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In(effable) Dulci Jubilo

Chapter Text

It wasn't the decorating that bothered him so much as the way Aziraphale kept humming under his breath while he did it. Constantly. Crowley wasn't sure if he was aware of it and enjoying himself, not aware of it and enjoying himself, or doing it just to bother Crowley. And enjoying himself.

Bastard angel. Crowley grinned. "I'm surprised you're bothering with this already," he drawled, leaning back in his overstuffed chair so that only the back legs were on the ground.

"Hmm?" Aziraphale, mercifully, ceased his wordless rendition of In dulci jubilo and looked down from his perch atop a ladder[1]. "Bothering with what already, dear boy?"

"Decorating." Crowley rolled his eyes as overdramatically as possible. His sunglasses were off, so the full effect wouldn't go unnoticed. "It's only the first of December, for Satan's sake! There's a whole month to go!"

"Indeed there is." Aziraphale calmly returned to attaching garland to the top of one of the four pillars in the middle of his bookshop. "And I intend to enjoy it, since I'm fully at liberty to do so."

Crowley groaned, let the front legs of his chair thump back to the ground, and stretched out his legs, which was a good trick as his legs would've sworn they were already stretched as far as legs could reasonably go. "You don't think it's a bit much? The holiday lasting the whole bloody month?"

"Isn't just a tad hypocritical, my dear?" Aziraphale began to wind the garland around the pillar. "Or do I recall incorrectly that it was you who was responsible for...I believe it's called 'Christmas Creep'?"

Crowley, who absolutely was responsible and had gotten a small award for his brilliant idea of lessening the overall holiness of Christmas by making it last even longer, snickered. Hell absolutely knew the truth of the old saying, Too much of a good thing turns the stomach and makes you want to shriek every time Paul McCartney starts singing. "Did you know in some places it starts as far back as August? My original plan was October, but give humans a foot and they'll run a marathon."

"Yes yes, you're very clever, now do stop gloating." Aziraphale huffed just a little as he stepped off the ladder and finished winding the garland around all the way to the floor. Crowley watched. Aziraphale fixed the garland in place, stood up, admired the effect of the four pillars. Crowley watched. Aziraphale walked over to a box sitting on the floor and pulled out more decorations. Crowley watched.

Aziraphale took a moment to glare. "You could offer to help, you know. Since you're here."

Crowley grinned. "Demon."

Aziraphale raised an eyebrow.

So did Crowley. If it was to be a silent war of eyebrows, he could do that.

The problem was...well, Crowley had talented eyebrows, he was really rather proud of them. But Aziraphale had wide piercing blue eyes under his eyebrows. The combination of remonstrative eyebrow raise and disappointed puppy dog was just too much.

Crowley conceded defeat and slid out of the chair. "Fine. But only in the interests of getting to dinner sometime this century."

Aziraphale beamed and handed him a small armful of pokey greenery. "Thank you, my dear. Just dot these bits of holly around the place, will you?"

Crowley made a large number of discontented noises filled with consonants, but did as he was told. Holly, of course, bright red berries, freshly cut. Angel must've bought 'em somewhere, no fake plastic things here thank you very much we have standards...Crowley blinked. White berries, wrong leaves, not holly. "You know you've got a bit of mistletoe mixed in here?"

"Hmm? Yes, of course there is. It's traditional to have some."

"Don't give me that, angel, we were there before all the traditions, we know what bunk traditions are. It's just peer pressure by dead people."

"Even so, please hang it up, Crowley. In a corner somewhere, perhaps."

"Are you trying to get customers snogging in the stacks?" Crowley snickered, but sauntered over to an even more unused than most set of shelves where the dryest of dry nonfiction was kept, placing holly around as he went. "I suppose that's one way to keep them too busy to buy books. But mistletoe, eyuugh."

"What's wrong with mistletoe, may I ask?" Aziraphale's voice called back from the other side of the long bookshelf.

"S'a parasite. Feeds on trees. I like trees."

"I thought you approved of parasites?"

"Not when they're bloody shrubs."

"I'll remind you mistletoe has a long and honorable history," Aziraphale said reproachfully, coming around the end of the aisle. "Remember Rome? We hung it during Saturnalia. I do miss that festival, all the merrymaking and absurd gifts, the sagillaria--"

Crowley leaned against the shelves, folding his arms over his chest, the mistletoe dangling from his fingers. "The slaves sitting down to feast while the masters served them for a change, and getting to be as mouthy as they pleased. Liked that part. And the gambling."

Aziraphale tutted. "Of course you did, you Lord of Misrule." Crowley's grin widened. Aziraphale plucked the mistletoe out of his hand and looked around for a stool. Crowley pushed one over with his foot; Aziraphale smiled, stood on it, and affixed the mistletoe to the ceiling, still talking. "It has a strong place in myths and legends, too. Baldr the Beautiful, of course, and Aeneas used it to get to the Underworld..." He stepped back down off the stool, looked up at the dangling yellow-green leaves. "Those stories of druids cutting them down with a golden sickle, though really, I don't remember that happening at all--"

"Hey, angel?"

"Hmm?"

"You're standing under the mistletoe."

Crowley just had time to see Aziraphale's wide piercing blue eyes widen further in surprise before he stole a kiss.

It was a while before they separated even a little, and it wasn't much. Somehow in the interim Aziraphale's hands had ended up on Crowley's face and in his hair, Crowley had an arm around his shoulders and another around his waist and one thigh pressed between his, and it was hard to tell whose breath was whose anymore. Crowley leaned forward again, rested his forehead on Aziraphale's. Aziraphale chuckled. "I take it, my dearest, that you no longer object to the mistletoe?"

"Depends who you let catch you underneath it, angel." Crowley brushed lips along Aziraphale's eyebrow, kissed his temple, smiled against his skin.

"Don't worry. It would take a truly wily serpent to catch me so off-guard." Aziraphale smirked, and Crowley began to have a sneaky suspicion that he'd been had. Bastard angel.

He kissed him again. The mistletoe would be his excuse if he needed one.

(He didn't.)

Chapter Text

Crowley sits in the window seat and watches the snow fall.

He's not a fan of snow. Never has been. Cold, wet stuff that leads to mud and mess. He's been known to raise his personal body temperature enough that snow and ice melt underfoot as he walks, but there's nothing to be done about the mud.

It's pretty, yeah, falling in its slow dance. The gentlest type of fall he ever seen, and he has a close personal interest with ways to fall. Only a personal one, now. Not a professional one. Not anymore.

Crowley raises a hand to the glass, taps it lightly, remembering other snowfalls. Another type of snow, another type of falling. Berlin and the kabarett, the badly insulated rooms, the drafts. The desperation and hedonism, everyone covering up the dreary world with whatever wild thrill came to hand. And snow, snow everywhere, cocaine suddenly mass-produced and cheap as chips, part of the fuel that would later go on to drive the German war machine into terrifying efficiency. Tank chocolate made with meth, cocaine chewing gum given to soldiers as rations...

Crowley's committed nearly every sin there is, it goes with the territory of being a demon; a number of them he commits just by existing. He'd dealt in or at least encouraged the drugs trade at varying points in the past. Hard not to, there's been so much of it. For almost as long as humans have existed they've used and abused plants and mushrooms and even fucking poisonous toads looking for a high. Climbing higher and higher, but ultimately falling lower and lower and ending up worse than they began. He's never liked it much. Sin is supposed to be a choice, to Crowley's mind. But what choice is there when you start in hell to begin with? Not the Hell he knows, fire and brimstone and demotivational posters, but colder hells, made of poverty and not having a coat or a roof over your head, and paying any price asked for any illusion of being somewhere else, if just for a while...

(and he'd been in hell too, his own personal one, cold and solitary and with no one Above or Below or on Earth who gave any sort of damn about him, with the lie of I don't need you an insuperable barrier between himself and warmth, shelter, and anything like peace or at least respite...)

"Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered."

Crowley turns his head, smiling despite himself. "That is quite possibly the least appropriate quote you could address to me."

Aziraphale walks forward, smiling gently, and stands next to him at the window. Crowley wraps an arm around his waist and buries his face against soft warmth; Aziraphale strokes his hair. "Is it? I could see you as a spirit of nature, darting around wild green places..."

"I'd get bored within an hour." The words are unclear with his mouth muffled by waistcoat, but Aziraphale is fluent in Crowley-speech and will understand. "And I'm the sinner, angel, not you. Also I'm not bloody Ophelia and I certainly wasn't praying."

"Mm." Aziraphale's fingers drift through his hair, idly separating the strands, pressing lightly on his scalp. Tension Crowley hadn't noticed he was carrying gradually begins to seep away. "Then what were you doing?"

Crowley is quiet for a moment, then shrugs. "Watching the snow. Remembering things." His arm tightens around the angel's waist. "Missing you."

Aziraphale bends down and kisses his head; Crowley lifts his face and receives a kiss on the mouth as well. "I'm here."

"I know, angel." Crowley closes his eyes again, takes another kiss. This is the greatest, the only high he's ever sought, and sometimes it's still hard to believe it will last. That there won't be a fall to follow, that the rush won't wear off and leave him shivering in the snow with no source of heat. "I know."

Chapter Text

"You have an army of rats?"

Crowley looked up from where he was kneeling holding out a bit of apple to a large rat, who gnawed daintily at it. "Yeah?" he said, with a smug, saucy air of doesn't everybody?

Aziraphale restrained himself. Visibly. "Why do you have an army of rats?"

"Because they're bloody useful!" Crowley cackled and ran one long finger down the back of the rat's spine, stroking the white and brown fur; the rat stood on its hind legs and chittered for a moment, then dropped, grabbed what was left of the apple piece, and ran off. Crowley watched him dart back into the alleyway by the bookshop. "Always liked rats. Intelligent little buggers, always willing to bargain and they can get in anywhere. Took a while to get on their good side--they're not at all fond of snakes, as you might imagine--but I won them over eventually."

"That doesn't surprise me," Aziraphale said, torn between annoyance and amusement. "But I must ask you to inform them that while I of course love all of God's creatures, if I find any of them nibbling on any of my books or bits of leftover cake being saved for later, there will be most severe consequences."

Crowley stood up and kissed Aziraphale's cheek, wrapping an arm around his waist at the same time. "Don't worry, angel. I'll tempt them away from your personal stash."

Aziraphale still looked wary, but let himself be soothed into acquiescence, mostly because Crowley was looking so fond. If Crowley ever realized just how much he could get away with while wearing that expression Aziraphale would really have a problem on his hands. "Very well then, dearest." He leaned in to plant a return kiss on Crowley's cheek; the demon hummed happily in response and they started walking back down the road. "Has it never caused problems, though? Humans haven't ever caught you out feeding them or chatting with them?"

"Oh sure, once or twice, but nothing that can't be dealt with." Crowley suddenly sniggered. "Reminds me...have I ever told you about when I was in Russia? Back in the 1850s?" Aziraphale shook his head, and Crowley chuckled again. "Was posted there for a while to encourage the rise of anarchism, among other things. Got a job as a governess for a few years to keep my cover, working for this old, distinguished military family; the father was running an ironworks factory in the area that was going to be used for weapons production later on." He smirked, running his free hand (the other still firmly wrapped around Aziraphale) idly back through his hair, now shoulder-length again. "Handy being a governess, everyone overlooks them. Taught languages to the kids, told them stories, all that stuff."

He looked sideways at Aziraphale, his eyes twinkling. "I'd only been hired to teach the older children. But the youngest, this precocious four-year-old, was so determined to learn with them that I went ahead and taught him too. Clever lad. He caught me talking to the rats once. I ended up spinning him this fantastic tale about being friends with the Rat King, who was fighting a war with all the household toys, which came to life when everyone was asleep. Stretched that tale out for weeks and made all the younger children bloody paranoid by moving some of their toys around while they were sleeping and leaving them in certain positions." His grin turned faintly wicked. "Funny thing about that youngest one, though. Would you believe he turned out musical?"

Aziraphale stopped dead in his tracks. So did Crowley. "Crowley," Aziraphale said, after several moments of standing there with his mouth gaping wide. "Are you telling me you were governess to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky?"

Crowley pushed his glasses further up his face, smirking widely. "He was quite attached to me. I was really rather flattered when I woke up from my nap at the end of the century and found how many of my old bedtime stories he'd woven into his ballets."

"You inspired The Nutcracker," Aziraphale said, a little faintly.

"And Von Rothbart," Crowley added with an air of satisfaction. "One of the best villains in history, him. Proper wicked and redheaded to boot. Almost worth spending time watching a bloody ballet, for Rothbart and his daughter. Carabosse isn't bad either." He frowned and waved a hand. "Well, obviously she is bad, that's the whole point. I mean as villains go. Very useful for teaching kids about the importance of good manners, Carabosse. There's nothing like being able to tell people to go to Hell so politely that they're packing their bags before you finish the sentence." Crowley lowered his sunglasses and looked over them at Aziraphale, smirking. "You didn't think my stint at the Dowlings' was my first time playing nanny, did you, angel? Best way to influence people is to get at them while they're young."

Aziraphale absorbed all this for a moment in silence, then asked, "The 1812 Overture?"

Surprisingly, Crowley flushed. "I told him there would be consequences if he did it a third time," he muttered.

"What??"

"What can I say, angel?" Crowley shrugged. "As I explained to him after the fact: a good explosion is always memorable. And I really wanted to make sure he remembered not to pull my hair again."

Chapter Text

Crowley had his tongue stuck between his teeth, which made for quite the picture as it was currently forked, a sure sign of intense concentration. Carefully, carefully he approached his goal--and missed. He swore under his breath. "'Easier for a camel' my arse," he grumbled.

"Now dearest, you know perfectly well that the quote is 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.' It says nothing whatsoever about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a piece of thread."

Aziraphale had his prissy, smug voice on; Crowley snarled at him a little for the form of it, then tried again to thread his needle. After two more attempts he managed it. "Fucking finally!"

"This was your idea, you know." Aziraphale looked up from the table, where he sat neatly folding white paper, every movement precise and elegant, with a gratuitous flourish at the end. "If it upsets you so much--"

"Oh, shut it." Crowley threaded the red twine through properly, making sure there was a good long lead so he wouldn't have to do it again. "Just because it was my idea doesn't mean I'm not allowed to snap about parts of it. Especially not when they're annoying. Anyway, you know I don't mean it. Much."

"Mm, it's true your bark is rather worse than your bite, dearest." Aziraphale smiled at him, his eyes glinting knowingly. "Not least as your biting is really quite pleasant."

Crowley abruptly went pink and looked away, unable to find words and settling for vague mumbling sounds of protest. Aziraphale smiled seraphically--no, not seraphically, those guys were utter wankers--anyway, it was a lovely smile, filled with affection, and Crowley couldn't help but smile a little too at the sight of it. Just to himself. The fact that Aziraphale saw it and beamed all the more was pure coincidence.

Satan, but he loved the angel. To truly embarrassing extents.

He looked around the cottage--their cottage, theirs, they'd been living here for three months and Crowley still didn't entirely believe it. He was beginning to get used to the fact that Aziraphale loved him and was now willing to say it and act on it. He was almost used to being able to say it and do things about it himself, though in both cases the habits of centuries had taken a little effort to overcome, even with the best of intentions. Miscommunications on both sides. But they'd gotten the hang of it, learned how to balance and communicate in the new relationship they were building, and things had been...good. Better than good. They'd been fucking fantastic.[1]

And now they had a cottage, and 'good' no longer applied. Things were blissful. It was one thing to swear love, to make love, to go out for dinner and stay in bed and do all those sorts of things, and do them together and openly. But making a home together somewhere new, somewhere entirely and only theirs, with a long stretch of future in front of them that also was theirs instead of his-with-Aziraphale...

It felt different. It mattered more than he could put into words. He tried, and it was maddening that he couldn't do it, surely the damned Serpent of Eden and official originator of temptation should be good with words. But no words were enough.

So Crowley tried actions instead, they'd always been easier with Aziraphale anyway. Chocolates when the bookshop opened, a rare book he'd just happened to come across and dropped off on the angel's desk, I've got no use for it, you might as well have the thing and never mind how much effort it'd taken him actually get the book to begin with, tickets to concerts. And now that they lived together...cups of tea, backrubs, cut flowers from the back yard, a fresh loaf of sourdough from the local baker. Small things. Homey things. Crowley could tell himself they were indulgences and therefore sinful and so it was all fine, and if he went gooey inside every time Aziraphale lit up with delight and kissed him in thanks, no one needed to know about it.

But it all meant that Christmas, the first Christmas in their own place...that needed to be special, to Crowley's mind. The thing was, 'special' was more difficult when you were two celestial beings who'd been everywhere and done everything. There'd been scores of Christmases, and other winter festivals long before the holiday as it was known now, and they'd even taken part in a lot of them. But always a little on the outside, and only rarely with each other. Not like this. Nothing like this. Nothing that was theirs.

Which was why Aziraphale was sitting at the table cutting intricate paper snowflakes, and Crowley was sitting on a throw pillow on the hearthrug with two large bowls filled with popcorn and cranberries, stringing them onto a red thread the same colour as the berries and swearing every time a kernel of popcorn snapped in half while he tried to pierce it with the needle.

"Why this garland, dearest?"

"Huh?" Crowley, concentrating, didn't hear.

Aziraphale placed his scissors on the table and stood, walked over and sat next to Crowley, lifting the bit of garland that was already finished. Crowley hadn't made the first long enough, had misjudged the thread, and was determined to have enough to wrap around the whole tree. Aziraphale fingered it, the popcorn light and papery against his skin, the cranberries red as sin. "Why this type of garland? You summoned these cranberries from North America, don't tell me you didn't, they're too large and bright to be from anywhere else." European cranberries were smaller, pinker, more acidic. Aziraphale reached out and took one of the berries from the bowl, popped it into his mouth.

"Oy!" Crowley glowered at him, eyebrow raised high above his unshaded eyes. They were never covered here, not in the place they both called home. "I need those. No swiping them."

Aziraphale kissed his cheek, clearly unrepentant. "I do apologize, my dear. They were too delicious to resist. Like their owner."

Crowley flushed dark as a berry, grumbling, then reached to the side for a smaller bowl and handed it to him. "Here," he said gruffly. "All the popcorn I keep snapping. Too small to string up, so you can have 'em."

"Thank you." Aziraphale glanced at the broken popcorn bits as though he were considering walking off with them in search of some seasoning--salt or butter, or perhaps paprika. Parmesan and garlic and red pepper flakes, or dark chocolate and cinnamon...but instead he rested his head against Crowley's shoulder and ate them plain, hummed happily under his breath, showing every sign of being contented.. Crowley's heart constricted, and he rested his head back against Aziraphale's, his hands stilling in their work.

They sat in silence for a moment, the fire crackling behind them, before Aziraphale repeated his question. "Why this sort of garland, dearest? You don't usually tend towards the American traditions."

Crowley shrugged, lifted his hands and continued. "I like it. Better than childish paper chains, that's for certain. Tinsel's not bad, nicely trashy, but we can't make it ourselves. Knew I could make this one." And indeed despite the initial fuss of threading the needle to begin with, and for all his swearing every time a piece of popcorn proved not up to the task, he was making a quick, neat job of the business. The popcorn was fiddley but the cranberries slid on easily, the waxy covering of the berry not objecting to the prick of the needle. He continued his pattern, one two one three one two one three one, meditative in its repetition. After a while, he added, "Reminds me of us, a little."

Aziraphale frowned; Crowley couldn't see it, but he could feel it. "Of us?"

"The contrasts of it."

He saw Aziraphale twist the completed garland in his fingers, musing on this and finally nodding. White and red, Heaven and Hell, the papery texture of one versus the smoothness of the other. "I suppose I can see that," Aziraphale said thoughtfully. "They are rather opposite things, aren't they."

"But together now," Crowley said, then clamped his mouth shut as though he'd said too much.

Aziraphale's smile softened, and he shifted so he was on his knees. Crowley, inwardly refusing to admit he was blushing again, watched him with a raised eyebrow.

The angel took his bit of completed garland and wrapped it around Crowley's neck. "'Give me simplicity, that I may live,'" he quoted softly. Crowley's breath caught, and he set aside the incomplete garland he was working on. Aziraphale wound the one in his hands around again. "'So live and like, that I may know thy ways, know them and practice them.'" With a quirk in his smile he twined the garland up and around, circling it on top of Crowley's head. Crowley chuckled and put his hands on Aziraphale's waist, pulling him in closer. Aziraphale bent and kissed the demon's forehead. "Then shall I give, for this poor wreath, give thee a crown of praise.' And so I shall, my own dearest heart."

"Pretty sure that's blasphemy, angel." The words were muffled against Aziraphale's chest at first, but Crowley looked up and grinned partway through. "You know that poem's meant for God, not a more earthly lover. Much less a more demonic one."

"Are you not the god of my idolatry?" Aziraphale countered, dropping a kiss on his lips. "You've done a thorough job of tempting me, serpent. Besides, it fits." Another kiss, his hands settled gently on Crowley's shoulders, to either side of the popcorn and cranberry strands. "Are we not celebrating simplicity here and now, this season? Learning to live with one another, without any miracles save the ones we make together?"

"Yeah, I 'spose." Crowley nuzzled his nose against Aziraphale's, though he made a mental note to find a less ridiculous word than 'nuzzle'. There was no way to make 'nuzzle' sound anything but horribly saccharine. He took a breath. "So...you're liking all this, then?"

"I can imagine nothing better." Aziraphale kissed him again, then rested their foreheads together. "My sweet snake."

Crowley beamed. "Ahh, shaddup, angel."

They leaned close together in the firelight, connected by more profound ties than thread. Close enough that the strands of their hair intermingled: white as popcorn, red as cranberries.

Chapter Text

"My dear, I really do feel obliged to thwart you."

"Nope. We had a deal, angel. You can't go back on your part of it now."

"If I'd known what you were planning I wouldn't have agreed!"

"Of course you wouldn't have. That's why I didn't tell you."

"You're being very childish, you know."

"Hey, we didn't have to come here. You the one who fancied a Julbord feast. Complete with gravlax with mustard, köttbullar, Janssons fretstelse--"

"'Jansson's Temptation'--I've always meant to ask, did you tempt him with it? And to what end?"

"Let's just say I'd had a long acquaintance with the fine art of tempting people with good food after years spent in your company, angel. And you're trying to change the subject. The point is, you're committed now, and weaseling out on a promise isn't very angelic."

"Neither is setting a giant straw goat on fire!"

"There is a long and proud tradition of sneaking in and setting the Gävle Goat on fire. It's the whole point of the Gävle Goat."

"It is not. The point is for it to stand there and bring delight to all who see it, and to remind people of the joys of Christmas."

"One of which is setting giant Swedish Yule Goat Statues on fire."

"It is not!"

"It's part of the tradition, angel! In all the decades they've been displaying it, that goat has burned down more years than it's survived! And that's despite a police presence and a fire station only a few hundred metres away."

"It's illegal!"

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand?"

"You're incorrigible."

"Demon! Now shut up, we're nearly the--"

"..."

"..."

"...well. I suppose that's that, then."

"This can't be happening."

"I'm afraid it is, my dear."

"It's already on fire."

"Yes, it does seem to be."

"And that little snot-nosed brat they're leading away in handcuffs is the twerp I helped get away earlier after I caught him nicking sweets in the shop, isn't it."

"Yes indeed. I'm afraid you've been hoist on your own petard, my dear."

"Bless it to Heaven!"

"In fact--"

"Don't say it."

"--one could even say--"

"Don't say it!"

"--that he'd gotten your goat."

"That's it, angel, I'm not speaking to you. I mean it, not for at least a month."

"..."

"Stop smirking like that or I'll throw something at you."

"Come along, my dear. You'll feel better after some glögg and saffron buns."

"...fine."

Chapter Text

Demons love a good party. More accurately, demons love a bad party. Unfortunately this was neither. This was a boring as...as...as something so boring Crowley couldn't even think of it party.

The Annual New Year's Eve Extravaganza at the Dowlings. Eyurrrghhh.

Crowley had escaped it the first few years, aside from a brief appearance holding baby Warlock to be cooed over. That hadn't been so bad. A good opportunity to place a few minor curses and jinxes and temptations that would work their wickedness as the even progressed ever closer to drunken debauchery, as parties did, and then off to read Warlock dreadful bedtime stories until he slept. But this year Warlock, now four, had been deemed old enough to attend for a few hours. Which meant Nanny Ashtoreth was also permitted to attend.

Dull. Dull, dull, dull. There was no challenge to tempting these people, they were already dripping with sin, and not the big ones or interesting ones but the kind of low-level sludge that Crowley found tedious. They all stood around making small talk, all of it with undercurrents of Hello I am very busy and important so aren't you lucky I'll condescend to grant you a few moments? Vice and adultery dripped off them like decorations on Christmas trees. Crowley would've liked to show them a party Down Below. The same sorts of thing, but with more style, better music, and above all more teeth. Cutting wit wasn't just an idle turn of phrase in Hell.

This was adolescent in comparison, and the food wasn't even good. Harriet had hired some haute cuisine caterer who specialized in making food look as fancy as possible while containing almost worth eating. Impressive work there--in fact, Crowley had surreptitiously noted his information and intended to pass it on to the demon in charge of Hell's catering division for future use--but she didn't want to suffer through it herself. Suffering like that was for other people.

Aziraphale, as a lowly gardener, was no doubt off in his cottage or even the bookshop, drinking something worth having and eating a pie. Lucky bastard angel. Crowley fervently wished she'd thought to convince the angel into pretending to be Someone Worth Knowing and party crashing to keep her company.

There was a ringing of bells, and she smiled. That would be Warlock.

Sure enough, zipping his way between trouser legs and pushing past flowing skirts came the Son of Satan, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Destroyer of Nations, Lawless One, Great Enemy, and Crowley's charge of the past few years. He pushed people aside with ruthless efficiency, she was pleased to note, but had more mixed feelings about the smeared ice cream on his face and tuxedo. (and what infernal being had invented tuxedos for four-year-olds? Not Crowley, she was pretty certain). He ran to her and she swooped him up and lifted him. There was a noisy clanging sound right next to her ears.

Crowley lifted a hand and very firmly lowered Warlock's fist, which was wrapped tight around a musical toy (for a value of Musical that equaled Extremely Irritating), a plastic stick with multiple sleigh bells attached. "Now poppet, what did I tell you?" she said reproachfully.

Warlock beamed. "To go cause chaos and wreak great havoc among the throngs, Nanny!"

"And what else?"

"Not to do it near you!"

"That's my poppet." She kissed his forehead, avoiding the ice cream, and pulled a handkerchief (which hadn't been there a moment ago) from her pocket to wipe his face. "Now, did you need something?"

"No!" He gave her a sloppy kiss on the cheek. "I just wanted a hug. So I came and took it!"

"Well done, my demanding Dark Lord." Crowley kissed the boy's cheek again and put him back down, swatting his back lightly. "Always take what you want."

"Can we stay longer?"

Warlock had opened his eyes wide. It reminded Crowley disturbingly of Aziraphale when the angel wanted something but didn't want to ask for it. She shook off the thought. "A little while longer. Make the most of it, poppet."

He ran off, leaving clanging bell sounds in his wake. Crowley chuckled to herself.

"I do so love a woman who's able to handle herself with children."

It was a low, greasy voice. Not a Hellish grease, black pitch from the pit; this was grease that spoke of expensive hair gel and entitlement. Crowley rolled her eyes briefly before turning around and plastering on a fake smile that had just a little too much teeth to it. "Thank you for the compliment, Mister...?"

"Cavanagh." Pronounced more like Cavanauughh, with the last syllable more gargled than spoken. American. Very, very American, from the cut of his suit to the Hollywood smile to the slicked back hairstyle. "Though it's Major Cavanagh, not Mister. But you, beautiful, can call me Brett."

He looked her up and down slowly and suggestively from head to toe as he said it, and the word Brett was spoken as he finished with a lingering gaze at Crowley's mouth and a snap of the tt at the end of the name. Crowley groaned inwardly. Right, one of these bastards. Still, she could make the most of it. "Oh, a Major, are you really? How thrilling!" she simpered. Simpering was difficult when your clothes were as black and spiky as Crowley/Nanny Ashtoreth's, but she managed it. Major-Not-Mister Brett Cavanagh would expect simpering. Crowley slinked a little closer. "I don't suppose you know where a lady might find something decent to drink at this party, would you Major?" If she was going to have to put up with slimy sexual suggestiveness she at least wanted a good whisky out of it.

"I sure do." His smile could not inaccurately be called a leer. He immediately placed a hand on the small of her back and began steering her towards a nearby sofa on the edge of the room. "Let's just make ourselves comfy over here first, and I'll get you something worth having."

Ugh, he just dripped slime, she knew literal slime demons who were less disgusting. Even so, Crowley was too surprised to stop him pushing her along. She'd experienced millennia of self-entitled males making similar attempts and the astonishing thing was how alike they all were, how certain they all were that they were God's Gift to Females Everywhere, taking it for granted that anyone they blessed with their attention should fall on their knees in thanks. And for other reasons.

Crowley missed the old days, when she could get away with pulling out part of her true form and pretending to bite their heads off. Or other things. Watching the idiots turn green and faint was always satisfying. But she was working right now, and it wouldn't be hard to get rid of him later. Once he'd stolen her some better alcohol than the cocktails that were circulating.

Fifteen minutes later Crowley was seriously re-evaluating the situation.

"--so I told him, 'That's what you get! And see you don't come back!' Major-Not-Mister had been tooting his own horn the whole time, making himself look Commanding and Admirable so she would coo over him (she didn't). Crowley was reconsidering various ideas involving wearing scales, or at least cursing one of the wait staff to projectile vomit all over Major-Not-Mister.

Who chose that moment to put a hand on her thigh. Very indecorously high up.

Crowley's eyes narrowed. Right, this had definitely gone far enough. She was going to--

CLANG!!!!!!!

"Fuck!" Major Cavanagh's shout of pain echoed through the room, piercing even above the sounds of Peggy Lee singing about rocking around Christmas trees. Behind him stood Warlock, his eyes narrowed, holding his sleigh bells in one hand. He eyed the Major with deep suspicion, then hit him on the head again with the bells, almost as hard as the first time.

The Major loosed a stream of insulting invective. It was true what they said about soldiers and colourful language, apparently.

Crowley calmly stood up and walked around to Warlock, picking him up. Warlock looked mulish. His mother, pale-faced and appalled and deeply offended all at once, had run over; Crowley cut her off. "I think perhaps it's past the young master's bedtime, dearie. I'll just see to that, shall I?" And with quick precise steps, pointed shoulder pads waving farewell, she walked away.

Once they were in the hallway Crowley raised an eyebrow at Warlock. "Why did you hit that nasty man on the head?"

"I didn't like him." Warlock looked very stubborn, and just a little afraid. The bells in his hand jingled a little. "You didn't like him either."

Crowley gave him a huge kiss on the cheek. "You're right, poppet, I didn't. That was very well done, an excellent use of inappropriate violence with a creative and ironic choice of weaponry. I know a little devil who's getting an extra bedtime story tonight and perhaps a piece of shortbread as well."

Warlock's face lit up--if not with an infernal glow, at least with the enthusiasm of childhood. For tonight, Crowley was satisfied with that.

Chapter Text

Christmas, 1914

Aziraphale has almost forgotten what silence sounds like.

When there isn't bombing and gunfire there's screaming, harsh breathing, swearing, and even when there's none of those things there's the sound of the tension of everyone waiting for more bombing and more gunfire. It's been endless, ever since he was sent to the front lines. He'd been given orders from Above to issue a few particular blessings, assist with a few particular manoeuvres, and then he simply hadn't left. Not yet.

But there's a truce, for Christmastime. It may not be official one, but it's real and expanding, the infantry on both sides making small deals: this amount of time for collecting bodies, or swapping prisoners, or just as a pause in the hostilities. It extends to cigarette breaks, and men wandering onto No Man's Land between sorties. And then as Christmas draws closer the Germans place candles on their trenches, put up trees and decorate them as they can. The Allies do the same. On Christmas Eve Day they hear Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht sung across the field, and then echo it back, Silent night, holy night...

The men of both sides venture onto the field, exchange small gifts with their enemies: tobacco, small bits of food, buttons, alcohol. A few of them start up a football match. It will all go down in history, a moment of peace and harmony in the midst of the senseless horror of war. Aziraphale should feel proud, or perhaps awed. Moved in some way, at least. He watches men who were making reluctant war only yesterday find common ground, share jokes and faith. It's a beautiful moment.

It makes him ache.

We have a lot in common, you and me.

The angel walks along the edge of No Man's Land as dusk falls, watching soldiers building bonfires and sitting around them clinking bottles and drinking together. Even in his own mind he refuses to admit that he's looking for anything in particular. Until he catches sight of a figure, shadowed by twilight. Something painful thumps in Aziraphale's chest, and he dashes forward to have a closer look--it's the right height, the right lanky build, it could be, surely it must be--

But no. Just another soldier, who lights a cigarette and wanders towards a bonfire in search of comradeship.

Aziraphale stops in his tracks, then keeps walking, but more slowly, thoughts crowding his head.

He hasn't wanted to think about it, but it's part of why he's stayed. If he was given a job on a battlefield, surely Crowley was too. Surely the demon is out here somewhere. Aziraphale is standing on No Man's Land, and they're not men. If they would meet anywhere by chance it'd be here, where the best and worst of humanity is showing itself. It's the sort of place they inevitably run into each other.

At least, they used to.

Nobody ever has to know.

Aziraphale looks up at the stars, so beautiful and so distant. It's easier than looking around the battlefield and admitting to himself that this time Crowley isn't going to come striding out of nowhere, nonchalant as a cat, as he has on so very many other occasions...the Bastille, Wessex, the banks of the Nile, Rome, Bucharest, Mesopotamia...how many times have they found each other? How can it be possible that they aren't finding each other again?

It can't be possible. Unless something's happened, or the reason is that Crowley doesn't want to find him or be found.

If my people hear I rescued an angel I'll be the one in trouble, and my lot do not send rude notes.

Aziraphale has almost forgotten what silence sounds like, but on this occasion silence isn't a comfort. It feels like a wound.

You're lucky I was in the area.

"Where are you?"

He looks around to see who's spoken those whispered, pained words, before realizing it was himself.

Aziraphale closes his eyes, unable to bear the light of the stars above him. The sound of singing rises from the campfires, the voices and languages joining in unison: Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh, Sleep in Heavenly peace...

The angel listens to it silently for a time, then walks in lonely solitude back to the Allied lines.

Chapter Text

Crowley on the whole enjoyed Christmas. The season was rife with dissent and potential for sin: envy and jealousy by the bucketload, adultery, wrath, the whole set. The fact that it also came with gingerbread and an abundance of mulled wine was a bonus.

He and Aziraphale did have differing opinions about proper music for the season, however. Aziraphale of course preferred the classics: he never missed the King's College Choir performance on Christmas Eve, and would indulge in the Oratorio by Bach, and Handel's Messiah, and so on. Once or twice he had even dragged Crowley to a performance of the Nutcracker, complete with kids dressed up as sickeningly cute angels. Crowley got his revenge by playing Mannheim Steamroller, inspiring 'Santa Baby' and the hideous Paul McCartney thing that was everywhere, and creating Whamageddon.

He was particularly proud of Whamageddon.

It was Aziraphale's turn, and the choice of the moment was Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols." They were both content with that one. Aziraphale sat on the sofa reading, with Crowley resting his head on the angel's lap and interrupting whenever he thought of something he thought was funny, which was often.

"Wish I'd met Mary. Is it true she threw her shoe at Gabriel when he showed up?" "It certainly is, and serve him right for appearing out of nowhere the way he did. I quite liked her." "Spirited. I'd rather hear about that than all this purity stuff." "Mm."

"Why all these comparisons to April dew? Dew isn't still, it slides down the grass and evaporates and all sorts of things. Rocks are still. 'He came al so stille there his moder was, as rocks in Aprille that lieth on the grass--'" "It hardly has the same ring to it, dearest." "That's discrimination against rocks, that is."

'This Little Babe' always left Crowley laughing, waving his hands at the mental image of a small baby attacking the gates of Hell by crying on it. "Wish it'd happened that way. Would've been beautiful, no one would've known what to make of it. Though I can't say we were all quaking at his presence even when he was grown. Demons don't quake." "Of course not, my dear."

But 'Adam Lay Y'Bounden' would leave him silent. Every time.

Adam lay y-bounden, bounden in a bond;
Foure thousand winter, thought he not too long...

Aziraphale set aside his book and listened.

And all was for an appil, an appil that he tok,
As clerkès finden written in their book...

Crowley reached for one of Aziraphale's now free hands and plonked it on his head, his request--demand, really--obvious. Aziraphale's mouth quirked with a smile; Crowley sighed and closed his eyes as Aziraphale stroked his hair gently, brushing through the apple-red strands with his fingers.

Ne had the appil takè ben, the appil takè ben,
Ne haddè never our lady a ben hevenè quene!

Crowley snorted quietly. Aziraphale let his hand drift from the demon's hair to his face, caressing the lines and angles there.

Blessèd be the time that appil takè was!
Therefore we moun singen,
Deo gracias! Deo gracias! Deo gracias!

The Ceremony of Carols finished with the brief Recessional, and the record came to an end. They sat there in silence for a while longer. Finally Aziraphale sighed. "Is it like the Ninth, my dear?"

"Nah." Crowley stirred a little, tilted his head into Aziraphale's hands. "...maybe a little."

Aziraphale smiled. "Only a little?"

"Yeah." Crowley opened his eyes. "The Ninth celebrates humanity. This one's just more Christianity."

"But?" Aziraphale prompted.

Crowley looked uncomfortable and glanced away. "All right, so felix culpa still seems...strange. Four millennia of being the Architect of Original Sin and then suddenly this idea of 'Oh wait, taking the apple was a good thing after all because now we have a Glorious Redeemer, hooray, thanks Adam!' S'weird." He frowned. "Also it doesn't give any bloody credit to Eve, who's the one who really deserved it. She still gets all the blame and none of the praise."

"Is it Eve's being blamed or Adam's being praised that you're envious of, dear serpent?" Aziraphale asked mildly. Crowley chuckled, grinning suddenly.

"Both." He reached up and cradled Aziraphale's face in his long fingers. "What do you think, angel? Was it a good or a bad thing that Eve took the apple in the end?"

"Oh, unquestionably a good thing, my dearest. If she hadn't, would we be here?" Aziraphale bent down and kissed him with the ease of familiarity. It was a bit uncomfortable on his back given their relative positioning, but as always it was more than worth the effort. "And do you know, I've come to think you were right about that other thing, way back then."

"'Course I was." Crowley looked smug and linked their hands together. "Which one, exactly?"

Aziraphale brought their joined hands to his mouth and kissed their fingers. "That you had done the good thing and I had done the bad one."

"Giving the sword to the humans, yeah...definitely turned out to be a two-edged blade, that one."

"One that was on fire, no less." Aziraphale grimaced a little. But there really had been nothing else he could do, given the circumstances at the time.

"Mm." Crowley sat up, then swiveled around so he was sitting next to the angel, shoulder to shoulder and leg to leg. Aziraphale automatically wrapped an arm around him. "I still think it's funny. The demon accidentally doing the good thing and the angel accidentally doing the bad one."

Aziraphale coughed, going a bit pink. "Yes, well...you must admit, my dear, that we've rather continued the trend over the millennia. Now and then."

Crowley raised an eyebrow. "You better not be calling me any four-letter words, angel."

Aziraphale smirked suddenly and kissed him. "I wouldn't dream of it...love."

Crowley blushed furiously, then coughed and rolled his eyes to try and cover it up. "...all right, fine, except that one," he muttered, burying his face in Aziraphale's shoulder. "You can call me that one."

Aziraphale kissed him again. "Good, because I fully intend to keep doing so." And inwardly his heart sang, Deo gracias! Deo gracias! Deo gracias!

Chapter Text

It's a dark night, stormy, with a howling wind. Aziraphale shivers a little and makes a motion to summon a small miracle, one that will raise the temperature of his bookshop by a few degrees. It's no colder than it's been for the past weeks, in truth, but the weather outside makes it seems as though it is.

He has only been back in London for a few months, and while the city is busy rebuilding itself, recovering from the aftermath of the air raids and the Silvertown explosion, he has hidden here as though he too is recovering from something. He cannot say what, only that it has been a hard war. Small wonder it is already called the Great, for so it was, not in any superlative sense but in scope.

Aziraphale has new ideas about what Hell looks like. He does not think other angels would understand them.

He shivers despite the warmer air and picks up a tartan blanket, pulls it over his lap. He sips his cocoa, welcomes the warmth and sweetness of it, and picks up his book again. It is an appropriate choice for a tumultuous evening: Jane Eyre, a fond favorite since its publication some decades ago. Aziraphale has always admired Jane, passionate and questioning and loving. He finds her story comforting. The trials she faces are very great for someone of her situation, but strength of character and faith see her through them all, even when she is at her nadir. A hopeful message for a bleak season, a bleak night.

Though it is a bleak chapter he is currently reading.

It was not without a certain wild pleasure I ran before the wind, delivering my trouble of mind to the measureless air-torrent thundering through space. Descending the laurel walk, I faced the wreck of the chestnut-tree; it stood up black and riven: the trunk, split down the centre, gasped ghastly. The cloven halves were not broken from each other, for the firm base and strong roots kept them unsundered below; though community of vitality was destroyed--the sap could flow no more: their great boughs on each side were dead, and next winter's tempests would be sure to fell one or both to earth: as yet, however, they might be said to form one tree--a ruin, but an entire ruin.

Aziraphale frowns to himself, shifts uncomfortably in his seat. He had forgotten this passage, the symbolism of the chestnut tree, struck by lightning on the same night Rochester and Jane claimed one another for the first time.

"You did right to hold fast to each other," I said: as if the monster-splinters were living things, and could hear me. "I think, scathed as you look, and charred and scorched, there must be a little sense of life in you yet, rising out of that adhesion at the faithful, honest roots: you will never have green leaves more--never more see birds making nests and singing idylls in your boughs; the time of pleasure and love is over with you: but you are not desolate: each of you has a comrade to sympathise with him in his decay."

Aziraphale closes the book and puts it down, picking up his cocoa once more and staring at his bookshelves without seeing them.

It is a strange thing, faith. Jane keeps hers, despite growing up with little love in a household that barely tolerated her, attending a desolate school with miserable prospects, living a lonely, solitary life. At first her faith is less her own than a reflection of Helen Burns' more bright and blind devotion and trust in God. Jane is the willful one who questions, who searches for happiness now, not merely hereafter. She comes to true faith in the end, but it's a struggle.

It is strange how easy it is to identify with Jane, to wonder about these things. He is an angel. He does not merely believe God exists, he knows. She's spoken to him, though admittedly not for a long time. He knows She has created all things and continues to guide them because he was there when it began, when those paths were first laid. He works for Heaven. What should he question?

But God is remote and high and untouchable, and the earth can be...very lonely, sometimes.

A later line from the book slips into his mind unbidden: I can but die, and I believe in God. Let me try to await His will in silence. But there is so much silence, and suddenly Aziraphale can't stand it. He puts down his mug with a muttered oath and stands, paces around the bookshop.

It's absurd how unendurable this all is. For what reason? He's lived through countless wars, many of them as bloody and pointless as this most recent one. Why is he so troubled? Why can't he rest?

You did right to hold fast to each other.

(He didn't have a choice. He didn't. He still believes that. Doesn't he? He couldn't possibly have gone along with such a request, the risk was so great, the danger too much. It was wrong of Crowley to ask. It would have been wrong to agree. It would have been a lightning strike, a ruin, a wreck. At least this way they do not harm each other, there is no longer any risk that Crowley will be in danger because of Aziraphale. This is better, for both of them.

But he feels as though he is decaying, silence eating him from within and leaving something hollow in its wake)

Their great boughs on each side were dead, and next winter's tempests would be sure to fell one or both to earth: as yet, however, they might be said to form one tree--a ruin, but an entire ruin.

Aziraphale grimly reshelves Jane Eyre unfinished and resolves to find something else to do, some translation work that will require all his thought and attention, and aid him in pushing images of split chestnut trees firmly from his head.

Chapter Text

There's moonlight. It's a low, almost full moon. It will change colour as it rises, but down low it's golden. That happens near the horizon, where there's more atmosphere, more dust or smoke for the beams to travel through before they're seen.

(Crowley's eyes are gold, gold, the lids lowered now but not closed, a crescent of molten colour still revealed as he arches his back and gasps to the air. Perhaps his eyes were always gold, glowing like the suns he helped form in a time long ago when he had another name; perhaps they only became gold when he went to lower places, when he became obscured by a lens of smoke and ash.)

Do you see what I see?

(They are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.)

There's moonlight, and it floats through the glass pane of the window, covers the bed like a weightless blanket. It steals colour, steals the intensity of sight, softens things. Everything is softened by moonlight, greyed out, made quiet. It's not only sound that can be hushed.

(The white of Aziraphale's hair is turned silver, glimmering as though stars are caught and gently held in the curling strands. His eyes too are silvered, the blue sky of them yielding to something less acute and more intimate. To be softened does not mean being diminished or weakened. His voice is as unbreakable as moonlight in its softness, the whispers of encouragement steady as he coaxes, commends, commands. All angels have silver tongues, the better to sing praise.)

Do you hear what I hear?

(Every word he speaks means love, means yes, means worship.)

There are shadows, because wherever light falls it casts a shadow. They have lived in places that were wholly light and wholly dark, lived in them and rejected them in favor of this, this more personal balancing act. Here where stars dance against a black sky, because they realized that without both you could not see either. Here, where they lie in their moonlight blanket, the light and dark of them joined to form a greater whole. Where their skin shines bright as they hold each other, and their shadows form only one shape on the wall opposite the window.

(Here, now, here. Let me trade my gold for your silver, let me look upon all your riches, let me show you how precious you are. Let us dance in the night, let the voice of our joy be as big as the sea. Everyone wishes for silver and gold. How do you measure its worth?)

Do you know what I know?

(Like this, this way, with love. Oh, they know. They know now.)

Chapter Text

When Crowley heard the news he went to the bookshop, bearing a bottle of Japanese whisky.

He hadn't often gone there, not on his own. Once in a while Aziraphale had invited him to come over for a drink after they'd met up somewhere or another by chance or by Arrangement, but the only time he'd shown up without direct invitation was for the opening. But Aziraphale had intimated he was welcome to stop by after that business with the church and the Nazis. Not in so many terms, but it'd been implied. Crowley was pretty sure.

Even if it hadn't been, he was going anyway. He had a pretty good idea of the state of mind Aziraphale would be in.

The sign on the door said "Closed" in firm, neat handwriting, but that was hardly unusual. Crowley snapped his fingers and went in anyway.

The first sign something was wrong was that nothing happened, no protests of "Sorry, but I'm afraid we're not open for business today," or some other overformal refusal. The second sign something was wrong was how dark it was. The third was that there was no sign of Aziraphale.

No sign, but a sense. Crowley walked slowly and carefully through the shop, towards the back.

The angel sat at a table, looking down at a mug in his hands but clearly not seeing it. The only light came from one small window, which shone down on him in a way that was too familiar. Crowley frowned, shook his head to rid himself of the memory of Aziraphale in the Bastille, lit by a sunbeam coming through a barred window. This wasn't a prison, despite the air of desolation.

He walked forward and quietly placed the bottle on the table. "Whatever it is you've got in that mug, you probably need something stronger," he said, by way of greeting.

Aziraphale blinked, frowned, looked up slowly. With visible effort he dredged his attention back to the here and now. He opened his mouth to speak, stopped, swallowed, and glanced back down at the mug. "It's pine-needle tea," he said, his voice low. "I went to Mitaki-dera, once, in the city. During the ninth century. I'd been visiting the Imperial Court to study the Six National Histories, and stopped by the temple because they were praying for rain. It was one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I sat with the monks and looked at the maple trees, and we drank this tea." He frowned at his mug. "It's gone cold, now."

Crowley listened in silence, then waved a hand, lighting a few of the lamps in the room. He pulled up a seat and placed two tumblers on the table, opened the bottle and poured a finger in each. "Here. Got this from the Yoishi distillery, a decade or so back." He pushed the glass towards Aziraphale. "Wrong island, but good whisky. Come on, you need a boost."

Aziraphale stared at the glass for a moment. Then he set his face grimly, picked it up, and knocked it back far, far more quickly than the quality deserved, placing the tumbler back on the table with a loud thud. Crowley refilled it without comment.

They sat in silence for a while, drinking and thinking.

"Do you remember what you said, that one time?" Aziraphale said all at once. "In the Bastille, about the guillotine."

Crowley grimaced. Animals don't kill each other with clever machines, angel. Only human beings do that. "Yeah. Yeah, I remember."

Aziraphale nodded slowly. "I wish they wouldn't." He rubbed a hand over his eyes, his shoulders bent forward. "So many, Crowley. So many, all at once. Gone in an instant. I could feel it, feel them, even from here."

"I know," Crowley said. There'll be more to come, Crowley didn't say. "I felt them, too," he said instead. He grimaced, resisting the urge to make some gallows toast, some bit of black humour that would utterly fail to lighten the mood. There were some things that couldn't be joked about, not even by a demon. At least, not this demon.

Instead he sighed, leaned back in his chair. "Think I was at the monastery you mentioned, once. Earlier than that, though, eighth century sometime. Accidentally scared a monk half out of his wits. Thought I was a yōkai."

Aziraphale looked up, eyebrow raised. "'Accidentally'?"

Crowley smiled a little above the rim of his tumbler. "Mostly accidentally."

Aziraphale smiled a little back. Only a little, but it was a victory. "Technically I believe you are a yōkai."

"Well, yes, but he thought so too."

Aziraphale's smile grew for a moment, then faded. "It's even worse than the last one." He drew in a ragged breath, and his eyes were pained. "I can't believe it's worse."

"I know." Crowley put the tumbler back down, reached his hand out and rested it on the table. Not close enough to touch, not even offering, not really. Just...nearby. "This one will end too, though. Soon now, I think."

There was a moment's hesitation. Then, with the slowness of ages, Aziraphale reached out and rested his hand on the table too. Not touching. But nearby. "I hope so," he breathed. "Oh, I hope so."

Crowley did raise his glass in a silent toast to that, and Aziraphale echoed it, and they both drank.

*

Many decades later, after more wars both happened and astonishingly failed to happen, they traveled to Hiroshima together. During their stay in the city they drank both whisky and pine-needle tea. They revisited the temple in the shade of the cherry and maple trees, listened to the sound of the three waterfalls.

And whenever they sat together at a table and reached out, their hands met and held fast.

Chapter Text

"I miss wassailing," Crowley complained, flinging himself down with abandon upon the bookshop sofa.

Aziraphale, largely immune to these melodramatic displays after many centuries' familiarity with them, only raised an eyebrow over the rim of his reading glasses. "We can go carolling anytime you like, my dear, if that's what you want. Though I admit I wouldn't have thought it was your style."

"Not carolling." Crowley lifted his head up enough to glower, the unspoken how dare you accuse me of wanting to go carolling, who do you think I am, someone nice? almost audible. "Wassailing. Completely different."

Aziraphale closed his book, after prudently placing a bookmark in place. "How, pray tell?"

"Carolling is lots of people who can't sing on-key wandering around being annoying by singing about holiness and joy and all that rot. Wassailing is lots of people who can't sing on-key wandering around being annoying by demanding food and drink, and then getting it." Crowley looked positively dreamy-eyed as he lay his head back down on a cushion. "’S brilliant. Like a musical mugging. Hordes of rowdy young men forcing their way into rich houses and making right nuisances of themselves, and if the householder refuses they get to curse him and vandalize his place. And get away with it!"

He cackled, swinging his legs up and around so he was in a sitting position instead of sprawled, and grinned toothily at Aziraphale. "We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here!"

Aziraphale chuckled despite himself. Crowley's voice might not be angelic, but he liked listening to it anyway, on the few occasions when the demon deigned to sing anything. "I do like a spot of figgy pudding," he murmured, swivelling around in his chair to face Crowley properly. He smiled, hands folded on his stomach as he sat back in his chair. "I should have guessed that it was the mischief that appealed to you rather than the singing."

"Don't forget the alcohol," Crowley said with emphasis. "Wine mixed with pre-made sachets of spices that are so dried out they mostly taste of tree bark? Pah. I want proper mead or cider, with roasted apples, oranges, sugar, cinnamon, and enough ginger to make your mouth burn. No one does things properly these days."

"Isn't that usually my complaint?"

"Well, once in a while you're right about things." Crowley grinned. "Don't let it go to your head."

"Now that most definitely is one of my lines."

"So? I'm a demon, I'm supposed to nick things."

Aziraphale laughed, the sound buoyant in a way it perhaps wouldn't have been before Armageddon’s failure. Crowley's expression softened a little, warmed, in a way that perhaps it wouldn't have done before then either. At the sight of that fond smile Aziraphale's heart thumped in a way that it definitely had done since long before Armageddon, even though he'd been unable to admit to it. "We could always revive the tradition."

"What, go out wassailing?" Crowley hooted. "Tempting, angel, but I doubt most people out there even know what a wassail is. Even the ones who knows the carol get it wrong, singing waffling or waddling or somesuch."

"Why should that stop us?" Aziraphale pointed out. "We have thousands of years of meddling in human history. Reviving a few ancient traditions should be child's play--"

The doorbell rang at that point, and the conversation was abandoned while Crowley fled into the back to escape one of the local choirs (who actually sang "Ding Dong Merrily on High" not only on key but on tempo and with nice, crisp notes on the glorias; Aziraphale blessed every one of them so they would ‘accidentally’ find enough spare pocket change for a hot drink or two later). By the time conversation resumed they'd moved on to happy bickering about other carols, which was much more entertaining now that questions of what constituted good or evil behaviour ("Wenceslas was a self-righteous prick!") were largely amusing rather than job-related or existence-threatening.

Two days later Aziraphale gave Crowley a ring and invited him over for drinks before dinner.

Most of the time these days Crowley entered the bookshop, open or closed, as though he had a right to be there (which as far as Aziraphale was concerned he did, although it hadn't been outright stated as such yet). But this time the doorbell rang at the appointed time, and when Aziraphale opened the door he was startled into a wide, delighted grin.

Crowley was leaning on his elbow against the wall, wearing the black top hat he'd had back in the 19th century. It was festooned with greenery, ivy and holly and even a few pheasant feathers. Crowley looked over the top of his sunglasses, grinning, and sang softly. "Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green... Let us in, angel?"

Aziraphale just stood there for a moment, drinking in the sight of him and beaming. "Here we come a-wandering, so fair to be seen... But of course, my dear. Here, take off your coat. I have a little something for you."

"I'll lose the coat, but I'm keeping the hat." Crowley busied himself with undoing coat and gloves and hanging them up by the door, leaving his sunglasses in his coat pocket. By the time he turned around Aziraphale had left the room and returned. Crowley's eyes widened. "Angel--"

Aziraphale stood holding a large wassail cup in his two hands, something old and carved from beautiful, polished wood that glinted red in the light. The liquid inside was steaming, and redolent with apple and spices. Aziraphale smiled softly. "Love and joy come to you, and to you a wassail too--" He handed the cup to Crowley, who took it without looking, his eyes still fixed on Aziraphale's face. "And may Someone send you a happy new year, Someone send you a happy new year."

There was a brief moment of quiet during which Crowley apparently tried to remember how words worked. "Pretty sure those aren't the original lyrics there," he said eventually, looking down into the wassail bowl. There were slices of apple and orange floating in the liquid, as well cinnamon sticks and thin strips of ginger.

Aziraphale flushed a little. "Well, no, that's true. But I was fairly certain you wouldn't want a blessing. Even in song."

Crowley smiled just the smallest bit, that warm glow back in his eyes when he looked back up. "I could probably stand just one," he drawled with studied nonchalance. "If it's from you. Special occasion and all that."

Aziraphale blushed, then smiled happily. Crowley held out the wassail cup, and Aziraphale covered the demon's hands with his own. "In that case...Wæs þu hæl, my dear."

Crowley chuckled and took a sip from the cup, then held it back towards Aziraphale. "Drinc hæl, angel."

Aziraphale drank deep, feeling Crowley's hands warm under his, both wrapped around the cup, and thought that the new year looked as though it would be very happy indeed.

Chapter Text

"Go on," Crowley said, sitting back on the sofa as though he hadn't a care in the world, one arm stretched along the back and the other holding a tumbler of whisky. "Open it. I know you've been half-dying of curiosity all these days."

Aziraphale sniffed. "Yes, well, you know you only put it under the tree early so that I would...anticipate."

Crowley chuckled wickedly. "So you'd be tempted to open it before the right day, yes, of course I did. What else are mysteriously wrapped gifts under trees for? But you withstood my wiles and resisted and now can open it, so go on then. Tear in."

"Just because you prefer to shred paper off gifts like some sort of rabid wolverine, my dear, it does not follow that others are wont to do so."

Aziraphale picked up the large rectangular object and undid the sellotape, unfolding the wrapping paper so it wouldn't rip. Dark red paper, darker than the standard Christmas hue and shining like satin, with a black velvet bow which Aziraphale carefully set aside. Crowley groaned, and buried his face in his arm for a minute. "For the love of all things unholy, angel, do you have to do this so--"

"Meticulously? Yes. Yes I do." If only as payback, he did. Aziraphale allowed himself a brief smirk at the demon. "And I have no love for things unholy, with one notable exception."

Crowley blushed beet red and subsided, taking a drink in lieu of answering while Aziraphale continued unwrapping his gift. In truth he was curious, extremely so. The shape had made the nature of the gift extremely obvious, but the subject was a complete mystery, and he was longing to see it. It wasn't long before he was able to slide the paper sleeve off and view it properly.

As he'd surmised from the shape, it was a painting, and an unusual one. Not unusual in terms of subject, that was common enough: a cottage, built of yellow stone and windows in the Edwardian style, two stories tall, set in a country garden. But the painting style was...odd. The building was done in clean, firm lines, with a great deal of attention paid to the building materials that had been used. Looking at it Aziraphale could almost feel the rough sandstone under his fingers, the timber of the doorframe worn down by weather over the years. The painting was new, he'd swear, something done recently given the brightness of the colour and the frame, but the subject was old, lived in. Comfortable-looking.

The garden surrounding it was another thing again. Plants, an assortment of greenery and flowers in several dozen vibrant shades. Some were easily identifiable: hollyhock and foxglove, hellebore and holly, a patch of roses. There were some he couldn't recognize, and a few he was fairly certain didn't exist at all, but which had nonetheless been rendered in detail.

A quiet house, resting in a cacophony of colour and life and greenery. Aziraphale looked at it for a long time before speaking.

"It's beautiful, my dear," he said quietly. His eyes flickered up to look at Crowley over the frame. "Your work?"

Crowley was still flushed, and rubbed the back of his neck at the question. "Yeah...yeah, it is."

Aziraphale smiled. "I didn't know you'd picked up painting again. I remember you dabbling in--ah, in reproductions, a few centuries ago--"

Crowley grinned suddenly. "In forgeries, angel, call them what they are. Shameless, blatant forgeries, taking the old masters and reproducing them, or imitating the style of the most popular ones. Encouraged staggering amounts of greed and larceny and covetousness, to say nothing of the confusion caused later when someone or another realized their original Corot wasn't the real deal and blamed all the wrong people for it. Good times. Did you know there's a saying about him now? 'Corot painted two thousand canvases, five thousand of which are in America.' Terrific."

"I remember how surprised I was when I found out you weren't just making your copies the easy way."

"What fun would that be?" Crowley stood up and slinked around to stand next to Aziraphale, looking down at the painting. "I had a team at the time, of course, people I hired. Wasn't just me. But I liked keeping my hand in. Let me make use of some of the tricks Leonardo taught me, back in the day. And then a while ago..." He shrugged, reached out and stroked the edge of the painting. "Found I missed it. Thought about it for a while, trying to figure out what I wanted to paint--thought of asking you to model for me, even--" His eyes flickered quickly towards Aziraphale and back again at once, and he continued before the unspoken question could be answered. "--eventually settled on this. Still not happy with all the plants, but..." He shrugged.

"They're beautiful. It's all beautiful." Aziraphale too reached out and stroked the canvas, running his finger around the rim of the door. "And I appreciate the dichotomy of it. The flowers are almost fantastical in places, but the house...it looks real."

"Yeah, uh..." Crowley flushed again. "That part I, uh, did from life. I mean, it is real. Out in the country, around Sussex. Was driving around one day and ran across it and liked it."

"Oh!" Aziraphale looked over, but Crowley's eyes were shuttered again. "And the owner let you paint it? That was kind."

"Yeah, well..." Crowley flushed again, and stuck a hand in his pocket. From it he pulled out a small, flat object, rectangular, wrapped in the same dark red paper. "About that. The painting wasn't really the present, you see. That's...here."

Mutely, he held the small wrapped object to Aziraphale, who almost dropped the painting in his growing shock. Carefully, he bent over and leaned it against a nearby bookshelf. Then he stood, and with a trembling hand reached for the packet in Crowley's palm. Absently, he noticed Crowley's hand was trembling too. How very odd.

Aziraphale took a breath, and slowly cut the sellotape with his thumbnail, unfolding the wrapping paper on this smaller gift as neatly as he had on the larger one. Inside was a small card folder, which, upon being upturned, proved to contain a key. A house key. Utterly ordinary.

Utterly extraordinary, for what it implied. Aziraphale stared at it.

"So I had this thought, a while ago," Crowley said, his hands and any trembling they might or might not be doing now hidden in his pockets. "We've...well, we've been in London a while, yeah? Long while. And I was thinking that now that we were done, with--" He jerked his head upwards, then down, "--with all of that, that it'd be good to just have a break for a while. A century or two of quiet somewhere. Do more painting. Plant things. Drive to seaside for an afternoon to taunt seagulls. Whatever. And I thought--" He looked across the bookshop, clearly and pointedly not looking at Aziraphale. "Thought...maybe that might be something you'd. Uh. Like to do with me. Maybe. Bring all your books, or most of them--the cottage is bigger than it looks, this Edwardian thing that got other bits built on later, quirky place, there's a room that'd be big enough for a library even by your standards..."

He stopped, looked back down at the ground. "Don't have to, of course. Know you love your shop and, and all that, so if you'd rather just visit we can do that instead. But the key's yours anyway, bought the place in both our names, so it's yours as much as mine whether you want to live there or not, but if you like--"

"I like." The words slipped softly from Aziraphale's mouth without his even having to think about it. His fingers closed around the key.

Crowley faltered, his eyes wide. "You--you do?"

Aziraphale looked up and slowly smiled at the unholy being who he loved more than anything else in all the universe. "I do. Very much. It's exactly what I most wanted." With his free hand he reached up and caressed Crowley's face, brushing a few strands of hair back from his forehead. "More time with you."

Crowley sucked in a long breath and wrapped his hands around Aziraphale's closed fist, leaned in ever so slightly. Aziraphale moved more quickly, capturing his mouth in a gentle kiss.

* * *

They moved in a month later, and when they drove over the hill that led to their new home Aziraphale blinked, seeing a riot of wild colour. As they drew closer, he realized what exactly he was looking at and groaned. "Really, my dear?"

Crowley cackled, and they pulled into the drive in front of a cottage which had been entirely, from roof to floor, covered in wrapping paper of every imaginable color and design. "What can I say? I told you it was a present. Wouldn't be a proper one if it wasn't covered in paper and a ribbon, right?"

Aziraphale shook his head, but he was smiling. There was, indeed, an extremely large ribbon wrapped around the exterior, culminating in a bow where he presumed the front door must be.

Crowley put the car into park and shut off the engine, grinning at Aziraphale. "So come on, angel. Finally time to unwrap it."

Aziraphale rolled his eyes. "I suppose I should be grateful you didn't summon an overlarge Christmas tree to put it all under."

"Ooh, wish I had!" Crowley's eyes gleamed. "Next year, maybe."

"Don't you dare!"

Hand in hand, they walked up the path towards the future that was the real gift. One they could share.