Crowley had started taking a proprietary interest in Aziraphale's bookshop. He wasn't sure when this had begun.
He couldn't deny that things seemed to be going remarkably well. Everything had been, for a while now, sort of nicely ordinary. The Arrangement had gradually started to carry over into dinner arrangements and lunch arrangements, as both Crowley and Aziraphale began to really believe that, as someone or other had told them, they needn't worry, and had relaxed in their efforts to keep the Arrangement clandestine.
Sometimes when the Soho bookshop was closed, its proprietor wasn't alone in the back room poring over musty texts, but engaged in lazy conversation over a bottle of wine, with the musty texts relegated to decorative status. Greatly to Crowley's irritation, the number of times he had been taken for the proprietor of a bookshop was mounting at a steady rate. It seemed to be a hazard of being seen around one — or of treating it as familiarly as Crowley tended to do.
The angel had a lamentable lack of taste and style. Crowley had quickly discovered that having Aziraphale in his flat was more trouble, in terms of comments about white leather and use of the phrase "new-fangled," than it was worth. The Ritz was a favourite destination, but one doesn't always wish to dine out. And then there were the times Aziraphale just couldn't be pried away from his books.
The fiftieth time he was mistaken for a bookshop proprietor was a sort of monument. Crowley decided that if he was going to be taken for a bookshop proprietor, his sort of bookshop would be far more like a Bentley and far less like a second-hand nineteen seventies Mini with mended cigarette burns in mouldy tweed upholstery.
Unless Aziraphale moved, he was stuck with this bookshop. So Crowley's only alternative was to change the bookshop.
"That's very nice of you, Crowley," Aziraphale blinked, "really."
Crowley made a protesting noise which was a cross between a growl and a mutter. "It's not nice in the least. I'm simply unwilling to be associated with this." A wave of his hand took in the windows, which had been scrubbed with balled-up newspapers; the warped skirting boards on the mismatched antique shelves which were the perfect collecting-spots for balls of dust, and great favourites with the mice; the hardwood floors, which had been worn by generations of feet into dips and ripples which made Aziraphale's step-stool somewhat unstable; and the dingy walls, coloured almost exactly the shade of pink to be found in the soap dispensers of public toilets.
(Crowley had taken great glee in telling Aziraphale how his shop had inspired this astringent, runny, and ineffective cleanser. He was particularly proud of the antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria which resulted. Aziraphale had clucked reprovingly at the time, but in general seemed disappointingly unimpressed. Crowley had his suspicions, though, about the origin of the automatic hand-dryer and the waterless antibiotic hand-sanitiser.)
"I don't think I need a remodel," said Aziraphale, mildly. "I like the shop."
"That's an understatement," snorted Crowley. "If He'd shown half as much softness to humans the poor buggers'd never have got cast out of the Garden."
"Maybe like the home of a great — great — whatever creature it is that thrives on dust."
"It helps discourage the wrong sort of customer," Aziraphale blushed to explain.
"You mean, the sort with human nervous systems?" said Crowley acidly. "Last week I saw a woman have an asthma attack in your front room," he added inventively.
He had made a hit. "Perhaps she was a sensitive and was reacting to your presence, my dear," said Aziraphale uncertainly.
"Not a chance," Crowley persisted, "I can smell those fortune-teller types a mile away."
"Mmm," said Aziraphale, and pressed the flat of his hand lovingly on the side of an oak bookcase, which seemed to stand up a little straighter. His fingertips moved absently in small circles. "Well," he decided at last, reluctantly, "I suppose I should get rid of the dust after all." He looked pointedly at the skirting board.
Oh, damn — oh, H — oh, bless. "No!" said Crowley hurriedly, imagining for good measure that the shop was still definitely choked with dust. "You don't want to miracle it away."
Aziraphale paused, astonished. "I don't?"
"Er, no," said Crowley, and coughed. He might have overdone the dust a little. In the sunlight, Aziraphale appeared to have a halo again, though he wasn't wearing one — it was made of millions of minuscule dust particles. "Your lot don't like that sort of thing," he elaborated, desperately. "Cheating. We'll have to move everything about and really paint it, with, er —" he paused, then remembered. "— Paint. We can, er, fix the holes and — so on — while we're at it."
Aziraphale considered. "If it's really important to you, dear boy," he said finally.
Crowley scowled to cover what he suspected was a disproportionate amount of relief, since he didn't care all that much about the angel's bookshop. Of course he didn't. He needn't hang about it at all, anyway, if it weren't convenient — and he weren't so bored lately. "Of courssse it's not," he hissed. "I'm just trying to talk some bloody sense into you for your own good."
Aziraphale smiled enigmatically, and didn't appear to have heard what Crowley said. "All you had to do was say," he murmured.
Since he'd won, Crowley told himself, he shouldn't argue about it anymore.
Aziraphale was doing a crossword puzzle when Crowley made his entrance. The shop looked like it might have just shrugged hurriedly into another coat of dust in anticipation of his arrival. He made no effort to hide his distaste.
"What possessed you to let them paint it pink?" said Crowley. "Why not something nice and classy like... black? Or white?"
Aziraphale said he couldn't remember. "Are you quite sure about this, Crowley? We can just leave it and go to the Ritz. I haven't been there since--"
"Last Thursday," said Crowley. "No. We can beat it into shape."
Crowley didn't like to do things like moving books, or bookcases, by hand, he discovered. He had to discover it because he had never actually tried it for more than a few seconds before. There was a surprising difference between glaring a bookshelf onto the other side of the room, and glaring it into weighing just the right amount as you were lifting it. Maybe it was just the principle of the thing. Crowley hated to do things the correct way nearly as much as he hated to do them the inconvenient way.
Aziraphale didn't have any trouble lifting any of the shelves, but he didn't seem to feel that this was cheating. This was because he never expected to have any difficulty with them in the first place.
The worst thing was the way he kept pausing to clean his fingernails and fuss about making tea. Crowley had to be quite firm to squash an attempt to get him to take a rest. "Evil never sleeps," he had to remind him, somewhat untruthfully.
"Of course not," said Aziraphale soothingly, though he knew perfectly well that Crowley had slept for most of the 19th century. "But it might just have a spot of tea?"
The good thing was that when Aziraphale was out of the room making it, Crowley was free to turn a gaze that would curl paint on the floorboards. In fact it turned out to be a gaze that would curl floorboards, and when he heard Aziraphale coming, he stomped on them, hard, to flatten them back down.
"Crowley, what are you doing? I do wish you wouldn't make all that racket — the neighbours might be annoyed."
Crowley didn't mention that in Soho, the neighbours were unlikely to notice. "Just testing out the, er, evenness," he said. "Does the floor strike you as level?"
Aziraphale said that it seemed level. "I don't think my floor was cherry before."
"A stain," said Crowley, baring his teeth.
"My dear," murmured Aziraphale, disapprovingly, and handed him his tea. He flicked a glance at the floor, which had not yet recovered from discovering itself to be black cherry, and now had to adapt to the new reality of being the very pale kind.
Crowley decided to pretend not to notice.
They smoothed out the plaster in the walls, Aziraphale with a small pot of putty open in his hand and a little trowel wet with the floppy white stuff piled on the end, and Crowley with the trowel shining and new and the tin of putty unopened.
Aziraphale didn't notice. He was bent to his work literally, with his back stooped so far his wing-tips would have trailed on the floor. Sometime around three Crowley had given into the increasing warmth — and the locked doors which ensured his dignity — and taken off his shirt so he could unfold his wings. He'd said something to Aziraphale, but the angel had just murmured something about the dust and unfastened the top button at his collar, exposing nothing more than the hollow of his throat and a hint of chest hair. (Of course there was no dust on Crowley's wings. It wouldn't dare.)
The scent of feather oil permeated the air rather pleasantly. It brought back memories. Several times Crowley saw Aziraphale taking surreptitious deep breaths. He also kept edging round as though the room were cramped instead of perfectly bare except for the two of them, and somewhat generously sized. Crowley was amused.
At length Crowley was reduced to educating Aziraphale on the finer points of American cable television shows in order to prevent him humming aloud. There was only so much of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" that a self-respecting demon could listen to in one day, let alone "In The Good Ol' Summertime."
"That's it, angel," said Crowley disgustedly, somewhat after dinner time. "If I see another bit of cracked plaster I'm going to do something we'll all regret."
"Oh, that's quite all right," said Aziraphale with a little smile. "I understand."
Crowley continued, "We can finish making it all smooth tomorrow."
Aziraphale blinked, and seemed surprised. "Oh. ...Are you sure? All right."
Crowley smirked. "How about the Ritz?"
Aziraphale looked at him consideringly and rather penetratingly, Crowley thought resentfully. He didn't like being seen to the bottom of; it made him instinctively want to pull back. He was feeling a bit exposed already from having spent all day in manual labour. In a flash, his shirt was back on him, his wings tucked smoothly away. He waited.
Aziraphale waved him away. "You go on," he said.
"Don't be troublesome, angel."
"I consider I've done my thwarting for the day," Aziraphale said cheerfully. "You've failed to tempt me to dinner. I haven't got any reading in all day yet, you see."
Rather to his disgust, Crowley did see. But he was a little relieved to get in the Bentley alone and peel away from the kerb in solitude, leaving behind a trail of rubber. He wouldn't have liked either penetrating looks or cheerfulness to spoil his dinner.
Aziraphale insisted they paint the ceilings by hand, since they could. Crowley preferred to do this simply by standing on the wall. He kept his wings folded up, too, after the first time Aziraphale dripped paint on them. The droplets sizzled angrily out of existence in mid-air and Crowley gave Aziraphale a look that had the floorboards two metres down tensing in terror. Aziraphale didn't notice.
For the first time in its career, the paint dried in exactly the time it said it would.
Nobody accidentally brushed or smeared anything. Once Aziraphale turned around suddenly and was caught unaware by a cold, wet, slimy feeling oozing between his wing feathers. "Oh, bugger."
"What is it, angel?" said Crowley casually, and continued making vague painting motions at the ceiling. The ceiling and the paint didn't mind that his brush never made contact with the surface.
"I've turned around suddenly and I think I — can you see the paint, did I —" said Aziraphale, craning his neck anxiously to try to see over his shoulder.
"Look at it this way," said Crowley. "White ceilings; white wings. It won't show up. I did that on purpose," he lied.
"Crowley," said Aziraphale repressively.
"Oh, all right. Let me see." He reached to feel gently along the leading edge. The bone and muscle in an angel's wing are strikingly strong, corded and lean; there's very little extra meat. The bone and tendon together fitted easily down the centre of Crowley's palm. He ran his hand lightly from the bend to the tip of the last, slowly. The feathers were warm and tickled his palm.
Aziraphale was very still. The sunlight made the little pale hairs on the back of his neck show up under the shaggy hair brushing it. They looked white.
"You're clean," Crowley said firmly, and Aziraphale's wing was. His hand came away clean, and when Aziraphale looked around, the wall was unsmudged too.
He went back to painting. His brush did touch the ceiling. "Thank you," he said.
By the end of the day Aziraphale was back to making tea at regular intervals. Every time he left the room, Crowley cast a vicious look around, and some more dust vanished, skirting boards grumbled and stiffened up, and paint crawled smoothly across the ceiling.
"What do you think?" said Crowley, bouncing on the balls of his feet and adjusting his sunglasses with one hand.
The ceiling was gleaming, even white. There was not a spot or a drip on the floor, which was still Aziraphale's smooth radiant pale cherry from yesterday. The skirting boards had recently realised they wanted to be small and beveled, not the great heavy antique planks which had been installed sometime in the 19th century while Crowley was asleep. The windows were even clean and sparkling. There were only a very few dust motes dancing in the air.
"Not a bad start, if I say so myself." Crowley said, looking longingly at the putty-patched walls. A nice black would be so elegant with the rosy blond floor, the pristine ceiling.
Aziraphale had been backing up slowly, with his head craned back, looking at the ceiling; his wings brushed hard against the door frame and he winced, and moved away.
Crowley rolled his eyes and went over to have a look. "Don't move, angel, before you do any more damage. Honestly, do you ever groom them?" A hand's breadth of pinions had been ruffled out of order. He smoothed each one down individually with a finger on each side of the shaft, then combed through them all, fingernails first.
Aziraphale let out an embarrassed, contented little noise. "Thank you, dear boy," he said. "I'd better winch them in."
Crowley stepped back into the centre of the room.
Aziraphale's face took on a look of intense concentration; the tendons in his neck stood out a little, against the soft and loose skin there; and the wings were gone. "I don't get much use out of them anymore," he said regretfully, straightening his shoulders. "Crowley, do you ever wish you were--"
"Well, you know — ordinary?"
Crowley looked away from the angel. The putty stood out, a different texture and sheen, from the wall underneath. He wondered how that would look in a coat of paint, and whether it would all just fix itself. "How do you mean?"
"Ordinary people," Aziraphale explained. "Human."
"Pathetic little inssectss. You can't be ssserious," Crowley said. He was surprised when it came out a hiss. He blinked and the wall was black. When you tilted your head, the putty spots would still show through. Crowley blinked again and all was a smooth satin ebony of uniform texture.
"Well, it's just — they're amazing, aren't they?" said Aziraphale. And about the paint, reprovingly: "You'll make me feel quite useless if you do all the work." He glanced round and the walls were back as before.
"You can get rid of those brushes," said Crowley with a nod. They were lying, wet, on the floor, but not leaving a puddle.
Instead of sending them elsewhere, Aziraphale picked them up by the handles and gave them wet ends first to Crowley. He raised an eyebrow over the rim of his sunglasses, and the brushes vanished. "If you want anything done right...," he sighed.
"You've never thought about it?" said the angel over tea. "Not once? Never wished you could be like them — to know what it was like?"
"You mean, for instance, to plug the kettle in when you make tea?" said Crowley sarcastically.
Aziraphale beamed. "That's right. All the little things."
"No," said Crowley immediately. "Not at all."
Last Christmas Day Crowley had pestered Aziraphale into showing him the rounds of his neighbourhood — all his long-time haunts, from the little corner grocery owned by a Pakistani to the Italian bakery (which was not actually in the neighbourhood, but Aziraphale had a weakness for pastries). And of course to his barber's, who seemed awfully friendly towards him since they couldn't get much business out of him, thought Crowley. (Aziraphale's hair had a tendency to be mousy and untidily wavy, rather than angelically golden and arranged in perfect ringlets — but it seemed to hint at his supernatural nature by never being closely trimmed.) Their second-to-last stop and Crowley's favourite had been the manicurist's.
At the Silken Sheen Salon Aziraphale had gone sickeningly grandfatherly, producing a bouquet of flowers for the prim-mouthed little proprietor and chocolates for the pair of young girls she had hanging around. The way that lady's looks had sent the taller of the pair scurrying into the kitchen after tea reminded Crowley of the owner of a whorehouse he remembered from Versailles. He'd always had a healthy respect for that stern, colourless, grimly utilitarian type.
The girl who'd done Crowley's nails had kept looking at his mouth and his chin when she thought he wasn't looking. Such idealistic innocence going wholly to waste! In that job in a few years she'd have been perfectly happily settled into a boring middle-class life. Crowley had tempted her to give it all up to be a singer. He'd left her his business card and a few weeks later she'd called him shyly, so scared she almost hung up twice in the first five minutes.
Crowley had dwelt on Aziraphale's probable reaction. He had such old-fashioned ideas of chivalry and whatnot and seemed to regard the beauty shop girls as under his particular protection. He wouldn't be at all happy to learn Jamila had given up her soul.
She was eager, but skittish, though, after all. Perhaps the time wasn't ripe yet to extract that particular promise. There was no need to frighten her away. Sometimes humans had to be handled carefully. Crowley got her to leave her job and left her with a handful of phone numbers--people of his. She would have an early taste of success, and soon enough the struggle would begin. That was enough, he'd figured, for one day. Losing her immortal soul was something that could be worked up to.
In the several months since then he'd almost forgotten all about her, Crowley realised with surprise when Aziraphale asked him coolly if he remembered her.
"Oh," he said, "Oh yes."
"Mandy at the salon tells me she left her job there a few weeks after Christmas. Quite suddenly, she said. She was a very talented girl."
"Oh yes," said Crowley with a sinking feeling. Aziraphale's tone was rather too pleasant. "Best manicure I've ever had." It had been the only manicure he'd ever had.
"Do you know where she was?" said Aziraphale conversationally, still standing squarely between Crowley and the door to the back room and the kitchen.
Crowley squinted, and he couldn't remember exactly. "No," said Crowley truthfully.
"Living with a really distasteful young man," said Aziraphale with an expressive face.
Since this could describe almost anyone in the entertainment industry whether he had explicitly made any bargain with Crowley or not, he knew no more about Jamila's whereabouts now than before. Crowley said as much, more or less, without any reference to himself.
"He was a most... degenerate character," said Aziraphale. "It was tragic, the potential that was going to waste. I hope I've given him something to think about," he added, rather pompously.
Crowley sighed. "What have you done with the girl?"
"She's moved back in with A'isha," said Aziraphale, still with that disapproving note in his voice which Crowley sadly doubted was meant for the humans. "Where she never should have left. And you know, it's funny," he continued, "but last year I thought she was really happy with Mandy at the salon. She would have settled down to a very happy life fairly quickly."
"A happy boring life," said Crowley irritably. "Not everyone wants to be safe and ordinary, angel. You know, you can't have them all. Remember they come up with the worst themselves — I had nothing to do with the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust, or that last presidential election in America —"
"I still find that hard to believe," muttered Aziraphale. "...And Mandy was furious with you. She said she didn't know where she would have got another trainee with such potential. I'll be lucky if she lets me back in the shop even without you."
"What will people think?" said Crowley sarcastically. "Your hands might get rough. The cold will make them scaly."
Aziraphale smiled faintly. "I've chosen some paint," he said, gesturing to the wall.
Crowley looked over and there was suddenly a deep tray full of the colour of the kind of clear sky you rarely saw far from the Equator. He groaned.
"Celestial," said Aziraphale, brightening further. It always took him a little while to get over being disappointed in Crowley. "You know, you were right, Crowley," he continued happily. "I can't think why I let that awful pink stay on so long."
Crowley shuddered, delicately. He couldn't see why either. "The way I see it," he found himself saying (though it was probably useless to explain to the angel), "Jamila could have a nice little job as a manicurist and be a very bored and boring person within a few years because she really wasn't interested in it. Or she could take a chance at something she dreamed about and really wanted. It's important to know what you want."
Aziraphale clicked his tongue and reached behind the paint tin for a brush that hadn't been there before. Crowley stopped him to take it away and hand it back a roller. Aziraphale's idea of modern was stuck inextricably round about 1950.
When they started to paint in earnest the opening of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" floated into the room from nowhere. Crowley looked surreptitiously at Aziraphale from under his eyelashes — he had stopped wearing his sunglasses inside while painting; they just got in the way — and made a quick little gesture that turned it to a high Hindi crooning in a minor key with a thumping bass beat.
Aziraphale took the first opportunity to change it over to Maria Callas. Crowley retaliated with Gesualdo — if he had to listen to opera, it always cheered him to think the composer was a thoroughly nasty person. The quick overlapping of short snatches of melody might have driven a human mad, but the angel and the demon were both smiling.
In an excess of good humour, Crowley inquired whether the angel knew Gesualdo.
"A little, naturally," said Aziraphale absently. "Rather controversial," he added with distaste. "I always preferred the more traditional composers."
"Personally, I meant?"
"Ah. No. I never had that pleasure."
"He was Prince of Venosa," said Crowley happily. "Fifteen hundreds. Murdered his wife and her lover, apparently with great pleasure, and had the bodies put up in public. Mad as a hatter, of course."
"You would be pleased," said Aziraphale. Crowley thought he was going for a disgusted tone, but he really sounded rather fondly amused.
"Not exactly celestial harmonies, are they?" Crowley continued.
"I don't know," said Aziraphale, "I like this music, now that I've listened to it. You know, I hadn't heard it in more than a hundred years, I think?"
"Ah," said Crowley smugly, "it just shows how far from celestial harmonies you are," and then wondered at once whether he oughtn't to have bit his tongue.
There was an uncomfortable little silence. Aziraphale said brusquely, "It's not entirely dissimilar. The chord progressions — of course he makes more use of the minor key. I think it goes to show there's goodness in everybody."
Crowley, confused at the sudden prickliness (which seemed out of proportion to his remark), let the subject pass, and didn't even change the music when Aziraphale forgot his irritation again and started to sing along. (It wasn't too far from celestial harmony, at that; at least, it sounded a bit more like it with the angel singing along, though Crowley noted with private amusement that Aziraphale kept drifting slightly flat.)
Aziraphale looked exactly the sort of person — except of course for not being a person — whom Crowley thought of as a bookshop proprietor. He kept a pair of reading glasses around. He was often to be seen in pullovers and bow ties, and was firmly convinced of the stylishness of Tartan and Argyle checks. Until almost the middle of the last century he had sometimes worn plus-fours and shoes with horrible little tassels on (Crowley had several times tried in vain to induce him to change, and in the end had gone out with him like that anyway when it became clear the alternative was to go nowhere with him at all. Aziraphale was stubborn).
He generally forgot exactly what he was wearing, so that if Crowley forgot himself or felt particularly poisonous and said "Where did you get that monstrosity," he was as likely as not to have to look down at himself before he could answer. Aziraphale also usually somehow had an air of being rumpled, though he was eerily fastidious about his personal appearance and would never go out without a tie. He was, in fact, a frump.
For instance, today he was wearing a pair of faded oatmeal-coloured trousers at least a size too large, which were certainly, Crowley had decided after a few hours' surreptitious examination, worn too thin in the seat--they had turned paler there, aside from a few smears of dust, and had a slight tendency to cling to the flesh of Aziraphale's rump. His shirt was of salmon-pink Oxford cloth. Two of the buttons had fallen off and been re-attached with slightly different colours of thread, and the points of the collar were no longer at all stiff. The back seemed to be trying valiantly to hold a sharp pleat, as though it had been ironed with starch, but the fabric was worn supple and conformed lovingly to the curve of the angel's back as he moved. His hair, in the sunbeams from the window, looked rather palely colourless than the indeterminate light beige interior lighting rendered it.
Whenever he passed by a bookshop in the street — not a large bookshop, but one which was clearly not part of a chain, and had dusty windows or a hand-lettered sign — Crowley thought automatically of Aziraphale. In fact, Crowley hadn't, he was certain, ever walked or even driven past one in the last few hundred years without noticing it particularly for that reason.
This was probably why being taken for the owner of one filled him with a generalised sort of horror, Crowley reflected. He liked to think of himself as so far from bookshop proprietor-like that almost nothing could be farther. Aziraphale was non-threatening; Crowley was dangerous. Aziraphale was frumpy; Crowley was sleek, dark, and spotless. Aziraphale wasn't ordinary, but he did an excellent job of looking it. He was the sort who always checked twice to be sure he'd locked the car door when he got out of it. Whereas Crowley liked to think that ordinary fled from him in terror. He never checked to be sure he'd locked the car. In fact, he rarely bothered to pull up to the kerb when he stopped the Bentley and got out.
Crowley found his mind returning again and again to Jamila. It wasn't that he was concerned for her specifically. Crowley believed firmly in giving humans opportunities and letting them make the choices themselves.
No, it was that he didn't want Aziraphale to be angry with him. Crowley brooded on this a bit.
He actually had spots of celestial blue on his Armani, although no single spot lasted for more than a split-second after he noticed it. He was growing more relaxed, though. The day before yesterday he would have taken great care to vanish them all in mid-air before they could touch his clothing. He was awkwardly wielding a roll of polyester-covered cardboard covered in dripping latex paint to make the wall blue, with the idea that in the end the bookshop would be presentable and clean, if not stylish, so that he could be less embarrassed to be mistaken for the owner of it.
It was really a little ridiculous.
Crowley had probably been spending too much time with the angel. But the difficulty was that he didn't want to stop. He wanted to go right on hanging round Aziraphale's bookshop, dropping in on him with coffee purchased with money at a real coffee shop instead of made from raw firmament, going with him to St. James's park and the Ritz and bickering over maps with him on long rides in the country. He wanted to see rather more of Aziraphale than that. He didn't want to go back to waiting three years between bits of conversation or two hundred between dinners out.
The world got to be a very lonely place after six thousand years and a little change. Crowley didn't like being lonely. He found it uncomfortable. And if there was one thing to which Crowley was firmly and entirely devoted it was his own comfort.
"I wonder if you could be thrown out of Heaven for wanting to be ordinary," he mused.
Aziraphale threw him a startled look. "My dear, whatever do you mean? It's in my nature to feel love and respect for —"
"Love and respect, yes, I know," said Crowley. "But in case you've forgotten, loving and respecting all God's creations doesn't mean caring one way or the other whether they go on living or are all wiped out in a global holocaust, for your superiors."
Aziraphale's face was closing off.
"Maybe you're different already," said Crowley. "You're the most unusual angel I've ever encountered. You have far more in common with me than with Gabriel. And then there's your books, your devilled eggs... you're almost halfway fallen already really —"
"I'm not," snapped Aziraphale, furious. "How dare you?"
"Listen, Aziraphale," said Crowley.
"Stop it!" he demanded. "Serpent! I thought you were beyond trying your wiles on me, Crowley. But I suppose some things can never change." His shoulders were stiff with indignation. Crowley thought he could see the halo coming out.
Aziraphale stalked out of the shop and left Crowley alone in it.
Crowley sighed and sat down and buried his face in his hands. He had meant all of it as a compliment.
Crowley wondered if this was what humans felt like when they were getting sick. He had never felt more alone.
He called the shop that night, drumming his fingers in irritation on the table. Crowley felt lowered. The phone rang one thousand six hundred and forty-two times before Aziraphale picked it up, and Crowley walked around watering and glaring at his plants and kicking the furniture.
"I know it's you, Crowley," snapped the angel.
"How about dinner?" said Crowley pleasantly, and his lips drew back from his teeth. Possibly Aziraphale sensed his contrition, because though a bit starchy and clearly still offended, he took no persuading at all. Sometimes Crowley thought Aziraphale understood far more than he let on.
Neither of them said anything to liken their ensuing meal at the Ritz to an apology or a payment. When Crowley said "Devilled eggs, eh?" — unable to resist — Aziraphale gave him a level, unflinching look which was cold in its blankness.
"Thank you for your help with the shop," said Aziraphale, who was perfectly polite, exactly like his normal self, as long as the subject of the afternoon stayed quite distant. "It was getting rather shabby, I suppose. You know, Crowley, I would never have thought it of you. After six thousand years I didn't think you had any surprises left, you old serpent."
Crowley oozed back in his chair, patently relaxed: this was his ground. He adjusted his sunglasses. "A lot of things would surprise you about me, angel," he said, which was possibly a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one.
"Possibly. Possibly," said the angel with jovial tolerance.
"For inssstance," Crowley hissed with great relish, "I was thinking that your flat above the bookshop looksss nearly as shabby as the shop did."
And Aziraphale was surprised. "Oh," he said. "Ah. I suppose you're right," he said apologetically. "I simply get used to it."
Crowley smiled like a wolf. "Of course you have," he said soothingly. "No harm done. We can make a go after we finish with the shop."
Aziraphale was clearly completely bowled over. He acquiesced at once except for a searching look over his dessert of Italian ice and the single question, "Why?"
And Crowley figured that he was ahead, and took a gamble. He said in a voice like silk, "Because I'm sorry I upset you." (Demons have no qualms about apologising in the interests of furthering their own ends. They regard it much the way they regard lying--even if they're telling the truth.) "Because you call any music from the last century 'be-bop.' Because you're the only angel who's ever wished to be ordinary."
Aziraphale smiled a slow smile like the sun spreading across his face. "Thank you, my dear," he murmured. "You're forgiven."
Crowley sniffed. "For what?"
"I like you too."
What it all came down to was that Crowley liked Aziraphale a lot. Actually, he liked Aziraphale more than he liked anybody or anything else, with the possible exceptions of the Bentley and his own comfort. If pressed he might have admitted, though only in the privacy of his own mind, that he loved Aziraphale.
He was originally of angel stock, he reasoned, so he had the genetic predisposition to love. And loving Aziraphale wasn't like loving all God's creations. That might be sickeningly sweet, but it cheered Crowley to know that if they knew up Above what Aziraphale was really like he'd quite likely get kicked out of Heaven. As Crowley had said to Aziraphale, he was half fallen already.
Which was stupid, really, because Aziraphale was much nicer than any of the higher-ups Crowley remembered from back in the days before the Rebellion. Gabriel, for instance. Terrible bloke. Couldn't imagine him sharing dinner and wine with anyone for any reason, ever. And Michael — one of those angels who'd as soon shine the unforgiving Holy Light into your soul as look at you. Always going around singing hymns. It made a fellow nervous, even when he was an angel himself.
Aziraphale wasn't like any of the other angels. He was probably the only one out of the lot who couldn't love humans without caring particularly whether they lived or died. If the immortal soul survived it was all the same to Gabriel and Michael. Never mind what the mortals themselves thought about it. Probably after all this time humans had rubbed off, somewhat, on Aziraphale and on Crowley. That was why they cared.
There wasn't another angel like Aziraphale, or another demon like Crowley, anywhere. They were the most ordinary of the lot. And yet they weren't ordinary — what it came down to was that they were a matched pair.
And with his current sense of absolute safety, with the way things had been going — with absolutely no interference from his superiors or Aziraphale's in close on a year now — Crowley thought it was finally time to do something about it. Six thousand years was long enough. It was time...
...it was time... well, it was time to begin a campaign. It was time to "take" Aziraphale "out."
That was what the humans called it, anyway.
They had their first date on a Monday night, after two days' more work on Aziraphale's shop and a few days off for a business trip. (It was a complete failure. The Archbishop ran into some children with a dog on a lead in the car park and got to contemplating the unbearable lightness of being, and made a complete confession of his part in the cover-ups after all. He wasn't very polite about telling Crowley he'd no need of his services, either. Crowley was very glad to get back to London after that one.) Crowley didn't tell Aziraphale it was a date. It wasn't his fault that the angel was about as likely to figure it out as to call on Beelzebub instead of Crowley for lunch at the Ritz.
Crowley took Aziraphale to an Indian place he'd never tried. Aziraphale had got quite set in his English ways over the last few centuries. Crowley remembered a time in Rome when he'd glare at his honey-stuffed mice to make them spicier.
Crowley dressed in tight black trousers and a silk shirt of the sort of blue that has been flirting all night with black, and is just about ready to give in and topple into bed with it. He left his shirt open farther than usual to expose a slash of creamy pale throat. He walked with his hips and smiled so his eyes slitted and was very, very careful not to touch Aziraphale any more than usual, but he turned on easily enough sexuality to ensure them the fastest service they'd ever had in a restaurant. Aziraphale didn't appear to notice it — the service, that is. Once or twice Crowley thought he saw him watching Crowley's hands.
He'd counted on this taking a certain length of time. He wasn't sure how humans did it, but he figured that dating Aziraphale was certainly worth doing right.
He had debated somewhat with himself whether "right," in this case, included making the conscious effort to turn on his sexuality. Crowley did it fairly often, of course; it was de rigueur for manipulating the kinds of humans he had dealings with. But he had never allowed himself to be "turned on" around Aziraphale, except for a couple of purely accidental occasions.
He had finally decided that Aziraphale's tenacious infatuation with humanity had to have something behind it. Besides which there wasn't really an angelic (or demonic) way to go about what Crowley was intending to do. Lower animals had the whole "mates" business, but it was Adam and Eve who'd first set up as — as, well — companions for life. Partners. The train of thought gave Crowley unpleasantly warm and squishy feelings, so he quashed it firmly. He would take humans as his model for a start, and that meant turning on his body. So he did.
Besides which, once he did Crowley discovered that he really, really enjoyed it.
Perhaps it was because he was of angel stock that he reacted more strongly to Aziraphale than he could recall ever doing to a human. After all, angels and humans weren't really meant to mix, and demons and humans probably weren't either. And then, well, he liked Aziraphale quite a lot.
At the moment, he especially liked Aziraphale's neck and his jaw, and was also very interested in his wrists. And his hair. He couldn't help noticing the way it waved without ever actually curling, and it was really only natural to study Aziraphale's face closely, dwelling a little on the eyelashes. He did not seem divine. His nose was unremarkable, his skin loose and soft, his cheekbones almost completely invisible; but his eyes were a startling shade of blue, with fine crinkles at the corners which somehow drew Crowley's eyes. His mouth was thin but sculpted and fine. His eyelashes were almost transparent, but they glimmered under the light of the filigree brass fixtures.
Crowley, as usual, bore the brunt of the conversation. Aziraphale managed to try his patience more than once with what seemed unnecessarily quarrelsome questions, but left to himself would rather savour his meal in relative quiet than discuss the European political climate, or applaud Crowley's achievement in the new lemon and vanilla flavours of Coca-Cola.
"These Indian restaurants are bloody places," said Crowley with deep happiness. It was difficult for him to think of anything he'd rather do than eat spicy food in low lighting with Aziraphale, surrounded by humans in relatively clean and elegant clothing playing out their little lives' dramas.
"Really," said Aziraphale, "I don't see why you say that." He said it perfectly amicably, but Crowley couldn't let a challenge like that pass.
"The red," Crowley explained. "This tablecloth — it's the colour of a white shirt with a bloodstain on it. They really go in for red here. And that brass filigree — makes you think of great curved swords."
"I don't think so," Aziraphale objected. "I think the blood would be much darker. It makes brown stains, you know. It's only red before it dries."
"Soaked with blood then," said Crowley impatiently. "And not dried. But the colour —it's inescapably the colour of blood. It can't fail to suggest it. Besides, the decorations being so gaudy, it's —"
"Of course it can fail to suggest it," Aziraphale objected. "I don't just look at red and think 'blood'. And that's not why it's traditional Indian, you know. It has to do with the traditional plant dyes; the brighter colours are more expensive, and a red dye made from —"
"I know that, angel," snapped Crowley, who had had a small hand in making certain peasants were always stuck with drab-coloured clothes once he realised how surprisingly dispirited this would make them. "But you can't tell me a maharajah looking at this tablecloth wouldn't be bound to think of blood when you asked him what it reminded him of."
"It would probably," said Aziraphale brightly, "remind him of weddings. Red is the colour for their weddings, you know."
"After weddings then," said Crowley. "It would remind him of blood after weddings, perhaps. But it's bound to come up all the same." He had a distinct sense the conversation was getting out of his control. "Besides, there are no maharajahs here."
Aziraphale looked mildly concerned. "Of course not," he said, "but I thought you wanted to talk about maharajahs. It was your idea."
Crowley was too irritated to take notice until too late that Aziraphale's eyes were twinkling. "Never mind," he said in disgust, and returned to his vindaloo.
They talked fairly innocuously for a while of the food and the people around them ("Look. Adulterers." "My dear!" "I had nothing to do with it!").
But then Aziraphale started fidgeting and Crowley knew that something was up. "I'm really sorry I snapped at you last week," he said awkwardly.
Crowley said that it was forgotten, and tried not to make any sudden movements.
Aziraphale poked desultorily at his rice and took a deep breath. He didn't look at Crowley. "It was punishment," he said in a rush.
Crowley wondered if he was being particularly slow today. "Sorry?"
"Being sent to Earth," said Aziraphale. "My — job. It was punishment. For giving Eve the sword."
Then Crowley remembered. Oh. "Wasn't happy about that, was He?"
Aziraphale said, "Er, well. No, I don't think He was. Not that anyone said so, in so many words. It was just, 'Where is the flaming sword which was given unto thee?' and 'Here's your assignment: Earth. We expect a report in twenty years.'"
"Hm," said Crowley. He remembered Aziraphale's anxiousness the day he'd given away the sword now, but for some reason in six thousand years it had never occurred to him that it might all have been intended for punishment. Difficult, that. Hell was more straightforward. If you were being punished, you knew.
"Sort of cast out of the Garden after them," said Aziraphale with a little laugh. It sounded painful.
"So," said Crowley carefully. "You're just an exile on Earth. All that stuff about humans and being ordinary, that was just putting on a brave face."
"No!" said Aziraphale hurriedly. "No. I do. I really do. I'm very glad it happened that way," he added seriously. "I wouldn't do it over a different way. And I've never been able to believe I did wrong. I might never have got to know what they're like, otherwise, you know. Or you."
Crowley wondered what it was like to never be able to believe you'd done wrong. (Not that right and wrong concerned him, of course.) It must be a totally alien feeling.
And then he thought: Never have gotten to know Aziraphale. Part of him made a snide joke or two, but part of him shuddered.
To never have had a friend... . "Aziraphale," said Crowley, "you're a bit of a bastard, you know. Enough to be worth knowing." Aziraphale twinkled at him. "And I'm glad you are."
After a little bewildered poking at the ceramic wash basin and the toilet in Aziraphale's flat (the latter of which, Aziraphale informed him, had not been used since 1965), Crowley stood back and made his pronouncement. "I've no bloody idea how humans do this," he said.
Aziraphale sounded amused. "Dear boy, I thought I was supposed to consider you as an interior decorator. Haven't you done this before?"
"Good h — my G — bless, you don't think I did my flat myself, do you?" scoffed Crowley.
"Well, anyway," said Aziraphale reasonably, "it can't be all that different. You simply put the paint on the wall."
"Yes," said Crowley. "But it's got to go around the shower and the medicine cabinet and the basin. I don't think it's worth it."
After an hour or so, Aziraphale didn't think so either, apparently, because he said brightly, "I'm going to make tea, Crowley, will you have some?" and popped off. While he was gone Crowley gave the whole room the sort of scathing look he'd been longing to let loose all morning, and it turned all over freshly pristine white, with a black marble basin. Crowley washed his hands in it just to have the pleasure once, before the angel came back. He had to tap the hot water tap a few times to get it to come out in a nice, hearty boiling stream and not a lukewarm trickle.
He was patting the black marble lovingly and stroking the chrome taps when he heard Aziraphale coming up on the door. With a regretful sigh, Crowley blinked and turned the marble milky white.
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" said Aziraphale, smiling, and handing Crowley his cup of tea. Crowley hadn't made the switch back on with his human sexuality again yet, but with Aziraphale standing close he had a little flashback to their first date and had to suppress the urge to feel it again. Those human sensations were really something — like good wine, only not. And the thing was that you could never exactly remember how they felt without being in the same state again, only that they were absolutely wonderful.
"Piece of cake," said Crowley smugly, glancing round at the perfectly even and highly glossy white walls. The room was very elegant — for a small and rather old-fashioned upstairs bath, that is — if it could only stay all one colour like this.
Aziraphale smiled and shook his head, and the white walls took on a decided blue tinge. Oh well. It had been nice while it lasted.
For their second date, they walked round St. James's park and fed the ducks. Some university students were engaged in a pick-up game of football on the lawns, young men and women mixed, and Crowley and Aziraphale stopped a while to watch. Crowley amused himself reading the minds of the combatants, which were pretty evenly divided between doing violence to one another and knowing one another better in the Biblical sense. Aziraphale amused himself, apparently, by soaking up the sound of their shrieking laughter.
After that they went to eat at a Spanish place called La Paloma. "Not the Ritz today, I think," Aziraphale had murmured when Crowley suggested lunch. "There's a lovely little Spanish place that's just opened up."
Doubtful of a restaurant Aziraphale would describe only as "lovely," Crowley said cleverly, "But do they have devilled eggs?"
"No," said Aziraphale, "But they do have quite large margaritas. And a selection of foreign beers."
"Oh," said Crowley quickly, "All right."
In the end they had Spanish wine instead of beer — they never could resist wine. Sharing bottles was something of a tradition with them. They tried a sip each of the Palacio de Vega the waitress brought promptly to their table (Crowley had turned himself on again) before Aziraphale shook his head sadly at the bottle and its contents aged rapidly and changed somewhat in flavour as well.
"It was from Navarre," said Aziraphale. "I've always liked Navarre. I'd have thought they'd make better wine."
"I liked Queen Margot," Crowley mused. "We were great friends, she and I. I introduced her to quite a few handsome strapping ferriers and tailors and stable boys."
"So that was you!" said Aziraphale accusingly, "you made poor Henry miserable."
Crowley put up his hands. "Hey, don't blame me. They don't have to give in to temptation. Besides, it didn't stop him becoming King of France."
"Mm," said Aziraphale doubtfully. Crowley watched him purse his lips, and then kept watching his lips surreptitiously after he unpursed them. They fell into a comfortable silence.
He couldn't help wondering about Aziraphale's being sent to Earth as a punishment — not the event itself, but the fact that Aziraphale had seemed so perturbed about it. It made Crowley faintly uncomfortable, and he wanted to know more about it, to understand. Unlike Crowley, the angel wasn't philosophically opposed to regret, but he claimed to believe he'd done the right thing, to be glad he'd done it, and to be happy with the result. Possibly being somewhat frowned on up Above was a heavy consciousness to have for an angel who was constitutionally required, supposedly, to consider Heaven infallible. At least Crowley knew Aziraphale didn't quite do that, at least, not recently; but perhaps cognitive dissonance was the source of the struggle.
"About this wishing to be ordinary," said Crowley finally.
Aziraphale frowned faintly at his plate and patted his mouth delicately with his napkin. "Try a bite of this lamb," he said. "It doesn't seem quite authentic to me, but I can't place the difference."
Crowley smirked at him and reached across the table with his fork. "Not bad," he said. "And the milk's not curdled."
"Ah! That's it."
"Nice try at changing the subject," Crowley continued. "I've thought it over. You should give it a try," he said, taking in the full picture of Aziraphale's slightly distressed face, stray curl falling on his pale forehead, fine smile lines tight with worry. "I mean, as human as you can be. Turn the body on and get the full experience — you can't really understand how ruled the poor creatures are by their impulses otherwise. And who knows," he added evilly, "You might meet someone nice."
"Really, Crowley," said Aziraphale, somewhat strained. "I don't want to meet someone —" he paused and made a face like biting a lemon, "— nice."
Crowley grinned down into his wine. "How about dinner Friday at Stonehenge, then?" he suggested. "For old times' sake. I was thinking about Mesopotamia, but I'm not in the mood for such a long flight. And the druids were a jolly lot."
Aziraphale frowned. "Why dwell on old times? Doesn't it depress you sometimes? Their lives are so short."
Crowley ignored this. He refused to be depressed. "It's an emotion the humans call nostalgia. You may have heard of it."
Aziraphale scowled at him suspiciously. "I meant, why this sudden nostalgia? You've always been a great fan of the modern." He pronounced the word as if it tasted badly.
"As I recall, it was in the vicinity of Stonehenge that we first reached our Arrangement," said Crowley cheerfully.
A look of surprise crossed the angel's face. "So it was," he murmured. "I'd nearly forgotten."
"That's a yes," Crowley decided. "Have you ever finally learnt to dance?" Aziraphale opened his mouth. "I mean, anything besides the gavotte?"
"I haven't got around to it," said Aziraphale in some embarrassment, "It didn't seem necessary. Why?"
"No reason," said Crowley speculatively. He was planning their fourth date. "You should try it. It can be fun."
The key was not to let up. If this were going to happen, Crowley was going to have to set about it the best way he knew how, with absolutely demonic determination. (Fortunately for Crowley, he was able to produce that kind of dedication, with a bit of work.) On Monday Crowley rang Aziraphale to make sure he wasn't finding some way to weasel out of their date on Friday, and had to cut off two half-hearted protests; but when he hung up Aziraphale had said he was looking forward to it, in a gratifyingly happy sort of way. But on Wednesday Crowley showed up at lunch time with wrapped sandwiches from the supermarket's deli, anyway, just to be sure.
Aziraphale was shut up in the back room with a hand-lettered and autographed copy of the Qur'an. He had taken off his shirt — it was folded neatly in the fraying wicker seat of a chair next to the newly-celestial blue wall. His wings were out, and he'd arranged himself with his back to the window so the sun fell full on to warm them. His head bent, his face was in shadow, but bits of sunlight poured over his shoulders from behind, making his skin like fine-grained gold satin.
Crowley leaned lazily on the door frame with his arms crossed and let his eyes roam over the angel from sunny hair to pale sparsely-furred chest to parted knees to sensible shoes. He stayed there until Aziraphale looked up sharply, with his pupils somewhat contracted against the sunlight, and said "Oh!" and blushed.
Crowley admired the pale splotchy pink spreading down Aziraphale's neck. "Don't mind me," he said, unwrapping a sandwich demonstratively. "I'm just here for the food." But he didn't look away. Aziraphale had pale rosy nipples, and a soft, round belly which hovered on the edge of paunch. It was really all very nice. It was just... Aziraphale.
Aziraphale sat up straighter and flexed his wings slowly. There were a few feathers loose on the ground around his feet.
"Have some?" asked Crowley, offering the second sandwich.
Aziraphale set the book aside and nodded, but he kept glancing over at it as he ate. Crowley slipped away and up the narrow back stair by himself, stomping on the treads and feeling along the walls.
When he got to the top, the stairs were wider and solider and flatter, and the small window opposite the bathroom door was sparkling clean. He poked his nose in the little sitting room and Aziraphale's bedroom, which looked a lot like the back room of the shop with books everywhere, except for having a bed and a chest of drawers.
Crowley withdrew his head quickly and went instead into the sitting room. The sofa and carpet were dusty. The former was dusty tartan, the other shaggy orange. There were small sickly-looking bookcases crammed along the wall under the window leaning drunkenly into each other. At a glare from Crowley they sat up straight and the carpet paled to a goldish beige. He leaned close to examine the tweed of the couch. He tried to imagine sitting on the shabby excrescence, and had no luck. In the end he didn't do anything to it, and when he left the room it let out a sigh of relief and a small puff of dust.
He vaguely heard the shop bell tinkle downstairs and wondered whether it was really loud enough to rouse Aziraphale from his reverie, and whether he would remember to put on his shirt before he went out in the front room. From up the stairs he could hear several loud voices of the kind which inevitably belong to tourists. Crowley gave a delicate shudder and patted the hulking brown frame of the television case. On top of it were a small ceramic shepherd and shepherdess arranged to give each other simpering painted grins. He turned away in horror.
When he came out again Crowley found a mug of tea sitting on the windowsill at the top of the stairs. It must have been there a while because it had already gone quite lukewarm. If Aziraphale had looked in on him, Crowley hadn't noticed. He was feeling dangerously squishy behind the ribs again; he hurriedly picked the mug up and the tea in it boiled again. Crowley took a small, savouring sip and went down the stairs. One thing about his angel which was not shabby was his taste in foods and beverages. The tea was exquisitely brewed Earl Grey of the finest quality. Crowley felt the inelegant mug rather profaned it.
"You know," he said conversationally, "Tartan is not stylish."
"Yes it is," said Aziraphale placidly, and took away his empty mug. He handed Crowley a pleasantly steaming one. His shirt was back on and buttoned neatly. He must have remembered in time, thought Crowley regretfully. He hoped he would have another opportunity soon to observe the angel with his horribly-groomed wings out, his rather unimpressive torso bare.
He tried a fresh tack. "How long have you had that sofa?"
Aziraphale said he had got it sometime in the 1960s, which was what Crowley had suspected.
"Well," said Crowley putting back on his sunglasses, "I'll come back tonight, shall I? And we'll do something about it."
Aziraphale beamed. "Dear boy, you're most welcome. I'll cook a simple meal. You don't get a lot of good home cooking, I know."
Hiding his apprehension, Crowley said, "Macaroni cheese would be just fine. Something simple." He paused, and the shop bell tinkled in the interim.
Another group of tourists trickled in wearing baseball caps and trainers and passport pouches round their necks. With some giggling, a young woman asked where the adult books were. Aziraphale smiled as though his child had just learnt to walk and waved her towards the modern fiction.
"About half-six?" Crowley smirked.
"Lovely," the angel said, and Crowley took himself away with no more than a glance to turn some of the books on Aziraphale's shelves to the sort of real adult books the tourists were looking for, with the last several pages uniformly left off.
When he came back that evening after causing some traffic hold-ups and arranging for a telemarketing firm's expansion, Aziraphale had piled the table with pasta and salad and there was a glistening chocolate mound sitting on top the stove. ("It's called Chocolate Heaven," he explained proudly. Crowley asked him whether they had chocolate in Heaven and he looked stricken. Feeling rather low, Crowley quickly changed the subject.)
There was more food than two ordinary people could have eaten, Crowley pointed out, sipping slowly at his wine and feeling pleasantly warm and relaxed. It was just as well they were really occult entities.
"One occult," Aziraphale reminded him, "and one ethereal."
"Whatever," said Crowley, and raised his eyebrows suggestively towards the stairs. They both staggered a little when they stood up, and had to use their powers to do something about it so they could walk comfortably. Then they went to deal with the sitting room.
They left a little after sundown on Friday. Aziraphale expressed some doubt about driving all the way to Stonehenge in time for dinner, and Crowley just smiled like a snake.
Aziraphale groaned and shut his eyes while Crowley was getting out of the city. He was really rather ridiculous. The worst that could happen to them was inconvenient discorporation, and after all, Crowley could drive perfectly well in the dark, and he was making sure the streets were free of obstacles. But Aziraphale liked to abide by human rules.
The country lanes were surprisingly smooth, even, and open. (That is, surprisedly. The lanes were surprised by it too. Several cows, sheep and farmers had cause to wonder if they were going the right way after all that night. The only one who wasn't surprised was Crowley.) They made excellent time, although they didn't really get to take in the scenery. The Bentley purred contentedly along as though it were only doing thirty or forty.
"Look at the moon," said Crowley. "Beautiful, isn't it? It's the sort of night when you'd think the pagans will be out in force."
Aziraphale made a worried face. "Oh dear." He didn't quite know what to make of pagans. He was required to disapprove of them and to love them unconditionally at once, which made it difficult. His baser instincts — if, that is, he could be said to have any — merely indicated that he should snicker a little, not wholly unsympathetically.
"They won't be in the way," said Crowley, "your modern pagan ceremonies are relatively small and quiet. They're not likely to even notice us."
And they didn't. There was only one small coven present, and they didn't seem to want to enter the sacred ring but stayed just outside it. At one point Ariel Moonriver thought she saw what looked like two men sitting on top of one of the taller doorways, but when she looked up she saw that it was just two owls after all.
"You should really try it," said Crowley after a while, leaning back on his elbows and dangling his feet over the edge. He had been stealing surreptitious glances for some time at Aziraphale, who was getting noticeably tipsy. With his human body turned on, it was hard to tear his eyes away.
And another side-effect of that seemed to be that he didn't mind the squishy feeling in the least. In fact, he wanted it to go on indefinitely. He was interested in seeing whether it could be increased if he sat nearer to Aziraphale, or touched him as thoroughly as he wanted to do.
Aziraphale picked up the bottle of wine between them and took a long drink. "Try what, dear boy?"
Crowley made a graceful little gesture that took in his own relaxed body from head to toes. "Turning it on. The human body. You're really missing a part of this experience," he said earnestly.
Aziraphale looked doubtful. "I believe we're both too drunk for tempting," he said. "You're not — are you?"
"No!" said Crowley. "Humans, they feel a kind of... mild divine ecstasy — just from the moon and the — the trees." From lounging about like drunken idiots with people who make their internal organs go squishy, he didn't say. "It's, it's, they're so. Black. Dark. Your ordinary daytime trees, it isn't the same."
Aziraphale seemed to think he'd had a bit too much wine, but said "Really?"
"Swear," said Crowley. "'S absolute truth." He took another long drink of wine. "'M doin' it right now. Gives me the shivers almost. Beautiful night. It all looks so, so big." And Aziraphale, Crowley's brain continued inexorably, looked so good. So... tempting. Crowley only hoped he wasn't going to slip up and say some of this out loud.
Aziraphale appeared to think it over. "All right." He closed his eyes and Crowley stared in fascination as a tiny shiver rippled over him. Then he opened them again and looked at Crowley and blinked, and seemed a little shocked. "I say," he murmured.
Crowley hid a grin and helpfully handed over the wine. Their fingers brushed on the neck and Aziraphale tried unsuccessfully to stifle a little start. He took rather a deeper drink than he'd been used to do. Crowley had got a better grip on his body, and just internalised the little shiver of tantalising awareness. And shifted carefully closer to the angel on the stone.
A bottle later, Aziraphale was much more relaxed. "Crowley," he said into Crowley's shoulder, "Crowley."
"Mmm?" said Crowley vaguely. He was feeling quite pleasantly relaxed and swimming in a mild arousal and a much less mild squishiness which he suspected Aziraphale would have called "tenderness."
"You were right."
Aziraphale pondered. "Don' remember."
Crowley giggled and turned his neck a little. It felt syrupy and limp. It was nice. Suddenly his nose ended up in Aziraphale's hair, and that was nice too. Instead of the sun his hair was infused with the scent of the wind and the country night. Crowley burrowed closer and sniffed and tightened his arm, which had somehow got wrapped round the angel's waist.
Aziraphale moved a little, soppily, and then gave it up as a bad job. There was a damp spot where his nose and mouth were on Crowley's shirt. "Bout bein' human," he said. "About feelin' human. You were right."
"Mmm," said Crowley wisely, "Right." He thought there was something he was supposed to be remembering to do, but it felt so nice having Aziraphale melting into his shoulder and being so relaxed and stupid. He couldn't quite care about anything. Nothing but Aziraphale, Aziraphale, Aziraphale. Crowley giggled out loud and buried his face in Aziraphale's hair to stop himself actually singing it.
"S past midnight," said Aziraphale, turning his head a little to look up at the stars. He took another pull from the bottle.
"So it is," said Crowley vaguely. There was something about lateness. "I think," he said regretfully, "I'd better sober up."
Aziraphale nodded into the damp spot.
"Okay," said Crowley, and took a deep breath, and did it.
Aziraphale must have done the same, because in a second he sat up and leaned away, back on his own elbows. "Sorry," he said shakily. Crowley's arm was abandoned, curled like a creeper on the stone behind Aziraphale's shoulders.
Crowley looked over at him and widened his eyes artlessly. Aziraphale wasn't looking at him. There was the red print of Crowley's shirt on his cheek and his hair being mussed even more by the wind. For a moment Crowley felt fiercely possessive until he got a mental hold of himself and gave himself a little shake. "For what?" Crowley said, after he swallowed.
Aziraphale blinked once or twice. He didn't answer. Instead he said faintly, "Crowley. It hasn't all gone away."
"It's not alcohol," said Crowley. "It's the body. Feeling human. Remember? You're not drunk. It's just a little unusual. You'll get used to it."
Aziraphale looked up at him. He seemed a little doubtful, but he said "All right. ...I think it's time we headed back."
It is a curious feature of a human body that in the very dark, even with moonlight, it perceives everything very washed-out, nearly in black and white. For Crowley, who wasn't used to burying himself so thoroughly in the body, it was fascinating: Aziraphale's face was pale grey, his eyelashes silver, his eyes silver and pupils wide and black. His hair looked darker than it was, except where the light pooled on it in little white and silver waves and whorls. Since the effect was a little dramatic, he almost looked more angelic than usual.
Crowley forced himself into motion again. He hadn't yet got the hang of this — thing. Sometimes when he looked at Aziraphale time almost seemed to stop, and he was more than willing for it to. But he patted the angel's shoulder heartily and said, "Get those wings out." He noticed with deep interest that Aziraphale's body reacted with a little shiver to the touch of his hand.
He kept track in the car, a task which was aided by his own body's hyper-awareness of every movement of Aziraphale's, even his smell. He could tell Aziraphale hadn't turned it off yet. Somehow through smell and tiny little movements and whatnot his body was saying to Aziraphale's "Well, what about it?" and Aziraphale's body was saying to his, "Right! Let's go!" And both of them were quivering impatiently, waiting for Aziraphale and Crowley to catch up with them.
Three dates, Crowley decided, was surely more than enough. And he didn't want to wait. He stopped the Bentley in the back of the shop and leaned over the gear stick towards Aziraphale. "I'm dying for a cup of tea," he said.
"Come on up then," said Aziraphale, rather too heartily. His hand was tight around the door handle. His body was turned subtly towards Crowley's body in the seat. It was all very encouraging. He'd never paid very much attention to the pleasures of the flesh beyond what he felt he was obligated to try out as a demon, once he'd discovered it was rather confusing and messy, and not really a substitute for a good bottle of wine. Now he was not completely and entirely sure of how they worked, but all signs seemed to indicate they would work very well at least.
They drank their tea in the downstairs kitchenette. Aziraphale fussed around the kettle automatically, then got anxious for the tea and picked it up before it had any time to heat up. He poured it boiling into an empty teapot, then instantly poured out two cups of Lapsang Soochong, brewed to perfection. Crowley leant up against the counter and drank his far too fast, drumming his fingertips against the hot porcelain and watching Aziraphale's plump pink lips part around the rim of the mug, taking small decorous sips. He was trying not to be nervous.
He pushed himself forward when he'd run out of patience at last, took the angel's mug away and put both it and his in the sink.
"I was drinking that," Aziraphale said.
"You can stop," said Crowley in some irritation, flattening his body up along the front of Aziraphale's, and fitted their mouths together.
Aziraphale's lips were hot and tea-flavoured and soft. They weren't quite shut, and Crowley instantly found the slick tip of his tongue. (Demons don't have to have great experience of the pleasures of the flesh to be excellent kissers. It's in their makeup, like tempting). He only let up a little when Aziraphale made a small noise of protest.
"Why so surprised?" Crowley murmured seductively against Aziraphale's lips, holding on tight. He was gratified to feel a slight unbending in the muscles of the angel's back under his arms. "It is our third date."
"Is it?" said Aziraphale in a calm inquiring voice, sounding a tiny bit more like himself, but spoiling the effect somewhat by wetting his lips nervously and following Crowley's mouth with his eyes.
"I'm not counting Wednesday — though maybe I should. I've never seen such an elaborate pasta dish in my life. Let's say it's our fourth. By human standards we're already 'going steady,'" Crowley informed him. Then he thought better of his phrasing. "Although I think I should tell you no one says 'going steady' anymore, so don't go using the term. What's the matter? Don't you l...ike me? I like you." Crowley had stumbled over the word "like," there, at the last, meaning to say "love" and finding his human tongue couldn't form the word. He had the sinking feeling he was starting to sound more pleading and less seductive with that last.
"Crowley," said Aziraphale. Was that sadness in his voice?
"Shh," said Crowley desperately. He put his hand in the crisp curls on the back of Aziraphale's head and pushed until it dropped down on his shoulder; not the same angle it'd been back on Stonehenge, but it made his body sigh all over with contentment anyway. "Listen to your body," he begged quickly, "you can't just say no to that. It's amazing really. No hangovers. You don't have to make yourself sober up. It takes care of itself. Let me show you, Aziraphale. Please." He felt sure it would all be all right if they only didn't have to talk about it this instant.
"What are you doing?" came the voice next to his ear, sounding more curious than anything else.
Crowley told himself he felt irritated and not nervous. "Giving in to temptation for once," he said. "Instead of making it. It's no trouble for you. You're supposed to love everyone."
He had said it! Even if not in quite the right context. It felt wonderful in his mouth (almost as good as Aziraphale's tongue had). Saying it felt like waking up after a long nap in the sunshine, like a fast drive in the Bentley, but better. It felt really, really good. It felt... homelike. Or maybe that was the feel of Aziraphale's softnesses and hardnesses all pressed up and down the front of his body, and wrapped up in his arms.
Aziraphale sighed. Was that... capitulation? No... happiness? Crowley looked up. The angel smiled a sort of fearsome smile, beautiful and terrible and happy and sort of perplexingly sad at once. It was not an ordinary smile. Crowley's ordinary human heart, overwhelmed, gave an athletic leap of excitement or terror in his chest.
Aziraphale's eyebrow twitched a little and he wriggled slightly in Crowley's arms — it was very comfortable, thought Crowley wistfully, even if certain portions of his anatomy were getting quite impatient. "You know, my dear, love for all Creation isn't generally meant to encompass carnal knowledge."
"Is that a no?" said Crowley. Although of course they wouldn't be talking about this at all if it were.
The angel hesitated. "I'm not just humouring you, you know," he said.
"Um," said Crowley in surprise, "ah." He couldn't form words, quite.
"Oh, Crowley," said Aziraphale, and kissed him, and put his arms up around him at last, tighter and tighter, and didn't let go.
Under the covers was warm and smelled sweet. Crowley's arm was thrown over a wing and an arm, his hand resting in the centre of a warm chest. He drifted round a few metres below consciousness, reflecting in a hazy, disconnected way on goodness, badness, Aziraphale and himself, temptation, love, Aziraphale, happiness, contentment, Aziraphale, knowledge and self-knowledge, the rather embarrassingly nice phrase "homelike," sex, and Aziraphale. Aziraphale's body was smooth and satisfyingly real and ordinary all over, if rather soft round the middle. His wings desperately needed grooming, though. It wasn't that Crowley didn't like having feathers tickle his nose, but he'd have to take care of that soon, he decided.
Outside the covers the air was unpleasantly cool and the sun unpleasantly bright, Crowley knew without looking or feeling. "We should get up," said Aziraphale worriedly, "It's nearly one o'clock."
Crowley thought being mildly worried must just be in Aziraphale's nature. "Admit it," he said. "You liked sleep."
It sounded like Aziraphale was smiling. "It wasn't all bad, but I'm not sure why you're so addicted to it."
"Sloth," said Crowley simply, running his fingers wickedly through the feathers of Aziraphale's wings, slowly, from elbow to wing-tip. He was fairly well awake now.
"Oooooooooh," Aziraphale sighed. "Are you quite sure — ahh — this is a good idea, dear boy?"
"Possssitively," Crowley hissed, massaging the small intersection of tight muscles where Aziraphale's wings joined his back and pressing his thumbs in the hollows under the tendons.
"Ahhh," said Aziraphale, and stopped.
"Out with it, angel," he said, careful not to sound apprehensive. "What is it?"
Aziraphale let his head hang forward and rolled over on his front. "Nothing," he said in a muffled voice, "I suppose. If you're quite sure you're all right with it, dear?"
Crowley threw a leg over Aziraphale's and pressed himself down the length of his back. Aziraphale's wings were relaxed and spread easily out of the way. "I," Crowley said, "am not going anywhere." He wrapped his hands carefully around the angel's hips and buried his face under his ear. "Nowhere, for —" Crowley broke off and tried to suppress a small shiver which came out of nowhere and took him by surprise, and couldn't quite. He lay still there, waiting for it to pass and wondering what was the matter with him.
"Crowley?" Aziraphale murmured.
Crowley didn't answer, and in a moment he felt the angel's damp plump fingers lacing through his, and squeezing them gently.
Aziraphale dislodged him with some effort, since Crowley was clinging, and rather desperately kissing his neck. But he moved to face him at last, and Crowley was astonished to see he was smiling knowingly. Aziraphale understood more than he let on. The hard knot in Crowley's chest melted away, just like that.
It must be the damned human body — didn't know what it was doing, Crowley told himself. But he wouldn't turn it off quite yet.
Aziraphale opened his arms, and went pliantly when Crowley pulled him close and hid his face in the soft, somewhat loose skin of his neck. "My dear," he murmured, stroking Crowley's back and his hair slowly and so gently that the squishiness in Crowley's ribs grew terrifyingly great. "My dear, it's all right, you know. It's all right. It's lovely. This body feels so strange, and amazing. I'm so glad, Crowley. I wouldn't have — ah."
Crowley squeezed tightly around the angel's ribs, but Aziraphale squeezed back even harder. They forgot the covers. Two pairs of wings wrapped round them and blocked out all the sun.
At 10:30 am on Tuesday morning Crowley strolled through the doors of Aziraphale's sparkling refurbished shop with his hands in his pockets. "Hello," he said, and lounged up on a rack of books that became suddenly sturdy enough to hold his weight. "I was in the neighbourhood."
"Really," Aziraphale murmured over the top of his book, "I thought you said you were tied up defeating that large anti-trust suit in America this week."
Crowley made a face. "The judge's called a recess. He wanted to go golfing in someplace called Martha's Vineyard. I think it was a family emergency of some kind, actually."
"So you came to buy a book," said Aziraphale, raising an eyebrow.
"Where are the adult books?" said Crowley wickedly. "I thought I'd borrow one. You see, I know the shop owner. I think he'll let me away with it. He can never resist a soul in torment."
"He sounds like a very impressionable fellow," said Aziraphale, indicating the modern fiction.
"So," continued Crowley, "Can I tempt you to close up shop for a bit and come to the Ritz for lunch? I know how you dislike to scare away possible customers, but it's in an excellent cause. The human body's appetite for food is increased by regular sex." Outside someone paused to look at the sign in the window, which discovered it was suddenly markedly more dingy. "Or would you rather just sit here surrounded by highly-coloured bodice rippers...?" He picked one of his additions to the shelf at random.
Aziraphale squinted at the cover of the book and seemed surprised.
Crowley read aloud, "His square, callused hands prised apart her flowerlike thighs — flowerlike, mark you — the delicate chartreuse silk ripping under the brutal fingers... ." He scanned the rest of the page rapidly and turned it over, and found his own eyebrows rising at its contents. "My, my, Aziraphale," he said, grinning evilly.
"What's so very bad about the healthy expression of human affection?" said Aziraphale, trying not to sound irritated.
"Sensationalise and titillate," Crowley grinned, "That's part of what the forces of evil — that is, what I — do. You'd be surprised how much repression and anger you can create that way."
"Would I?" said Aziraphale equably, but he looked over Crowley's shoulder.
"What was that you were saying about the healthy expression of human affection?" said Crowley, as Aziraphale scanned down the page. "Do you practise what you preach?"
Aziraphale looked momentarily surprised, then considering. "Well," he said, "I suppose you could tempt me into it."
Crowley shut and locked the door with a wave and put the novel down on the counter, and they went to try out some more healthy expressions of affection.
Later, feeling even more pleased with himself than usual, Crowley strolled along the streets of Soho with Aziraphale at his side on his way to buy real food at a supermarket. Aziraphale's personal scruples about miracling things for himself were odd, but he was very set in them and insisted on keeping his refrigerator full of all kinds of things — many of which had been there for years without ever becoming over-ripe.
Outside a rather unimpressive establishment called Europa Food they saw an unfortunate shopper suddenly skid and fall, her feet going out from under her.
"Oh dear," Aziraphale said, rushing to help her up. "Are you all right, miss?"
"Um, yes thanks," she said, looking at him askance, which Aziraphale didn't appear to notice. The number of humans who assumed his oozing pleasantness masked some inner evil would have truly astonished and dismayed Aziraphale; Crowley found it a bottomless source of amusement.
He kicked a lemon rind into the gutter. Aziraphale glared at him.
"You might want to soak your hand," Crowley told her obligingly, while Aziraphale picked up and dusted off her bag of groceries.
The angel peeked into the bag and said brightly, "Nothing damaged!" Crowley rolled his eyes.
"Thanks," said the woman again, straightened her glasses and hurried about her business.
"Really, my dear. You shouldn't laugh at people like that," Aziraphale said.
"Me? What did I say?" Crowley sniggered, as they entered the shop. "I'd just never seen anyone wave their arms like that."
Aziraphale lingered interminably over cabbages, spring onions and tomatoes. Crowley tapped his foot. Two shoppers slipped in a wet spot by the carrots and fell, a man entertained lustful thoughts about the sixteen-year-old girl stocking apples, and three people outside cursed as their mobile phones ceased to function.
With a grin for the girl in the shop uniform smock, Crowley reached out to extract from the pile of weak-flavoured and splotchy granny smiths a rosy pink apple that just precisely filled the palm of his hand. He offered it to Aziraphale, who murmured, "Thank you, dear," and held out the basket for it absently.
Crowley scowled and the girl, who had been admiring his cheekbones, hurried away.
He was ready to leave after the produce but Aziraphale lingered in the condiments and then finally insisted on buying a loaf of bread. "Brown or white?" he dithered.
"I don't mind," Crowley snapped, crossing his arms. Aziraphale put brown in the basket and he shuddered.
One of the checkout lanes was empty. They edged around two people queued in the next line over and Aziraphale handed his basket to the young woman behind the counter. "We could go to a matinee," said Crowley, brightening. "Something really bloody and gory, perhaps, or, oh, that new Matrix film — it's full of explosions."
"Hmm," said Aziraphale dismissively, "that science fiction business, is it? I'm not sure I see the attraction."
"The attraction, angel," said Crowley, feeling put out, "is the explosions. As I already mentioned."
"Er, I'm not really keen on going to the cinema on such a lovely day," said Aziraphale. "Let's go to the park, and maybe a night-time screening."
"I'm going to hold you to that," said Crowley, who didn't mind particularly but was happy to have talked Aziraphale into it with relatively small effort. The cashier was weighing Aziraphale's head of lettuce and had opened a plastic-front binder which was full of a list of product codes. Crowley lowered his voice and leaned close to Aziraphale's ear. "Now that that's sorted out, want to go back to your flat for more mind-blowing sex?"
The cashier looked at him as if she hadn't quite heard. He gave her a bright and cheery grin and smirked evilly at Aziraphale.
The angel didn't look up at him but waited serenely with one perfectly-manicured hand resting on the edge of the counter.
Finally the girl had put everything into paper sacks and was murmuring to herself counting change out of the register drawer.
Aziraphale had evidently just been biding his time. He turned to Crowley then. "My dear," he said conversationally, "that wasn't my mind."
Crowley hadn't even known Aziraphale knew that expression.
He walked out of the supermarket in a state of some shock. Aziraphale was carrying all the bags, and seemed to be smiling somewhat more brightly than usual.
They deposited the food in Aziraphale's flat and had a long walk around the pond in St. James's park. They didn't bring any bread with them, but when the ducks looked up hopefully Aziraphale guiltily produced a brown paper bag from behind his back.
"Good enough for the ducks but not for us?" said Crowley grinning, and broke a bit off the loaf. He tossed it at a drake. It knocked into the drake's head, stunning it somewhat, and fell in the water, and another duck ate it before it could turn soggy and sink.
Aziraphale smiled. "Are you hungry?" he said solicitously. "We could go... "
"No, no." Crowley put his hands in his pockets. "That's all right."
It was an ordinary day. In St. James's park, a man realised he'd forgotten his keys in his car, and discovered his mobile phone wasn't working when he tried to dial a locksmith. A jogger making a circuit of the park with her labrador off the leash discovered he wasn't so well-trained as she'd thought. A group of university students avoided classes and all thoughts of real life for another day playing football in the grass, but not sticking too closely to the rules. A puppy lying with a broken hip under some bushes near the footpath regained consciousness when a large wet nose nudged her gently under the ribs, and a woman picked her up carefully and cradled her in strong bare arms. A nightingale sang so quietly to herself in a tree that no one heard at all, not even the two man-shaped creatures walking just under the tree who were anything but ordinary.