You never hear it, do you? What I mean when I say it. What I really mean, not “that thing you are”, and not “that thing I’m not, not anymore”, and not even just “hey you over there”. Angel. My angel. You never hear it. Probably, after all these years, you never will.
Only not my angel, are you? No. Which is why I’ve been trying to put it all on paper instead. Make a cut and spill myself in ink and maybe bleed out all these feelings that I can’t ever admit.
See, that’s my idea of romantic metaphor. Bloodletting. Terrible practice. Can’t wait until they move past it. Probably about the same time I move past you. Two ancient terrible practices, both of them stupid.
Sometimes I wish I’d never climbed that wall. Would I be happier, now, if I’d never seen your pouting blue eyes? What would it be like to have not spent eons wanting to touch your curls? My arms ache, you know, because you’re not in them. I want to know whether you’re as soft as you look. I’ve always wanted to know. My downfall in the end. Or, I suppose, in the Beginning.
I’m always falling, it seems. It hasn’t stopped since I met you.
I love you, angel.
This isn’t helping. I was supposed to love you less with each of these letters. Love from my kind must be a sort of poison, and I thought I could drain it. Milk my fangs and turn me harmless. But I can never stop being a serpent, can I? It’s far too late for that.
I can’t stand anymore how beautiful you are. It’s been a razor on my forking tongue for hundreds and thousands of years, and I can’t spit it out, so it cuts me with every word I do say, because none of them are “angel, you’re beautiful and I love you”.
You only see the darkness when you look at me, I suppose. The empty spaces where all I used to be was burned away. That long Fall that ripped out everything in me that was anything like you. You only see the snake crawling in the dust. You don’t see the heart I hold out to you, because you already know I don’t have one.
Angel. Not my angel. The angel, the only one in my world. I’m barely even in yours, am I? I’ll take what I can get. Snipe at me about Arrangements and primly sip your tea and I’ll still hang from your lips. Do they taste like the ether, like French crepes, like the sweet words I long to hear you say? Or would they burn an unholy thing like me?
Would I burn again? I’d be willing to burn again. If it was your love that burned me.
You’re absolutely gorgeous and it’s killing me. I sleep more and more lately, because maybe in my dreams I can finally hold you. Put my arms around the whole expanse of you and know what it feels like at last. Maybe you’ll tell me you love me, in my dreams. Maybe that would be enough.
I’m yours, angel. Your shadow, your dust-filthy serpent. That cold shiver you feel? That’s just me slithering over your footsteps. You’ll never claim me, but I belong to you far more than I ever did to the rest of my lot.
I’m yours, angel, and I’m sorry.
You’re not fair. You’re so bloody unfair, how you insist on being so completely you and I’m supposed to do nothing about it.
Do you know how brilliantly you were smiling today? Do you know how you practically bounced in your seat to talk about whatever stupid book you’ve acquired? (I know exactly what book it was. Of course I do. Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham, first edition. Signed. Dandy tripe, I don’t know what you see in it.) I thought you would forget to finish my helping of pot de creme, you were so excited. (Don’t worry. I would have reminded you.)
You’re just so bright, angel. I could watch your eyes for hours, let alone the rest of your exquisitely round face. Watch them widen one second and crinkle the next and sometimes, sometimes, do that little sideways look that you seem to have only for me. It doesn’t mean anything, but it still guts me every time I see it.
You’re too silly and soft and human for your lot, and they will never know what they’re missing out on, way up there.
Oh, and yes, I noticed your new waistcoat right away. Of course. Did you ask because you wanted my approval? Mine specifically? You have it, always you have it. Wear anything you want and I’d love it. Wear nothing, if you like. Doesn’t make a difference. It’s you, you, you are the common factor, and you’ve very unfairly not gotten one bit less beautiful in all these years.
I want to know who your tailor is, do you know that? I want to thank him, send him a card, send him roses. That lovely new waistcoat fits you so well, angel, and it’s just — you’ll see a theme here — unfair. Whoever the man is, he didn’t try to hide a thing. Why would he, when you’re so soft and round and flawless? Is that why he cut as he did, sewed as he did, to show you off so perfectly? Does he love you too? Should I visit him with something a little less friendly than roses?
What sort of flowers say “he’s not mine, he’ll never be mine, but if you get any funny ideas I’ll set your hair on fire”?
I want to have lunch with you again tomorrow, angel. Every day, and dinner too, and breakfast. Want a little nibble of something in between? Midnight snack? Call me and I’ll be there, to watch you smile, to hear whatever you have to say. Only let me curl up in a corner of your shop and wait there till you’re peckish again. Your joy is the only miracle worth anything, and I’d do that one over and over again until I died, if you’d let me. No special arrangements needed. My treat.
This isn’t fair. My heart’s so full of you, and yet there’s always more of you, just out of reach. Could I ever fit you all? Or is mine just not the right sort of heart?
I love you. Still. Always.
Angel, my angel,
I wish you’d told me you were going to be away. I mightn’t have spent so many nights prowling the streets near your shop. Keeping an eye out for any sign that my lot had gotten to you. Or yours. No good either way, is it? Yours would only lock you away, keep you up there where I could never see you again. Mine would kill you, though. I might survive just losing you. I won’t survive you being gone.
But you had that sign up in the window, a whole bloody paragraph of fussy language just to say “left town on business, back next Tuesday”. So I knew it was you who’d put it there, because nobody else could ever imitate you like that. No one could ever know you well enough to pull off that kind of perfectly-you absurdity. I still can’t quite fathom you, and how long have I had to learn you?
Still. It was a bad few days. And you just looked at me like I was an idiot, when I mentioned it. No, you’re right, obviously I don’t need to know your every movement. We’re both functional adult-like entities. We don’t even cross each others’ paths more than every couple of months these days, and even that is probably too often to be safe. But I watch over you, angel. I can’t help it. It’s habit by now, centuries too deep to break. Remember the Bastille? I always will. Those ruffles. Nobody has a right to look so ridiculous and yet so stunning.
I don’t know why I ever thought that these letters were a good idea. I’m looking at them now, the whole pile of them, and there’s dozens. Maybe a hundred. I stopped counting decades ago. Each one is another reminder that I’ve failed in what I set out to do. I’m still in love with you, and I think it’s actually worse than ever. Although it can’t be, because I already loved you on that wall with as much feeling as it’s possible for a human-ish heart to contain. Hard to go up from there. I keep doing it anyway.
If I could just hold you, angel, at least I’d know. Know whether you fill up my arms with all your softness just exactly as perfectly as I imagine. Were we made for each other, the spindly length of these arms, the broad circumference of your waist? Are we a matched set with my hands locked behind you to never let you go? I ask. I keep asking. Always questions with me.
The other question I’ve been asking is whether these letters are a mistake for another reason. They are a growing body of evidence, and evidence is what we don’t need. I feel like there’s a little bit of my heart in each of them, inked out across page after page of words you’ll never read. I don’t want to have to destroy my own heart. But if it means they don’t destroy you...
For now there’s no worry, I think. I hope. We can go on like this a while longer. It’s all I can ask for, but I’ll keep asking every chance I get. Of course I will. It’s what I do.
Ask things, I mean. But also love you.
I’m going to ask you today. Not the real question, the one I’ve been bloodying my tongue with since the Beginning, the one I know the answer to already. I won’t subject myself to that “no”.
But things are getting tighter, on my side. I don’t know about yours. I hope they still don’t suspect a thing on yours.
I need to protect myself, angel, and I can do it one of two ways. One is to turn my back on you and never see you again, and I’m too selfish to ever consider it. The other is something only you can help me with. You, or someone else on that end of things. I could try to arrange something through an agent, but they wouldn’t understand how important this is. You will. I hope you will.
This is what I need to stay close to you. Destruction in a bottle, but it will keep me here with you. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I hope I can make you see that.
My lot isn’t supposed to hope, really, are we? Must be your influence.
Say yes, angel. Please, just for this one small thing, say yes. I don’t ever need a yes for the big thing, if I can just stay here, just as we are.
I can content myself with that.
There were no more letters.
Aziraphale set the last page back into the crumbling paperboard box, and blinked at a surprising wetness in his eyes.
He had certainly not expected to find anything like this when he set out on a long-overdue cleaning of the back rooms. For the most part, the stacks and boxes had contained things he recognized — purchases made over the years, tucked away for later sorting, slowly accumulating until they’d filled two small rooms. This box had been a mystery, though, deep in a pile of unrelated manuscripts, yellowed and battered and tied with a faded red ribbon.
The cleaning had taken a back seat while he examined his unsuspected prize. Inside the box had been the letters — scores of them, all scrawled in the same unruly hand, though they covered more than fifty years.
Aziraphale had picked up the first, had started reading, and was utterly lost.
Love letters. Decades of love letters, all from one unnamed man to another, over what must have been the entire span of a life. Clumsy, and heartfelt, and too close to home for Aziraphale to remain as unmoved as he might have liked.
Because, after all, Aziraphale had known unrequited love through decades as well; more than this man could have seen, and only even more to come. Was it possible that he and the letters’ author had walked the same streets in an earlier age? Had the man worshipped at the same church where Aziraphale would, a century later, realize exactly what he wanted but could never have?
For the next several hours, Aziraphale found himself returning to his desk, cleaning forgotten again. He read through the letters repeatedly, a few more often than the rest. There was so much that was familiar in the writing. Some of the words might as well have come from his own heart; others struck him differently, yet no less strongly. That nickname for the intended recipient, for instance — a startling coincidence, even if he knew it to be nothing more.
Most moving of all was how they ended. There was no indication of how the meeting in 1862 had gone. No sign, even, of whether the author himself had somehow gotten the box of letters into the shop once they were complete. Perhaps it had been part of a larger sale lot? But then, Aziraphale still should have noted it at the time...
Eventually the quality of light shifted enough for him to notice, and he put everything down with a sigh. Crowley would be along any minute for a bottle or three, and the back rooms were still a mess. Still, Aziraphale could show him the letters. They had both been in London in those years; perhaps Crowley would know something of the author, of his eventual fate. It wouldn’t hurt to ask, at least.
When Aziraphale got a chance to bring out the paperboard box, Crowley went very still.
“Uh,” he said. “Where did you, uh...?”
“Find it? In a back room. Strangest thing, really; I have no idea how it got there.” Aziraphale pulled a table up, sitting down on the end of the couch not quite taken up by sprawled demon. “But the contents are really quite extraordinary, let me show you...” He opened the box as he spoke, setting the lid down on the table beside it. “It’s an entire series of love letters. Unsigned, and unsent, I suppose. Just... nearly sixty years of them. I have no idea who wrote them.”
“And who are they, er, to?”
“Well, I don’t know that either. I was actually hoping you might.”
Crowley jolted at this, sitting suddenly upright, almost as far across the couch from Aziraphale as he could manage. “O-oh?”
“You remember the early nineteenth century as well as I do.” Aziraphale frowned, wishing he could see Crowley’s eyes. They might have shed some light on this strange reaction. “I’d thought perhaps you might recognize the identity of the writer. Or his would-be paramour.”
Crowley stared at him. Or at least, the dark glasses did.
“Here’s one of the longer ones.”
“Er.” Crowley looked down at the offered page. “Reading. Not my thing.”
“Oh. Yes. I’ll read it to you, then, shall I?”
Aziraphale cleared his throat. “This one is from 1811.
“‘Angel, never mine.
“‘You went for a walk today. I didn’t know you’d be going to the park, or I probably wouldn’t have been there myself. Or, no. That’s a lie. I would have gotten there even earlier, been ready for your arrival. I would have surprised you with those chocolates you like so much. Would you have walked with me? For chocolates? Or maybe at all, just for me? Just to spend time with me?
“‘It’s so easy to tempt you into these little things, in this new century. Maybe you’re warming up to me.
“‘But I had no chocolates, and I wasn’t ready, so I just watched you from across the duck pond. The birds love you almost as much as I do, I think. They follow you like I wish I could do.’”
Aziraphale paused, meaning to ask whether the author’s words might ring any bells yet. When he looked at Crowley, though, something in the demon’s face stopped him.
Then Crowley opened his mouth.
“‘There isn’t anything more gorgeous in the universe than you, not even the stars,’” he recited. “‘It’s all rubbish beside you. I could go blind except for you, angel, just you left and everything else endless night, and I might even thank Them for it. What is the rest of the world except a distraction from all of you?’
“Then I think there’s an awful metaphor about squirrels.”
Aziraphale gawped. Looked down at the letter, which Crowley could not possibly see from where he was sitting. Swallowed.
“Erm. There is actually another paragraph of compliments before the squirrels.”
“Yeah, ‘s been a while. Can’t remember all of it anymore.”
Aziraphale’s brain ran through a few key items which it had neglected to correlate previously.
Mentions of meals at certain restaurants. An unspecified shop owned by the subject of the letters. A new waistcoat (in fawn velvet, perhaps?) in 1836. One last letter, “destruction in a bottle”, in 1862.
“Oh,” he managed, with what little air he had left. “Oh my.”
Crowley looked away. “Yup.”
“The letters are yours.”
“And.” Aziraphale realized he was crumpling the page in his fist. He set it aside so he could wring his hands instead. “And they were to me.”
“Thought I burned them,” Crowley muttered. “Or something. Got drunk after you wouldn’t give me the holy water, and when I came to they were gone. Didn’t think I’d gone and —”
He leaned forward, burying his face in his hands.
“Just give me a minute, ang — Aziraphale. I’ll see myself out.”
“You most certainly will not.”
Aziraphale stood up, and Crowley seemed to shrink away a little as he passed, marching over to his desk with a determined huff. “You,” he said, rifling through the drawers, “are going to sit right there. And I am going to show you...”
A heavy sheaf of papers thudded onto the table in front of Crowley.
“This,” Aziraphale finished.
Crowley peeked over his fingers. “Nh?”
“Take a look, please.” Aziraphale dropped into his usual chair across from the couch, lacing his fingers over his belly (and trying not to think too much about the really quite nice things which Crowley had written about that particular feature of his corporation, on multiple occasions). “You don’t have to read it all, of course, just... skim a bit.”
After a moment, Crowley slid the pile closer. Aziraphale waited.
He knew, without having to look, that the first page held a date in 1941.
When Crowley raised his head again, he was slack-jawed. His eyes were hidden, always hidden behind the horrible glasses, but there was something visibly blooming in his face all the same. And audible, when he spoke, in his broken voice.
Aziraphale heard it this time.
He stood again, tugging down his waistcoat, smoothing out a stubborn wrinkle. “You know, I really thought I was going to get some cleaning done today. But then I found those letters, and I was just... well, captivated by them, honestly. I felt that I would have liked to have met their author. That he must have had a simply beautiful heart.”
He stepped around the table, closer to Crowley. Held out his hands. “It seems I was correct. On both counts.”
Crowley only looked at him for a minor eternity.
Then he was surging up, launching himself from the couch, and he bypassed the outstretched hands entirely to wrap his arms around Aziraphale’s waist.
His hands clasped at the small of Aziraphale’s back.
“You fit perfectly,” Crowley husked against his shoulder. “I was right.”
“You were.” The wetness was back in his eyes, threatening to spill over. “Oh, my dear, I am so sorry that I never —”
“You do now. That’s enough. That’s — that’s all I ever wanted. I’d have waited forever until you did.” Then, quieter: “You do now. Right?”
“Take off your sunglasses, dear, and I shall tell you properly.”
One arm removed itself from around him (and was he already missing that contact? how wonderfully strange), and Crowley shifted back just a little. Pulled off his dark glasses to look at Aziraphale with eyes that shone like liquid gold.
Aziraphale looked into those eyes and beamed. “Oh, my darling. Of course I do.”
There was a light clatter that must have been the glasses dropping to the floor, and then Crowley’s arm was back, his hands coming together again, pulling Aziraphale close. “And you’re sure. You’re sure, Aziraphale. I’m a demon. You know that, you know what I am —”
Aziraphale pressed a finger to Crowley’s lips. “You are my beloved. That is what you are.”
The golden eyes stared at him. Wide, and trembling, and still disbelieving.
“Do you know what I am, Crowley?”
Aziraphale lowered his hand again, leaving Crowley free to speak, but for a moment there was still just that stare. At last, though, comprehension broke in, and then Crowley smiled. It was a slow thing which lit his face like a sunrise.
Crowley held him, and he smiled; and his voice, when he answered, shook only the tiniest bit.