"I should like to be free of London," Aziraphale mentions over their final cups of coffee at the Ritz the day after the world did not end. "At least for awhile. It might be nice to, I don't know, breathe the fresh air—"
"You don't need to breathe," Crowley says.
"Enjoy the peace and quiet," Aziraphale continues, ignoring him. "Read the books I've been meaning to get to. Take my time."
"You want to retire?" The word is foreign on Crowley's tongue, his mouth working over the syllables like a welterweight boxer. He's heard of the concept. Never gave it much thought. Hadn't seemed applicable before.
"Yes, exactly. Retire." Aziraphale reaches for the last remaining tartlet brimming with summer berries. "Somewhere along the south coast, perhaps. Wouldn't that be lovely?" He takes one tiny bite, chews luxuriously, his face going through its thousand ecstasies. Swallows before saying, "I would need a kitchen, of course. A proper one where I could try my hand at actually creating some of these delightful things." He nods to the tiered stand, bare now but for a crumb or two. "And a fireplace. That's non-negotiable. Cozy winter evenings and all that."
A sinking feeling manifests in Crowley's middle. This is not one of Aziraphale's meandering notions, a daydream that will never see fruition (like his career in close-up magic). The angel has a location in mind and a must-have list. Crowley has only his sneers to combat this horrible plan. Who's he supposed to drink wine with if Aziraphale leaves London?
"You really think you'll pack up and head to the Sussex Downs or something? Raise bees?" He makes the word a jeer. "Come on, angel. You love the city. There aren't even any decent restaurants out that way."
"I've forgotten," Aziraphale says, spooning his sugar into his coffee while avoiding Crowley's point. "Was that one of yours? The popularity of the little detective stories, I mean."
"Little—? Yes, as a matter of fact, it was my demonic workings that made Holmes big. You should have seen Artie towards the end. Miserable. Tearing out his hair whenever a new one sold. Not to mention the black armbands." Crowley allows himself a moment of satisfied reflection. That had been a job well done. Then, a sobering jolt: there won't be any more jobs. He is done with work. He has no guiding principle any longer (not that the previous ones had been very powerful). No purpose except to do whatever he likes.
A minute ago, the idea would have appealed. A minute ago, he'd thought Aziraphale would be there alongside him, a companion for this new stage of life as he'd been for the previous one. Now the angel's planning to move to the bloody countryside. To leave him behind. Crowley goes cold inside and out. Dante had gotten that bit right, at least: at its core, Hell is nothing but ice.
"At any rate," Aziraphale continues, ignorant of the chasm growing in Crowley's chest, "I'm wondering about the garden. Not too large, I think. Something manageable, but with enough room for a small patch of vegetables. Ooh, what do you think of having it terraced?"
"What do I think?" He takes a slug of coffee and grimaces. It's gone cool. "What does my opinion matter?"
Aziraphale blinks at him like he's suddenly transformed into a unicorn and is speaking ancient Greek. "Well, of course it matters, my dear," he says. "You'll be the one tending it, after all."
Crowley freezes, coffee cup halfway home to its saucer. "I will?"
"I'm useless with plants," Aziraphale says slowly, kindly, as if reminding a very small child that one must not put mud in one's hair. "You know that."
"Right." Crowley's mind spins. He's not sure he understands. Does Aziraphale intend for him to pop in every few weeks to visit? Wrangle his garden into order? A favor between old friends?
Aziraphale folds his serviette, lays it next to the tiered stand. "You must tell me if you have any strong feelings regarding wallpaper," he says. "I envisioned pale cream throughout but if you'd prefer something more bold— Well, your rooms can be done up however you wish, I suppose."
Crowley blinks. Oh. Aziraphale doesn't mean to leave him behind after all. But—
The both of them, leave London? Live down by the coast? It wouldn't be the first time Crowley's left a place. His entire existence, in fact, has been a series of exits from places (some more dramatic than others). Yet London has been home to them for so long—not long in the Grand scheme of things, no, but this is where they'd argued and made amends and decided they'd save the world and created their new lives on their own terms.
Crowley had naively thought they'd continue on in London until the end of time.
At least he rates an invitation elsewhere. How funny; for a moment there, he'd felt quite...put out.
"Terraces are good," he manages to say. "Would want some shade trees around the edges, probably."
Aziraphale nods, sips. "Quite right."
Crowley is a connoisseur of paradoxes. The this-but-also-the-opposites. The things that matter so much and at the same time, not at all. The things that make no sense but are not, strictly speaking, senseless.
Paradox: Crowley is a demon, a creature of evil. But Crowley is also exactly as God made him. So God, who is Good, must've wanted there to be Evil in the world, no? But isn't that rather Evil in itself? It's enough to drive someone mad, and as good a reason as any to take up napping as a hobby.
Paradox: Crowley is a citizen of London, has been since around the time it was built (or at least when it got a theatre). The thrum of the traffic and the beat of the crowds has ingrained itself on his skin, as indelible as the tattoo on the side of his face. Yet one word from Aziraphale and he thinks, why not the Downs for a bit? See how he likes it.
Paradox: a demon shouldn't have room in his charred-out heart for anything or anyone, let alone something Heavenly. And yet somehow….
Aziraphale chatters away while they pay the bill and take their leave of the dining room. He talks of window placements and flooring. Of types of ovens (he'd love a brick one for baking bread, apparently). Of fucking curtains. Curtains. Crowley takes it all in without a word, offering only a hum of acknowledgement when there's a pause for breath, watching the angel light up from within with the excitement of Something New.
They do not purchase the cottage so much as find it sprung fully formed from their combined imaginations while tooling around the South Downs in the Bentley. Crowley is doing a leisurely 85 while Aziraphale complains about it. The weather, for the time of year, is quite fair. A little misty, but that just adds to the whole neolithic charm of the place. Crowley gazes out the windows and thinks of all the things chalk can mark out: measurements to be cut, the shape of a man on a hill, a sigil on the floor. In cartoons and a lesser breed of police programs, a dead body where it falls.
No one outlined Crowley when he fell.
"Look, slow down!" Aziraphale says, gripping the sleeve of Crowley's jacket and tugging very hard.
"It's fine; we're the only ones around for miles," Crowley grouses.
"No, I mean—" Aziraphale points. "Stop! Right here!"
The Bentley skids to a halt at the end of a neat gravel drive. They both step out of the car and look at the house from behind their respective car doors. The thatched roof, the cheery pale yellow paint, the shade trees out back, the little gingham curtains visible at the edges of the windows, the snake's head door knocker: it's their cottage. Couldn't be anyone else's.
"What do you think?" Aziraphale asks. He sounds breathless, and when Crowley glances over, he sees Aziraphale staring back at him, looking both hopeful and fearful of Crowley's response.
"I think," Crowley says slowly, sunglasses lowering down his nose, "it could be on the lid of a chocolate box."
"Oh." Aziraphale attempts a smile, which is brave. "So you don't like it?"
"I didn't say that." Crowley swings his gaze back to the cottage. "Gave you a box like that once, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did." Aziraphale shuts his door, takes a step up the drive, his hands clasped in front of his middle. Half-prayer. "To congratulate me on opening the bookshop."
Crowley hums, remembering. More fool him, always rocketing ahead where Aziraphale didn't dare tread. Now he follows sedately up the drive with his hands stuck in his pockets. "I'll get you another box once you're all settled here. To celebrate."
Aziraphale turns, his smile back to full wattage. "Once we're settled, you mean."
"Yeah, 'course." Crowley hasn't wrapped his mind around it yet. That he's going to be living here right alongside Aziraphale. A pair of pensioners puttering.
A little of his uncertainty must show in the twist of his mouth, because Aziraphale waits in the middle of the drive for Crowley to catch up before saying, "If you really want to. Settle here, that is." He fidgets with his fingers, with his cuffs. "I realize I never asked. I just assumed— Crowley, you'd tell me if I was bullying you into this, wouldn't you? If you'd rather not—"
"Shut up," Crowley snarls gently. (It's his default snarl for Aziraphale these days.) "The chocolate lid is fine. London's getting too crowded anyway."
"Ah. Good." Aziraphale reaches the door and opens it. It's unlocked of course, for them.
Crowley stands on the tidy rush mat just outside the front door and watches Aziraphale float inside with a happy gasp.
"Oh, the floorboards are immaculate," he coos. "And look!" His voice echoes from within the cottage's snug interior. "My brick oven!"
Dark glasses get removed, folded up, slid into a breast pocket. Crowley listens from just without as Aziraphale flits about the house, exclaiming over each detail. Everything is just as he wanted it.
"This must be your study," he calls to Crowley, the faintest echo. "It's just to your taste. Ornate furniture and bare walls, ha!"
Paradox: Crowley wants so very badly to step over that threshold and be a part of this little scene, the composed tableau of Aziraphale's joy. But he also just as badly wants to run back down the drive and catch the next train to Lisbon. Because if he steps inside this perfect dollhouse, it will not remain perfect. Because it will contain him.
"Crowley?" Aziraphale pops his head back into the tiny foyer with its charming coat pegs and stained glass transom. The light throws colors of blue and gold and purple across Aziraphale's curious face. "Won't you come in?"
He summons a joke, though not a very good one. "That's vampires that need invites, angel."
"Well, even if you were a vampire," Aziraphale laughs, "you wouldn't need an invitation; it's yours too, you know."
He knows. He just keeps forgetting.
"All right," he says, and steps inside, "show me this oven."
They move in slowly. Crowley and Aziraphale don't box up their London flats, of course. Stuff just appears. Supernaturally transported. Stacks of leather-bound books fill the empty shelves a little more each day. Crowley's potted plants pop up one by one in the glass-jewel box of a conservatory at the back. The Bentley gets itself a detached garage where it can stay warm and dry. Open the wardrobe one day, empty. Wait an hour, it's brimming with their mingled clothes, needing separation into their proper rooms. Everything falls into place, so to speak.
Aziraphale shimmers with it all. He delights in lighting a fire in the grate on wet nights, sitting next to it with a book in his lap and his ridiculous reading glasses perched on his nose, lips blowing across the surface of steaming cocoa. He sits in the conservatory in the mornings and watches the sun stream in, making patterns of light amongst the leaves of Crowley's plants. He sits at the butcher block island in the kitchen and pages carefully through books of recipes, complicated lists of ingredients spread out before him, his mouth shaping their names as he talks to himself.
Crowley watches him. Watches and slinks.
"Why don't you relax?" Aziraphale asks, patting an overstuffed cushion next to him on the floor, where he's lounging during a lazy midday rainstorm. "Get comfortable?"
The hiss gets bitten back, just barely. With a flick of his tongue, Crowley slides into a snake shape and coils himself up in the rafters.
"All right." Aziraphale sips at his bloody cocoa, eyes raised to the ceiling. "If you'd rather do it there."
Paradox: you've been alive for six thousand years and in all that time, you were never alone (not really) and you were never with someone (not completely). There was always Downstairs ordering you around, your counterpart-compatriot and your fleeting meetings. You never had to learn how to direct your life using nothing but your own wits and desires; you never had to learn to live alongside another creature whose wits and desires might differ from yours.
Now you have to.
Crowley is not very good at it, and he's annoyed that Aziraphale seems to be having no trouble at all in adapting. That's Crowley's bit, adapting. He's the one who got a telephone ages before Aziraphale deigned to put a line into the bookshop, the one who listens to new music as it comes instead of the same five composers over and over. He's the one who changes his hair, his clothes, his name, while the angel is content to be a rock in the center of history's stream. But now Crowley unwinds from the rafters only after Aziraphale has retired to his quarters to do whatever it is he does late at night, and he feels very inflexible indeed.
There's the usual arguments that come with cohabitation. Bickering over whose turn it is to miracle the dishes clean. One time Crowley makes the mistake of banishing the dirty pots and pans into the ether and willing a brand new set into existence. Aziraphale is apparently very particular about his cookware and he's so cross he doesn't speak to Crowley for the rest of the evening. Crowley spends days tracking down an exact replica of the lost set, which is no longer in production. When he presents the replacements, Aziraphale nearly weeps and apologizes for making such a fuss. Crowley assures him it was no trouble (even though it was, a bit).
He sleeps more regularly than he has in the past. Before it was just a lark, curling up in a bed and having a snooze for an hour or two, going weeks or years between them. Once he slept through three decades and woke up with a raging headache. Now he's in the habit of sleeping through the night, almost every night. Like a human.
He doesn't feel human. He'd worried, privately, that he might turn into one somehow. Cut off from Hell and its demonic power, unable to miracle even the smallest parking spot for the Bentley. But it doesn't seem to be the case; he can still exert his will when he cares to. He considers asking Aziraphale if he feels any different during one of their quiet evenings by the fire, but instead he tucks his snake-snout beneath his coiled body and lets the question rankle inside his head.
One morning he stumbles from his rooms on his own two legs, yawning, raking a hand through his hair. It's getting long again, almost to his chin. He doesn't feel like braving what passes for a barbershop in the nearest village, and anyway, Aziraphale had mentioned once that he thought it looked nice long. Seems right to let it grow again, just a small change; he can handle that. He shuffles into the kitchen, questing for coffee.
"Hello there," Aziraphale says with unseemly cheer. He's got his back to Crowley, working away at the counter. There's a steaming mug already waiting on the butcher block. Crowley sits to take it while Aziraphale keeps messing with whatever today's project is. "Sourdough," he answers the unvoiced question. "Dead clever, these humans. The thing's alive, and then you put it all together with things it likes to eat, and then you get to eat it. If I can get it right, that is."
Crowley sleepily brings the mug to his mouth and watches Aziraphale's back and shoulders shift beneath his shirt as he kneads the dough. Little by little, details filter through the fog. Coffee kicking in. Crowley nearly chokes on it when he realizes Aziraphale's got his sleeves rolled up. Not wearing a jacket. Right, would be difficult to do this work in a waistcoat and all. Still, it's strange to see him this way. Without all the layers.
Aziraphale keeps kneading, bare forearms moving in a strange dance. Little huffs of breath come from him as he works. His shirt is untucked. Crowley knows he's staring but can't think of a reason to stop.
Then Aziraphale turns his head as he reaches for something—some kind of flour or whatever—and Crowley can't contain his shocked gasp.
"What's that on your face?" he demands.
"Oh." Aziraphale turns and looks at him over his shoulder. A neatly trimmed beard, curly and white-blond, wreaths his smile. "What do you think? I'm trying something different."
Crowley gapes. He knows his naked eyes are too wide but he can't help it.
Slowly by degrees, Aziraphale's grin deflates into a worried frown. "It's awful. You hate it."
"N-no." Crowley realizes how weak his protest sounds. He shifts in his chair. "I mean, it's not too bad. The kids in the village might think you're Santa Claus but," he shrugs, "there're worse things to be."
"Santa Claus?" His face is a picture of full-on devastation. "I really look that foolish?"
"That's not what I meant, angel," Crowley says, groping for words. "Just surprised me, is all. I haven't seen you in whiskers since—" He can't remember. Hasn't Aziraphale's face always been an open book to him?
"Sideburns," Aziraphale says, clipped. He crosses his bare forearms over his chest. His dough-covered hands dangle in the air on either side of his ribs. "Eighteen-hundred something."
That explains it. Barely hid any of him at all, those did. And he'd only caved to the fashion after years of being the only bare-faced man-shaped creature in all of London.
"See? It's been ages," Crowley says. He tips his head a little to the side, considering the soft beard Aziraphale now sports. Could he learn to love it? The way he loves—? "I'll get used to it, I'm sure." It's meant to sound encouraging, but he can tell from Aziraphale's pouty scowl that he comes off as a bit of a dickhead.
"Never mind," Aziraphale mutters, and passes a hand over his face. The beard disappears, leaving him clean-shaven as always.
Crowley's stomach twists itself into a knot. "No, really. I'm sorry, okay? Put it back."
"It's already done." Aziraphale turns to his breadmaking, giving Crowley his back once more. The kneading takes on an aggressive edge, wet dough thwacking and pounding against the counter. Shoulders hunching up to pink ears. "Thought I'd try something new; it didn't work out. It's fine, nothing to fuss over."
Paradox: Crowley has never risen from his seat and gone to stand behind someone at a counter, never put his arms around their middle and pulled them tight against him. Has never apologized with a touch, with a closeness, with the thin line of his body. So why does it occur to him that he might do that now? Might press up against Aziraphale from behind and rest his forehead on Aziraphale's nape and ask silently to be forgiven. As if it's the most natural thing in the world when he knows, intimately knows that it's not.
So he sits at the butcher block island and holds his cooling coffee between his hands and watches Aziraphale make bread. He has to say something to break this horrid tension in the air and in his belly. If he waits, it'll be too late. So he goes barreling on ahead like always.
"'S not like I'm saying you shouldn't go for it," he finally says. "The whole 'trying new things' thing. Like this bread thing. Taking to it like a duck to water. That's ducks, right? Taking to water?"
Aziraphale looks over his softening shoulder. Crowley can tell by the smile on his lips that he's already been absolved. "Yes," Aziraphale says. "It's ducks." He smacks the dough around a little more and sighs. "Not sure I'm taking to it at all, actually. So hard to tell with this. I won't know if I've done it right until it bakes, I suppose."
Crowley watches as he manipulates the dough, smoother now, into a sort of stretched-out mess hanging between his hands. Something about the stuff must please Aziraphale because he gives the dough a nod and stuffs it into a bowl.
"Don't you have to put it in the oven?" Crowley asks. His knowledge of bread starts and ends with the basket that appears on the tables of mid-range restaurants. Aziraphale loves patiently explaining things, though, and this gives him the opportunity.
"It must prove first," he says, draping a checkered tea towel over the bowl as if putting the dough to bed.
"Prove?" Crowley leans forward on the points of his elbows. "What's it got to prove?"
Aziraphale laughs at the joke (which is only half a joke; Crowley is honestly clueless about yeast and sugars and all the bubbly chemicals that make up Aziraphale's new pet). Proceeds to explain the process, all the while gliding about the kitchen. Tidying up. Checking the heat of the oven. Refilling Crowley's mug with the French press. Can't grow unless it rests, he says. His feet are bare; Crowley catches a glimpse of them as they go by, padding along the slate tiles.
He hasn't seen Aziraphale barefoot in so very long. Since the Beginning. Before shoes were invented. Maybe the Pilgrims got it right; maybe time isn't a straight line going forward. Maybe it's a wheel, and everything that's happened will happen again. Maybe this is another Beginning and Aziraphale is barefoot and thinly clothed like he had been in the Garden. Maybe they'll do everything they've ever done all over a second time. And nothing will really change, will it?
He looks up and realizes Aziraphale has stopped, has caught him staring and lost in thought. A guilty twinge in his gut now. The urge to shrink into a snake and slither away.
"Am I boring you?" Aziraphale asks, only a touch of the previous hurt bleeding through.
"No," Crowley breathes. Blessedly sincere. "Never."
Aziraphale breaks into a new smile and continues on, moving and speaking while Crowley watches. And sits. And drinks his coffee.
The sourdough comes out of the oven that afternoon with a dark brown crust. Rather good for a first try, Aziraphale declares as he touches it all over. He slathers thick slices of it with fresh butter purchased from the little shop in the village. They eat it in the kitchen right off the board, still warm, not bothering with plates. Standing over the sink to catch the crumbs. A sort of Communion.
Crowley eats three pieces even though he's not particularly hungry. He eats because it seems to please Aziraphale. An audience for his attempts. He watches Aziraphale suck butter from his fingertips. Listens as he explains what went well, what could be improved.
He needs a hobby too, he decides.
The cottage has a basement. A sort of root cellar. There's a rack for storing wine bottles, and it gets populated as their cupboards, bookshelves, wardrobes, and drawers do. Bottles gleaming black and green in the low light. Wines they've been collecting for decades.
Crowley climbs down the folding ladder. Descends into this dark place. He'd meant what he said the day after the world didn't end; he believes a war is coming. Perhaps it will come in another six thousand years. Perhaps next week. He's not privy to the gossip and the movements of Hell's army anymore, so he has no way of knowing.
He prepares for the worst. Stacks of tinned food packed sullenly next to the wine. Kits full of useful things, knapsacks brimming with batteries. Torches (for if Aziraphale cannot create his own light). Bits of chalk (sigils, lines). Pots of salt (eh, couldn't hurt). All the makings for Hellfire. He hesitates to ask Aziraphale to help him lay in a supply of holy water. He's not sure he would understand. In the end, he decides not to bother with it. If the demons come, they will come for him, not for Aziraphale. That's all that matters.
"What are you doing, Crowley?" Aziraphale stands at the top of the basement steps, his silhouette stark against the light behind him.
Crowley zips one final knapsack closed and shoves it into its place on a shelf. "Just putting away a few things, angel."
Aziraphale is no fool. He takes in the stockpile Crowley has made under their little cottage with a worried gaze. "It wouldn't be so soon," he says. "The averted apocalypse—both sides will need time to regroup."
"Maybe," Crowley says, and hefts a jug of water onto the rack. They don't need food or drink or light. They don't need much of anything. But who knows what might be useful when Humanity is attacked. When it all ends.
It's a shock when Aziraphale's hand touches his elbow. Crowley hadn't heard him come down the steps. His eyes go to the floor. Right, feet still bare and silent as a mouse.
"Come upstairs," Aziraphale says quietly. "The bread's cool enough to slice, I think." Today's is a dark pumpernickel, rife with seeds. Crowley had watched him knead it. He watches him knead every loaf. "It's not perfect, but let's give it a try. See how I did."
Crowley gives his shelves a once-over. It's not enough. He'd be an idiot to think it ever could be.
"All right," he says, and snags a nice red before following Aziraphale up the stairs.
Once his project in the basement's done, Crowley's forced to focus on the back garden. Beautifully terraced. Nicely proportioned. Rows of lavender and primrose and pinks, their blossoms bobbing in the breeze. There's a plot of vegetables just as Aziraphale wanted, and Crowley harangues them into gorgeous abundance. Fat tomatoes, the spicy peppers Aziraphale favors, brilliantly long courgettes, hefty cabbages, lush basil, spikes of rosemary (remember, Crowley tells himself as he prunes it), greens and greens and more greens.
Aziraphale cooks up their bounty and serves it with one of the silky French sauces he's been learning. After the first bite, he pins Crowley with a look and says, "Right. You're not allowed to tend to the edible plants any longer."
"What? Why?" Crowley asks with his mouthful of grilled squash.
"I can taste the fear," Aziraphale says, dabbing at his lips with a serviette.
That's fair, but it still stings, doesn't it? Crowley moves his dinner around the plate, unable to stomach another bite.
After that, it's up to Aziraphale to handle the vegetable patch. He's infuriatingly lenient, and as such, their harvests are smaller (but tastier, according to the angel). Crowley instructs him at first. From a distance. Chafes at being relegated to the flowerbeds, but at least he has a job. He goes into the garden and works through the daylight hours. Could just miracle the plants into their proper places, snap his fingers and have them re-potted or pruned but where's the fun in that? He always sees to his plants himself instead of using supernatural forces. He may be an incredibly strict parent, but he's not an absent one.
He's wrestling a hydrangea into the hole he's just dug in the corner of the lowest terrace when he hears an angelic gasp.
"Good Lord." Aziraphale stands in the open door of the conservatory, mug of tea in hand, looking askance at the picture Crowley makes. His thick beige cardigan reminds Crowley of an afghan. "What on Earth are you doing?"
Crowley wrenches the heavy blighter into its new spot. "Getting a bit of gardening done," he says through gritted teeth. He knows he must look a mess; there's streaks of grime on his bare arms and probably his cheek, his black vest riding up as he stands, his artfully slashed black jeans showing the dirt on his pale knees, his boots caked in muck. He's sweating in the heat, can feel it running down the back of neck where his hair is pulled up in a hurried knot. A single red strand is stuck to his lips. He swipes it away.
Aziraphale takes one contemplative sip of his tea, then says, "I can't remember the last time I saw you looking anything but perfectly put-together. It's shocking."
"Yeah?" Crowley pants, his hands braced on his thighs as he catches his breath. He remembers. Black robes torn and fluttering about his ankles, freshly fallen. His jacket still smoking as the ground cracks open at an airbase. "Well, this is what I look like when I'm not put together." Arms outstretched at his sides. This is it. This is all that I am.
Surely Aziraphale wasn't expecting him to always look pressed and polished? All part of living together. He swipes a strand of hair off his brow, wondering if it's too late to turn into a snake and crawl under a rock. Too exposed out here in the sun.
"Can I lend a hand?" Aziraphale asks.
Crowley eyes his pale shirt under the cardigan, his crisp trousers, his ludicrous tartan slippers. "Best not," he says. After all, if Aziraphale takes on this too, then Crowley's out of a job. He grabs his spade and starts shoveling. "What's baking today, angel?" Said between heaves of dirt.
"Thought I'd take a break from bread for a moment." Aziraphale watches Crowley fill in the earth around the hydrangea for a moment, then elaborates, "Fancy a pavlova?"
Crowley glances up at him as he keeps moving dirt from one spot to another. Aziraphale knows about his sweet tooth. Crowley doesn't indulge in food as much as Aziraphale, but when he does, it's the lightest angel food cakes, the butteriest shortbread, the sweetest eclairs. A weakness. Well, one of many.
"I do," he says. "Ever made one?"
"No. Time to learn, I expect." Aziraphale looks up at the sky. A summer storm looms on the horizon, and the wind is bringing it right atop their heads. Crowley can smell it in the air, the rain and the lightning. The plants around him quiver with anticipation.
"Probably impossible to whip up a meringue in this weather," Aziraphale mutters.
Crowley cocks an eyebrow and the black clouds dissipate. Fade into the sky until the sun shines bright and the birds, confused but game, start to sing.
"That better?" he asks.
Aziraphale looks at him like he's some sort of hero. Opens his mouth, closes it, nervous smile fluttering. Instead he says, "Don't the plants need the rain?"
Crowley fishes the garden hose off the ground, holding it up, dripping. "It's handled. Now are you going to start whipping or what?"
"Of course." Aziraphale starts to head back inside, his hand on the doorframe. He turns. "Oh, and Crowley? Thank you."
Crowley watches him go, a smile tugging at his face. At his hip, the hydrangea shakes its blooms in disbelief.
"Quiet, you," Crowley hisses, and brandishes his pruning shears just to remind everyone who's in charge.
They have the pavlova for dinner along with lashings of cream, strawberries from the garden, a homemade lemon curd. Crowley eats two helpings.
"So it's all right?" Aziraphale asks for the third time while Crowley is busy collecting crumbs of meringue on the tines of his fork.
"It's perfect. Obviously." He licks a bit of cream from his wrist. How it got there is anyone's guess. Over-enthusiastic, he supposes. As usual.
"Oh, good." Aziraphale's fork is abandoned on his plate, tines down. His hands are restless in his lap. "Crowley," he says. It's a question somehow.
Crowley looks up from his wrist. "Hm?"
"Are you happy here?" Aziraphale asks. He's not meeting Crowley's eyes. Staring at his plate where a smear of lemon yellow and fluffy white intersect. A small drop of red from the berries. Postmodern wet dream, that is.
Crowley realizes the question needs answering. "Yeah. 'Course I am." As happy as he's ever been, he reckons. Though he hasn't had much practice. Personal fulfillment was not high on the list of priorities for Hell's denizens.
"It's only—" Aziraphale sighs. Places his hands on the table. Lifts his gaze at last. His eyes are dewy. "You seem so miserable most of the time."
There is a space where Crowley does not breathe. This is where it happens, he thinks with sinking dread. Goodbye, poor sod. Out with you. You're not welcome in the Garden any longer. You're bringing everyone else down, you know. It's depressing.
The humans never fought to stay. Crowley can.
"I'm not miserable," he says. "I'm fine. This is fine. Isn't it?" Waves his fork around to encompass the entire cottage.
"You prowl around the house all day—" Aziraphale begins.
He sets his fork down, a clatter on his plate. "I live here, don't I? You said it's mine too. I can prowl around if I want."
"You never let yourself relax or, or, or enjoy yourself—"
"I enjoy myself! I'm enjoying this." He gestures to the table between them, the remains of their dessert-dinner. "Well, I was until you brought this up. Why are you bringing this up?"
"Because I'm worried you don't like it here, that it doesn't suit you!" There are tears standing in Aziraphale's eyes. Crowley crumples internally. "Sometimes in the mornings I think I'll find your rooms empty and all your things gone, and that you've left in the night."
Crowley sits back, his eyes rolling. "For fuck's sake, angel, I wouldn't just leave."
"You might," Aziraphale says. "You were going to."
Face pinches, teeth bared in a snarl. "What are you talking about?"
"Alpha Centauri. You were going to go with or without me. And in the end, it was to be without me." He's staring at his plate now. Face flushed red. Eyes blinking hard, tears doing their best to hold the line. Crowley can't speak in the face of this pain he's caused. "It must seem silly to you," Aziraphale says in a strangely steady voice, "but I can't help but think that you will tire of life here. I know it's quiet and slow and not at all to your tastes. If you wish to leave, I wouldn't stop you. I'd just want a chance to say goodbye."
Crowley regrets his stomach full of sugar now that it's churning. Is this what Aziraphale really thinks of him? That he'd slink away like a thief in the night without so much as a see ya.
"I wasn't—" He stops. How can he explain without sounding like an idiot? I didn't want to run off into the stars alone. It wouldn't have been the same without you. I'm all talk, you know that. I didn't even pack a bag. It would be no good, alone.
I'm trying so hard to not be alone.
This is me trying my best and it's still not good enough.
Can't say any of that. So he rises from his chair, gestures for Aziraphale to follow. He'll show him if he can't speak.
He leads the way down into the root cellar, head ducking as he descends the ladder. They come upon his apocalypse prep, the metal shelves of supplies. This pathetic attempt at readiness.
Crowley waves a hand at all of it. "Look," he says. "I'm not planning to leave. Why would I bother with this if I was?" He cracks his neck. Stares into a dusty corner of the basement. "I'm here. Until the last bell tolls. You understand?"
Aziraphale stares at the tins of beans and the jugs of filtered water, then looks back at Crowley. "Yes." He nods. "I think so."
Crowley relaxes. Aziraphale can't possibly understand. Because Crowley is too much of a coward to say the rest of it: I'm here with you. Because of you. But he understands enough. That much is obvious from the gentle look he's sweeping across Crowley's face here in the dim basement.
"Crowley," he says, high and light, "let's go somewhere."
"Sure." He shrugs. "Where do you want to go?" He's thinking they might take the Bentley out to the cliffs, or down to the sandy beach, or into the village where the one pub might still have a light on.
"Away." Aziraphale clasps his hands in front of him and takes a step closer. "Someplace far away. Somewhere neither of us has been. Would you like that? A little adventure, get out of the house for a bit?"
"What, like a holiday?" Crowley's mouth pulls into a thin line. "We're not exactly the tourist type, angel."
"Well, it might be nice for a change," Aziraphale says. The weak light from the trapdoor paints his earnest face into shapes and valleys. "I brought us both to a rather sudden standstill here. You're restless, I can tell. So let's get...moving." He rolls his shoulders, arms pumping like the rods of a train.
Crowley stares. Go to a place they've never been. For no other purpose than to enjoy the journey. "Do you really want to?" he asks. "You wouldn't despise it, leaving home?"
Aziraphale smiles and flushes. "I've gotten very comfortable here, I know. But I would like to give it a go." He makes an uncertain gesture with his hand. "That's what retirement is for, isn't it? Traveling the world? Seeing the sights?"
The weight of hesitation keeps Crowley from leaping to agreement. His eyes slide over to his shelves of supplies. If something happens while they're gone….
Aziraphale follows his gaze and steps closer. "It will be all right," he whispers. "It will keep." The light in his eyes promises safety. No one can keep promises like that, not even an angel.
"Not many places I haven't been," Crowley says, quiet in the gloom.
A flash of perfect teeth, a full smile. "So it will be easy to decide. Come along." He's climbing the stairs before Crowley can protest. "You have a globe in your study, don't you?"
He does, and it floats before them as they contemplate the continents, the oceans. Islands they've seen on TV or read about in books. Countries that are infants in the grand scheme of things, barely a century or two old. Less.
"What do you think?" Crowley asks, levitating the slowly spinning globe between his palms.
Aziraphale hums. "You pick. I can choose the next one."
"Next one? So this is to be a regular thing, is it?"
"If we want it to be."
Crowley studies the globe for another moment. "Never had any assignments here," he says, and taps a fingertip against the star adorning the curved arch of Thailand. He watches Aziraphale's face closely. "How about that?"
"Oh, I've heard the food is supposed to be exceptional," Aziraphale breathes. His lips are parted as he looks down at the little world. "I think it would be very nice indeed."
Crowley pays a boy from the village twenty quid to water the garden while they're away. Before they leave, he tells the plants in no uncertain terms that he expects them to maintain perfection in his absence. He doesn't need to pack much luggage. He carries Aziraphale's trunk for him.
Bangkok is hot and busy and beautiful and bright. Crowley squints even from behind his dark glasses. The sun's a boisterous thing here, not the coy wallflower it is back in Britain. He's wearing what he normally wears on warm days in the garden (albeit without the dirt stains) and he is boiling in his blacks.
Paradox: humans are the same the whole world over except when they aren't. They all generally want the same things (comfort, when it comes down to brass tacks, love). They all dream the same dreams and make the same mistakes. Their differences are tiny little things, but humans will magnify them to galactic proportions—it comforts them, strangely, to feel they are unique. That other people are something separate. To them, the differences are all-important. This is all to say Bangkok is not London, obviously, except in the ways that it is. Crowley likes it very much.
Aziraphale appears beside him on the banks of the Chao Phraya in an ensemble of white and tan linen, a straw Panama hat tipped back on his head so that the brim gives him a sort of halo. Not a drop of sweat on his brow.
"Isn't it gorgeous!" he cries at the sight of all the boats tooling back and forth in the sand-colored water. "Shall we?" He walks down to the dock, brown leather sandals slapping on the wooden planks.
Aziraphale wore sandals to the crucifixion, Crowley remembers. Time is a wheel and it just keeps revolving. He follows the angel to the boats. They hire one that's draped in flowers: blue and orange and bright pink. Aziraphale touches a petal near the prow and laughs, delighted to find they're real.
"They're so huge and perfect," he says, "I thought for certain they'd be silk."
Crowley relays this comment to their boatman in serviceable if informal Thai. The man is pleased with Aziraphale's appreciation and, with Crowley acting as conduit, launches into an explanation of his wife's flowerpots. He'd picked the flowers just that morning as he does every morning, he tells Aziraphale, guiding the boat with one hand on the tiller into a maze of narrowing canals. He says if Aziraphale likes flowers, he knows just where to take them.
"Where did you learn to speak Thai?" Aziraphale asks Crowley in a whisper as their boatman concentrates on navigating a tricky corner. "You told me you'd never been here."
"Haven't." Crowley shrugs. "Thought it'd be useful so I picked it up."
"You picked it up in the three days between choosing a destination and arriving here?"
"Yeah." Crowley fights to keep his easy sprawl as the boat bobs up and down in the river. "Just the important bits. Food. Drink."
Aziraphale smiles. An indulgence. "And flowers?"
"Well, why not?" He likes the sound of it, the word for blossoms. Likes all the peaks and valleys of the language, the way it extends like a tune on the tail end. Even the writing pleases him. Familiar serpentine curls like his given sigil of a name, the first thing he ever learned to write.
Crowley watches the scenery passing by to avoid Aziraphale's warm, admiring look. They've entered a floating market, one of the smaller ones. Tiny pointed boats are overflowing with pineapples and fresh seafood, bananas and their glossy leaves wrapped into neat square bundles. And the flowers. Flowers sailing by in heaps, mounded so high Crowley wonders if a stiff breeze will blow them into the water and turn the river into a street paved in petals. A woman paddles up to them and starts making them noodles in her boat without bothering to ask them about it.
"Goodness." Aziraphale leans over to watch her work. "That looks scrumptious."
Crowley tells the noodle lady that his friend likes it very hot. She adds more chili to her wok. Two portions get flipped onto paper plates. Crowley thanks her, not bothering with the ka or the krup, and passes her a few hundred baht.
"Oh, no, that's too much," their boatman warns him in Thai. Ah, so they really are all friends here. "She charges half that."
The noodle woman just smiles aggressively.
"It's a nice day," Crowley explains, singsong, and waves as she paddles away.
Aziraphale's already digging in with the provided plastic soup spoon. His face is a study in rapture as he eats. "Absolutely heavenly. Go on, try it." He nods at the plate in Crowley's hand. The chew of noodles, the salt-sour tang of sauce, the crunch of palm sugar, the freshness of the herbs, the bite of bitter melon. Crowley doesn't worship food the way Aziraphale does, but even he can admit it's delicious.
They float further down the waterway. Before their boatman lets them out on another dock, Crowley snags a bright yellow flower from a passing merchant and makes a quick transaction with a few coins. Just one of those things he does without thinking. Like an idiot.
"For me?" Aziraphale gasps when Crowley shoves the blossom at him. He cradles it against his chest, the brightest sunshine against his pale cloud clothes. His smile reaches every corner of this huge city. "Oh, it's lovely. What shall I do with it?"
"Whatever you like. Leave it at a shrine. Wear it in your hair." Crowley watches as Aziraphale plops the fat chrysanthemum onto the brim of his hat, grinning.
He is radiant. Crowley stares at him the way a fool stares into the sun. Silently thanks Satan for sunglasses.
The boat puts them ashore close to a temple that visitors are expected to see, so they walk to it. Crowley stands just outside the temple walls, feeling the pulse of heat building under his boots. The golden spires flash above the gate, the twisty points of them striking ever upwards. His skin is already itching.
"Why don't you go on, angel?" he tells Aziraphale. "I'll wait out here."
"But don't you want to—" Worried, every-colored eyes take him in, then sweep over to the temple gates. "Oh, Crowley, I'm sorry. I didn't realize."
Holy ground. As consecrated as any church. Crowley could tip-toe inside, sure, but he'd spend the entire time hopping and cursing and generally drawing attention from all the Belgian tour groups. Not ideal.
"It's fine," he tells Aziraphale. "Go on."
"No, we came all this way. I'm not going to leave you out here." Aziraphale bites his lip. Looks around as if a solution will present itself. "I could carry you on my back?"
Crowley laughs. "Yes, that won't look odd at all, will it?"
"Well, there must be something we can do." Aziraphale frowns in thought, then brightens. He ducks through the milling crowd without another word.
"Where are you—?" He's already gone around a corner. Crowley sighs, waits sweating there on the sidewalk in the press of monks and tourists and government workers all going about their day. Considers taking up smoking again just for something to do.
Aziraphale returns pushing a wheelchair.
"Where in Heaven did you get that?" Crowley asks, aghast.
"It wasn't being used," Aziraphale says. "When we're done with it, I shall return it to its rightful place in the storage closet of Mount Sinai. Now sit down." He nods his chin at the black leather seat.
Crowley makes a face. "Bit unseemly, isn't it? Like when people who don't need them get one at Disneyland just to skip the lines?"
"We're not skipping lines. You can't go in there without it, so you do actually need it. Simple as that." Aziraphale pats the seat. "Come on."
One last weak grumble, and Crowley undoes the shirt he'd tied around his waist in deference to the midday heat. Shrugs it on, unbuttoned over the vest. Bare shoulders are a no-no in temples; he may be evil but he's not a complete prick. (And anyway, the more covered he is, the less he'll feel the sunburn-sizzle along his skin.) He plops down into the wheelchair and twirls a finger. "Start pushing," he tells Aziraphale. "If I touch the wheels in there, might take the skin off my hands. Contact holiness and all that."
"It will be my pleasure," Aziraphale says with quiet warmth, and takes his place behind Crowley.
They go into the compound, meander around the various stupas. Aziraphale oohs and aahs over the bright mosaics, the miles of gold leaf, the music of coins ringing into bowls when dropped by giddy visitors. They find a Buddha reclining huge and long inside a cool, dark place. It is very crowded in the temple, and then suddenly it is not. The tour groups filter away, leaving the two of them quite alone.
"Did you clear them out?" Crowley asks, twisting his head round to look at Aziraphale.
"I rather thought that was you." Eyes wide and honest.
Crowley turns back to look at the statue. "Lucky, then." The Buddha is on his side, head propped in one huge hand, an enigmatic little smile on his lips. Like he knows something Crowley doesn't. (Well, of course he does; Enlightenment and all.)
"Did you ever meet him?" Crowley asks. Their voices echo now that the place is so quiet.
Aziraphale comes to stand beside the wheelchair, shakes his head while still gazing up at the huge golden face. "No. Did you?"
"Thought I met him on the road once. Turned out to be someone else." Crowley tips his head to the side, contemplating. "Wasn't a lot of opportunity to cross paths, I suppose. My lot stay well away from the Indian peninsula. The Ganges. Whole river full of holy water. Best not to chance it."
"Oh, yes, I can see how that would be a problem." Aziraphale is quiet for a moment. "I won't choose India when it's my turn, then."
Crowley smiles, hums a laugh that sits in his throat. "Appreciate it, angel."
They stay like that for another moment. Something chimes in the distance, joins the soft babble of a dozen languages just outside the temple. The Buddha looks back at them with serene patience.
Later, they sit on tiny plastic stools in a night market, eating skewers of little charred fish and drinking fresh watermelon puree spiked with local whiskey out of plastic bags. Crowley never thought he'd see the day when Aziraphale—posh, polished Aziraphale—would tip back his head to drink a fruity cocktail out of a bag but here they are.
Paradox: he knows this angel well enough now to know exactly what he's going to say before he says it, to interpret the million motions of his mouth and eyebrows. Six thousand years has made Aziraphale as familiar as the back of his own hand. Yet he still has the ability to surprise Crowley utterly.
"What?" Aziraphale has caught him staring. Paws at the pristine front of his linen shirt, nose into his chest. "Did I get some on me?"
"You're fine," Crowley says. Brandishes his naked skewer like a conductor's baton as he thinks. Aziraphale and his surprises. Now that he's thinking about it, he can't stop. "Can I ask you something?" He takes a swig from his bag. "When we were on that airfield—"
Aziraphale stops gnawing on his stick and looks at Crowley with quiet alarm. "Yes?"
"You were really going to do it," Crowley says. "Blow that kid away. Adam."
"I don't hear a question." Stiff. Formal.
"Right." Crowley works his mouth around something that isn't a statement. "Why?"
A sigh. The half-eaten skewer gets placed back on top of the pile in the container between them. "I was trying to stop the world from ending, Crowley. You know that."
"Yes, I know. What I mean is—" He licks his lips. "You were so stubborn about it before. So sure you couldn't ever kill a thing. What changed?"
"Oh…." Aziraphale trails off, gaze going to the bustle of the market around them. Food stall cooks calling out. Fire whooshing under woks. Bright lights, neon colors. He looks at everything but Crowley. "I suppose I thought if a human wouldn't do it, one of us had to. And I didn't want you to have that child's blood on your hands." He shakes his head, reaches up to hold his hat down as a breeze blows through the market. The flower is still on his brim, bright yellow. "You would never admit it, but I know it pains you, seeing children hurt. Killing that boy would've been a horrible burden. I wanted to spare you that."
The skewer in Crowley's hand lowers. A fencer yielding. "So even when you're about to commit murder," he says slowly, "you're doing it out of the goodness of your heart?"
Aziraphale must think he's being sarcastic, biting cruel, because his eyes go liquid. His face crumples. The same way he looked in the Garden when he confessed to giving away his flaming sword. Time, the great wheel.
"I'm perfectly aware that my motives weren't entirely selfless," he says. "I also didn't want anything bad to happen to me or the life I'd made here. I was very frightened. And frightened at how easy it was, how quickly I pulled that trigger—" He curls a fist to his lips and looks off into the night sky, speckled with faint stars.
"Hey," Crowley says, soft, "it all worked out. No one was hurt."
"But I intended to hurt," Aziraphale moans into his palm now, flat against his mouth like a gag. "And I shouldn't have. Not ever."
That feeling again. That urge to touch him, the same one that comes when they're standing in their kitchen back in the Downs. Impossible here as it is there. How do you comfort with words when words are so flat and pointless?
Paradox: pointless, but so powerful.
"If it makes you feel any better," Crowley says finally, "I've intended plenty of good things when I shouldn't have. Probably've canceled each other out by now."
Gets a laugh at least, a fond look. Bless.
"Right." Crowley stands, offers Aziraphale a hand in levering off his stool. "There's still food in this country you haven't eaten yet. Let's go."
They find a woman cooking out of an alleyway famous for her fried crab, which they nibble on while walking through the packed city streets, still simmering with heat even in the middle of the night. They trickle into one of those interesting little restaurants that Aziraphale can sniff out like a trained bloodhound, a place with only a handful of tables, white cloth, fifteen courses, by appointment only. A view of the river bathed in fairy lights. By some miracle, Mister Fell appears on the hostess's list. Aziraphale orders an elaborate cocktail that comes with mango cut to look like a pair of swans stuck on the rim of the glass. Crowley tries a sip of it, pronounces it tasty, but sticks with beer.
They stumble drunk back into the street. Crowley flags down a tuktuk and instructs the driver not to skimp on speed. They swerve and streak through the Bangkok traffic, horn buzzing, driver cursing. Aziraphale spends the entire ride with one hand clutching the handle above his open window and the other clamped to Crowley's thigh.
Crowley realizes he's quite happy. He pulls his hair out of its half-up tail to feel the wind going through it. A blurred picture caught at the corner of his eye: a smear of streetlights, Aziraphale's curls fluffing in the breeze where they poke out from under his hat, his face a mask of shock-delight.
They get back to the air-conditioned darkness of their room. The clean anonymity of a certain kind of hotel. Crowley collapses in the bed's cool, crisp sheets, already on his way to sleep. Aziraphale is a white shape moving about, removing a book from his trunk, sitting in one of the stuffed chairs by the picture window. View of the city sprawling out as far the eye can see. Probably settling in for a night of reading; doesn't sleep really. Crowley dozes. Wakes in the middle of the night to see Aziraphale still in his linen shirt and trousers, sans sandals, curled up on the opposite side of the gigantic bed, facing him. Laying atop the sheets while Crowley's nested underneath. Eyes closed and fluttering beneath thin lids. His hat with its yellow flower sits on the nightstand just within Crowley's line of sight.
Crowley inches closer. Stops. A foot or so between them, 1200 threadcount. An ocean. A desert.
Slow down, Crowley tells himself. A growl, an invisible hand pressed to his own chest, keeping him pinned in place. Slow the Hell down, you stupid beast.
He reaches out with two fingers. Touches the tips of them to the back of Aziraphale's hand. A sleepy murmur, a shift, but he doesn't wake. Crowley pulls back his hand as if burned. The pain of holy ground. Who do you think you are, trying to find welcome here?
He calls himself a lot of very nasty names. Turns over on his other side, pillow over his head. Sleeps without moving the rest of the night.
"Did you enjoy yourself?" Aziraphale asks him on their last day in Bangkok, licking at an ice lolly with bits of dragonfruit in it.
"I did," Crowley says, surprised to hear the truth of it. For all the strangeness, it was wonderful. "Think we'll do it again? This travel thing?"
"I don't see why we can't." Aziraphale smiles. Wide, white, blinding. "Perhaps yearly. When the weather back home gets unbearable."
"We'll fast run out of places we both haven't been," Crowley points out.
Aziraphale hums, licks a stray drop from his knuckle. Crowley lives and dies in the space of a breath. "When we do, let's start on the list of places only one of us has been. We can play tour guide for each other. And after that, perhaps all the places we have been, but done differently."
Plans for the future. Can't spend all of it worrying, is the thing.
They come home. The back garden is obscenely lush.
Aziraphale starts experimenting again in the kitchen. Crispy noodles and sweet sticky rice. His own version of the food they'd eaten while on holiday. The smell of chili and garlic frying in a pan on a rainy afternoon. Tamarind paste making itself known.
"It's not a perfect copy," Aziraphale says as they eat standing up in the kitchen, bowls and spoons clasped in their hands. "Our vegetables taste so different, don't they? It must be the weather."
"Still bloody good, angel," Crowley says, and shovels more into his mouth. He'd never much gone in for eating before. Now he's been trained to equate a meal with Aziraphale, soft and dressed-down and barefoot in their house or laughing somewhere in the electric sunshine. He's eaten more in the last few months than the last thousand years combined.
But he can't sit around the house all day waiting for food to be made. Crowley starts taking himself out for drives, no destination in mind, just learning the flats and curves of their new home. He drives through the village one evening and sees the light on in the tiny pub. Decides to stop in for a pint. It's what you do, don't you?
Crowley has never really had a friend except for Aziraphale. That night, he makes two. A couple of lads chatting at the bar, and Crowley overhears them as he gets his glass of bitter.
"The fucking thing of it is," says the one with the close-shaved head, "you've really got to be sure that's the name you want. Because once you change it, they put you through Hell to get all the paperwork together."
"Even with all the paperwork, folks at work or whatever are still going to slip up." The other bloke is wearing a bright jumper and green eyeglasses. "Takes them forever to get used to it, so if you tell them, 'Look here, from now on I'm John,' you better be certain you're a John because it'll be another ten years before they get the hang of it. Decide you'd rather be a George and you're right back at square one."
"That's God's honest truth, that is," Crowley drawls. He takes the barstool next to the shaved one before he knows what he's doing. "First time I changed my name, took ages for it to catch on." Aziraphale tried his best, of course, but what with centuries between meetings, he usually mangled it on the first go. "And don't get me started about the guys in the home office. Just refused to update their rolodex. Used my old name right up to the very end." He rubs the tattoo of the snake under his fall of hair. The only signature Hell would accept on his reports.
"Oh? Is that right?" Jumper lad takes stock of him, then thrusts out a hand. "I'm Thomas. At least, I think for now I am."
"Anthony," Crowley says, since they're doing first names. They shake.
"Jacob," says the other man, shaking Crowley's hand too. "Got to be now. Have the driving license to prove it and everything."
"That's what we're celebrating." Thomas lifts his glass in demonstration. "You, er, you're the one that's moved into the cottage at the bottom of the hill, right? Two of you, isn't it? Only, I heard it from my mum. Small town, you know how it is."
"I don't actually." Crowley sips at his drink. "Never lived in one before for any length of time. This is a first."
They ask him where he's come from. He says London. They express mild surprise that he would leave the sphere of the city to come down here.
"Not that it's all that bad," Jacob says quickly. "People leave you be for the most part. No one's given you any trouble, have they?"
Crowley thinks. "The boy I paid to water the flowerbeds while we were away skimped a little on the peonies," he says. "Otherwise? Nah."
He buys the next round. The lads tell him about their lives, their families, their plans and their jobs. Thomas has a degree in libraries or what have you, still figuring out what to do with it. Jacob's got a girlfriend, lived together for years, getting married soon.
"She keeps going back and forth on whether to take my name," he laughs over the fourth round. "I keep telling her, doesn't matter to me. Only, her last name is shit. Grimbobble. I mean." A gesture that indicates confusion at how a name like that could even happen.
"What about you?" asks Thomas, poking Crowley in the arm. "Tell us about this fellow of yours."
Crowley squints from behind his dark glasses. "Who, Aziraphale?"
"The one you live with, yeah. Comes into the shop every few days, my mum says. Buys loads of butter. You two married?"
Paradox: Crowley knows, on a practical level, how it looks to humans. How it's always looked. Table for two, please. Two tickets, please. The pair of them living together. He knows what this signifies to human beings with their limited understanding, and it shouldn't surprise him to hear it from their mouths. Yet that question freezes him in his tracks, ice in his middle spreading out to his fingertips. Hellishly cold.
"Ah. No," he says after much too long a pause. He toys with his pint glass. "No, we're not."
Jacob and Thomas exchange glances. "Sorry, mate. Point of contention, then?"
"What? No. Not really." Contention would imply a disagreement, and there's nothing to disagree over.
"Been together long?" Jacob asks, all politeness.
"Oh yes," Crowley sighs. Can't help but smile bitterly into his bitter. "A very long time." He looks up, sees the lads waiting for him to say more. "We, er, met at work."
"Oooh, office romance."
"Not like that. It was more," he edits a bit, "rival companies. Really competitive field. He hated me at first, I think, but then we started working together. Side projects." A shrug. "Guess he got used to me. Lord knows how."
"What did you say you did?" asks Thomas.
Crowley takes a drink to give himself a moment to think. "Finally retired, the both of us," he says once he's drained his glass. "But tell me about this wedding of yours." Turning it back on Jacob. "Got a suit yet?"
The conversation shifts to how difficult it is to find clothes that fit them and how bloody expensive tailoring is. And who wants some miserable old arsehole sticking his hands between your thighs to measure you up anyway? Jacob's not sure what he's going to wear, honestly. Tight budget and all. Crowley twiddles his fingers beneath the bartop; a few miles down the road, an extremely well-cut three-piece in Jacob's measurements is shocked to find itself hanging in a closet next to a tasteful wedding gown covered in protective plastic.
"It'll all work out in the end," he tells Jacob. "You'll see."
Crowley spins on his barstool to see Aziraphale standing in the pub's open door.
"Oh, hello, angel," he says, grinning.
"I was wondering where you were." Aziraphale conscientiously hangs his damp mackintosh on the coat stand and makes his way toward them, smoothing his hands down his cardigan. Soft smile, fluffy hair. "I spotted the Bentley parked outside while I was taking my little nightly constitution." He spots Crowley's two drinking companions. Cheerful befuddlement crosses his face. "Ah, good evening, chaps."
Crowley does the proper thing and makes introductions. In the flurry of handshakes and greetings, Thomas whispers in his ear, "He calls you by your surname?"
Crowley's lips quirk. "Old habit. I don't mind."
"So nice to meet you," Jacob is saying to Aziraphale. "Anthony here was telling us all about how you got together. You liking your new place?"
They chat a bit. Pleasantries that are very pleasant. Jacob invites Aziraphale to have a drink with them, but he demurs. "It's getting late. I only wanted to pop in and see how you were getting on." He touches Crowley's arm. Brief and without pretext. "See you back home."
Just the music of those words does something to Crowley's middle. He tosses a few bills on the bar, enough to cover that last round. Rushing in without thinking. "I'll walk back with you. Had a few more than I'd planned; best not drive."
"All right." Aziraphale gives him a satisfied smile. He nods to Thomas and Jacob. "Get home safe, you two." No doubt they will, what with the angelic frisson of protection building around them.
Crowley makes his farewells. Plans to meet up for drinks next week, if he hasn't got anything on. Ambles outside into the misting rain with Aziraphale, who offers his mackintosh. Crowley gallantly refuses so Aziraphale puts it on again. The light rain clings to Crowley's hair as they walk, dampening it to a darker red. The full smell of wet air.
"Didn't want to sober up?" Aziraphale asks, doing up his buttons. "Only, you'll have to come back tomorrow and retrieve the Bentley."
"'S'all right," Crowley says, stuffing his hands in his shallow pockets as much as he can. "Feels nice, having a few drinks in me. And I could use the walk."
They make their way down the dark lane, empty of all cars, no one else on the road. The only living things in sight, the two of them.
"Crowley, those young men," Aziraphale says slowly, "they seemed to think you were built along the same lines as they are."
Crowley frowns. "What, short?"
"Mm, yeah." He waggles his head. "Nice guys. Think we might do karaoke sometime. There's a place two towns over that has it on Wednesdays, apparently."
"Oh." Aziraphale blows out a relieved breath. "I thought you might be, I don't know. Playing a sort of joke on them. But you're not?"
"Of course I'm not!" He considers telling Aziraphale about the miracle of the suit. Proof that his heart, such as it is, is in the right place. But using that to score points in this absurd argument—that would make a good deed less so, wouldn't it? Another paradox. "I liked them. Genuinely. We got on," he says instead.
"So you didn't disabuse them of the, erm, notion?" Aziraphale asks.
"I didn't tell them I'm a demon if that's what you're asking," Crowley says. "We have some things in common, is all. That's what matters, doesn't it?"
"Quite right." Aziraphale's hand brushes his elbow in the dark, latches onto it for a moment and squeezes. Crowley doesn't even have time to react before it's gone. "I'm glad you had a nice night out."
"Thanks." The word is strangled in Crowley's throat.
They walk in silence for another quarter of a mile.
"They also seemed to think we— That is, you and I—" Aziraphale says.
Crowley sighs expressively. "Yes, angel, they did. And no, I didn't disabuse them of that either. How'm I supposed to explain it, anyway? They wouldn't understand, not unless I told them the whole story, wings and all."
"It doesn't bother you? Having people think that?"
Crowley grimaces. It does, but not the way Aziraphale means. So he says, "Not really." A beat. "You?"
"Heavens no," Aziraphale says, quiet in the mist. "Not in the slightest."
They reach the cottage and go inside where it's warm and dry. Aziraphale leaves his wet shoes and coat in the foyer, saying, "Stay here a moment, my dear. Your hair's soaked."
"Is it?" Crowley runs a hand through it, flinging drops of water to the little throw rug. Removes his dark glasses to dry them with the hem of his shirt.
"Hold on." Aziraphale appears with a fluffy white towel—since when do they own towels?—and holds it up in both hands. Crowley thinks he's meant to take it, but before he can, the angel is up on tiptoe to ruffle the thing over his head.
Crowley stands there in the foyer and lets Aziraphale dry him off. "Like a wet dog," he murmurs from under the folds of the towel.
"No," Aziraphale says, good-humored. He squeezes great handfuls of Crowley's hair through the cotton. It really has gotten long, well past his shoulders now. "Just a damp demon. There you are." He uncovers Crowley's head. Crowley unbends, feeling like a bride at the moment the veil is lifted. Ridiculous.
Aziraphale has a strange look on his face. Probably the dim light. He's still holding the wet towel in his hands. "Right," he says, coming back to himself with a little start. "Bit of telly?" He turns and bustles to the sitting room.
Crowley takes a moment to compose himself. Tucks a curl of hair behind his ear. Clears his throat twice before calling, "Thought you didn't like the TV I put in."
"The baking show is on tonight," Aziraphale calls back. "I'd watch that."
One deep breath. Two. You can do this, Crowley tells himself. You've been doing it for six thousand years; you're a champion at it. Just keep yourself in check. Slow way, way down. (This last bit, he tells his pounding heart too.)
When he enters the sitting room, the fireplace is lit and crackling. Theme song playing on the flatscreen above the mantle. Aziraphale is curled up on the sofa, bare feet tucked under a throw pillow, hands cupping a mug of tea.
"Want some?" he asks, hefting the drink.
Crowley shakes his head and slides into the empty spot on the couch. They watch the contestants fail, sometimes succeed, cry. Crowley barely pays attention. His every sense is tuned into the weight and heat of Aziraphale tucked into the cushions beside him.
"Oh, that is clever," Aziraphale says, watching someone on the screen wrap something in streaky bacon. "Maybe I'll try that."
"Yeah. Nice." Crowley might've agreed to eat rat poison for lunch tomorrow for all he knows. Can't bring himself to care. Aziraphale smells of the posh tea leaves he brews at night, touch of sugar. Crowley thinks of turning his head, burying his nose in Aziraphale's hair. Breathing in the scent of him until his lungs can't hold any more. Just the possibility of it makes him dizzy.
"You know, I've been giving sleep a go lately," Aziraphale says out of the blue. He places his empty mug on the coffee table with a clink. "Thought it might be a good idea. You seem to like it well enough."
"Oh?" Crowley stays perfectly still. Stares straight ahead into the fire. Into the colors of the baking program.
"I tried it while we were in Bangkok. All that sun and walking about, I was quite tired." Aziraphale shifts, his curly head resting against the back of the sofa. "It's nice, a bit of sleep."
"It is," Crowley says. Remembers eyelids moving. "Especially after a few drinks."
Aziraphale makes a noise of concern in his throat. "Would you like to get some sleep now, Crowley? Since you've had a few drinks tonight."
Crowley's throat works. "Could do."
"So could I." Aziraphale cuddles close, his head on Crowley's shoulder, his hand on Crowley's knee. "We might just drift off here."
"We— Yeah." A turn of his head. Chin brushing Aziraphale's hair. Crowley squeezes his eyes shut. Resolutely does not breathe. Steady on, demon.
"Think I'll try my hand at popovers tomorrow," Aziraphale murmurs. Crowley watches him out of the corner of his eye, his pale lashes drooping down, then up. "Could you pick up some cheddar at the shop while you're out getting the Bentley?"
"Anything else?" Crowley asks. "You low on butter?" A curl tickles his bottom lip. He's going to die. Actually die, body and whatever else.
"Hm. Not sure. Get a block just in case." Aziraphale settles ever closer. His head is heavy on Crowley's shoulder.
Crowley's arm doesn't know what to do. It's flung along the back of the sofa but now the temptation to bring it around Aziraphale, to hold him close to Crowley's side, is all-consuming.
He swallows. Someone should say something. He should say something. Make some excuse, slip into the sanctuary of his study. Get away however he can. "Angel—" He tips his head down to look Aziraphale in the face.
He's out fucking cold.
"Jesus Christ," Crowley hisses, letting his head fall back to bang against the sofa's arch. His arm's getting all needles and pins. What's he done to deserve this? All right, plenty but still. This is beyond.
He snaps his fingers, turns off the television. Lets the fire keep at it. Pointedly ignores Aziraphale sleeping on his shoulder, breath coming in easy sighs against Crowley's neck. Hand relaxed at his leg.
Paradox: he's more tired than he's ever been and yet he cannot sleep a wink.
He sits on the sofa, still as stone, until dawn filters in and Aziraphale stirs. The thought of shrugging him off never crosses his mind.
"Oh dear," says Aziraphale, blinking in the morning light. "That came upon me suddenly. I think I'm getting the hang of this sleeping business."
"Yeah." Clipped and gravelly as if Crowley himself had just awoken. He shakes his arm out as they separate. "You'll be an expert in no time." He escapes before Aziraphale can muster a response.
Crowley spends the rest of the morning in the back garden, taking a trowel to a bed of tulip bulbs, wrenching them out of the cold, wet earth before they even have a chance to send out their shoots. Dirt packed under his fingernails in thick black lines. Cursing to himself all the while.
Time's wheel revolves. Snow blankets the rolling hills in winter. Aziraphale practices his poppy seed rolls. His soda breads. His pork pies. Gets his cozy winter evenings sitting in front of the fire—which Crowley joins in every so often, though with a cautious distance between them lest Aziraphale nod off again with him as the pillow. Crowley eats and sleeps, drives when the roads are clear, meets the boys for drinks, listens to his records, finds new ones at estate sales.
The snow melts. A few tulips come in, the ones he'd missed, survivors of his wrath, trembling white in the spring air. Aziraphale gathers them up in a cut glass vase and keeps them in the kitchen.
One night at the pub, Jacob slides a bright blue envelope across the bar until it bumps Crowley's pint. "If you're not busy," he says, "would love to have you there, mate."
Thomas, who has apparently already received his invitation, raises a drink. "Fantastic color scheme, bruv. Honestly."
Crowley takes the bright blue envelope and its peacock green card home. Shows it to Aziraphale. There are instructions on the card, decisions to be made.
"What do you think?" he asks. "Do we just send a gift or what? Is that what normal people do?"
"It might be nice to attend," Aziraphale says, fingering the cardstock. "I've never been to a wedding as a guest, only in a professional capacity. Blessings to bestow and all that." He looks at Crowley across the span of their butcher block island. "We could get ourselves some new formal wear. If you like."
Crowley mulls it over. Lots of wine at weddings. Does he like Jacob enough to wear a tie? Sure. And anyway, Aziraphale seems keen. It's been awhile since he's seen the angel in tails.
He checks the boxes on the RSVP. Veg option for him (he knows it'll annoy the caterers). The fish for Aziraphale. Gets a calendar for the foyer and circles the date in red pen.
"I think we're supposed to buy them a blender," Aziraphale says, so they do that too.
The wedding is held outdoors, a beautiful field overlooking a pond, some dairy farm owned by a family friend. A brief ceremony. Crowley half expects Aziraphale to cry, but the angel only listens attentively as the celebrant talks about love and loyalty. It's Crowley that feels the bite of tears, bitter ones, behind his dark glasses during the readings. Really, Paul? Love is kind? In whose experience, exactly?
He rubs a fingertip under one lens, a ready excuse regarding pollen, but Aziraphale doesn't even notice so it goes unused.
Afterward, there's the white tent, the novelty of their table assignment, a little card with Misters Crowley & Fell done in purple-inked calligraphy. They're seated next to Thomas and his date, a mercy; otherwise it's just aunts all the way down. Aziraphale wears his dove-grey morning coat with a grace that gets him compliments from every corner, which seems to please him. Especially considering he had been so dismayed to hear from Crowley that he was barred from wearing white. ("Can't upstage the bride, angel.") Crowley liberates a couple bottles when the bored catering staffer is distracted by the first dance. He slouches back to his seat, a collection of angles in his slim monochrome suit. Black on black on black. Only one flash of red at his ankles when he sits down, socks peeking out.
He pours a generous glass for Aunt Ida while the DJ invites all the couples onto the floor. Thomas stands eagerly, hand in hand with his rather tasty looking plus one—good on you, Tom—eyes sliding over to Crowley and Aziraphale.
"Aren't you coming?" he asks.
Aziraphale's hands speak first, flapping back and forth. "Oh, no, dear boy, I'm not much of a dancer, I'm afraid."
"Go on," Crowley says. Still pouring. "We'll hold down the fort."
Eventually even the aunts find dance partners. Aziraphale sips at his glass of champagne and stares the groom, immaculate in his wedding togs. To the trained celestial eye, it's clear the stitching is not of this world.
"You soft old serpent," he whispers to Crowley, smiling.
Crowley doesn't bother denying it. "Should have heard him down at the pub when he found it in his wardrobe. Thinks he must've ordered it online while pissed."
They clink flutes. Crowley takes another drink, rolls it around on his tongue, brows rising above the shield of his sunglasses in surprise.
"Could've sworn this was a ten pound bottle a minute ago." He gives Aziraphale a feral grin. "Showy bastard."
"Your friend deserves something nice," he says. "Better than the blender, I think."
On the dance floor, Ida has organized an impromptu limbo using someone's umbrella in place of a stick. Aziraphale laughs and watches the humans messing about, making a mess. Everyone getting drunk on excellent champagne. Crowley watches him in profile. Drinks some more.
The happy couple start doing their rounds, the girl a picture in silk, Jacob grinning like a loon at her side. Hands entwined. The wa-hey! greeting, Crowley standing to be tugged into a back-slapping embrace. Aziraphale rises and takes the bride's hand between both of his soft palms.
"Our most heartfelt congratulations on your gorgeous nuptials, my dear," he says. Only Aziraphale can say something like that and mean it.
"Anthony, mate," Jacob gushes, overflowing with all his joy, "you two've been at this longer than we have. Any advice for us?" He reels his new wife into his side, the both of them giggling.
"Yes, tell us!" she laughs. "What's the secret to a happy union, in your learned opinion?"
"Oh, I— Erm, that is—" Aziraphale looks to Crowley, eyes flashing in panic. Never was very fast with a lie, that angel.
"You really want to know?" Crowley drains his glass smoothly. Drops his voice, isn't sure why. The bride and groom lean in closer. So does Aziraphale. Hanging on his every word. "You can't prepare for it. Whatever you think it's going to be like, you'll be staggered. There's no clever trick that'll make it easy. You just take it as it comes," he says. "And whatever you believe in—God, the Devil, crystals, whatever—" He looks at Aziraphale, catches his wide-eyed gaze. Swallows around the dryness in his throat. "You thank it daily for how lucky you've been."
Aziraphale's lips part. His every-colored eyes stare, unblinking. Behind his dark glasses, Crowley, too, does not blink.
Anyone can be brave, given enough champagne.
"That is so lovely," says the bride, jolting them both back to themselves. They turn to her, uneasy smiles fixed in place. "You hear that, Jake? Isn't that just the sweetest?"
"Taking notes for sure, babe." Another song starts playing, a slow one. He gives Crowley a wink. "Should probably get back out there. Save room for the cake, all right?"
Paradox: it is not just possible but very likely you will feel alone in the swirl of a grand party.
That is how Crowley feels as the married couple leaves and Aziraphale stands expectantly at his side. Ice at the center again. He doesn't have a follow-through planned. When will he learn his fucking lesson?
"Crowley," Aziraphale says, fingers knotting at his waistcoat buttons, "what you just said— How in the world did you come up with such a thing?"
"Saw it in a film." Crowley reaches for another bottle, starts in on the foil and cage. "Hand me your glass, angel; you're nearly empty."
He intends to get very, very drunk. Not drunk enough to join the aunts in a conga line, but close. Aziraphale seems happy to keep pace with him.
"You can go ahead and dance if you'd like," Aziraphale says at some point, gesturing with his sloshing flute. "You don't need to stay here on my account."
"Nah, 's not my thing." Crowley watches some of the younger guests engaging in a complicated and quite possibly offensive series of moves.
"You don't dance? I don't believe it."
"Can do." Crowley shrugs. "Not very well, though. You?"
Aziraphale sighs. His eyes go far away. "I only learned one type and that was ages ago. You need at least six people to do it properly, so I suppose I'll never get the chance again. Anyone who knew the steps is long gone."
Crowley's mouth fish-hooks in sympathy. He takes another sip of his drink. "Country reel or something?" he asks.
A faint flush colors Aziraphale's cheeks. Probably all the wine. "Something like that," he murmurs.
Leaving the party tent, best wishes all around, striding unbalanced into the cool night air. Breath misting in front of their grinning mouths. Aziraphale tripping over a loose stone on the path, grabbing hold of Crowley's sleeve and releasing great peals of laughter up at the stars.
"Oh, I like weddings," he says. "We should go more often."
"Need to meet more people who might get married," Crowley points out. He rests a hand on the small of Aziraphale's back, steadying him as an excuse to touch. He's been good all day, mostly; he can have one touch.
"Yes! More friends. We'll get some." Aziraphale holds up a finger. "We'll invite them over for dinner. I can cook, you know."
"I know." Hand still in place. One minute more, then he'll stop. "You're a very good cook."
Aziraphale rounds on him, his eyes beseeching. "Do you really think so? Honestly?"
"I've told you, haven't I?"
"I would have remembered something like that." Aziraphale's face goes quiet. "I would have...locked it away. In my mind. Taken it out when I needed cheering up." His smile is too late, too large. He faces forward again. "Tell me about this dancing you do. Why do you say it's not very good?"
"Because it isn't." Crowley drops his hand. They've reached the carpark, a patch of gravel between two farm buildings. Rows of shining cars, the Bentley somewhere among them. Crowley will sober up once he's behind the wheel, content to feel the float of good drink lighting up his body for now.
"Is it at least fun?" Aziraphale spins around, walking backwards in front of Crowley.
"Yes. It needn't be good, you know, as long as you're enjoying yourself."
Crowley considers this as they crunch across the gravel. "At the time, the whole point was committing a crime against good taste. I don't think fun ever entered into it."
"And now?" Aziraphale asks.
"What about now?"
"Could you dance for fun now?" He holds out his hands in offering. "Find out if it's possible?"
Crowley breathes. Forces out a laugh. "You're drunk."
"I don't see what bearing that has on my point. Come, come!" He clams his hands open and shut impatiently. "Try it, at least."
Crowley stops walking. Stands in the middle of the carpark. No one else is around, no one would even see. "You really want to do this?" he drawls. He pockets his sunglasses. Ready for war.
"That's what I've been saying, haven't I?" Aziraphale takes his hands where they hang limp at his sides. Holds them, each to each. "Right. Now, how to begin?" He seems lost, blinking at Crowley's arms, his legs, the stones between their feet.
"Do we decide which of us leads?" Crowley suggests.
"And what does that entail?"
"Not sure. Was hoping you'd have an idea."
"Hm. Well, let's just—" He releases Crowley's hands. Holds instead onto Crowley's hips. Steps closer, urging. Crowley mirrors him, his birdwing hands finding purchase at Aziraphale's waist. "There, see? No need to complicate the thing. Then it's just a matter of—" He takes a step to the side.
Crowley takes a step to the side.
Aziraphale steps back to where they started. Crowley, also, steps back to where they started.
"Is this dancing?" he asks. "Feels like we're just doing the same thing over and over." Time is a wheel, not an arrow. He stares down at his shoes, willing them not to trod on Aziraphale.
"I—I think it's dancing. Not very good, but—" He stumbles, falls against Crowley as a heavenly weight. Gasps with laughter. "Oh Lord, we are awful!"
It's catching, that laugh. Crowley gives into it, arms full of Aziraphale, the two of them swaying like the pair of drunks they are. Laughing like it's the best joke in the history of the blasted world. And maybe it is. Maybe it's all just a joke and they're finally in on it.
Crowley tries to right them, but they just wobble again, setting off a fresh wave of laughter. Clinging together on unsteady legs. Tears leak from Crowley's eyes; he's not laughed like this in years. Ever.
It happens quickly, what comes next. Grappling nearer and nearer. Their foreheads come together, resting there. Crowley's eyes are shut and he's not sure when they did that. The line of Aziraphale's nose presses right next to the sharp shape of his own. Their mouths so close, Crowley can taste cake and wine on Aziraphale's breath. They hold there, quieting.
"Crowley—" Aziraphale whispers.
He pulls away, disentangling as fast as he can. Puts some distance between them, spine hitting a parked Fiat when he backs into it. "What're you doing?" he pants. Out of breath like he's been running. You haven't seen running, he thinks wildly. "You can't just—" He puts a hand over his mouth, breathing hard. Don't name it. That gives it power.
Aziraphale stands frozen where he left him. A bereft work of art. "I'm sorry, I thought—"
"No you didn't," Crowley snarls ungently. "If you'd stopped to think, you wouldn't have. You would never. You have never. What are you trying to do to me?"
"I'm not trying to do anything!" Hands reach forward. Offering again. "Crowley, please."
Crowley ducks around the Fiat, puts the whole damn car between them. Shouts at Aziraphale over the roof of it. "We are not doing this in a fucking carpark!"
"Well, where are we supposed to have this conversation?" Aziraphale shouts back. "Please, tell me! On one of our holidays? In the back garden? In the house where we live like—like—like flatmates?"
The wine pulses in Crowley's blood. He dispels it with a grunt, clutching at his now-empty middle. Cottonmouth taste on his tongue.
"I think," he says, sober, "that you're very drunk."
"You don't understand what you're saying."
"So let me drive you home," he forges ahead, "and we'll forget all this nonsense." Turns to scan the rows of cars. Tries to pick out the sleek shape of the Bentley in the dark.
Aziraphale takes advantage of his distraction. Barrels around the Fiat, poking a finger into the thin line of Crowley's chest. "If you think for a moment that I'm going to let you just gloss over this—" He pauses. Cracks his jaw, works his tongue like he's tasting something foul. The champagne sheen leaves his eyes. "All right. Now I'm not drunk and I'm not a fool. Tell me honestly." Some of the bravado leaves him along with the alcohol. His jaw sets itself regardless. "Do you hate living here with me?"
Crowley groans, retreating backward. "Not this again."
"Yes, this again." Aziraphale advances, hands balled into fists. "When we agreed to come here together, I thought it was our chance, Crowley. To be away from all the noise and distractions and everything that kept us in our little boxes. All the time in the world, and maybe then finally, finally, things would change. But nothing's changed, has it? We're still going around in the same circles."
"Everything is a circle," Crowley says.
"I don't even know what that means!"
"It means nothing ever changes, Aziraphale! It can't change, not really. It's not up to us. That's just the way things are."
"You don't mean that," Aziraphale says, stricken. "You, of all people. You're the one who showed me that change was possible, that our roles could be rewritten. For God's sake, Crowley, what happened?"
"What happened?" Crowley shouts. "I am trying not to ruin the only good thing in this world. I am trying. And you just—" He lifts a hand to his face, remembers too late his sunglasses are gone. That Aziraphale can see what his eyes are doing. "You just can't leave it be, can you?"
"Crowley?" Aziraphale steps forward. Face pinched in pained sympathy.
Demons can't cry, is the accepted wisdom. They don't have it in their nature. But as in many other ways, Crowley was an exception. He wipes at his eyes with the blade of his hand, annoyed this talent would show itself at the worst possible time.
"I tried to slow down for you," he says. "I tried to stop."
"Oh, Crowley." Aziraphale's hands reach for him, makers of bread and cakes and all the things he feeds to Crowley. Gentle on his face, careful at the corners of his eyes. "I never wanted you to stop."
"Don't say that." A gasping, broken off sob. Head shaking, limbs shaking. "It's what you should want."
Aziraphale doesn't listen to him. "I thought you'd grown tired of me. Changed your mind just when I was ready to catch up to you." Fingers sliding into the hair at his temples now, cupping the back of his head, not letting him look away.
"Don't do this," Crowley says. "Don't give me the chance; I won't be able to stop once I've started. You let me in and I will ruin every perfect thing."
"Do you think I'm perfect?" Aziraphale demands. Offended as anything. "Really? Knowing me like you do?"
Paradox: Crowley knows he's not. And damn it all, that's what makes Aziraphale the most perfect being in existence.
"No and yes," he chokes out. "Hard to explain."
Aziraphale smiles softly. "I have the same trouble with you, you know. The kindest demon on the planet. The kindest soul I've ever known. You shouldn't be possible, Crowley. But I am so glad you are."
Paradox: for all the trouble existing has given him, Crowley is glad he's done it.
He's glad that he fell if it meant meeting Aziraphale. He's glad the world nearly ended if it brought them to their little cottage. He's even glad there might be a war to end everything, in a way; it will make the time they have left all the sweeter.
He never meant to love an angel. He only ever asked questions.
He looks into Aziraphale's eyes and does it again. "Do you think you could you love me?"
"Oh, my dear," Aziraphale sighs, "I've been doing that for quite some time."
Now it's Aziraphale who moves too fast for Crowley, a kiss pressed to his mouth before he knows what's happening. Hands find hips and hold fast. Traces of wine shared on their tongues, a new kind of communion. They bump into the Fiat, both snapping their fingers to stop the car alarm before it has a chance to start.
A pause for air, panting against Aziraphale's neck. Another question. "How long?" A weak laugh. "Only, I need to know how much to hate myself for being such an idiot."
"About seventy-some odd years," Aziraphale says into the fall of his hair. "If we're counting complete awareness of the fact. Otherwise I'm afraid you'll have to hate yourself quite a lot." He kisses Crowley on the cheek, quick, almost practiced. Like they've stood in a thousand carparks and shared a million different sorts of kisses.
"I'll pencil it in. My afternoons are fairly free for self-flagellation," Crowley says.
"We'll see about that." Aziraphale asks a question of his own. "Take me home?"
How can he say no?
The Bentley brings them back to the cottage. The door is unlocked because it's always unlocked. For them. Yet they stand on the mat on the front stoop, Aziraphale's fingers curled into the snake-head knocker. Stories often stop at first kisses, but lives do not. Crowley meets Aziraphale's questioning look. Without a rulebook, how are they to know what to do?
"We could—" Crowley says just as Aziraphale begins to say, "Would you like to—"
They share a nervous laugh, heads bent together in the dark.
"Light a fire?" Crowley suggests once he composes himself. "Make some tea and, I don't know. Sit the way you like to do."
"I've had enough sitting for the moment." Aziraphale's mouth twitches in thought. "You have a bed in your rooms, don't you?"
Crowley's heart pounds. A hound ready to be released onto the racetrack. "I do."
"Well." Aziraphale smiles, brave. "Don't misunderstand. I love sitting on our sofa with you. I'd like to do that again soon. I'd like to hold you. Sleep beside you. Oh, to be allowed whatever I want—" His hand draws a line down Crowley's jaw. A kiss, an ache to it. Aziraphale sighs against his lips.
"What d'you want?" Crowley asks. "Anything at all. Just tell me."
"Make love to me," Aziraphale says. "Please."
Crowley reaches around him and opens the door. Their perfect chocolate box of a home. Somehow unsullied. They step inside. The world doesn't end. Might do; who knows when? But it won't be Crowley stepping over a threshold that does it.
They are surprised to find the cottage has rearranged itself. Instead of the two doors in the hall leading to their two separate suites, a single door awaits them. Its wood is carved in looping whorls. Birds in flight among coils of snakes. Thai, by the look of it.
"Did you put that in?" Crowley asks.
"No, it must have—" Aziraphale holds Crowley's hand, touches his other to the flowing shape of a serpent. "The house seems to have simplified things for us."
Their new combined bedroom is a disaster. Two walls done in cream wallpaper, two in splashes of asphalt-colored paint. The bed is dressed in red and gold silks and topped incongruously with cross-stitched throw pillows. There's a stack of old books on top of Crowley's sleek turntable setup. The less said about the curtains, the better.
"Oh, that is ugly," Crowley says, taking it all in.
Aziraphale winces. "We'll need to do a bit of work to mesh it together, won't we?"
"Yes, my dear, later."
"Only, if this has killed the mood I would understand. Holy Hell, is that a beaded hurricane lamp on my Noguchi?"
"Try not to look." Aziraphale laughs, takes Crowley's face in his hands and directs his gaze angelwards. "Maybe a blindfold is in order."
Crowley makes a face. "Should probably be able to see what I'm doing. At least for the first few times."
"Of course." Soft hands brushing his long hair from his brow. "And I wouldn't like to miss out on seeing your eyes. The first few times."
Paradox: a demon loves an angel, and the angel loves him in return. Nothing about that should make sense and yet—
(A kiss traded back and forth. A wanting noise shared between mouths.)
—and yet Crowley thinks this might be the first sensible thing they've ever done.
"Oh, these sheets are very slick," Aziraphale says as Crowley lays him down on their newfound bed. "I hope I don't slide off."
"Shut up," Crowley says with an overflow of tender feeling. He strips them of their formal wear, crisp layers piling up on the floor. Red socks thrown with a flourish. Aziraphale laughs, reaches for him.
The practicalities are not as important as the details. The drape of Crowley's hair as he braces himself on his arms above Aziraphale, and Aziraphale capturing a lock of it to worry between his fingers. Red on white. Aziraphale's eyes in all their colors gazing up at him. The way their bodies, unused to the mundane, fall into their new roles the way butter melts on good warm bread. A bit of time is all it needs.
Aziraphale lets him in. Takes him inside. Makes a home with him there.
"You're so good, Crowley," he whispers into the damp harbor of Crowley's throat. "You don't know how good you are to me."
"Angel." A word containing a promise Crowley never thought he could make. He lets Aziraphale roll them over, Crowley flat on his back and staring up at the picture Aziraphale makes, riding atop him. He touches now that he has permission, creating a catalog of all the soft, beloved points of Aziraphale's form.
"Is it good for you?" Aziraphale breathes. He ducks his head to scrape his perfect teeth against Crowley's left nipple. Crowley shakes beneath him, can barely keep himself together. "Do you like it? Tell me. Please."
"You know," Crowley pants. Aziraphale rocks back and forth, holding him inside. "You know what you're doing to me."
"So let me hear it." Aziraphale buries his face in the iron-sand drifts on Crowley's hair, pulling handfuls, clutching desperately. "I'm so close. Let me hear you spill inside me."
"Aziraphale, I—" He tumbles over the edge, fearful that he's gone too fast. But Aziraphale is right there with him, following behind. Should be distasteful, this sticky wetness on his belly, slipping down the inside of Aziraphale's thigh. Crowley puts his hands in white-blond curls, tugs until a mouth reaches his. Kisses into it fervent, devoted.
"I've loved you," he says, "for so long." He kisses Aziraphale's eyelids where they've fallen shut. "Going to keep at it, I suppose. However long you let me."
"Oh, my darling. Don't ever stop." Aziraphale shifts. Lets Crowley fall from his body with a little sigh. Settles in against him, head resting on his shoulder. Their legs twisting snakes beneath the sheets. "It's my turn now, I think, to keep pace with you."
If time is a wheel, Crowley's never seen this part of the turn. This is new, yet at the same time (arm around a sleepy angel, holding him close) it's not so strange. Another paradox for Crowley's collection.
He breathes in the fresh air of their little cottage. Enjoys the peace of Aziraphale's body, the quiet of his being. He lets his eyes drift closed.
Tomorrow he'll go down to the shop. See if they have any chocolates. He owes Aziraphale a picnic too. Hunk of cheese, some grapes, a good wine: he can pull together something simple at least. He'll take Aziraphale out to the cliffs, spread a checkered blanket in the grass. Or maybe they'll go no further than the back garden.
He'll feed Aziraphale chocolates. Eat the coconut ones that Aziraphale finds too sweet. Kiss the sugar from his mouth.
They can take their time.