So, maybe he’d noticed it a little with the ice lolly. Dear Lord, Aziraphale had thought, letting the first lick melt slowly across his tongue, this is the best ice lolly I’ve ever had. It was so cold. Ice lollies weren’t usually his thing but for obvious reasons he was having to undergo a change of style today. The texture of the surface – rough and slick at the same time, the way the frost pulled at the skin of his lips a little, sticking – it was absolutely enchanting.
The temperature differential made a feeling like laughter bubble up in his chest. It was so dramatically different from the inside of his cheek as he savoured that there-and-gone again sweetness of each millimetre thin coating of strawberry. Being an angel, he could taste the mathematics of the thing, the fractal structure of frozen crystals destabilising in the warmth of his mouth, the chemical components of the flavouring juxtaposed against the tiny fraction of real fruit extract. The taste of it was like nothing he’d ever had before. He’d eaten this very ice lolly in St James Park at least forty times (even though it wasn’t his favourite, sometimes Crowley ordered it for him out of spite). Aziraphale had eaten ice cream generally on six-hundred and twenty-three separate occasions. And yet… it was undoubtedly like nothing he’d ever had before.
He was a half second from musing to Crowley on the subject, but that was when they saw the grim spectre of DEATH arrive, and he discovered that Crowley had disappeared and he was bid to put on his show of fear. They came for him a half-second later and he rather forgot all about the mysteriously delicious ice lolly in the ensuing dramatic scenes which followed.
He didn’t think of it again until late Sunday afternoon. He was busy re-shelving books which had re-corporated themselves into slightly more easily-purchasable positions than Aziraphale was comfortable with. The fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 was a few minutes in when he began, quite suddenly, to cry uncontrollably.
He had been thinking about how tragic the music was, how absolutely amazing and bizarre and terrible and sweet it was that something could be both beautiful and sad at the same time, or both ugly and happy. What a strange phenomenon that it was only possible here on Earth for two things which were not side-by-side to be made side-by-side through art. His chest filled up with a lot of adjectives until the awful glory of it all was so big that there was no-where for it to go except up and out of his mouth in huge, heaving sobs.
Crowley observed this sudden change from his position sitting sideways on a chair in the dimmest corner of the shop, perusing ‘Hello!’ magazine for any particularly good bits of gossip. He was extremely alarmed. Not that he’d ever admit it, but he was perhaps feeling the slightest bit more protective than usual. Not that either of them would ever admit it, but it was possible that neither had gone out of each other’s sight for more than five minutes since they’d both been placed firmly back on Earth to be ignored by their respective head offices.
“Angel!” Crowley said, kneeling next to Aziraphale sprawled across the floor and tentatively placing one hand in the centre of his heaving back, just where his wings would have emerged from his shoulder bones had they currently existed on this plane. “What’s happening? I don’t feel anything!”
“Can’t you hear his…” Aziraphale was gasping, trying to get the sentence out. “His yearning, the poor man’s yearning. He’s so alone, he feels he is not in the right but he can’t help the yearning, it’s too much for him to bear and if he can’t bear it how can I?”
Crowley sat back on his heels. “Wait,” he said, squinting. “Are you crying at the symphony?”
Aziraphale continued to writhe around, wailing. “The third violinist on this recording! No one ever loved her and she knew it, lord save her,” he cried, pitiably. “Such loneliness!”
Unfortunately for him, Crowley was no longer offering out pity on this occasion. “What has gotten into you?” he said, standing up and cocking his hips, irritated.
He lifted the needle from the record and Aziraphale took a few moments to recover, wiping the tears from his eyes and then sitting up, slowly.
“I was really feeling that one,” he said, ponderously. “Almost like I’d never heard it before.”
“Huh,” Crowley said. He peered over the top of his glasses, inspecting Aziraphale intently. Aziraphale wasn’t generally known for having hysterics. That was more Crowley’s shtick, if it was ever either of theirs. But he could remember a few occasions which had brought about similar conniptions. “I’ve had a thought,” Crowley said.
“I don’t think I’m emotionally prepared for you to have had a thought,” Aziraphale said, dubiously.
“Ha!” Crowley muttered, distracted as he prowled around the bookshop, evidently searching for something. “Yes, that’s exactly it. Emotional preparedness. You’ve got the right idea.”
“I rather think I haven’t,” Aziraphale said, pouting fetchingly.
Crowley narrowed his eyes. “Don’t try to flirt your way out of this,” Crowley said.
“Me?” Aziraphale said, affronted. “Flirt?”
Crowley was ignoring him fully now, digging into the piles of papers and ledgers covering Azirphale’s desk. Aziraphale dragged himself up to his feet, dusting off his knees fastidiously. He prodded at the books on the shelf again, hoping very hard that they’d be the same editions they’d been four days ago even though they had distinctly different bindings than he remembered. He flicked one open and smiled at it, pleased. The book had obligingly behaved itself back into a 1948 second edition.
“Aha!” Crowley announced, victorious. He was holding a box of chocolates aloft. “Eat this,” he said, flicking the selection box open and plucking out Aziraphale’s favourite from within. Aziraphale took it, though he was quite certain he’d eaten all of this particular variety out of that box already. It was best not to question Crowley when he got like this.
Aziraphale popped the chocolate into his mouth and almost, almost had a crisis of faith. Which, let’s be clear, is a much more serious matter for an angel than it is for anyone else.
“It’s so good,” he whimpered. “Oh!” He waved his hands about in desperation. Crowley put the box in Aziraphale’s hands to give them something to do. He ate two more. He couldn’t stand it. The flavour was so deep, so complex. Layers of eighty percent dark, the pure fat content of the cocoa butter in the white chocolate stripes across the top of each confection. The crunch of the hazelnut centre, coffee dark, a hint of bitterness cutting across the milk and sugar. He could taste right through the chocolate to the steaming heat of the rainforest where the beans had grown to the experienced farmer who’d harvested them, to the soft, thoughtful hands of the Belgian woman who’d poured the moulds, to her granddaughter packing the box in crisp, white tissue paper, the care in her attention to detail. And there, laid over the top of the whole thing was the gossamer memory of Crowley buying them - his desire to please Aziraphale wrapped around each piece, as transparent as cellophane.
“Well?” Crowley said.
“It’s the body, isn’t it,” Aziraphale said.
“I thought it might be,” Crowley said.
“Six-thousand years I had the last one,” Aziraphale agreed. “That’s a long time to break it in. I’d forgotten what it was like at the start.”
“Everything you do will feel like the first time.”
“The layering of an angel’s natural emotional openness and a human’s raw nerves is a lot to cope with, you know,” Aziraphale said.
“I can only imagine,” Crowley said, taking the box of chocolates back from Aziraphale before he could eat them all and experience himself back into tears again.
“I’m just warning you, my dear,” Aziraphale insisted. “We weren’t close back then. You didn’t see how I got, sometimes.”
“I just diagnosed it successfully enough,” Crowley said, raising one eyebrow. “I mean, I saw a bit.”
Aziraphale sighed. “I guess I can’t deny that.”
To be clear, Crowley did have a few points of reference - watching the angel eat honey for the the first time, for example, and of course there was the invention of wine to think of. But in this instance, Crowley was specifically meaning sex.
They’d started up with that quite early on, a long time before The Arrangement and at least a few hundred years before either of them even had any inkling that they actually liked each other.
It was just – the humans – they were completely obsessed. And they were both tasked, in their respective organisations own particular ways, with understanding. It was almost immediately evident that figuring out what was so great about sex was going to be key to understanding a good majority of humans. And neither of them were about to have sex with a human. Well at least not for the first go round when they were figuring out what it meant to make an effort. And they weren’t about to find any willing participants from their own offices. And even if they did make clear why it was necessary, taking up with one of their own would probably defeat the purpose, because to Aziraphale, there was absolutely nothing desirous about other angels and to Crowley there was absolutely nothing desirous about other demons. It was too much like – what was that word that the humans had? Inquest?
So it was clear to both angel and demon that there was a long list of creatures neither of them wanted to have sex with and that both angel and demon were in fact the only creatures not on each other’s no-go lists. Did that mean that, even in those earliest days, even before they made the effort they somehow wanted something from each other? Could it be said that if each knew what was not desirous and each knew that the other was not not-desirous than, logically-speaking, they were desirous to each other? Maybe? Maybe not. Perhaps it just boiled down to: who else exactly were they meant to do it with?
It wasn’t something that happened often. At least at first.
For both of them, sex was a lot. A demon doesn’t really have the some propensity for vulnerability as an angel, but the way a demon might feel about having sex with an angel… Well, there isn’t really anything more vulnerable Crowley could have done. Before they’d tried it, he probably wouldn’t have been able to say that he knew what the word vulnerable meant. After, it was approximately all he thought about for one-hundred and fifty years. To say that they had opened a can of worms was a massive understatement.
But, this isn’t a story about first first times with honey or wine or anything else, nor first second times or even first third times, which often have quite the story indeed, since by that point, there are rarely enough excuses to go around.
This story is about the second first times, of every kind and in all their glory, once all the excuses have been long since used up but there’s still just enough repression to get in the way of things going smoothly.
“Should we just… get on with it?” Aziraphale said. “I mean it’s not like before. I don’t need to go off and be wracked with guilt for twenty years on either side of the event. I mean, I feel differently now, or I know what I feel. And I…I…we both… Well, anyway, it might be my body’s first time, but the rest of me has done it, what-?”
“A lot of times,” Crowley said, closing the distance between them.
“Hundreds!” Aziraphale said, a little breathless, letting himself be backed up against the bookshelf.
“At leasst hundredss.” Crowley put one hand on the shelf behind Aziraphale’s head and folded the other into the lapel of Aziraphale’s jacket. He let their faces drift together, let the magnetism of bodies draw long and taught till Aziraphale’s back had just come away from the shelf and he was drifting forwards millimetre by millimetre. Their noses brushed together, the lightest of touches. Aziraphale let out the tiniest breath at the contact.
Crowley could wait no longer and he fit their mouths together. He couldn’t help but be a viciously good kisser. It went hand in hand with tempting. Aziraphale’s hands were fluttering in the air above Crowley’s hips and Crowley loosened his grip from Aziraphale’s jacket for a moment to pull them down, tugging their bodies together, leather against cotton, angular lines meeting soft.
“Mmm.” Aziraphale let his mouth open and Crowley licked inside, needy and controlling at the same time. The contradiction of it made Aziraphale think wildly of eating the strawberry ice lolly though it was not at all the same, it was just the two-things-at-once feeling again, redness and sweetness, shivering with heat.
Crowley’s hand went round the back of Aziraphale’s head, fingers sinking into hair, sifting through the fine, corn silk strands. Aziraphale experienced a moment of profound cognitive dissonance, both certain that no one had ever so much as touched his head before and remembering distinctly hundreds of times it had happened, Crowley, of course, little girls adorning him with flower crowns, the impersonal, efficient hands of barbers. Aziraphale’s head was spinning – this body didn’t know the trick of breathing and kissing at the same time.
“Go on,” Crowley murmured. “I can tell you haven’t done it yet.”
“It’s already-” Aziraphale was panting. Crowley slid his hands down Aziraphale’s sides, edged his fingertips under the hem of Aziraphale’s jumper, the tiniest hint of skin against skin. “I mean just the intimacy, alone...it’s already quite a lot,” he gasped out.
“If I’m doing it...” Crowley said, running the sharp point of his nose along Aziraphale’s throat.
“Fine, fine.” Aziraphale let his head thunk back against the bookshelf and thought a sexuality into existence. It started out as a subtle change – a fission of tension where before he’d been somehow un-self-conscious of what his body was doing. Crowley smiled like the villain he was and shifted so his leg pressed between Aziraphale’s thighs.
“Fuck,” Aziraphale grit out. Crowley kissed him again and he was spiralling rapidly. It was only the physical sensations that were new but his nerve-endings were forging connections to the mostly human body’s physical brain, which hadn’t had the chance to take the slow road to make itself up from baby to adult. It just suddenly had been and not at the behest of an all-knowing God either - but at the whim of a slightly panicked twelve-year-old who was just doing his best.
Then, there was the real crux of the problem, working at a completely different level. Though it was a very human action they were undertaking the consequences were not human in any way - the brain and the body both forming a vast array of new connections, only half scientifically explicable, linking in to the whirling, vast, unquantifiable, electric fabric of Aziraphale’s angelic self.
Crowley pushed up under the rucked-up fabric of Aziraphale’s shirt, sliding his hands along the undiscovered skin of his back. Aziraphale’s wings were confusedly trying to manifest, certain that this much feeling at once could only be the result of a threat. Aziraphale was both dizzy in the normal way and existentially dizzy. “I think I’m going to-”
He passed out. Crowley caught him before he slid even a half inch down the bookshelf. It might have been possible that he was expecting it.
When he came around a few minutes later, Crowley was putting a cold compress over his forehead and smirking at him with his special brand of infuriating arrogance.
“You know, I think we might have to work up to that,” Aziraphale said, staring at the ceiling. Some of the cobwebs were missing. There had been a nice spider living up there before the apocalypse nearly happened. Aziraphale hoped she was alright.
The Ritz was at least eighty percent a cerebral experience, so Aziraphale handled that a little better than he’d been managing with touching, smelling and looking at things generally. He kept running his fingertips along the fine edge of the linen-blend tablecloth. The starched smell of it, the way it brushed against the tops of his thighs if he sat a certain way.
“It’s a bloody tablecloth, angel,” Crowley said. It was easy to see right through his bluster. Aziraphale had had enough practise. Crowley was charmed. When it came to ordering, Crowley went for the full champagne tea, even though he usually never gave in to that since it was too ‘frou-frou’.
“Stop that,” Crowley said, watching as Aziraphale smelled the flowers in the centrepiece, put a whole sugar cube in his mouth and played at balancing the stainless steel butter knife on the point of his finger. “You look like an American tourist.”
Aziraphale sniffed with offence and put the knife back down on the table. “I can taste Sheffield’s industrial history when I touch it,” he said, conversationally. “It tastes like ringing and pride. It’s quite good.”
Crowley put his fingers on his own knife. Aziraphale was right, though the flavour to Crowley was more a burnt toffee whiff of nostalgia for a lost industrial heyday. “Huh,” Crowley said. “I must have stopped noticing it eons ago.”
Aziraphale managed to get through most of the food with a level of rhapsodical waxing that honestly wasn’t so different from an especially drunken afternoon. Crowley sprang for a very pricey second bottle of champagne and that was what finally broke Aziraphale again. He didn’t start sobbing noisily, but he went completely silent drinking it. A single tear dripped down his cheek and fell, glittering, from his chin. “It tastes like the sea as painted by Botticelli,” he said wistfully.
“Oooh,” Crowley said. “Now there’s a thought! We should go swimming!”
Crowley insisted that they drive to the good beach, which happened to be on the Costa Brava just north of Girona.
“Think of all the French service stations we can go to,” Crowley said, cajoling Aziraphale out of his pyjamas, with Aziraphale’s Mary-Poppinsish carpet bag already miraculously packed in his hands.
“I wanted a lie in this morning,” Aziraphale said, mournfully. Crowley placed a steaming mug of Earl Grey tea in his hands.
“All the roadside baguettes you can eat!” Crowley said.
“Why do you want to go so much? We’ve just got things settled again,” Aziraphale said, taking an enormous gulp of tea. “Ugh, you didn’t brew this for real. It tastes like your imagination.”
Crowley shrugged. He wasn’t sure what made him so desperate to get out of London, but he was mildly irritated with the city at the moment, since he hadn’t quite forgiven it yet for allowing the angel to be nearly killed. Over the past week he’d gotten this image of running away with Aziraphale stuck in his head but somehow even though all the things they’d need to run away from had disappeared, the image had not.
“I do like the funny self-service coffee machines they’ve got,” Aziraphale said, poking around in his walk-in wardrobe. “I slept so well last night!” Aziraphale’s muffled voice emerged from the cracked open doors. “I’d forgotten how you can feel hungry for sleep and also full of sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and the curtain was caught up in a draft coming in through the window and the night air rolled over me. I just put my face in the pillow and fell immediately back asleep. How delicious!”
Crowley crossed his arms over his chest. Perhaps he was afraid that if he didn’t, he might do something thoroughly embarrassing like hug the angel. Crowley had barely slept at all, which didn’t exactly make him tired since he slept purely for the enjoyment of it, but he was a little cranky. When he had managed to fade out in fits and starts, he’d dreamed aimlessly of fire.
They took two days over the drive. Crowley skipped them over the chunnel, since he didn’t feel like waiting around for passage. Though only a moment before the car had been quite certain it was in Dover, it was happy enough to be told that it was, in fact, in Callais.
The weather was endlessly blue and clear. Crowley pulled over to winery after winery once they hit the right regions and let Aziraphale wander around along the neat lines of gnarled vines smelling things and popping seedy grapes in his mouth until his chin was purple with the juices.
The Bentley ate up the miles, rolling over innumerable picturesque bridges and silvery rivers, through yellow fields of mustard and rapeseed. Aziraphale fell asleep intermittently and when he woke he’d tell Crowley long stories about years that had gone by when they’d not met.
“Did you ever have ambrosia?” he asked. “In ancient Greece?”
“I thought that wasn’t real,” Crowley said.
“Oh no, I invented it,” Aziraphale said. “I had some idea about reducing the power of pantheistic religion if I made ambrosia accessible to the masses. I can’t remember now. I think it was actually Gabriel’s idea but I just did the follow through. It smacks of poorly deployed economic theory.”
“Yeah, colour me surprised that a shit idea like that one came from upstairs,” Crowley said.
“Well, anyway, here,” Aziraphale said, passing Crowley a shapely glass bottle.
“What’s this-” Crowley began to ask, even as he took a sip. “Oh,” he said. “It’s like drinking sunlight.” It made his throat tight.
“Everything is like that for me, right now,” Aziraphale said. He’d rolled the window down and he was letting his hand float in the air that rushed past them as the car accelerated through the golden countryside. It was not a very Aziraphale image, and yet what else was there to do with a brand-new body in a fast car except play with the wind. Aziraphale was too clever not to take advantage. “I think I’m much worse this time around than I was the first time,” he said. “I don’t remember it being like this. Maybe it’s because Adam made the body? It could be that it’s a lot closer to human than my old one was. Or a lot further away.”
“You used to sit around on mountain tops a lot,” Crowley said.
“Did I?” Aziraphale asked. “I don’t really recall. There wasn’t quite as much happening then.”
“That’s what I mean,” he said. “I remember you used to take yourself up on some mountain top and look down on everyone for a good thirty years at a time. Now, you’re packing the same amount of living you probably used to get done in half a century into a few days.”
“I suppose,” Aziraphale said. “I feel dizzy again,” he said, yawning.
“Go to sleep, angel.”
“I’ve never accidentally fallen asleep before the last few days,” he said. There was a note of worry in his voice.
“You’re sleeping less and less,” Crowley said, checking the dashboard clock to make sure he wasn’t lying. It was tricky to prevent himself from doing it, sometimes.
Crowley put a CD in and turned the volume as far down as he could bear. It was Prokofiev’s ‘Somebody to Love’. He drank the rest of the ambrosia. He was the exact opposite of sleepy. His body was old, old, old, yet the marvel of it was that the longer it went on, the more it felt.
He was not like an angel, with a heart that was made open and bleeding, which had to be scuffed and used and scarred over to cope with the visceral human world. Instead his heart had gone the other way, once sealed in the deepest pit of his being and dredged, over thousands of years up to the surface through sheer force of will, closer and closer, more and more raw. The road rushed away beneath them and the angel was snoring very, very lightly. Crowley took a deep breath and thought about what it would feel like to fly through the loneliness of the stars and space without being alone.
They arrived at a quaint hotel right on the beach just as the sinking sun was pulling the sky down into reds and pinks. The manager would have sworn they were fully occupied until the man in the sunglasses had insisted that she double check the computer booking system.
“Vale, vale, there is one room,” the manager said, coming around the counter and collecting their bags. She ushered them upstairs. The only room free happened to have the best view.
The manager was thinking very hard about how any of this could be possible right up until the blond one patted her on the back and said, “You’re being such a dear.” She put the keys in the lock, swung the door open and squinted at the king size bed facing the window. She could have sworn this room had two singles. Why did the bed have three duvets on it? House-keeping was going to have some kind of explaining to do. “Such a dear,” the blond man said again, patting her firmly a second time.
Quite suddenly, house-keeping dropped out of her thoughts and she remembered an urgent piece of paperwork to complete downstairs. “Buenas noches!” she said, disappearing back out the door.
“Oh hell,” Crowley said. “I was going to have her bring us up a good rioja.”
“You have six cases of wine in the back of the Bentley!” Aziraphale said, putting his bag tidily away on the little suitcase stand in the corner of the room.
“I like to drink local,” Crowley said.
“Since when?” Aziraphale said, rolling his eyes. “Anyway we’re about three-hundred and sixty miles away from La Rioja.” He took his jacket off and hung it up in the wardrobe and then toed his shoes off, leaving them neatly lined up under the mirror.
“Angel,” Crowley said, testily. “I didn’t whip up that sundae of a bed for you to neatly pull back the covers and delicately climb in. I’m pretty certain that the most hedonistic physical pleasure a human body can experience is tossing themselves into a well made hotel bed with a running start.”
Aziraphale flapped his hands, warning Crowley off. “I’m just readying myself,” he said. “To really feel the comfort.”
True to his word, he removed his bowtie and placed it gently on the desk and then he turned around and launched himself into the bed. His body hovered in the air just one moment longer than physics prescribed, allowing him to land perfectly in the centre. The white duvets frothed up around him, the scent of verbena detergent and line-dried cotton rose up in the air. Aziraphale sighed with immense pleasure.
“Don’t get dizzy, again,” Crowley said. It was hard to look at Aziraphale. Contentment was shining from him so brilliantly that the light wasn’t quite metaphorical anymore.
“I’m not,” Aziraphale said, faintly. “This isn’t hedonism, by the way,” he added, burying his face in the clean sheets. “This is just... I mean She made this, so really it’s only my duty that I...I...appreciate Her creation.”
“Oh really,” Crowley said, donning a particularly lascivious smirk and stepping forward to loom over Aziraphale, letting the tip of his thin, sparkly scarf swing forward and brush the centre of Aziraphale’s chest. “I think you’ll find I made that particular bed.”
Aziraphale stared up at him, shiny-eyed with the collar of his shirt undone as it never was, the absolute textbook definition of guileless. “But She made you,” he said, quietly.
Crowley sucked in a breath and leaned back, breaking eye contact. “I’m going to get a few bottles from the Bentley,” he said.
Aziraphale’s voice was too knowing as he said, “I want that Picpoul de Pinet.”
They went down to the beach the next morning. Aziraphale’s swimming costume was royal blue with a bright yellow stripe around the thighs and a little white belt. He looked like a Swedish olympian from the turn of the century that had let himself go slightly and Crowley had trouble breathing at the sight of him emerging from the changing stalls with colourful umbrella and a good beach read tucked under his arm.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Aziraphale said, haughtily, clutching his towel. “This is a Speed Suit! It’s cutting edge.”
Crowley had no idea how he was looking at Aziraphale and he couldn’t have explained the profound emotion he was experiencing if Hastur had been holding a holy-water-filled pistol to his head. He coughed and attempted to regain his composure. “You look like you think it’s 1922,” he said.
“I did actually acquire this in 1922,” Aziraphale said. “You’ve got such an eye for couture, my dear.”
Crowley wore both a female version of his body and a slick black halter neck bikini that crossed over at the front and did a lot with a little cleavage. Women’s beach fashion was much more interesting to him, or her now, she supposed, and she had adorned herself accordingly. In Crowley’s expert opinion, her swimsuit left exactly the intended amount to the imagination. Aziraphale looked her up and down. “Be careful you don’t catch the sun,” he said. “You’re approximately the colour of cream cheese.”
“Catch the sun,” Crowley said, scoffing. “No beam of UV would dare land on me.”
They set up the umbrella and went down to the water right away. “I never swam much in the last body either,” Aziraphale said.
“Maybe that’ll be good for you,” Crowley said. “A mostly properly new sensation.”
Aziraphale let a wave wash up around his feet. “Oh!” he said. “It’s quite warm.”
“It is August on the Med,” Crowley said.
Approximately six different rivers that have been blessed feed into the Mediteranean sea, including one which runs through a culvert directly beneath the Sistine Chapel. At one time, the percentage parts per million of holy water to ordinary sea water was too high for Crowley to enter the water safely, which had been a rather upsetting and nearly deadly discovery. After all, the Med did have a lot of the best beaches and where the beaches weren’t the best, it was undeniably lined by the top wine producing countries in the world. Thankfully, a mixture of factory run-off and the rise of secularism had brought the sea back to reasonable levels of holiness around the time of the Industrial Revolution and now for any demon wading into the water it merely had the feeling of drinking the first, ultra-carbonated sip of coke from a freshly opened bottle, a feeling that Crowley had invented and was very disappointed to discover many humans were delighted by.
“Ooh,” Crowley said, putting her toes in. “Spicy.”
“What’s that?” Aziraphale asked.
“Nothing, angel,” Crowley said, stepping out into the lapping surf, till the water was coming up around her knees. “You do know how to swim, right?”
“I helped found the Royal Lifeboat service,” Aziraphale said. “Of course I know how to swim.” Aiming to prove himself, Aziraphale marched further into the water and then ducked under, speeding away from Crowley with three powerful, underwater strokes. He did appear to have a very proficient breast stroke, but as his head broke the surface he was gasping, and not from having held his breath for ten seconds.
Crowley dove down and swam as desperately to his side as she deemed was possible without looking too panicky. She got one arm around his shoulders, propping his head out of the water, not quite being able to remember at the moment whether it was possible for him to drown. Aziraphale was already putting his feet under himself, saying, with an embarrassingly reassuring voice, “It’s okay, I’m okay, it was just a shock.”
Crowley’s sunglasses had come off in her first dive beneath the surface but Aziraphale had them somehow in his hands. He brushed the wet lock of fringe that had stuck down to Crowley’s forehead out of the way and gently slid her sunglasses back into place. His fingertips brushed down Crowley’s cheek, skimming the lean line of her neck and settling on her shoulder. The strap of the bikini had somehow twisted over the wrong way. Aziraphale pulled at the string and the back of Crowley’s swimsuit came undone. Aziraphale smoothed the straps back into place and brought up his other hand, resting his wrists on Crowley’s shoulders, to re-tie the bow. “Don’t fuss at me,” Crowley said, very softly.
“I’m not,” Aziraphale murmured, smiling up at her, private and careful. “Do you want to feel it?”
“What?” Crowley asked, already half guessing.
Aziraphale took Crowley’s hand and pulled her out into the water, till they were both up to their necks. They were past the break but as each wave rolled in it lifted their feet just enough that they weren’t touching the bottom and then just as lightly, the wave passed to crash against the beach and their feet touched the seafloor again.
Aziraphale did the thing he had done before which Crowley had somehow known he would do the second he took her hand and was bracing herself for. In some ways it was like extending his angelic, pure-white wing over Crowley’s body and in most other ways it was utterly inexplicable.
Being subsumed into an angel’s grace was not at all like the burn of 0.00001 part holy water per million and it was not at all like the burn of consecrated ground. It was made to protect, but not to drive out. To Crowley, the feeling was something akin to pulling your Bentley onto the hard shoulder because it’s mid June and there’s a summer thunderstorm and the rain is coming down so hard it’s literally carving potholes in the motorway and all the traffic has drawn to a standstill, but somehow you know you’re perfectly safe, because you’re inside your car and the rain and lightning and everything bad that ever happened in the universe from the beginning of time to the end is not about to notice your pocket of total stillness and get in the car with you.
“Go under, don’t worry, I’ve got you.” Aziraphale said. “You just need to listen.”
Crowley closed her eyes, sank down under the water and listened.
She could hear them all. Everyone. Everything. Anything that was in the ocean or an ocean-connected body of water was there: legs kicking, hearts pumping, deep sea vents boiling, sharks hunting, kelp swaying, children laughing bubbly under-water laughter, sting rays sleeping a half-centimetre under the sand, coral building itself inch by inch, trying to hold out against a too-hot sea, the water cycle turning, waves crashing, bodies swimming, ice caps melting, seals flashing through silvered sunlight, urchins crawling with purple viciousness, fishermen collecting, deep sea trenches widening, bears catching fish, cuttlefish darting, whales singing.
Crowley broke free of Aziraphale’s grasp, sliding out from the ethereal umbrella of his power and kicked back up, sucking in a huge breath of air as she broke the surface. She wasn’t crying, but it was only because she’d never done it before and sure as hell wasn’t about to start now. Or possibly, she didn’t know how. Aziraphale’s head popped up out of the waves, his eyelashes were flecked with salt, his hair plastered flat against his skull, a butter-coloured cap.
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said. Clearly Crowley’s face was giving away her extreme lack of preparedness for the feelings that had just been wrenched up through the fibres of her immortal being. Aziraphale looked half apologetic, half frightened. “I know it was too much, I just wanted you to see how it feels-”
“Angel,” Crowley said, cutting Aziraphale off. “I’m...” She kicked her feet up from the ground so she was floating on her back, staring up at the distant, blue sky and took a minute before she spoke. “Thanks.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said.
They were both quiet for a long time, floating side-by-side. The sea felt much warmer than the air and it was an odd, upside down sensation to what the brain expected to feel.
“I’m glad you helped me save the world, angel,” Crowley said, finally, when what she meant to say was ‘I’m glad you saved me from whatever my life would have been if I’d never known you.’
“I’m glad you helped me save the world, too,” Aziraphale replied when what he meant to say was ‘I’m glad you saved my life full stop’.
That evening they shared a seafood platter at a little restaurant on the waterfront with twice as much outside space as in. Aziraphale told Crowley off at length for managing to get weird rules about eating shellfish written into the Bible and then they had a long argument about whether someone could end up damned for breaking religious laws they thought existed that didn’t really.
“Who’d even be getting in to heaven, if we were that nit-picky,” Aziraphale finally said, pleasingly flushed with frustration.
Crowley gave a languorous shrug, peering devilishly over the top of his sunglasses. He was back in his male body mainly for how well he’d perfected its argumentative tics. He had the absolute ideal shrug down pat.
“I think you’ll find that’s your lot’s problem, not mine,” he drawled.
Then he went abruptly silent. Aziraphale sat straight up as Crowley’s words turned over in his mind and they shared a long look in which they were each contemplating whether they could throw insults about each other’s ‘lots’ around anymore, now that they’d both been, for the want of a better term, excommunicated.
“Hey,” Crowley said, unable to entirely suppress a note of panic in his voice. “You won’t Fall now, will you?”
“Oh!” Aziraphale said. “No! Of course not. Or rather, I don’t think...” his voice wavered into dismay for just a split second and then he squared himself in his seat and shook his head firmly. “I’m certain that’s not down to Gabriel and his little coterie. And so I won’t. I’m certain.”
Crowley tried to be reassured. “Maybe we should do each other’s feathers, later.”
“Crowley, I’m not going to be dragged into some kind of paranoia,” Aziraphale said, narrowing his eyes.
“No, no!” Crowley said, holding up his hands defensively. “I just mean because of the salt water.”
Salt in one of the few substances in existence that can readily pass through the barriers between planes. In fact, it's rather more successful at it than most creatures designed for the express purpose of interplanar travel. This is where human magic users got the idea that you can hold a demon in a ring of salt or lay it across a doorway to keep ghosts away. Unfortunately, that’s all complete bollocks. It does rather crust up on interdimensional wings, though.
“Fine,” Aziraphale said, expertly removing the shell of a prawn and dousing the liberated creature thoroughly in garlic butter. “It’s probably for the best anyway. That’s a kind of physical sensation I’m definitely going to need to practise with.”
It was dark by the time they got back to the hotel room. Crowley drew closed the curtains and when he turned around, Aziraphale’s wings were already out. He felt some measure of immediate relief. As far as he could see, they were still white as the freshly driven snow. Crowley shrugged off his suit jacket and let his own wings manifest too.
“Maybe we should...” Aziraphale twiddled his fingers in a gesture familiar to Crowley as a not-so-subtle signal to suddenly develop a sex drive.
“Oh,” Crowley said, feeling a little thrill of anticipation somewhere vaguely south of the bottom of his ribcage. “Alright.” Crowley pulled his shirt off over his head and let the feel of the fabric sliding up his chest draw him into the mood.
“Ah,” Aziraphale said, rolling his shoulders as he raked his gaze up Crowley’s body. “I always forget that you’re hot. I mean, of course, I like the way you look but now I really...”
“Come here, I’ll do you first,” Aziraphale said. “You’re getting soot everywhere, what have you done to them?”
“Hmm,” Crowley said, raising one eyebrow. “Which of the many fires that I walked through for your benefit in the last two weeks was it that singed my wings, I wonder?”
“Don’t be mean,” Aziraphale said.
“I think that’s my job,” Crowley said.
“They’re not really singed, are they?” Aziraphale said, soft and worried.
“I don’t know,” Crowley said. “Find out for me.” He’d meant for it to come out accusatory, but it did not. It came out whatever the opposite of that was. Aziraphale put his fingers on the innermost feathers, closest to Crowley’s back where the bones of the wings were. An involuntary shiver ran down Crowley’s spine.
“Here, sit down,” Aziraphale said, arranging himself at the end of the bed and spreading his knees so there was a space for Crowley on the floor in front of him.
Getting the salt off wings was more a process of telling the salt that you’d noticed it’s improbable existence in the wrong place and that it better go back to whence it came if it knew what was good for it than it was about actually cleaning them.
Aziraphale began to smooth his fingers over the primaries first, running his thumb very gently along the vanes. At first, his fingers were coming away black and sticky with salt, but after a while, the wings got the idea of being clean again and they were straightening themselves up before Aziraphale even got to them. “Any pain?” Aziraphale said.
“No,” Crowley said. “Mmm, don’t stop yet.”
Aziraphale dug his fingers into the down, tugging slightly at the calamus of the longest and strongest flight feathers and Crowley arched into the sensation, letting a little moan slip out.
“Oh,” Aziraphale said. “There’s a white one. Do you want it out?”
“Huh,” Crowley said, evidently rather distracted. “A white one? I guess you’d better... or I don’t know. Is there any point, now?”
Crowley grew them every now and again. He wasn’t sure if it was a thing that happened to all demons, but he wasn’t about to go asking around downstairs about it. Sometimes he had Aziraphale pull them, sometimes he left them and eventually they went black on their own.
“Hey,” he asked, suddenly curious. “You’ve never-”
“Once, only,” Aziraphale said. Crowley could feel the weight of Aziraphale’s words for what they were: a secret he’d never, ever intended to give up but had just now changed his mind about.
“When was it?” Crowley asked. He was always trying to work out if the white feathers were just random or the direct result of him being a smidgen too - what was the angel’s word? ‘Nice.’ This would make for quite the data point.
“After the very first time we acted on our Arrangement,” he said. He was still smoothing his fingers gently through Crowley’s feathers, more often than not over a particular spot, which Crowley assumed must be the white one.
“But only the first time?” Crowley said. “Not after any of the temptations after that.”
“No,” Aziraphale said.
“Maybe it was like a warning?” Aziraphale mused. “This far, but no further?”
“I’d think you’d have sprouted a few over the events of the last couple of weeks if that was the case,” Crowley said, leaning his head back against the mattress, cradled between Aziraphale’s thighs and looking up at him.
“I guess its ineffable,” Aziraphale said, looking back down at Crowley, almost unbearably fond.
“Always with that bloody word,” Crowley said.
“I think I overheard Anathema saying she liked it for a girl’s name,” Aziraphale said, giggling. “Neffie,” for short.
“Fucking hell,” Crowley said. “I do pity their inevitable, insufferable offspring.”
“Those can be the next two,” Aziraphale said, laughing a little harder. “Twins - Inevitable and Insufferable.”
“Dear lord!” Crowley said. “Ugh, why did I say that! Feels fizzy.”
Aziraphale leaned forward and kissed Crowley right in the middle of the forehead. “Crowley,” he said. “I love you.”
Crowley breathed out all the air in his lungs in one big rush. “Oh,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Aziraphale said. “You don’t have to. It’s okay.”
“No. It’s not okay.” He squeezed his eyes closed. There was no way he could look at Aziraphale when he said it, there were god-forsaken limits after all. “I love you,” he said finally, voice very low. “I always... I mean as soon as I could feel love, I knew that I loved you. There.”
Now it was Aziraphale’s turn to be surprised. His angelic being had known for a long time, at least deep down, but the new body hadn’t been quite sure. It had never been loved before, after all. Crowley stood up, his wings sweeping out of existence and he turned in a circle, pushing Aziraphale flat back into the bed. Aziraphale went, let Crowley hold him there in the pile of three duvets with his knees on either side of Aziraphale’s hips. Crowley kissed him and Aziraphale let himself be kissed, focussing intently on not spinning away into incoherence. Crowley’s mouth was hot and insistent and he tasted like salt and smoke and basking in sunlight.
Crowley leaned back onto his knees again and unbuttoned Aziraphale’s shirt, pulling him up so they were chest to chest and Aziraphale could disentangle himself from it. While Aziraphale was busy with that, Crowley set to work on his wings. They were very soft, more down content along the axillars than his own. He dusted his fingertips across each huge, sleek primary and then the smaller secondaries till they were almost too bright to look at and there was a scent in the air like ozone. He let Aziraphale fall back against the pillows again.
It wasn’t as good an angle as sitting at the end of the bed had been, but Aziraphale could watch Crowley as he worked. Aziraphale’s breath was coming shorter and sharper, his eyelashes fluttering as he let himself shift up a little into the pressure of Crowley’s hips pinning him to the mattress. Crowley finished with the wings, finally satisfied and let his hands drag down Aziraphale’s shoulders, along his collar bones.
“I thought it’d be gone,” Crowley said, disappointed, dragging the touch lower. He was running his fingers over the long, faintly raised scar which cut down from the centre of Aziraphale’s chest, curving round to the side of his flank, ending just above his left thigh.
“I don’t think its a physical scar,” Aziraphale said, examining it himself with his fingertips. “I think it’s on my, you know, Being. At least, I wasn’t in my physical body when I got it,” he said.
“I know,” Crowley said, stiffly.
Aziraphale paused, craning his neck up so he could look Crowley in the eyes. “Wait, are you saying-?”
“How did you think I knew you had a flaming sword?” he asked. His voice was complicated, he’d leaned back enough that they weren’t touching skin to skin.
Aziraphale gazed up at Crowley’s undoubtedly guilty, sad face and nearly laughed. “Of course!” he said. “Of course it was you. Of course it was you before the first war was even over, before there even was an Earth, I’m just... Who else would it have been?!”
“...are you...mad at me?” Crowley said.
“Mad at you!” Aziraphale said. “For something that happened before time even existed? Crowley, have you been worrying about this?”
“A little,” Crowley said. “Off and on.” That was basically him admitting to obsessing over it for a least a few centuries back to back.
“Honestly! Let me just guess... You cut me down. You were horrified. You slid yourself right out of the front lines and then when they looked at your war record they weren’t too impressed you’d done little else but gravely injure a single angel and so they booted you right up to the Garden with the trickiest job they could think of to punish you the second the dust settled, and - how am I doing so far?”
Crowley looked much more guilty now and a little less sad.
“Ineffable my arse,” Aziraphale said, hysterically.
“Angel!” Crowley said, shocked.
“Right! I’m absolutely done now. Will you take this body’s worthless, tattered virginity already?” he said, unbuttoning his trousers and attempting to wiggle them off despite the fact that Crowley’s knees were firmly in the way.
“Uh,” Crowley said faintly. His hands were actually shaking from the last fifteen minutes of intense, confessional baring of hearts. He felt completely raw. He put his hands against his angel’s soft belly. Aziraphale made very pleased noise, twisting up into his touch and Crowley felt suddenly concerned that though he’d never believed a single scrap of an indication it could ever happen, it might somehow be possible to Ascend back into grace. “You know,” he said, almost finding the whole thing funny. “I think we might have to work up to that.”
Aziraphale sighed affectionately. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I guess you could kiss me all over or something. That seems like a good sensation to try out.”
“Oh,” Crowley said, half-regaining faith in his generalised upper-hand. “Does it?”
“Please,” Aziraphale said, sulking a little. “Don’t you owe it to me? Look at this tragic war wound I have that’s all your fault.”
Crowley glowered down at him, even though he hadn’t quite stopped gently stroking Aziraphale’s sides. “You’re not going to try to use that against me, are you?”
“Who, me?” Aziraphale said. “I shouldn’t think so. Blackmail doesn’t seem very heavenly.”
Crowley raised one eyebrow. “Hmm, at the moment, I’m not sure you seem too heavenly either...”
Aziraphale shifted his hips impatiently, abruptly reminding Crowley that they hadn’t ’made an effort’ to snipe at each other in a slightly more risque position than usual. “The kissing?” Aziraphale said. “Anytime now?”
“Oh, fine,” Crowley said. And leaned down to start in the milky hollow of Aziraphale’s neck.
One could say that Aziraphale emerged from one of the three, now not quite so immaculately fluffy duvets the next morning with a significantly more tattered but still intact virginity, but only if one had a very unimaginative definition of virginity.
On the drive back to England, Aziraphale only got worked up twice, once at a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins in the book he was reading while sprawled across the bench seat in the back of the car and once at some people on the street he saw out the window once they were all the way back to London.
“Did you see that?” he said, rolling down the window as fast as he could so he could shout, “Well done, my dears!” as they zipped past.
“What?” Crowley said, who had seen, but was feeling quite endeared to the angel at the minute and rather relished the thought of watching him explain the whole thing with his eyes lighting up with pride.
“There was a woman who’d fallen off her bicycle and there must’ve been six or seven people all crowded round her, helping her up. Little children putting her bike to rights, fixing the basket. There was a nurse who was checking her pulse. And I could feel how shaken she was! But she was laughing - they were all making her laugh, making her feel better - oh they are good, Crowley. They really are!”
“And what about the wanker that knocked the woman off her bike in the first place by cutting her off to turn the corner without even looking, hmm?” Crowley said.
Aziraphale drew his brows together. “Well, it's ten to one, anyway. My sort to your sort.”
“I’m just saying, it takes all sorts,” Crowley said.
“You know, I suppose it does,” Aziraphale said after thinking for a moment and then conceding the point. “I suppose if there had been no bad deed, those ten people would have had no good deed to do.”
“Exactly!” Crowley said. “It’s just a bit of teamwork.”
“Teamwork,” Aziraphale echoed. He rested his arm on the rolled down window. The wind was cool, already carrying the promise of September and it made his arm hairs stand on end which in turn made the hairs shimmer as they caught the dappled light filtering down to the swiftly moving car through the trees along the Thames. It was such a little, beautiful two-opposites-at-once thing: the cool breeze, the flashes of golden sun.