“Meet at seven?”
The shop was more crowded than usual, even for a Saturday, and Aziraphale was ill at ease. He was starting to regret opening at all—that morning, certainly, and possibly in 1800. Oh, why had he thought a bookshop was a good idea? Surely a private library would have been the thing. Or opening nothing at all. So many humans, so many fingers handling his collection, and yes, humans had been responsible for writing much of his collection, but did they have to read them as well?
Crowley had been loitering at the counter for some time, being shifty. Just because he’d been discharged from Below didn’t mean he wasn’t keeping busy. That day, for instance, he had frightened away three prospective book buyers, saving Aziraphale the trouble. It wasn’t interstellar architecture, or even motorway engineering, but it let him keep his hand in.
He was relishing his new freedom from Hell and its infernal bureaucracy, as well as the liberty to meet Aziraphale whenever and wherever it pleased them to meet. It pleased them to meet often these days, now that the angel had removed the stick from his arse and admitted they were allies.
They were making plans to meet for dinner at a new Tibetan restaurant Aziraphale had read about, which would happen to have a table for two ready at precisely seven.
“Sounds perfect,” Aziraphale agreed, eyeing a middle-aged German man who was in turn eyeing his J.R. Ackerleys.
“Right. Later, angel.”
Crowley loped out the door to wreak havoc elsewhere in London ahead of dinner. He was followed by the interested stare of a bespectacled young lady carrying a rather large rainbow-colored knapsack. The knapsack had alarmed Aziraphale the moment she’d walked in. A great number of books could be stored in—or knocked from their shelves by—such a bag. The walking space between the shelves was so narrow. Perhaps he should make them wider? Or perhaps narrower would better achieve the effect he truly wanted.
He was trying to subtly send discouraging thoughts in the direction of the German customer when the young lady in the glasses came to the counter with—oh, thank Heavens—the new Jonathan Franzen. He did so hate having to turn people away.
He wrapped the book in paper and string as he’d been doing for the past 200 years and handed it back to the customer, who gazed at him with more admiration than Franzen really warranted.
“Are you the owner of this shop?” she asked. “I’ve read about it online.”
“Yes, I own the shop,” Aziraphale confirmed. The bit about being on line was curious. He knew enough about the internet to know that it was one of humankind’s most remarkable achievements, revolutionizing communication, interaction, and the spread of knowledge, and also that it was to be avoided at all costs. He would have to ask Crowley later what exactly was being written about the shop on line.
“It’s just so great to be able to buy from LGBT-owned businesses,” the young lady said. “You know.” She turned slightly to indicate her knapsack. “Solidarity.”
“Quite right, jolly good,” said Aziraphale, distracted once again by the German shopper, who had moved on to—dear God—the autographed Reggie Turners. If Crowley had only stayed a few minutes longer!
“Well, thanks,” said the young lady. “Have a great day!”
“And you as well,” Aziraphale answered. Clearly this German called for a stronger intervention. An aggressive defence. Well, he’d lived through MacDonald, Baldwin, and Chamberlain—never let it be said that Aziraphale couldn’t learn a lesson.
“So I gave him a rather pressing need to go,” Aziraphale confessed.
Aziraphale manoeuvred his chopsticks through his noodles and avoided looking at Crowley, who was slouched in the chair opposite. “Well,” he said, “in the colloquial sense, I mean, quite literally…a need to go.”
Crowley’s mouth opened in a wide, wicked grin. “You made him piss himself.”
Aziraphale straightened. “I did nothing of the sort. He was in no real danger of…soiling himself.”
“Right, you made him nearly piss himself.” Crowley chuckled. “Sounds more like something I would do.”
“There are plenty of public facilities in the area. Just none in my shop, I’m afraid.”
“How did you know he wouldn’t come back?”
“Oh, I didn’t,” said Aziraphale, “but unfortunately we closed for the day the minute he left.”
Behind the dark glasses, Crowley’s amusement and approval were impossible to miss. It really was indecent for Aziraphale to draw such satisfaction from impressing a demon. Perfectly improper.
“That reminds me,” he said. “A young lady came in and mentioned having read about the shop on line. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Crowley, “people post reviews about places they’ve shopped. I’ve read a few about you. Written one or two, perhaps…”
Crowley had. Aziraphale was his friend, and Crowley was given to understand that friends supported one another’s endeavours, so he was happy to do what he could to drive traffic into the shop. That Aziraphale loathed traffic in the shop just meant Crowley could also report back to Head Office that he was working hard at tormenting an angel.
He stretched, stuck his tongue in his cheek, and then recited, “Mister Fell’s Olde Book Shoppe is a veritable cornucopia of desirable titles—”
“Oh, really.” Aziraphale glared across the table.
“An absolute can’t-miss stop for any tourist—”
Aziraphale gasped. “You didn’t! You wicked—”
“Went in with me mam one day,” said Crowley, switching voices, “for a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey—”
“I don’t even know what that is,” Aziraphale said, “and what on earth is that accent supposed to be? I don’t know why I speak to you.”
“You’d be deathly bored without me, angel.”
Aziraphale dabbed at his mouth with his napkin, which concealed the smile he couldn’t quite contain. “Perhaps,” he admitted. Certainly, he thought.
Not that he was ever truly bored on Earth. There was always something to read, after all; some new clever human invention to study. But existing had always been better with Crowley around, just a bit more fun, particularly now that they could associate openly without fear of retribution from Above and Below, now that some time had passed since those awful days before and just after the world had nearly ended. Those horrible, chaotic days. The fear, the strain, the things said…complete madness. They had not discussed it, but that was all to the good, as they had not been themselves then—literally, for a while, in Aziraphale’s case. And Crowley had been quite out of his head. It was best put behind them. This new phase of their acquaintance was so rewarding. There was no reason to upset it, no reason to question. It was enough, and more than enough, to enjoy what they had right now.
But he decided to boot up his own computer later to inquire as to what a Fifty Shades of Grey was.
Gareth had moved to Soho some two months earlier and was becoming a regular at the shop. Regulars made Aziraphale nervous. Around 1820 he’d realized that several of his shop’s patrons had been stopping in for a considerably long time in terms of mortal lifespans, and that rumours had begun to circulate about Mr. A.Z. Fell’s seeming refusal to age. It had been silly of him to forget; after all, the same had occurred on several occasions before when he’d got too comfortable in one place and stayed too long. In the 1540s he’d narrowly escaped being burnt as a witch for it.
Changing one’s form was such a dreadful bore. He’d never quite got the hang of appearing to age in a human fashion; his best efforts had ended up looking less “aged” than “melting.” And miracling the memories of several hundred humans was out of the question, so in 1822 he’d closed up shop and taken a holiday, which had been quite nice, then returned some 50 years later as his own grandson. The holiday had been a surprise to Gabriel, but as Aziraphale had accrued some 500 years of paid time off by then, he could hardly say no.
So return visitors were best avoided. But Gareth was different. He was a professor at University College London, forty-five, originally from Cheltenham. He was inclined to wearing tweed jackets with patches on the elbows that were always nonetheless impeccably tailored. He carried a worn brown leather satchel that he would sheepishly explain had been given to him by his mother twenty years earlier when he’d completed his doctorate. He’d played Sunday league football until suffering a knee injury a few years ago, wore his ruddy auburn hair just a centimetre too long, and usually had reading glasses hooked on the open collar of his shirt.
As a matter of policy, Aziraphale avoided friendships with mortals, but he would not shy away from conversation about his interests, and he and Gareth shared a multitude. It was a pleasure to be able to discuss literature and its preservation with a fellow aficionado. The angels formerly of his acquaintance had not cared much for human accomplishments—or, in the end, about humans—and he certainly couldn’t talk with Crowley, who refused to admit to so much as opening a book since the invention of cable television.
Gareth was easy to talk to. So in hindsight it was obvious that he would one day ask, in a friendly way, with a nod to the name of the shop, what the “A” stood for, and Aziraphale had only his own idiocy to blame for not having anticipated the question. He’d panicked, his mind gone absolutely blank, and finally blurted out the first plausible, un-angelic name he could think of. After that it was only a matter of time—three weeks, in fact—before his carelessness came home to roost.
Crowley had been skulking near the back room, as was his wont, waiting for Aziraphale to close the shop and open the bottle of 1953 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche he’d brought over, acquired most likely by demonic means, when Gareth came through the front door and called, “Anthony!”
Both of the immortal beings in the shop turned, but Aziraphale was closer to the front, and had been expecting this, so he was across the room to greet the new visitor in a nearly but not quite supernatural flash.
“Garethhowlovelytoseeyou,” he answered in a cheerful rush, circling the man in a simple, non-miraculous manoeuvre to get Crowley out of his line of sight. “What can I help you with?”
“Just happened to be in the neighbourhood, and thought I’d pop in and see if you were open.” Gareth gave him a lovely smile. Over his shoulder, Aziraphale spotted Crowley venturing out from the shadows with the most remarkable expression on his face.
“Yes, very open, quite open, busy as a bee,” Aziraphale said. There was one other customer in the shop, impervious to Crowley’s menacing attempts to chase her out, sat in a chair and unashamedly reading one of the Fifty Shades of Greys Aziraphale had recently stocked in a vague nod towards the idea of actually selling something popular.
“Oh, well,” said Gareth, reaching for his satchel, “there’s also this. It’s over at the university. I was wondering what you’d make of it.”
As Gareth went through the bag in search of whatever it was he’d brought, Aziraphale looked past him again, at Crowley, who had come no further but was now leaning insouciantly against the counter with his arms crossed. He cocked his head, raised his eyebrows, and mouthed, “Anthony?”
Aziraphale pursed his lips and turned his eyes back to Gareth just in time for the man to produce a piece of paper from his bag.
“Oh,” said Aziraphale, looking it over in astonished pleasure. “Oh, my.”
It was an advertisement announcing the university library’s proud acquisition of an exquisitely preserved 1667 first edition Paradise Lost, currently housed in their special collections.
“Pretty incredible, right?” Gareth smiled. “Thought you might like to see it.”
“Oh, Gareth, this is marvellous.” Aziraphale hadn’t seen anything approaching this level of preservation since the late 18th century, when he’d foolishly passed on the opportunity to purchase one. Of course, they hadn’t been quite so rare in those days, and in all honesty he was not a fan of Milton’s seminal work: it was absolute nonsense, after all. Didn’t even mention him or Crowley.
“Actually,” Gareth continued, “there’s a reading at the university later tonight. Just a casual thing, cheap wine and a bunch of professor types. If you wanted to go, we could always stop by special collections, too, while we’re there. It’ll be closed then, of course, but I know a guy.” He smiled again.
Aziraphale was torn. He’d already made plans for the evening, with Crowley—who was right there, still leaning against the counter, eavesdropping like the wicked thing he was—and the wine really was meant to be a very good vintage. But a first edition! It had been a dream for so long to be able to see one again. Of course he could always see it another time, but the invitation had been made. And, if he was perfectly honest with himself, he wouldn’t mind a few hours spent with Gareth outside the bookshop. It had been a long time since he’d had…such discourse.
While Aziraphale was wavering, Crowley pushed himself upright with nothing more than a roll of his hips and sauntered over.
“It’s all right, angel,” he said with a tone of great indulgence, as if about to commit an act of generosity beyond measure. “The wine will only get better. Go. Have fun at your boring books party.”
He strolled past Aziraphale and out the front door before the angel could formulate a response. Aziraphale watched him go.
Gareth cleared his throat and Aziraphale turned back to him. Something had changed, some demonic trick of Crowley’s no doubt, because Gareth now looked deeply uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not quite meeting Aziraphale’s eyes, “if I…interrupted something.”
“No, no, not at all,” Aziraphale protested.
Gareth’s face didn’t change. “Only I didn’t know you were with someone,” he said.
“Oh!” Aziraphale exclaimed. “Oh, no, he’s not a customer!” Aziraphale had so few customers that he couldn’t remember the last time someone had interrupted him whilst he was with one. Apart from Crowley, of course, who interrupted often, on purpose, and with Aziraphale’s (unspoken) blessing. “He’s...”
Here Aziraphale paused, at a loss to explain Crowley. Crowley was his friend, yes, but thus far the only soul Aziraphale had actually admitted this to was Crowley himself. He’d had several thousand years of denying the existence of anything between them but animosity.
Even now that the proverbial cat was out of the bag and the two of them out on their proverbial rear ends following their dismissal from their respective sides, the word friend was so pale and inadequate to capture the last six millennia.
“You know,” Gareth said, and Aziraphale snapped back to attention at the irritation in his voice, “you could have said something. Anything. Really.”
“Not that I don’t enjoy chatting about books, but you could have saved me a bit of…well, hope, I suppose.”
Aziraphale stood dumbfounded.
“Or I don’t know if you have some kind of…open thing, some sort of arrangement—”
Aziraphale sucked in a sharp breath. “Arrangement?”
He must have raised his voice, because Gareth put his hands up. “Which is fine, really. I don’t judge. But it’s not my thing, you understand. Not what I’m looking for.”
“There’s no Arrangement,” Aziraphale insisted. “We don’t have any such—there’s no such thing, I’ve never, we’ve never, I would never dream of—”
“All right, all right!” Now Gareth was angry with him. “It doesn’t matter! Why didn’t you just let me know I was barking up the wrong tree?”
Aziraphale floundered in the face of the negative emotions filling the space where they stood, in the sense that he had missed something terribly important, and in the sudden remembrance of a wrong tree, the wrongest of trees, bearing fruit in a garden at the beginning of time. “The…wrong tree?”
“Are you being deliberately obtuse?” Gareth asked. “You can’t tell me you didn’t know I was flirting with you.”
Aziraphale said nothing.
“Oh. Oh my god. You really didn’t know, did you?”
Aziraphale wanted to explain himself, he really did, but there was nothing resembling an explanation anywhere near his mind. “I,” he began, hoping some additional words would follow, but none did.
Gareth looked at Aziraphale like he was from another planet—not precisely true, of course, but not far from the mark.
“How on earth did he manage to get you?” he asked, looking at the door from which Crowley had just left. “Bludgeon you over the head with something?”
“I’m…terribly sorry,” Aziraphale said to fill the silence that had settled. He wasn’t sure whether he was, in actual fact, sorry, but he’d been an Englishman for 1500 years and it felt the proper thing to say in the moment.
“Well,” said Gareth. “This is awkward.”
Aziraphale could not disagree.
Gareth heaved a long sigh. “I’m going to go. I’m sorry, too. I…really like you, Anthony. I like your shop, too, so I hope I can come back sometime without it being…”
“Yes, of course,” Aziraphale murmured.
“Right. Well then.”
And Gareth left.
The shop’s last recalcitrant reader appeared from behind a shelf, clasping a Fifty Shades of Grey, now with a cracked spine. “You really didn’t know he fancied you?”
“We closed forty minutes ago!” Aziraphale declared with a shooing motion. “Out! Out!”
“I wasn’t prepared for the question,” the angel huffed, staring at his hands where they were balled into fists on his knees.
Crowley was sprawled next to him on their usual bench in the park. His legs took up more space than they needed, but he’d been a snake once or twice, with no legs at all, and when he did have legs it felt nice to spread them out. He angled toward the angel, the better to direct the full force of his demonic torments. Aziraphale knew Crowley was never going to let him live this down. Crowley knew, too.
“Two hundred years you’ve had this shop, ‘A.Z. Fell and Company, Booksellers,’ and you never once thought to come up with a plausible name to go with the initials,” Crowley drawled.
“It’s never come up before! Most people are perfectly happy with a set of initials and a simple last name. ‘Mister Fell’ was fine for centuries.” The decline in formality and proper manners over the past century or so was rather appalling when one thought about it. Crowley’s doing, no doubt. The demon clearly thrived in this indecorous modern world. “Besides, associating more intimately with humans is your thing. I try to keep well out of it.”
Crowley’s eyebrows nearly met his hairline. “My thing? My thing? Why don’t you tell that to Gareth, angel?”
Aziraphale flushed, a frustrating tendency of the fair-skinned flesh he’d been given upon his first earthly assignment, all those years ago. He credited this one, inaccurately, to anger. “Gareth is a regular customer! And a perfectly nice young man—”
“Young man,” Crowley scoffed. “He’s not that young. He’s got to be at least 50.”
“He is 45, which is quite young when you’ve lived six thousand years. We have similar interests. He’s a professor of comparative literature at University College, you know. His area quite overlaps with mine. It’s perfectly natural to want to…engage in discourse.”
“Discourse, is that what they’re calling it these days? Wait, why am I asking you what they’re calling it these days? Is that what they were calling it in 1850?”
“So how long has his area been overlapping yours?”
“You are ridiculous.”
They were quiet for a spell, with the occasional interruption of Crowley softly chuckling to himself. “Anthony,” he muttered again.
“Oh, do shut up,” Aziraphale sighed.
A duck swam past them, trailed by a half dozen ducklings. Couples strolled along the pavement, children raced one another, and a pair of disillusioned government agents met covertly near the ice cream seller.
Crowley bumped Aziraphale’s leg with his knee. “What’s the ‘Z’ stand for?”
Aziraphale glared at the passers-by. A man on a first date stumbled over his shoelace.
“Just a Z, really,” he muttered.
Aziraphale returned Crowley’s hail with a wave and a smile from across the crowded room and began making his way over. The place would not have been on Aziraphale’s list, but it was so rare that Crowley wanted to go to any particular restaurant that Aziraphale could hardly refuse him. And Crowley had sworn they served an apple pie “so good it would tempt God herself to fall,” which was appallingly blasphemous but, he had to admit, rather promising.
Apart from it being at least nominally a restaurant and his established lack of interest in food, Crowley fit right in. The place was loud, dim, and seedy enough to remind him of Soho in the 1970s. Crowley already had a drink in front of him, and he gestured expansively at the seat across from him, which Aziraphale took only after inspecting it for dirt, or worse.
“You want to hear some good news?” Crowley opened, and without waiting for Aziraphale to respond, said, “You’ll never guess who I ran into on New Bond Street this afternoon.”
That was very likely true, what with London having a population of over 8 million, not to mention a sizable tourist industry, so Aziraphale did not hazard a guess. “Who?”
“Who’s the worst posh bastard you and I know?”
Crowley was grinning, but Aziraphale felt a chill of horror run down his corporeal spine. “No. Not Gabriel.”
“One and the same.”
Crowley was still smiling. It was bizarre response to seeing Aziraphale’s would-be executioner back in London. Aziraphale was aghast.
“Then why in Heaven do you look so...happy?”
Crowley’s smile took a turn for the fiendish. He leaned across the table.
“Angel, he was terrified. Looked at me like I was—well, my old boss, I suppose. Soon as he recognized me, he dropped everything he had and nearly ran from Zegna.”
“He did. Like a rabbit. Guess word got round about my invincibility.”
As Crowley told the story, Aziraphale had been starting to pick up some of his infectious exuberance, but now his smile faded.
“But you’re not invincible,” he said softly.
Immortal, but not invincible. Neither of them was. And even their immortality was in question now. Should either of them be discorporated, Aziraphale could not imagine either Heaven or Hell being willing to supply them a replacement body and send them on their merry way back to Earth.
Crowley’s smile faded a bit, too, leaving him with an introspective expression. “Yeah, well. Keep it to yourself.” He leaned over the table. “Come on, can’t you be a little bit happy that the archangel fucking Gabriel is scared shitless of me? We’ve never even met before, really. Not that he knows, anyway.”
The last time Crowley had seen Gabriel he’d been posing as Aziraphale, in which capacity he’d tried to set Gabriel on fire. He hadn’t tried very hard, he’d told Aziraphale later to assuage the angel’s misplaced disapproval. This was true, but not because he was a good person; rather it was because Aziraphale was a good person, and Crowley reckoned lighting Gabriel on fire would have blown his cover.
Across the table Crowley looked so pleased with himself, so deeply satisfied, that Aziraphale couldn’t help but smile again. “I’m happy for you,” he said. “And I’m happy to think this means we’ve established we’re not to be trifled with.”
“Blessed right,” Crowley toasted.
A server arrived with a mystery drink for Aziraphale. It was a game they played now and again, Crowley ordering him something from the cocktail list, increasingly complicated these days, and Aziraphale guessing what strange ingredients had gone into it. It amused Crowley to stump him but delighted Crowley when he got something right.
It was dark and loud, and they had to raise their voices to be heard. They talked history—an endless subject when you had lived through all of it—and books, in which Crowley feigned disinterest. Aziraphale knew it was a front. Though certainly he read less these days than he had when printing was new and the whole concept of books was still a bit racy, and though he had always, as long as Aziraphale knew him, been drawn toward the lowbrow and bawdy, Crowley did enjoy reading. He simply enjoyed bothering Aziraphale more.
As the reverse was also true, Aziraphale had no compunctions about making Crowley listen to his thoughts on Wells and Wilde and Dante and Donne. Gareth had not been by the shop in a month, and while he knew it wasn’t fair to blame Crowley for the loss of his conversational partner, it wasn’t as if the demon had done anything to help.
Crowley had just finished insulting Blake (“I’ve read better poetry on toilet walls, angel”) when they both heard a woman’s voice say, “Anthony?”
They both whipped around to see a young woman dressed in black with tattoos on every exposed inch of skin up to the middle of her neck. She looked at Crowley, then at Aziraphale, then back to Crowley again.
“Lucy!” Crowley stood, and he and the woman embraced with a brief kiss on each cheek. It was only thanks to their long association that Aziraphale noticed the slight tension in Crowley’s shoulders.
“How are you?” Lucy asked as they parted.
“Good, great,” Crowley said. “You?”
Aziraphale, being a gentleman, stood as well, then remained standing, smiling politely, until Crowley, who had not been a gentleman in over a century, and before that had been a gentleman only by the technicality of being wealthy and in no other sense of the term, regained enough manners to introduce him.
“Ah, Lucy, this is, ah…ah…” Crowley coughed.
“Aziraphale,” said Aziraphale, extending his hand.
“Azira Fell,” Lucy tried, accepting the offered hand with a firm grip and a beaming smile. “Very pleased to meet you.”
She did seem very pleased indeed. Aziraphale was capable of having that effect on people, being an angel, but he usually had to be trying, and at that moment, he wasn’t. Lucy seemed delighted by him for reasons all her own.
“Likewise,” Aziraphale said.
Still holding his hand, Lucy glanced at Crowley and managed to smile even wider.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Lucy said, looking back and forth between the two of them, “only I saw you and didn’t want to duck out without saying hello.”
“No,” said Crowley, looking like someone had stuck an iron rod where his serpentine spine should be, “I’m glad you did. All good?”
“All good,” Lucy confirmed. “You should come by again soon. First round’s on me.” She turned her eyes on Aziraphale. “You should bring Azira!”
“Yeah,” said Crowley, half choking on it. “Good seeing you, Lucy.”
“You too, Anthony. You guys have a good night!”
After Lucy walked away, Crowley sank into his seat like he’d just carried a cross up Calvary. Aziraphale took his own seat with more dignity. “Friend of yours?”
Crowley heaved an enormous sigh, planting his elbows on the table and his face in his hands. “She tends bar at this place over on Brick Lane,” he said. One couldn’t always drink alone, sitting in the dark of one’s own flat. Sometimes one had to drink alone sitting in the dark of dodgy pubs in Shoreditch. “Always pours me doubles. They’ve got one of those electronic jukebox things. I like the music. And the owner’s been scamming the landlord and getting away with it for three years, courtesy of yours truly.” He raised a toast to himself and knocked back the remainder of his drink like a foul medicinal tincture.
Aziraphale sipped his own drink. Hint of anise. The flavour took him right back to Uruk in the 3500s. “She’s lovely. Seems fond of you.”
Crowley leaned back in his chair. His mouth hung open. Then he barked a laugh. “She’s not interested in me, angel. Trust me.”
Aziraphale’s mouth tightened. “Trust a demon?” he quipped.
“She thought we were a couple,” Crowley muttered.
Aziraphale frowned. “A couple of what?”
Crowley stared at him a long moment. Aziraphale didn’t need to see his eyes to know that Crowley was staring at him like he was an idiot.
“She thought we were on a date,” Crowley said.
“Oh!” Aziraphale replayed the events of the last few minutes, including their conversation before Lucy said hello. “Oh!” He looked around. The room was quite dark, and their table quite cosy, and there was a small candle on it, which he supposed might appear romantic to an onlooker. Though it was hardly the first time they’d sat together at a table by candlelight. They predated electricity. And tables, for that matter.
Their server appeared next to them, seemingly out of nowhere. In fact he had appeared out of a stall in the men’s toilets, where he had just finished snorting a line of cocaine before being instantaneously transported by Crowley in an attempt to distract Aziraphale from whatever he’d been about to say next, or at the very least to get more alcohol in preparation for it.
The server did not recall the journey from the toilets to the table, but he had been warned by his dealer about this cut, so it did not occur to him to question, only to fumble for his pad and pen and pretend as well as he could that he was not high as an angel in flight.
“Another,” said Crowley, raising his empty glass and then nodding at Aziraphale, whose own glass was more than half full. “Him too.”
The server nodded, said “Right away” and left. He had not heard the order over the rushing sound in his brain, but he would return shortly with the correct drinks nonetheless.
Aziraphale drank. This was not a conversation he wanted to have any more than Crowley did. He would have much preferred to never discuss it at all. Discussing serious matters of great import was not in his nature. A serious discussion involved asking questions, and he was well aware of what asking questions got you.
But Crowley was not the Almighty—to say the least. Crowley was his friend, and surely friends could talk about such things, no matter how sensitive or how unfamiliar the ground.
Still, some fortification was in order, so he held his peace through the remainder of their drinks and their meal (his meal; true to form, Crowley did not eat, apart from stealing a bite of Aziraphale’s apple pie), and it was only after he’d invited Crowley into the bookshop for a nightcap that he set his shoulders, cleared his throat, and said, “There’s something we need to discuss.”
Crowley sprawled on the sofa, his mouth open, solidly drunk. “Is there?”
“Yes,” said Aziraphale, “there is.” He took a fortifying sip from his tumbler of Macallan, which he’d poured after deciding that this conversation would require more than the six drinks he’d had at dinner and the Coteaux du Lyonnais he’d been planning to uncork. “It’s about what happened before, and, well, several other incidents in recent memory.”
Crowley reacted not in the slightest, which Aziraphale decided was fair enough, his having said nothing much at all so far.
“You see,” said Aziraphale, “you see…well, you quite often address me as angel.”
Crowley’s glasses were very, very opaque. This was ostensibly to hide his eyes from humans but had the obvious side benefit of hiding his eyes from angels, or at least one particular angel with an irritating tendency to cause Crowley’s eyes to do things he did not want them to do.
“Which I am, of course,” Aziraphale continued. “An angel, I mean. Still. Nominally, at least.” He tittered uneasily with a glance Heavenward. It wasn’t as if anyone had told him he was no longer an angel, and he could still perform miracles just as he’d always done, and really, what else would he be? It didn’t bear thinking about.
“It’s just,” he continued, “I’ve noticed that humans—some humans, anyway—they use that word, angel, as a…well, as a sort of…endearment.”
“Do they?” said Crowley, who had invented using the word as an endearment in the 13th century AD.
“Yes, and I’ve noticed—some time ago, actually—that when humans—some humans, that is to say—when they overhear you calling me angel, they…well, they assume.”
“Assume,” Crowley repeated.
“That you, ah. That you mean it in the…colloquial sense. As a…as an endearment.”
“They assume that you and I are intimately involved,” Aziraphale said, voice hushed.
Crowley stared at him silently for a moment, and then leaned back against the sofa, appearing pensive. “Huh.”
“Yes,” said Aziraphale.
“Yes,” Crowley agreed. “I see what you mean.”
They sat, contemplating.
“I don’t,” said Crowley.
“I don’t use it as an endearment,” Crowley lied. “Don’t forget, unlike humans, I actually know angels. Dozens, in fact. Most of them complete prats. I could just as well use it as an insult.”
“Are you?” Aziraphale asked. “Using it as an insult?”
Crowley thought. “Depends on the conversation,” he said.
Aziraphale huffed. He was missing the point entirely.
“I could stop,” Crowley offered.
Aziraphale’s irritation evaporated. He hadn’t thought this through. That Crowley might stop calling him— “Oh—”
“Only Aziraphale is a bit of a mouthful for every day. ‘Specially these days. Don’t meet too many Aziraphales anymore.”
“No, that’s certainly true.”
“Raises questions, you know. ‘Where are you from’ and all that.”
“Yes, I see your point.”
“I mean, it’s the 21st century, people don’t have just one name anymore. Well, unless they’re Madonna. Or Cher.”
Crowley shot him a look. “Could always switch to Anthony—”
“Oh, please don’t start with that again—”
“—only that might get a bit confusing, what with it being my name as well—and also, in case you need reminded, first.”
“Forget it,” Aziraphale said, waving his hands, “forget I mentioned it, forget I mentioned anything at all, forget we ever had this conversation—”
“How’s old Garett by the way? Still aging? Still wearing a lot of tweed?”
“It was Gareth,” Aziraphale muttered, “and if you must know, he hasn’t come round the shop since—well, he hasn’t come round.”
Crowley turned his mouth into a dramatic moue.
“He, in fact, suspected you and I of being involved,” Aziraphale said, a bit sharper than he’d meant to.
“Didn’t stop him wanting to shag you, though.”
“It did, once he decided that we—oh dear,” Aziraphale said, quiet now, falling back against his chair.
Crowley, to his credit, looked almost chagrined. “Look,” he said after a moment, “I didn’t mean to, er…cock-block you.”
“Must you be so vulgar,” Aziraphale sighed.
“To get in your way, then. Wasn’t my intention. Couldn’t be—I’m a demon, tempting people to fornicate is in the job description.”
Aziraphale stared at him, blank expression and blanker, hidden eyes. “I never said I was interested in…fornication.”
He almost missed the corner of Crowley’s mouth turning up. The demon did so delight in hearing racy words from Aziraphale.
Crowley swirled the scotch in his glass around, watching it. His near-smile went away. “You should, though. I mean, if you want. Sow some wild oats, have a good time. Not like you’ve got to report it back to Upstairs.”
Aziraphale made a face. “I’ll take it under advisement.”
“I can stop, if you want. Calling you ‘angel,’ I mean. Might take a while to break the habit, but—”
“No,” said Aziraphale, “no, I don’t want that. I mean it, please forget the whole thing. It’s fine. I don’t want you, or anything, to change.”
Crowley stared at him for quite a long while. “Right. No change. Got it,” he said.
Aziraphale was starting to think unemployment—if the word could be used to describe their situation—was having a terrible effect on Crowley. He spent so much of his time just taking up space in the bookshop, usually on his mobile telephone. Aziraphale only hoped he wasn’t using the device to do any pro bono tempting from the angel’s own shop. It was one thing to be dishonourably discharged from Heaven; it was quite another to provide a demon a comfortable workspace for committing demonic acts, not to mention the regular cups of tea.
But it was a convenience to have someone he trusted, more or less, in the shop when he needed to go out for some reason. Simpler than shooing all the customers out and closing for the day, much as he would prefer to do just that.
Aziraphale had lived a very long time and performed countless miracles, but not even he could go up against the Royal Mail. “Crowley, I’ve got to step out for a bit to pick up a parcel,” he said to the demon, who was curled on the settee and did not bother raising his head, lowering his mobile, or acknowledging the statement in any way. “I hate to impose,” he continued pointedly, “but would you mind watching the shop?”
The demon was still absorbed in his phone, but he sighed, “Yes, dear.”
“I shouldn’t be more than half an hour,” Aziraphale said, reaching for his coat. Then he frowned. He turned back to Crowley, who was intensely focused on the device in his hands.
“Did you just call me ‘dear’?”
Crowley’s shoulders hunched further. “I didn’t.”
“You did,” Aziraphale said, walking around so he could see at least some of Crowley’s face, though Crowley still had his head bowed and his eyes locked on his phone.
Aziraphale stood up straighter as if to compensate for Crowley’s posture. “You most certainly did.”
“Well, what if I did?” Crowley said, at last putting the phone down and glaring up at Aziraphale. “You call people ‘dear’ left and right. Even me!”
“Yes, but you’ve never called me dear before.”
“Oh, oh, so you can say it, but I can’t?” Crowley raised his voice. “Because I’m a demon, I can’t say it? That’s discrimination, that is.”
“Discrim—oh, that’s absurd. I’m simply saying that it’s out of character for you.”
“It’s just a word, it’s—‘dear,’ it’s—whatever, lots of things are dear. Nothing wrong with it! My car’s dear, my flat’s dear, this jacket’s dear, you—of course you’re dear, why wouldn’t you be, you’re the only living thing in the universe I can actually talk to.” Crowley concluded this speech by picking up his phone and staring at it again.
Watching him, Aziraphale’s heart grew. He found himself smiling at Crowley—at his defensiveness, his clear embarrassment at admitting he was so fond of Aziraphale as to think of him as dear.
“Well, and the plants,” Crowley said to his phone.
Aziraphale stopped smiling. “Sorry?”
“I mean, you’re not the only living thing I talk to,” Crowley said dismissively. “I talk to my plants. You know I do, it’s motivational for them. So you’re not actually the only thing I talk to.”
“Oh, well,” said Aziraphale. This time he did pick up his coat from the hanger. “Thank you for ranking me amongst your plants, dear. It’s so nice to be so highly regarded. I do hope you won’t put me down the food-waste disposal the next time I disappoint you.” He turned on his heel, throwing the coat on as he headed for the door to fetch his parcel from the delivery office.
He slammed the front door on Crowley’s shout of “You wouldn’t fit!”
Having called Aziraphale dear once, Crowley took licence to do so again, and then again. He did it deliberately, always with an impish glint in his eye as if daring Aziraphale to protest. He seemed to relish the way it flustered Aziraphale and put him off-kilter, feeling as though he were the subject of an obscure experiment. The angel began to wonder if he himself was now the sole maleficiary of Crowley’s demonic instincts, now that he was no longer receiving assignments from Below. Well, better Aziraphale than the innocent people of London. He’d had 6000 years of experience in thwarting them.
And then Crowley began to do it almost absent-mindedly, sprinkling dear throughout conversation, much as he had the first time, without seeming to realize, as if it were perfectly natural and he’d been doing so for hundreds of years. That made Aziraphale even more flustered. It was difficult to thwart Crowley’s wiles when he presented no actual wiles to thwart.
“It really doesn’t bother you?” Crowley asked one evening over his espresso cup at the Ritz while Aziraphale tucked into a creme brûlée that had been brought to their table with, once again, two spoons.
“That humans assume we’re together.”
Aziraphale dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. “My dear,” he said, “why should I care if humans think things about us that aren’t true? Everything about our lives is illusory. I am not a human, I am an angel. I am not a bookseller, I am…”
“A book hoarder,” Crowley suggested.
Aziraphale gave him a stern look. “I am also quite a bit older than I appear, and I’m not exactly English. Allowing mortals to assume certain untruths is fundamental to our continuing existence on Earth.”
“When you put it that way, lying sounds almost virtuous.”
“I do not lie,” Aziraphale said, “I merely omit irrelevant information in the interest of continuing my good works.”
“How does people thinking we’re lo—shagging each other help you with that?”
Aziraphale’s face grew warm. Really, Crowley’s language. “It doesn’t particularly help, but it doesn’t hurt, either. If anything,” he added, “I would think it would bother you. After all, you are a demon…” He looked Crowley over. “Semi-retired demon, I suppose. And demons aren’t exactly known for being romantic.” He stuck a spoonful of dessert in his mouth.
Crowley pulled a face. “Romantic, blech, don’t like that word. Who said anything about romantic? I said shag—”
“Yes, I heard you the first time.”
“Shagging,” Crowley said a second time.
Aziraphale twisted his mouth around another spoonful. “Expressions of affection, then.”
“I called you ‘friend’ at least three hundred years before you’d even admit to knowing who I am.”
Aziraphale remembered. He remembered every occasion on which Crowley had called him friend, every time he himself had denied it. It was their natures. Crowley was reckless, impulsive, daring—it was no wonder he’d Fallen. Aziraphale was cautious, obedient, dutiful—it was no wonder he’d spent so many centuries in service to a cold and careless Heavenly authority, to a God who never answered back.
Aziraphale was supposed to be a soldier, had been a soldier in fact, a sentry at the very first post of them all—but it was Crowley who was the brave one, unafraid to say what he felt, no matter the consequences. Unafraid to ask for what he wanted, no matter how frightening.
“Well,” Aziraphale said, “I suppose you never have been a very ordinary demon.” He gave Crowley a small, conciliatory smile.
“And you’re hardly a typical angel, angel.”
They smiled at one another across the table until Aziraphale, overcome by fondness for both Crowley and creme brûlée, but able to face only the latter, turned back to his dessert.
Crowley drank his espresso. “You’ve got something there about being illusory, though,” he mused. “Everything made up. I mean, are you even a real blond?”
Crowley did not find out, as he spent the next five minutes patting a coughing, spluttering angel on the back while trying to give him a glass of water.
The answer, of course, was no, because the angel wasn’t a real corporeal being at all.
But in another way, the answer was also yes.
The evening that marked six months since the aborted Armageddon found angel and demon in the demon’s flat for a change. Aziraphale had of course been there on several occasions, with increasing frequency since that day when Crowley had offered hospitality to a recently re-embodied and newly homeless angel, but more often than not they spent their leisure time at the restored bookshop. Crowley said it was because he didn’t want to inconvenience Aziraphale, but Aziraphale suspected Crowley just liked being in the old shop.
On that occasion, though, they’d gone to dinner directly across from Crowley’s, and afterwards Crowley had offered up that he’d come by an 1812 Portuguese Madeira just desperate to be opened, so it made sense to retire to his for drinks.
They drank to freedom, to friendship, and to—Crowley’s toast—“fucking shit up for Heaven and Hell.” By then they’d had to open a second bottle, doff their jackets, and in Aziraphale’s case, loosen his tie. Both were feeling very cosy indeed.
They had seen neither hide nor hair of Heaven nor Hell since Crowley’s chance encounter with Gabriel some months before. They remained cautious and kept a low profile—no extravagant miracles that might draw unwanted attention—but as far as their knowing one another, and being friends with one another, they no longer made the slightest pretence otherwise.
It was exciting. Of course there had been a degree of excitement in hiding, as well—knowing the risks they were taking with their clandestine association—but now they’d defied their former masters, stopped the end of the world, and stepped out from the darkness and into the light. It was indulgent. Positively libertine. And, toward the more virtuous side of things, it brought Aziraphale joy.
It was joy he felt as he walked to Crowley’s wine cellar to select their next bottle, past the lush greenery Crowley kept that reminded him so very much of that garden, the first garden, all those millennia ago; joy as he returned to the sitting room he was not certain had existed six months prior, at least not in this form, with its enormous plush sofa and armchairs, thick rugs and soft lamplight, perfect for long evenings spent together in conversation and friendship; joy as he uncorked the new bottle and approached Crowley, lounging sideways in one of the chairs with his legs draped over an armrest, and refilled Crowley’s glass once again.
“Thanks, love,” Crowley said, swirling the wine in his glass and then freezing.
Aziraphale stared at Crowley. Crowley stared at Aziraphale.
“What,” Crowley barked.
Aziraphale sank into the sofa and sat the bottle on the coffee table. As he was still staring at Crowley, and also quite drunk, it was only angelic luck that prevented the bottle from missing the table entirely and dropping to the floor. “You called me love.”
“You absolutely, very much did,” Aziraphale said in wonderment.
Crowley’s eyes were, as usual, obscured by dark glasses. Instead he expressed himself physically, throwing his arms out, sloshing wine onto the floor.
“So what?!” he demanded. “It’s—it’s English, it’s slang, it’s—everyone’s calling everyone love these days, which—” He pointed one accusatory finger at Aziraphale, the others wrapped securely around his wine glass. “—Which you would know if you ever bothered to, to get out once in a while, and keep up with the times. It’s this language, it’s stupid. Sumerian, now that was a language. Much better than Modern English. Way ruder—”
Aziraphale’s hands clenched into fists on his knees. “You are trying to change the subject, and you are stammering, Crowley!”
Crowley leapt from the chair as if it were consecrated. “I’m not! I don’t stammer, demons don’t stammer, what are you—”
In fact Crowley stammered regularly when drunk, or emotional, or drunkenly emotional, but Aziraphale did not mention this, recognizing that Crowley was still trying to change the subject. “You called me love!”
“It’s nothing, Aziraphale,” Crowley insisted, pacing with his glass in hand, declaiming to the sitting room and everything in it except for the angel on the sofa, who he purposefully avoided. “It doesn’t mean anything. You’re being a drama queen, and you always do this, you always turn everything into some big blessed argument—”
“I’m not arguing!”
“—and then we have a row and don’t speak to each other for a quarter century—”
“We are not having a row! We are having a discussion, a discussion about how you just called me love!”
“Wha—why do you care?” Crowley finally turned to look at Aziraphale through his glasses. “What does it matter?”
Aziraphale sat up straighter. “Well, it’s not the sort of thing you say!”
Crowley forced a casual shrug that better resembled a seizure. “Some people do.”
“Not you!” Aziraphale said. “And we’re not exactly people, you know.”
“All right, some residents of earth, you great nit-picking bastard.”
“You’ve never said it before.”
“Well, I’ll not say it again if it offends you this much!”
“I didn’t say it offended me!”
“Well then, what’s the big deal?” Crowley’s affronted outrage was devolving into pleading. “Can’t we just—forget about it?”
Aziraphale fretted. He could not think of what the big deal was, though he was certain there was a big deal, somewhere. He was very drunk. “It’s most unusual,” he hedged. “And if you’re playing at some sort of game...”
Crowley sighed. “I’m not.” He sounded very tired. His wine glass hung at his side, held by just the tips of his fingers. “I’m not playing any game, angel.”
“Oh, I can’t do this, I’m too drunk,” Aziraphale said. “I’m going to—”
Crowley’s head snapped up and he pointed the same finger-and-wine-glass combo as before at Aziraphale. “Don’t you dare, don’t you dare sober up! These are very expensive bottles and I’ll not have you wasting them by being sober! And if you get sober then I’ve got to get sober, and I’m not doing it! I refuse!”
“Fine then!” Perhaps it was better after all that they stay drunk. In vino veritas and such. What had sobriety ever done for them? In fact, in all the commotion, Aziraphale had neglected to refill his own glass. He did so now, feeling very much like he could use another.
After a minute’s reflection, he offered, “You just…surprised me. You’ve never done it before.”
Crowley finished the great gulp of wine he’d just swallowed and smacked his lips. “Done what?”
“Fuck,” Crowley muttered before dropping heavily back into his chair, the arm with the wineglass draped over the side, his opposite hand cradling his head. Aziraphale had never been able to sense his mental state the way he could humans, but he needed no such skill to feel the misery radiating from Crowley. It made his chest ache and his eyes prickle as they hadn’t in half a year.
“You surprised me,” Aziraphale said again, softly now. “I never thought…that is, I thought you didn’t…you never said anything. After.”
Crowley did not move. After a minute, he took a deep breath—unnecessary, but fortifying—and without raising his head, said, “Yeah, well. Dunno what else you’d want me to say. Fairly certain I said it all loud and clear.”
“But that was then. The world was ending. Hell was coming for you.” Aziraphale’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You had to leave, you had no choice. Of course you would ask me then. But that’s not the same as now.”
“Well, I’m very bloody sorry we didn’t clear the air back then, all right? Right.” Crowley’s head was still down, his breathing still tortured. “Right. Look. You don’t need to fret about it. I’m not going to—” He waved his hand. “—Do anything demonic to you. I’ll get over it. Just…please don’t stop being my friend.”
On the last bit, his voice broke. Aziraphale’s superfluous heart followed.
“Oh, my dear,” he said. “I could never. I would never stop being your friend.”
Crowley’s shoulders untensed a millimetre.
“And you must know, you must, that my feelings are the same.”
And tensed right back.
“Sporting of you to say so,” Crowley observed drily, “but I really don’t think they are.”
Aziraphale frowned. He thought they’d understood each other. “How do you mean?”
At last, Crowley shifted in the armchair. He sat up straighter, set his jaw—and removed his sunglasses. His eyes were very golden by the lamplight. He looked directly at Aziraphale.
“I’m attracted to you,” he said with a flat voice. “I’ll get over it, I swear on anything you like, but I am attracted to you. Mentally, spiritually...” Here he closed his eyes briefly, before opening them as if daring Aziraphale to look away. “And sexually.”
Aziraphale’s face was already warm from the wine, but the word and its implications sent his mind wandering down dangerous paths. Or perhaps not so dangerous now.
Crowley was very still. He had a tight grip on the stem of his glass and looked like he was in front of a firing squad without a blindfold, eyes blazing at Aziraphale.
Aziraphale smiled tenderly at him. “My feelings,” he said again, “are the same.”
Crowley blinked—twice, which was quite a lot for a being who didn’t need to blink at all. “You understand what I’m saying, right? We’re not talking about two different things.”
Oh dear. Aziraphale leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “How can I be any clearer? Crowley, my oldest and dearest companion, who I adore above all others, I would very much like,” he swallowed hard, “to shag you.”
Across from him, Crowley blinked once more and took a shaky breath. A fragment of a smile appeared on his lips. He did so love to hear Aziraphale’s limited arsenal of vulgarities. His voice was plaintive and rough when he asked, “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I expected you would, if you still felt that way, once everything was settled,” Aziraphale said. “You’ve always been so much more comfortable with…us. When you didn’t say anything, I assumed you’d ‘come back to your senses,’ as it were.”
“Angel, when it comes to you, I haven’t seen my senses in a few centuries.”
Aziraphale flushed even more. “Oh,” he said, pleased and a bit bashful. He took a sip from his glass of wine as a reprieve from looking at Crowley, at his wondering and wonderful face, at his open collar, at the wide sprawl of his long legs.
Crowley drank from his own glass, still smiling, still looking at the angel with bright amber eyes. “So when I called you love,” he began.
Aziraphale sat up straight. “Well, I mean. How else could I react, with it coming out of nowhere, like that? With no warning whatsoever. I would have thought...”
“Well! Well. It was somewhat abrupt, you must admit. I might have expected you to…take me to dinner, first.”
“I always take you to dinner,” Crowley said.
Aziraphale chanced a glance at him, but his collar was still open, a deep vee leading down from his throat to his chest, and so he looked away again. “Yes, I suppose you do.”
“So I can call you love when we’re out at dinner,” Crowley suggested.
“If you like,” said Aziraphale with great dignity.
“Just during dinner? What about during dessert?”
“You’re teasing me,” the angel protested.
At that, Crowley beamed, bright as the sun on the day it was created. “Not yet I’m not,” he said. “How about after dinner? If I were to give you a lift home? Or maybe a lift back to mine?” His eyes glinted in the low light. “Could I call you love in the morning?”
Aziraphale sucked in a breath and wished he’d loosened his own collar; he was very, very warm. “You are absolutely shameless.”
“Well, I am a demon,” Crowley said reasonably. “Shame’s more your sort of thing.” He rose from the chair, leaving his wine glass on the table next to it. “Pride’s more mine,” he continued, conversationally, meandering over to the sofa where Aziraphale was sweating, hands tingling, finding that breathing was suddenly very necessary, and also very difficult.
Crowley dropped onto the sofa very, very close to Aziraphale. “Envy. Gluttony.” As if this were a normal conversation, as if he wasn’t just now putting his hand on Aziraphale’s knee, pressing his thigh against Aziraphale’s thigh. He leaned in to whisper into Aziraphale’s ear: “Lust…”
The angel turned and kissed him, unable to stand it a moment longer. After all, it had already been six thousand years.
It turned out that their coupling no longer being strictly forbidden reduced the thrill not one iota.
And Crowley did call him love in the morning.