“I daresay, Miss Wollstonecraft has really outdone herself with her latest. A perfect marriage, as it were, of rational philosophical argument with the passionate and the personal. It’s quite revolutionary. Subversive, even, although not in any negative sense of the word. My dear, have you had the chance to read it yet?”
“Hmm?” Crowley licked whipped cream from his spoon. “No I haven’t, I don’t think. What’s this then?”
The afternoon had started with a clandestine meeting to discuss Arrangement business in a tavern near St. Pancras Church. The meeting had since deteriorated, or perhaps ascended, into a leisurely stroll through the tea gardens, glasses of whipt syllabub in hand, while Aziraphale waxed enthusiastic about—something.
“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects,” the angel proclaimed grandly. “She argues quite eloquently for equal education of the sexes on both moral and rational grounds. Oh you must, Crowley. You can borrow my copy, I expect I’ll have finished it by tomorrow.”
Crowley waved a hand dismissively. “Ahh, these printing presses, they keep getting more and more efficient, there is so much in the world to read now. It’s impossible to keep up! I don’t even intend to try.”
Aziraphale tsked, exasperated and mildly disapproving. “I simply don’t understand you, Crowley. It’s important to keep up with the political and philosophical trends of the day. My dear, how do you expect to be successful at influencing humans if you don’t know what they’re thinking?”
Crowley grinned, showing all of his teeth. “Oh, it’s perfectly simple to understand what humans are thinking, they’re not that complicated.”
Aziraphale huffed, rolling his eyes, and had a sip of his own syllabub. “I, for one, simply can’t get enough to read. These are wondrous times for me, Crowley, wondrous! And it’s only going to get better. Just you wait, in a few years they’ll invent a continuous paper making machine, and then things will really take off!” He wriggled excitedly, unable to contain his delight at the prospect.
“Mmm,” said Crowley. “Angel—do you know, you’ve got a—bit of cream. Just there.” He pointed at his own lip in demonstration.
“Oh!” Aziraphale went momentarily cross-eyed trying to see his own lip, and then with a flash of pink tongue he swept away the distracting drop. “Is that better?”
Crowley stared. “Yep,” he said, popping the p, thinking no, no, that was much worse. Perhaps it would be better to admire the flowerbeds. Yes, those were some very nice… purple… things.
Their wanderings had taken them to a bench that was nestled into the shade of a willow tree in a very picturesque manner. It looked cool and quiet and all-around exceedingly pleasant. “Shall we sit?” asked Aziraphale.
“Why not,” said Crowley. …There were so many purple flowers in the world. Why did only violets get to be called violets, and not all of the others? Didn’t seem fair.
Crowley flung himself carelessly onto the bench, stretching his long legs out and crossing them at the ankles. Aziraphale sat primly next to him, sipping at his drink. He stared into the distance, nodding to himself. “Yes. Yes, this is quite an exciting time. And this is definitely the place to be, my dear. Right here!”
“The Adam and Eve Tea Gardens?”
Aziraphale shot him a stern look. “London!” The sternness quickly evaporated into sunny excitement; Aziraphale was winding up to something. Crowley settled in to watch the show. “Where else?” the angel enthused, eyes shining. “Do you know, Crowley, London is now the largest city in all of Europe? And so civilized, the most well-lit, the most egalitarian—rich and poor, nobility and working class rubbing shoulders in the street. There’s no place else like it.”
Crowley drank Aziraphale in, sucking cream from his spoon abstractedly. The angel was a treat like this—his color up, gone a little breathless with enthusiasm, expressive hands sketching wild shapes in the air. Spectacular. Exquisite.
“And things are changing rapidly,” Aziraphale continued, “it’s not just printing presses and paper machines, there’ve been advancements in all manner of technologies and processes—textile production, iron production, steam engines, machine tools, industrial chemicals. Improvements in agriculture, and transportation—improved sailing technologies, better roads, more canals. And that’s just to start!” The angel gestured energetically, nearly spilling his drink. “It all keeps building and building. It’s going to change everything about how people live… there will be a general increase in prosperity and standard of living, increased literacy, decreased infant mortality. Oh, it’s all very exciting!”
Crowley mused on things to come—terrible factory working conditions, disease outbreaks in the crowded slums, periodic inundations of choking, poisonous smogs, rather a lot of pollution in general—all things he expected he’d be able to take credit for, without personally having lifted a finger.
Aziraphale crossed his legs, swinging his foot idly to the tune of his victorious, rosy future. “They’re going to call it the Industrial Revolution, you know,” he told Crowley conspiratorially. “And it all starts right here, in England. This is the center of it all!”
Crowley put his spoon in his mouth and forgot it there. Aziraphale really did have—very nice calves. Exceptional, really. More muscular than one might expect, but then again the angel was rather fond of walking.
Aziraphale gazed off across the lawns, nodding to himself decisively for a few seconds. “Yes, this is the place,” he murmured to himself; and then, conversationally, “You know, Crowley, I rather think I’m going to settle down for a bit.”
“Hnnnhwhat?” Crowley wrenched his mind from contemplating how the sharp lines of Aziraphale’s shoe buckle made a pleasing contrast to the delicate curve of his ankle, and returned his attention to the angel’s face and the words that were coming out of it. “Settle down?”
“Yes, well,” said Aziraphale. “I’ve become rather fond of England in the last few centuries. London especially. I thought instead of moving around every few years or decades, renting spaces here or there, I might… buy some property. Make sort of a little home for myself, at least for a while. …Open a bookshop.” A smile bloomed and grew on his face at the prospect.
Crowley blinked several times, taken aback. There was something… startling about the idea of the angel ‘settling down,’ and he wasn’t entirely sure why, except that neither of them had really done so before. But why not, after all? They’d both been here on Earth long enough, it made sense Aziraphale might wish to make himself comfortable. He was a comfortable sort of creature.
It was an appealing prospect—the idea of knowing, almost all of the time, where the angel would be. And maybe Aziraphale had a point about the city. Might not be such a bad thing to localize his own efforts, a little. Crowley thought of the possibilities, of a million desperate humans living their squalid, sordid lives right up in each other’s faces. And he thought of Aziraphale, a shining point of light in the center of it all, predictable, dependable, like a lighthouse.
“’Suppose you’re right about London,” Crowley mused. “It’s got a lot of… potential.”
~ ~ ~
It took Aziraphale eight years of collecting books, fussily searching the entirety of London for a suitable location, and haggling over the price, but eventually Crowley received a card upon which was inscribed, in elegant calligraphy, an invitation to the grand opening of Mr A Fell Purveyor of Books to the Gentry.
So this was it, then. Aziraphale was officially ‘settling down.’ In one place. Becoming sedentary and… domestic.
Crowley could not explain the fizzy, almost electric feeling that swirled in his gut at the thought. Probably indigestion from something he’d eaten last week.
He should bring Aziraphale something.
…That’s what one did, wasn’t it, for close friends and ancient adversaries embarking on a business venture? One brought them a shop-warming gift. Just a small token, something suitable for the occasion. Yes, absolutely.
Crowley gave this some brief thought and at last summoned a boxed assortment from his favorite chocolatier, dressed himself sharply enough to cut paper, and took a stroll down to Soho.
He had come several hours before the grand opening quite intentionally, but when he arrived at the bookshop the front door was wide open and two men were conversing with Aziraphale inside his shop. Crowley waved cheerfully. In the next moment, simultaneous with Aziraphale turning white as a sheet, Crowley recognized both the physical forms and ethereal essences of archangels Sandalphon and fucking Gabriel.
Crowley felt a surge of hateful glee. The archangels hadn’t spotted him yet, which meant that there could still be a chance to enact some mischief. He had no idea what, yet, but the mere fact of that potential was exhilarating. There were few things in the universe more satisfying than fucking with Aziraphale’s colleagues, and he so rarely had the opportunity.
“But only I can properly thwart the wiles of the demon Crowley,” Aziraphale was saying, giving Crowley a wide-eyed look that, with long millennia of experience, Crowley could interpret as What in God’s name are YOU doing here?!
Aww, the angel wasn’t happy to see him. Rude, to be honest. Crowley lifted the tin and pointed at it. ‘Chocolates,’ he mouthed, meaningfully.
“I do not doubt that whoever replaces you will be as good an enemy to Crowley as you are,” Gabriel said. “Michael, perhaps.”
That hit like a bucket of cold water. ‘Michael? Michael’s a wanker!’ he mouthed at Aziraphale, outraged. The full implications hit him in waves. Replace? They were going to replace Aziraphale?
Crowley ducked back out of the door and put his back against the wall, breathless under a sudden onslaught of feelings, panic and horror and others he didn’t dare put a name to. He let himself be overwhelmed for a full half second, mentally roaring no no NO NO NO, ears ringing with the force of his denial.
Then he squeezed the howling down and slammed shut a heavy metal trapdoor over it, and, putting his ear to the bookshop door, set his quicksilver mind to devising a plan.
Much later in the day, Crowley swung by the bookshop again, feeling exceedingly pleased with himself. Aziraphale was sitting amongst a partially cleared-away clutter of furniture, drinks, and canapés, staring blankly into a very full glass of wine. At the tinkle of the doorbell he glanced up, brow furrowing momentarily before clearing as a sunshine smile swept over his face. “Crowley!” he breathed, imbuing each consonant and vowel with delight. Crowley’s heart lurched in his chest.
“Angel,” he greeted breezily. “How was your opening?” He snagged a chair with his ankle, pulling it close to Aziraphale’s table and draping himself across it.
“It was… grand,” Aziraphale said vaguely. He summoned a glass for Crowley with a snap of his fingers and filled it as full as his own. The furrow was back in place on his forehead. “Do you know, I have had the strangest day?”
“Oh?” Crowley swirled his glass and held it to his nose, breathing deep before taking a sip. The angel had impeccable taste as always.
“When you came by earlier... my dear, dreadfully sorry about that, by the way… Gabriel was trying to tell me I’d been promoted. They were going to send me back up to the home office.” His brow furrowed more. “They were going to give my bookshop to somebody else!” he exclaimed, thoroughly offended by the notion.
“The nerve,” Crowley agreed, helpfully.
“Then they went off to see his tailor and told me to stay put and that they’d collect me afterwards. Just left me here to—to—!” He made a vague, frustrated gesture. “But! When they came back it was all, ‘change of plans, we need you here, battling evil,’ and then they just left.”
Crowley smiled into his wine. “Good thing, though, right?”
“Well, yes, absolutely. It’s just. Very confusing. I wonder what changed his mind?”
Crowley was buoyant on a lake of smugness. “Very mysterious, angel. Exceedingly strange.”
Aziraphale’s bafflement faded and became… something else, his eyes round and distant and a little bit stunned. He fidgeted with the stem of his wine glass. “I like it here. It never occurred to me that they might try to promote me back Upstairs. Or that I wouldn’t be given a choice about it. Or, or that it would happen so quickly, with no chance to get my affairs in order and to, to say my goodbyes.” His eyes flicked to Crowley and away again, and he took a rather large swallow of his wine.
Crowley’s heart clenched and he went unpleasantly breathless thinking of what might’ve happened. If he’d arrived just a few hours too late, and Aziraphale was just… gone. How dim and colorless and empty Earth would be without him. He downed a sizeable gulp of his own wine.
Aziraphale gusted out a long breath. “Crisis averted, I suppose. And look, they gave me a medal.” He placed a small box on the table, pushed it towards Crowley.
Crowley opened it. ‘EMPLOYEE OF THE CENTURY,’ the silver medallion proclaimed in block letters, and then beneath it, ‘Azirphale.’
“They’ve spelled your name wrong,” Crowley observed, feeling nearly hysterical in his disbelief. What a bunch of tossers.
“Well, it’s nice to be thought of, I suppose,” Aziraphale sighed. “Although I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with a medal of all things.”
“They really don’t know you at all,” marveled Crowley. He straightened abruptly, reaching into his coat. “I, on the other hand….” He revealed the tin of chocolates with a triumphant flourish, pushing it across the table to Aziraphale.
The angel perked up, looking astonished but pleased. “What’s this for?”
“Shop-warming present.” Crowley waved a hand carelessly. “You know, salutations, felicitations, etc., etc.”
“Oh!” That sunshine warmth was returning to Aziraphale’s eyes, to his smile. “Crowley, how thoughtful of you.”
Crowley made a rude noise. “Nonsense,” he said, turning away in disgust at the very idea. From behind his shades, out of the corner of his eye, he watched Aziraphale intently.
Aziraphale opened the box with delicate reverence, as if it were a priceless artifact and not mass-produced out of tin. “Oooh!” His eyes lit up when he saw the chocolates, then shuttered appreciatively as he leaned in to breath in their scent. He cast Crowley another warm look. “My dear, you shouldn’t have.”
“Probably not,” agreed Crowley, watching with rapt attention as the angel selected a chocolate and took a delicate bite.
“Mmmm.” Aziraphale’s eyelashes fluttered as he chewed. He popped the rest of the chocolate into his mouth, savoring it with a blissful expression. “Oh, that’s very good,” he said when his mouth was politely empty again. “Exquisite, thank you Crowley.” He examined the gold seal on the underside of the box’s lid, raising his eyebrows. “Istanbul?”
Crowley shrugged. “Had an assignment in Anatolia a few years back, this confectioner became a favorite of mine.”
“I can see why.” Aziraphale held the box out to Crowley. “Have one. No no, please do, my dear. I insist.”
Crowley was conflicted—the chocolates were for Aziraphale—but as usual, the angel’s Basset Hound eyes proved impossible to stand firm against. He took a truffle, and Aziraphale’s delighted smile made the chocolate melting on his tongue even sweeter.
“I like the box,” Aziraphale said, shutting the tin and turning it in his hands. It was decorated quite elaborately for a chocolate tin, intricate scrollwork in gleaming silver and brilliant red on a blue background.
“I thought you might,” Crowley admitted. “Form and function, right?”
Aziraphale’s pleased smile was almost shy. “You do know me,” he said softly.
Crowley had to look away for his own safety. “Suppose I’d better, after all this time.” He took a healthy swallow of his wine. “So tell me about this party of yours, angel. Any good gossip?”
~ ~ ~
Some weeks later, dropping by the shop to request Aziraphale’s non-interference in a fairly complicated operation involving a priest, a tax collector, and a justice of the peace, Crowley noticed the chocolate tin sitting front and center on the angel’s desk. Aziraphale was distracted, assisting a customer (and looking remarkably disgruntled about it). Curious, Crowley flipped the tin open and found it full of Aziraphale’s receipts. A faint scent of chocolate lingered.
Crowley flipped it shut again and just. Looked at it for a while. It was such a very small thing, but it felt… important somehow. That Crowley had given it to him, and Aziraphale had put it to use. Woven it into the fabric of his life.
A strange, hungry sort of thrill twisted in Crowley’s gut.
~ ~ ~
Crowley pushed open the shop door, the cheerful tinkle of a bell announcing his presence. Aziraphale’s voice filtered out from behind the stacks: “Browse if you like but I should warn you we’re closing for lunch shortly!”
Crowley raised his eyebrows at the angel’s brusque, nearly grumpy tone of voice. He glanced at his pocket watch, eyebrows rising even farther. “Lunch? It’s barely 10:30!”
“Crowley!” Aziraphale’s tone changed to one of delight, and he materialized from between a couple of shelves, beaming. “Thought you were a customer. …Oh! What’s this, then?”
The angel’s gaze had settled on what Crowley was carrying in his hands—a small vase holding a tasteful selection of flowers. “For you and your shop,” Crowley said. “Congratulations gift.”
“Oh, how lovely! Thank you, my dear!” Aziraphale moved forward to accept the flowers. He put his nose into an amaryllis, eyelids fluttering shut as he breathed in the delicate, fruity perfume, then lifted the bouquet to examine the vase, tracing the lines of cut crystal with a finger. “Oh my, what exquisite work. How beautiful! You have excellent taste as always, Crowley.”
Crowley puffed up despite himself, basking in the warmth of Aziraphale’s regard. “It’s nothing,” he demurred, waving a hand airily. He watched the angel clear a pile of books from a small table and place the flowers there instead, in pride of place at the center of the room.
Aziraphale turned back to Crowley looking pleased and bashful, hands folded and fiddling with his ring. “I must admit, my dear, I have no idea what I’m being congratulated for.”
“Right, yes. Well, you’ve sold your one hundredth book, haven’t you?”
Aziraphale blinked several times, astonished. “How in Heaven’s name would you know that?”
Crowley leaned casually against a bookshelf and peered out of the nearest window. Did the weather look like it was going to change? And here he’d gone out without his umbrella. “I may have had a peek at your ledger last time I was here,” he told the window. He turned back to the angel, who was giving him a stern look, which he ignored. “One hundred books, Aziraphale! That’s quite the achievement.”
Aziraphale pursed his lips, looking flustered and a bit disgruntled. “The thing is,” he admitted, “I’m not certain that I’m pleased to be selling so many books. Now that I’ve started I’ve found that… well, I get somewhat attached to them. I don’t very much like watching other people walk off with my books. It’s rather a problem.”
Crowley grinned wide, overcome with a sudden swell of hysterical glee. “Aziraphale!” he exclaimed. “You’ve just opened a bookshop! You’re a bookseller, and you don’t want to sell books?” Of course this had happened to him, of course it had. This was the flaming sword all over again. Crowley barely suppressed a delighted cackle.
“I know, I know,” Aziraphale groaned, wretched. “I suppose I didn’t properly think this through.”
“You spent years setting this up, you ridiculous creature!” Crowley grinned unrepentantly at Aziraphale’s pout. A sudden alarming thought swept through him, his grin fading in the chill of it. “…Are you going to give up the shop, then?”
Aziraphale looked resigned. “No, no, I am rather enjoying having a place of my own, and I like being able to keep such a large collection! I suppose I shall think of it as my own personal library. And. Once in a while, to keep up appearances. I suppose I could bear to part with a book or two.” The angel looked like he’d eaten something horribly bitter.
Crowley was unsure why he felt relieved. His grin returned. “Well then. In that case, the flowers aren’t for congratulations, they’re for condolences.”
The flowers faded within days, of course, but the cut crystal vase they came in stayed. Crowley kept an eye out for it. It moved around to different parts of the shop, sometimes empty, sometimes with various bits and bobs in it—a handful of pencils or some stray bookmarks—sometimes holding a few cheerful flowers Aziraphale had bought or picked himself. It gave him—a funny feeling. Something warm in his chest, a little twist in his stomach, and something vague but urgent, a faint, indefinable itch.
~ ~ ~
In the record of Crowley’s life, Aziraphale settling down marked a clear dividing line between two eras, pre-bookshop and post-bookshop. Things changed for Crowley in a couple of noticeable ways.
For one, he started to see a lot more of Aziraphale. In some ways this was simply a continuation of a very old trend, the bend in the long arc of their multi-millennial association. In the old days, before they really knew each other, an entire millennium could easily pass between chance meetings. Over time, the frequency of these meetings had increased, helped along by the Arrangement and a genuine mutual fondness. The gaps had narrowed to mere centuries, then decades, and the companionable rendezvous of an angel and a demon began to feel commonplace, even inevitable. Two celestial bodies orbiting each other, spiraling down into a shared gravity well towards some conclusion that Crowley carefully didn’t let himself think about.
After Aziraphale opened his bookshop, the time that passed between meetings was often measured in years, months, or even weeks. It was a lot easier, of course, to get in touch with certain principalities when they were in possession of a permanent address (and, eventually, a telephone). Crowley, for his part, felt no desire to settle as Aziraphale had, and continued to set up camp in different locations, a few decades here, a few decades there, but always now in London unless travel was required for a specific assignment. It was just preferable, wasn’t it, to know that Aziraphale was never very far away.
And then there was the change in Crowley himself. A strange new urge to give things to Aziraphale. Not that he hadn’t enjoyed catering to Aziraphale before. There was no thrill so delicious, no rush so heady as the feeling he got when he bestowed some trifle of generosity on the angel and was rewarded with the brilliance of his smile, the warmth of his eyes, the breathlessness of his voice as he focused all of his attention on Crowley, just Crowley, and murmured, “Thank you, my dear.”
…But this was different. It was a compulsion that he couldn’t quite define. A burning in his blood, a tingle on the palms of his hands. A restlessness that drove him to art galleries, antique stores, and street markets, seeking some object that would please Aziraphale. Something beautiful, or something useful—something he would want to keep.
It started with little things, small tokens that didn’t require a special occasion: an embroidered silk bookmark; a rare and delicate tea from the highlands of China; a steel pen and inkwell to replace Aziraphale’s quill pen, and then a fountain pen to replace that.
And then things started to get out of hand.
The itch didn’t go away, see. If anything, the itch got worse.
~ ~ ~
“Oh, hello my dear—what’s this?” Aziraphale blinked, looking startled, as Crowley thrust his bundle into the angel’s arms.
“Souvenir!” Crowley declared, sidling past Aziraphale into the shop. “Had some business out of town, figured while I was at it I’d pick you up a knick-knack.”
“‘Knick-knack’—Crowley, this is a blanket—” Aziraphale’s fingers curled into the fabric, and Crowley saw his eyelashes flutter. “—Oh. Oh, that’s very soft. …Is this cashmere?”
“The very finest. Pashmina.”
Aziraphale hugged the blanket closer to his chest, letting his cheek rest against the downy fabric briefly. “A cashmere blanket is not a ‘knick-knack,’” the angel told him, giving him an odd look. “…Souvenir, you said?”
Crowley leaned against a shelf and watched Aziraphale try not to rub against the blanket like a cat. “Yeah, quick trip to Ladakh. Nice area. Great mountains.”
“Ah. I was wondering where you’d gone off to.” …Were you? Crowley wondered. “And what business did Hell need doing in the Himalayas of all places?”
“...Angel? You probably don’t want to know.”
“Hmmm. No, I suppose not,” Aziraphale sighed. “…And you got me—what feels like a very expensive pashmina blanket.” The angel was still giving him an odd look out of the corner of his eye.
“I know you like to be cozy.” Crowley paused strategically. “…If you don’t want it….”
“I didn’t say that,” Aziraphale said hastily, turning and leading the way towards his back room. Crowley grinned a wide, snaky grin at the back of the angel’s head. “My dear, would you like a drink? Tell me about Ladakh.”
Crowley watched with great satisfaction as Aziraphale partially unfolded the blanket and draped it over the back of his desk chair before sitting and snuggling back into it.
Crowley sat on the sofa and talked and drank and watched Aziraphale, and all the while felt somehow breathless, expectant, like he was on the cusp of something miraculous. The clock on the wall ticked relentlessly onward and no miracles occurred, and Crowley felt… agitated. Twitchy. The sweetness of Aziraphale nestling into the soft Himalayan yarn soured on his tongue. Crowley excused himself well before midnight and fled to the rooms he’d been renting, where he slept for a week.
And then he went shopping.
~ ~ ~
The collection of objects in Aziraphale’s shop became a record of the passage of years, written in gifts given by an increasingly anxious and desperate Crowley:
1858 — A new, more comfortable desk chair.
1862 — An elegant wine decanter.
1941 — After several decades asleep and another several decades studiously avoiding Aziraphale, Crowley, high on the elation of once again being on speaking terms with the angel, hired a crew to excavate the miraculously surviving eagle statue from the ruins of the bombed-out church with the intent to deliver it to Aziraphale, panicked, and had it delivered to his own rooms. Instead, Aziraphale received an elegant Tiffany lamp Crowley had been holding onto since the reign of King Edward VII.
1969 — A Ming vase.
1985 — “This statue? Oh, you know, just something I happened across, it’s nifty, yeah? Roman, first century A. D., thought you might like it. …Does it look like the one from the oyster place? Huh, wow, coincidence, hey it would look great on this shelf over here don’t you think?”
2008 — “Crowley, dear, are—are you replacing the Tiffany you got me with a different lamp?”
“I’m not—I’m not taking the Tiffany, we can put it somewhere else, upstairs maybe? It’s just, look, angel, I’m over here a lot, and I can’t help notice that the Tiffany clashes with the Ming I got you, but you still need a lamp in this corner so I got you one with a more complimentary color scheme—”
“Really, my dear, there was no need to go through all that fuss, look, with just the teensiest tiniest miracle I could change the mauve bits to blue—”
“Aziraphale take the lamp please.”
…And so on.
Each time, Aziraphale would politely and gratefully accept the gift and find a place for it in his shop or in the small flat upstairs. Each time, the sight of Aziraphale turning the object in his hands or placing it on a prominent shelf filled Crowley with a kind of tingly, breathless warmth, an expectant electricity. And each time, as Crowley sat in Aziraphale’s back room sipping the proffered tea or wine or whiskey, waiting for something, Some Thing that never occurred, the feeling curdled in his stomach and he excused himself and left, skin crawling with inexplicable dissatisfaction. And the following week he would be crawling the antique mall again, or scrolling through eBay late into the night.
If Crowley could just find the right thing, he—he would—
He had no fucking idea, something—ARGH!
~ ~ ~
And then, Armageddidn’t.
It was… it was a lot. Words were had between the two of them that were entirely regrettable. Crowley’s coworkers had tried to murder him. Lucifer, Morning Star, actual God-damned Satan had crawled out of the ground and yelled a bunch.
And before that, Aziraphale’s bookshop had burned to the ground, and Crowley had thought that Aziraphale had been—he’d thought—
But Aziraphale hadn’t. Or, not yet, anyway, and not ever if Crowley had anything to do with it.
Crowley was standing in Aziraphale’s body, which was standing in Aziraphale’s miraculously intact bookshop, carefully restored to its original condition by one Adam Young, Antichrist. Every book and bookshelf, every piece of furniture, every knick-knack and souvenir was precisely in its place, undamaged. Except….
“Those are new,” Crowley said, staring at a complete set of Richmal Crompton first editions and feeling vaguely disgruntled to see them there.
He forgot about them, though. It was a busy sort of day.
A few weeks later, Crowley was at Aziraphale’s shop—without even the most flimsily-constructed excuse relating to Arrangement business, but simply to visit, because they could do that now—and his gaze caught again on the bright red hardbacks. He stared at them, and a prickly feeling of irritation crawled over him. Their incongruous presence amongst the angel’s carefully curated collection… rankled.
Aziraphale was saying something; “…to the countryside, perhaps. What do you think, Crowley?”
“Are you going to get rid of those or what?” Crowley wanted to know.
The angel had been flitting amongst the shelves, dusting, straightening, re-shelving. Now he drifted to a stop, baffled. “…Pardon?”
“The ‘Just William’ books.” Crowley narrowed his eyes slightly, staring them down. “You going to get rid of them? Sell them?”
Aziraphale blinked, looking startled. “I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Yeah, but they’re not exactly your type of thing, are they?” Crowley shoved his hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders. “They don’t match with the rest of your stock, they’re not your style. What would you want to keep them for?”
Aziraphale came to stand next to him, glancing at the books before giving Crowley an odd look. “Well, they’re a gift, Crowley, I should’ve thought I’d at least read them first, it would be rude to shuffle them on so quickly.”
Crowley snorted loudly. “Well it’s rude to just go around changing things without asking, without permission, isn’t it—that’s rude.”
“Crowley?” Aziraphale was openly gaping at him now, more astonished than he possibly would’ve looked if Crowley had grown a second head.
Crowley’s skin prickled and he scowled. As if he were the one being unreasonable here! “Am I wrong? The Young kid, he puts everything back exactly the way it was, except that, he fills a whole shelf with Richmal Crompton, I mean what’s the angle there? And he doesn’t—he doesn’t know you, come on, there’s no way you would’ve bought those for yourself, not in a million years, they stick out like a sore thumb. And you’re going to keep them?” He was pacing now, waving his hands, and at this last he rounded on the angel, his pitch climbing to incredulous heights.
Aziraphale was frowning now, bewildered and upset. “Crowley! Good heavens, dear boy, what is the matter, what’s gotten into you?”
“Asssssssss if you don’t know,” Crowley hissed, then whirled on his heel and stomped out the door, slamming it behind him. His momentum carried him down the steps and into the Bentley, and he peeled out of there in a squeal of tires and a cloud of burning rubber.
Crowley tore furiously through the streets of London to the accompaniment of sustained screaming inside of his own head. As the blocks whipped past, the screaming resolved itself into two voices.
The first voice, confused and more than slightly hysterical, wanted to know, ‘WHAT IN THE SEVENTH SUB-BASEMENT OF HELL IS GOING ON?!’
‘ADAM YOUNG! IS GIVING GIFTS TO AZIRAPHALE! AND AZIRAPHALE! IS ACCEPTING THEM!!’ shrieked the second voice, outraged, angry, and equally hysterical. ‘THAT’S OUR THING!’
‘ADAM YOUNG IS ELEVEN! WHY ARE WE FEELING COMPETITIVE WITH A MORE-OR-LESS HUMAN CHILD?!’ screamed the first voice.
‘HRNNGHHKGGJHRAAAARGH!!!’ the second voice replied reasonably.
Crowley stomped on his brakes, and the Bentley screeched to a halt at the curb adjacent to a storefront. ‘Modern Memories,’ proclaimed a sign over the door, and beneath that: ‘Vintage Furniture.’
Voices still screaming, Crowley stalked inside.
~ ~ ~
Crowley returned to the bookshop the next day, when he knew Aziraphale would be out. Once a month Aziraphale saw his barber, and then went to get a manicure. It was a ritual more sacred and inviolable than Sunday Mass to a devout Catholic.
Striding swiftly up the steps, Crowley unlatched the doors with a snap and pushed them wide open. “All right fellas, come on in,” he said, jerking his head, and stepped out of the way as a team of movers wrestled a bulky piece of furniture across the pavement and up the stairs. It was one of those combination secretary cabinets: a small fold-out writing desk and a bookshelf and a bureau of drawers, all in one large piece. It was at least a century old, made of dark-stained oak with brass fittings on the drawers and glass-pane cabinet doors enclosing the bookshelves. It was quite tall and very heavy, and it was perfect, it was Aziraphale all over.
Crowley supervised the movers with his hands on his hips, watching like a hawk as they carefully navigated the cramped aisles and copious obstacles. “Come on lads, all the way to the back.” He narrowed his eyes. “Mind you don’t scratch the floors!”
“Crowley?” Crowley froze. Aziraphale stood silhouetted in the doorway, clutching a shopping tote. “What the devil is going on here?”
“What are you doing here?” Crowley demanded, voice only going slightly squeaky. “Aren’t you ssssssssuppossssed to be getting a hot ssssssshave?”
“Gerard is on holiday to see his family in Canada, I’ve postponed my appointment until next week. I just popped ‘round the corner to the shops.” The angel came in, thrusting his sack of groceries onto a table at random. “My dear, what are you doing? You—sirs—gentlemen, please, put that down. Put it down.” The movers stopped their shuffling and set the cabinet on the floor with a gentle thud.
“It’s a gift!” Crowley exclaimed. “Just a little—saw it in a shop, thought you’d like it—there’s the perfect spot for it, in the back corner, if you just—might have to shift one or two of the shelves a couple of inches, that’s all.” He snapped his fingers. “Go on, back corner, pick it up, let’s go!” The movers glanced at each other, then picked the cabinet up again.
Aziraphale narrowed his eyes. “Yes, you happened to see it in a shop, thought I might like it, and then you… waited until you knew I’d be out to let yourself and an entire football squad of movers into the shop while I wasn’t looking, have I got that right?”
Crowley shifted his weight. He shifted it again. “No?”
“Yes. Put it—put it down gentlemen, please, you’re free to go, we’ll get it sorted ourselves.”
“No!” Something like panic clawed at Crowley’s throat, threatening to suffocate him. “Don’t put it down—angel, listen—”
“Listen, yes, excellent idea Crowley, I believe we do need to Talk.” The look Aziraphale gave him was severe, the capitalization unmistakable. The choking feeling increased, and Crowley wheezed. “Right there, yes, set it down. Thank you so much, we do appreciate it. Here—” The angel handed the chief mover what looked like a very generous tip, and the men, muttering amongst themselves, shuffled out the door.
Aziraphale snapped, and Crowley heard the locks slide home. The angel turned to him, beetle-browed. “Crowley, my dear. Explain yourself.”
Crowley waved his hands. “Nnhghk! Hrnkh! Mnff!” He waved his hands more wildly. “…What’s there to explain?! It’s a secretary, see, desk and shelves and drawers, I know you can always use more storage, and this one’s perfect for rare volumes, look you can even lock the glass doors so people can’t put their grubby fingertips all over the—all over—are you trying to tell me you don’t like it? You must, of course you do, look at it, you love that cabinet!”
Aziraphale sniffed, drawing himself up a little. “It’s a very fine cabinet, of course it is, that’s—that’s not the issue, Crowley—but look, this isn’t normal—”
“So what? So—who cares?! So you’re not going to keep it, then? But you’re going to keep those books that he gave you? You don’t want to read those! They’re not even your genre!”
The angel squinted at Crowley. “Are you… are you jealous?”
“Hrnghk! Jealous? No! Ridiculous!” Crowley felt very hot, like something in him was about to boil over.
“You are!” exclaimed Aziraphale. “My dear, Adam is eleven—why are you jealous of a child, what’s going on?”
Crowley clutched his hair. “I DON’T KNOW!” he shouted.
The bookshop, suddenly, was very quiet.
“Crowley…” Aziraphale ventured after a moment, sounding worried, “why don’t you come and sit down?”
Crowley flexed his fingers, his eyes darting around the room. The secretary cabinet stood haphazardly in the middle of the aisle; it’s brass fittings gleamed accusingly at him. “I should go,” he said, and tried to take a step toward the door.
Aziraphale’s fingers wrapped around his wrist. “No—Crowley, please. Do come and sit.” The angel drew Crowley gently toward the back room and herded him toward the sofa. Crowley wedged himself into the join between the sofa back and armrest and tried to quiet the shaking of his hands. Aziraphale pulled his desk chair closer and sat. “My dear,” Aziraphale said carefully, so carefully, “what is happening? Is it….” His brow creased as he puzzled through things; Crowley could practically see his gears turning. “It’s something to do with the gifts, yes? You’ve been so thoughtful and generous… what is it that’s upsetting you?”
Crowley shook his head. “It’s… I don’t know. It’s been a while, now. It’s like a, a compulsion, like an itch, I have to get you things. I. I like it when you take them,” he confessed. He’d never been so glad to be wearing his sunglasses. “But it never feels like… enough. I always feel like I need to go and. And find something more.”
“‘A while,’ yes. It does seem as if it has been some time.” The angel nodded, his eyes distant, thinking, remembering. “How long has this been going on, have you some notion?”
“Dunno. A while. Couple of hundred years, maybe? It started out subtle, got worse over time.” He squirmed in his seat. It was excruciating to be talking about this, and yet… kind of a relief. To feel crazy not in isolation, in panicked secrecy, but together with Aziraphale, who wanted to help.
“A couple of hundred years, yes, that sounds about right. I don’t think it was longer ago than that. After….” Aziraphale blinked and his face changed. He looked… startled. “Crowley…” he said slowly, “do you think… was it around the time I moved into this bookshop?”
Crowley thought about it, then nodded vigorously. “Yeah, that’s right. I got you a couple of gifts, and I. I liked seeing them here, and then—I kept getting you things, I couldn’t stop.” He wasn’t going to blush. He just wouldn’t. Demons didn’t blush.
Aziraphale’s eyes had gone wide. He covered his mouth with his hands. He looked—stricken. Alarm bells went off in Crowley’s head, sirens blared.
“Oh,” the angel quavered. “You—I—”
“Yeah, I should definitely go,” Crowley croaked, and tried to roll to his feet, but Aziraphale’s hand clamped down on top of his, trapping him.
“Oh my dear, I’m so sorry… all this time you were trying to—and I didn’t realize you were—”
Crowley was frozen, couldn’t move, couldn’t hardly breathe. “Realize—what?” he rasped.
Aziraphale looked like he might cry. “You were trying to—pair, with me. Initiate nesting.” The angel blushed.
“I—” Crowley frowned, tried to parse the meaning of the words, failed. “…Whuh?”
Aziraphale had withdrawn his hand from Crowley’s, was now, apparently, trying to twist his own fingers off. “Crowley, my dear, you must forgive me, I should’ve realized—I’m so stupid, but I never thought it was possible—”
“Angel!” Crowley interrupted, desperate. “What the Hell are you on about?”
Aziraphale blinked. “You don’t… you don’t know?”
Crowley gritted his teeth. “I think we’ve established pretty thoroughly that I don’t! Wha—nesting? …Explain.”
“Oh!” Aziraphale blushed again. “It’s… I suppose you don’t... remember. Um.” He cleared his throat. “…Very occasionally, there have been times when two angels… ah… developed a special affection for one another. There’s a ritual… it’s instinctive, and. It’s much like what some birds do—”
“Yes, birds.” Aziraphale gave Crowley a stern look for interrupting. He cleared his throat. “So, one angel will choose a suitable location, a—a home territory, and they will wait there. And the other angel will… bring them things. Little gifts. Things suitable for… for making a home together. Nest material, to prove that they’re a suitable mate.”
“Yes, dear.” Aziraphale was a bit flustered. “And then, if the first angel decides that the gifts are suitable, that the other would be a suitable partner, they, ah….” He gestured vaguely. “Pair-bond. And build a nest together—”
“Build a nest!”
“—and they remain together for eternity,” Aziraphale said in a rush, and clapped his mouth shut.
“Angels build bird nests together?” Crowley gaped. “That’s bananas! That is—two dozen overripe Gros Michel bananas!”
“Yes, well. The Lord God does have Her… Her little flights of whimsy.” Aziraphale fidgeted.
The first wave of what the actual FUCK washed over and through Crowley, and in its wake… a sinking, drowning feeling. He’d been bringing Aziraphale gifts. He’d been bringing Aziraphale gifts for two hundred years, driven by instinct like a bloody bird apparently, and… what?
Nothing, that’s what.
No—no ‘pair bond,’ no nest, just two centuries of frustration and anxiety and now Aziraphale sitting here in front of him, awkward and embarrassed, explaining it to him with all the careful patience of a gentle let-down.
“Oh,” said Crowley. “That’s. Well.” He swallowed.
Aziraphale stared at him.
“…Sorry,” said Crowley, lurching to his feet and making a beeline for the door.
“Crowley!” the angel exclaimed, and Crowley grimaced and walked faster. “No, Crowley, wait!” He was almost to the door when Aziraphale again caught his wrist, hurtling around him to block his path. He’d run to catch up. He—the angel hated running.
“Don’t leave,” Aziraphale begged, breathless. “Please—my dear, please listen to me. This is entirely my fault, I’m such an idiot, I didn’t know—I’m sorry, please let me explain.” He released Crowley’s wrist, only to immediately capture Crowley’s hands in both of his, holding on tight.
Crowley stared down at their clasped hands, flummoxed. When he looked up again, Aziraphale’s eyes looked… damp. “Crowley, the thing is… the thing is… demons don’t nest.”
“…No?” Crowley wasn’t quite sure where this was going.
Aziraphale shook his head. “They don’t nest, they don’t form pair bonds, this is a known fact. They just don’t. In thousands of years it’s never been documented.”
“Even among angels, it’s exceedingly rare. And I’ve never been close with any of the other angels, you know that… I never expected it to happen to me. So I… I wasn’t looking for it. And I missed it. I didn’t see.”
Crowley didn’t think he could take much more of the angel’s earnestness, of his watery blue-green eyes. He opened his mouth to tell Aziraphale that it was okay, nobody’s fault, they could just forget about it, no need to make this any more awkward and horrible than it already was. Aziraphale squeezed his hands; his mouth clapped shut.
“Crowley. My dear.” Aziraphale’s voice quavered and broke a little. His eyes were so very blue. “Your gifts were more than suitable. You are more than suitable.”
Crowley stopped breathing, forgot even to let his heart beat. “Ghrk,” he said.
“By which I mean to say… Crowley, I love you.”
Crowley crashed forward into Aziraphale and into a searing, all-consuming kiss. It was less a choice and more something that happened to him, not that he would’ve chosen, could’ve chosen to do anything else. The angel met him with equal ferocity, arms wrapped tight around him and fingers curled into clothes and hair, practically climbing Crowley in an attempt to get closer. Crowley wanted that too, desperately, clasped his arms tight around Aziraphale’s waist and hauled, only realizing that the world and the universe and the laws of gravity and motion hadn’t dissolved around them when his back slammed, hard, into a heavy wooden bookshelf. He didn’t care, couldn’t care, not with Aziraphale’s tongue in his mouth and great handfuls of his fussy vintage coat gripped tight in Crowley’s fists and the warmth of him, the smell of him everywhere, everywhere.
“Darling,” the angel murmured, “oh, my dear,” speaking the words directly into Crowley’s mouth, unwilling to break the kiss even for a moment, and Crowley swallowed them up, returned them with a low, groaned, “Aziraphale.” His sunglasses had gone askew, pinching painfully at the bridge of his nose, and Aziraphale snatched them off of his face and cast them with a clatter to the floor. Crowley couldn’t have cared less.
The place in his chest where a restless, itchy feeling had plagued him off and on for two centuries was soothed, it was singing with triumph. But there was also a hunger burning there, freshly kindled and growing hotter.
“Eternity, did you ssssssssay?”
Aziraphale pulled back just enough that he could look Crowley in the eye. He was flushed and deliciously mussed. “Yes, dear. Ah, that is… if you want.” He bit his lip.
Crowley nodded furiously, his fingers unconsciously twitching into a tighter grip on the angel. “I want,” he croaked, and kissed Aziraphale again, just to be sure, reveling in the way the angel melted against him. The hungry flames licked higher and Crowley gasped, pulling away. “This pair-bonding thing, what do we do? I want—there’s something more, isn’t there?”
Aziraphale blushed. “Ah, yes, well, in establishing the pair-bond we’re supposed to become, ah, mates, as it were. And so, in order for that to happen, we have to… bond. Um, unify. Join. Err….”
“Mate?” Crowley suggested.
The blush deepened. “Well… yes.”
The hunger roared through him like a wildfire hitting fresh tinder. “Yes,” Crowley growled. “Now.”
Aziraphale’s eyes shone. As a matter of fact, the entirety of his being was getting a bit glow-y. “Crowley, my love,” he breathed, reverent, and pressed in to kiss him soundly. Then he took a step away, curling his hand around one of Crowley’s. “We’re going upstairs now,” he informed him in a tone that brooked no argument.
“Yes, angel,” Crowley replied, delirious, giddy. Right at that moment, he’d follow Aziraphale anywhere.
Aziraphale kept a hold of Crowley’s hand, leading him swiftly through the shop and up the narrow, creaking stairs to the flat that took up part of the second floor. Crowley had never actually been inside of it before; it was tiny, containing only a kitchenette and very small table, a closet-sized washroom, and an alcove containing a twin bed piled high with cushions and a small nightstand barely supporting a precarious stack of books. A split-second after coming into view, the twin bed stretched itself into a queen, the space around it expanding to fit it so abruptly that the walls creaked and the dishes rattled. “Whoops, sorry,” Crowley said, not really very sorry at all.
“Oh, was that you?” Aziraphale said. “I thought that was me.” The angel was blushing again, Crowley couldn’t quite help but notice, and noticing was setting his blood to boil. Aziraphale sat down at the foot of the bed and tugged Crowley to sit with him, knee to knee. He collected Crowley’s other hand, holding both of Crowley’s hands in both of his, thumbs brushing reverently over his knuckles. “Do you know how it’s done? Do you, ah, remember?”
“I take it you don’t mean how the humans do it. Yeah, I. I know enough.” Crowley swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. “How, ah, how should we… start?”
Aziraphale looked thoughtful a moment. “Let’s start with this,” he said, scooting closer until he was very nearly in Crowley’s lap, and he lifted his hands to Crowley’s face, and they were kissing again.
This was all right by Crowley. This was great. He slid his arms around his angel, reveling in the warmth, the softness of him, the wet velvety slide of lips and tongues and teeth. Angels—demons—they didn’t do this, kissing, but every nerve-ending in his human-ish body was lit up and crackling with electric delight. It felt good, to touch, to taste, to share one breath, one heartbeat. Still, the hunger inside of him burned for more, to be close, closer.
Then he felt—Aziraphale. Not just his skin, his clothes, his hair, soft beneath Crowley’s fingertips—but on another plane, his true self, his essence, that pure white angelic flame that Crowley had always been able to reach for, shining like a beacon if Crowley needed to find him. Now Aziraphale’s essence was near, close, just barely touching the edge of Crowley’s, waves lapping at his shore. The few iotas of overlap rang like a bell. Crowley could taste Aziraphale’s want, his love, his joy, his yearning, but still the angel held back, waiting for Crowley’s acceptance, Crowley’s consent.
For a brief moment Crowley hesitated. There would be no hiding, in a connection like this. Aziraphale would be able to see (feel/hear/smell/taste) all of him, all his secrets, his bruises, the parts of him that were ugly or poisonous. And Crowley would know the angel just as thoroughly, wouldn’t be able to look away, would hear and taste Aziraphale’s every thought. …But it was only a moment. Crowley didn’t have it in him to say no to this. He surged forward and into Aziraphale, his essence like cool smoke swirling around and through and into Aziraphale’s white-hot flame, mixing, melding.
The sensation Crowley had felt when their edges had just barely touched increased a hundred-fold, a thousand, to infinity. Like the ringing of Big Ben with one’s head inside the bell, deafeningly loud. Like the blinding flash, nerve-searing heat, and bone-shaking thunder-crack of being hit by lightning. Crowley and Aziraphale moved, against and through each other, not two beings but one, and it was an atomic bomb, it was the crackle and crawl of static electricity, it was the sour-sweet taste of honey and pomegranates, it was a kaleidoscope of every visible color in the universe and more besides, and every symphony and aria at once.
Aziraphale’s blinding light shone through Crowley, in him; it was him. He could feel the angel’s laughter, hear his love, smell his tearful, giddy, delirious joy. He could taste every memory of Aziraphale’s long existence, bursting across Crowley’s consciousness all at once like fireworks exploding, like champagne bubbles on the back of the tongue, and Crowley was there too, all of him, every moment, the sweet and the sour, love pain aching joy despair.
Aziraphale cooed and the universe shuddered with the vibration, Crowley shuddered as Aziraphale picked at his scabbed-over wounds, opened them, pressed joylovedelighthopeloveloveLOVE against them to stem the flow of ichor. Crowley, too, could see the pulse and throb of Aziraphale’s hidden aches, his guilt, anxieties, regrets, and Crowley washed cool and soothing over them, loveforgivenesscomfortgratitudeloveLOVELOVELOVE!
Time was less than meaningless; it had ceased to exist. There was only the exquisite, excruciating joy of unity, of oneness, a sensation of blinding pleasure that expanded to fill the whole universe and continued to grow, an outward-spiraling fractal of love and delight and yes, this, now, always, This—
Crowley’s consciousness blossomed slowly back into his human body—slowly, because he was thoroughly disorientated. It was taking some effort to work out which nerve ending connected to what. His body and Aziraphale’s had flopped against each other’s, Crowley’s face mushed against the angel’s forehead. Aziraphale was flushed, sweaty, and breathing hard, and—oh, so was Crowley.
Crowley gingerly separated his mouth from Aziraphale’s eyebrow and straightened, holding tight to the angel’s shoulders so that neither of them tipped over. His vision was blurry, his eyes hot and damp and stinging—they’d both been crying, tears still streamed from Aziraphale’s eyes. Crowley gently wiped them away and Aziraphale leaned into the touch like a flower toward the sun, his blue eyes luminous.
Crowley cleared his throat. “Wow,” he croaked. His body felt like it had run a marathon—or like how he imagined that felt, anyway. He was dehydrated, but also positively awash with endorphins.
Aziraphale looked similarly exhausted and chemical-drunk. “My love,” he murmured, tender, and brushed a stray lock of Crowley’s hair back into place.
Crowley shivered. “That was.” He groped for words to describe what that was, and came up with nothing.
“Yes,” Aziraphale agreed.
Something was… damp. Crowley glanced down; there was a significant wet spot darkening the crotch of his jeans. Aziraphale’s trousers were similarly ruined. They’d both come in their pants. Possibly multiple times, based on the scale of the mess.
“Goodness,” Aziraphale said, looking down. “I suppose we should take our clothes off next time.”
Crowley leered, couldn’t help himself.
“Oh!” The angel looked startled and blushed, to Crowley’s glee. But in the next moment Aziraphale’s eyes went hot and interested, and he dragged them slowly up and down Crowley’s body. “Hmmmm,” he said, pensive.
“Nrghk,” Crowley said, breaking out in gooseflesh.
Aziraphale made a face and wriggled a little. Now that Crowley thought of it, things down below were starting to feel a bit… sticky. And crusty. Aziraphale glanced down at his crotch, pouting a little. “Bugger, I’ll never get that stain out, will I?” he sighed.
Crowley waved a hand, miracling away all of their mess. Aziraphale blushed again, bashfully grateful, and then a moment later blushed more, looking stunned. “Oh.”
“Oh, I’ve just realized something. I feel very stupid.”
The angel really was quite appealing like this, flushed and pink. Crowley tried not to let it distract him. “What is it?”
Aziraphale thought for a moment, then his face went all soft and fond—loving, Crowley thought, with a lurch of his heart—and he leaned in to kiss Crowley tenderly. “I’ll tell you in a moment. …Get your wings out, will you love?”
Crowley blinked, his sluggish, kiss-addled brain struggling to keep up. “Why?”
There was a fwoomp of displaced air as Aziraphale’s own gleaming white wings came out, filling half the bedroom alcove and narrowly missing knocking over the lamp. “Please?” A moment later, with a matching fwoomp of air, the remaining space was filled with Crowley’s sleek black feathers.
Aziraphale smiled. “Turn around?”
Crowley was bemused, but Aziraphale was asking, so. He shuffled around, carefully lifting and folding his wings to avoid hitting the walls, the bed, or Aziraphale, until he was sitting cross-legged on the bed facing the wall, wings outstretched, with the angel behind him.
In the next moment Aziraphale touched his wings and Crowley jumped, startled, before melting into the delicious sensation of fingers carding gently through his feathers. Aziraphale smoothed the feathers he’d just combed with the flat of his palms and then set to finessing each quill into its proper place one at a time, working from the scapulars out. Crowley could have purred.
“This is another important part of it, you know. Of being mates,” Aziraphale commented mildly.
“Mmmmmmmmmm, grooming each other?” Crowley closed his eyes. He might never open them again.
“Yes.” Aziraphale worked a bedraggled feather between his finger and thumb, zipping the barbs back together. Crowley shivered. “It plays a role in maintaining the pair bond.”
“Ssssssoundssss good to me. Very important. Never ssssssstop,” Crowley agreed.
“Some birds do this as well,” the angel informed him. “It’s called ‘allopreening.’”
Crowley made a rude noise. “Birds!” he complained weakly.
Aziraphale tugged a covert lightly in admonishment. “It often plays a role in courtship, too.” He paused in his careful tweaking, brushing the back of his knuckles against the feathers to feel their satiny softness. “…I think you’ve been doing this the whole time. All the times you’ve fixed a tear in my sleeve, or gotten a stain out of my coat. You’ve been preening me.”
Crowley blinked, taking this in. “…Huh.”
“You’ve been provisioning me as well, now that I think of it. Feeding me.” The angel went back to his tidying. “Always bringing me little treats, insisting on paying for meals most of the time, even when you don’t eat much yourself. That’s another thing birds do for their mates.”
“I should keep doing these things then?” Crowley was okay with this. He’d always liked doing things for Aziraphale. It was nice to think of doing these things forever, as part of their partnership. To feel like he was taking care of the angel, regardless of whether he needed it. Like this was his role.
Crowley squinted a little, thinking, trying to dredge up what little he knew of natural history. “…Am I the male bird? I am, aren’t I. Why am I the male bird?!”
Aziraphale chuckled. “It’s nothing to do with gender, dear, your behavior was triggered when I decided to settle down.”
Crowley hummed, part doubtful, part thoughtful. “Was that instinct as well, do you think? Your settling here?”
Aziraphale’s fingers hesitated, stuttering in their work. “I don’t know,” he murmured, sounding heartbreakingly uncertain. “I think I would’ve recognized the instinctual urge for what it was, if it was in me. And if I was trying for a nest site, I’ve done quite poorly, this place really isn’t big enough for two.” He sighed. “I suppose it’s not a surprise if the instinct never kicked in properly for me, I’ve always been a rather poor excuse for an angel.”
Outrage boiled up in Crowley and he turned to face Aziraphale, interrupting his preening. “Bollocksssssss,” he hissed. “You’re different, but that’sssss not a bad thing! The resssst are a bunch of tossssserss. You’re the besssst angel there isssss.” He sniffed haughtily. “She broke the mold when She made you, angel.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, his eyes shining. He pressed a kiss to Crowley’s mouth, and Crowley leaned into it, helpless. “I can feel it,” the angel whispered against his lips before leaning back, caressing Crowley’s face with a tender smile. “Thank you, my dear Crowley. I love you too.”
Crowley flushed hot. “Yeah, well.” He coughed. “…Anyway, your instincts must’ve picked up on some of what I was doing, you sure asked for preening often enough. You and your blessed puppy eyes.”
Aziraphale blinked. “Huh. …Goodness, when I think of it, there was quite a bit of, ah, solicitous behavior on my part. You might have a point, my dear.” He tilted his head, thinking. “Perhaps some amount of instinct was involved in my decision after all. I might’ve decided to settle down in part because I could feel our mutual love.”
“Mnff.” The angel kept using the L-word. It gave Crowley a strange feeling—prickly, hot, a bit uncomfortable. He never wanted the angel to stop.
Aziraphale was still pondering. “It’s possible my sensitivity to the instinct got a bit muddled. I—” Aziraphale bit his lip, looking pained and apologetic. “My dear, I’m afraid I was trying so hard not to have feelings for you, for so many years.”
Crowley tipped forward to rest his forehead against Aziraphale’s, curling his wings protectively around them. “S’okay, angel. I know why you felt you had to. I did the same.”
“I just hate to think—you spent two hundred years reaching out to me, and I never reached back. But it’s not—I’m with you, Crowley, I want this, I never want you to think otherwise—”
“Shhh, angel, it’s all right. It doesn’t matter.” Crowley wrapped his arms around Aziraphale, carefully sank his fingers into the angel’s feathers, trying to soothe him.
“It does matter.” Aziraphale curled his hands into Crowley’s shirt and held on. “…Do you know, there isn’t any other immortal being, ethereal or occult, who could possibly have let themselves into my shop so easily? This place is warded quite thoroughly, perhaps you’ve noticed. But you waltzed right in here, you and your stampede of movers.” The angel pulled back to look at him and Crowley was caught, breathless, trapped by the impossible blue of his eyes. Aziraphale touched his face. “You’ve always been welcome here. Always been wanted. Only you, Crowley.”
“Angel,” Crowley croaked. He felt like his heart had exploded and the resulting mess was about to come crawling up out of his throat, choking him. “G—Somebody dammit, I do love you. So much.”
Aziraphale kissed him so sweetly and thoroughly that a forgotten planter box in the angel’s window burst into a riotous tangle of blooms, most of which were not native to London’s climate zone. Crowley knew the feeling.
The angel was glowing again. “We’ll have to move your things here from your flat,” he said.
Crowley nodded vigorously.
“And you’ll stay?” Aziraphale whispered.
“Forever,” Crowley swore.
The angel smiled brighter than the sun, his eyes twinkling. “Well, not here, perhaps. This site really isn’t suitable for building a proper nest.” Aziraphale traced the line of Crowley’s cheekbone with his thumb. “We’ll have to find something roomier, where we can build something for the both of us. Together.”
“Together.” Crowley was grinning, couldn’t help it. His heart was singing. “What do you think of the South Downs?”
Footnotes: Click [return to text] to go back to the footnote in the main text.
 The Adam and Eve Tavern—chosen by Crowley, of course, entirely so he could watch Aziraphale roll his eyes and pretend not to be amused by him. [return to text]
 This sort of thing, an unspoken add-on to their Arrangement, had recently become a more frequent occurrence, to Crowley’s secret delight. [return to text]
 Crowley was decidedly not looking forward to tights and breeches going out of fashion in a few short decades, and Aziraphale’s beautiful calves disappearing under the legs of trousers, never to be seen again. [return to text]
 Most of a week. [return to text]
 I.e., sulking. [return to text]
 Still sulking. (‘Fraternizing,’ by the blessed frolicking saints!!) [return to text]
 The place still smelled of smoke, but Crowley was about 92% certain that this was psychological. [return to text]