It was a properly rainy day: with thick blue-grey clouds cluttering the sky, plump droplets stuttering out a drowsy staccato against the muted glass of the bookshop’s impressively dirty windows, and even a bit of clever wind sneaking in through the eyebrow-raising piping and exuding spine-chilling breathy whines out of the corners.
Aziraphale, sitting behind the counter in a jumper, his thickest tweed jacket and a woollen tartan scarf, beamed at the door. No sane human being would buy a rare expensive book in such weather, risking an attempt to carry it home untouched.
Smugly, as though the rain was in any measure his own doing, he raised his cocoa-filled china cup and took a generous sip. Then, with a slight sniff of content, his gaze slunk down to his copy of Coena Cypriani.
The excellence of the moment was broken abruptly by the jarring, dreadful sound of Aziraphale’s age-old rusty bell.
Entirely indignant—because really, it’s one thing to have a customer, it’s another to have a customer who is clearly an idiot—Aziraphale snapped up, scowling.
His expression cleared almost instantly, ‘Oh, it’s you. Thanks Heavens, I thought—but anyway, come on in, dear boy—I didn’t know you were in London today? Dreadful weather, isn’t it!’
Crowley looked as if he wasn’t quite sure what he was doing in the spot he had assumed. He wore a black high-collared coat and an oddly hazy expression of the sparse area of face that was visible between his sunglasses and a tightly wound cashmere scarf. He was also a little flushed, as though he’d been out in the cold for too long, which only served to reaffirm the angel in his original notion of perfectly unpleasant conditions outside.
With a slight lag, Aziraphale registered that Crowley offered no verbal reply to his welcome, either. Remaining in good spirits nonetheless, after having avoided the dreary instance of entertaining a customer, he mused, ‘I am rather busy, you understand, but, well—I’m sure a nice cup would do us both good—may I fix you something?’
‘Mm?’ said Crowley, swaying a little.
Aziraphale rephrased, patiently. ‘Tea, Crowley, would you like some tea?’
‘Oh. Nuh.’ He swayed a little more.
And then, ‘Don’t … trouble yourself,’ Crowley replied at length—again, quite uncertainly. His voice was mysteriously muffled, ‘I’ll just … sit here for a bit, yeah? You don’t … mind me.’
Upon this proclamation, he made two somewhat wobbly steps and deposited himself on the cushioned windowsill adjacent to Aziraphale’s counter.
Come to think of it, it was a very odd thing to say—even for Crowley, who tended to say a lot of odd things—but the angel was much too keen on returning to his manuscript to actually take his time to properly dwell on this.
And, well. It was Crowley they were talking about, after all.
‘Suit yourself, dear boy,’ he thus replied instead, brightly, resuming his scrutiny of the text. ‘And listen to this: I got my hands on the original version, which predates—’
All was well.
The newly restored peace was marred no more than ten minutes later, by nothing else than Crowley’s own forehead, which collided with Aziraphale’s shoulder with a muted ‘pat’ sound and a mild rush of warmth.
Aziraphale inhaled sharply, quite startled. What on Earth. What on—Earth.
Trying—and failing—not to grow too visibly flustered, he attempted to carry on with his soliloquy, falling into a slight stutter. ‘And—ah—you see, there was a minsprint, what I mean is, a mistranslation, a mis—misplacement—mis—gh, Crowley, whatareyoudoing.’
In retrospect, Aziraphale had to admit asking that particular question may not have been the best way of pretending not to be bothered by any of this, but presently he found the lingering presence of Crowley’s strangely warm head on his shoulder simply too distracting to safely ignore.
Crowley didn’t deign him with an answer.
An entirely unwelcome shiver traveled up Aziraphale’s spine. He sniffed. ‘Now, really, Crowley, lay off this teas—I mean, this twaddle,’ he said, rather distressed.
‘Crowley. I’m serious.’
In response, Crowley exhaled with a snuffle and seemed to slump a little more against the angel’s shoulder. It was exactly that highly unnerving breathy sound that told Aziraphale something was not exactly as it should be.
Suspicious, he hazarded a sideways glance at the demon. His forehead was pressed up against Aziraphale’s upper arm now, and his usually meticulously coiffed hair ruffled up at an odd angle. His shades had slid down his nose and were now hanging from its pointy tip. His eyes were closed, mouth slightly open.
Aziraphale paused. Good gracious. For all intends and purposes, Crowley had fallen asleep on him.
Now, that was a first.
‘Crowley,’ Aziraphale repeated, in a somewhat steadier—if still uncomfortable—voice, poking the demon gently on the shoulder. ‘Wake up. Crowley.’
Aziraphale frowned. Suddenly, the revelation did not seem as relieving as originally thought: why on Earth would Crowley do that? Somehow, the angel doubted he made a particularly comfortable pillow, and Crowley was anything if not a sybarite.
He studied the demon sceptically for a moment, debating the semiotic difference between falling asleep and passing out and how either could translate into reality.
Upon arriving at the conclusion that there was a difference, and the difference was considerable, Aziraphale eased Crowley back from the table and onto the windowsill. Properly concerned now, he quickly manoeuvred his way from behind the counter and made a beeline for the backlot.
The sound Crowley’s forehead hitting the desk with a hollow thud was what stopped him in his tracks.
‘Oh dear,’ Aziraphale said. ‘Oh, goodness. Crowley. Er, I didn’t mean to—’
If Crowley minded, however, he didn’t let it show. In fact, he remained rather picturesquely in the same position: located at the very edge of the windowsill, with his face pressed squarely into the desk and one of his gloved hands hanging limply by one bony knee.
Taken slightly aback, Aziraphale paused for a moment to take in the sight.
Then, quite softly, he said, ‘Crowley, you foolish thing, what have you done.’
Aziraphale didn’t ponder too extensively on the physics that would inevitably be involved in the process of carrying Crowley upstairs to his bedroom before factually attempting to do it.
This proved to be a mistake.
Crowley was, for one, much heavier than he appeared to be. Or perhaps it was just that Aziraphale had very limited experience with testing his assessment of people’s weight and simply assumed that something this … this spindly and slim should not weigh all that much.
But Crowley was tall. And he did weigh quite a bit.
(That it was a sort of pleasant weight was a different matter altogether: he was heavy in a warm, pliant way, as he allowed Aziraphale to pull him up to his feet and then sank languidly forward, toppling against the angel. Inviting long limbs, a tickle of soft hair and warm breath landing somewhere on the side of Aziraphale’s neck. He smelled nice, too, in some vaguely familiar, hard-to-describe way. Like … like Crowley.)
A pleasant weight. Or, put differently, a scary weight, considering that Aziraphale seemed to have momentary trouble actually remembering what he was intending to after being subjected to the instance of Crowley slouched all over him.
‘I am so going to regret this,’ he finally mumbled to no one in particular, coming to his senses, before attempting to hoist Crowley up and staggering towards the spiral staircase.
Staggering was an apt description, as he made a somewhat unplanned swerve and the straight way to the stairs turned treacherously elliptic. Part of it could surely be blamed on Crowley, who had emitted some sort of a mild, muttery sound into the crook of Aziraphale’s neck, causing the angel to twitch violently and lose his balance.
Straining to keep them both upright and more than a little embarrassed, Aziraphale snapped, ‘You could be a little more cooperative, you know. I’m doing you a favour, you blasted snake.’
There came no response.
‘Honestly, Crowley,’ Aziraphale said again, sternly, trying to aim blindly for the first without becoming distracted by Crowley’s hand sliding limply somewhere down his back. ‘Get a grip.’
‘Mhh,’ said Crowley—which, again, registered as an odd tingling sensation of warmth on the side of Aziraphale’s neck, where the demon’s head was currently nestled.
‘You’re dreadful,’ Aziraphale said, with feeling.
What am I doing to myself, he thought. Why am I doing this. Why are you so warm.
The first step creaked audibly and Aziraphale tried not to sway.
‘Good Lord,’ Aziraphale managed to whinge as he finally deposited Crowley on the inconspicuous, blue-sheeted creaky bed.
The bedroom was small, sunk in drowsy bluish half-light and cosy—that is, if you think that cosy and dusty go together. Aziraphale did—he didn’t tend to spend much time in the room in any case, considering it something of an emergency detour.
But it was definitely rather nice.
He did not, however, have a chance to dwell on this discovery for too long, for there was a much more pressing matter at hand.
Crowley, while still apparently comatose, had somehow managed to wrap himself so thoroughly around Aziraphale on their way up, that any attempt at dropping him onto the mattress without being pulled down as well proved futile.
And hence, quite defeated, Aziraphale found himself lying in a warm tangle of Crowley and blankets. He felt a little stunned.
‘Are you hibernating?’ he managed to ask, faintly, after a moment. ‘Is it a … is it a snake thing?’
As no response was delivered, except for another slight snuffle, Aziraphale propped himself up firmly on one elbow and tugged at the blue blanket poking out from beneath Crowley, trying to yank it out and wrap around the demon.
‘If we’re doing this, we’re bloody doing this,’ he said menacingly. ‘I’m bloody tucking you in.’
Unfortunately, even such a threat did not seem to bother Crowley in the slightest.
Impatiently, Aziraphale miracled the demon’s coat, gloves and scarf away—risky move, came an instant alarmed thought as he was hit with a much more intense dose of Crowley’s dizzying scent and a bit of very warm skin—and then gave the blanket another sharp tug.
Fruitlessly. The attempt at leaning away and leaving the blanket in his wake only resulted in Aziraphale being tugged back down onto Crowley.
‘Ghh,’ Aziraphale managed into Crowley’s shirt, trying futilely to raise himself up.
‘Asee-ahffl,’ came from somewhere above.
‘Bless you,’ Aziraphale said with considerable difficulty, trying to disentangle himself from Crowley, whose one long leg was somehow hooked around his calf, and one long arm wrapped inconspicuously around his waist.
‘Nuh,’ Crowley said again, moving sluggishly. ‘Assiraffle.’
And he clung a little tighter.
At this—dubiously conscious, but undoubtedly purposeful—display, Aziraphale found himself virtually unable to put up another shred of a fight. With a deep sigh, he stopped squirming and stilled.
Crowley was warm.
‘Oh, alright,’ Aziraphale said, wretchedly, ‘have it your way, you old serpent.’
The serpent in question emitted something of a sleepy sigh into Aziraphale’s collar. Aziraphale tried very hard not to appreciate the way it felt.
Crowley came around sometime an hour later, which Aziraphale—who had himself become uncannily drowsy and cosy by that time, going as far as closing his eyes and inhaling leisurely—perceived through a twitchy stirring followed by a sharp elbow straight to his ear.
‘Ouch,’ he groaned out.
The twitchy movement below stilled abruptly. There was a very tense sort of silence.
Aziraphale braced himself and looked up, only to find Crowley peering at him blearily through his hazy yellow eyes. His fringe was sticking up at a funny angle.
‘… hhoo?’ he said, quite icoherently. Then he squinted a little. ‘Wha’s—what on—Asssiraphale?’
Aziraphale closed his eyes. ‘In the flesh,’ he said, morosely.
I mean, how else did you expect his situation to unfold? a little conscientious voice in his head, sounding suspiciously like Gabriel’s, piped up, which Aziraphale instantly hushed.
‘D’we get drunk?’ Crowley meanwhile inquired, voice impossibly sleepy. He kept opening his eyes and closing them again, relentlessly—uneven, slowed down, owlish blinks—which looked both very uncharacteristic and oddly endearing on him.
Which Aziraphale would very much prefer not to think about in present conditions.
‘Not that I’m aware of, no,’ he said, dejectedly.
‘Then. Uh.’ Crowley seemed to contemplate something in deep focus for a while. He closed his eyes for a longer while. ‘Unh. But you’re lyin’ on top of me.’
Aziraphale very much wanted to discorporate. ‘Yes,’ he said, tersely.
Crowley thought upon it. ‘M’still wearing m’shoes,’ he then remarked, sluggishly, moving the leg that hung from the bed legs vaguely in the air. Aziraphale’s face instantly heated up.
‘Oh, pardon me, Crowley, was I supposed to undress you?’ he snapped.
Crowley blinked once more, very slowly. ‘Dunno,’ he said, thickly. ‘Were you?’
Quite disarmed by how profoundly unanswerable such a reply was, Aziraphale opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it. He felt entirely thrown off balance.
Crowley didn’t seem to register that. He was evidently trying to arrive at some conclusion, a mild frown of concentration on his hazy face. Finally, he asked, ‘But then. Then. Why are you lyin’ on top of me?’
Well, there it was. Crowley did not, at least, sound particularly enraged or disgusted, which was a considerable improvement from Aziraphale’s expectations. As a matter of fact, he sounded vaguely curious.
Aziraphale considered whether there was any sort of a dignified response that could be delivered. Ultimately settling for no, he opted for a truthful, if somewhat roundabout way of putting the matter in words, ‘Because you … didn’t want me to get up?’
(An excuse that would surely not become utter gibberish in the sober light of day, that is.)
‘I did?’ Crowley said faintly. Then, rather more quietly. ‘Oh. So I did.’
There was a silence. Crowley exhaled heavily, his eyes falling back closed.
‘Crowley,’ Aziraphale instantly intervened, heart heavy but a deep-sealed sense of duty still prevailing somewhere inside him. ‘While we’re on the topic. Would you be so kind as to tell me what on Earth—’
‘Wait,’ Crowley interrupted suddenly, his eyes fluttering open. He moved, as though to sit up, but changed his mind midway through and slumped back downwards. ‘There was sssomething.’
‘Something?’ Aziraphale inquired patiently.
‘The plan. The—plan. The—uh, you know. ‘Bout the dolphins.’
‘It’s not about the—’ Aziraphale bit his tongue before it was too late, and corrected himself, ‘What I mean is, the Ineffable Plan, yes. What about it, Crowley?’
After another moment of thorough thinking, Crowley said, ‘I’ve been doin’ research.’
Once again, Aziraphale was quite taken aback. ‘Research,’ he repeated. ‘Research … on what?’
‘On the ineffi—infi—fffee—’
‘Mm. I’ve been thinkin’ about.’ A moment of hesitation. ‘Y’know, stuff. What we do. N’how we do it. Choosin’ stuff, do we—how’s it work for us. Does it.’
‘The question of whether we have free will or not,’ Aziraphale guessed with a frown, ‘which is a considerably broad topic, Crowley, are you sure you want to discuss it right no—’
‘Nuh, wait. S’not—I’ve got it worked out.’
‘Oh?’ Aziraphale debated the odds of managing to sneak out of the bed unnoticed while Crowley delivered his solution to the grand puzzle of their existence, and getting the demon to actually swallow down some tea. ‘What is it, then?’
Crowley inhaled deeply. ‘S’like birdsong.’
There was a pause.
‘Birdsong,’ Aziraphale said, blankly.
‘Yeah,’ Crowley sighed, peering hazily at the cracked blue ceiling.
He looked, Aziraphale involuntarily noted, wonderfully, uncharacteristically discomposed: tousled hair, bleary bright eyes, this slight pinkish tinge to his cheeks. Mouth parted. Such absolutely tempting disarray, and not even … conscious.
Aziraphale fiercely resisted the urge to do something quite audacious.
Crowley, meanwhile, enunciated very carefully, ‘You acquire it … through life.’
Aziraphale couldn’t quite stop himself. ‘You might have, Crowley, I’ve done no such thing.’
‘You’re awful,’ Crowley told him, earnestly. ‘Don’tgoanywhere,’ he then added, very quickly and sounding somewhat panicked—which quite spoiled the effect.
‘Alright,’ Aziraphale allowed, by now feeling mostly amused.
‘What I mean is,’ Crowley said relentlessly, after making sure Aziraphale was not attempting to flee by locking a bony ankle around the angel’s calf.
‘S’like … s’like, not instinct, you know? S’like … s’like when you get told to go back ’n care of the satanists and then you go ’n try and you just say—you understand, you just go n’say I’ll do no such thing, ‘cos they’re worse than Hastur, they are, and then they say, well then you’re out of here, lad, you’re well out of here and—and …’
There was a very strained pause. Crowley’s eyes were screwed shut. There was a slight sheen of sweat on his forehead. Finally, he managed, ‘Aziraphale.’
Aziraphale, who was watching him worriedly for quite a bit of time now, asked, ‘Yes, Crowley?’
‘M’not feeling very well,’ Crowley inhaled sharply. ‘M’not—well.’
‘Yes, Crowley, I noticed. In fact, if only I could check—’
‘I wouldn’t dare,’ Aziraphale assured him, gravely. ‘I meant, if I could only check your temperature—’
‘S’high,’ Crowley revealed, tightening his grip on Aziraphale’s arm. ‘Can tell. And I mean, fair enough s’high.’
Aziraphale’s brow furrowed. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I mean, fair’nough, sort of to be expected, I mean, s’still holy water we’re talking about, am I right or am I not,’ Crowley muttered, letting his head fall back limply onto Aziraphale’s pillow and closing his eyes.
In a terrifying second, Aziraphale’s blood ran cold. He factually stopped breathing.
‘What did you say?’ he managed to breathe out at last, in sheer terror. ‘Holy water?’
‘Yeah,’ Crowley said. ‘Went’n—dipped right in. Buggerthat.’
Trembling, Aziraphale propelled himself on his elbows, ignoring Crowley’s faint protests and staring at the demon in silent horror: he still looked flushed and rumpled, but definitely still alive, so perhaps there was yet hope—no disfigurements—no … no melting, in any case—but oh God how many time has already passed since the stupid bumbling precious idiot came into the shop that Aziraphale could’ve spent trying to beg the Heavens to spare him—
‘But Crowley,’ Aziraphale whispered, ‘you’re dying.’
There was a moment’s pause. Then Crowley sniffed, ‘Nuh. Don’t think so.’
‘No, ‘cos I—’ he paused. ‘Consented myself into it.’
Aziraphale’s mind went entirely blank. ‘You—what?’
‘Con-ditioned,’ Crowley pronounced slowly. He moved slightly, as though meaning to sit up, but his head dropped back to rest on one of Aziraphale’s forearms, like he didn’t quite have the strength to pull off the entirety of the movement. He tried to focus his eyes on the angel. ‘As in, bit by bit. Because, because remember Hastur?’
‘Yes, I do,’ Aziraphale said forcefully, still acutely anxious.
Crowley took a deep breath. ‘See, Hastur thought there wasn’t—that there wasn’t holy water in the plant mister, and I thought there probably wasn’t, cos—it dripped, yeah, and it didn’t burn me? But, no. No, Aziraphale, that was holy water, ‘cos it shrivelled up that devil’s snare I got from Hell and it just got me thinkin’ that maybe I’ve got some sort of resistance thing and—and. I tried to do it in, like, stages. Like doses. Bits. Only I dropped the bowl last time and it splashed all over me.’
He made a very vague gesture with one hand that could have signalled anything from splashing to performing the royal wave.
‘Holy water. Splashed all over you,’ Aziraphale repeated in rapt amazement, staring at Crowley, who was looking back through hooded eyes. ‘And you’re not dead.’
‘Thought I was, for a bit,’ Crowley admitted in a hushed voice, as though conspiratorially. ‘Just sort of … stayed there on the carpet waiting to dissolve. I, uh … didn’t, though.’
‘And then?’ Aziraphale said, breathlessly.
‘And then … then I think I got up and went to see you. Don’t know. I don’t really … remember. Think I just wanted to tell you.’
‘Tell me …?’
‘That I’m, you know,’ Crowley’s voice got a little breathy once again, as though strained by the effort of coherent speaking, ‘bit good now. Sort of.’
There was a silence. Aziraphale found himself entirely, profoundly unable to speak.
‘Think I’m still bit allergic too, though,’ Crowley continued after a while, with a sniff. He closed his eyes. ‘Cause I’m not feeling very well, y’know.’
‘Crowley,’ Aziraphale said, choked up.
He didn’t open his eyes. ‘Yeah.’
Crowley made a rather catlike sound. ‘Mm?’
‘Yes.’ And after a while, gravely. ‘Utterly.’
Crowley smiled hazily. ‘Mm.’
‘And … and now you will shut up, drink my tea, and let me tuck you in,’ Aziraphale said, as sternly as his shaky voice allowed.
With a mild sigh of defeat, Crowley loosened his grip on the angel, who managed to get up from the bed and stagger up to the night table.
He felt acutely cold after Crowley’s feverish limb-lock, but still entirely dazed and different-kind-of-warm all the same. What he needed was … what he needed was some time to process it all.
Time, yes. Time and distance, because this was getting a bit too much—ah, better not go down that road. For now. And Crowley—who was now moving on the bed, the rustling of the sheets told Aziraphale, getting under the blankets and getting comfortable, and wouldn’t it be nicer to just join him—would sleep. Sleep and rest, yes, and Aziraphale should really leave him to it. And—and leave in general. Leave this room.
He reached dazedly down for his cup of absent-mindedly miracled tea which waited conveniently on the night table and took an entirely distracted sip.
‘… and then you’ll undress me?’ came a faint, hopeful question from behind him.
Aziraphale choked on his tea.