Crowley had called him angel since The Beginning. Initially, because he didn’t know Aziraphale’s name, and then after that because being on a first-name basis felt a bit too… chummy, for the two of them. And then eventually, as Crowley grew visibly, increasingly uncomfortable with his own name, it became a distancing tactic, something to sneer so that Aziraphale would respond with an indignant ‘well!’ rather than a Crawly.
Aziraphale never minded it. It had felt fittingly Adversarial, at first, before Aziraphael slurred into Aziraphale and his given name didn’t sit so uneasily on Crowley’s tongue. (Aziraphale might not have perfected the art of mumbling his name upon first introductions for that express reason, but it was certainly a boon to no longer watch Crowley’s mouth twist with discomfort whenever someone spoke a powerfully holy word in his presence.) From there on out, it had just seemed natural: a professional address for a purely professional Arrangement.
It was also, of course, Crowley testing the waters, seeing how loudly he could say it before humans began to give them suspicious, god-fearing looks. But that was alright, Aziraphale thought. Best Crowley got his demonic impulses out in comparatively harmless ways while they were together and Aziraphale was obligated to at least verbally disapprove.
He would also, of course, never admit that he almost preferred it. Maybe it was a reminder that he was an angel, no matter how Crowley tempted him, or maybe it was the sardonic quirk of Crowley’s mouth when he said it, like the word held a secret Aziraphale wasn’t yet privy to. But that second reason was something that couldn’t bear too much scrutiny, so Aziraphale buried it beneath centuries of animosity and Arrangement and did his best not to read any sort of intimacy into the way Crowley pronounced the word.
Even once Crowley was Crowley and, sometimes, my dear, Aziraphale was still angel.
Until he wasn’t.
Aziraphale couldn’t remember quite when — perhaps somewhere in the seventeenth century — Crowley had very abruptly stopped, but he remembered keenly the loss of it. His given name felt wrong, coming from Crowley, after so many years of angel. Aziraphale spent several decades worried he had done something to anger Crowley, but beyond the shift of address, nothing about their relationship had changed. Eventually, he came to the forced conclusion that Crowley simply no longer wanted to.
He tried not to miss it.
Aziraphale became Ezra Fell as the decades wore on and a last name became something one needed in everyday life once more, and Crowley picked up a new name and a mysterious middle initial somewhere as well. To each other they were still Aziraphale and Crowley, and it was almost like having angel back, in that it was something unique to the two of them, a millennia-old private joke.
He told himself that meant he didn’t have the right to miss it. Only — Crowley didn’t smile that secret smile when he said Aziraphale, and Aziraphale didn’t feel that flush of forbidden enjoyment when he heard it. He resigned himself to living without it.
But recently, very suddenly and very deliberately, Crowley had begun again.
Aziraphale was not a fool, and he was not naïve. It might have taken him a few decades, but eventually he had pinpointed the moment Crowley stopped using angel to be the moment it began to mean my love.
It was sweet, really. Aziraphale was under no delusions as to how he came across; he knew what assumptions people made about him based on his dress and manner. It didn’t bother him. But it was quite flattering to know that Crowley worried about it, that he didn’t want to feed the flames with the use of a very obvious and very gendered pet name. Charming, almost. Aziraphale obligingly toned down the my dears in response, though they were always on the tip of his tongue.
He wondered if Crowley missed them the way Aziraphale missed angel.
Aziraphale remembered exactly when he heard it again, after centuries of aborted syllables and stuttered pauses before his name. It was mid-August, 1972, mere weeks after the first Pride march through London, and it was almost defiant in its intentionality.
They were in a diner in Brighton with the tackiest vinyl seats Aziraphale had ever personally encountered, and he had the suspicion that Crowley had done something to make them worse while Aziraphale was in the back politely inquiring about the fish options to a very accommodating line cook who until that moment had not had any seafood dishes on the menu. Aziraphale was forcing his way through what he supposed might have once been called cod as Crowley explained his new, ingenious method of jamming fax machines when he first noticed it.
It began as a prickling sensation on the back of his neck, the kind humans got when they were being stared at from behind. Then, he became aware of the aura of disgust radiating off the table immediately to their left. The cause was, unfortunately, clear.
“Are you going to finish that?” he asked, and felt the displeasure tick up a notch. Just as he had suspected.
Crowley sensed it, too, if the tight set of his shoulders was any indication. Aziraphale waited to see what he would do; after all, this was the man who had given up angel in the service of Aziraphale’s reputation.
“Knock yourself out,” Crowley said, pushing the remains of his side salad closer to Aziraphale. “Serves you right for ordering fish at a Mexican place.”
“If we’d gone to the pier like I wanted,” Aziraphale began, and felt a sharp spike in the low-grade animosity from the next table. Crowley raised a brow and pulled the fork from Aziraphale’s unresisting hand, serpentine eyes boring into Aziraphale’s from behind his glasses as he slowly closed his lips around it. Aziraphale swallowed convulsively.
“All I’m trying to do is open you up to new experiences — oh, that is bad.”
“Next time we’re going somewhere with proper seafood,” Aziraphale muttered.
“Now, a– don’t be such a stick in the mud,” Crowley said, with an uncharacteristic stumble. Aziraphale longed to hear the rest of that bitten-off word. At the edge of his vision, he saw one of the men at the other table lean forward to listen. “You liked sushi; who’s to say you won’t like chili?”
“You got me very drunk and nearly force-fed me sushi,” Aziraphale accused. He had an idea of where Crowley was going, and he was… not opposed, exactly. He didn’t, as a rule, toy with humans, not like Crowley did, but the all the glaring was very distracting. And if Crowley’s game meant more chances to hear him trip over the word Aziraphale had mourned for centuries, then Aziraphale would play along.
“I don’t need to get you drunk to tempt you,” Crowley said lowly. The leaning man’s companion took an audible breath.
Aziraphale thought it was a bit hypocritical. There they were, two men sharing a meal just like Aziraphale and Crowley, making all sorts of assumptions just because Aziraphale had delicate features and the vee of Crowley’s shirt was so deep you could see every one of his miraculously-maintained abs. Two masculine-looking beings could be friends and eat off each other’s forks at the same time, surely.
He was invested in Crowley’s game, now, and only partially because he wanted to hear Crowley talk of tempting in that voice again, a voice like temptation itself. Crowley was very good at this.
“I know exactly how tempting you can be,” he said, matching Crowley with a low voice of his own. The subtle lift of Crowley’s brows told Aziraphale that behind his shades, his eyes had gone wide.
Well. If Crowley had thought Aziraphale wouldn’t rise to meet him, he didn’t know the power of his own voice.
The vague heat coming off their observers caught fire, conflagrating into a seething hatred. One of the men said something very derogatory.
Crowley’s jaw went tight. “You know, there’s a little place a few blocks from here that does these absolutely divine oysters,” he said, dangerously pleasant.
Aziraphale pursed his lips. “That’s a tired joke, even for you.”
Crowley heaved a theatrical, put-upon sigh. “I am asking if you would like to get oysters with me, angel.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, quietly. He thought he might have gone red, but he hoped Crowley would chalk it up to an intense dedication to their charade. “I’d like that.”
He almost asked Crowley to say it again, but he was afraid that might be showing his hand. He had missed it. He had thought he’d known how much, until Crowley reordered his world with one calculated invitation. Crowley himself looked a little floored, as if he hadn’t expected it to feel as right as it did.
It turned out he didn’t need to ask. The men beside them wore their disgust openly on their faces now, and Crowley smiled a chillingly amiable smile at them.
“Shall we, angel? The clientele here leaves something to be desired.”
Aziraphale rallied his rattled nerves and turned adoring eyes on Crowley. “Couldn’t agree more, my dear.”
Crowley twitched at the old moniker, but he held his hand out to help Aziraphale out of his ugly vinyl seat and held the door for him like a gentleman.
As they left, Aziraphale thought he saw a bowl of chili upend itself into a man’s lap.
“That was brilliant. You were brilliant,” Crowley said, turning Aziraphale by the shoulders to beam down at him. “I didn’t think you’d –“
“I dislike homophobia as much as the next morally principled person, Crowley,” Aziraphale sniffed, still out of sorts. Crowley’s hands on his shoulders weren’t helping, an unfamiliar intimacy that combined with the residual thrill of angel into a dangerously, temptingly human emotion Aziraphale could only vaguely define as desire. For what, he didn’t know.
As if he could sense Aziraphale’s inner turmoil, Crowley dropped his hands, but he didn’t step away. Aziraphale tried to remember if they had been able to see the sidewalk from their booth. “Of course I know that, angel. You’ve just never — before —“ He grasped at words, but none came.
Aziraphale took pity on him, basking in the glow of angel. “I know how I seem. It’s not worth getting into fights over every time someone takes offense.” He grinned. “Although you are very good at instigating them.”
For reasons Aziraphale knew he wouldn’t be able to tease out of him, Crowley flushed and looked away. “I stopped — I didn’t want to make things more difficult for you.”
Aziraphale had guessed, of course, but hearing it confirmed still sent a shock of something smug and satisfied through him. The knowledge of Crowley’s devotion to his safety went quite a way to making up for the lack of angel. “That was very good of you, Crowley.”
“Self-preservation, really,” Crowley grumbled. “I’d have gotten nothing done if I spent all my time fighting bigots who thought you were too pretty.”
Aziraphale wished he had a reply, but combined with everything else Crowley had said in the past twenty minutes, too pretty had stolen all his words from him. There was something in those words, as if the reemergence of angel had unlocked a new layer of endearment in Crowley. Aziraphale decided he would do whatever he must to make sure angel remained in Crowley’s vocabulary.
And after that, Crowley kept saying it, as often as if he’d never stopped. Once again, Aziraphale became something said only in exasperation or impatience. For every other emotion and circumstance, it was angel.
Aziraphale sometimes thought Crowley took special delight in saying it around certain kinds of men, though he couldn’t say why he thought so.
He never quite got up the courage to ask, because he was afraid if he did Crowley would stop doing it. And — it wasn’t that he liked it, it was that — well, it was… nice. Because sometimes people looked at Crowley, when they were out together, but then Crowley would say ‘are you listening, angel?’ and they would stop. Rationally, Aziraphale knew people looked at Crowley when Aziraphale wasn’t around, and Crowley probably let them. But he couldn’t help but feel a sort of possessiveness when they were together; a six thousand year old on-and-off friendship ought to give him more right to Crowley’s time than some young man whose only virtue was the tightness of his trousers. Angel fixed all that.
Aziraphale tried out a few pet names himself, to pull out in situations when Crowley didn’t notice the looks, but none of them stuck and Crowley seemed to find the whole troubleshooting process odd and off-putting. He liked it when Aziraphale said his name, he said, when Aziraphale asked him.
They were in Brighton, again, in an establishment of Crowley’s choosing, again. Aziraphale wasn’t sure of the date; Crowley had forcibly removed him from his bookshop on the grounds that he hadn’t seen the outside world in upwards of a week and Aziraphale ought to be drinking someone else’s wine for a change, and Aziraphale had let himself be tempted.
It had turned out to be a devilish ruse, because when they reached their destination, Aziraphale very quickly realized there was no wine worth drinking in the whole bar. All the drinks ‘worth drinking,’ in Crowley’s words, were brightly colored and had vaguely erotic names.
It also became immediately clear what kind of bar it was, as every male eye in the room turned to them — to Crowley. Aziraphale did his best not to glare them into heavenly submission. Lust, indeed. Crowley, for his part, seemed not to notice; that sort of attention, he said, was nearly background noise to him. Aziraphale felt his hackles rise nonetheless.
They settled in to a suspiciously-recently vacated table and Crowley ordered something horrifically pink, groaning in exasperation when Aziraphale asked the very muscled bartender if he had any port.
“Just try it,” Crowley pleaded, proffering his drink. “Broaden your horizons, drink a cosmo. Maybe someday you can do a shot.”
The man seated at the table next to them laughed at that. Aziraphale scowled. There were altogether too many people at this club, and too many of them were drunk, and too many of them were doing frankly indecent things in corners that were too brightly-lit for those kinds of assignations.
“Next you’ll be wanting me to dance,” he grumbled.
Crowley’s eyes lit up. “Would you?”
“You know that answer to that, Crowley.”
Crowley sighed, and the man beside them returned to looking at Crowley. Aziraphale sulked, a little. Just because Crowley wasn’t dancing with him didn’t mean he was going to dance with some stranger while Aziraphale sat by himself with his bad port. Probably.
“One of these days, angel,” Crowley said. He winked.
The man lost interest.
They were at a hole-in-the-wall Thai place in Berlin, after a chance meeting at a financial summit. The handsome young server was gratifyingly solicitous, though he did seem to be paying considerably more attention to their table than to anyone else. But he wasn’t looking at Crowley, so Aziraphale chalked it up to heavenly influence and thought nothing more of it.
“My dear, all I’m saying is that if this succeeds –“
Crowley waved him off. “Been done before. Better name than ‘League of Nations,’ though, I’ll give it that.”
Aziraphale frowned, pushing his satay around his plate. This was not a new argument, but knowing that Crowley was actively sabotaging European efforts toward political and financial stability across the continent lent a newer, sharper dimension to it. “Perhaps if you’d leave them to figure it out on their own — “
The server appeared at Aziraphale’s elbow to replenish his near-full water glass. Crowley drained his own glass, staring down the man as if daring him to leave it empty. Aziraphale didn’t quite understand his ire, but he supposed it took quite an effort for demons to be cordial and Crowley had to take out his frustration on someone if he wasn’t going to take it out on Aziraphale. The poor server didn’t deserve that, but it was a thoughtful gesture nonetheless.
“You know I love your optimism, angel, but you can’t be serious.”
A splash of water hit the table and Crowley’s suit. Without thinking, Aziraphale reached across the cramped table to brush an ineffectual hand across Crowley’s lapel. Distractions were the best way to head off any eruptions at the pass, he reasoned, trailing his fingers over the firm muscle of Crowley’s shoulder for a beat longer than was strictly necessary. It was a very nice suit.
It had seemed like there was going to be more to Crowley’s statement, but no more words were forthcoming. Crowley simply stared at Aziraphale’s hand like he had never seen it before, and the server looked between the two of them with an expression that was more like resignation than contrition. The pause stretched uncomfortably long.
“I don’t, actually,” Aziraphale said, unsure of how to continue the conversation they’d been having with a very human third party hovering beside them. “I rather thought it irritated you.”
Crowley lifted his eyes from Aziraphale’s arm, the better to roll them in impatience. “Everything about you irritates me, angel. The two are not mutually exclusive. Can I help you?” he snapped, finally addressing their server.
“No, sir,” the man mumbled, moving away with a glance over his shoulder at Aziraphale.
Crowley looked oddly relieved.
They were three bottles deep, comfortably ensconced in Aziraphale’s well-worn reading chairs, watching the traffic outside the bookshop in the fading daylight, cardboard takeaway boxes littering the table between them. Aziraphale couldn’t remember when exactly their conversation had lapsed into companionable silence, but it had been that way for some time when the jingle of the door opening roused him from his contented thoughts.
“I thought I locked that,” he said, frowning.
Hesitant footsteps rounded the corner. “Zira? Are you there? I wouldn’t have come in, only the door was unlocked and I saw your lights on – “
Zira, Crowley mouthed, eyebrows approaching his hairline, but then the speaker came into view and all emotion drained from his face.
Aaron was maybe twenty, angelically pretty, gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide, and painfully, obviously interested in Aziraphale. Aziraphale hadn’t yet figured out how to remedy that last part.
He chanced a look at Crowley, expecting to see amusement at his expense, but instead he found only a shocked, distrustful stare, reminiscent of raised hackles on a cornered dog.
No one spoke.
“Aaron, this is Anthony,” Aziraphale said, figuring they ought at least to know each other’s names before they glared in silence. “Anthony, Aaron.”
Crowley and Aaron sized each other up, and clearly found each other wanting. Aziraphale wished Crowley would stop glaring; he knew it tended to make humans feel vaguely ill after a while and Aaron had a delicate constitution.
“Nice name. Biblical,” Crowley said, inscrutable.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard Zira mention you,” Aaron replied, with rather more relish than Aziraphale thought was becoming.
Crowley stiffened almost imperceptibly at his tone, but he skillfully turned it into a disinterested shrug. “Well, he wouldn’t, would he? He keeps his private life very private.”
Aziraphale watched the ugly flush of jealousy spread across Aaron’s face and thought, uncharitably, that Crowley wore it better.
“Anthony is — we’re… colleagues,” he said quickly, hoping to defuse the situation.
Only the problem was, he didn’t want to. The purpose of angel, as far as Aziraphale understood it, was to dissuade people from looking at Crowley. But it could be so useful in this situation. So rarely did people look at Aziraphale that he didn’t have his own ways of dissuasion. My dear was too close to his everyday vocabulary, but angel…
Crowley grinned a sharp-toothed grin. He had an active sort of jealousy, the kind that wouldn’t allow him to feel things without doing something about it. “Now, angel, don’t sell us short. Partners, at the least.”
At the word angel, Aaron’s posture went taught, as Aziraphale had guiltily hoped it would, and his jaw clenched at partners. Crowley grinned wider.
Aziraphale swallowed his sudden remorse. He was grateful for the intervention, of course, but Crowley didn’t have to be so gleeful about it. He was being ridiculous. Aaron was twenty. Aziraphale was not about to do anything so ill-advised with a human, let alone one who felt so strongly about him in ways he couldn’t reciprocate. Crowley did not need to be looking out for his virtue.
“Was there something you came to ask, Aaron?” he said, sending Crowley a be nice glare. The poor boy couldn’t help being smitten; he didn’t deserve Crowley playing with him.
“I was going to ask if you wanted to come out for drinks with me and a few of the lads, but I see you’ve got that covered,” Aaron said stiffly.
“We do,” Crowley said. “Run along, now.”
“Perhaps another time,” Aziraphale said, apologetic.
Aaron’s smile barely reached the corners of his mouth. “Yeah. Night, Zira.” He did not say it to Crowley.
“Pass me the bottle, angel?” Crowley asked sweetly, just before the bell sounded again to signal Aaron’s exit.
Aziraphale rounded on him. “Really, Crowley – “
“Drinks with the lads?” Crowley interrupted. “Are you living some queer double life you’ve been hiding from me, is that what all that was about?”
Aziraphale blinked, not entirely sure he hadn’t misheard. If Crowley was concerned for his virtue, surely he wouldn’t sound so angry about it. “What? No, Crowley — that’s ridiculous, he’s — I would never — I can’t help how he feels about me,” he finished inadequately. “He’s a regular, and I know why he comes, of course, but he’s very sweet and — you didn’t have to disappoint him like that.”
Guilt gnawed at him, like a vague sense of wrong on the edge of his senses. Only this time, the fault was Aziraphale’s.
“I was only doing what you’re too kind to do,” Crowley said, which was the truth.
“Yes, kind is not a word I would have ascribed to your behavior.”
Crowley slouched further into his chair, drained of tension now that he had Aziraphale to himself again. “Tough love.”
Aziraphale smiled despite his guilt. “Thank you for doing my dirty work.”
He reached across the space between them to place a gentle hand on Crowley’s knee. He was grateful, even if it meant he’d have quite a bit of smoothing over to do the next time he saw Aaron. He felt uneasy whenever he thought about the way Crowley’s possessiveness made him feel, but it was much better to focus on that than on his own need to keep Crowley for himself. He wouldn’t even touch the fluttering desire hovering just beyond his understanding whenever Crowley staked that claim for him.
Crowley’s face spasmed, and when he smiled back, his eyes remained lowered in that initial grimace. “Anytime, Aziraphale.”
Once Aziraphale made sense of it, it — well, it made sense. Deny it as he might, Crowley had a protective streak as well as a possessive one, particularly when it came to Aziraphale. He had stopped using a nickname he clearly liked just to keep Aziraphale safe from those who might read too much into it, never mind the fact that Aziraphale could call down the wrath of God at a word if he had to. He used it now because some of Aziraphale’s people had gotten into a lot of trouble for that sort of thing, once. He did it to men and not to women because he knew he had nothing to fear from women, and he believed he had everything to fear from people like Aaron.
Aziraphale didn’t need a protector, and he wasn’t worried about his virtue. There was only one person who might tempt him even a half-turn in that direction, if he let himself be, and Crowley couldn’t protect him from that no matter how much he tried. But he did try. He tempted Aziraphale in so many other ways, but he steered him so carefully away from this temptation, as if he didn’t know what that care and that misplaced chivalry did to Aziraphale’s heart.
It made Aziraphale want to lean into it, just a little bit, let Crowley stop him from going too far, just so he could feel like he was doing a good job.
And because the longer Aziraphale thought about it, the more he wanted Crowley to be jealous.
Aziraphale didn’t enjoy kissing, exactly, although Aaron clearly did. Kissing was sloppy and complicated and altogether too close for Aziraphale. Aaron’s body was warm beneath his hands, and he found it vaguely repulsive. Humans sweat so much.
The club was loud, and Aaron was panting into his mouth, but Aziraphale still heard Crowley’s footsteps approach. He ought to, after six thousand years of listening for them with perhaps a more eager ear than was seemly for someone of his profession. He was glad of Crowley’s arrival; he had picked the club because he knew Crowley frequented it, and when Aaron had said ‘I didn’t think you had it in you’ he had replied that Crowley recommended it, just to see what Aaron would do.
Aaron would take that as a challenge, it turned out, backing Aziraphale against a wall and kissing him fiercely. Aziraphale was almost worried Crowley wouldn’t be able to see his face, hidden as it was behind the back of Aaron’s head, but then, six thousand years of observation did run both ways.
“Angel? I thought I recognized — angel — Aziraphale — what are you doing?”
Aaron pulled himself away from Aziraphale’s lips and turned to face Crowley, and Aziraphale got his first look at him.
He hadn’t been sure what he hoped to see. Shock, maybe, and concern. Anger. Perhaps, within deeply-buried fantasies, jealousy.
But Crowley looked none of those things. There was anger, sure, but it was a kind of wounded anger, directed at no one but Crowley himself. Mostly, he looked devastated.
It seemed it had worked. But, looking at Crowley’s stricken expression, Aziraphale no longer wished it had.
“I should think it was obvious,” Aaron drawled, but it could hold up when compared with Crowley’s masterful haughty tones.
Crowley looked through him, turning eyes brimming with betrayal on Aziraphale. “This is — you can’t — what are you doing, Aziraphale —”
Yes, there was jealousy there, buried beneath the concern for Aziraphale’s immortal soul. Aziraphale watched Crowley’s eyes track across Aaron’s face, noting its similarities to his own, and the frantic whirring of his brain stall on that detail. Aziraphale had picked him for this very purpose, and it had been the right choice.
“Call me angel, then,” Aziraphale said, goading, drunk on something other than the awful cocktail he had downed in anticipation of this confrontation. It would have been cliché and un-angelic to call it power. He felt none of the guilt he had before; this was entirely about Crowley and the word that would turn it all to rights.
It was breathy and confused, and that guilt threatened to insinuate its way into Aziraphale’s angel-drunk invulnerability, but he wouldn’t let it. Not until he had what he wanted from Crowley.
“I know what you’re doing. Stake your claim.”
“Obviously I don’t have one.”
“You’ve done it all those times before —”
“You weren’t kissing another man!”
Aaron, ignored, wiped at his mouth with his hand. “Jesus Crist, you guys are so dysfunctional. Get a couple’s counselor.”
Crowley cringed back a bit at the name, watching Aaron’s retreating back as he wove his way into the crowd of dancers with a disgusted “angel,” a parting shot audible only to superhuman ears. Aziraphale flushed.
“I’m sorry, Crowley,” Aziraphale said, suddenly feeling very small and exposed, up against a wall where God knew how many people had seen him kissing —
“No I’m — I’ve scared him of, now.”
“It was about time, anyway. I can’t look convincingly twenty-five forever.”
Crowley snorted. “Thirty-five.”
“Thirty.” Aziraphale shook his head, the invulnerable, triumphant confidence fading as quickly as it had appeared. “I just wanted to see what you would do.”
Crowley went pale under the colored lights. “What?” he said again. Aziraphale’s newfound guilt pounded behind his eyes, compounding with the thumping bass of the music into something like a headache, if angels got them.
“I didn’t enjoy it, you know,” he said, an attempt at reassurance, touching a hand to his lips. Crowley made a strangled sound.
“Oh,” Crowley said. He sounded like he was trying to hide disappointment, but he was doing a terrible job of it.
“So you don’t have to worry about protecting my virtue,” Aziraphale elaborated. Now that he was no longer high on the sight of Crowley’s perceived jealousy, it seemed silly. He had set out to prove that Crowley was protecting him, and he had proved it. That was all.
“Right. Yes. That’s what I was doing.”
Aziraphale felt miserable. All he had succeeded in doing was get his own hopes up — for what, he couldn’t quite admit to himself, not just yet — and disappoint Crowley. Truly a success of a night.
“Please don’t be disappointed in me. I wouldn’t have done anything I shouldn’t.”
“You can do anything you like, Aziraphale,” Crowley said, wearily. Aziraphale’s name sat oddly on his tongue, in place of the angel that belonged there.
Aziraphale took a breath, clearing the last of the muted human desire from his lungs. Crowley raised a hand as if to place it on his shoulder, a gesture of comfort or a handhold for his own emotional balance; Aziraphale couldn’t tell.
“I mean it, though. I… like it, when you call me angel.”
The hand twitched and fell to Crowley’s side once more. “Message received,” he said, faintly.
But it was different, after that.
Aziraphale handed the poor, rattled cyclist her bike, and then the three of them stood around awkwardly for a few seconds outside her front gate. He wasn’t sure how you were supposed to say goodbye to someone you had accidentally hit with a car and then had accidentally improved their mangled bicycle in your attempt to fix it.
“So glad to have been of assistance,” he said, with a strange bob that might have been a bow and might have been the beginning of the handshake.
“Thank you,” said the woman, icily. She did not return either gesture.
“Can we get on?” said Crowley. “Goodnight, miss. Get in, angel.”
Aziraphale thought he saw something like comprehension flash across the woman’s features, followed quickly by relief.
Ah, well. That was to be expected. Two men, driving through a small town late at night, could not be the most reassuring of rescuers. He let her think it.
Much more interesting than the woman’s reaction, however, was Crowley’s. Aziraphale watched him watch her with what could almost be called pride. It looked the way Aziraphale felt whenever he successfully maneuvered Crowley into calling him angel in front of lustful young men — which happened less often now, but was the more rewarding for it. But that made no sense.
There was no one there to deceive; women tended to look at Aziraphale and decide there was very little chance of him looking back. So Crowley had no reason to be pleased with this woman’s misapprehension, unless he genuinely cared about her comfort and well-being, which Aziraphale doubted. The only logical explanation was that Crowley simply liked it when people assumed those things about him and Aziraphale, and that… bore thinking about. At a later date, when the world wasn’t ending. If it didn’t end.
Crowley caught Aziraphale staring. He turned to him in question, self-satisfied expression melting into something guilty and a little sad.
“I think we frightened her,” Aziraphale said, uselessly. Sadness added in a whole new dimension of uncertainty and illogical musings on Aziraphale’s part. “Good thinking, with the angel bit.”
“Oh, did we? What clued you in? Was it the bread knife?”
He said nothing about angel, but Aziraphale had enough to think about as it was.
The world didn’t end.
The woman with the bicycle, whose name was Anathema, collected her book from a reluctant Aziraphale, and looked at him with a different kind of understanding.
“Yes, well,” Aziraphale said. “You were perfectly safe.”
Anathema, bless her, didn’t say anything further about it. “Do you have a pet name for him?”
“He never liked the ones I tried,” Aziraphale said, honestly.
“Then how is he supposed to know?” Anathema said, with the kind of cryptic wisdom Aziraphale ought to have expected from a descendent of Agnes Nutter.
“Know what?” asked Aziraphale, who was beginning to fear that he did.
“Thank you for the book,” Anathema said. “And the bike.”
Anathema’s uncannily canny observation ate at Aziraphale. There was no lying to himself, not after the world had almost ended; he wanted angel to mean my love. The thrill he felt whenever Crowley said it, nearly from the beginning, could not be attributed to anything else. The strange desire he pushed from his mind whenever Crowley said it now, the jealousy he felt and the jealousy he hoped Crowley shared — there seemed little point in denying himself these wants, now that he knew how close he had come to losing the chance for them.
But, of course, there was the question of Crowley. Aziraphale had been too busy suppressing his own feelings to suss out Crowley’s, which put him at a disadvantage in deciding how to move forward.
The facts stood as thus: Crowley had stopped calling Aziraphale angel because he feared Aziraphale would not like the romantic connotations that came with it. He had started again when he realized Aziraphale didn’t mind.
He called Aziraphale angel all the time, but he emphasized it when they were out and about, particularly around men who might be interested in either of them — but most often Aziraphale, he now realized. He looked pleased when people he hadn’t intended to fool came to the wrong conclusions anyway.
It would be all too easy to draw his own incorrect conclusion from that. But Crowley, surely, didn’t —
Crowley couldn’t possibly have felt those sorts of sentiments for Aziraphale, not for as long as he’d been calling him angel in that calculated way, and not have said anything about it. If he did feel them, surely he would have been paying enough attention to know that Aziraphale wouldn’t have rebuffed him, if he had said anything.
The facts did all add up. And surely there was no harm in testing it.
Because if it was the case, if Crowley did feel the same… well, that changed quite a few things.
But it seemed the moment Aziraphale thought he had it all figured out, Crowley stopped. And Aziraphale didn’t know how to make him start again.
He supposed it had something to do with the fact that neither of them felt particularly angelic or demonic anymore — but that was all the more reason to say it, Aziraphale thought. The less descriptive it was, the more affectionate it became.
Or perhaps it was that very transformation that was the problem. Crowley did not like to be seen as a sentimental creature, no matter how accurate it might be. Without the cover of irony — and using Aziraphale’s holiness against those who would twist a message of love into something bigoted and hateful could be nothing else — angel was nothing more than a term of endearment. That was what Aziraphale liked about it, but it was possible that it frightened Crowley.
It was also possible that it was too honest. That all these years, beneath the irony, that drawled angel had meant something much more fond than it sounded, something Crowley was afraid to say with words and instead put into Aziraphale’s name, hidden within millennia of familiarity and thoughtlessness.
Aziraphale hoped that was the case.
The problem, of course, was that he couldn’t approach Crowley about it. Crowley’s first instinct was always flight
Then he hit upon it: Crowley had stopped calling Aziraphale angel when it began to mean my love. Aziraphale had no equivalent to angel, but my love… that was easy.
“Aziraphale?” Crowley called, from deep within the shelves. They lived in each other’s pockets, nowadays, and Aziraphale could feel a tension thrumming beneath the surface of their conversations, in the silences where angel should be.
“Yes, my love?”
“I’ve found the — what?”
“Oh, you did? Lovely,” Aziraphale said, blithely, as if he’d said nothing out of the ordinary just moments before. “I apologize for asking this of you, dearest, but re-shelving is such a hassle —”
Crowley made his way into Aziraphale’s view, hands conspicuously empty of the book he claimed to have found. He seemed almost to be sleepwalking. “No, I — what did you call me?”
Crowley swallowed. “Yes, that.” He pulled a weak smile from somewhere. “I thought you’d gotten over your pet names phase.”
He looked distinctly uncomfortable, but it wasn’t enough. The guilt he had felt the last time he had tested something on Crowley battered at his resolve, but he was too invested in the outcome of this particular test to let it divert him from his purpose.
“It isn’t a pet name; it’s the truth.”
Crowley looked like he was struggling to remember how to breathe as a human. “Well, of course — of course I love you too, angel, but you don’t have to —”
Aziraphale hummed. “Say that again.”
“That I love you? I can only say it so many times, you know, but I thought you’d guessed…”
Crowley’s voice was tremulous, hesitant. “Aziraphale —” he said, though he clearly knew it wasn’t what Aziraphale had asked.
Crowley’s eyes were wide and uncertain and he sounded lost when he breathed, “angel, you…”
Aziraphale finally, finally allowed the warmth of that word to fill him up the way he’d tried not to let it do for six thousand years. He knew Crowley could see it in his face, a softening of the eyes and a parting of the lips, because he said, slowly, carefully, “angel.”
Aziraphale, very suddenly, found himself on the back foot, unsure of how to proceed. With one murmured word, Crowley had effectively turned the tables on him, and Aziraphale felt powerless to turn them back.
“Angel,” Crowley said again, low, reverent. Aziraphale had the hysterical thought that this was what reverence should always sound like; none of those hymns or prayers.
“My love,” he tried. Crowley’s eyes slipped shut. He looked like he was in pain. “Crowley?”
“How long?” Crowley asked, opening bright, gold-tinged eyes.
“Since the beginning.” It was true, though Aziraphale had never admitted it to himself until this moment.
“Then if you knew —”
Aziraphale didn’t know who Crowley was talking about, but it didn’t matter. The answer was the same. “I didn’t.”
“When I healed the bike.”
There was that crooked, secret smile Aziraphale had been longing for, the one that had accompanied each calculated, proprietary angel.
“That’s what tipped you off? Not when I scared off every man who hit on you in my presence for two decades?”
“I assumed you were protecting me from those who would tempt me into Lust,” Aziraphale said, fighting a smile of his own. It was a bit silly, but if it made Crowley laugh then he supposed he could live with the chagrin.
Crowley’s smile leveled out, a small curve of exasperation more suited to Aziraphale’s face than Crowley’s, but it was as tender as Aziraphale could have hoped for when Crowley said, voice chokingly fond, “that’s my angel. Always thinking the best of me.”
Now that he knew for certain those angels meant what he had unconsciously wanted them to mean since Crowley had begun saying them again, Aziraphale let the words slip past his ribs and lodge in his heart, a fluttery, downy sort of feeling, wrapping itself around him like an embrace. He found himself swaying towards Crowley, seeking a physical confirmation of the quietly encompassing joy.
Crowley followed, one foot jolting forward as if to keep his balance, to keep him from collapsing into Aziraphale’s arms. Aziraphale ached for it.
“To confess the truth, I had hoped you were jealous,” he said. Crowley smiled wider, delight blooming across his features.
“So jealous,” he said, fervently.
“But I thought you would have tried to tempt me, if that were the case.”
Crowley shook his head as if the idea were abhorrent to him. “I would never tempt you. Not on purpose, at least,” he amended, at Aziraphale’s raised brows. “Mostly.”
“In the end, I didn’t care why you said it, so long as you kept saying it,” Aziraphale said. It cost him to admit it; gestures of love came more naturally to him than words. Eons of angelic conditioning had made him wary of any sort of vulnerability around a demon. That was how one Fell.
But Aziraphale had never felt so light, so buoyant. There was no fear or hesitation, only Crowley with his reaffirmation of Aziraphale’s divinity and his care for it’s continued existence.
“Say it again,” Crowley said. “I’ve lived off ‘my dear’s for decades. You have a lot to make up for.”
They were a handsbreadth apart, nearly breathing each other’s air, which Aziraphale’s body at present seemed to think it needed. It was quick, and shaky, but it matched Crowley’s, and Aziraphale was glad for that sign of nerves. It calmed him enough to say, “you’ve been saying it for years; I suppose it’s only fair I say it back.”
“So you picked up on that much.”
“I only wish I’d seen the whole picture sooner, my love.”
Crowley’s smile lit his face like a halo, and in that moment Aziraphale could have called him angel too. “Doesn’t matter. You got there eventually.” His gaze slid downwards to fix on Aziraphale’s mouth, a pleading desire plain on his face. “Angel — do you — I know you said you didn’t like it but — can I —”
“Love, you don’t need to ask.”
Crowley kissed him, then, so long in coming Aziraphale had thought it might never arrive. He breathed an “angel” against Aziraphale’s lips like a prayer, and Aziraphale could do nothing but grant, anything Crowley asked for, from this moment on until the next apocalypse.
And when Crowley gasped angel against the side of his neck, helpless against Aziraphale’s hands against his skin, Aziraphale knew he might never hear his proper name again. And that was perfectly alright.
My love did not, just like all of Aziraphale’s other attempted nicknames, stick.Crowley was not prone to outright displays of affection; he preferred sly insinuations. But Aziraphale made sure he knew, through desperate cries and reverent whispers, that Crowley meant my love just as much as angel did.
Anathema claimed she had known all along. Crowley said, “see, angel, you really should have figured it out sooner,” but the only part of the sentence that mattered was angel.