Aziraphale was reading. Crowley saw him doing that a lot more these days. Not that he was reading more, but Crowley saw it more often. Before, time together was rare, and they both kept their focus on each other to take advantage of as much of it as possible. But things were different now. If Aziraphale wanted to read, the chances were good that he was going to do it when Crowley was there, simply because there were few times when Crowley was not there.
Crowley, meanwhile, was stretched across the sofa, doing something on his phone, though if you asked him an hour later what he was doing he probably wouldn’t remember. He didn’t know, either, what was special about this moment. Aziraphale was fiddling with two pages that had stuck together, looking disapprovingly at them through those silly reading glasses he didn’t need. He separated the pages and turned to the next one with the tiniest of sighs, and Crowley said, “I love you.”
Aziraphale didn’t even look up from his book. He made a humming noise that might have been agreement.
Crowley looked at him for a moment, then straightened on the sofa. “I love you, Aziraphale.”
“Yes, I heard you.” Aziraphale’s eyes flitted towards him for a second before returning to the book.
Crowley wasn’t sure that he had. “No, I said I love you.”
Aziraphale looked away from his book for longer this time. “Is that meant to come as a surprise?”
Crowley looked at him for a long moment, and then shrugged. “Thought it’d get more of a reaction, is all.”
“Oh. Er, sorry to disappoint.” Aziraphale frowned. “It’s just, I’ve known for such a long time—”
“Right.” Crowley slumped back on the couch. “Nevermind.”
Crowley was not the first celestial being to tell Aziraphale he loved him, but he was the first who had meant it.
“I love you” was sort of a customary greeting between angels, and Aziraphale had heard it more times than he could count, from his bosses, from his coworkers, even from angels he didn’t know. They liked to throw around a lot of nice words up there. Aziraphale had stopped using that particular word when he realized it no longer meant what it was supposed to.
And then there was Crowley, who loved Aziraphale more clearly than anyone ever had. He showed it with kind gestures and gifts and surprise visits, and even though he always had some kind of excuse on hand, Aziraphale knew what he meant. A lot of things he stole for kicks just happened to be things Aziraphale would like, and his schedule was always mysteriously free when Aziraphale was around, and he was “in the area” far more often than his job should have brought him there. And he was always there to help, right when Aziraphale needed him. Aziraphale vividly remembered standing in the rubble of a church in 1941, clutching a bag of books and looking at Crowley and thinking, Oh. That’s what it means.
Aziraphale had been told “I love you” hundreds of times, but nobody had ever acted like it before. He tried to show it back just as well, with conversation and bottles of wine and invitations to the bookshop to extend their time together. He wasn’t as good at it as Crowley was, but he thought Crowley got the message. His stunned silence after Aziraphale had handed him the thermos of holy water seemed to confirm it. Neither of them needed to say it out loud, so they didn’t.
Until now, apparently. Since the first time, Crowley couldn’t seem to stop saying it. He’d say it before he went home to sleep and when he first saw Aziraphale the next day, when they sat down to eat or when Aziraphale refilled his wine glass or when they were sitting and doing nothing at all. Aziraphale didn’t understand it. He already knew. And the words fell so short of what he felt for Crowley, and for what Crowley had shown Aziraphale for centuries that he felt for him. Aziraphale didn’t understand why he would want to try to boil it down into three words now.
“I love you,” Crowley had said the day after the first time, and then paused. “Is that okay? It’s not…too fast?”
Aziraphale looked back at him blankly. “Crowley, you’ve been showing me that you love me for centuries.”
Aziraphale didn’t see the need for the words at all. If someone felt the need to say it, and the other person didn’t know, they probably hadn’t been showing it as much as they should have. But there was no point in saying it if the other person already knew. It was like if Crowley had set a raspberry tart in front of Aziraphale and then described the flavor to him in great detail, even though Aziraphale was about to taste it and see for himself. And anyway, words would never adequately describe the experience of eating a particularly good raspberry tart. Words were too easy. A raspberry tart was not words.
Unless Crowley set something bland and tasteless in front of Aziraphale and told him it was a delicious raspberry tart, and then Aziraphale took the first bite and either his expectations fooled his senses or he didn’t want to disagree with Crowley so he said, oh, yes, that’s quite scrumptious, even though it wasn’t at all—
Crowley wouldn’t, not Crowley. Aziraphale knew how much Crowley loved him, that it was not a lie or an exaggeration, that Crowley meant every word. He didn’t use those words like the archangels had. Aziraphale just didn’t understand why he needed to use them at all.
Did Crowley not know that Aziraphale loved him? He hated the idea, but it was the only reason he could think of that Crowley would feel the need to say it out loud. Aziraphale tried to show it with the way he smiled at Crowley, the way he said his name, the way he laughed when the demon said something amusing. He reached for Crowley’s hand sometimes as they sat on the sofa together, or put an arm around the demon while Crowley leaned against him, or ran his fingers through Crowley’s hair when he dozed off in Aziraphale’s lap. Physical contact between them was something new and wonderful. Crowley seemed to appreciate it as well, if the way he constantly moved closer to Aziraphale was any indication.
But Crowley kept saying the words, even when he was cuddled right up against Aziraphale with his arms wrapped around Aziraphale’s belly and his eyes closed, and it was so obvious that Aziraphale almost couldn’t stand having it pointed out to him. Then he would just suppress a sigh, and stroke along Crowley’s shoulder, or his side, or wherever his hand happened to fall, and wonder why the demon felt the need to say it out loud.
Crowley had thought that, by now, Aziraphale would be ready to say it back. He would have understood if it had made Aziraphale uncomfortable to hear it, but that didn’t seem to be the issue. He didn’t know what the issue was.
It was different in hell than on Earth. Crowley knew that. Hell put far more importance on positive words than anyone on Earth did, because demons were not supposed to feel positively about each other. Demons did have friends, contrary to popular belief, and they could even love, but to let someone else know you cared for them was to open yourself up to mockery and ridicule. Rejection always hurt, but there were other things to worry about in hell. Word could spread. Other demons would say you’d gone soft. Worst case scenario, Beelzebub or someone of equal rank would decide to find out how soft, and put you through a pasta maker.
There were safer ways of showing another demon that you liked them. The important thing was to leave it open to interpretation, to always have a reasonable explanation. No, I just asked to be put on assignment with you because it makes sense to have another torture expert on the job. That cool rock wasn’t a gift, but since I missed when I threw it at you I guess you might as well keep it. I’m only coming by to talk to you because I’m bored out of my skull, and you’re annoying enough that at least I won’t be bored anymore. That sort of thing. Sometimes it was thinly-veiled, but the veil had to be there.
That didn’t mean demons never stated their feelings outright, it just meant they used those words sparingly, and only when they completely trusted the person they were speaking to. Once, Crowley overheard Ligur telling Hastur that he didn’t hate being around him, and Crowley had been mortified to have intruded on such an important step in their relationship.
Then he’d gone back to his cubicle, sat down, and wondered if he’d ever be able to take that step with Aziraphale.
Crowley wasn’t stupid. This thing between him and Aziraphale, whatever you wanted to call it, was dangerous. Even more dangerous than it would have been if Aziraphale were a demon. And he knew Aziraphale didn’t want to face it head-on, so they danced around it, and Crowley found safer ways to express himself. Fine, I’ll do that one, my treat. You’re lucky I was in the area. Over time, his excuses grew thinner and thinner, and Aziraphale didn’t turn away. He might even have been answering with gestures of his own, though Crowley couldn’t be sure. Ambiguity was a necessity for both of them.
He had made no excuse for the books. He knew exactly what he was doing when he pulled them out of the rubble after the bombs exploded, and it looked like Aziraphale had known it, too. The angel still didn’t turn away.
Someday I’ll tell him, Crowley had decided then, even though it was a hopeless dream. He almost told him a few decades later, when Aziraphale handed him something that could kill him, which he trusted Crowley not to use that way. Aziraphale made no excuse, either. He had actually said, I can’t have you risking your life, which was the kindest and most heartfelt thing anyone had ever said to Crowley. But before Crowley could take him somewhere more private where he might safely express himself, Aziraphale told him it was too fast, and that settled it.
He knew. They both knew. But Crowley still dreamed of a day when they’d trust each other enough to say it out loud. And when, or if, they did, Crowley would not mince words. Words fell utterly short of what he felt, anyway, so there was no shame in using the strongest ones there were.
He hadn’t thought it would be such an anticlimax.
Aziraphale was in the tiny kitchen behind the bookshop’s back room, putting together an elaborate plate of biscuits for tea, even though Crowley only ever nibbled on whatever food Aziraphale put in front of him. The kettle was heating up on the stove. Crowley stepped up behind him and wrapped his arms around Aziraphale, resting his chin on one shoulder. “Love you.”
Aziraphale rested a hand against one of the arms around his middle and leaned the side of his head against Crowley’s. That was sort of an answer, but not quite the one Crowley had been hoping for. Aziraphale went back to his biscuits.
“And you,” said Crowley after a moment. “Do you…”
Aziraphale paused. He would have looked at Crowley if he was in a position to do so without breaking contact. “Yes?”
The kettle started to boil. Crowley let go. “Nevermind. Better get that.” He returned to the back room.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale peeked into the back room.
Crowley glanced up. He was in his usual place on the sofa, sprawled across it. He didn’t look upset, but Aziraphale couldn’t shake the awful thought that had occurred to him.
“You do know, don’t you?” he said. “That I love you?”
Crowley drew a sharp breath. He shivered, bit his lip and nodded. “Mhm.”
“Oh, my dear.” Aziraphale hurried forward to sit beside him and put an arm around his shoulders. He hadn’t expected such a strong reaction. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Crowley’s voice was thick. He sounded like he might cry. “You just said you love me.”
“But you knew that.”
“But you’ve never said it before.” Crowley swiped at his eyes. “We’ve never said it before, to each other, out in the open without any room for interpretation—”
“Oh.” Aziraphale pulled Crowley closer to him, until Crowley buried his face in Aziraphale’s shoulder. He rubbed circles into Crowley’s back, remembering how disappointed Crowley had been by his lack of reaction the first time. To him, they were just words, but maybe it was different for Crowley. He should have realized that it was different for Crowley. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think it needed to be said. I thought—Well, they’re only words, and anyone can say the words, whether they mean them or not—”
Crowley stiffened a barely-noticeable amount. “What kind of arsehole would say it if they didn’t—” He broke off, apparently realizing the answer to his question. “Oh.”
Aziraphale nodded. “It doesn’t mean anything up there anymore. And I love you so much, Crowley. It didn’t feel like enough.”
Crowley’s breath hitched when Aziraphale said it again. His arms tightened around him. “Angel.”
Aziraphale’s throat tightened. If he had realized how much those simple words meant to Crowley… “I’m sorry. I should have—”
“Nn, don’t—don’t apologize. I didn’t know it was like that up there. Seems obvious, in retrospect.”
It seemed equally obvious that nobody said those words to each other in hell. Aziraphale wondered if anyone had ever told Crowley they loved him since he fell. He’d have to remedy that. “I love you,” he said. “And I’ll be sure to tell you as often as you’ll let me.”
Crowley shuddered. Apparently, hearing it out loud was going to take some getting used to. “Love you so much, angel.” He pulled back and swiped at his eyes with a chuckle. “Guess I don’t need to say that, though, do I? I feel like a bloody idiot, I’ve been saying I love you practically every hour, and all this time it’s meant nothing—”
“Don’t talk like that, Crowley.” It was absurd, after everything, for Crowley to feel guilty about wanting to tell Aziraphale he loved him. “You do so much for me besides.”
Crowley’s eyes flitted down for a moment. “What can I do?” he asked. “I mean, I said it in the first place so you’d know how much I—But if it doesn’t mean the same thing to you—”
“You don’t need to do anything, dearest.” Aziraphale rested a hand on Crowley’s knee. “You’ve shown me in so many ways. That’s one thing they never did upstairs.”
Crowley looked thoughtful for a moment. “Showing. Right. Just…not words?”
“I don’t need to hear the words,” said Aziraphale. “But I wouldn’t object, of course.”
Crowley nodded. Aziraphale thought he was going to say it again, but instead he moved forward to hold Aziraphale, slowly shifting and rearranging them until they were in whatever configuration he was aiming for. When Aziraphale was leaning against him with his head on Crowley’s chest, with those long, slender arms wrapped around him, Crowley relaxed in a way he never did unless Aziraphale was around. He pressed his lips to Aziraphale’s head for a moment and then rested his cheek in Aziraphale’s hair.
“Oh.” Aziraphale felt like he was melting. He smiled into Crowley’s shirt “Yes, I love you too.”