge of hope that he felt, when Aziraphale raced towards him with such a look of concern, of care in his eyes, when he dropped to the ground beside Crowley and apologized, offered to heal him, even. As though he didn’t care, for that moment, who might be watching them, didn’t care about seeming too friendly or too fond.
So, very well, then, The Nonesuch does hit home.
Chapter 2: i still pour in the waters of my love
“It would surprise you, I daresay, if I told you that I rarely quarrel with anyone but yourself.”
Georgette Heyer, Bath Tangle
The note came by messenger. Aziraphale didn’t recognize the servant, but the envelope he handed over bore an embossed snake on its wax seal, which was clue enough. He fished in his pockets and handed the boy a random coin, vaguely observing from his startled look that it had been a far larger sum than necessary. The mistake, such as it was, registered only briefly, before the messenger was on his way (not, presumably, wanting to linger and give Aziraphale a chance to take the coin back), and Aziraphale returned his attention to the envelope, breaking the seal with a slide of his finger.
Angel, the note began. (This, Aziraphale reflected distractedly, was really most indiscreet, what if someone saw and began drawing... conclusions?) I’ve been thinking it might be wise for us to have a private chat. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the house I’m renting has rather extensive gardens. Well, (and Aziraphale could practically hear the laugh in Crowley’s voice, here) it has them now. If it suits you to come by and take a turn about the greenery, you will find me at home this afternoon.
It was a simple enough note, its tone laid-back, detached, almost, as though the writer didn’t care much whether he received a response.
This effect was completely ruined by a hastily scrawled postscript: Or another afternoon, if that’s better. I’ll be around. Just stop by.
Aziraphale’s heart, wholly unexpectedly, swelled with fondness. He did his level best to ignore it, focused, instead, on smoothing out the crease in the paper of Crowley’s note. He ought, he reflected, to burn it.
Instead, he re-folded the note and placed it carefully in his waistcoat pocket. He silenced the nasty voice in his head telling him how foolish this was with the rejoinder that the note hadn’t been signed, and how would anyone reading it even tell that it had come from a demon?
He found himself, nevertheless, touching a hand to his pocket several times over the course of the walk to Crowley’s. No doubt it was just nervousness, worry that the note might have fallen, might be found by someone else. It was certainly not sentimentality, he told himself firmly, because that wouldn’t do at all.
He resolved to wear an expression of chilly politeness, once he was shown in to see Crowley. But his knock on the door was answered not by the butler from before, but the lord of the manor himself, grinning widely and gesturing extravagantly for Aziraphale to lead the way to the gardens, and he could feel an answering smile rising to his cheeks, unbidden and unwelcome. Surely unwelcome.
“You came,” Crowley said, as they stepped onto the garden path. Aziraphale faintly remembered having seen the garden from the window, when he’d been over for tea, before, but then he’d had the sense that it was distinctly ill-tended, overgrown and weedy. Nothing like the well-ordered garden that stretched before them now, wildly verdant green plants corralled into submission, sprouting up from the dirt at impossible heights, given that their owner had only moved in a few weeks ago.
“Well,” Aziraphale said, “I didn’t have any other offers.” It came out rather coyer than he had intended.
Crowley, thankfully, let it pass with only a flick of his eyes over towards Aziraphale before he walked onward. “So,” he said, “Miss Margaret.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, grateful for the conversational lifeline. “What do you think of her?”
“She has a good heart, I think,” Crowley pronounced with some distaste. “But a liking for amusement, as well, and that can, with very little pushing, be turned into an inclination for debauchery.”
“Debauchery?” Aziraphale asked, raising his eyebrows. “What, precisely, are you planning?”
Crowley laughed. “Nothing she won’t want to do, never fear.”
Aziraphale sighed. “I wasn’t doubting that.”
“Well, then?” Crowley asked, his tone turning serious. “What’s so terrible about the young lady having a little fun? Besides the fact that it’s me encouraging it, of course.” He said this last bit in a tone of such ironic self-deprecation as to circle back around to being self-hatred.
Aziraphale looked away. “It’s only—it’s not that I don’t approve of humans enjoying themselves, that would be, well, most hypocritical, of course, given that I—” He shook his head. Stay on message. “Well, that all aside, I can’t pretend I’m not glad that you’re tempting her with... dissipation, rather than real Evil, it’s very…”
Crowley held up a finger. “Don’t go drawing any conclusions from that. It’s to do with what the human will respond to. Not from any qualms I might have about encouraging Evil. I will not have you attributing any such wishy-washiness to me, it’s entirely unwarranted.”
Aziraphale felt himself smile. “Yes, very well, you’re extremely evil.”
“But my point is,” Aziraphale continued, “that regardless of whether the alternative is actually causing harm or just simply being wasteful, that Miss Margaret has—or, I suppose, is about to have—a great deal of power, by virtue of having a great deal of money, and thus the potential for her to do good is so high that we can’t possibly squander it.”
Crowley made a disapproving sort of noise, but Aziraphale plunged ahead. “And one might even say—in fact, I will say—that Margaret has an obligation to do good. Think of all the people that an orphanage, or a hospital, might be able to help.”
Crowley shook his head. “What I don’t get is why your lot are all right with letting her do all the helping.”
“Well,” Aziraphale said, “I mean, I’m helping, indirectly, of course, but I am helping.”
“No, not you,” Crowley said, animated, now, “what I mean is, why’s it all right for this one person to have all this money and power and whatnot, and you just have to trust that she’ll use it to help the rest of ‘em? Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone if you just spread it out to begin with?”
“It’s not about it being easy,” Aziraphale protested.
“Oh, isn’t it?” Crowley asked. “Because seems to me you go a very long way to make it as easy as possible for humans to do good, whenever you’re around. So if you made it easier on all of them—”
“Look,” said Aziraphale, sounding snippy even to himself, “I’m not about to debate ethics with a demon.”
“Nah,” Crowley said, shaking his head. “Wouldn’t do for you to lose.”
“I would not—” Aziraphale cut himself off. “Did you have something you wished to discuss,” he continued, infusing as much ice as possible into his tone, “or is this purely a social call?”
Crowley scowled, and Aziraphale did his level best to ignore the pang of guilt that shot through his chest. “Forgive me for wasting your time, angel,” he said, gesturing extravagantly around the garden. “I am of course aware that you have many other demands to attend to. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your obligations.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale said, exasperated, “that’s not—I didn’t—” He sighed. “You know perfectly well that I haven’t got anything else to do, and Margaret’s out of town till Thursday, so there’s no point in me going and hanging around her place, and I do like—” He stopped.
“What?” Crowley asked, his sour expression dissipating.
I like spending time with you. I like talking to you. I like arguing with you, Heaven knows why—well, no, Heaven doesn’t know why or what or who, and I’m doing my best to keep it that way, Crowley, and if that means hurting your feelings then that’s what I’ll do.
“I like your garden,” Aziraphale said, aloud.
Crowley raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything, and they walked in silence for a few more minutes, until they were back at the house.
“I’d better be off, then,” Aziraphale started to say.
“Do you want—” Crowley began, at the same time, but stopped, and nodded. “Sure. Yeah. Of course. Well, I, uh, I expect I’ll be seeing you around, won’t I?”
“Well, I expect—” Aziraphale began, but was interrupted by the arrival of the servant who’d brought him Crowley’s note, now wearing a slightly more frazzled expression.
“Mr. Crowley? There’s a young gentleman here to see you. Says you’re not expecting him?”
“I’m certainly not,” Crowley said, “but, I’ll see him anyway.”
The servant exhaled with relief. “Very good, sir, I’ve shown him into the library, if that’ll do.”
“That’ll be fine,” Crowley said.
“A young gentleman?” Aziraphale asked.
“Yeah,” said Crowley, “well, it’s as Robert said, I wasn’t expecting anyone but you, so…” He shrugged. “I’d better go see what he wants.” He paused, as though waiting for Aziraphale to say something.
And Aziraphale, who ought to have said good-bye, said instead, “Would it be all right if I came along as well? It’s as I said, I’ve nothing better to do, and I will confess to being intrigued as to why a strange young gentleman has shown up at your house.”
Crowley grinned. “Of course. Glad for the backup.”
It crossed Aziraphale’s mind, as they entered the library, that the visitor might very well be a demon come to check up on Crowley. He really ought, he reflected, to leave now, just in case.
He didn’t, because, well, he was curious, and also he had a hankering to get a look at Crowley’s library. The vicarage, while sufficient for his needs, was nowhere near as large as the bookshop, and so he’d been forced to leave a number of his favourites behind in London.
The stranger did not, in fact, appear to be a demon, but instead a man in his early twenties, or thereabouts, dressed in attire that was of good quality but a trifle out of fashion, especially compared to the daring cuts of Crowley’s clothes. He rose, upon their entrance, and bowed hastily.
“Forgive me for the intrusion,” he said, in well-bred tones that betrayed a hint of nervousness. “My horse seems to have taken ill, and I was hoping that I might be able to take advantage of your stables in order to restore him to health. I do understand it’s a great imposition, Mr—”
“Crowley,” Crowley said, and strode forward to take the boy’s hand. Aziraphale lingered behind. “And, not at all, I’ll just have Robert—” He motioned to the servant, who nodded and dashed off. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you, Mr. Crowley,” said the boy. “I am greatly in your debt.”
Aziraphale reflected that those likely weren’t the wisest words to use around a demon, but then, the boy couldn’t very well know that, could he?
Crowley waved a hand in dismissal. “Think nothing of it. Although, if I may know who I have the honor of hosting?”
“Oh! I am, ah, I’m Thomas Waverly, ah, Earl of Witherton, that is.”
“Really?” Crowley asked, shooting a fancy-that glance at Aziraphale. “And what brings you to Devon, my lord?”
“Oh—” Waverly blushed. “No need for that, really, Tom is fine, or Witherton, I’m not fussy. I’m here on a visit, actually, to my aunt, Lady Vane, she lives in this area…”
“Ah yes,” Crowley said, “I’m acquainted with the lady. And are you staying long with Lady Vane?”
Tom shrugged. “I’m not sure. Thing is, there’s this old house, it’s in the family, part of Witherton, I guess, and I’ve inherited it, now. Old place isn’t far from here, but it’s currently quite uninhabitable, you see, needs a great deal of fixing up.”
“So you’ll be fixing it up?” Aziraphale asked.
Tom started. “Oh! I’m very sorry, Mr...I didn’t see you there, I, uh…”
Crowley jumped in. “This is my friend,” he said, glancing at Aziraphale on the emphasis. “Mr. Fell. He’s the local vicar, so, should you happen to be a churchgoing sort, you’ll get acquainted. And—” he shot Tom a conspiratorial wink, at which Aziraphale couldn’t suppress an eyeroll— “should you not happen to be a churchgoer, we can get acquainted on Sundays, when Mr. Fell’s up pontificating from the pulpit.”
Aziraphale sighed. “I promise I’m not so dreary as all that,” he said, taking Tom’s proffered hand and shaking it. “Whatever slanders Mr. Crowley may heap upon my character. But, this house of yours, you said you were fixing it up?”
Tom shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. My title, like many, these days—a great deal more of them than people think—doesn’t happen to come with any great wealth. My forebears did a mighty good job of frittering away our family fortune, and so I’ve inherited a large house and a large set of expectations, but no large purse to fulfill them with. We’ll likely sell the place, if I can find a buyer while I’m in town.” He glanced around Crowley’s library with evaluative eyes. “You wouldn’t happen to be…”
Crowley shook his head. “I’m afraid my stay here is temporary as well. I’m only renting this place, to begin with. Not sure for how long, yet.”
“Long enough,” Aziraphale said, the seeds of a plan beginning to sprout in his head, “to be hosting a ball in a few weeks’ time. Tom, if you’re still here, I’m certain Mr. Crowley would be only too delighted for you to attend his little soiree.”
Crowley shot Aziraphale a what-are-you-playing-at glance, but said, “Of course, the more the merrier.”
“Ah!” Tom grinned. “That would be dandy.”
“And,” Aziraphale added, delighted at his own cleverness, “I believe Mr. Crowley has arranged for waltzing lessons, as well, in advance of the ball. So, should you be unfamiliar with the dance, as I believe many people are…”
“Yes,” Crowley said, giving Aziraphale another puzzled look, “they’re to be on Thursday, I’m having an instructor come down from London. We’d be only too glad to have you, as I believe the ladies are quite likely to outnumber the gentlemen, and I don’t believe Mr. Fell, here, will be willing to step in and lead.”
Aziraphale tutted. “I’m quite willing to lead.”
“Oh, you are, are you?” Crowley asked, mouth twitching in amusement. “I didn’t know you were planning to join us. Thought you disapproved of waltzing.”
“Well,” Aziraphale said, temporizing, “I don’t actually intend to waltz myself, ah, if the dance is as...provocative as some say, but I certainly do intend to come along and make certain that the young people don’t get themselves into any trouble. I hardly trust him,” he explained for Tom’s benefit, “not to let them run wild.”
Crowley shrugged. “Very well, then, but I can’t promise you won’t be roped into joining the dance. But, yes, Tom, do come along, if you like.”
“Oh, certainly,” Tom said, “if you’ll have me. I don’t have much acquaintance in the area, besides my aunt, so I’d welcome the opportunity to meet some of the locals outside of the bustle of a ball.”
“Excellent,” Crowley said, “we’ll expect you Thursday, then. And Mr. Fell.”
Robert came back in, just then, and announced that the earl’s horse was ready, and would m’lord be on his way, now? Tom bid them all a grateful farewell, and followed Robert out the door, and Crowley and Aziraphale were, once again, alone.
“What,” Crowley asked, flopping into a chair and pulling off his glasses, “was that about?”
Aziraphale sidled over towards a bookshelf, eyeing a few promising-looking volumes. “I oughtn’t tell you.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “Taken a fancy to the fellow, have you? I’m surprised, doesn’t seem like your—”
Aziraphale snorted. “No, not at all. No, it’s that—oh, I really shouldn’t tell you, should I, but it’s really very clever of me, and I do know Heaven won’t appreciate it as much as you will, so.” He noticed a self-satisfied smile creeping over Crowley’s face, but continued anyway, because, well, he did want to brag, and Crowley would appreciate it. “Tom, there, he’s got a very impressive title, and a very large, vacant property, one that’s ripe for repurposing, and all he needs is an infusion of cash. So. Should he and Margaret happen to hit it off…”
Crowley snapped his fingers. “Ah! You want them to get married, don’t you, and then they can use Margaret’s money to re-do Tom’s house as your blessed orphanage, or whatever it is.”
“Exactly,” Aziraphale said with pride. “It’ll work out beautifully.”
“If they fall in love,” Crowley reminded him.
“Well,” Aziraphale said, “yes, but, I can make it as easy as possible for them, can’t I? Waltzing together, that ought to get things moving along.”
Crowley sighed. “You can’t just force them to fall in love.”
“Well,” Aziraphale said, complacently, “it doesn’t need to be love. Not among their sort. An eligible match, a fondness, a liking, some attraction...that ought to be enough, I think.”
Crowley looked at him with some unidentifiable emotion in his eyes. “You don’t think,” he asked, slowly, “that they deserve more than that?”
“It’s not about deserving,” Aziraphale said, impatiently, “it’s about the greater good.”
“Course,” Crowley said, and replaced his glasses. “Who cares whether the two of them are happy, so long as Heaven gets what it wants?”
“That’s not what…” Aziraphale trailed off. It really wasn’t worth arguing the point. He turned, instead, to the bookshelf behind him, dragged a finger across the leather spines of a few volumes, tilting his head sideways to read their titles.
“You know I didn’t pick any of those out,” Crowley commented. “They came with the place. Expect the house-agent thinks they add class.”
“They do,” said Aziraphale, spotting a familiar text and pulling it off the shelf. “Although, I can’t think they’re aware of the irony of including this in the collection.” He held up a copy of Paradise Lost.
Crowley snorted. “No, I doubt they are.”
“Nice fellow, Milton,” Aziraphale said, absentmindedly flicking through the pages. “Funnier than you’d think.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “You knew him, did you? Then how’d he end up claiming Satan was the serpent in the Garden? Stings, that. Bosses taking credit for your hard work, you know how it is.”
Aziraphale sighed. “Yes, well, I did tell him not to put that in there, if it matters.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, “I was helping, you know, as an amanuensis, and, well, I can’t claim to have completely resisted telling him bits and pieces about what it was really like, but it’s not as though I could’ve told him why I knew.”
“Really?” Crowley asked, again, his tone sharper, now, beyond idle curiosity. He bounced out of the chair and over towards Aziraphale, plucking the book out of his hands and thumbing through the pages with an easy familiarity. “What’s this bit here... Pleasing was his shape, and lovely, never since of Serpent kind lovelier. Now, that can’t have been you, I imagine.”
Aziraphale felt himself flush, and remembered the nights he’d spent at Milton’s, holding a cup of wine, sitting near a fire, talking about a wily serpent and a garden and a tree…”No,” he said, aloud, “that was, ah, that was all John.”
“Right,” said Crowley, and smiled tightly, and put the book back on the shelf. “So,” he said, turning back towards Aziraphale, “you’re coming along for waltzing lessons, are you?”
“If you don’t mind,” Aziraphale said, “I should like to see how they go.”
“Keep the young people from getting too wanton, will you?”
“Well,” Aziraphale said, primly, “given my new plans for them, I rather think encouraging a bit of wantonness wouldn’t be at all out of place.”
He could hear the faint sound of Crowley sputtering as he left the room. It was, he’d always thought, best to leave when one had the upper hand of the conversation.
Crowley almost misses the sheet of paper tucked into Lady of Quality. It’s yellowed from age, so fragile that it almost crumbles when he unfolds it delicately.
He recognizes the spindly scrawl of his own handwriting immediately.
Angel, I’ve been thinking it might be wise for us to have a private chat. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the house I’m renting has rather extensive gardens. Well, it has them now. If it suits you to come by and take a turn about the greenery, you will find me at home this afternoon.
Or another afternoon, if that’s better. I’ll be around. Just stop by.
He remembers thinking the note sounded rather good, at the time. He’d written and rewritten the first paragraph, trying to make it sound nonchalant enough not to scare off Aziraphale. In the end, of course, he wasn’t able to resist adding those last desperate sentences, because when, really, has he ever been able to hide his heart when it comes to Aziraphale?
He kept it, though. The note. Which means, Crowley realizes, that for over two hundred years, Aziraphale’s had this letter tucked away, as—what? A memento? A token? The physical proof of what he has to know in his heart, what surely even Aziraphale, deep down, can’t deny to himself, the fact that Crowley would lay himself down in the street if it meant preventing Aziraphale from having to step in a puddle.
Crowley turns it over in his head, looks at it from every angle, and can’t, even in the darkest parts of his brain, find Aziraphale kept the note as anything but an inducement to hope.
It ties together, after all, their time in Devon with the stories in these novels, in a way that’s far more concrete than the connection that’s been slowly building in Crowley’s mind. It proves that Aziraphale, too, saw the similarities between that summer and the plots of the books—the books, which are, to a one, romances.
Crowley lays the note down, gently, and keeps reading.
Thursday was grey and rainy, and Aziraphale seriously considered staying in the vicarage with a mug of cocoa and a volume of Boethius, rather than venturing out to Crowley’s estate for waltzing lessons. But he forced himself out the door anyway. It was, after all, to be the first meeting between Tom and Margaret, and thus quite an important moment for him to be in attendance for, if this match were to be brought about. (He did, however, perform a tiny miracle to ensure that no rain made it in sideways underneath his umbrella, and another one upon arrival, to clean the mud off of his shoes. Well, one did have to keep up appearances, didn’t one? Particularly with Crowley throwing money about all willy-nilly.)
He was shown into Crowley’s ballroom by a servant, and walked in to find a collection of young ladies and gentlemen, siloed by sex and shooting each other awkward glances from across the room. Two slightly older men, whom Aziraphale didn’t recognize, were also present, one seated at the pianoforte while the other leaned over, turning pages of sheet music. The dance instructors, presumably. Aziraphale glanced around for Crowley, at last spotting him lounging against a pillar, halfway out of sight.
“Mr. Fell,” he said, straightening himself as Aziraphale approached. “You’ve come.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, “well, couldn’t leave you to corrupt all these youths without being here to exert a little ameliorating influence, could I?”
Crowley grinned. “‘Course not.”
The man who’d been standing next to the pianoforte clapped his hands, and the young ladies and gentlemen quieted their chatter to listen to him explain the steps of the waltz. After demonstrating on his own a few times, he selected a girl (Charlotte Vane, Aziraphale thought) as his partner, and they walked through the dance while the pianist played.
“It’s quite a charming dance,” Aziraphale said. “Very lively.”
Crowley raised his eyebrows. “Oh, really? You’re not scandalized by his arm around her waist? You don’t think it encourages lascivious and sinful thoughts?”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes. “I don’t know why you will persist in claiming that I have something against... sensuality. So long as no one’s hurting anyone, well…”
“So,” Crowley said, as they watched the crowd split up into pairs and begin to lurch awkwardly through the dance, “going to try it yourself, are you?”
“Angels don’t dance,” Aziraphale said, stiffly.
Crowley snorted. “When have you ever been an ordinary angel?”
Aziraphale ignored the question. “You, I expect, would have no objections to waltzing,” he said, instead. “Why linger back here with me?”
Crowley shrugged his shoulders. “What, you’d rather have me out there, amongst them all, doing—what was it you said? Oh, yes, corrupting the youth, that was it.”
Aziraphale thought back to that first day, setting the ground rules, his own failure to say you can’t seduce her, the image he’d had of Crowley and Margaret standing entirely too close together, his hands brushing her face, her neck...Now, looking at Tom and Margaret on the dance floor (they seemed, he noted with the still-rational part of his brain, to be getting along quite well, although their dance hold was nowhere near as close as some of the others he’d seen), he mentally replaced Tom with Crowley, saw his long arm pull Margaret in, her head tucking neatly under his chin, their faces so close they were almost touching, as he led her through the steps of the dance, his mouth moving against her ear, saying—
“No,” Aziraphale said, aloud, wrenching himself out of the image. “Ah, no, quite right, much better for you to watch.”
Crowley smiled. It was, Aziraphale noted with trepidation, his I’m-about-to-do-something-troublesome smile. “No,” he said, stepping forward, “I do believe you were right the first time, I really ought to join in. After all, it is my ball they’ll all be waltzing at. Incumbent upon me to be a good host, isn’t it?”
“No,” Aziraphale said, knowing as he did that it was entirely useless, “come on, Crowley, you’re not—”
Crowley just smiled again, and stepped away from him, and into the mass of dancers. A few words in the instructor’s ear, and he’d cut in on a couple (not, Aziraphale was relieved to see, Tom and Margaret, thank Heaven for small mercies, anyway), and was, himself, waltzing.
Aziraphale was assaulted by the twin impulses to look away and to stare greedily. He gave into the second, on the grounds—he assured himself—that it was his duty to ensure that Crowley wasn’t causing any trouble, all mixed in with the young ladies and gentlemen like that. He stomped down the small voice in his head that whispered you just want to watch him dance, and folded his arms in what he hoped was a disapproving fashion, and settled in to watch, schooling his expression to stony ambivalence.
He needn’t have feared for Crowley’s effect on the humans, it turned out, because it became very clear in a matter of minutes that Crowley was extremely bad at waltzing. He trod on his partner’s feet no fewer than five times, kept bumping into other couples, and had the general air of someone who’d had slightly too much to drink and was now staggering home, attempting to stay upright and only barely succeeding.
Aziraphale stifled laughter, but a few giggles escaped nevertheless. Crowley looked over the head of his partner and pulled a how-dare-you-mock-me face, which, of course, only increased Aziraphale’s hilarity. A few moments more of very bad waltzing, and Crowley dropped his partner’s hands, returned her back to the boy she’d been dancing with before, and stalked over to the corner they’d been in before, looking, Aziraphale was delighted to note, somewhere between irritated and humiliated.
“Excellent work,” he said, feeling the smug smile on his face and deciding rather to lean into it. “Really first-rate job of corruption, there, you certainly were a sight.”
Crowley scowled. “Like you’d do any better.”
Aziraphale shrugged. “My dear fellow, I at least have the sense not to try.”
Crowley leaned back against the wall in silent dudgeon, and Aziraphale sensed that his own smile was changing from schadenfreude to something else, something a great deal more troublesome and tender. He’d been worried (he could admit it, now, the danger was past) that watching Crowley waltz would prompt some entirely inappropriate thoughts of a libidinous nature in his own mind. Crowley’s abysmal performance had put an end to that, but watching him fail so miserably, watching him stumble, show the cracks in his sardonic armor, had instead caused Aziraphale’s heart to flood with a powerful and familiar fondness, one that was far more difficult to dismiss than simple attraction.
“What?” Crowley asked, and Aziraphale realized that he’d been staring.
“Nothing,” he said, quickly, “or, I was only thinking, when you waltz it’s not so much scandalous as it is scandalously bad.”
Crowley grunted a laugh. “Well, then, you can’t have any objection to the waltzing at my ball, can you? Given that you no longer find it scandalous.”
“I never said I did,” Aziraphale said calmly, “only that many people consider it improper. I did not say that I was one of them. Certainly, after having seen your attempt, I don’t see how anyone could claim it encourages sinful thoughts.”
“Well, then,” Crowley said, looking a bit put out, “but you are coming to the ball, yes?”
Aziraphale nodded. “Certainly. What, do you think I’d let you alone with a roomful of impressionable young people, not to mention Margaret? Just because I’ve determined the danger from your dancing lies in foot injuries rather than inflamed passions doesn’t mean that there aren’t, I’m certain, simply dozens of ways in which you could cause trouble.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, and looked pointedly at Margaret and Tom, who had stopped waltzing together and were now engaged in what seemed to be friendly, if not precisely passionate, conversation. “I’ve learned not to underestimate your wiles.”
Crowley smiled. “Wise of you.”
They watched in companionable quiet, after that, as the couples twirled their way around the floor, growing more comfortable and confident with every measure. Aziraphale glanced around the ballroom, attempting to imagine it as it would look in a few weeks’ time, at night, the torches lit, a full band playing, the room packed with men and women, dressed in their finest, laughing and talking and dancing together.
And Crowley would be there, too, they’d both be there, Aziraphale wearing the most elegant clothing a village clergyman could get away with (he’d already started planning the outfit), Crowley in something black and tight, something that revealed all the corners and edges of him, and they’d stand together (like this) at the side of the ballroom, and trade good-natured barbs, and Crowley would lean over and whisper something in his ear, something cutting about the way a chaperon was dressed, and his breath would be so warm—
“What are you thinking of?” Crowley asked, softly.
Aziraphale turned to him without thinking, and saw the dreaminess of his own expression reflected in the dark circles of Crowley’s glasses. He looked, to himself, quite stupid.
Instead of laughing at him, though—and he should have known better, should have known that Crowley only ever laughed at him about the small things, never about anything important, never anything that could hurt him—Crowley drew in a sharp breath, and Aziraphale felt his mouth fall open of its own accord.
He heard the whoosh as Crowley let the breath out again, then smiled—a shaky smile—and said, “Looks like they’re finished.”
Aziraphale turned his head immediately, to look at the dancers, and, indeed, the lesson appeared to be concluding. Crowley strode over towards the instructors, presumably to thank them, and Aziraphale took a moment to collect himself before bustling over to Margaret.
She looked, he was pleased to see, happy, even though he wasn’t quite sure where Tom had got to, or how long they’d talked for.
“Mr. Fell! I didn’t think you’d come, after what you said about waltzing!”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, uncomfortably aware that he would likely be regretting those words a great deal in the next few weeks, “well, Mr. Crowley invited me to stop by and see what it was really like, and I must say I don’t see any harm in it. Not that I would ever think you young people improper, but I did worry about tongues wagging, you know. But now I’ve seen it, and I think only the most censorious people can object, if the dance is performed tastefully.”
Margaret beamed. “I’m so glad you agree.”
“You had,” Aziraphale said, carefully, “a pleasant partner, I hope?”
Margaret nodded, albeit with a trifle less enthusiasm than he might have wished for. “Yes, he was quite amiable, thank you.”
“Earl of Witherton, isn’t he?” Aziraphale asked, casually.
Margaret shrugged. “We didn’t get quite that far, I’m afraid, Mr. Fell. Why, do you know him?”
Aziraphale frowned. “No, or, well, we were briefly acquainted. I simply wished to know what you thought of him, that’s all.”
“Seems nice enough,” Margaret said, indifferently. “Why do you ask?”
Aziraphale sighed. “Idle curiosity, my dear.”
So, it would appear, he thought, walking home, that Margaret and Tom had not precisely fallen in love at first sight. But, as he’d said to Crowley, there hardly needed to be a grand passion for them to build a happy marriage, and at least they hadn’t taken an instant dislike to each other (however that tended to work out in novels). He would simply have to shepherd them along. Play, as it were, Cupid.
Crowley, he reflected wryly, would have laughed at that image. “What, you flitting around with a little bow and arrow, trying to puncture unsuspecting young gentry? You’d much better stick with swords, angel.”
Thinking of Crowley made his neck itch, and he pulled at his shirt collar, loosening it a fraction. The night air crept in, but the sense of uneasiness remained. There wasn’t, he told himself firmly, anything to be done about it.
There’s a passage in Charity Girl that mentions waltzing, and Crowley scowls down at the page as though it’s personally offended him. All this talk of how scandalous it was, how improper. He’s been around long enough to see notions of propriety change in a hundred different ways over the years, has had to adjust to which body parts it’s advisable to hide, to where you do and do not touch your platonic acquaintances. And compared to the things he’s seen before and since, waltzing was and remains incredibly tame, as scandalous dances go.
Aziraphale had admitted it, eventually—that even by then-contemporary standards, the waltz was hardly pornographic. Crowley doesn’t consider this as much of a victory as he probably should. He’s never been a good dancer himself (of course not, why would he be, he can barely walk properly), but somehow he’d thought it a fine idea to attempt to taunt Aziraphale via waltzing. Which had gone rather predictably badly— until it hadn’t, until he’d caught Aziraphale staring at him as though Crowley were a priceless manuscript in rather poor condition. Something he was desperate to acquire, no matter how much fixing up it needed.
Crowley lets Charity Girl fall shut, and thinks, instead, of how desperately he wants to see Aziraphale look at him like that again.
Chapter 3: strangers and foes do sunder, and not kiss
“Would my disreputable past weigh with you?”
“Not if I loved you enough.”
Georgette Heyer, Black Sheep
A few days before the ball, Crowley once again invited half the neighborhood over for tea. Aziraphale was, upon arriving, pleased to note that the summons had included young Tom. Unfortunately, he didn’t appear to be talking to Margaret much, but Aziraphale rather fancied he could help with that.
He looked about for Crowley—it was only good manners to greet one’s host, after all—but couldn’t, at first, catch sight of him.
“Mr. Fell?” Charlotte Vane tugged at his sleeve. (Childish behavior in a girl her age, but what did one expect, really, out here in the country?)
“Yes, my dear?”
“I was only wondering whether you were planning to come to the ball on Saturday. Mr. Crowley said you’d promised that you would, but I thought you said waltzing was improper, and Mama was saying that perhaps we oughtn’t to come after all, if the vicar thinks it’s scandalous…”
Aziraphale sighed, and found himself, not for the first time, regretting his choice of alias. “I never said waltzing was improper,” he answered, more waspishly than Charlotte deserved. “I merely suggested that some might find it improper. And now that I’ve attended the lessons that Mr. Crowley so generously arranged for, I’ve seen that the dance is far from objectionable. And it’s as you say, I did promise him I’d attend.”
“Excellent,” said Charlotte, beaming.
“Where is Mr. Crowley?” Aziraphale asked, continuing to scan the room and failing to spot him.
Charlotte grinned in a most unladylike way. “Mama’s got him cornered. Her and old Mrs. Bilkins.”
“Don’t disrespect your elders,” Aziraphale said automatically, and if you only knew how much older Mr. Crowley and I are, you’d rethink assigning that term to Mrs. Bilkins.
But, more importantly—ah, yes, there Crowley was, looking most uncomfortable sandwiched between the two widows.
Aziraphale decided that it was simply his duty, as a being of divine kindness, to rescue him. He drifted away from Charlotte, and towards the tea-table, where Crowley was seated in an uncharacteristically upright fashion (a sure sign of unease) and dropping sugar cubes into his tea with what appeared to be unwavering focus.
“And you’ve really never married?” Mrs. Bilkins was cooing.
“Nah,” Crowley muttered.
“Well,” Lady Vane said, leaning in towards Crowley and elbowing Mrs. Bilkins out of the way in the process, “doubtless you simply haven’t met the right girl yet.”
“Or woman,” Mrs. Bilkins chimed in.
Crowley emitted an odd sort of gurgle.
Although Aziraphale could have done with seeing Crowley squirm a little longer, he had come over to help him escape, and Crowley looked so exquisitely distressed that it would be a positive pleasure. So he cleared his throat delicately.
Crowley’s head snapped up and around at the sound, and Aziraphale was dimly aware that he shouldn’t, perhaps, be quite so delighted by the expression of immense joy and gratitude that overtook Crowley’s face.
“Pardon me, ladies,” he said, smothering a smile, “I hoped that perhaps I could steal Mr. Crowley away? We have some business matters that bear discussing.”
Crowley got up from his chair with alacrity. “Yes! Business matters! I do apologize, Lady Vane, Mrs. Bilkins, but Mr. Fell and I really must discuss our...business matters.”
Aziraphale rather thought that if Crowley said “business matters” one more time, it would cease to be a meaningful phrase and become instead a random collection of sounds. But it seemed to have worked, because Lady Vane and Mrs. Bilkins merely nodded in assent as Crowley extricated himself from their table.
“You will let us know if we can...introduce you to any eligible ladies, yes?” Mrs. Bilkins asked. “Assuming there’s not anyone who’s already got your eye,” she added coyly.
“Ah, Mrs. Bilkins,” Crowley said, some suppressed emotion dancing at the edges of his voice, “I must tell you that my reasons for remaining single have nothing whatsoever to do with not having met the right person.”
Aziraphale flinched instinctively, but managed to keep walking forward, until he and Crowley were at the edge of the room, far enough away from the others that low voices wouldn’t be heard.
“Thanks for the rescue, angel,” Crowley said, his tone returning to its ordinary indifferent timbre. “Much appreciated.”
“Yes, well, can’t go around ignoring those in distress,” Aziraphale said briskly (if Crowley wasn’t going to expand upon his earlier comment, he certainly wasn’t going to ask about it). “Simply my duty.”
“Of course,” Crowley said. “What, ah, what business matters did you want to discuss?”
“Ah,” Aziraphale said, “well, that was...more in the way of an excuse, than anything else.”
“Right,” said Crowley, nodding. “Then you don’t want to tell me about how well your plan to pair off Tom and Margaret is going.”
Aziraphale made a face. “It’s hardly going anywhere, at the moment, but they are both here—thank you for that, dear—and I think I might be able to arrange some light conversation.”
Crowley shook his head. “Hope springs eternal in the angelic breast, it seems.”
“It does indeed,” said Aziraphale repressively, deciding to let Crowley’s crimes against scansion pass without comment. “Hope is a virtue.”
“Yes,” said Crowley, “faith, hope, and love, isn’t it?”
“Precisely,” said Aziraphale.
“But,” Crowley said, quietly, “ the greatest of these is love.”
“Agape,” Aziraphale protested, “not, not eros, I see what you’re doing here and I don’t condone it, the devil can indeed cite Scripture for his purpose—”
Crowley held up a hand. “Only teasing.”
“Right,” Aziraphale said, collecting himself. “Of course.”
“Hadn’t you better be off...arranging, then?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, “merely wanted to greet my host. For politeness’ sake.”
“Of course,” said Crowley, and stalked off.
Aziraphale sighed— why must Crowley be so provoking— and headed over to the card table, where Margaret was setting up for a game of vingt-un.
“Oh, Mr. Fell, will you play?” she asked at his approach. “Or do you disapprove of gambling? We play for only penny stakes, I assure you.”
“Harmless enough, certainly,” said Aziraphale, who had indulged in a fair bit of gambling over the years (and had always resisted the temptation to use his supernatural abilities to get ahead). “I’d be happy to play. Oh—young Tom,” he said, with forced casualness, “care to join us?”
“Very well,” said Tom, with a good deal less eagerness than Aziraphale might have hoped for—but it was a yes, and he joined Aziraphale and Margaret at the card table.
“Now,” said Aziraphale, shifting his chair over to the side so that Tom and Margaret were closer together, and slightly removed from him, “who’s to be banker?”
“I will,” said Crowley, and slid into the fourth seat.
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows. “Mr. Crowley! How good of you to offer.” He slid the cards across the table with perhaps slightly more force than was necessary.
Crowley winced a bit at the emphasized good, but rallied quickly. “Ah, yes, Mr. Fell, I remember the last time we played together. Quite some time ago, wasn’t it?”
It had been over two hundred years ago, actually, in a tavern in Spain with Miguel de Cervantes, but Aziraphale could hardly say that. So he confined himself to nodding, and looked down at the cards Crowley had placed in front of him. King and seven. Of course. He sent Crowley a did-you-use-demonic-intervention-to-ruin-my-hand glance, and received a wouldn’t-dream-of-it smile in response.
“Card, please,” he said, at last. Margaret and Tom both elected to hold, so Crowley dealt cards only to himself and Aziraphale. They turned them over at the same time, showing their full hands.
Crowley revealed his cards: eight, three, nine. Twenty.
Aziraphale flipped his, and the third card was a four, so—
“Twenty-one,” Crowley said, sounding not at all disappointed. “Look at that. Took a risk and it paid off.”
“Yes, well, luck of the draw,” said Aziraphale, collecting his money. “Now,” he continued, pivoting pointedly from Crowley to Tom and Margaret, “do tell me what you young people are reading these days?”
“Oh,” said Tom, excitedly, “Glenarvon. I’ve actually met Lord Byron, you know, and I must say I think the portrayal’s not accurate in the slightest.”
Margaret wrinkled her nose slightly. “Oh—I didn’t think it was in very good taste, did you?”
Tom shrugged. “Who cares, when it’s so dramatic?”
Crowley dealt another round of cards, looking demonically smug all the while.
Aziraphale sighed. All right, perhaps literature wouldn’t be the topic that Tom and Margaret bonded over.
Several rounds of Vingt-un later, it appeared that neither would music, art, the French, the Italians, tea, hunting, poetry, or even cards (Margaret avowed a preference for whist over their current game). Tom and Margaret didn’t disagree on every topic, precisely—it would perhaps have been better if they did, would have injected an element of passion into the equation. Instead, they were civil and cordial and colourless, their discussion never really taking off on its own, always limping forward, supported by a determined Aziraphale.
“But,” he said to Crowley, after everyone else had left, “I still have hope, you know. For your ball. The waltzing may, well, it may engender some new discoveries as to their compatibility.”
Crowley shook his head. He’d taken off his glasses, once the humans had gone, and was holding the deck of cards from their game in his hands, shuffling through them absentmindedly. “I don’t understand why you’re so determined to force them together.”
“Because,” Aziraphale said, “it’ll make everything so much easier. His estate, her money, the potential for good works is endless!”
“But that’s not what she wants.”
“It doesn’t matter what she wants,” Aziraphale said, a trifle impatiently. “We don’t always want what’s good for us. What’s best for us. We can’t give into our desires, all, all willy-nilly, without a thought to the greater good.”
Something shifted in Crowley’s eyes. “You’re right, angel,” he said, sounding—defeated, almost. “The things we want can hurt us.”
The door to the shop opens, and the noise of it jolts Crowley out of his stupor. He hears Aziraphale taking off his coat in the front of the shop, hears him humming tunelessly to himself as he walks in.
Ordinarily, Crowley would jump up to greet him. But he’s still so wrapped in remembering—in seeing a puzzle that fits together no matter how much he tries to make it fall apart—that it’s not until he hears Aziraphale clear his throat that he looks up and sees him a few feet away, a fond sternness on his face.
“Well,” says Aziraphale, smiling slightly, “I can’t say I expected to find you, of all people, so deep in a book. What’re you reading, then?”
Crowley wordlessly shows him the book cover.
“Oh,” says Aziraphale, and his voice changes in a way that makes Crowley’s heart soar through the ceiling. “Georgette Heyer.”
“Yeah,” Crowley says, keeping his own voice calm with great effort. “Read a few of ‘em, actually.”
“So I see,” says Aziraphale, glancing over the books on the desk. “It doesn’t—seem quite your sort of thing.”
Crowley considers saying something cryptic and allusive, something that he would’ve said back in Devon, something like, “What do you know about my sort of thing?” But he doesn’t, he finds, want to. He’s danced around the issue with the same clumsy (lack of) grace he shows when really dancing, he’s hinted and implied and suggested for far too long, always leaving the door open to a yes, never forcing a no. And he wants, he realizes, to be done with it, to have it out. He’s the serpent of the Tree of Knowledge, and he wants to know.
So he says, “Well, seemed like they might be your sort of thing, so.”
“So?” Aziraphale asks.
“Noticed some similarities,” Crowley says, standing up from the desk, bringing himself on a level with Aziraphale. “To certain past events.”
“Well,” says Aziraphale, “it is historical fiction,” but there’s something in his tone that makes it not quite a dismissal, and Crowley presses on.
“Did you know her?”
“Georgette? Yes, I—we talked. Several times. Just consulted, you understand, I just told her I was a Regency scholar. She was glad enough of the help.”
“So you,” Crowley says, wanting to get it spoken and clear, “you helped write these books. These romances.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale says, and he doesn’t qualify or soften it, just lets it sit there.
“You kept the note,” Crowley says, trying a different tack, and Aziraphale’s eyes go wide.
“You found that, then.”
“I did,” says Crowley, and then, desperately craving directness: “Is... this —” he indicates the books— “what you wanted? Is this how you wanted it to go? How you wanted it to end?”
Pain flashes over Aziraphale’s face. “You know how it ended,” he says.
The weather was perfect the night of Crowley’s ball—so perfect, indeed, that Aziraphale suspected a hint of demonic intervention. This was, after all, Crowley’s best chance to demonstrate to Margaret that spending her money on dissipation was better than spending it on good works.
Naturally, then, Aziraphale should have hoped for the evening to go poorly. Crowley’s failure was his success, and so on, and a boring or unpleasant party would show Margaret just how preferable it was to do things that brought one lasting satisfaction, rather than a few moments’ pleasure.
And yet as he made his way over to Tamberton, he was filled with a perverse desire for the ball to be a success. There were a great many possible reasons for this. He had a natural angelic desire to spare people any possible pain, and even if a dull evening hardly qualified as pain, it was still far from optimal. Furthermore, it would be an even more meaningful victory for Heaven if Margaret opted to follow a charitable path despite the obvious appeal of the selfish one. And, yes, all right, Aziraphale could admit that he, selfishly, would much rather attend a good party than a bad one.
If he thought, somewhere deep down, that he would also far rather see a happy and satisfied Crowley than a defeated and discouraged one—well, that thought could go right into the locked drawer at the back of his mind, where he kept all the uncomfortable truths that didn’t bear examination. (The trouble was, Crowley had a distressing tendency to stroll into Aziraphale’s mind and head right for the drawer and rattle the lock in a most persistent fashion.)
Tamberton’s ballroom looked quite different, now, from how it had during the waltzing lessons. Attendance was robust, though the ball could scarcely be termed a crush, as yet, and the room fairly shone with light, and warmth, and a general sense of revelry.
“Angel!” Crowley slithered out of the crowd, looking positively delighted with himself. “Enjoying the party so far?”
“Yes, it seems very pleasant,” Aziraphale said, cautiously. He hadn’t spoken to Crowley since their brief disagreement after tea the other day, and he’d been a bit worried that the coolness that had settled over their conversation immediately after Crowley’s remark about hurting would last through to tonight.
But Crowley seemed to have forgotten it entirely, because he was grinning widely at Aziraphale, who couldn’t help but return his smile.
“Have you spoken with Margaret yet?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley shook his head, looking a trifle annoyed for some reason. “Nah. No reason to foist my company on her, she seems to be having a good enough time all on her own.” He gestured over to a corner, where Margaret was engaged in animated conversation with a group of other young ladies.
Aziraphale scanned the room for Tom. Next to him, Crowley made a displeased sort of sound in the back of his throat. “Still after that lordling to marry her, are you?”
“This is my best chance,” Aziraphale said, spotting Tom at last. “You will excuse me, I must go see that he claims her hand for the waltzing…”
He went to move away, but Crowley forestalled him with a light touch of his hand on Aziraphale’s sleeve. “Do you intend to dance tonight? Mr Fell?”
Azirapale shook his head. “I told you before, didn’t I? Angels don’t dance.”
“You could,” said Crowley, voice flat of any temptation, any invitation. “If you wanted to.”
“Yes, my dear,” said Aziraphale, eyes still tracking Tom’s movement across the ballroom, “I know you wouldn’t tell on me, that’s very good of you to say, but I’m quite all right, thank you.”
“That’s—” Crowley started, and broke off, taking his hand off of Aziraphale’s sleeve. “Right,” he finished, and moved away.
Aziraphale shook his head and fought through the crowd to reach Tom, who was, unfortunately, now chatting up a young lady who bore no resemblance whatsoever to Margaret.
“Young Tom!” he said, as heartily as possible.
Tom looked away from the girl with obvious reluctance. “Mr. Fell,” he said, sounding faintly annoyed.
“Ah, very sorry to interrupt,” Aziraphale said, persevering in the face of resistance, “I only wondered whether perhaps you had thought of soliciting Miss Cunningham’s hand for the waltzing? I’m certain she would be delighted to have you as a partner.”
“I’ve already asked Miss Cunningham to stand up with me,” Tom said, the annoyance in his tone no longer so faint, “for one of the country dances.”
“Ah,” said Aziraphale, stymied. “Well, perhaps, if she’s still partnerless for the waltz…”
“And,” Tom said, firmly, “Miss Witherspoon, here, has just agreed to waltz with me.”
Aziraphale sighed. Well, a country dance was better than nothing, after all, he reflected, bidding Tom farewell and apologizing once again for the interruption. One could get to know one’s partner quite well, in a country dance, if the circumstances were right.
The band was starting up, now, for the next dances, and gentlemen were claiming their partners. Aziraphale withdrew to a corner and looked around for Margaret, to catch a glimpse of her partner. Ah—there she was, lining up for the start of the dance, and her partner wasn’t Tom for this one, it was—
“Crowley,” Aziraphale said, under his breath. It was Crowley standing opposite Margaret, Crowley who was now moving into the first figure of the dance with, if not exactly grace, at least greater ease than he’d shown at waltzing lessons.
Aziraphale felt a very distinct frustration rising up inside of him. It was unbecoming, and petty, and he couldn’t help it at all. Crowley was—he was—using his personal charms to get Margaret to turn to his side, he wasn’t playing fair at all. ( You never asked him not to seduce her, when you were coming up with rules, said an unpleasant little voice at the back of his mind. Aziraphale shoved the voice into a corner.) He watched them carry out the motions of the dance, watched Crowley say something to Margaret that must have been funny, because there she was, laughing, watched their hands meet and part carelessly according to the pattern.
He decided, abruptly, to get some air.
There was, fortunately, a balcony just outside the ballroom, closed off by glass doors that might have been locked but that certainly weren’t by the time Aziraphale opened them. He felt a breeze on his face, and that was better, that was certainly better, it had been altogether too hot in that ballroom.
He turned to close the door, and get a bit of privacy, and saw Crowley standing in the threshold.
“Is something wrong?” Crowley asked, pulling off his glasses and tucking them inside his coat. He shut the door behind him with unaccustomed gentleness.
Aziraphale huffed. “Shouldn’t you be dancing?”
Crowley raised his eyebrows. “Well, I was, and then I saw you storm out of the room like you’d seen Lucifer himself fly on in and start doing the minuet with perfect rhythm, and I figured I’d better see what’d gotten into you.”
“Like you don’t know,” Aziraphale said, well aware that he sounded ridiculous and a good deal too upset to care.
Crowley spread his hands. “I genuinely do not.”
“You,” said Aziraphale, bitterly, “are using underhanded tactics to win over Margaret.”
Crowley snorted. “I hadn’t thought you were so impressed with my dancing as all that.”
“It is,” Aziraphale continued, hardly heeding him, “truly base of you to go around seducing her—”
“Whoa,” Crowley said, taking a step back. “I’m not— seducing her.”
Aziraphale let out a disbelieving breath. “What do you call that, then?” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the ballroom.
“Dancing?” Crowley asked, sounding genuinely confused. “Look, angel, I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but I am not trying to seduce anyone. That would—I highly doubt it would be successful.”
“Hmph,” said Aziraphale, doubtfully.
“And,” Crowley added, flushing slightly, “if I were trying to seduce someone, that’s not how I’d do it.”
“Oh?” Aziraphale snapped, without thinking. “How would you do it, then?”
“Well,” said Crowley, “first off, I wouldn’t try to seduce someone via country dance at a party where there’s waltzing.”
Aziraphale bit back a laugh. “I don’t remember your waltzing skills being particularly seductive, my dear.”
“Maybe I’ve been practicing,” Crowley said, raising his chin slightly.
“The amount of practice that you’d need to seduce anyone via waltz—”
“Oh, you don’t believe me?”
“Not in the slightest— ”
“Fine,” said Crowley, “I’ll prove it, then.” He stepped forward, and then one arm was around Aziraphale’s waist, and he’d taken Aziraphale’s hand, and they were dancing.
It wasn’t particularly skillful waltzing, but Aziraphale didn’t have much cause for complaint. His mind was entirely too taken up with the warmth of Crowley’s hand in his, the gentle pressure applied to the small of his back, the way their bodies brushed against each other in the steps of the dance.
They’d started at a decent clip, but after a few minutes the tempo of their dancing slowed—whether by Crowley’s initiation or his own, Aziraphale didn’t know—and soon enough they were swaying, more than anything, and Aziraphale had pressed in closer to Crowley, far closer than any of the ladies and gentlemen waltzing indoors. He felt Crowley’s heart beating, the rhythm speeding up as the proximity of their bodies increased, and realized that his own heart was hammering away just as desperately.
Crowley sighed, and Aziraphale felt the expelled breath brush his cheek, gentle and warm and wine-scented. He turned his head, looked upward to see Crowley’s face, and something strange and sudden blossomed inside of him at the sight of it, at the way Crowley’s eyes had fluttered shut, at the soft contented smile on his lips.
Aziraphale lifted his hand from Crowley’s shoulder, intending to—he didn’t know quite what. Touch Crowley’s face? His neck?
Crowley’s eyes opened at the movement, and he looked down at Aziraphale, whose hand was still hovering in indecision.
They held each other’s gaze for a moment, and Aziraphale was distinctly glad of Crowley’s hand on his lower back, holding him up, because he thought otherwise he might well collapse from the intensity of that look.
Without breaking eye contact, Crowley lifted their still-joined hands to his mouth and brushed a courtly kiss over Aziraphale’s knuckles. “Angel,” he said, hoarsely, “I—”
“Mr. Crowley? Mr. Fell?’
Instinctively, Aziraphale jumped backwards, extracting his hand from Crowley’s and half-shoving him away. He whirled to face Margaret, who was standing on the threshold, eyes wide with curiosity.
“Margaret!” Aziraphale said, trying for a cheery boom but achieving more of a squeak. “My dear! How are you enjoying the ball? I was just telling Mr. Crowley that it’s undoubtedly the social event of the year, don’t you agree?”
“Oh, yes,” said Margaret, still looking a bit confused, “yes, thank you so much for hosting, Mr. Crowley, we’re all so delighted that you’ve opened your home to us—”
“My pleasure,” said Crowley, his voice razor-thin. “You will excuse me.”
And he was gone, so quickly Aziraphale half-suspected him of using a miracle.
“That was odd,” Margaret said, sounding slightly concerned. “I do hope he’s all right.”
“I’m certain he is,” Aziraphale said, feeling far from certain.
“Where did you go?” Aziraphale asks. “After? I went back to your house the next day, I wanted to—to talk, without all those people around, but you’d gone. Completely moved out, left no forwarding address.”
Crowley rubs a hand across his eyes. “What did you expect?” he says, not looking at Aziraphale. “You jumped away from me, like I’d— burned you, or something, like you couldn’t bear touching me, like you couldn’t stand for us to be seen together. I can take a hint, angel.”
“I didn’t see you again for nearly fifty years,” Aziraphale says accusingly. “It wasn’t as though you gave me a chance to explain.”
“You could’ve explained whatever you wanted to explain fifty years later,” Crowley says bitterly. “Nothing stopping you.”
Aziraphale flushes. “I thought that—I don’t know. Perhaps you’d forgotten. Perhaps I’d misinterpreted. Not that I had interpreted,” he adds, quickly, “really, not at all, but I knew I’d offended you somehow, and I wanted to make it right. And then when you didn’t bring it up again, I assumed I’d been forgiven.”
“Nothing to forgive,” Crowley says automatically. “You had every right to jump away. I’d have made a fool of myself if you hadn’t, but it’s not as though I haven’t been going about acting foolish for the last two hundred years regardless.”
“May I explain?” Aziraphale asks, softly. “Now?”
Crowley shrugs, trying to make it look nonchalant, as though there’s not a live wire running through his veins. “Sure.”
“It was instinct,” Aziraphale says. “Pure instinct. It could’ve been Heaven or Hell or anyone coming through that door, the best-case scenario was scandal and the worst-case destruction. You know,” he says, more quietly now, “you must know, that my instinct is only ever to protect you. Us. Did you think it was repulsion? Fear? It was fear, I suppose, in a sense, but not of you. Only of what might happen. And then it was only Margaret, and then you ran away…”
“Only Margaret,” Crowley says bitterly. “Right. Whatever happened to her?” He should follow up on the only ever to protect you bit of things. He doesn’t want to.
Aziraphale smiles slightly. “Well, I stuck around, for a while. Young Tom didn’t end up proposing after all. You were right about that. It wouldn’t have suited. But she did receive an offer, a most eligible offer, a few months later, directly after she’d come into her fortune.”
“And you hadn’t badgered her into giving it all away by then?’
Aziraphale shakes his head. “No, I—well, I thought I’d just keep working on her, as there were no longer any other influences. And then she received a proposal, and she came to me, for...spiritual counsel, I suppose.”
“And I told her,” Aziraphale says, staring directly into Crowley’s eyes, “that she shouldn’t worry about what I, or society, or anybody else thought, and that she should do what she wanted.”
Crowley can’t hold back a sudden laugh of surprise. “ You told her that?”
“She told me I sounded like you,” Aziraphale says, smiling himself. “And I said— well, he does have some good points.”
Crowley tries to say something clever about his good points , but finds his throat mysteriously blocked.
“So then I left,” Aziraphale continues, “because there wasn’t anything more for me to do.”
“And did she ever endow that hospital, or whatever it was?”
Aziraphale shakes his head. “Not quite. She, ah, she never married, actually, and she did not live a life of noted profligacy, but neither did she live one of noted charity, I’m afraid. She ended up moving into a small cottage somewhere, with a close friend, and died a spinster.”
“Ah,” says Crowley. “Well. We know what that’s code for.”
Aziraphale smiles. “She left behind a great fortune—indeed, I believe she increased her wealth by judicious investments and her simple lifestyle.”
“And she left it to…”
Aziraphale shrugs. “I’ve no idea.”
“You don’t know what happened to the money?”
“I tried to find out,” says Aziraphale defensively. “But by the time I’d heard she’d died, it had been several years, and I wasn’t quite able to track it down. But I’d like to think she gave it away. At least some of it.”
“Yeah,” Crowley says. “Yeah, I’d—I’d like to think that, too.”
“And it was in the Forties, I think,” Aziraphale continues, his voice changing a bit, “that I met Georgette, and so, yes, I may have influenced her. I may have let certain things, things I wasn’t aware of at the time, things that I became aware of in the intervening years, slip into the novels. I do love a happy ending.”
“You always do that,” Crowley says fondly. “You always influence ‘em. The writers. Remember we talked about Milton, back then? The bits with the garden? You let bits of yourself creep in. Give them more of you than you know.”
Aziraphale’s expression changes. “I—yes, well, I suppose I do. Influence them.”
“What?” Crowley asks, because Aziraphale is clearly having a, a revelation of some kind, an epiphany. His face is screwed up in concentration, like he’s puzzling something out.
“I think,” Aziraphale says, at last, “that perhaps—it doesn’t only go one way. The influence.”
“What d’you mean?”
“That I’ve—that we’ve— taken as much from them as they have from us, that I told Margaret to do what she wanted, to choose for herself, and she chose—”
“She chose to be happy,” Crowley says, realizing where this is going, feeling something inside himself soaring upward at the thought. “And you—”
“And we,” Aziraphale corrects him, his voice growing stronger, “we can finally—we can—”
“I love you,” Crowley blurts idiotically. “I—I’m in love with you, and I’d’ve told you two hundred years ago, or two thousand, if I’d thought—”
“If I’d been braver,” Aziraphale says, and crosses the room to where Crowley’s standing next to the desk, and reaches up to take his face in his hands. “You’d have told me if I’d been braver.”
Crowley shakes his head, not enough to dislodge Aziraphale’s hands. “If you’d been ready.”
“I’m ready now,” Aziraphale says. “I’m—Crowley, I lo—”
And Crowley’s been waiting millennia to hear him say it, but with his characteristic genius for the worst possible timing, he moves in quickly to kiss Aziraphale before he fully realizes what he’s about to say, and stops the confession in its tracks.
Only, wait, no, okay, this isn’t a bad move, wasn’t a bad move, because he’s kissing Aziraphale and Aziraphale’s kissing him back, and nothing that results in this, in this absolute ecstasy, this joyous riot of feeling, can possibly have been a mistake.
Crowley reluctantly pulls himself away, and Aziraphale makes a small gratifying noise of objection.
“I’m sorry,” Crowley says, trying and failing to sound casual and then realizing that he’s shot pretty irretrievably past casual, “I, ah, cut you off there, didn’t I, was a bit...rude of me.”
Aziraphale’s mouth quirks into a smile. “Forgiven,” he says, voice a bit breathless still. (From the kissing. It’s breathless from how he’s been kissing Crowley, and Crowley’s still trying to wrap his mind around the reality of that. He doubts he’ll stop being amazed by it any time soon.)
“You were saying something?” he asks.
“Was I?” Aziraphale asks, completely deadpan, and it’s fortunate that Crowley’s heart doesn’t actually need to beat, because it stops cold for a second before he realizes Aziraphale’s teasing him. His face has turned disgustingly smug, and Crowley’s hit by a fresh wave of fondness and desire, because, yeah, he loves an angel who is exactly this much of a little shit.
And he’s bowled over yet again when Aziraphale’s expression changes suddenly, morphs back into sincerity, and he says, low and earnest, “I love you. Crowley, I love you. I don’t want—I can’t stand—for you ever to doubt that again. I know I’ve had a funny way of showing it, at times, but I have loved you. Certainly when I was talking to Georgette, and certainly in Devon, and certainly a long time before I’d any idea of it.”
Crowley blinks away what is definitely not a tear, mutters something that he hopes sounds at least vaguely like “That’s all right,” and glares at the ground like it’s said something extremely insulting about the mother he doesn’t have.
Aziraphale, thankfully, seems to decide that the verbal part of the conversation has run its course, and steps in to kiss Crowley again, and while Crowley’s very glad he got to hear the word bit, he’s also more than happy to have Aziraphale’s affection demonstrated in a more physical fashion.
Because Aziraphale’s doing a very enthusiastic job of demonstrating it. His mouth opens against Crowley’s almost as soon as their lips meet and his hands dart out, one working its way into Crowley’s hair, the other snaking around his waist to clutch him closer.
Crowley staggers backward, because his knees have suddenly gone all wobbly, and ends up knocking into the desk, which hurts a bit but nowhere near enough to make him want to stop. Aziraphale continues pushing forward, pressing into Crowley, and without really meaning to, Crowley finds himself seated on the edge of the desk with Aziraphale standing between his spread thighs. He quickly takes advantage of this new position, wrapping his legs around Aziraphale’s waist and drawing him in closer, while his hands scrabble at the Gordian knot of his bowtie.
Aziraphale’s still got one of his hands in Crowley’s hair, but the other one has abandoned his waist and begun to work its way up inside Crowley’s shirt. At the touch of it—the feeling of Aziraphale’s soft fingers on his torso—Crowley lets out a wholly embarrassing whine of pleasure and surprise. Aziraphale laughs a bit, against his mouth, but not cruelly—it’s a surprised sort of laugh, an affectionate one.
Crowley finally manages to work open the bowtie, and he pulls open the collar of Aziraphale’s shirt, pressing his mouth, his nose, up against Aziraphale’s neck, breathing him in, pressing soft exploratory kisses there, then growing bolder and adding a flick of tongue against his ear, his jaw, his collarbone—
And Aziraphale steps in just a little bit closer, and his hip moves against the inside of Crowley’s thigh, and Crowley jolts from the shock of his arousal and ends up knocking the entire stack of Georgette Heyer books off the desk. They tumble down with a thud, the tower that’s been building up over Crowley’s hours of reading falling to the ground from that one sudden, unguarded movement.
He’s more than willing to abandon them to the dusty floor of the shop—they’ve served their purpose, after all—but Aziraphale pulls away.
“Um,” he says, glancing down at the books, drawing in a deep breath, and looking back at Crowley, “perhaps we’d better. Ah. Relocate.”
His cheeks are ruddy, the flush spreading all the way down his neck, a pink contrast against the stark white of his shirt, and his lips are swollen, visibly tender, and Crowley can see the peek of his tongue up against his teeth as he talks and is walloped by another thunderbolt of desire.
Something must shift in his glance, as he’s watching, because Aziraphale goes somehow even redder and smiles in a way that’s somewhere between knowingly coy and genuinely tentative.
“Really,” he says, and Crowley can see his eyes running over his body, can see the trail of his thoughts reflected in Aziraphale’s gaze. “Not so much for the sake of the books, I mean. Well, a bit for the sake of the books. But mostly for our sake, Crowley, I’ve not loved you this long only to have things culminate in... ravishing you on the desk in my bookshop.”
“Not how old Georgette would’ve ended things, is it?” Crowley asks, finding that he is, in fact, able to corral enough function into his legs to hop off the desk. “But. You’re—you’re right. We should—do you want—”
“I’ve seen your bed,” Aziraphale says, and this time it’s fully coy. “I think it might suit rather nicely.”
Crowley drags in a deep breath. “All right,” he says, and fishes the Bentley’s keys out of his jean pocket. “I am going to break so many traffic laws getting us there that Hell’ll be gagging to have me back.”
Aziraphale tuts, but it’s remarkably ineffective, coming from someone as rumpled and debauched as he currently looks, and Crowley can tell his heart’s not in it.
“Which I don’t, by the way,” he adds.
“Pardon?” Aziraphale asks.
“Gag, that is,” Crowley says, feeling a smile spread across his face and relishing the blush that rises to Aziraphale’s. “Wouldn’t do, would it, what with the whole swallowing-prey-whole bit. Just thought I should mention it. Might come in handy. For...other things.”
For a moment, Aziraphale looks very much as though he might change his mind about the desk. But then he tilts his head to the side, and smiles a bit, and says, “We’ll find out just how much you can handle, then, won’t we?” and brushes past Crowley on his way out the door.
Crowley lets out a gurgling sort of moan and scrambles out after him.
“It looks the same,” Crowley says, glancing around the ballroom.
“No it doesn’t,” Aziraphale says, “look, they’ve changed the light fixtures. And the wood panelling.”
Crowley shrugs, and waves a hand. “That. It’s still the same room.”
They’re on holiday, in Devon, because—well, because why not, Devon is lovely this time of year. And Crowley, probably because he’s a sentimental idiot, went ahead and looked up whether anyone was living at Tamberton, at the moment. And, as it turns out—
“So we have a selection of different packages,” the woman behind them says, and Crowley’s abruptly reminded of her existence.
Because, as it turns out, Tamberton is now a wedding venue, and the only way they’d been able to get in to have a look at the place, for old times’ sake, was to claim to be an engaged couple touring different locations in the area. (Not that this was that far from the truth—Crowley’s had several ring shopping tabs open in his browser for the last few months—but it’s not as though they’d be getting married here. Who’d fill the ballroom? It’s not like Crowley’s planning to send an invite and a link to the registry to the guys down in Hell.)
So what Crowley had vaguely hoped would be a romantic return to the scene of one of the most significant summers of their eternal lives is currently being somewhat hampered by the presence of a sales consultant.
“Do you know,” Aziraphale says, smiling at the woman in his most sickeningly angelic manner, “I really think we can talk about pricing later, don’t you? We’d like to just sort of...soak in the atmosphere. For a bit.”
The consultant nods, and Crowley hopes, for a moment, that she’s about to leave them alone, but then she chirps, “Well, if it’s atmosphere you want, we’ve got a lovely balcony off the ballroom that’s simply perfect for photographs.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale says, softly, and glances at Crowley, and smiles. “Oh, could we—could we look at it, then?”
“Sure,” says the woman, and leads them through the glass doors onto the balcony.
Crowley remembers coming out here, over two hundred years ago, wondering frantically what he’d done to piss off Aziraphale, worried he’d finally gone and put a foot too wrong to be righted, and learning—
“I can’t believe,” he says, under his breath, “that you actually thought that I’d try to seduce Margaret.”
Aziraphale huffs, but there’s no bitterness in it. “Forgive me for not being overly familiar with your demonic persuasion tactics.”
Crowley groans. “You’ve tempted a healthy fraction of people yourself, angel, surely you didn’t expect—”
“I don’t know what I expected,” Aziraphale admits, “I wasn’t thinking straight, and I suppose I may have been a trifle blinded by my own personal feelings on the matter.”
“Well,” Crowley says, and takes a step closer, “I believe I can forgive you.”
“Very kind of you,” Aziraphale says, and allows himself to be pulled into an embrace that echoes the way they stood here the night of the ball. Only, of course, there’s no more uncertainty, no more sense of testing boundaries, of taking tentative steps. Only comfort, and familiarity.
“You know,” Crowley says, beginning to sway slightly, “you were wrong about my waltzing.”
“Was I?” Aziraphale asks, looking pointedly at Crowley’s feet, which are moving with something less than grace.
“Yeah,” Crowley says, and tightens his hold on Aziraphale’s hand. “You said I couldn’t seduce anyone with my waltzing, and yet, here I am, holding the only being I’ve ever bothered to waltz with.”
Aziraphale snorts. “A bit of a delayed-action seduction, I’d say.”
Crowley shrugs. “Had all the time in the world, didn’t we?”
Aziraphale beams up at him. “We do now.”