“When did you get that?"
"Get what?” he turned on the spot, to where Crowley was staring. “Anne of Green Gables?”
Perhaps it was hard to pinpoint where he was staring, with the glasses and all. Crowley clicked his tongue, and gestured with his brandy glass. "Not that. I don’t care. I mean your telephone. When did you get a telephone?”
“Oh!” Aziraphale said. “Back in the war.”
Crowley lifted an eyebrow. By his calculation, that was far too early for Aziraphale to have adopted a newfangled technology. Even at present, in 1968, a telephone would have been a rather daring step, and he’d had one around for two decades? The angel still glowered at the poor Bentley like it had driven out the mouth of Hell itself, and he was wearing a waistcoat from 1870.
“Back in the war,” Crowley repeated.
“Yes, it was indispensable, then. For my, ah-” he straightened his bowtie “-clandestine activities.”
“You mean the time you bungled into a Nazi trap and I had to drop a bomb you?” Crowley said, grinning crookedly.
That didn’t earn him the retort he’d expected. Aziraphale did that thing where he looked at him, away, then back again, and the second look was always sort of pleading, like Crowley was a slow student but Aziraphale just knew he could solve the problem if he really put his mind to it.
Then he turned back to the telephone. “Regardless, I haven’t used it since then,” he muttered. “I don’t even know if it still works.”
It was an old cream-coloured rotary phone, balanced on a stack of books. If it was not functional, at least it matched the old fashioned décor. But Aziraphale hoped it would work, so when he lifted the receiver to his ear, it did. Crowley’s sharp ears picked up the faint buzz of the dial tone. Aziraphale gave a big, satisfied smile. “Ah! There you have it, then.”
Crowley nodded, swirling his brandy, already scheming. “You should put your number in your advertisements. Then you can stop people from buying anything before they even get here.”
“That’s a thought,” Aziraphale murmured, tapping the receiver against his hand. He had recently given up on convincing Crowley (and possibly himself) that he actually wanted to sell anything from his collection. He’d admitted last week that the shop till, like the phone, was more decorative than functional.
Crowley felt pleasantly smug whenever the topic came up. Warm down to his demonic toesie-woesies, in fact. Being in on someone’s scam was an underappreciated type of intimacy. You knew someone really trusted you, if they let you see them at their pettiest.
“Maybe they’ll even call in with books to sell,” Crowley said, wiggling his brows over his glasses.
“Hm,” Aziraphale said. The fantasy pleased him — but it was interrupted by a sudden frown. “I haven’t the faintest what the number is.”
Crowley paused. He finished his drink. “Well,” he said. “Has anyone else got it?”
The frown deepened. “No one who isn’t buried under the rubble of St. Mildred’s, unfortunately.”
“Hm. Shame,” Crowley said, even though it was definitely not a shame, because a little knot of jealousy had been tying itself in his stomach. With the confirmation that Aziraphale had no one to call and no one calling him, the knot loosened. (It would be back, of course — envy was one of his first-stringer sins.)
The evening wore down. They finally haggled out the temptations and blessings they had scheduled for the Christmas season, which was so busy that it had, perhaps ironically, become a Hellish time of year for them both. (Aziraphale would have challenged the designation of irony because Christ had been born in the spring anyway, and Santa Claus was at least partly Crowley’s concoction. Nothing said “sacred holiday spirit” like transmogrifying a saint into a caricature shilling for soft drinks).
Anyway, point was, it was a business meeting. They’d been sidetracked quickly as usual, and quickly grew sidetracked again, but Crowley knew better than to linger overlong. He sobered up well before midnight, and planned to excuse himself.
Except that Aziraphale said, just as Crowley was slipping on his driving gloves, “I’m glad to see you’re doing well.”
Crowley paused, for the barest of seconds, and then flexed his fingers against the leather and lowered his hands. “Sure.” He said. “Business as usual. Can’t complain.”
Aziraphale was fussing with his hands, too. He’d been a bit weird since last year. The botched Holy Water heist had rattled him, but Crowley couldn’t point to why. Obviously nicking the water at a demon’s request broke half a hundred holy vows, but he didn’t seem concerned for himself. He kept asking if Crowley was “doing well”, with all kinds of significance and emphasis on the words. He was trying to have three conversations at once, and all of them awkward, and none of them in a language Crowley spoke. Not yet, at least.
Crowley had fully dressed to leave, but he hesitated.
The angel caught him staring. He said, “good, good — goodnight, then, Crowley,” and tucked his hands behind his back. He smiled as broadly as he could, but Crowley knew a fake smile on that face when he saw one. Didn’t get those lovely little crows-feet by his eyes.
Now that he and the angel were speaking again, and still speaking after the Holy Water Thing, and now that Aziraphale was giving his odd double-looks and weighted questions, Crowley felt like he’d been given a bit more permission to care. He fully intended to abuse that permission. It was the demonic thing to do, abusing permissions.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve got a phone.”
He congratulated himself mentally. Well played. Smooth as a cobbled street, you are.
“Have you?” Aziraphale said, genuinely intrigued.
“Yep. And, you know, my number—“
His throat had grown so dry it snapped shut on him. Fussy old human corporation. Aziraphale was staring at him with a little glimmer of hope in those moon-big eyes, and it was making it very difficult to breathe like a normal demon-in-disguise-as-a-person.
Crowley took a fresh lungful of air, and tried to finish the thought. “You can have it, if, you know, if you ever — need to call me for anything.”
Terrible idea, this breathing thing. He was stuck with all this air now, so stuffed he could barely talk, and he wouldn’t dare exhale because it would all come out in an emotional shuddering sigh and that would absolutely give the game away. He’d just hold on until he turned purple and passed out, then. The Amazing Fainting Demon, what a reliable resource for an angel in a pickle.
Aziraphale blinked. “Oh, that would be nice.”
The words were so warm and privately pleased, and Aziraphale was smiling like an Austen heroine whose hand had been illicitly brushed, and that sent Crowley and his fussy corporation skittering over to the desk and fumbling for a pen.
“Right, good, I’ll write it down,” he said. Obviously, what does it look like you’re doing, shut up.
“And I can telephone you—“
“You know, for whatever, for anything.” He winced. That was probably too revealing — probably too fast — so he sputtered on. “If you’re in trouble. Or if we’ve got, you know, clandestine activities. To schedule.”
Aziraphale giggled. “Oh, to be sure, my dear fellow!”
You’re an idiot, he thought, with immeasurable fondness.
He handed Aziraphale the scrap of paper. Aziraphale held it spread in both hands, sort of dotingly. Exactly the way he hadn’t held Crowley’s last note to him. Crowley decided he could not brook being thanked for something he considered his own selfish indulgence, so he sped for the door before Aziraphale could fold the paper and tuck it away, and once the angel looked up, Crowley was gone.
His phone rang two weeks later, just after lunch. Crowley was already filling the Christmas reports at his ostentatious desk, and he picked it up on the first ring. The dark council called in every so often, and the lesser imps prank-called him almost weekly, so he answered in a properly businesslike manner.
The voice on the other end squeaked, “Oh! Crowley? Goodness—“
A shuffle, a click, then a flat, lingering hum.
Crowley put the receiver down. He stared. Waited. The phone rang again, and he answered it, trying not to smile.
“Still me,” he said.
“Yep.” That trying-not-to-smile thing wasn’t working out. “Were you expecting someone else?”
“What happened to the phone operators? How does the phone figure it all out?”
“I assume that’s what the number is for,” he said, with mocking patience.
“It does it all by itself now?! Preposterous.”
Crowley gave a quick chuckle, tucking the speaker into his neck so it wouldn’t carry through. If anything spooked Aziraphale further he’d probably discorporate, or worse, hang up again. “It does. So, what’s the occasion for your call, then?”
“Well, I thought,” the angel said, and then stammered into silence. A crackle of breath against Crowley’s ear. “I mean, it’s only fair —and of course it’s reasonable—that if our business should continue, you should also be able to reach me by telephone.”
“Right,” Crowley said.
“So. You should have my telephone number.”
He declared it like it was monumental. Like he hadn’t already put his phone number in a classified ad, and like Crowley had not already clipped the ad from the Times and tucked it under his desk lamp. The ad only mentioned the purchase of rare books by Mr. A Z Fell and not the sale, because Aziraphale was a bastard. Crowley was so proud of him. He wanted to put the clipping in a frame.
“That’s good thinking,” he said. “I’ll write it down.”
“Marvelous,” Aziraphale sighed. “Have you found a pen?”
“Yep,” Crowley said. He did, by happenstance, have one in his hand. He was doodling a wee halo and some angel wings onto the classifieds ad. “Fire away.”
The angel read the number twice, very carefully and slowly, and Crowley obligingly traced the matching digits on the ad. “Right,” he said. “Thanks. Oh, if anyone tries to sell you anything over the phone that isn’t a book, don’t buy.”
“Why not?” The angel said. “That sounds very convenient.”
“Because it was my idea,” Crowley said smugly. “One of those low-grade long-term niggles to make everybody miserable.”
“You’re very good at your job,” Aziraphale complained.
Ah, he knew that tone of voice. Good old first-string envy.
He looked over his shoulder, at the safe he’d installed last year behind the Mona Lisa. The thing he liked so much about telephones, besides the potential for low-grade evil, was that it was infinitely easier to be honest about things when you didn’t have to look a person in the eye. “Yeah, well,” he said, his smile unguarded, “you’re better at yours than you think.”