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The Pleasures of the World / Sleight of Hand

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When it came down to it, Crowley felt that what he needed was a good laugh.  While the park was fine for clearing his thoughts, and Aziraphale was the best remedy for his best attempts at thinking too much, that tall chap had given him the uneasy feeling that chances were at least even that they hadn't heard the end of it.  Crowley had experienced more confusion, frustration, and pure existential fear in the past few days than he'd experienced in the past eleven years combined, never mind the fourteenth century.  He wasn't pleased about the fact that he'd added worry to the roster, and anxiety certainly wasn't doing him any favors.  He was still a demon, after all.  It was undignified.

"...don't you think?" Aziraphale was saying, dabbing his mouth with Crowley's napkin.  His cheeks were flushed pink.

"What?" Crowley asked.  "Sorry."

"About the wine," Aziraphale supplied helpfully, setting the napkin down on the table.  "Not bad for a Brouilly, is it?"

"Er.  Right," Crowley said, picking up his glass.  "Not bad at all."

Aziraphale frowned at him, eyes flicking to the empty bottle between them, then said, "Haven't you slept well?"

"No," Crowley said, which was also ridiculous, because after he'd dropped Aziraphale off the night before, he'd found a shining new Bentley, which fit his key perfectly, parked in the street precisely in front of his building.  He'd never known what true relief was until that moment, or at least he thought he hadn't, and he'd proceeded to go inside and check everything else.  His flat was intact right down to the holy water in the safe, and the mess that had once been Ligur was conspicuously absent.
 
Crowley had gone to bed pondering Adam's judgment on that one, and, as a result, had taken several hours falling asleep.

The mouth-shaped stains on his napkin weren't nearly as funny as they should have been.  He sighed and refilled the wine bottle.  Even the Ritz slipped on occasion, and that didn't amuse him, either.

"Perhaps we ought to go," Aziraphale said, taking hold of the bottle.  He refilled his glass and took a judicious sip.

"You haven't finished my dessert," Crowley pointed out, pushing his torte at the angel.  He'd only taken one bite.

"Don't be silly, dear boy," Aziraphale said, licking his lips as he pushed the plate back to Crowley.  "You're looking a bit peckish."

"Not hungry," Crowley said, signaling as he caught sight of the waiter out of the corner of his eye.  "You!  Over here."

"If you insist," Aziraphale said, but he drained his glass and reached for the torte.

The drive to Soho was uneventful.  Crowley pushed his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and thumped the steering wheel in time to "Under Pressure," which was rather late to the party and overkill besides.  Aziraphale made busy staring out the window, sighing every now and again with well-fed contentment.  He was humming, too, but Crowley decided not to call him on it.  Uncertainty aside, they'd gotten off on the right foot, and there was something unsportsmanlike about messing things up this quickly.  Crowley had decided he was tired of messing with things, at least for the time being.

"Crowley, you're weaving," Aziraphale said, voice taut with the faintest hint of warning.  His hand was warm on Crowley's elbow, fingers curling tensely on his arm.

"Got it," Crowley muttered, shoving his glasses up and rubbing his eyes with one hand.  He was tired, no two ways about it.

When he finally pulled up in front of the bookshop, killing the engine, there was a moment of awkward silence.  Aziraphale had let  his hand drop to the seat some miles back, but it had remained irritatingly close to Crowley's leg, hovering as if Crowley might nod off again at any moment.  Crowley blinked at it, then looked up at Aziraphale, who was looking at him with familiar, unnerving patience.

"I don't think you ought to drive home," Aziraphale said.

Crowley slid his glasses carefully back into place, then gave him a pointed look.

"Fancy getting us both discorporated, eh?"

Aziraphale flustered, then glanced away.

"No," he said quietly, with some annoyance.  "However, I wasn't implying that I ought to drive – "

"Then what are you implying I should do, spend the night in the car?"

Aziraphale gave him another look that was suspiciously close to nasty.

"Right, sorry," Crowley sighed, gripping the steering wheel and staring straight ahead.  "I'm sober, how's that?"

"Cold comfort," Aziraphale admitted, smiling thinly, and touched Crowley's shoulder.  "Won't you come in?"

"If it means having a little chat, I don't think so.  My head hurts enough."

"It's all in your mind, dear boy," Aziraphale said, but he touched Crowley's temple, and the pain subsided.

Crowley turned his head and stared at the angel, annoyed in his turn.

"You can't make anything simple, can you?"

Aziraphale ignored him and said, "Besides, we really ought to talk.  Loose ends to tie up, as you're so fond of putting it."

Crowley sighed, letting go of the steering wheel.

"Is your wine restocked?"

"And then some," Aziraphale replied fervently.

"Your argument," Crowley said, opening his door, "just turned convincing."

It was strange seeing all of those new titles on Aziraphale's shelves, but the angel walked past them cheerfully enough, completely unconcerned.  Crowley studied the floorboards, the worn-out rug, the splinter-hazard countertop – it was as if none of the space had ever been scorched, let alone burned to the ground.  Upon seeing the familiar table and chairs in the back, Crowley felt nearly the same shiver of relief he'd felt upon discovering the Bentley, and he squashed it out quickly.  He'd tried so hard to hold back hope, but it seemed determined to pop up at every possible opportunity.

"There, now," Aziraphale said, dropping to the floor in front of his china cabinet with some effort.  The lowest cupboard had been dedicated solely to alcohol for as long as Crowley could remember (and, if he tried hard enough, for as long as he couldn't).  "What would you like?"

Crowley pulled out one of the chairs and took a seat, waving his hand absently.

"Something with kick."

"That's not helpful," Aziraphale said, rummaging through bottles with a soft grunt.  "Rum?  Whiskey?  Perhaps you'd like a nice – "

"I don't care," Crowley said, and was simply relieved to have something to wrap his hands around when Aziraphale set a full glass of brandy down in front of him.  Without time to keep or a steering wheel to grip, his fingers felt jittery and uncertain.  He hadn't ever really had a handle on things, had he?  Strike free will being a bugger; it was the whole blasted world.

"Much better," Aziraphale said, sliding into the seat across from Crowley with what seemed like unusual grace, or maybe that was the alcohol mixing.  He hadn't actually bothered to sober up before leaving the Ritz, which was why he'd been drifting off, but Aziraphale had taken his bluff, too relieved about the situation to care.  "Is that enough?"

Crowley considered his glass, then polished the rest off.

"Nope," he said, holding it out to Aziraphale.

Once they'd gotten settled with full glasses and a few other miscellaneous bottles on the table, Aziraphale decided that it was apparently time to get the Conversation underway, which was just as well, because the room was beginning to ripple at the edges of Crowley's vision and everything felt pleasantly warm.  Crowley held his glass up to the candle that Aziraphale had lit on the table, fascinated by the way the light played through it.  If Aziraphale was determined to go droning on about matters that Crowley had already hashed out in his mind, he might as well make things interesting for himself.

"If you don't mind," Aziraphale said, taking a slow sip of what looked like a mojito, "I'd like to know what's got you so bloody quiet."

Crowley shrugged, setting his glass down so he could dip his finger into the deep-amber liquid.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to know what's got you so bloody flippant."

"Very funny, Crowley," Aziraphale said with genuine irritation, which took some doing when he was on his way to getting thoroughly trollied.  "I'm sure you think that's very clever."

"Not as clever as you think you are," Crowley muttered, sucking the brandy off his fingertip.  "That was some stuff – er, stunt you pulled back there.  Could've gotten us – "

"I had to," Aziraphale said desperately, setting his glass down hard enough to send cloudy droplets flying in Crowley's direction.  "Nobody else was forthcoming with any bright ideas!"

"Well, congrack...um," Crowley said, scooping his glass up unsteadily.  "Congratulations.  Worked."

"Thank you," Aziraphale said, hesitating before picking up his glass again.  "As for...ah, weren't we just...?"

"Fighting?  Yeah," Crowley said, feeling curiously detached.  He took another drink, then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.  "Damn good show it was, too."

"I though – " Aziraphale hiccupped, breaking his own chain of reasoning " – thought so."

"Wouldn' take much, after all," Crowley said, as the whole picture was getting muzzier by the second.  "The brat likes things the way they were, so whoosh, back it all goes, seas full of brains and trees back in the forests and – " Crowley hiccupped himself, surprised " – us back in your shop with more acol – alcolho – booze than we know what to do with.  Cheers."  He drained the rest of his brandy, and it burned the whole way down.  Crowley coughed, blinking into his glass.  He wasn't so drunk to forget that things like that didn't normally happen.

"Crowley," Aziraphale said, sounding pensive, and if Crowley squinted hard enough, he could tell the angel was frowning.

"Hmm?"

"D'you suppose if...well, that if we hear..."

"Nonono," Crowley said quickly, waving his hand in Aziraphale's face.  "No s'posing.  Just got over it, so 'f you think for a second 'm going to – "

"You could be right," Aziraphale said gloomily, more sober than Crowley had given him credit for.  "You've been right before."

"So've you," Crowley said, then realized he hadn't meant to say that at all.  "Still," he pressed on, "'m thinking that maybe as long as we don't go messin' about so much anymore, maybe..."

"Maybe," Aziraphale murmured, but he was still frowning into his glass, and Crowley thought he looked terribly petulant.

"What're you suggesting?" Crowley asked, setting down his glass.  He tried very hard to shape the words clearly, to meet Aziraphale's eyes.

"If we don't...go messing about," Aziraphale said uncertainly, "then what are we supposed to, er, do?"

Crowley considered the vulnerable look on Aziraphale's face, then considered the fact that the angel had given him a near foolproof in.

"'F you ask me," he suggested recklessly, "we ought to start getting more out of life."

Aziraphale just stared at him, uncomprehending.  Perhaps he was as drunk as Crowley after all.

"What I mean is," Crowley clarified, sitting up straight, "that we ought to, you know, start enjoying the pleasures of the world.  There's lots of 'em."

"Carpe diem," Aziraphale murmured.

"Yeah," Crowley said, jabbing a finger at him.  "S'it exactly, though it's got nothing to do with carp, which don't make nests I don't think."

"Crowley," Aziraphale said again, but this time, he was smiling.  He picked up his glass, raising it as if in salute.

Unable to argue with that, Crowley fished around in front of him till he found his own, empty as it was, and drank anyway.


*    *    *




After a few solid days of sleep, Crowley felt like himself again.  Some of the plants had slacked off and wilted in his absence, so he made a point of collecting them up and announcing their wrongs more loudly than usual.  The four offenders trembled in the back seat of the Bentley until he pulled up along the curb of an unfamiliar flat and set them on the sidewalk in a neat, careful row.  He glared at them venomously.

"You had it coming," Crowley said with a shake of his finger, then slid hurriedly back into the Bentley and drove off.  He had no idea where he was going to find four empty pots on such short notice, but he'd always managed to improvise before.  He prided himself on that, and he also prided himself on never hitting the same doorstep twice. 

Stray plants always got a warmer welcome in Mayfair than stray pets.

That evening, Crowley combed his flat from top to bottom, searching for some sign of diabolical correspondence, some booby-trap that he must have missed.  On the few occasions that Hell had managed to learn something from him, he'd vastly regretted the outcome.  He wasn't about to take any chances.  The search turned up nothing, which was as suspicious as it was relieving.  Satisfied, but mildly reluctant, Crowley took a chance and put on some music.  Twenty minutes in, Maria Callas was still Maria Callas.

It was just as well that the phone rang, because Crowley was getting bored.

"It's remarkable," he said into the receiver, not bothering with a greeting.  "I swear to you, nothing – "

"There's no need for that," Aziraphale reassured him, sounding considerably more relaxed than the startled breath that Crowley had heard when he picked up the phone.  "I was thinking you might enjoy some tea, now that you're awake."

"How did you know I was – "

"Crowley, really," Aziraphale said impatiently.  "You were hardly in any condition to be considering anything else when you left here the other night.  Won't you come over for tea?"

As a general rule, Aziraphale didn't make invitations, and even if he'd been in the habit, Crowley wouldn't have accepted.  It was just that, between one thing and the next, they'd always ended up in one place or another, keeping each other company.  Crowley tapped on his desk, considering.  Slowly, he broke into a grin.

"This wouldn't be your idea of a wild time, would it?"

He could fairly see Aziraphale stiffen.

"I'm only taking you up on your suggestion.  The last I knew, you put tea into the category of 'pleasures.'"

"Come over here," Crowley suggested.  "I have tea."

"I don't doubt it," Aziraphale muttered, "but you also have a car."

Crowley was beginning to enjoy himself.

"Flying's hardly outdated, angel.  Are you sure you'd rather risk an antique fire hazard?"

"You're insufferable," Aziraphale said tartly, and hung up on him.

When Crowley pulled up in front of the bookshop, the angel was waiting outside with his hands shoved into his coat pockets, looking uncharacteristically contrite.  As soon as Crowley caught his eyes, Aziraphale's expression changed from worried to nonchalant.

Crowley wondered why he even tried to hide it.

"Pleasant evening, isn't it?" Aziraphale asked cheerfully, slipping into the passenger seat.

"If you say so," Crowley said, shrugging, and pulled back into the street.

Aziraphale immediately took over the kitchen when they returned to his flat, which was quite all right.  Crowley had been meaning to spend some quality time with his television now that he was almost certain that there would be no interference, and it covered the sound of Aziraphale's shrill whistling nicely.  He'd missed Looney Tunes something fierce.

He'd barely finished a second episode when Aziraphale shouted in that he ought to turn off the television and come to the table.  He smelled more than just tea – crumpets, at least, and some kind of fruit jam – and the argument that he hadn't seen this particular rerun in forever just wouldn't hold up.  Especially since he was hungry.

"Where'd you get all that?" Crowley asked, blinking at the spread Aziraphale had managed to coax from his neglected refrigerator and bare cupboards.

"Never mind," Aziraphale said, already heaping clotted cream on a crumpet.

Crowley shrugged and sat down.  For the first few minutes, they ate and drank in absolute silence – not so much because they were quarrelling again as because they were both genuinely starved.  Crowley hadn't eaten since the Ritz, and while he doubted that Aziraphale would've been able to manage such a feat of fasting, he ate fast enough to suggest that maybe he'd been skimping on between-meal snacks.

Aziraphale finished off his second crumpet, giving Crowley an expectant look.

Crowley raised an eyebrow and waved the butter knife at him.

"Er.  Yes?"

"Is this what you had in mind?" Aziraphale asked, hopeful, as if eager to be told he'd done the right thing.

Crowley chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed.  They were awfully good crumpets, and his tea was just the right sweetness.

"Something like it, yeah," he said, deciding it wouldn't hurt to smile.

Aziraphale blushed, then beamed.

Crowley glanced down at his plate, wondering what else he'd said when he was drunk.  He hoped it hadn't involved The Sound of Music.

"I thought maybe a film would be nice," said the angel, finishing off his tea.

"No musicals," Crowley choked.


*    *    *




Movie nights, Crowley reflected a week later, weren't all bad, but they were getting old.  They'd manage to exhaust more than a dozen films and double that number in bags of popcorn, but one could only sit through so many silent films and convince an angel to watch only so many hours of Monty Python.  Aziraphale sighed as Crowley hit eject, spreading his hands.

"My dear, it's just that it's not..."

"Just that it's not Lon Chaney, is that it?" Crowley asked sarcastically, shoving Life of Brian back into its case.  Some things, like the angel's sense of modernity, were terminally incurable.

Aziraphale gave him an apologetic look, folding his hands in his lap.

"Right, whatever," Crowley said, rising to his feet.  "Don't blame me; this whole thing was your idea."

"If my idea of a good time bores you, then why don't you come up with something?"

"I was working on it.  These things take time."

"The best laid plans," Aziraphale muttered.  "Have you got any theatre tickets?"

Crowley just stared at him.

"Shakespeare," Aziraphale squeaked.  "I meant Shakespeare!"

Advance tickets, like table reservations, were something that happened to other people – but were easily enough obtained if one knew where to look.  While The Merchant of Venice wouldn't have been Crowley's first choice, it was what was playing, and Aziraphale would probably get mildly tetchy afterwards if he attempted to start a discussion, which he usually did, so the venture was bound to be a catastrophe from the get-go.

That didn't keep Aziraphale from lighting up like anything.

Crowley had fully intended to doze off before the first act was through, as he'd read a flurry of lukewarm reviews, and the Globe wasn't as much fun as it used to be, but Aziraphale's hand crept to his forearm during Antonio's closing speech in the first act.  It was going to be a long night, and what was worse, it was going to be pleasant.


*    *    *




In the grand scheme of things, whatever that was, live theatre was infinitely preferable to anything you could put on television, though Crowley rarely admitted his preference.  Just because the Globe season was stuck in a rut didn't mean there were no quality productions around.  Show by show, he methodically picked off the best tickets he could find.  What he had meant by "no musicals" was "no old musicals," so Aziraphale was rather put out when Crowley neglected to include the revival of My Fair Lady in the proceedings. Crowley told him that he had no room to complain, since he was incapable of using a phone and didn't know what Ticketmaster was.

"It just isn't the same," Aziraphale sighed, adjusting his tie.  He cast a disapproving glance at Her Majesty's marquee, straightening his lapels.  "I can't fathom why he left us for the States.  Nice enough people, of course, but dreadful venues."

"Los Angeles is dreadful?" Crowley asked dryly, glancing both ways before taking hold of Aziraphale's arm and rushing him across the street.  West End after dark wasn't the ideal place for somebody like Aziraphale to cross streets unattended.  He'd narrowly escaped being flattened by a double-decker on the way in, and that had been during daylight.

"Well, I don't actually know," Aziraphale admitted, cinching Crowley's arm in tight against his side once they reached the opposite curb.  "I've never seen the theatre.  It's a shame we lost Crawford, that's all."

"You say it as if it's another matter of your people and mine."

"Maybe it is.  Last I knew, his marriage was in a tough spot."

Crowley snorted and slipped his hands into his pockets, shivering as the wind whipped past them.

"They don't want him down there.  Elgar and Liszt will be thrilled."

Aziraphale sucked in his breath disapprovingly, or at least that's what it sounded like until he let go of Crowley's arm and slid his own snugly around Crowley's waist.  He let his breath out again, shivering as if he'd taken Crowley's discomfort upon himself.

Too shocked to react, Crowley just kept walking.

"You felt cold," Aziraphale said weakly, fisting his hand quickly so that it was his knuckles rather than his fingers that rested against Crowley's hip.  "I think we ought to go someplace for a drink, or maybe some tea?"

Crowley's brain wasn't functioning except on a level where "The Music of the Night" was stuck on repeat.

He tried to steer them into the first pub they came across, but Aziraphale murmured something indistinct that sounded like protest, so he kept walking, picking up the pace.  On top of the incessant music, his brain was also trying to sort out that they were heading farther and farther from the vicinity of the parking garage, and that he'd fumbled his hand out of his pocket in order to set his own hand over Aziraphale's.  He certainly hadn't told it to do that.  Muscle memory, his brain decided.  Even his body had learned a thing or two from humans, and –

And Crowley was going to stop thinking about that immediately.  He cleared his throat.

"That bistro over there looks all right."

"It does," Aziraphale agreed, sounding about as blank as Crowley felt.  "The lighting's lovely."

"We're crossing the street again, angel," Crowley said, and disentangled himself from Aziraphale's arm, folding it over his own before rushing them across.  He hadn't realized how much the contact had warmed him until it was gone – or  rather, diminished back to a small patch of his arm.  Aziraphale shivered and tugged him in till their shoulders touched, breathing fast enough for Crowley to hear.

The restaurant was rather agreeable, and the wine list was worth staying for.  Crowley was surprised when Aziraphale declined the waiter's suggestion of the house red and went with a pot of tea.  Crowley shrugged, set his menu down, and heard himself say he'd have the same thing.  The waiter whisked the menus away, leaving them to stare at each other in silence.

"I thought you wanted a drink," Crowley said, carefully removing his sunglasses.  Aziraphale's expressions were getting difficult to read, and the waiter didn't seem to be the type for eye contact anyway.  Not that he cared if anyone looked him in the eye. 

"I thought you would," Aziraphale sighed, distractedly unbuttoning his coat.  "All I wanted was something warm."

The words weren't just words: they were Words.  He hadn't heard Aziraphale use that tone since 1020.

"Tea's plenty warm," Crowley said cautiously, averting his eyes as the waiter arrived with two steaming glass pots and a pair of matching cups.  He set one of each down in front of each of them, and for a few seconds, Crowley's dread was deferred by the sound of glass meeting the smooth wooden tabletop.  "Do you want some milk?" he asked, offering it to Aziraphale as the waiter left again.

Aziraphale glowered at him for a few seconds before his expression subsided into a weary sigh.

"Yes, please."

Crowley poured some into Aziraphale's partly filled teacup, then set it down between the two pots.  He didn't care for milk or cream himself, but he'd rarely seen Aziraphale take tea without it.  He spooned some sugar into his cup, thinking carefully about what he was going to say.  Aziraphale wasn't finished, he could see it in the way Aziraphale held himself stiffly and took tiny, hesitant sips.

"There are better ways of approaching this," Crowley said, blowing the steam away from his face.  The first taste of tea scalded his tongue, but he ignored it, taking a deliberate sip and watching Aziraphale turn as pale as his suit.

"I thought I was so clever," muttered the angel, turning from ghastly white to faint, flushed pink.

Crowley sighed, setting his teacup down and adding more sugar.  Lord, he hated confessions.

"It's not as if I haven't thought about it," he said, finding himself unable to meet Aziraphale's eyes.

"Oh," Aziraphale said, sounding relieved.  "Oh, good."

Crowley picked up his cup again and bit the rim.  How could he be so – so casual?

"Who hasn't?" Crowley asked, taking a nonchalant sip.  He risked a glance, and it was worth it, because Aziraphale looked even more embarrassed than he had before.  Crowley wondered if he'd started blushing around the time he'd taken hold...

"One shouldn't take these things lightly, Crowley."

"Says the clever bastard who brought it up," Crowley snapped, setting his tea down hard enough to slosh some on the table.  "Do you have any idea where we are?  Do you even realize we're in public?"

Aziraphale got a worried, sorry look on his face, then reached across the table and took Crowley's hand.

"Oh dear.  I thought I had been rather discreet."

Crowley's brain skipped tracks from "Music of the Night" to "All I Ask of You."

"I had no idea you were that up on pleasures," Crowley muttered, staring at his tea.

"I'm not," Aziraphale admitted, drawing his thumb lightly across the back of Crowley's hand.

Crowley just nodded, realizing he'd started to breathe and that his heart had decided that pounding was the proper reaction.

"I'd like it if – " Aziraphale began, then stopped short.  His hand tightened on Crowley's.  "I mean, it would be purely experimental, and – "

"Going to bed with somebody doesn't make for a good laboratory," Crowley said, finding his voice again.  "Humans are wretched at that sort of thing.  One can only watch so many train-wrecks and not come away feeling sick to his stomach."

Aziraphale's fingers crept under to Crowley's palm, brushing light circles.

"Making you sick was rather far from what I'd had in mind," said the angel softly.

Crowley's internal soundtrack screeched to a halt, his stomach tightening with something far more pleasant – and far more frightening – than nausea.  He glanced up at Aziraphale and saw that he really wasn't taking this lightly at all, and when had this situation gotten so out of hand?  Crowley swallowed, closing his fingers over Aziraphale's.

"I can't promise you much.  I haven't the faintest idea how these things work in practice."

"We're rather made for theory, aren't we?"

"Don't go philosophical on me.  I'm not drunk yet."

"Actually," Aziraphale said, "I don't think intoxication helps."

Crowley cringed.

Aziraphale looked away.

"I'm sorry, dear boy," he said, letting go of Crowley's hand.  "Forget I mentioned it."

The soundtrack zipped back to life, pounding past "The Point of No Return."

"No," Crowley said, catching Aziraphale's hand.

Aziraphale gave him a blank, caught-in-the-headlights look.

"What?"

Crowley wanted to shrink into the booth cushioning behind him, but he resisted the urge and held Aziraphale's hand tightly.

"It fits into the theme and all, doesn't it?" he asked, hopeful.

"Well, yes," Aziraphale said.  "Theoretically, of course."

"They say practice can't hurt," Crowley said, shoving the other adage to the back of his mind.

"Very true," Aziraphale murmured.  He was brushing the back of Crowley's hand again.

"I think it's getting chilly in here," Crowley said, letting go of Aziraphale's fingers with a squeeze.  "Let's go."

As soon as they'd paid the tab and gotten out the door, Aziraphale put his arm around Crowley again, explaining that it had gotten worse since they'd gone inside, which probably explained why it had gotten nippy in there.  Crowley just nodded and tried to find a convenient angle for his own arm, but they were walking quickly and the sense of sudden possessiveness he got from Aziraphale's touch was overwhelming.  Back at the Bentley, he was clumsy at the passenger door handle, and in the end it clicked almost of his own accord and he had the feeling Aziraphale had done it himself, but Aziraphale gave him a quiet, grateful look for holding the door open for him.

Crowley couldn't bear to pop anything in the Blaupunkt, because the bridge really was burning, and hadn't they had enough flame?

Aziraphale seemed mildly disappointed when Crowley pulled up in front of his shop, but he held his breath patiently while Crowley fumbled the Bentley into park.  Crowley couldn't get his fingers to stop shaking, and as badly as he wanted a drink or two or ten, it was likely a wretched idea, and had Aziraphale meant for them to do this tonight?

Aziraphale's fingers brushed his cheek, then turned his head slowly.

"I'm asking you to think it over," he said, so quietly that Crowley almost couldn't hear him.  "That's all."

Crowley's stomach clenched harder.  Somehow his hand had gotten ideas again and migrated in the direction of Aziraphale's waist, blindly creeping its way around, forcing the angel to lean slightly forward.  This was the sort of thing reckless human teenagers did, or in the very least reckless human adults who hadn't gotten out much and were just beginning to notice how entrancing their bridge partners were.

"Won't take much," Crowley said, and leaned over to kiss him.

Aziraphale made a soft, surprised noise that got muffled against Crowley's mouth.  Crowley closed his eyes, concentrating on the way Aziraphale's lips felt pressed to his own, idly realizing that this was wonderful in ways that even touching hands could only begin to be, and if he wasn't careful, his mind would run it up a step further and then – then Aziraphale opened his mouth the slightest bit and denial was an utterly lost cause.  Crowley let his tongue slip hesitantly past Aziraphale's not-quite-perfect teeth and felt an answering shiver in the crook of his arm and all along his front.

"Sorry," he hissed, shrinking back.  He hadn't meant –

"No, it's..."  Aziraphale fumbled at his coat buttons quickly, setting them in order.  "What I said before, I..."

Crowley turned to face the steering wheel, letting his forehead fall against it.

With a nervous laugh, Aziraphale set an unsteady hand on his shoulder.

"Not a bad start at practice, wouldn't you say?"

Crowley couldn't look at him.  The music was thundering places he didn't want to think about.

"Good night," he said quietly.

Aziraphale sighed, reluctantly drawing his hand away.  The gesture was a slow, torturous caress.

"Good night, my dear."

Crowley thought the passenger door open before Aziraphale could set his hand on it, and didn't bother to watch Aziraphale walk up to the door.  He heard the footsteps hesitate, then pause altogether.  He could feel Aziraphale's eyes on him.

"I'll pick you up at six," he said to his fingers, which were clenched white on the steering wheel.

"Crowley, you don't – "

"Six," he repeated, and turned the key in the ignition before he could curse the day Aziraphale had done everything he hadn't asked, and more besides.  That was the trouble with angels whether they were of the musical variety or not: they wouldn't take no for an answer, and they knew full well you'd say yes.




*    *    *




It was almost worse than waiting for the world to end.

Crowley decided that going through his usual nighttime routine would be the best course of action, insofar as he had one.  There was nothing decent on television, so, after waving through half a dozen channels, Crowley slumped back against the sofa and quietly began to panic.  The options left to him were music, a shower, and bed, or possibly all three.  None of them would help.

He stood up and paced across the room, arms folded across his chest.  Da Vinci's sketch mocked him with its serene, smug expression: there was somebody who'd gotten hers and wanted the whole world to know, no doubt about it.  Humans were so bloody easy about the whole thing, like it was something you started off the day with, commonplace as a cup of tea, and had seconds or thirds or fourths of any old time you wanted.  Crowley, of all people, knew this, though he didn't necessarily want to.

Crowley twitched and turned away from the picture, wondering if a shower wasn't such a bad idea.  He'd heard plenty about cold ones, though he'd never been able to take the suggestion seriously before.

He settled on a fast, lukewarm one and wrapped himself in his thickest bathrobe afterward.  Hunting around the bedroom for something to read yielded nothing except an outdated magazine (Aziraphale was forever giving him old issues of Fine Gardening) and a battered novel that hadn't been able to hold his interest.  He lay awake for a considerable time, forcing his thoughts away from replaying the entire scene at dinner.  The expanse of mattress around him felt curiously, wretchedly empty.

At about three in the morning, Crowley rubbed his eyes, turned the lights on, and went out to make some tea.  An empty kitchen was far preferable to an empty bed, especially since he had gotten used to the former being occupied and was still trying to wrap his mind around the latter.  His body, on the other hand, seemed just fine with it, even if somewhat jittery.  The tea did nothing to calm his nerves, because it reminded him of scones and horrible films and things he wished he had thought of doing on the sofa.

Crowley dropped his half-empty mug in the sink and stalked back to bed.

Somewhere between the witching hour and the crack of dawn, Crowley had managed to fall asleep, though dawn inevitably went from a sliver to an all-out explosion and flooded the entire room.  Crowley swore and sat up, rubbing his eyes with a grimace.  He set the coffeemaker to work, lay down again, and piled the spare pillows on top of his head.  He drifted off again, but the smell of burning coffee was enough to wake him.  Crowley dashed out of the bedroom, then trashed the stuff in disgust and made more tea.

Once he'd gotten dressed, or rather, once he'd thought long and hard about what he ought to wear and found himself wearing it, Crowley spent the afternoon between fits of pacing and cleaning.  When he realized that there wasn't anything to clean, he resorted to straight-up pacing.  After a while, even that got old, and he had the distinct impression that the plants were taking blackmail notes.

A change of scenery, he told himself, was the way forward.

St. James's Park was as full as one could expect for a late summer day, and the weather was maddeningly pleasant.  It seemed as if Adam was bound and determined to make it up to everybody – especially to London, which had rather taken the brunt of the affair.  Crowley put his hands in his pockets and wandered across the bridge, ignoring the fleet of ducks and miscellaneous waterfowl that glided up alongside.

"I haven't brought you anything," he said, pausing halfway across to lean on the railing.  "I'm flat out of bread, got it?  Shoo.  Go bother those people with the picnic, why don't you."

A black swan mournfully tilted its head at him, and the ducks chattered in complaint.

Crowley spread his hands and turned back the way he'd come.  According to his watch, it was going on four o'clock, and two hours wasn't as much time as it made itself out to be.  Back at his flat, Crowley remade the bed and fussed with the blinds covering the sliding glass doors onto the balcony.  How much light was too much light?  It would be getting dark anyway.  Would Aziraphale want dinner first?  That was the most ridiculous question he'd ever asked himself.  Crowley stormed out of the bedroom and snagged his jacket off the rack, shrugging into it on his way out the door.  Five-fifteen.  The angel could deal, since it was, after all, his blessed idea.

Halfway to Soho, Crowley wondered if this was the sort of occasion you bought flowers for.  He squashed the idea, annoyed at himself for not having thought to pinch some of the irises and lilies from the park, but he didn't feel so bad when he remembered that lilies were usually reserved for death and decided that irises were too random.  Roses were the ticket, but it was too late: he was nearly there.

Aziraphale answered the door looking much the same as he usually did, with the exception that his shoes appeared to have been polished more than was strictly necessary and he looked as if he'd tried to sleep and discovered what it was to have a bad night of it.  Suddenly, Crowley didn't feel so alone.

"Er," Crowley said.  "Hi."

"You're a bit early," Aziraphale said, opening the door wide.  "Please, come inside."

Crowley wanted to say that he was about to do that anyway, thanks, but there was something about Aziraphale's newfound nervousness that detracted from his own in ways that were, in a word, reassuring.  If the angel could allow that his bravery was at least half a front, then Crowley could certainly reach into the depths of his terrified being and stir up some courage.

It wasn't until he was well into kissing Aziraphale that he realized the bookshop smelled of roses.

"Really, my dear," Aziraphale murmured, glancing over Crowley's shoulder at the door, which hadn't quite shut.

"Have you taken up gardening?" Crowley asked, letting go of him, running his fingers nervously through his hair.  He didn't like how hurried this one had felt in comparison to the one the night before, and if those roses on the counter were for him, he was going to throw something.

Aziraphale glanced at the flowers, hesitated, then stared at the floor.

"Well, no, but I thought that the place could, you know, use some brightening up," he said.  "I picked them up this morning.  Er."

Crowley stared at his lapel, where one of the blooms had appeared.  He sighed and pulled it out, sniffing it briefly before walking over to the counter and trying his best to fit it back into the vase.

Aziraphale's face fell, landing somewhere between saddened and offended.

"It would've died sooner," Crowley explained, walking back over to him.  "Dinner?" he asked, offering his arm.

Aziraphale took it, smiling reluctantly.

"Actually, I'm not quite – "

"Neither am I," Crowley said, and led him out the door.

They were silent for the short ride's entirety, though Aziraphale's hand kept turning up in places that made Crowley want to forget about driving altogether.  He'd always taken those casual touches on the shoulder for granted, hadn't he?  Fortunately, they came to a traffic light about the time that Aziraphale had decided that setting his hand lightly on Crowley's knee was a good idea.  Crowley reached down and took hold of it firmly, swallowing around the knot of fresh panic in his throat.

It was worse than waiting for the world to end, and the distance between their respective residences had never seemed so far.  When the light turned, Crowley peeled out fast enough to earn himself several indignant honks and one impolite hand gesture, but it was worth it to feel Aziraphale's grip tighten, then relax under the careful stroking of his thumb.  Maybe he was getting the hang of this.

When they reached Crowley's flat, Aziraphale tried to get the door, but Crowley pushed him lightly aside and used his key for what felt like the first time since he'd bought the place.  Aziraphale turned slightly pink – by now a frequent occurrence – and mumbled his thanks, hurrying inside.  Crowley pulled the door shut behind them, cringing when it slammed.  Aziraphale had already hung up his coat, and he gave Crowley a reassuring (if mildly miserable) look.

"This was your idea, you know," Crowley said, clearing his throat.  Normally, he would have just willed his jacket to vanish, but this was a situation in which buying time was to one's advantage, so he took it off with careful deliberation and hung it beside Aziraphale's.  "No second thoughts."

"Thank you, Crowley," Aziraphale said, his tone indicating that he had at least begun to grasp the use of sarcasm.  "That was unnecessary."

"How would you like having that blessed music stuck in your head for a full twenty-four hours?"

"I did," Aziraphale said, sighing as his gaze dropped to the floor.  "Crowley, I – "

"Shhh," Crowley said, and reached for whatever part of Aziraphale was most readily available.  If he wouldn't let himself over-think this, then he wasn't about to let the angel.

Aziraphale was as warm and soft and solid as he had been in the Bentley, with the exception of being much easier to get a hold of now that both of Crowley's arms were free and they weren't sitting side by side at an awkward angle.  Crowley was about to say something else, maybe something that he hoped would pass for reassuring, except Aziraphale was kissing him and that made the execution of his plan somewhat difficult.  Crowley gave up and closed his eyes, shivering as he deepened the kiss.  If you were in a hurry to start things, the front door was as good a place as any.

"This isn't exactly what I had in mind," Aziraphale panted, "but it's really quite pleasant."

Crowley let go of him and stepped back, vibrating from head to foot with his own heartbeat.

"What did you have in mind?"

"Something, er – " Aziraphale stared at Crowley's feet " – more comfortable than your front hall."

"Oh, good lord," Crowley muttered, grabbing Aziraphale's hand before he could protest.  "Come on."

It took all of Crowley's willpower not to turn them around and suggest that they use the sofa, because Aziraphale had never seen his bedroom and would probably laugh behind that eternally polite mask of his about how precisely it matched the rest of his flat.  On second thought, though, the sofa wasn't nearly big enough, and he could tell from the hold he had on Aziraphale's wrist that if Aziraphale's heart rate suggested anything, it was quite far from suggesting that he was thinking about mocking Crowley. 

"Here we are," Crowley said lamely, pushing open the door.

Aziraphale just stood beside him and blinked for a few seconds, as if the ridiculousness of the situation had finally begun to sink in.

"I somehow thought it would be larger."

"Oh, we're off on the right foot now," Crowley said dismally, and sat down on the edge of the bed.  He kicked his boots off, waiting for Aziraphale to follow suit.  What they said about leading a horse to water was absolutely true, only sometimes you had to yank the blinders off without unbuckling the bridle, too.  And Crowley had always been bad with horses.

The bed sagged beside him, and Aziraphale reached down to untie his shoes.

"This feels...odd, doesn't it?  Terribly normal."

"If you think most people spend this much time on shoes," Crowley said dryly, pulling his legs up Indian-style.  He might as well get his laugh while he could.

"To be frank with you, I have no idea about time," Aziraphale said, almost snippy, "but I'm of the opinion that it shouldn't be rushed."

Crowley rested his chin on his hands, smiling ruefully.

"There are plenty that would disagree with you."

"Well, they don't matter," Aziraphale said, setting his shoes carefully on the floor, then sitting up straight.  He looked at Crowley for the first time during the entire conversation, and his eyes softened, giving the vaguest hint of warning that he was about to say something sentimental.  "What matters is – "

"For crying out loud," Crowley said, unfolding his hands, and leaned over.

Kissing, at least, was something that almost anybody could do with a little practice, and Crowley was amazed to find that it only took a few shots before one could reasonably feel that he had gotten something of a handle on it.  Aziraphale hummed in surprise, as if he'd been expecting Crowley to do something else, and put his soft, precise hands on Crowley's cheeks.  Well, that was new, Crowley thought, and he tilted his head so that he could lean into one of them a little, but not really.  He'd already gotten used to the feel of Aziraphale's tongue and teeth, and how sometimes they clashed and had to back off with muttered apologies, but on the whole, yes, kissing was very good, especially with Aziraphale's hand on his cheek and the other one trailing down to his collar.

Crowley opened his eyes and eased away, breathing hard.

Aziraphale paused, sighing, and worked his finger deliberately between the top buttons of Crowley's shirt.

"If you'd rather get this over with more efficiently, now's your chance."

"No," Crowley croaked, cursing his voice for betraying him.

Aziraphale nodded once, deliberately, and worked the button free.  Half fascinated, Crowley watched as Aziraphale unbuttoned the whole length of his shirt until he reached the line of Crowley's trousers, under which the last few buttons were inconveniently tucked.  They looked up at each other as if on cue, and if Aziraphale's expression hadn't been so chagrined, Crowley might have laughed.

"Ah," said the angel.  "If you don't mind..."

"No," Crowley said, and found that his hands were acting of their own accord again, hastily untucking his shirt.  So much for having gotten it pressed.

"Thank you," Aziraphale said quietly, almost contemplative as he unfastened the remaining buttons.

Crowley shivered, wondering if he'd turned the air conditioning up too high again.

"It's all right, you know," Aziraphale was saying, and his hands, far from stopping, had made their way inside Crowley's shirt to rest lightly on his chest.

"I, uh," Crowley said, having determined that he definitely wasn't trembling because he was cold.  "Yeah.  Right."

Aziraphale, who had been staring at his own hands, glanced up with a look that Crowley had never seen before.  Cautiously, he spread his fingers and fanned his hands, reaching, and the result was a tentative, tickling caress that left Crowley short of breath.  He nodded again, as if understanding what this meant, and leaned in very, very close.

Crowley bit his lip, because the only words coming to mind were do that again.

"Is that all right?" Aziraphale asked, for once too patient for his own good.

"I hope," Crowley said with a short laugh, "that's a rhetorical question."  His pulse had spread to places that he didn't usually think about, and Aziraphale was close enough to one of them that this had gone far enough beyond amusing to be outright torture.  This was one thing he wouldn't be telling Hell about.  It was probably already in standard use.

"Good," Aziraphale said, voice wavering slightly, and drew his right hand from Crowley's ribcage down to his stomach.

At that point, all Crowley could think about was that he wanted to be kissing Aziraphale while they did this, but Aziraphale permitted him only the briefest brush of lips before pressing him back against the pillows and murmuring against the corner of Crowley's mouth, "Don't be impatient."  Crowley suspected that Aziraphale was still fighting a pretty severe case of nerves, but his brain was fogged with the same vague, fluttering anticipation that had settled in his stomach.  Aziraphale was rubbing circles there as if he meant to calm Crowley, but all he had succeeded in doing was making Crowley's condition considerably more...pronounced.

"For Hea – oh, get on with it," Crowley hissed, and made his trousers vanish with an irritated wave.

"Well, I've been try – oh," Aziraphale murmured, pulling his hand away.

Crowley groaned.

"Look, the point was – "

"I know what the point is," Aziraphale said, clearly trying not to meet Crowley's eyes, which Crowley had apparently just made easier for him.  He reached out and brushed his fingertips against Crowley's arousal, drawing in his breath.  "It's..."  He closed his fingers around Crowley cautiously, letting out a tense breath.  "Does it, er, feel all right?"

It did.  So much, in fact, that Crowley couldn't determine how to convey that in words.

"Yes," he gasped.  "L – lovely."

"Oh," Aziraphale said again, leaning over Crowley, and kissed him.

Crowley almost wished that they could've kept talking, because it would've meant something, anything for his scattered mind to latch onto, but the truth of the matter was that if Aziraphale wasn't kissing him, he'd be reduced to undignified begging.  Aziraphale's hand on him was still tentative, exploring, but it repeated everything that made his hips jerk up from the mattress – here a squeeze, then a tug, and the gentlest circling of Aziraphale's thumb just there.

Crowley felt the weight of the past twenty-four hours collapse, or maybe it was just that he'd pulled Aziraphale half on top of himself and he was shuddering helplessly, breathless, under Aziraphale's sticky hand.

"...all right," Aziraphale was whispering, breath warm and shaky against his cheek.  "Oh, Crowley.  Just breathe now, yes, that's...oh, Crowley."

"Shut up," Crowley managed, and tried to pull Aziraphale closer, but his arms didn't want to move.

Aziraphale kissed him, sliding his hand, which was a frightful mess, over to rest on Crowley's hip.  Crowley felt the wetness dry and vanish, and then Aziraphale's fingers, more steady than before, were stroking his hair back from his forehead, which felt rather damp.  He closed his eyes and sucked in a breath between kisses, fumbling at Aziraphale's waist.  Oh, he'd get even, if only his blasted fingers would work.

"There's a trick to it," Aziraphale mumbled, trying to wedge one hand in between them.

Crowley hissed in frustration, snapping his fingers.  At this point, it didn't matter who did what.

"You've got to – Crowley!"  Aziraphale froze, breath coming in short pants, and let his hand fall back to Crowley's hip, as there wasn't anything between them now except skin and the proof that he was in a much worse way than Crowley.  "That...oh, that wasn't..."

Opening his eyes, Crowley nuzzled under Aziraphale's jaw.  He was still floating, but he had some sense of motion back, and movement, if he'd learned anything from humans, was what made this whole thing tick.

"Fair?" he asked, pushing up against Aziraphale and discovering that he was somewhat sensitive at the moment.  "Forget that.  Feels good?"

"Yes," groaned Aziraphale.

"Right, then," Crowley said, and snaked one leg around Aziraphale's.

Crowley was mildly indignant that he hadn't gotten the chance to make Aziraphale squirm, but it didn't last for long.  Holding Aziraphale snug up against him was more than satisfying even in his exhausted state, and the more he let his hands wander over Aziraphale's skin, the faster Aziraphale breathed – sometimes a whimper, sometimes moaning Crowley's name.  He couldn't keep still any more than Aziraphale could.  Soon, it was nothing but clumsy, desperate kisses until Aziraphale tensed, gasping, and their bellies were the same wet mess as before.

Aziraphale groaned something into the pillow.

"Mm," Crowley sighed, stretching as much as he could manage, and cleaned them off.  "What?"

"'M sorry," Aziraphale mumbled, then yawned.  "I don't know what came over me."

"There's ineffability for you," he said, tentatively running his fingers through Aziraphale's hair.

The angel was already asleep.

 

*    *    *



Crowley woke up feeling unusually well rested, except for the fact that something of considerable weight was squashing the breath out of him.  Opening his eyes, Crowley determined that the room was dark and that the tickle under his nose was a stray curl of Aziraphale's hair. Sighing, Crowley closed his eyes.  Not a dream, then.

He tried falling asleep again, but he'd become all too aware of Aziraphale's warm breath against his neck and how reassuring it was.  If Hell was coming for him, they'd have to pry the angel up first.  Crowley gave up and ran his fingers down Aziraphale's back, glad that he'd wished away the rest of their clothing before falling asleep himself.  Aziraphale's skin was heated and smooth, and Crowley flushed to think that he was enjoying the way it felt against his own.  If he'd been in snake form, he might at least have had an excuse.

Aziraphale stirred, yawning, then tensed.

"Crowley?"

"Lucky for you, I'm awake," Crowley said, promptly stilling his hands, though it didn't have quite the effect he had hoped, because they ended up resting on Aziraphale's hips – more to the back than on his sides.

"Good morning," Aziraphale said softly, lips brushing Crowley's neck.

"Five a.m., to be exact," Crowley said, stealing a glance at the alarm clock he never used.  "Do you have any idea how fast you fell asleep?"

By the way Aziraphale stiffened, Crowley guessed that he was blushing.

"Well, I have been under a lot of strain these days," said the angel dismally.  "You didn't seem to have any complaints."

"Why should I?" Crowley asked, yawning.

"You mean you…don't?" Aziraphale asked, incredulous, his fingers creeping from the pillowcase into Crowley's hair.  It was dreadfully distracting.

"No, but I still say you could've worked on your timing and given me, oh, I don't know, a week's notice," Crowley said.

Aziraphale stiffened again, fingers tightening almost painfully in Crowley's hair.

"You're the one who jumped to conclusions," he said, almost too soft to be heard.

Crowley's mind blanked, trying to process this information even as he realized that his body wanted to jump to more than just conclusions.

"You mean you…didn't mean…?"

"Yes," Aziraphale said, sounding as if he was losing his patience.  "No.  I mean – oh, bugger.  What I meant was that we ought to start things since we were headed in that direction anyway!  I didn't want it to come along and take us completely off-guard.  That would've been – "

Crowley snorted, trying to hold back laughter.

"That would be," he corrected, "exactly what happened anyway."

Aziraphale lifted his head and looked at Crowley, perfectly visible even in the early morning dark.

"But you must have wanted this very badly, I think, to have brought it up so quickly."

Crowley brought one hand up from under the covers and rubbed his forehead.  This was more of a mental workout than he liked at this hour, and regardless of whether he had wanted it badly before, he certainly wanted it badly now.

"I thought the point of all this was to get past the strain."

"I think that 'all this' has expanded to encompass a very different meaning."

"Than what?" Crowley snapped, trying to worm his way out from under Aziraphale.  "Frittering time away on useless human pursuits?"

"Crowley, that was terrible," Aziraphale said, but apparently not terrible enough to let Crowley move away from him.

"Sorry," Crowley sighed, slumping back against the pillow.  "But what I'm saying is…"

"If you don't want – that is, I'd understand," Aziraphale said quietly, lowering his head even as he said it.  "For what it's worth, though, this is…well, you said it best."

Crowley blinked.

"I did?"

"Yes.  'Lovely,' I believe, was the term."

"You think so?" Crowley asked, disbelieving.  The conversation had just taken several dizzying turns and left Crowley hopelessly lost.

"Quite," Aziraphale murmured, and kissed him.

"Oh.  Then – mmm – what are you proposing we should do about it, exactly?"

Aziraphale paused, giving him a thoughtful frown.

"I'm not sure," he admitted, fingers lingering against Crowley's cheek.  "They don't, er, cover this in the manual, as it were."

Crowley closed his eyes and concentrated on the curve of Aziraphale's neck.

"I'd say the manual has been through a considerable revision, wouldn't you?"

Aziraphale nodded, sighing, and relaxed again.

"We could back up and go in for a proper seduction, if you like," Crowley suggested, experimentally touching his tongue to the patch of skin beneath Aziraphale's ear.

The angel shivered.

"Yes, I…would."

"Good," Crowley murmured, careful to breathe against the spot he'd licked.  Aziraphale shivered again, and Crowley realized that he was probably pliant enough to be moved.  Crowley tested this theory, pressing his lips to Aziraphale's as he shifted, pushing Aziraphale until they lay side by side.  Crowley hissed at the tingling in his leg as the blood rushed back, flexing it.

"Sorry, my dear," said Aziraphale, his hand migrating down to Crowley's thigh, stroking gingerly.

Wits thoroughly scattered, Crowley kissed him harder, pressing up against Aziraphale's front.  He snaked his leg over Aziraphale's hip as an afterthought, sighing.  Somehow, this was preferable to sleep, though he was having a wretched time rationalizing it.

"Crowley," Aziraphale gasped, "I – ah – thought – "

"This isn't 'proper,' you see," Crowley explained.  "We're still informal."

"Oh," Aziraphale said, sounding relieved.  "Practice, yes.  Of course."  He nuzzled Crowley's jaw and gave an impatient little thrust against Crowley's stomach.

"Right," Crowley groaned, and pulled Aziraphale in tighter.  He had a lot of planning to do, but for the time being, it could wait.


*        *        *




Crowley stared at the phone on his desk.  He wondered if he'd thought this through enough.

On the one hand, they did need to get out.  They'd spent the better part of two whole days between Crowley's bed and the kitchen, and while he didn't have any particular objections to either one, he had promised Aziraphale something formal.  They could do with a change of setting, for starters.

Biting his lip, Crowley picked up the phone and dialed.  He didn't know the number, but he was confident that the call would get through anyway.  It did.

"Hello, you've reached the Ritz.  Can I help you?"

"Er.  Yes," Crowley said, clearing his throat.  "I'd like a room."

That afternoon, Aziraphale seemed relieved to see him.  He'd insisted that Crowley return him to Soho – for propriety's sake, of course – the night before.  Aziraphale looked up from his reading when Crowley leaned over the counter and peered at his untidy desk.

"How you find anything is beyond me," Crowley said conversationally.  "Did you ever locate your fountain pen?"

"No," said Aziraphale, setting down his pencil with a sigh.  "I've lost it for good, I fear."

Crowley fished in his coat and brought out his pen, offering it to Aziraphale.

"It wouldn't hurt to let you borrow this, I guess," he said, attempting to sound reluctant.  "Shame, really, that you've got to sign things in graphite."

Aziraphale rose from the desk and stepped up to the counter, uncertainly taking hold of Crowley's pen.

"Are you quite sure, dear boy?" he asked, eyes flicking from the pen up to Crowley's face, his expression longing.

"Yeah," Crowley said, and leaned over, meeting him halfway.  Aziraphale tasted like he'd been at his cocoa again, and Crowley made a mental note to get him some more.

"Thank you," Aziraphale said, setting the pen down on the counter.  "I have some cocoa heated, if you'd like."

"Was that an invitation, angel?"

"An informal one, if you prefer."

"Mm," Crowley agreed.  "Not to be scoffed at."

Half an hour later, they were enjoying fresh mugs of cocoa at the table in the back room – though Aziraphale kept excusing himself and peering out front every now and again, as if he had forgotten there was a bell on his door.

"I'm open," he explained apologetically, settling down again.  "I made a few sales this morning.  Those new titles are quite popular with the children."

Crowley thought it an obvious thing to say, but he just smiled and sipped his cocoa.

"You're quiet today," Aziraphale said.

"Am I?" Crowley asked, anxious.  The reservation burned guiltily at the back of his mind.  It was for the next evening.

Aziraphale nodded, patiently taking a sip of cocoa.

"I thought we might have dinner tomorrow night," Crowley said casually.  "Get out a bit.  That sort of thing."

"I wouldn't be averse," Aziraphale said, pleased.

"Great," Crowley said, forcing himself to smile again.  "Keen.  The Ritz, then, shall we?"

"Very good," Aziraphale said, reaching over for Crowley's mug.  "Have you finished with that?"

"What?  Oh," Crowley replied, hastily handing it to him.  "Yes.  Absolutely."

"A little jumpy, too," Aziraphale said, walking the mugs into the kitchenette.  He returned with a plate of biscuits and set it down in front of Crowley, though he didn't sit down.

"You look as if you could use a few," he said, gesturing redundantly at the plate.

Crowley shook his head and stood up, brushing his hands off on his trousers.  He had to get Aziraphale to come off it, or he'd crack and admit what he'd done, and that wouldn't do.

"I'm fine, thanks," Crowley said, noticing a bit of cocoa at the corner of Aziraphale's mouth.  "Hang on," he said, licking his thumb, "you've got…"

Aziraphale tasted like cocoa, and like the biscuit he'd undoubtedly eaten while he was in the kitchen.  The angel sighed and broke away briefly, giving Crowley an anxious look.

"You haven't been much upstairs, have you?"

"No," Crowley admitted, both hands still on Aziraphale's cheeks.  He couldn't quite look away from Aziraphale's eyes, fascinated by the way that they were blue or gray or no color at all, depending.  Had it really taken him six thousand years to notice?

Aziraphale nodded, then reached up to stroke the backs of Crowley's hands before gently removing them.

"I'd better close up," he said softly.

Crowley stood alone for ten stunned seconds, listening to the sound of Aziraphale turning the sign and locking the door, and wondered if they should just stick with practicing.


*        *        *




Crowley woke up to find himself tucked snugly under Aziraphale's worn cotton sheets and an extra quilt.  He dug his way out and sat on the edge of the mattress, which rested on the floor without so much as a box spring, rubbing his eyes.  Aziraphale's bedroom window was open, spilling a perfect rectangle of early September sunlight on the floor.  The breeze drifted in, smelling of overnight rain, and billowed the antique lace curtains.

It was then he heard footsteps on the stairs, which were followed by Aziraphale's voice.

"Crowley?  I'm sorry to bother you, but I thought I'd check – "

Aziraphale stopped in the doorway, blinked at him for a second, then blushed.

"Getting in a bit of early business?" Crowley asked, standing up.  "It's a good job you got dressed first."

Aziraphale blushed even deeper, eyes lingering about Crowley's middle before flicking guiltily up to his face.

"Tea?"

"Yes, please," Crowley said, and produced himself a suit.  He strolled over to Aziraphale and kissed him briefly on the lips, then started down the stairs.  It was several seconds before the angel followed.

Crowley reached the kitchen first and managed to assemble a tea tray before Aziraphale could protest.  He carried it out front and set it down on Aziraphale's desk without bothering to clear away the papers.

"You needn't do that," Aziraphale said, hovering in the doorway, wringing his hands.

Crowley pulled out the desk chair and gestured at it, indicating that Aziraphale should sit.

"You've got customers to worry about, isn't that right?" he asked, picking up one of the cups and carrying it over to the counter.  He set it down, then hopped up beside it, swinging legs as he took a sip.  "Excellent stuff, what is it?"

Aziraphale sank down at his desk and picked up the other cup, drinking long and slow as if it contained something alcoholic.

"Tea House," he said between sips.  "It's their signature blend."

They drank in silence for a while, and Crowley half wondered if he'd overdone it.  He knew that pettiness was a surefire way of getting on Aziraphale's nerves, and he supposed that he had been rather petty.  They'd had an unusually good go at it the night before, and Crowley was feeling all the more dubious about the Ritz.  No matter what he did, the angel was a step ahead of him – even with nothing but a lumpy old mattress.

"I really ought to be going," he said, sliding down from the counter, and carried his cup back over to the desk.  "Stuff to catch up on before tonight.  You know."

"I suppose I do.  What time should I expect you?"

"Same as always," Crowley said, about to go, then hesitated.  Aziraphale looked anxious, which made Crowley feel even guiltier.  Crowley bent down and kissed him, one hand on Aziraphale's cheek for good measure.  It was reassuring, somehow, a lifeline for closed eyes.  "Six," he said, still feeling as if he owed an apology and not wanting to give it.  "Five if I lose my nerve again."

Aziraphale touched the back of Crowley's hand, eyes questioning.

"You – lost your nerve?"

"Yeah," Crowley said.  "Almost.  Wear something nice, would you?" he asked, drawing his hand away.  "I'll be back later.  Ciao."

Crowley drove aimlessly around Soho for about ten minutes before deciding that he was too restless to go home.  Pacing never did him any good, and lately, he'd done so much of it that he feared for the carpet.  It wasn't as if he had to pack anything, seeing as the suit he'd put on was his best.

The Marble Arch wasn't exactly deserted, as it was nearing lunchtime rush hour, and there were always tourists milling about with cameras and badly designed guidebooks (Crowley's invention, of course).  Still, Crowley had often found it an excellent spot for being alone, as none of the tourists ever found their way on top of it.  Crowley sat with his arms folded across his knees, glaring through his sunglasses at the bright sky.

The pigeons seemed a bit confused, but they fluttered off as soon as they determined that he hadn't brought any birdseed.

"Shoo," Crowley said, and stuck his tongue out at the dimmest of the lot.  Alarmed, it gave a distressed coo and flapped away.



Unsurprisingly, it didn't make him feel better.  He stayed there until his watch read five-thirty, then stood up, stretched, and appeared on the sidewalk below, already on his way to collect the Bentley.  He might have resorted to making a room reservation, but he'd done no such thing for dinner.

Aziraphale seemed glad to see him again, though that wasn't what took him aback.  The angel was wearing something slightly closer to modern fashion, and his tie looked new.

"You're early, dear boy," Aziraphale said, one hand flat on the counter as if it was all he could do to steady himself.  Crowley took his other hand and raised it to his lips.  If he was going to do this, he might as well do it full stop.

"You look, er, nice."

Aziraphale averted his eyes, lacing his fingers with Crowley's and lowering their hands.

"And I've never known you to look otherwise," he said.  "Let's be off."

Crowley made sure to park the Bentley in a place it wouldn't be bothered overnight, though he was sure Aziraphale wouldn't have been able to make that distinction if he'd tried.  He held Aziraphale's door for him, then clamped the wheels for good measure.  That got him a strange look.

"My dear, I don't think anybody around here would steal – "

"You can't be too sure," Crowley said, offering his arm.  "Come on.  It's chilly."

Dozens of pinpoint golden lights loomed up overhead as they crossed the street, every one of them spelling out The Ritz.  Once they got inside, Crowley made sure that nobody was looking and vanished their coats.  He wasn't sure what room he'd booked, but whichever it was, the coats would be there waiting.

"Table for two, please," Crowley said politely to the hostess, who said, of course, right this way.  She'd been expecting them.

"Thought you might like a change of pace," Crowley explained as she showed them to a corner table at the back of the dining room.  "Something secluded.  Peaceful."

Aziraphale just stood there looking befuddled for a few seconds, then smiled and asked the hostess if she'd be a dear and start them off with a bottle of their featured white.  After she had gone, he pulled out the closest chair and told Crowley he'd done quite enough, wouldn't he sit down?

Crowley sighed and did as he was told.  If he humored the angel now, it would pay off later.  He hoped.

"It really is sweet of you, though," Aziraphale said somewhere halfway through his second glass of wine.  "I can't remember a time we've been here that it wasn't spur of the moment.  It…means more, I suppose."

"That's basically the idea," Crowley said, cracking open another mussel.  "I told you.  I'm a demon of my word."

Aziraphale scooped a few more mussels onto his plate, then put the serving spoon back with deliberation.

"Dear boy, if these past few weeks have shown me anything, they've shown me that."

Crowley had almost forgotten what it felt like to blush.

He'd ordered them one of the main-course specials to share, duck in honey and plum sauce, though he tried not to think too hard about that, and Aziraphale had the good grace not to call him on it.  The angel hummed approvingly around his first bite and took hold of Crowley's hand across the table.  Crowley pushed his vegetables around and brushed his thumb across Aziraphale's knuckles, realizing that he wasn't hungry at all and that this would probably blow up in his face, because things had a way of doing that lately.  The only difference was, if he messed up, there'd be nobody turning his hand to put things back in place.

"Crowley?" Aziraphale asked hesitantly, squeezing his hand.  "Are you – "

"Fine," Crowley said brightly, abandoning his vegetables to spear a slice of duck.  "Just great.  Delicious, isn't it?"

Aziraphale sipped his wine, smiling over the rim.  Ridiculously, illogically beautiful.  Crowley went back to terrorizing his carrots and wondered if he'd get through dessert without making an utter fool of himself.

As was the way of things, dessert came and went (pear and almond tarts didn't stand a chance in front of Aziraphale), and so did the bill (Crowley handed the girl a handful of cash, undoubtedly too much, and thanked her).  Aziraphale stood up and stretched, content, and gave a wine-sleepy yawn.

"Goodness," he said.  "Excuse me."

"Excused," Crowley said, then hastily took hold of his arm.  "Come on."

"Crowley, the door is that – "

"We're going this way," Crowley said, eyes fixed straight ahead, and led Aziraphale out of the restaurant and into the hotel lobby.  It was much brighter than where they'd come from, and Crowley had to blink a few times to orient himself before dragging Aziraphale to one of the check-in counters.  He let go of Aziraphale's arm and fumbled for his wallet, hands shaking.

"Reservation in the name of Crowley," he said, placing a credit card on the counter.  While the elderly concierge frowned at it and punched numbers into a computer, Aziraphale fixed Crowley with a flabbergasted expression and made several attempts at saying something, all of which failed.

Crowley grinned sheepishly, but inside he felt a swell of triumph that was, in all probability, a swell of something else.

"Your keys, sir.  Are you here on business?"

"You might say that," Crowley said, picking up the keys.  "Thanks so much.  Cheers."

"Have a pleasant stay."

Crowley didn't dare answer any of Aziraphale's astonished, half-articulated questions until they'd gotten into one of the shining elevators, which was, of course, empty except for the two of them.

"You – you didn't," Aziraphale said immediately, taking hold of Crowley's arm.

"'M afraid so," Crowley said, pushing the button for the fourth floor.  Not as high up as he would have liked, but they probably wouldn't be spending much time at the window.

"Crowley," Aziraphale said weakly, as if he meant to protest, "you shouldn't have gone to – "

"Promised," Crowley snapped, tired of all the formalities, and pinned Aziraphale against the back wall of the elevator.  "Didn't I?" he murmured against Aziraphale's mouth.

For once, Aziraphale got the message.  He slid both arms around Crowley's waist and kissed him hard enough that they both staggered when the elevator creaked to a halt and the doors opened with a faint ding.

"That's us," Crowley managed, straightening his jacket. "This way."

Their coats were, in fact, exactly where he'd sent them – neatly on hangers in the closet – and there was an ice bucket containing two bottles of champagne on one of the suite tables.  Nice touch, he'd thought, and also the flowers.

"I think I need to sit down," Aziraphale said faintly, and did – right on the edge of the bed, which was much larger than Crowley's, and probably more comfortable.

Crowley froze for a few seconds, as he hadn't been expecting quite that strong a reaction, then sat down beside Aziraphale, unable to look at anything except the floor.

"It's not – too formal, is it?"

Smiling suddenly, Aziraphale closed his eyes and slowly shook his head.

"As if you hadn't done enough," he said softly, and Crowley let out a sigh of relief.  "It must have taken a dreadful amount of effort to pick up the phone."

"That," Crowley said, too shocked to say anything else, "was low."  He snapped his fingers, and one of the champagne bottles violently uncorked itself.  "Fortunately, I'm of a mind to let it slide.  Would you like some?"

"Please," Aziraphale laughed.

If there was anything Crowley hadn't expected, it was that matters of intimacy could turn playful without a moment's notice, especially if one drank while attempting to undress.  Crowley finally gave up and sent both glasses over to the nightstand, much to Aziraphale's disappointment.

"I wasn't finished," protested the angel, undressed except for his unbuttoned shirt, unfortunately plain pants, and his socks.

Perhaps Crowley hadn't had enough to drink, because the sight of Aziraphale like that, ridiculous as it was, struck him as instantly, profoundly arousing.  He got rid of his trousers impatiently and reached across Aziraphale to the nightstand, grabbing the nearest glass.  Aziraphale gave him a questioning look.

Finding speech inadequate, Crowley drained the glass, then leaned over and kissed Aziraphale with the bittersweet, dry taste of champagne still fresh on his lips.

When Aziraphale groaned and pushed up against him, the remainder of his clothes gone, Crowley reached over and fumbled for the other glass, almost tipping it over.

Aziraphale laughed breathlessly into Crowley's mouth.

"Crowley, you'll – "

"Shhh," Crowley said, taking another dizzying sip, then pressed the glass to Aziraphale's lips.

Aziraphale took the glass and drank slowly, never once taking his eyes off of Crowley's.

"Thank you," he murmured, and handed it back.

Crowley set the glass back on the nightstand, taking the opportunity to kiss Aziraphale again while he was at it.  The glass toppled, making the angel jump under him, but it didn't break, which was something of a relief.  Crowley set his hand on Aziraphale's cheek and trailed it absently from his jaw to the hollow of his throat, refusing to break the kiss.  Aziraphale whimpered.

"Hmm," Crowley murmured, heart skipping a beat, and let his hand slip down to cover Aziraphale's.  It hammered in his chest, a distinct, pounding entreaty against Crowley's palm.  Please, he thought, lingering there, and rested his head against Aziraphale's shoulder.  Let me do this, just let me

"Oh, my dear," Aziraphale sighed, and relaxed into the crook of Crowley's arm.

And then it was simple, remarkably simple, to learn the curve of Aziraphale's belly with the tips of his fingers, to find Aziraphale's heartbeat with his lips.  Aziraphale gasped under him, trembling, but Crowley held him still with one hand at his shoulder, the other at his hip.  He tasted the faintest trace of sweat and trailed his mouth lower, nuzzling Aziraphale's bellybutton.  He'd never been sure why they had them.  Camouflage, maybe.

Aziraphale's frantic breathing caught on a moan.

"You – really you don't – "

Crowley hadn't planned this far, but his plans had always had a way of working themselves out, and why shouldn't he?

"I do," Crowley murmured, deliberately setting his hands on Aziraphale's hips, and tentatively licked at the hard, begging flesh that had, until then, been just inches from his nose.  More salt, soft skin.  Crowley sighed and licked again, surprised at the strangled sound Aziraphale made.  Not at all unpleasant, he decided.

"Crowley," Aziraphale whispered, one hand finding its way into Crowley's hair.

Something seized up painfully in Crowley's chest, but he ignored it, calmly reaching up to take hold of Aziraphale's hand, twining their fingers.

"It's all right," he whispered, and carefully took Aziraphale in his mouth.

This part, unfortunately, was awkward, as there was rather more than he could fit at once, and it was difficult to hold Aziraphale steady with only one hand.  He closed his eyes and sucked slowly, reminding himself that he didn't have to breathe.  Aziraphale's tightening grip should have been warning enough, but it wasn't until Aziraphale gave a strangled cry that might've been Crowley's name that Crowley realized just how close he was.

Aziraphale squeezed Crowley's hand so tightly that a few joints dislocated, then slid immediately back into place, knitting back together smoothly.

Crowley turned his head and spat on the comforter, almost choking.  It would take some getting used to yet.

"Crowley," Aziraphale whispered, letting go of Crowley's hand as if it had burned him.  "I shouldn't have – "

Crowley snatched his hand back, which wasn't any great challenge, because it was too limp to have gotten very far.

"I'll break your fingers if you apologize," he hissed, nuzzling Aziraphale's stomach.  He let his hand drift up to rest over Aziraphale's heart again, lying still until the frantic pulse faded to a sleepy murmur.

Aziraphale sighed, pulling his hand free of Crowley's and set it against the back of Crowley's neck.

"Come here," he murmured.

Crowley lifted his head, blinking to clear his eyes.  He didn't remember getting rid of his sunglasses, but he wasn't wearing them now.

"I hope you know," Aziraphale said softly, "that I don't have words – "

"Then don't try to use them," Crowley said, and slithered up to rest against him, sighing with relief at finally being able to stretch.  He'd gotten terribly cramped.

Aziraphale kissed him slowly, without even a moment's hesitation.  His free hand rested against Crowley's chest for a moment before drifting down to touch Crowley almost reverently – or perhaps it was just that he hadn't gotten his coordination back yet.

Still, the brush of Aziraphale's fingers reminded him how badly he'd been aching.

"Oh," Crowley groaned, thoroughly embarrassed, and came before Aziraphale could get a proper hold on him.

"There, now," Aziraphale murmured against his cheek, stroking his stomach soothingly.  The mess was already gone.

Crowley slumped, gasping, and buried his face in the pillow.  He hoped Aziraphale still wasn't big on words for the time being, because Crowley couldn't remember any.

"My dear," Aziraphale whispered, as if he thought Crowley was asleep, and the words meant quite something else.

Thanks to the knot in his chest, Crowley couldn't breathe anyway.


*        *        *




They slept late and ordered up brunch, which didn't get eaten because Crowley decided to retaliate for Aziraphale's tendency to bring him off with just a touch.  As tempting as the scones looked, they couldn't possibly measure up to the satisfaction he got out of making Aziraphale beg as desperately as he had the night before with only the tips of his fingers.  Afterward, Aziraphale held him and stroked him until it was, blissfully, too much.  They slept some more.

When they left just after noontime wearing roughly the same clothes they'd worn to dinner, the hostess gave them an odd look.  Crowley waved at her anyway.

"It's not as if she didn't suspect something," he said reasonably, feeling too laid-back to harass the Sunday driver in front of him.  "I mean, she's probably seen us there before.  It's not as if we've taken care to make everybody forget."

"No," Aziraphale said, relaxing a bit.  "I suppose not.  Though, there was that young lady – "

"The one with the book?  She knew anyway," Crowley said.  "In fact, so did the old bat who wrote it, and everybody else in between.  Can we move on?"

"I'd say we definitely have," Aziraphale said seriously.

"Which was the point," Crowley said, a different sort of tightness settling in his chest.  "Right."

"Well, yes," Aziraphale said, pronouncing the words cautiously, as if they might explode.  "But we've…gone well beyond experimentation, I should think."

Crowley turned his head and stared at Aziraphale, trying very hard not to bite his lip or thump the steering wheel or do anything else he was likely to do in this kind of agitation.

"Yes," he said hesitantly, certain he knew what Aziraphale was getting at and not wanting to admit it.

Unexpectedly, Aziraphale smiled and reached over to pat Crowley's knee.

"So long as we're on the same page," he said, sounding cheerful, and left it at that.  "Watch the road, my dear."

Crowley was more than glad to leave Aziraphale with his books, though the parting kiss made it difficult to convince himself of that.  As if it wouldn't make matters worse, he needed to think some more.  He couldn't put what Aziraphale had said out of his mind – or rather, how he had said it – and what was worse, he wanted to say the same thing

He went home and took it out on the plants, which didn't make him feel better, either, but at least it made the flat look much nicer.  There weren't any new candidates for removal.

There were times, Crowley reflected, when you got to the point where you felt as if you'd done and seen it all, never mind if that was far from the case because there was too much in the world to ever run out.  The trouble was that he'd spent the better part of the last few centuries thinking that he'd gotten to know everything about Aziraphale that there was to know, and that they'd done everything that there was to do, but clearly, that wasn't the case.

There was also the problem of free will, which he'd always thought they didn't have.

Crowley collapsed on the sofa, staring at the ceiling.  If the truth of the matter was that they always had had it, well, that meant they'd wasted a bloody lot of time on work that the Higher-Ups and Lower-Downs really didn't care about anyway.  And the world was, as of now, in a frightfully interesting situation.  He wondered what the boy had done, and he wondered if the change was permanent.  Deep down, he hoped that it was.

After all, the alternative was too miserable to consider, what with the pleasures he'd been missing out on just when he thought he'd gotten a handle on them all.  There was pain tied up in this one, and love, and that made it worth something.

Made Aziraphale worth something.

Crowley knew that there was only one effective temporary solution to this kind of realization, and it involved consuming a lot of alcohol without the benefit of company.


*        *        *




When the doorbell rang, it wasn't the noise that woke Crowley.  It was the pounding in his head, which was considerable enough that he only managed to get as far as the kitchen before he realized that this was the first time in a long, long while that he'd had this much to drink and not sobered up and gotten an actual hangover.

The doorbell rang again, accompanied by soft knocking.

"In a minute!" Crowley shouted, swaying, and dropped three empty bottles in the sink.

He found the door by way of the wall, which was white and slippery and not really helpful, but the doorknob reflected the hall light gaudily enough to make him squint and groan.  He grabbed it and wrenched the door open, ready to hiss at whoever was there.

"Oh dear," said Aziraphale, sighing.  "I'd been afraid of this."

Crowley sneered.

"Afraid I'd break out the mead without you?"

"That was uncalled for," Aziraphale said, grabbing his arm and steering him back inside, closing the door behind them.  "I have no idea what's gotten into you.  You didn't – "

"Sober up, no," Crowley said, and closed his eyes, because it was too easy to let Aziraphale support him, and also, it meant he wouldn't have to think.

Aziraphale sighed again, slinging Crowley's arm over his shoulder and wrapping his own arm around Crowley's waist.  He stepped forward, then hesitated.

"How much?"

"Three," Crowley said soberly.

"I thought you'd learned your lesson," Aziraphale said, getting him past the kitchen and into the hallway.  It was darker and cooler back there, and it made Crowley shiver.

"They don't make it like they used to, though."

"Yes, but you'd been saving those."

"Whatever."

Try though he might to put out of his mind how undignified it was, there was something fascinating about being awake for the getting-tucked-in part of Aziraphale putting him to bed.  The only problem was that, after he was undressed and under the covers, Aziraphale kissed his forehead and left the room.  Crowley thought that rather defeated the point, and promptly started to drift off.  He had the feeling a dream was coming on.

When he woke up later that evening, he couldn't remember what it was, but Aziraphale was seated on the bed beside him, leaning against the headboard, tilting his head so that he wasn't quite looking at Crowley upside-down.  He reached over and picked a glass of water up from the nightstand.  For a split second, Crowley was afraid it was going over his head.  It wouldn't have been the first time Aziraphale had done that, and wouldn't be the last.

"Sit up," Aziraphale said patiently.

Crowley did, though it took some struggling with the covers, since Aziraphale was sitting on them.  The room tilted a little, but it settled down quickly, and he gestured the light on to see if his head would start pounding again.  It didn't.

"Drink this," Aziraphale said, and pressed the glass into his hand.

"Thanks," Crowley mumbled, and gulped it down.

Aziraphale waited until he was finished, then took the glass away and set it back on the nightstand.  Unexpectedly, he reached over and smoothed Crowley's hair back from his forehead, more concerned than exasperated.  Crowley looked away, sighing.

"I'd rather you talked about it, you know," Aziraphale said, leaning so close that their foreheads touched.  "I'd rather you told me, or at least let me be there while you did it."

"What good would that do?" Crowley asked gloomily.

"More than you've done yourself," Aziraphale said gently, and kissed the corner of his mouth.  "I'll make dinner, shall I?  What do you want?"

You, Crowley thought, but he said, "I don't care.  Order something.  I've got menus all over the refrigerator."

"You've got food in the refrigerator," Aziraphale said stubbornly.  "It would be a shame to let it go to waste."

"You really aren't thinking, are you?"

"Oh, be quiet," Aziraphale muttered, letting go of him and standing up.  "Go back to sleep.  I'll wake you when it's ready."

Disappointed, Crowley waited until Aziraphale was safely in the kitchen, then crawled out of bed and fished something casual out of the drawers he hadn't bothered opening in at least a decade.  Jeans never really went out, so he had plenty of those, and he thought about puzzling Aziraphale with one of the strange band shirts he'd acquired in the seventies, then decided against it.  He was more comfortable in collared things anyway.

If Aziraphale heard him walk up the hall and settle down on the couch, he didn't give any indication and just kept up his steady shuffle around the kitchen.  Crowley turned on the television, more out of habit than actually wanting to watch.  He was pleasantly surprised to flip across Whose Line Is It Anyway? and got interested in the sketch.

Something smelled awfully good.

He got through some tiresome commercial breaks and a few more sketches – Superheroes, for one, which he'd always liked – by the time Aziraphale showed up behind the couch, staring at the television with something akin to confusion.

"What's that he's doing, exactly?"

"You don't want to know," Crowley said, and shut it off, mildly disappointed to be leaving Colin Mochrie as Hear-With-Your-Elbows-and-Talk-Through-Your-Ass Man.

Aziraphale had the table set already, and he'd heated up (and embellished, by the look of it) a few different items that Crowley hadn't even remembered picking up, however long ago it had been that he'd bought them.  The chicken marsala made his mouth water.

When they were almost finished, Crowley snapped his fingers, remembering that he had at least one bottle of the mead left, but Aziraphale snatched the bottle away and banished it to the counter before Crowley could get it open.

"I thought you wanted some," he said, scraping the last of his rice into a jumbled pile with the snap peas and zucchini.  He was losing his appetite again, and Aziraphale looked testy.

"Perhaps, but not without you, and you've had quite enough these past twenty-four hours, I should think," Aziraphale said pointedly, clearing the table with a wave of his hand.

"You took the easy way out," Crowley said, pushing his chair back and away from the table.  "I'm impressed."

Aziraphale stood up and walked over to the sink, where he filled the teapot without so much as asking if Crowley wanted tea.  It looked like he was getting some whether he did or not, not to say that he didn't.

"I'll be in the lounge," he said, and got up.  The silence was cryptic and deafening.

Whose Line was over by the time he got the television back on, but there seemed to be a handful of films in the higher channels, none of them overly interesting, but excellent for background noise.  Crowley settled in and stared at the screen, letting the images blur.

When Aziraphale came in, he wasn't carrying any teacups.  He sat down beside Crowley, then shifted closer, making the leather squeak.  If Crowley was honest with himself, he'd half gotten the sofa for the fascinating noises it made when you shifted around.

"I don't believe I've seen this," Aziraphale said, and if he was irritated at Crowley for walking out on him, he certainly wasn't letting it show.

"It's boring," Crowley said, which was the truth.  "Except for the part with the rubber octopus."

"Hmm," Aziraphale murmured, shifting closer.  The cushion squeaked again, but that wasn't so much what got Crowley's attention.  Aziraphale had let his arm slip from the back of the sofa down to Crowley's shoulders, which made Crowley want to laugh because that was one of the oldest tricks in the book, if not the oldest.

"Subtle, angel," he said.

"I'm glad you think so," Aziraphale said, and nuzzled Crowley's ear.

Now, there were a limited number of choices to make when faced with such a situation, and Crowley wasn't foolish enough to let slip the one that involved ignoring the television, because the list of pleasures that kissing exceeded extended far beyond sleep.  Crowley turned so that Aziraphale didn't have to turn his head quite so much, and it meant that he sort of had to shift over and lean into Aziraphale.  Or that he wanted to.

"Were you trying to get my attention?" Aziraphale finally asked, tracing Crowley's jaw with the tips of his fingers.  "Did you hope I'd ask you what was the matter?"

"I don't know," Crowley said, and leaned in again, as he was of the opinion that they shouldn't be talking right now.  He tried to kiss Aziraphale on the mouth and ended up getting his chin, because Aziraphale was shaking his head, exasperated.

"I wish you'd just let go, you know," he sighed, separating himself from Crowley just enough to slip off the couch and onto the floor.  He situated himself on his knees in front of Crowley, then placed one hand on each of Crowley's thighs, looking at him.

"I – " Crowley opened and closed his mouth, then opened it again " – what?"

"Things would be a lot easier, I think, if you didn't think so much.  If you didn't have to have such a handle on things all the time, that's all."

Before Crowley could respond, Aziraphale had leaned in and taken hold of his shirt, unbuttoning it carefully.  He kissed Crowley's stomach as soon as the shirt hung loose, then trailed his fingers back down and ran them along Crowley's belt-loops.

Then, Crowley felt it – the strange, panicked tightness he'd felt in the Bentley – and it was trying to push out the other tightness, the one he'd felt when he'd done this to Aziraphale and oh God he'd done this to Aziraphale

"Crowley?" Aziraphale asked, hesitating over the button of Crowley's jeans.  "Are you all right?"

"Maybe," Crowley said, and touched Aziraphale's cheek.  "Go on, would you?"

"More gladly than you know," Aziraphale said, and pulled him down for a kiss.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, Aziraphale's clever fingers got his jeans open and before Crowley knew it he was gasping into Aziraphale's mouth, hands tight on his shoulders, asking for this as if it meant everything, fearing what it might mean if he let go.

"I'm not just humoring you," Aziraphale said softly, finally easing back.  He set his hands on Crowley's thighs again, one gentle stroke up and down, and the jeans vanished.

"Oh, shit," Crowley whispered, and took hold of Aziraphale's shoulders as Aziraphale nuzzled his stomach and what strained desperately against it.

When Aziraphale kissed him there, Crowley closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.

Not that he could keep quiet for long when Aziraphale finally tasted him, curious and tender as if they had all the time in the world, all over again, and when Aziraphale took as much of him into his mouth as he could, Crowley moaned, doubling over, and prayed.  His hands folded in Aziraphale's hair, clasped, and released again, fingers shaking.  Aziraphale was moving; he was moving.  Couldn't be helped.

And when he came to the end, pitched up to the limit, there was Aziraphale's hand against his cheek, cradling him as if for a kiss, and if not a kiss, what was it?



Crowley choked out Aziraphale's name, falling forward, and let himself be caught.  When he snatched his breath again, he found that he'd taken hold of Aziraphale's hand with his own and that Aziraphale's cheek rested against his stomach.  He'd fisted his other hand against the couch cushion, and he had to peel it away.

"Are you all right?" Aziraphale asked, surprisingly clear-voiced.

"Yeah," Crowley whispered, and fell back against the sofa, taking Aziraphale's hand with him.  He closed his eyes for a few more seconds, then looked down to see Aziraphale peering up at him – patient as ever, simply waiting, and more than a little flustered.

"It's not as bad as all that," Aziraphale said, and tugged Crowley's hand down to his mouth.  He kissed it, circling Crowley's wrist with careful fingers.

"No," Crowley agreed, dazed, not sure if Aziraphale had played entirely fair.

Aziraphale turned his hand over and kissed his palm.

Shivering, Crowley took a deep breath.

"Angel?"

"Hmm?"

"Come here," he said.

Aziraphale held his hand and smiled.