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How Strong the Habit of Idle Speech

Chapter Text

The television bathes the room in its flickering, vaguely offensive, bluish-white light; a low stream of sound, interspersed with swells of music and shouts of violence, issues from it; in his sleep, Crowley's foot twitches and resettles, stretching out toward Aziraphale, his head tipping further back against the arm of the couch. It doesn't look exactly comfortable, limbs that are usually so fluid and effortless strung tight instead: arms crossed, cramped, over his chest, one leg crossed over the other, and no pillow, even, between his back and the armrest.

He would have plenty of cushion if he'd just put his body the right way. There's a whole part of that side of the couch, however uncomfortable the black leather looks, that is meant for feet to go up on.

But there has been a lot of wine, and a lot of frantic planning, and a very long day before that, every moment of it testing them in some way. The energy of ethereal and occult beings is said to be infinite, but even Aziraphale is feeling a little drained. Here is the cost of rubbing elbows with humanity: your molecules eventually begin to think like theirs do.

Aziraphale is full of too much nervous energy to sleep, even so. Besides, one of them should keep a lookout, just in case tomorrow comes early.

The book in his hands was meant to occupy him. "Was hanging onto this, for...something," Crowley had said vaguely, producing it from a cleverly-hidden console table behind the couch when it became clear that Aziraphale could no more enjoy the television programme than he could dance the tango. "Can't remember. Have it."

And he'd thrust it forward in that casual way of his—here you are, it's nothing, don't thank me, first editions just magically appear when I ask them to—and Aziraphale had taken it, and said, "Thank you," without equivocating at all. Crowley had given him a long, measuring look, perhaps waiting for the expected equivocation.

It's not his usual fare. The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett. American, very late nineteenth century—may as well be twentieth. But he sees the point, the appeal, especially at the time that Crowley would've fished it off a shelf somewhere. The pervasive sense of decay that suffuses it, the hardship. The loneliness.

Regardless of the flip commentary he has supplied for Crowley, Aziraphale does not actually think that this first edition just magically appeared. It has a certain truth, a certain wear, built into it.

He leaves it on the coffee table, beside his cup of tea, and moves quietly toward the study. Crowley doesn't stir.

Aziraphale makes himself useful. He begins with the congealed mess of destroyed demon on the floor, and returns what remains of the holy water to the thermos, screwing the cap on tight. All night the thought of it has needled him, but Crowley had said, "Don't mind the mess," and issued a certain look from behind his sunglasses that seemed to say, Today has been very long and we are going to deal with that later.

But Crowley is asleep, and has no opportunity to disapprove now. Aziraphale inspects the whole place, making certain that no drop of it remains anywhere that Crowley might accidentally step or sit or lay a hand.

He considers taking the thermos back. Miracling it away, far away, where only he will be able to find it. He could lie, claim that what was left was too polluted to use again, but he abandons this plan fairly quickly. He is sure that Crowley would see through it. Sure, too, that he has seen enough pain and contempt and suffering on Crowley's face these last few days to last—well, forever.

Polluted would not be a kind word to use, certainly.

So he screws the cap on tight and leaves it on the desk, significantly more empty than the last time it passed from his hands to Crowley's,[1] and ensures to the best of his ability that Crowley will not be vaporized by stray droplets.

He allows himself to think on that. Allows himself to consider an Earth on which Crowley does not tread. It is a chilling place, he has realized, this hypothetical landscape. To him, anyway. Humans will go about and muck things up and perform minor miracles of their own, and that is still joyous, wonderful. Because Aziraphale loves humanity—more than he was meant to. It's not generalized enough, a kindly and paternal distance from them. It's up close and messy: he's coveted their food, glutted himself on their words, succumbed to the sloth of a long afternoon with their wine.

And still, it is not nearly as close and messy as the way he loves Crowley.

He waits, one step into a room verdant with houseplants, for someone to smite him for thinking about this so straight-on. He's done a good job of coming at it sideways, until now. Always have plausible deniability, that's how he's kept himself unsmote for millennia.

But no voice booms from the sky; he hasn't heard Her in a very long time, now. No searing light falls to make him into a pile of angel ash, conveniently opposite the location where demon goo recently resided. And he doesn't Fall, either, as far as he can tell.

This only cements the suspicion he's had, for some centuries now, a creeping thing that grew legs with time: that no one is really At The Wheel, so to speak, and even the angels who lovingly despise Aziraphale are not omniscient.

The plants are trembling, a thin and exhausted terror that has gone on all night. Crowley has been even more erratic than usual, and it's worked them into quite a state, wondering when the next judgment will fall on them. Aziraphale moves among them with the mister, calming them, repairing those that have come out in stress-spots so that they'll be safe from Crowley's wrath.[2]

When they've stopped shaking, and fallen back into their usual state of low-level unease, Aziraphale stays there among them, for a time. The hours left until dawn are an eye-blink. He feels its approach like an oncoming train, and wishes he could step out of the way. Stay in this microcosm created by a breath of reprieve, here in Crowley's flat, where Crowley is safe, and Aziraphale with him, forever.

Forever. Yes, that's what they're gambling for. The stakes are uncomfortably high when the alternative is or nothing.

He supposes that, if it comes to that, he won't know the difference. He will be nothing, after all. Absent entirely from existence. And maybe, centuries or millennia from now, he and Crowley won't even be a story that others tell. Everyone—angels, demons, the few involved humans and their professional descendants—will forget, and the two for whom it matters most won't be there to remind them.

His eyes sting. He allows it. Just like all their wonderful food, and complex music, and artless contraptions, there is something special about human emotion, even emotion dour as this. The nerves don't quite know where the hurt is coming from but know it's there all the same, and create a strong, centralized ache in his chest.

He returns to the sitting room, and from the doorway, he looks at Crowley. He's curled even tighter into the couch now, tucked snugly against the back of it, breathing deep and even. He doesn't snore.

Aziraphale miraculously finds a nice knit throw blanket in that console table and drapes it over Crowley. Softly, gently, so he won't wake. The sunglasses look like they're digging into his face, so Aziraphale leans over him and maneuvers them free.

He's almost made his escape when Crowley's eyes flicker open, and Crowley's hand reaches up—fast, but swerving, unsteady—to fasten around Aziraphale's wrist. Once there, his fingers tighten, relax again, but don't release. His eyes fix on Aziraphale's face. They narrow, a little. Not suspicious as much as squinting.

"Is it time already?" he mutters, words running together, some letters skipped.

"No," Aziraphale says. The ache in his chest has intensified. It is still painful, understand. But there is something else there, too, magnified by Crowley's fingers wrapped around his wrist, by the muzzy clarity of Crowley's yellow eyes fixed on his face.

It feels like dancing the gavotte. Breathless and joyful.

This can't be the end of all that. He simply won't let it.

"No," he repeats, "we have a few hours yet. I thought you looked uncomfortable."

Briefly, Crowley's fingers flex. Aziraphale can almost see their trajectory, their intent, though his imagination is probably running amok, is all: Crowley will pull Aziraphale's hand the scant distance to his lips, brush an absentminded kiss against the back, and let him go.[3] But instead, with something like regret twisting his mouth, gathered around his eyes, Crowley releases him without doing any of that.

"So do you," he returns, a little clearer now. "Stop puttering and sit down."

"I was not puttering." But he does sit down, closer to Crowley than before; after all, he reasons, Crowley's legs are taking up nearly the entire couch, so there is nowhere else to sit except this spot, where legs really ought to go if legs must go on furniture at all.

"There'll still be a load of congealed demon on the ground if I turn around and look, then?" Crowley says, tipping his head back against the armrest again. His shoulders have lost a little of their tightly-curled tension. He closes his eyes, and smiles as he says the words.

Aziraphale is more familiar with Crowley's smirk, of course. It has featured a hundred, a thousand times more prominently in their long acquaintance. But he knows the smile, too, a thing that is still a trifle smug and sharp with mischief, but heartfelt.

"No," Aziraphale admits. "It was dangerous. You might've tripped."

Crowley's eyebrows go up. His eyes don't reopen. "Appreciate the concern."

Aziraphale smiles, too—quick, and looks away, as if he's at risk of being spotted.

But happiness, however bright, can maintain itself only so long when dread is waiting to re-establish itself, and Aziraphale feels that coldness take root again. That fear.

"I was thinking," he says, though really, he's been very careful not to think this particular kernel of thought through at all.

"Only thing to do while puttering," Crowley replies. "That's the problem with it."

Aziraphale ignores this. "We could just…go off. Enough distance, maybe they wouldn't follow. Too much of an inconvenience."

Crowley opens his eyes at this. Turns to look, slowly, at Aziraphale. His face is unfathomable.

"You think?" he asks, mildly.

"Alpha Centauri has been recommended to me." Aziraphale gives a feeble smile. "Might be nice."

They look at one another. It's easier to hold a gaze through discomfort than for humans, certainly, but it is not easy. Aziraphale, however, does not look away. He searches for some answer on Crowley's face.

"I should say no," Crowley says at last, one eyebrow raised. "Give you a taste of your own medicine."

"I suppose you should." Aziraphale clasps his hands together in his lap, the better to keep from fidgeting. In a more somber voice, he says, "I would deserve it."

Crowley shifts beside him with some low murmur of discontent in his throat, pulling himself a little further upright. "You've gone off-script, angel," he says. "You're supposed to remind me that you're here to thwart my wiles, and you can't thwart them if I'm here and you're on Alpha Centauri, so I have to come with you. You insist. For the cosmic balance of the universe."

"I think I'm a little tired of the script," Aziraphale says.

Crowley looks like...he looks a little like he did on the wall of the garden, so long ago, when he'd found out Aziraphale had given away the sword.

"That right?" Crowley says, with a threatening grin tucked into the corner of his mouth.

"Yes," Aziraphale says, and while Crowley can still be caught unawares, "I'm sorry, you know. For the things I said. They weren't true. And they were unkind."

"Shut up." The words are automatic, familiar, a defense that Aziraphale knows well, but Crowley's face softens even as he says them.

"Well, they were."

Crowley draws in a deep, heavy breath. "I knew you didn't mean it. Not really."

"I suppose you must have," Aziraphale says, "or you'd be on Alpha Centauri by now."

Thank God you knew, he thinks, but does not say; it is a matter of respect. Thank God, thank God, thank God you have always known me better than I have known myself.

Silence blooms. The problem with being off-script, Aziraphale reflects, is that he doesn't know what to do next. Bumbling his way forward in the dark like a human who's forgot his glasses and his torch and his sturdy boots, bound to stub a toe or three.

"I still have to say no," Crowley says, though he doesn't seem at all happy about it. "We've really mucked things up for them. Maybe Alpha Centauri was far enough from Armageddon-level mass chaos, but this is different. They'll hunt us now, wherever we go. They have a target, and they're not distracted by each other anymore."

Aziraphale lets out a sigh. "I suppose you're right. Should've gone while we had the chance."

"We should've, but it was stupid of me to ask." Crowley settles back against the armrest again, looking to the ceiling. "You would never leave Earth. You like the crêpes too much."

"You wouldn't, either," Aziraphale points out, ignoring this last.

"Not without you, at least," Crowley says, offhandedly enough to offset the sentimentality. Mostly.

It still puts Aziraphale's heart in his throat. This, too, he allows.

"But I couldn't stay, you know," he says, and he does not bother with offhandedness, "without you."

Crowley lets out a long, low breath. He doesn't look at Aziraphale, but Aziraphale sees something in his face, regardless: the briefest, smallest flicker of relief, before it's hidden again.

"Well," he muses, with half a smile, "that's something."

He still looks tired. Aziraphale would keep him up talking these last few hours, no matter how awkward, no matter how strange things have become, but they both need to rest, in their own ways, if they're to have any chance.

He wants that chance. They must make it count.

"If you don't mind, I think I'll sit here and read," he says, pulling the book back to him, and sitting back against the same armrest that Crowley sits back against.

Crowley sighs, and moves; he shifts away from the back of the couch and closer to Aziraphale instead. He shoots a pointed look upward, a question, unspoken.

"I think I'll go back to sleep," he says, and his eyes ask for permission. He waits. He has been waiting, Aziraphale understands, for a long, long time. "If you don't mind."

Aziraphale shifts his book to his right hand, and rests his left arm across the armrest. "Of course I don't, my dear."

Crowley takes his meaning. They have done a good job of that, over millennia of superficial words, but Aziraphale hopes they will have the opportunity to do better. Would get down on his knees and pray for it, if he didn't worry that would spoil the whole thing.

Crowley settles himself against Aziraphale with a contented breath, so quiet that only an angel would hear it. The weight of his body leans in; his head drops back against Aziraphale's shoulder. Aziraphale can just barely feel the tickle of his hair, most of the product melted out of it, no energy left for a demonic miracle to keep it arranged just so.

And Aziraphale lowers his arm from the armrest, lets it drape loosely around Crowley's shoulders instead. Something that was strung tight within him seems to relax at that touch. They both seem to, a long settling that has been a long time coming.

"Have some faith," Crowley says, a touch wryly, which—after everything—is perhaps the strangest thing Aziraphale has heard in all this time. "This will work."

"Of course." It's just a matter of where he puts his faith, now. It cannot be in mysterious ways and ineffable plans. It was simpler, then. Still, he would not trade it. "Of course it will."

Crowley nods against his shoulder, and then makes a disgruntled noise in his throat. "Did you put a knit blanket on me?"

"You looked cold," Aziraphale says; he can't really help smiling.

Crowley grumbles, but he doesn't throw it off, and he doesn't change it to something that better matches the harsh decor of the flat; he lets it be. And shortly, his breath evens out against Aziraphale's throat, and his body warms beneath Aziraphale's arm, and Aziraphale reads with only half a mind and doesn't judge himself too harshly for it.

Chapter Text

Crowley has a Plan A and a Plan B, and that is all he needs.

Plan A is simple: he is not going to tempt or coerce or even accidentally guilt Aziraphale into anything at all. He is going to stand back and let Aziraphale come to him, and it seems like Aziraphale actually might do just that. He's not going to set up any more meetings with flimsy excuses, or bargain for lunch out, or stop off at the bookshop just because. He is not going to go too fast. He is going to stand still.

This runs counter to his very nature, which has a deep love of fast cars, but some level of compromise has always been necessary in his association with Aziraphale. This is just an extension of everything that has come before.

This will be fine. He can do this. Easy. He can see that some change is coming—maybe slowly, maybe not, time is a tricky thing—and he can cool his heels until it arrives.

But there is a part of him—a wretched and hideous part, that lives in the same place where broken faith resides—that just doesn't trust this. Not even after the previous night. Not even after everything that's been said and also carefully not said these last few days.

So he builds a single exception into Plan A: he asks Aziraphale to lunch, to see if things are going to be as they were, if the angel is going to fall back on token protests even now that the threat of annihilation has been removed.

He doesn't.

Prior conversations about being tired of the script aside, this is still unnerving. Crowley knows, logically, that he should expect as much from Aziraphale after these last twenty-four hours. There has been a declaration, of sorts. He should rely on it.

But whatever part of him still bleeds from Falling—well. It's hard to reason with that bit of himself. It has all the instincts of a wounded animal.

This, maybe, is why there is a Plan B at all. An acknowledgment of these instincts so that he can know his own equivalent of peace, fragile as it is.

Plan B is also simple: if Aziraphale does not come to him, he will let the angel go. He will eke out some other existence, somehow, in the years between the moments when they cross paths—which will surely be long, with neither of them orchestrating said path-crossing. Maybe in another six thousand years it will feel perfectly natural. Good, even. Inasmuch as Crowley ever feels good.

There have been times these last six thousand years that he spent alone. Plenty of them. The majority, by a long shot.[1] He can get used to that solitude again.

Eleven years should not make any difference to an eternal being. It shouldn't even be long enough to establish a habit. But it has been, and he has gotten into the habit of Aziraphale, and breaking it will be about as easy as breaking the wings from his very essence. He can admit this much to himself: he very much does not want to be alone. More to the point, he does not want to be without Aziraphale.

Some level of this is inevitable, however. Armageddon is averted. There is no need to live in one another's pockets anymore, not even the centuries-old Arrangement to maintain. Some distance must re-establish itself, and Crowley expects it to come down like a guillotine as they step out of the Ritz and into the fading light. They've drunk most of the afternoon away, and some of the evening besides.

"Lift home?" he asks, forcibly casual, and grits his teeth against anything more. Even this might be in violation of Plan A. He's going to have to consider it.

Aziraphale gives him one of those brief glances, eyes cutting over and away and back again. "Thank you."

This is familiar territory, at least. Adam even remembered to put back the window transfers, which Aziraphale gives a funny look—the same funny look he often gives them—as he ducks into the car. Crowley considers driving at a more reasonable speed before tossing that thought aside; his earlier planning was all metaphor, anyway, and London is hell to navigate at speed limit.

And life without Aziraphale's protests about how he drives...he likes the bickering, the admonishments. He listens to them with relish. It reminds him that they're alive.

They reach the bookshop without any incident at all. Crowley doesn't turn the engine off; he waits for Aziraphale to get out. He wonders, even as he tries to shove down the obsessive worry: When will he even see the angel next? And why? Theirs has been a connection built heavily on convenience; with the structure of that removed, why would they ever need to see one another again?

Aziraphale isn't getting out, though. He's giving the bookshop a long, hard look, as if trying to determine whether it's still as it was.

"Seemed fine this morning," Crowley offers. "Same weird smell and everything. Few additions, though."

"Weird smell," Aziraphale repeats at a mutter, giving a little shake of his head. "It's not got a weird smell."

Crowley bites back a retort—so get going, check for yourself—and merely drums his fingers on the steering wheel.

Aziraphale looks back at him, one hand on the door. "What if we're wrong?" he asks; there is some small trepidation in his face. "What if they don't leave us alone? What if they're just waiting for an opportune moment?"

Crowley leans back in his seat. "And if they are? What are we going to do about it?"

"Well," Aziraphale says, "I thought…" He clears his throat. "Why don't you come in? For a drink. In case."

Crowley looks at him, damn near squints at him: Aziraphale, tentative and hopeful, looking at him like he's asking an entirely different question. Something in Crowley's very essence tries to crawl out of his skin, tries to reach out to whatever's being offered.

"In case a horde of demons turns up at your door?" Crowley asks finally.

Aziraphale's face hardens. "Or yours," he says, quiet but with steel.

Most of the time, Crowley thinks the real ineffability in Her plan was handing a flaming sword to Aziraphale. Aziraphale, who miracles doves back to life with grief and guilt in his face; Aziraphale, who couldn't even bring himself to kill the Antichrist; Aziraphale, who seemed mildly horrified at the way Adam—the first Adam—had chopped a lion's head off with that same sword, as if it had just occurred to him that that was the weapon's purpose.

But right now, the sword wouldn't look out of place in his hand. Not at all. A shield would make just as much sense, though, maybe more. Like a wing, lifted against the rain.

So many years of Aziraphale's profoundly irritating literacy are really rubbing off on him.

"Besides," Aziraphale says, and the looming presence of thunder abates, just enough for Crowley to realize that the thick intent of it had filled the entire car. "Better odds, with two of us, right?"

Crowley doesn't think that this is really what Aziraphale's asking. It's hard to forget how many there are in those Head Offices, true. How if they really put their minds to it, they could come up with some way to deal with the pair of them, despite the lies they've now been told. It's worth being a little alert, keeping an eye out.

He knows what he saw in Heaven, though, and he's heard what Aziraphale saw in Hell. They're not coming. They're scared. He knows that, and he thinks Aziraphale does, too.

But if Aziraphale needs a pretense to invite him in, it's better than not inviting him in at all.

Crowley jerks his chin in a nod, twists the key in the ignition, and pulls the Bentley into the nearest convenient alley, where it will at least not immediately announce his presence, if they're bowing a little to pretense. He scans the shadows before they get out, searching for the buckling ground, the rotten soil that will spill forth an enemy.

There is nothing. No holy light; no evil glare.

"Right," he says, and follows Aziraphale to the bookshop.

Aziraphale bustles past the door like it's nothing, like it wasn't just all on a lot of fire a day ago; he goes through the usual motions, double-checking that the sign is flipped firmly to Closed, casting around to make sure everything is generally in the right place, and then hurrying off to the back to make cocoa or maybe open a bottle of wine so that they can really work on this buzz they've been cultivating slowly all afternoon.

Crowley finds it a little harder to fall into routine. Usually he'd be in his spot in the back room by now, the chair that he's never seen Aziraphale sit in once, and heckling as Aziraphale prepares drinks, but he gets stuck halfway through this room he remembers burning. He doesn't shake, or tremble, Heaven forbid, but he does stop, with the claws of memory digging into his chest like they're intent on cracking his ribcage wide open.

He's still standing there, trying to force down the echo of his dramatics and his despair and all the other emotions those imply, trying to collect himself, when Aziraphale comes back, frowning. "What is it?" he asks, from across the room, and Crowley rolls his shoulders and tries to behave normally with a great force of will.

"Nothing," he says. "Just." He flaps a hand around, makes one of those garbled noises that he figures sounds very devil-may-care and entirely covers the fact that he doesn't know what to say until after it's done. "Checking it still smells weird, I guess."

Aziraphale approaches, still that little frown on his face, which is tipping dangerously toward concern. "Are you all right?"

Plan A, Crowley reminds himself, a touch frantically, Plan A, Plan A, Plan A. No guilting. Act naturally.

"Fine," he says, and has to despair at how unnatural it sounds. Lie better. Lie better, Crowley. "Just...weird day. Strange to see it all exactly how it was."

"Well," Aziraphale says dryly, "the William books are new. God knows what else." He's only about a foot away now, and he looks at Crowley with an understanding in his eyes that Crowley needs to shrink away from. Needs to shield himself from. "It's all right," he says, softly now. "I'm fine. See?"

And he picks up Crowley's hand, an action so startling that Crowley doesn't react at all, and tucks it between both of his own, holding it tightly between them.

Lie better, Crowley thinks, the scream of it repeating but fading back, back, back; Aziraphale knows, Aziraphale has seen through him, this is in violation of Plan A, this counts as guilting, even if he doesn't see any guilt in Aziraphale's face, just compassion. Nothing but that, in the touch of his hands.

The body is just that—a body, something that carries them around, irrelevant to the truth of them—but it is representative all the same. Aziraphale might call Velvet Underground bebop but he knows what a gesture like this means. He must know. It is hopeless to think that he knows.

Crowley cannot think of a single thing to say, cannot think of anything but his own agony on his knees on this floor, on the impossibility of Aziraphale returned to him, on his sharp and grasping greed. He could bury this like he has buried so many other things, create a distance enforced by barbed words, whatever it takes.

He opens his mouth to give it a try, and nothing worth saying materializes; he thinks of what he could say, the venom he could spit, and he's deterred by the memory of Aziraphale's arm around his shoulders, pulling him close and safe.

"Come have a drink," Aziraphale says, with the awful, patient kindness of millennia in his eyes, and leads Crowley to the back. 

"What do we do now, exactly?" Crowley blurts out, when they've finished off two bottles of wine between them. They are well into the third; Aziraphale had fussed over choosing each of them until Crowley had threatened to break into the really old stuff if he didn't just decide, and Aziraphale had smiled and gotten into the dustiest bottles himself.

"It suits the occasion, I think," he'd said.

Now this—this feels old and comforting and familiar. As long as Aziraphale has owned this ridiculous bookshop, there has been reason to close it for a drink. There has been a late night with too much wine, here and there. Whenever one of them could think up an excuse for such an event, anyway, which Crowley has recently decided was not often enough at all.

"What do we do," Aziraphale repeats from where he's sunk down in the lumpiest chair in this hemisphere, posture finally forgotten. He makes it sound like he's comprehended neither the individual words nor the question they form together.

"Yeah," Crowley says. He leans forward, edge of his chair, almost far enough that his elbows are at risk of going right off his knees and he is at risk of ending up on the floor. "Whatever...whatever breathing space we've got, if we've got it...what do we do with it?"

Aziraphale looks across at him, blue eyes vague and puzzled.

"No one's going to tell you to go do a blessing in Edinburgh, is what I'm saying," Crowley says, forcefully, swimming through the murk of drunkenness with great effort. "Not after warning them off like that."

He tries not to let on what he's really asking. Whatever we're doing, are we doing it together? Asking that outright is a clear violation of Plan A.

Aziraphale snorts. "I wish I could have seen it," he says, a touch dreamily. "You said Gabriel started. He's never jumped at anything before. Certainly not at me."

"Angel," Crowley says; it sounds a great deal more endeared, and a great deal less exasperated, than he intended. "Focus."

Aziraphale squeezes his eyes shut for a long few seconds. When he opens them again, he says, "Did they even really need that blessing in Edinburgh, though?"

Crowley flops back in his seat. "You're not focusing."

"No, really," Aziraphale insists, and by contrast, he straightens up, pulling himself out of the very un-Aziraphale-like slouch he cultivates after this amount of wine. "Did they? And what about your people—your former people, I should say. They hardly ever told you to do anything at all, they just...pointed in a general direction, and then assumed."

"What're you saying?"

"I'm saying that humanity seems clever enough," Aziraphale says. "They don't need us looking after them."

"So you've ticked one off the list of things we won't do," Crowley says, an old acid rising with the words, familiar and affectionate scorn. "Well done. How about the actual question, then?"

"Are you at loose ends already?" Aziraphale asks, amusement touching his eyes, his smile. He seems a good deal less worried than he seemed earlier, like that brief anxiety in the Bentley has all blown away, dust in the wind. Like it was pretense, as Crowley guessed—knew. "I always thought you had a great deal to do, and work was just getting in the way."

The truth is much less glamorous-sounding, so Crowley keeps it to himself, lest he find himself inviting pity.[2] "Oh, yeah," he says. "Loads." He gives his head a little shake, trying to rattle an example loose, something that will sound very legitimate and also very interesting. Threatening the plants probably doesn't count.

"Well," Aziraphale says, apparently not noticing that Crowley's grasping not so much at straws as air, "if you can fit me into your schedule, there's an auction I mean to go to tomorrow. Supposedly there will be a few first editions—maybe even annotated by the author—for sale." His lips purse, a great deal more severely than they would if he weren't drunk. "Though where they found them...well, let's say I have some doubts about their authenticity."

Crowley examines that invitation backwards and forwards, trying to find anything purposeful about it. Anything that means something other than, I'm doing this thing and I'd like you to come along so we might spend time together, in a venue that doesn't involve a great deal of duck excrement.

"So you intend to work," he says at last, because he can't accept anything gracefully—whole problem from the very beginning, wasn't it. "Not Work, but work. You don't even like selling the books."

"I might sell a few," Aziraphale protests. "I have sold a few. Before. Last summer? Maybe it was a few years ago." He subsides into mumbles. "You never know. The right buyer…"

"It'd be a weird human that meets your standards for what constitutes worthy of buying this book." Crowley flings a hand around, encompassing the whole room. Doesn't matter which book. All of them are Special to Aziraphale, and not just anyone gets to walk out with one.

Aziraphale doesn't argue. Perhaps he sees there would be no point. "Yes, I intend to work," he says, more firmly. "Watch after them—the humans, that is—when I notice any trouble, maybe. Keep my ear to the ground. This shop…" He looks around, perhaps unconsciously following the route of Crowley's hand, though more slowly. "I like it very much, you know." His eyes sharpen, and they fix on Crowley. "So will you come along? There's bound to be some kind of bidding war."

He extends that tidbit like a temptation. He hasn't forgotten that incident in 1593, then, when they'd been chased from the premises by someone or other Crowley had outbid: Crowley cackling the whole way, Aziraphale muttering laments under his breath about the Chaucer incunable he'd missed out on.[3] There was so much mayhem to stir up in a place where multiple people wanted the same unique item very badly. Crowley adored it, and Aziraphale had never invited him along to another auction since.

"I can make room, I suppose," Crowley says, as nonchalantly as possible.

Aziraphale gives him a beatific smile. The entire insides of his chest—who knows what's in there at the moment, really, could be any old organ at all—wrench around painfully.

"Excellent. Well." Aziraphale pats his knees. "I'm going to sober up. Got to crack into those new books."

Crowley looks around, a little blearily, for the clock. Half-past one. "Just go to bed, angel. Sleep it off." He eyes the third bottle, considering the wisdom of finishing it off.

Aziraphale shudders. "I'd rather get it over with, thank you."

Crowley feels the loss of it when Aziraphale snaps back to sober. Left alone in his own swimming brain, knowing that the night is over, now. Aziraphale has made many such hints before, all polite, but they still add up to it's getting rather late, hadn't you better leave?

"Suppose I'd better, too," Crowley mutters, and if he sounds resentful, it's all perfectly above-board. It's how he usually sounds, in this sort of situation. He wonders if Aziraphale's ever caught on to why he acts like such a wretch when he's getting kicked out.

"Oh, not at all." Aziraphale gets briskly to his feet, brushing some invisible dust from his waistcoat. "You're welcome to sleep here. I have it on good authority that the sofa is very comfortable."

He nods in that direction, a particular look on his face, and Crowley—eternal optimist, maybe, tempered only with a recent dose of realism—knows it for what it is. Aziraphale is allowing him to stay. Asking him to stay.

And surely the only good authority who ever told Aziraphale that his sofa is comfortable is Crowley, and only because Crowley himself made it that way, on a night not unlike this, when he'd bullied his way into camping out on it, somehow. It's not even a sofa, not really. More a loveseat. But Crowley does not speak the inane names of furniture out loud, and besides, he likes to let his legs dangle over one of the armrests, which Aziraphale always complains about in the way he has when he doesn't actually mind.

"Well," he says. He cannot resist the lure of warmth. "All right, then." He bites back if it won't be a bother, because that is a very un-Crowley-like thing to say, and he's just coherent enough to know it.

He manages to cross the room without falling down, flops to the sofa without bashing his head on the arm rest, and wiggles to get comfortable. At some distance, he thinks he hears Aziraphale laugh—quiet, more a rhythmic expulsion of air than anything—and ignores it. Well, he doesn't react to it, at least. It's hard to ignore the sound of Aziraphale moving about his bookshop like a shepherd tending his flock; the creak of the floorboards and rustle of pages and clinking of spoon in a cup of cocoa all has a pattern, a familiarity, that does its fair share of lulling Crowley into a comfortable doze.

Even so, he's not quite asleep when Aziraphale's footsteps pass close and stop, the scent of cocoa hitting Crowley's nose right before Aziraphale's hand runs slowly, lightly over his hair. He's not quite asleep, but he pretends to be, afraid that whatever is happening will stop if he's seen to be awake, and he remembers something strange and faraway: the way that Aziraphale's eyes had lingered on his shorn hair over oysters in Rome with something like remorse.

He often worries at these little memories—the drift of Aziraphale's eyes, the flex of his fingers, and something harder to describe, a knowledge of turbulence in his very essence that defies language—but it's been a long time since he's gone that far back for something to obsess over.

And then Aziraphale's hand drifts, the backs of his fingers just barely grazing Crowley's cheek, passing over the inked snake with something like tenderness. Crowley thinks he can identify that much. Probably. And holding himself still, rather than pushing blindly toward it, is the hardest thing he's ever done.

"Dear boy," Aziraphale murmurs. "Sleep well."

He takes himself off to his desk, humming very low under his breath, and Crowley tries to take the gift for what it is, rather than a burning memory that might scar someday soon. 

Crowley usually does sleep well, as a rule. He adores sleep. The laziness of it—the pointlessness of it, for him of all creatures. He doesn't need it.

But his brain is somewhat pickled, and his essence does inhabit said brain, to an extent, and even if the first thing was not true, still. Sometimes, he dreams. Brains do this without the explicit permission of their owners, even if their owners are very frightening demons.

They're the inane, garbled dreams of a human. That's what comes of inhabiting a body. Limitations of the flesh, and all that. Which is to say that they convey a sense of Crowley's general anxiety about recent events—hard to escape, that—but in a roundabout kind of way. He's driving the Bentley right over the lake in St. James Park, knocking ducks this way and that, and someone is sitting in the back who shouldn't be, someone he doesn't recognize but who smiles the way that asshole Gabriel smiles, and he feels certain that if he just drives faster they'll be forced to get out, but then a hand closes on his shoulder and—

He wakes up still half-drunk. He breathes through the confusion, which takes only an instant to sort out. He doesn't have to gasp for air or wrangle his own beating heart; if he can put the fear of Crowley into some bullheaded ferns, he can very well put it into this body's own organs, and he decides he's had enough of being drunk at this point.

It never quite works the same, but his head is clear, at least. Clear enough to note—with exasperation and, all right, a little delight—the knit blanket once again draped over his person. His mouth and throat are profoundly dry. The weird gray pre-dawn light is creeping into the shop from the east; it alights on Aziraphale at his desk. He hasn't moved at all, settled down with one of those new books he'd scoffed about, and his back is to Crowley, so it's safe to turn over on the couch and stare at him, the better to shake off the nightmare. His cocoa has gone cold; Crowley can sense it, the sad sedimented separation of the liquid.

Drinking cocoa in the dead heat of summer. Only Aziraphale.

Aziraphale, here. Still here, in his still-here bookshop, all present and accounted for. Now that there's been a little sleep, disturbed or not, and the inevitable relaxing of the guard after a whole night without angelic or demonic interference, Crowley feels some kind of elation at that. Some relief.

"Tea's on the side table," Aziraphale says, absentmindedly, and Crowley tries to pretend he wasn't staring, or that if he was, it was perfectly normal, and anyway, it's not like Aziraphale's looked up and caught him at it.

He stretches a hand out to scoop up the tea, turning a little to do it, and that's when he notices the plant.

He was too sauced to even glance at it last night. He doesn't notice his cast-offs; he ignores them, pointedly, and they tremble even so when he shadows Aziraphale's doorstep. But he can't help but give it a terrible, threatening look now, because it's gone and sprouted flowers.

Not even the flowers you'd expect a plant to put out around Aziraphale. You'd expect something white or golden or maybe even pink or blue—nice, delicate colors, and nice delicate petals. These are far too rich, deep crimson that goes even deeper at the heart, distinguishable even though each of the dozen flowers is very small.

"When did it start doing that?" Crowley asks, glaring daggers at the plant.

"Hmm?" Aziraphale reaches for his cocoa. Crowley breaks off glaring at the plant—which has remembered its maker and begun to tremble—in order to give Aziraphale's stupid little winged mug a pointed look. The cocoa re-combines and heats up, a pleasant curl of warmth issuing from its surface, just as Aziraphale picks it up. He makes a pleased little sound in his throat and shoots a grateful glance over at Crowley, who's gone back to staring at the plant.

"Oh, that," Aziraphale says, lightly. "I like them, actually. Really brightens the place up."

The plant's shaking eases a little. A war between masters is occurring. It's not yet sure which way the battle will go.

"It's the wrong season for flowers," Crowley says, by which he means, there is no right season for this plant to flower. It does not flower. I picked it for that reason, when at first I thought it could properly contribute to the aesthetic, which I see now was a foolish assumption.

"It's summer," Aziraphale says, "surely that's close enough."

"It's not," Crowley mutters, but there's nothing for it; if Aziraphale can't be persuaded to properly maintain his plants, that's not Crowley's business. "Is the auction early?"

"We have time for breakfast," Aziraphale says, and snaps the book decisively shut. "Well, these don't really fit the collection I've cultivated here, but...they are pristine first editions."

"So you're planning to hoard them instead of selling them?" Crowley says, a smile threatening at his mouth that he has to keep down, for the sake of needling.

"They were practically a gift. Poor form to sell a gift."

"Convenient," Crowley says, and yawns, pushing the blanket off and into a tangled heap at the end of the sofa. He pushes his sunglasses back onto his face. "What's for breakfast, then?"

Aziraphale leads the way to one of his favorite cafes, where the chef himself comes out to greet them. Crowley stays well out of the interaction, but he doesn't miss the relief quietly radiating from Aziraphale, the gratitude that all is still right with the world if Chez Corentin is still standing and serving crêpes. Crowley only orders coffee and steals bites of Aziraphale's crêpes when he's not paying attention, too busy listing off the merits and pitfalls of the book he spent the night reading, and this, too, feels right.

Aziraphale is still talking, and Crowley is still mildly heckling him, when they arrive at the auction. Crowley takes a single glance around the crowded room—with people, yes, but so much stuff, too—and snorts.

"First editions, you said? Not bloody likely."

But Aziraphale is peering around in ill-disguised interest. Crowley notes the style of the various furnishings and knick-knacks with dismay. "There must be something of value here. Look at that, isn't that nice?"

He nods at a dresser, one of those early nineteenth century pieces that's far too heavy to bother with. The style's always looked odd to Crowley, though maybe that's because of how quickly the 1800s passed for him, being asleep for the majority of it, and all.

"No," he says. Aziraphale casts him an exasperated look.

"Maybe I'll tidy up the flat a bit. Make it more...livable."

"The thing above your shop isn't a flat, it's a storage room. When was the last time you went up there?"

"I keep meaning to do inventory, but. You know. There's always something else to do. My point is," Aziraphale says, as if sensing that Crowley's just about to hit his stride as far as mocking goes, "there's all the time in the world now, and not much else to do with it. Maybe I'll have a go at living like humans do."

"What, are you going to take up sleeping, too?" Crowley can't imagine it.

"Take up seems like awfully strong language. Implies a habit. I'd give it a fair shot, maybe."

Crowley follows Aziraphale through the narrow aisles, feeling vaguely disconcerted by this and not really sure why. When Aziraphale pauses by one of those awful little uncomfortable chairs, though—beautifully upholstered, of course, the craftsmanship can't be denied—he puts his foot down.

"Listen, angel, if you're going in for a remodel, at least buy some comfortable furniture," he says. "Give it a fair shot, as you say."

"You're just trying to get me to go to IKEA."

"No, no, I wouldn't call that furniture comfortable. And it's very stylish, and all, but damn pain to put together. Flat-packed boxes were one of mine. No, there are other stores, and they have chairs that were built sometime in the last ten years with comfort in mind."

Aziraphale glances again at the chair. "Perhaps I'll just get it for the shop, then," he says. "Discourage customers from lingering."

"Fine, yes, good."

"You know, I don't really know anything about shopping for furniture," Aziraphale says, with a sidelong look at Crowley. "Not functional things, anyway. Your flat is very nice, if a little…" He casts around for the word. "Austere."

Here is the trouble with Plan A: their long acquaintance has relied very heavily on Aziraphale hinting powerfully at things that he'd like to do, and trusting Crowley to take the final step of indulging him. And Crowley finds himself doing exactly this, like he always has, before he knows what's happened.

"It's meant to be," he says, and then, "I know a few places."

Aziraphale beams at him, which does the same funny thing to his stomach that it's done for a very long time. "We'll go after lunch, then."

There is a bidding war—over the chair, of all things. Crowley manages to swipe the only thing of value from a knocked-over pile of books before the looks turn too murderous, and without being spotted by Aziraphale, who's too busy trying to smooth over the mood with the other bidders.

"You wanted the chair, I was going to get you the chair," Crowley says, unable to help his grin as they hurry away, the very slender book tucked safely into his jacket.

Aziraphale huffs out a sigh. "I rather think you orchestrated all that so I wouldn't get the chair. Your point is taken."

They stop back at the bookshop to take a look at the space in the flat above. Crowley nearly trips over the pile of books right inside the kitchen. Every available surface—and there are few enough of them, besides the floor—is piled with books. The smell of them slowly decomposing is overpowering. Crowley doesn't even want to guess at the last time Aziraphale opened a window up here.

"How do you live like this," he mutters, picking his way more carefully across the battered old floorboards. What he can see of them, anyway.

"It's worse than I remember," Aziraphale admits. "I forgot that I'd been just sending things up here when I ran out of space. Or rearranged."

Crowley bites his tongue on a comment about how mad Aziraphale's attempts at rearranging are. His organization system makes sense to him, and no one else, and that is almost certainly by design, even if he won't admit it.

And Crowley won't admit that he finds the chaos of it stupidly, wonderfully endearing.

"You're going to have to move them to put any furniture in here. Even a dowdy old chair."

"Oh, I expect there's space somewhere," Aziraphale says vaguely, which Crowley takes to mean that he's already miracling up a new room for the bookshop downstairs, one which somehow occupies less square footage than it seems to, and doesn't encroach at all on his neighbors. "Here."

The books all vanish, leaving the flat very, very empty. There's a long-neglected kitchen with a halfhearted table where some of the books had been recently piled, but otherwise, the place is a completely blank slate.

Aziraphale sighs. "I don't even know where to start."

"Lunch," Crowley reminds him, "and then we'll look around." 

By the end of the day, Crowley has a new appreciation for how shell-shocked humans look when they emerge from IKEA. It had been easier to stock his own flat, to make adjustments over the years; he has taste, he understands what aesthetic he's cultivating, even if he dimly recognizes that he's always about ten years behind.

Aziraphale, though. Aziraphale's knee-jerk reaction to something newer than 1950 is always no, and after a few hours, might only work its way up to maybe.

The sun is going down by the time the delivery people leave. Crowley might have suggested to the sales associate that they'd paid for same-day delivery when they hadn't at all, but Aziraphale tips the workers heavily, so the scales balance.

Crowley throws himself down on the new couch, which for the moment, sits against a blank wall; they hadn't really gotten as far as strategically-placed decoration, let alone a television, in the hours available to them. But it's a comfortable couch, if not to his own taste, a kind of warm ivory in color with a tartan blanket somehow already draped over the back of it. There's a pleasant little coffee table in front of it with room for plenty of books on the lower shelf. It's all very Aziraphale.

"Well?" he asks, folding his arms behind his head.

Aziraphale looks around the flat, wary but mildly appreciative. His eyes light on the plant—the stupid one putting out flowers when it definitely shouldn't—which has moved upstairs, onto the coffee table, and the wariness melts entirely into fondness.

"It's a start." He settles on the couch, too, not directly beside Crowley, but not far. "Perhaps we should do something less productive tomorrow, though. I don't know how humans manage." He makes a face. "If I am tired, after all that, the poor dears must be exhausted."

We, Crowley thinks. We should do something less productive tomorrow.

Crowley tries not to think about the last couch they sat on together, two nights ago now. But really, he can be neurotic by nature, a hellhound with demon gristle in its teeth, and this reminds him very powerfully of it. It reminds him how well, in that moment, that he thought they'd understood one another.

But maybe it was just a moment at the end of the world. Not the end of the world—just the end of theirs, judgment looming on the horizon. That makes people do funny things. He only has to think about his own ridiculous declarations over the last week to remember that.

Even if he meant those ridiculous declarations.

"I think they usually lay around and watch telly for a day or so, after so much exertion," Crowley says, forcefully shelving all of this. "Order takeout. Laze."

Aziraphale actually yawns. Maybe he's really going to give sleeping a go, after all. "Yours, then? I'm not having one of those things in my flat."

Like it's a given. Like whatever they do, they will do together. How many days will it last? How much time can Crowley steal?

"Yeah," he says, stretching his legs out. "I bet we can find something you like."

Aziraphale makes a face that suggests he doesn't believe this, but he doesn't argue directly. "I'll bring a book."

Crowley does go home that night, inasmuch as the Mayfair flat is home. It would be too easy to overstay his welcome, to cling. Heaven and Hell aren't coming after them. There's no reason to take up full occupation of Aziraphale's couch, much as he wants to creep back in after Aziraphale's fallen asleep and burrow himself under that stupid tartan blanket. He even briefly considers parking himself on the doorstep, which is how he knows that things have gotten really out of hand.

On his way out, he hunts down the Chaucer incunable that's been hiding in the bookshop and leaves it on Aziraphale's desk to find in the morning. After a moment's hesitation, he takes the other volume out of his jacket, a printing not even a century old yet, and thumbs it open, reminding himself of the words.[4]

"'Teach us to care and not to care,'" he mutters. "'Teach us to sit still.'" And he scoffs—aggravation welling up inside him—because sitting still feels unnatural, and one day of practice has not made him an expert, and he wants to march back up those stairs and demand answers of Aziraphale, tangible answers, whether he's ready to give them or not.

He almost leaves the book out, beneath the Chaucer, but in the end, the narrow printing of Ash Wednesday goes in the old hiding spot, well-buried within the bookshop. Maybe in a hundred years, Aziraphale will take him to another auction, and the cycle can repeat itself, indefinitely, across centuries. Maybe they really do have that much time.

Maybe, by then, they'll have figured one another out. 

Aziraphale turns up to his door the next day with takeout and a plant.

"What's this?" Crowley asks, giving the thing a perplexed look. It's a Ceropegia wood, practically glowing with health, leaves already tumbling down around the rim of the pot.

"A gift," Aziraphale says, like he's talking to someone very slow, "obviously."

He holds it out, and his brief exasperation doesn't last. There's this thing that happens when Aziraphale is very happy—in particular, very happy with Crowley—that causes him to sort of...glow. People can't see it, obviously. Maybe witches could. It's more like a peek into another plane of existence, though, a place where the greater matter of Aziraphale exists, all bright golden light.

Crowley used to think looking too close at that light would probably burn his eyes out, or something. It's just like sunning on a rock on a summer day, though. Just barely too hot to be entirely comfortable, and for a snake, that's very comfortable indeed.

Crowley takes it and stands aside to let Aziraphale in. "What for?" he asks, also like he is talking to someone very slow.

"Well, I was admiring your plants the other night, and I thought this one might fit in. It's paltry in comparison, really. Where on earth did you find that incunable?"

Crowley doesn't bother pretending ignorance; it's not like Aziraphale lets just anyone wander unobserved in his bookshop. "In your shop, where it's been hiding for oh, I don't know—a hundred and thirty years or so? Thought you'd have found it by now."

"A hundred and…" Aziraphale frowns, clearly piecing things together. "Why, we weren't even speaking, then."

Crowley manages not to squirm, holding his new plant, which is getting entirely the wrong idea about the kind of gardener he is.

Aziraphale takes his silence for something, clearly, because he says, "Oh, Crowley," in a tone of voice that is far too soft and understanding. "I'm sorry I didn't find it."

He looks it, too, like he's feeling the absence of those long years between 1862 and 1941 just as keenly as Crowley.

"Forget it," Crowley says; the sun has become unbearably bright. "It's nothing."

Aziraphale seems like he might argue, but wisely desists. "What did you steal from the auction yesterday, then?"

Crowley shrugs. "Maybe you'll find it in a hundred years."

"You wily old serpent," Aziraphale says, horribly fond; he pats Crowley's shoulder as he passes by, fingers lingering so briefly, and hard as Crowley looks, he can find no trace of admonishment in the words at all.

They retreat to the sitting room, where the television is already going on one of those insipid reality shows that Crowley finds so entertaining and Aziraphale finds so irritating. They bicker about it over the takeout, a well-trod old argument. Crowley goes to hang up the new plant and give it a stern talking-to about expectations. By the time he returns, Aziraphale's worked out how to use the remote and has found something that isn't reality TV. He actually seems quite engrossed, admiring the costume design aloud. He would; it mimics the early 1800s very well.

Crowley complains, but he makes no real effort to steal back the remote. There's something about Aziraphale making himself comfortable in Crowley's flat that he wouldn't interrupt for the world. 

The days pass like that, fading into weeks.

Aziraphale wheedles Crowley into helping decorate the flat above the bookshop. He invites him to lunches, dinners, walks in the park. And other things, things they've only done when rigorous pretense was firmly in place: attending plays, concerts; going sightseeing, inasmuch as there are any sights left that they haven't seen and actually want to see; lingering at one or the other's flat, late into the night, well past the time when Aziraphale would usually hint that Crowley ought to go away.

That new plant has started to put out flowers that it shouldn't, either, and the others are clearly thinking about it. They're not like the ones at the bookshop, which would have been bad enough; these are delicate, soft blooms, white and pale gold and traces of pink. Crowley can't decide what would be worse: that it's Aziraphale's continued presence that's encouraging them, or it's something in his own essence that's changed, and they're reacting to it.

What will happen if Aziraphale decides to go, then? Will the plants go back to the way they were? Will he?

"Listen," he says, one night early in September when they get back to the bookshop after Pericles.

He says it before he can think better of it. It slips out of his mouth like a plea, interrupting Aziraphale's chattering analysis of how this version differed from the original showing.

Aziraphale hangs his coat up on the rack. Stupid thing, wearing a coat this time of year, with how many layers he has already. Really stupid thing. But Crowley watches him brush the lines of his jacket straight with pained fondness, because it is so very Aziraphale, and he loves Aziraphale.

"I'm listening," Aziraphale says, though a little absently.

He could back out. Stick to Plan A. Let all this play out without hurrying things along, trying to see where the end of the road is.

But he's still scrambled from the way they stood in the theater, so similar and so different to how they'd stood in a technically different building centuries before. How there had been no attempt through body language or warning looks on Aziraphale's part to keep any distance from Crowley at all. In fact, maybe with the excuse of how packed the playhouse was, Aziraphale had spent much of it pressed lightly against Crowley's side, arm to arm, the backs of their hands occasionally brushing.

"Why are you doing all this?" Crowley asks, barreling onward, because the uncertainty of it is more than he can endure. He thought he could be patient, stand still. But it's so blessed hard to stand still when Aziraphale's running at him at ninety miles an hour. He'd anticipated less of an assault, more of a meandering.

"All what?" Aziraphale asks, but his eyes have sharpened, taken notice; he's not absent now.

"The outings, the food, the...plant." Crowley shoves his hands in his pockets and does not look down at the floor. He doesn't need to; the sunglasses conceal his eyes just fine, and he's not taking them off. Not for this.

"You don't like it?" Aziraphale asks, very much like he already knows the answer to that.

"That's not what I...that's not the point."

Aziraphale looks at him, too keenly for Crowley's comfort. "What is, then?"

It feels like Aziraphale has already seen through him, already knows everything Crowley could say, and the injustice of that wells up in him, threatening to spill over. Because, after all this time and all that's happened, he still doesn't know Aziraphale the way Aziraphale seems to know him; he still isn't sure of anything. Not sure enough, anyway.

"You weren't like this before," he says, and it comes out more accusatory than intended. "I had to bend your arm backwards sometimes just to get you to talk to me out of the side of your mouth. So the point is, what's changed?"

He half-expects Aziraphale to argue, to protest, but he doesn't. He deflates a little, though he doesn't fall to the mannerisms he usually does when he's uncomfortable; he stays where he is, and he meets Crowley's eyes.

"I wanted to be," he says, quietly, but not quietly enough to mishear.

"What?" Crowley says anyway. It's outlandish enough to demand clarification.

Aziraphale offers up a small, sad smile. "I wanted to be," he repeats. "If you can believe it. I didn't want to wait for you to hunt me down and give me an excuse to…" Here he hesitates, just briefly. "To be with you."

This is really more than Crowley bargained for. He never imagined that Aziraphale would just say it like that, out loud and plainly, revealing the answer to something that Crowley has wondered for so long—certain of it most of the time and uncertain the rest.

Aziraphale steps toward him. There's only a little distance left between them; there's something tentative in the motion, but Aziraphale still lifts a hand, still places it on Crowley's cheek. He can't move under the weight of it. Aziraphale's thumb runs over the serpent, tattooed into borrowed skin.

"Can I take these off?" he asks, fingers touching the stem of the sunglasses.

Crowley hesitates. Well, not really. He has to make a great, monumental effort to react at all, to move at all, which he tells himself is hesitation instead of paralyzing fear. But he nods, a tiny jerk of the chin, and Aziraphale gently takes the sunglasses and folds them and tucks them into a pocket in Crowley's jacket. His hand lingers there now instead, against Crowley's chest, and Crowley hopes he's not reading anything into the body's racing heartbeat, which he can't seem to control at this time.

"I was a coward," Aziraphale says, matter-of-factly. Crowley opens his mouth to argue—actually argue—but Aziraphale gives him a stern look and he shuts it again. "In some ways, I was. But I worried about your well-being, too, lest you think me entirely self-preserving. If anything happened to you, because we were...fraternizing." He makes a face, as if mocking his past self for word choice.

They would destroy you. How many variations of those words, repeated over the centuries, always when Aziraphale was trying to re-establish space between them—and usually succeeding?

"So I never could do enough." Aziraphale's fingers tense briefly against Crowley's shirt, and relax again. Stupid, the things the human body he merely inhabits does in reaction to that. The heart pumping like it's running out of time, the lungs trying to strangle him. "Never could match you. Always had to be reluctant, had to go along, at best." His features soften, just a little more, and there is that light. That glow. The sun shining on Crowley's scales instead of falling just wide. "I thought I...well, now I can. Do enough, I mean. Make up for it." Aziraphale's certainty finally falters here. "If you'll let me, that is, if you want..."

"Of course I want," Crowley says, holding down a despairing laugh. "That's the whole problem."

Aziraphale smiles, his whole face—his whole person—lighting up with the strength of it, just as Crowley leans in and kisses him. Somewhat clumsily, unfortunately; it's been a while since he bothered with this kind of thing. But Aziraphale's breath comes out in a rush against his face, and Aziraphale kisses him back, proving that he hasn't horribly misread a conversation that was actually about what good friends they are.

Which. They are. They're just also something else.

This goes on for a minute. Maybe two. Aziraphale keeps making these delighted noises, and Crowley doesn't want to pull away from the warmth of Aziraphale's hand on his chest, doesn't want to release the handful of crumpled jacket beneath his fingers, doesn't want to let go of Aziraphale, ever, ever again. They are not, strictly speaking, creatures of flesh, but they have been of the world for long enough to be so close as to make no difference, and this feels excruciatingly good, to be so physically close to someone he is already so close to, in so many other ways.

But at some point, Aziraphale does pull back, just enough to say, "That's not a problem. Not a problem at all. That's wonderful, really."

He sounds breathy in an entirely new way Crowley's never heard him sound before, and it punches him in the stomach, a little.

Crowley manages, "You could've just said. You didn't have to go to all this trouble."

"I'm afraid it's still hard to say things," Aziraphale says. "I'm in the habit of trying to make myself understood through my actions. Heavily-veiled actions, at that. And besides, words seemed inadequate, after everything." A darkness passes over his face that doesn't belong there; Crowley lifts a hand to smooth it away, and Aziraphale turns into it, lips brushing his palm without any hesitation at all. Something like static shock passes over his skin in reaction. "I've said many untrue things, recently. I thought you might not believe me. I'm sorry, my dear. I know I've taxed your patience greatly, but please let me intrude on it a little while longer."

"I forgive you," Crowley says, easy as breathing, and means it.[5]

Aziraphale looks a little astonished at that. Not offended, even. Just grateful. Like he wanted, needed, that forgiveness. Not something that the Serpent of Eden should really have the right to hand out.

But he's not the Serpent with Aziraphale. This is not a Temptation. This is his own feeling, maybe vice and maybe virtue but really, maybe just something that falls in the middle of all that, the way that they do. And it's no less good, or right, or powerful, for falling in the middle of things.

Aziraphale kisses him this time, and Crowley gets lost in the feeling even as he's trying desperately to memorize it. All of his confused, hopeful-but-guilty imaginings pale in comparison to this, to having Aziraphale enthusiastic and demanding in his arms.

When they pause for not-strictly-needed breath again, he says, with the awful grin that he knows Aziraphale half-hates, half-loves, "You've been courting me. Like a proper gentleman. You gave me a plant."

Aziraphale rolls his eyes, somewhat pink in the face. "Oh, shut up."

"You watched television with me."

"Just the one programme—"

"You took me on dates."

Aziraphale stares at him, half-infuriated, half-adoring. Crowley will remember this look for his entire existence. Forever.

"Please stop talking," Aziraphale says, and Crowley indulges him.