Chapter 1: Falling
Crowley’s ears were ringing. Pain flared along his spine, his body jarred by landing so suddenly on his back. He might have bitten his tongue judging by the coppery taste in his mouth. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the blinding sun, glanced around at the sand that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Not an ideal start to his Tuesday.
He lay on the sand, hand over his face, listening to the gentle lap of the ocean, coming to terms with the fact that he, a grown man, had just tripped over his own feet on a perfectly flat surface. He wasn’t twenty anymore, his joints would punish him for this like a jilted lover, taking their time to forgive and be kind to him again.
At least there weren’t any witnesses.
“Are you alright?”
Crowley groaned. Of course. The voice was nearby but he refused to move his hand from his face to see. “M’fine.”
“Are you sure? That was quite a tumble.” The Voice was more polite than worried. Maybe a little amused but Crowley couldn’t fault him that. He imagined he had looked like a baby giraffe unsure how to use its feet and ending up on its face.
“Meant to do that,” Crowley said. “New sunbathing technique.”
Crowley peered through the crack in his fingers and didn’t see anyone, just a haze of sunlight glancing off the sand. The sunlight took its time but eventually coalesced into a person. A sunlight type person. White hair, white skin, white jacket. He looked like he was modelling for the 1950s McCalls gentleman’s summer fashion. And he was gorgeous. Not gorgeous like a model flexing his abs on a billboard in tasteful black and white. Gorgeous like his skin would taste like milk and his hair like candy floss and he probably smelled like cinnamon or five spice.
“I don’t mean to make a point of it,” said the man whose hair caught the light like a sugar-spun halo, “But are you able to get up or do I need to send for some help?”
“M’fine,” Crowley insisted, preparing himself to make good on his bravado although he’d happily wallow here in his humiliation and lower back pain for another hour or two.
Biting back an old man’s groan behind his teeth, he sat up and cast around for where his sunglasses had fallen. He had well and truly lost his chance to make a cool first impression but maybe he could take a shot at a second or third. He found the expensive, flash, definitely-cool-guy-and-not-a-baby-giraffe shades and slid them back on.
The cliffs behind them dulled the wind, giving him a chance to collect himself without getting a mouthful of sand blown into his face. It could have been much worse. The monolithic slabs of rock and the rock pools between them dotted the beach, and any one of which would have cracked his head open or sliced him to pieces. Or left him at the mercy of the crabs. The briney sand had cushioned his fall well enough even if he was going to be finding sand in weird places for a week going forward.
The man offered a hand and Crowley glanced at it a moment before accepting. He took the stranger’s hand in his and allowed himself to be hauled to his feet. The man’s hand was very, very soft. Expensive hand lotion soft. Weekly manicure soft.
“Ah, there we are,” he said with a bright smile, bordering on amused but too polite to outright laugh.
“I’ll try to stay upright this time.” Crowley should have scowled and stomped away from the only living witness to his clumsiness, but it was an impossible task when warm blue eyes crinkled with the first promise of laughter.
“Do you live nearby?” the stranger asked, then blushed. “That is to say, will you be alright to get home, Mr..?”
“Crowley. Just Crowley. And yeah, just up…” He pointed vaguely over his shoulder.
“Ah, we must be neighbours then. I just moved in at the end of Rose Road.”
Crowley used both hands to shake the sand out of his hair. This man lived next door to him. At the end of Rose Road! Ten minutes walk, tops. They wouldn’t be able to avoid running into each other and that made him feel some kind of feeling.
It wasn’t… he wasn’t… This was just an upgrade from the sour-faced old couple who hadn’t liked him for a multitude of reasons from his sunglasses to his garden design to his taste in music. If either of them had seen him fall arse over tit on a clear beach he’d be getting snide looks and unsubtle reminders of it for months to come.
So he wasn’t going to complain that they’d been replaced by soft-hands, here. If his brain would stop rattling around in his head he might even remember how to flirt. Any second now.
He tried to tame his hair into something less like a clown wig and more like the sleek copper locks he was so very proud of. Moderate success.
“Right, yeah,” Crowley said. “Saw it was for sale. You from London?”
“Is it so obvious?”
It was. “Nah. You’ll fit right in.”
Not a lie. Having one gay man in the village made the local busybodies feel very cosmopolitan. Having two would thrill them. Especially since soft-hands looked like the type who would join the knitting circle and help out at bake sales.
“Oh, that’s a relief, if you think so,” said the man with a little flutter of his hands. Adorable. “It’s a bit daunting after Soho. There’s a certain anonymity in the city.”
“Yeah,” Crowley shrugged. He’d lived in London for forty years and wouldn’t have recognised his neighbours if he passed them on the street. Really he tried his best to keep to himself here, too, but there was only so much one man could do. No one escaped the neighbourhood watch, especially not ne’er-do-wells like him. He was pretty sure his wisteria arches were the only reason he hadn’t been run out of town with torches and pitchforks.
Crowley gave up on his hair and tugged at his t-shirt, trying to get the sand out. It was a losing battle. This was a full shower-and-change situation. He could only imagine what he looked like to his new neighbour – clothes askew, hair wild, leaning heavily to one side as his ribs cramped in protest of all this excitement. He looked like a drifter who had come to the beach to get stoned in peace and here he was, standing next to Mr. Seaside 1953 who looked like he should be wearing a boater and carrying a giant striped umbrella. Not Crowley’s style but he could admit when someone was put together.
No, this wasn’t going to do at all. It had to be remedied.
“So, I should…” Crowley gestured toward his house.
“Oh yes, I shouldn’t keep you. Jolly nice to meet you.”
Jolly nice. Was he actually a time traveller? Was that a possibility? Or was he just the most unironic person in the South Downs? “Yeah. I’ll try not to make a habit of the… uh…”
Soft-hands stifled a smile, glancing to the sky. “More for your sake than mine, I’m sure.”
“Well, if you need anything, I’m just down the road. Do borrow a cup of sugar now and then.” The stranger smiled. It was a real, genuine thing, as milk white and warm and sweet as the rest of him. It had been a time since someone had smiled at Crowley like that and he found himself sort of swaying into it, his face returning a goofy smile before the rest of him entirely caught up.
“I… right… sure, I’ll just…” Crowley wrestled his face back into a neutral expression and tried to remember how to talk. This saint of a man, this angel, clearly radiated this kindness even for beach bums and giraffes and local hooligans. He didn’t need Crowley slobbering all over him his first week in town.
“Of course. Until next time, Mr Crowley.” Soft-hands inclined his head and started on his way down the beach toward Rose Road, giving Crowley the twin emotions of finally having the privacy to recollect his dignity and suddenly no longer seeing that smile.
“Just Crowley,” Crowley muttered to himself, although the man was out of earshot. Wait. He yelled after him, “Hey, wait! I didn’t catch your name.”
Soft-hands turned back to him. He had to call out as the breeze tried to take the words from him. “Aziraphale!”
Crowley paused. “Really?”
Aziraphale didn’t answer, instead smiling brilliantly and letting the wind sweep away his laughter as he continued down the beach.
Crowley watched him go, feet sinking into the sand, the taste of salt and seaweed at the back of his throat that slowly leached the milk and cinnamon from his thoughts. This was definitely an upgrade from the last neighbours.
He’d do better next meeting. He’d wear something flattering, Aziraphale didn’t look like he appreciated faded band t-shirts from 2003 rock shows. He wouldn’t stutter next time, he’d be suave, smooth, offer to show him the sights, help him settle into town. He’d tie his hair back and be in control of his own face.
Aziraphale started to fade into the sunlit glare of the sand as Crowley watched, but the light caught his hair again, a gloriole to suit him.
The taste of sand and salt against his tongue clued him into the fact that his mouth was open. He came back to reality and realised that instead of going to his house, cleaning himself up and getting an ice pack he was frozen in place on the beach, lips parted, watching Aziraphale walk away and fantasising about their next meeting.
Ah, he thought to himself. I’m fucked.
Chapter 2: Invitation
Borrowing a cup of sugar wasn’t really Crowley’s style. Maybe one day he’d need sugar but he couldn’t imagine what for.
“What do you know about the new guy?” Crowley asked Anathema, lounging about in her shop. He liked to bother her. She was the only one in the village worth bothering, really.
She shrugged, looking at him through her eccentric round spectacles. “Just gossip. He hasn’t come in here.”
He’d tried to make up decent excuses once or twice to go down and take another swing at an introduction, but every scenario came out weird.
He was being weird.
So Aziraphale was nice to him instead of distant and judgey like most people. So he hadn’t managed to offend or irritate Crowley on meeting one. So what? Being nice one time wasn’t some Myers-Briggs personality thing. INFJ – actually nice, good conversationalist, pretty smile. Get real.
And so the cottage at the end of Rose Road remained unvisited. He’d driven past a few times in the intervening week, going about his business. He could almost see the house from his own. They technically shared a fence but it was buried deep in some sort of brackeny forest that he hadn’t bothered chopping down. He hadn’t run into Aziraphale on the beach or at the store.
So he put it out of his mind, and his mind was as cooperative as it ever was with that sort of thing. He needed a distraction and that was where Anathema came in.
She had rich parents and had decided since she didn’t need a job she’d call herself a witch, dress like a Victorian school marm and go round with divining rods and crystals on strings (and sometimes a giant bread knife). Crowley found her decision-making skills flawless and so hung about her touristy new age shop whenever possible.
“What’s the gossip?” he asked, flipping a smooth green stone between his fingers.
“Antiquarian of some sort, very wealthy. No family. Gay, Deirdre was very clear on that. Your name might have come up.”
She smiled in her secret way. “You weren’t going to avoid the matchmakers forever. They try to put me on blind dates once a month.”
“They don’t even like me.”
“That’s really not the point.”
Well, that was something. He had to make impression number two before Deirdre Young made it for him; that was a sure thing. Alternatively he could dodge this bullet now and not risk being drawn into village life. Paraded around as one of the prized eligible moneyed men like they were in a Jane Austen novel. God, they might start doing things like inviting him to brunches.
Anathema stopped shelving the books in her hands, titles like Opening Your Third Eye and Positive Energies. She looked at him. “You’re being weird about this, aren’t you?”
He glared at her. “Me? You’re wearing a protection amulet and calling me weird. What’s it protecting you from in this town? Sunburn?”
“Among other things,” she sniffed. “And my question stands.”
He was being weird. “I’m not being weird.”
“Have you met him?”
Oh, he was not telling the story. Not a chance. Anathema’s needling wasn’t ever too pointed but this might have been a bit of a tender spot. “We… brushed past each other. Talked. Wasn’t a thing, really.”
“And you didn’t ask about his job or his family?”
No, I was busy trying to shake off the concussion. “W… It wasn’t a… a long chat. Bit of nothing.”
“You’re being so weird about this, aren’t you?”
And so what if he was? He was allowed. That was his thing, people thought he was off beat. It had been a while since someone had thought he was funny, since someone had smiled at him like that. Perfectly normal for him to get abnormal about it.
He usually kept a pretty strict ‘no people’ policy. Last relationship had been years ago, last friendship a fair while before that. Family barely rated a mention. That thing with the town planning committee about him having the wrong colour of fence had been ages ago, but he supposed it counted as human contact. Anathema didn’t mind him sitting around her shop snarking at her and that was as much face time as he needed with other people. So if he was being weird it was only because it was weird to have this standing invitation to just walk into someone else’s space. And more, that he wanted to.
In London he’d occasionally gone on the pull, dress up flash and go hang around in a bar looking tall, find someone good for a night or a few hours at least. He didn’t know what to do about making a friend. He was prickly and irreverent, and people either found him obnoxious (see: most of the town) or clownishly entertaining (Anathema edged close to this). If he just wanted to go and talk to Aziraphale and make a good impression that was a whole other thing, a skill so rusty it had holes worn through it.
This sort of thing was probably better talked out with a therapist than an American occultist but that would be bringing another person into the mix.
“Yeah, pretty weird,” he admitted.
“So you met him, you liked him, and now you’re being yourself about it.”
“Fine, yes, maybe.”
“Good,” she said primly, pursing her lips. “If he doesn’t like you for who you are then you’re better off not being friends with him.”
Crowley groaned and slouched more deliberately against the counter. Of course that was her advice. He didn’t have a great history with being himself but he knew better than to say that out loud. He’d summon a herd of amateur psychologists out of thin air to analyse his low self esteem.
“You sound like a daytime movie,” he said.
“I’d rather sound like a bad movie than a fifty-year-old man freaking out because he’s experiencing a human emotion for the first time.”
Crowley gave a disgusted click of his tongue. “I’m not fifty. Do you really think I’m fifty?”
“Yes, that’s what should concern you about what I just said. Given the state of your social life I’d guess closer to eighty.”
“At least I don’t dress like the ghost of Emily Dickinson.”
“Maybe you should,” Anathema shot back defiantly. “So are you going to tell me what happened or do I have to draw conclusions?”
Crowley twisted the green rock between his fingers. “Nothing. Met him on the beach, he asked me to drop round. Nice guy. Nice.”
Really nice would be giving too much away.
“Have you considered maybe doing that, then, rather than lounging around here scaring off my customers?”
He’d considered it. Just walking right up there. Even thinking about it made him feel ridiculous, too tall and too clumsy with a bad tongue that had never entirely learned how to behave. Hi, Aziraphale, I liked meeting you the other day, thought I’d come and meet you again.
Ah, Aziraphale would say, the acrobat.
Freeze frame, canned laughter.
Anathema perked up, her smile turning sickly sweet and smug. She was looking at something over his shoulder and he just knew without looking what it was going to be.
“Heads up,” she said, nodding out the plate glass window behind him.
Crowley glanced over his shoulder, thanking anyone who was listening that this time he at least looked like he took a shower once in a while.
Aziraphale was leaving the village shop, offering a friendly smile to someone Crowley couldn’t see. It was a bit of a relief to know he hadn’t just dreamed the man up on the beach, cream-coloured everything and soft eyes. He was real, in the flesh, looking even more like a time traveller in his waistcoat and bow tie.
The sun filtering through the overhanging oak tree struck his hair just so, bringing Crowley back to the beach where he’d materialised over him like they were reenacting The Little Mermaid.
Aziraphale looked both ways as he prepared to cross the street and in that cast about he somehow found Crowley, their eyes meeting through Crowley’s thick sunglasses. He paused at the side of the street a moment, then there was recognition and a small, humorous smile that sort of suggested a shared joke between them. The blond raised a hand, offering a short wave. Crowley responded in kind, the corner of his lip jumping upwards without his consent.
Just a moment, two people who knew each other on the street, then Aziraphale was gone. Crowley watched the street where he’d been, fingers hovering in the air.
Anathema cleared her throat, startling him.
He looked up at her raised eyebrow, her incredibly smug smirk. “You should go and visit him.”
“Shut up,” he growled.
“I’m going to give you some rose quartz, you should -”
“Device, you know the rules.” Crowley skirted away from her. “No witchy stuff.”
“It’s occult,” she called after him.
“You’ve had enough fun for one day. It’s got you all excited.” He made for the door. This. This was why he didn’t seek out company. Take one look too long at a bloke across a street and it turns into a circus of rose quartz and teasing. “Call me when your tizzy is over.”
“Visit him!” The words followed him through the door as it closed, bunches of windchimes heralding his exit.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and huffed his way toward his car, the prized 1926 Bentley that held up traffic but looked amazing. He’d go. He would go. He would find a reason and he would go and he would stop being the biggest wimp in the universe. Aziraphale had invited him, he wanted to go, he would go.
He hadn’t come up with a convenient excuse yet but there was no problem so complex that he wasn’t sure he could solve it after three glasses of scotch. This week, he promised himself. By Saturday he’d go.
Chapter 3: Fences
Crowley had it figured out. He’d thought about it, then not thought about it, then thought about it some more and he was going to go with the TV canned laughter approach. Just walk up and say hi. Everyone else in the village was happy to rock up to your house with an apple pie and zero notice and expect you to clear your schedule for the afternoon, he could as well. Minus the pie.
It was Saturday, he’d almost run out his self-imposed timer, but it wasn’t even midday yet. Aziraphale was probably out, doing things, or something. That was Crowley’s reasoning anyway and it wasn’t just him putting it off to do something safe like wander down to the beach and get some sun.
He walked down past his gardens and the brackish forest where the shrubs and scrub tried to catch his jeans as he walked past. He jumped the west fence just as the solid ground was giving way to sand proper. There was an established path that ran down but his property didn’t border it, so a little trespassing had been his habit for years.
So, of course, the moment his feet hit the ground on the wrong side of the fence he saw Aziraphale.
“Mr Crowley!” the other man called, a hundred meters or so down the path. He had a blanket slung over one arm and a basket hanging from the crook of his elbow. He raised his free hand to wave and a delighted smile lit him up.
Crowley had only a second to react. His first thought was to burn with embarrassment at being caught fence hopping like a teenager but if he made a thing of it then it really would be a thing. Other than that, he looked like a grown man who shaves and showers and ties up his hair this time round, so maybe this was for the best. He sauntered up the path toward Aziraphale.
“It’s just Crowley,” he said.
“Alright, then. Good morning, Crowley.” Aziraphale smiled like white sunshine. Crowley had to be missing something because he surely couldn’t be this pleased to see him.
“Morning. Headed to the beach?”
“I was, I thought I’d take my lunch down and do some reading.” He gestured with his burdened arm. “Will you join me? I’m afraid I got carried away with the packing.”
Crowley’s stomach did a weird little flip. Seemed like it was for the best that he kept wimping out, Aziraphale was much better at this. He was polite, that was the thing of it. Knew all those weird rules for getting people to like him. So polite he’d offer charming smiles and lunch invitations to people he caught jumping into his yard.
Crowley should say no. He was asking for trouble. His weird flippy stomach and a man too polite to tell him no were a bad combination. But Aziraphale’s big pleading eyes looked so sincere. Like he’d been waiting all week to invite Crowley to lunch.
“Sure,” Crowley said. “Nothing else on.”
“Oh, wonderful. You can give me your take on the village.” Aziraphale was already moving, walking toward the beach with Crowley helplessly pulled along behind him. “The ladies from the church have been most welcoming but I expect you have a different take on things.”
“You go to church?”
“With a name like Aziraphale, does that surprise you?”
He smiled a conspiratorial smile and heaven help him, Crowley was going to get all fucked up over that smile, he just knew it. He was returning it, his traitorous face pulled into the moment no matter how he fought it. This was ridiculous. The man probably had a boyfriend back in London or something. Crowley had known him for all of ten minutes, he shouldn’t this susceptible to nice smiles.
“Guess not,” Crowley said.
“I take it you’re into something more modern, given you patronise Miss Device’s store?” There was no judgement in the question which made it all the more embarrassing.
“Nah,” Crowley mumbled, trying to come up with a way to explain that didn’t make him sound like a lunatic. I’m not religious, I’m just terminally ironic. “Anathema’s a mate. Don’t go in for any of it, really. Used to be C of E but you know how they were in the ‘90s.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
Even on the beaten path the slope over the sand dunes was steep and Aziraphale became redfaced and out of breath as they made their way. Crowley had taken the path enough to be used to the way the sandy soil slipped out from under his feet. Nothing like a beach walk to give you nice legs. He knew enough about manners to say nothing and keep his eyes fixed on the path ahead. It wasn’t cute that Aziraphale was out of shape. That wasn’t cute. Why was that cute?
It was cute because it just begged him to slow down, offer an arm, a gentle ribbing.
When the ground flattened out Crowley paused to take off his shoes, preferring to feel the damp sand between his toes and giving Aziraphale a discreet moment to recover. It wasn’t too hot but he was glad he’d worn sunscreen. He should be taking bets on how long before his lily white companion would be covered in freckles.
“What brought you out here?” Crowley asked. “You don’t seem like you’re a beach kind of guy.”
Aziraphale huffed out a little laugh, still panting. “What gave it away? I used to have a bookshop but I prefer to be a collector. My business restoring and conserving brought in more money than sales anyway and I suppose I reasoned I could do it from somewhere with a nice view.”
He stopped at a sunny spot far enough from the waves and set down the basket. Crowley reached for the blanket automatically and flapped it out between long arms. He let the wind catch the weight of it and spread it flat for him, leaving a picturesque scene on the sand. Tartan. The bow tie from the other day had been tartan as well.
“Oh, thank you,” Aziraphale said. Together they sat stiffly, cross-legged on the blanket. Aziraphale unpacked a variety of sandwiches and pastries from the basket. “What about you? Have you lived here for long?”
“Uh…” I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t be stressed all the time, working for people who hated me, who I hated. I needed to be among green things, things that made me happy, something to love when people didn’t fit the bill. I was desperate for flowers. “Came out here a few years back. Needed the space. I sell plants to some stores around here.”
Aziraphale held up a bottle of rosé. “Do you partake?”
Crowley grinned. “Enthusiastically.”
Aziraphale twisted off the top, took a swig in an almost ungentlemanly manner then handed Crowley the bottle with one hand and a sandwich with the other. The wine was still cold, the last of the condensation from a refrigerator dissipating in the sun as he held the bottle.
The waves lapped at the shore, the ocean huge and cold and only reaching them as whispers of soothing sounds. The salt in the air was just enough that nibbling at the egg salad sandwich was a relief from it, a stark contrast. It was… How had he ended up here? From a bit of sneaky short-cutting to sitting at an idyllic picnic with sweet wine and Aziraphale? He had been ambushed in the best possible way. Anathema would be crowing like a rooster if she could see him now. So would Deirdre Young.
Aziraphale chattered on about Soho in a way that might have been annoying if it was coming from another person but here, now, Crowley found himself watching each expression intently. The purse of the lips, the tilt of the eyebrow, body drawing in tighter as he talked more about London, getting further away from the brilliant, relaxed smiles of the beach. He had a nervous habit about his hands, Crowley guessed, from the way he traded his sandwich back and forth. Maybe their reasons for being here in this town, on this beach, on this blanket weren’t so different.
As Aziraphale looked out over the sea, reminiscing about the customers who hadn’t really loved his books, Crowley peered inside the basket and found the book that had been today’s planned activity before he showed up.
“Neruda?” he asked. Of course Aziraphale read poetry recreationally. Of course.
Aziraphale looked at him, unwinding a little. “You know his work?”
“I do not love you as if you were salt rose, or topaz, or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.” Crowley quoted his favourite passage. Aziraphale raised an eyebrow and he very nearly became offended. “Yes, I read. You don’t have to look so surprised.”
The angel, and Crowley had decided he was an angel here with his sugar-white hair and his rosé and his bare ability to walk on two feet when he should be flying overhead, the angel gave him an amused, challenging glare. “Everyone knows the love poems. His works on war are far more poignant.”
“And why would I read about war when I could read about love?” Alright, maybe the wine was going to his head a little. He’d skipped breakfast. But really, Aziraphale looked about as suited to war as Crowley himself. Which was to say, not even a little.
“Why read about love when you could read about war?” Aziraphale countered.
Crowley grinned. He held the book out, ancient leather cover against sea-salt air. “Prove your point.”
Aziraphale took the book and Crowley slumped backwards, lying out on the blanket under the sun, just enough alcohol in his blood and letting Aziraphale’s voice swirl around him with the sea breeze.
It had been a very good thing his plan to visit had failed. Aziraphale was infinitely better at this.
Chapter 4: Mirror
Crowley could see the future. Better than any clairvoyant, any charlatan on daytime TV, better than Anathema with her tarot cards. As he ran up the hill toward his house, wind catching his hair and making it flick about like the flame on a candle, he could see the next few months with startling clarity.
He burst through the back door, catching his own easy grin in the mirror as he hurried past.
Aziraphale was great, he had discovered as they drank wine and developed sunburn together on the beach all afternoon. Really, really great. Better than he could have hoped for in a neighbour, acquaintance, friend (boyfriend?). Smart, well-travelled, pithy, and such a gentle soul. Crowley shouldn’t have been worried for a second that he would make things awkward, Aziraphale made him charming. The lovely man laughed at his jokes, even the mean ones. He listened politely when Crowley’s stories turned into rambling. He didn’t give him that side-eye of ‘oh no, this guy’s weird’, not even once.
It would have made him suspicious, thrown him off balance, and it had for a while. Right up until the wine had gotten the better of him and he’d let slip about Aziraphale’s lovely soft hands. If he could have physically retrieved the words from the air he would have, instead he suppressed a cringe and waited for the gentle let-down. To his surprise Aziraphale had done no such thing, instead giggling and blushing and giving him a half-scandalised oh, you.
Crowley threw open the fridge and crouched to inspect the labels on the bottles. No rosé, but he had a few decent whites.
The thing was, and it was a thing that calmed Crowley in every possible way, that Aziraphale made no effort to return the compliment. Or any of the others as Crowley tested his luck a few more times, referring to his lunch companion as pretty, as funny, throwing a lascivious wink his way. All met with pleased smiles and encouraging words and zero reciprocation. In the whole rainbow of human bullshit, enjoying attention even when the feeling wasn’t mutual was a very minor sin.
He’d played this game before. It had been devastating the first time, not understanding why someone would encourage his affection only to then pretend they’d never had any interest. But this wasn’t the first time.
Hence his newfound divination abilities.
Four to six months of flirting, late night phone calls and lunches on the beach. A few moments of eyes meeting or hands brushing where Crowley might convince himself that yes, this thing was real. Then Aziraphale would start to lose interest, Crowley’s overtures would wear thin. He’d stick around just long enough to get his feelings properly hurt and then spend two weeks getting drunk with Anathema in her little witchy cottage and complaining about men being scum. He could mark out the timeline on his calendar if he felt like it.
Aziraphale was waiting for him back at the beach, their lunch turned into just lying about on the sand until they ran out of wine and oh, he liked this part of the dance so much. Aziraphale had protested sending Crowley on an errand but Crowley had winked at him, Just sit there and look pretty, I’ll be back in five.
He grabbed two bottles of wine, just in case. Nothing too flash, didn’t want to show off yet.
This was going to be fun, living in that in-between, pre-relationship space of flirting and anticipation. He could keep it going for a good while, he guessed, given exactly how flattered Aziraphale seemed to be by his attention. As long as he didn’t do something stupid like kiss him or confess his feelings then he’d never have to bear that horrible, hypocritical speech he’d heard more than once. You’ve got the wrong idea, I never said I was interested, you misinterpreted that time I stuck my hand down your pants.
And, well, if he had to hear it one more time he might as well make the most of what came before.
On his way out the door he paused in front of the mirror, checking out the damage of a few hours in the sand. His hair had pulled free of its bun on one side so he set down the wine and quickly redid it. Not too neat. Casual. There was the first hint of a grey streak winding its way from his temple. Crowley was good looking enough, he thought, for people who were into his sort of thing. But he didn’t need to be vain. That wasn’t the point of this.
See something you like, angel? He thought. Is it yourself, reflected back funnier and smarter and more handsome in the eyes of someone crushing on you?
Wine back in hand he jogged toward the beach again, brash and breathless in anticipation. He passed by the sprawling gardens of his sun-soaked plants, the flowers that loved the salt air, the bushes he had been supposed to prune this afternoon. They’d live, he had something better on. He couldn’t have asked for more than this.
He found Aziraphale as he had left him, the shadow of the overhanging cliff creeping toward their picnic blanket. The sun wasn’t as harsh as when they had sat down but Aziraphale had still gone pleasantly pink in the heat. He’d be wanting aloe vera before the week was done.
Crowley folded himself back down to the blanket and buried one bottle in the sand beside them, then offered the other out. Aziraphale looked so happy to see him back, setting his book aside to take the bottle.
“That was quick.”
“It’s not far,” Crowley shrugged.
Aziraphale took a sip of the wine and passed it back. They had both gone from their stiff cross-legged postures to lounging further and further back on the blanket. “I wasn’t sure what I’d make of the beach,” he mused, “No one has ever described me as an outdoorsman. But it’s very pleasant with company.”
“Glad I rate as company then,” Crowley said.
The wine was cold and sweet, a complement to the sunshine overhead. Aziraphale didn’t look surprised or hesitant about sharing three bottles in an afternoon and Crowley liked the idea of seeing him a bit soused, a few rumples in his pressed cream shirt.
“What else does one do by the sea? What keeps your evenings busy?”
Well, Crowley almost answered, I watch Golden Girls on Netflix and drink too much.
“Asking the wrong person,” he said instead. “There’s nothing for it, you’ve befriended the village outcast.”
“Something makes me suspect that you cast yourself in that role.”
“Me? Never. I’m the picture of courtesy.”
Aziraphale chuckled. “Of course, how could I suggest otherwise? Perhaps you’ll show me what you learned at finishing school.”
Crowley glared but there was no heat behind it. Soft, smiley Aziraphale was good but snarky tease Aziraphale was even better. But he’s not the only one who can tease. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”
A blush, a smile, a glance upwards to heaven then down at his hands. Adorable. If he returned the sentiment Crowley was fairly certain he’d burst into flames. As it was he couldn’t stop the sudden squeeze of his heart in his chest. No, if this attraction was mutual it would be a health hazard, send him to an early grave.
“Perhaps we could…” Aziraphale’s voice wasn’t breathy. He was imagining that. “That is, it might be a little easier to tackle the local social scene together. Broaden our horizons.”
“Oh, yes, the local pub is really pushing the boundaries.”
“Dinner, then? For our first excursion?”
Aziraphale looked so hopeful that there was never any chance of Crowley saying no. But this was deeper than he’d meant to get so quickly. He wanted the dinner to be a date. Saying that out loud would be too hopeful. It didn’t help anyone to look forward too far, not to the end of things, but after spending only a few hours with this man he knew he was toast. The first hint of Oh, dear, I seem to have given you the wrong impression would be unbearable. He needed to schedule way more bitch-about-men-with-Anathema time into his projected timeline because this was going to suck.
“Yeah, dinner,” he agreed. “Pick a night.”
By the time they had finished the first bottle of wine and were onto the second Crowley had forgotten to be afraid. It was too easy to flatter Aziraphale, too easy to forget himself when he was belly-laughing at some anecdote, too easy to watch the sun sink and the wine disappear and care about nothing but making this handsome stranger flush with affection. By the time manners dictated they had to break and return to their respective houses for dinner Crowley had to bite his tongue to keep from suggesting they could eat together right now.
No, it wasn’t going to be hard at all to fall for Aziraphale and take and take and take whatever he was willing to give. Muzzy and light from the drinking he forgot to be afraid. Dinner was Thursday night, the date and time seared into his brain. A beacon, a chance to try again, to see how far he could push his luck He had gone as hard as he dared and found that he hadn’t even brushed against the boundaries yet.
He walked Aziraphale back to his house, citing the gentlemanly thing to do.
“Learned that in finishing school,” he said as he leaned against the porch railing.
Aziraphale’s laugh was loud and shocked, a bark that escaped him. He scrubbed a hand down his face and schooled his expression into something more becoming. “I’ll see you on Thursday, then?”
Crowley gave his most charming smile. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
He whistled as he walked home, hands in his pockets, a gentle burn all over his skin from the sun and the sea air and probably something else. The stars were just beginning to appear in the sky over the ocean.
This was going to hurt, but bloody hell it was going to be fun before that.
Chapter 5: Knots
Thursday took its time coming, the days seemed to count themselves out by hours. Things that usually made time blur and disappear were all of a sudden done with a mechanical efficiency. The flowers practically pruned themselves, food cooked in no time, movies that took three hours made a point of finishing in two and Thursday was always so far away.
Crowley spent the time winding and unwinding himself. He was being ridiculous, he knew it. It jumped into stark relief as clothes were pulled out and examined and discarded for trivial reasons when he tried to dress himself for their dinner. Trying too hard, not trying hard enough, unflattering, old, sparkling new from the shop like he’d visited a personal stylist to prepare for an overcooked steak and a pint at the pub. He was pretty sure unless he picked the cocktail dress Aziraphale wouldn’t notice anyway. And so what if he did? Crowley hadn’t agreed to this to have his fashion sense judged by a time traveller from the 1950s.
He had managed to get out of the house eventually, throwing on some comfortable staples with a fuck it. He’d agreed to this for fun, he told himself. It was going to be fun. Because a dinner outing between new acquaintances had never been awkward.
It had been a while. Not just with the flirting and this fun little game they’d decided to play, although, yeah, it’d been an embarrassingly long time since that, too. But just deciding to go somewhere with someone and actually doing it? Way too long. He wasn’t sure he remembered how to act, what to say, how to split bills and call it a night and all that business.
And when he saw Aziraphale sitting at a table with a bow tie and a glass of wine, all the knots he’d tied himself into just… fell apart. Something in his chest unclenched and time picked back up its normal pace, then started running faster.
Before he knew it the table was littered with empty glasses, words spilled from his mouth too quickly to be fretted about, dinner came and went and he couldn’t quite have said how the details went down. Aziraphale was restoring a bible for some rich bastard who didn’t appreciate it. Crowley was expecting his allium to bloom any day. Aziraphale was volunteering for the church bake sale but didn’t know how to bake.
Before he knew it he was leaning over the pool table, one too many beers in his system, in the middle of a rant he would identify as ill-advised as soon as he sobered up. “The problem with the bible is the language.”
“Is it?” Aziraphale asked, leaning against his pool cue, amused smile playing on his face.
“It is.” Crowley whiffed his shot completely. It was the gentlemanly thing to let him win, wasn’t it? Nothing to do with his athletic prowess. “You look at the Aramaic, the Greek, there’s no real translation. There’s an academic interpretation. It’s not the word of God, it’s the word of a 16th century racist.”
“Oh, I see.”
“And even, even, even if,” he paused to watch Aziraphale perfectly sink one ball and line up the next. “Even if we could get an accurate translation, no one agrees on what it means. Spend twenty minutes on JK Rowling’s Twitter and talk to me about authorial intent.”
Crowley couldn’t seem to stop his stupid mouth. Even in his pleasant boozy haze he knew that drunkenly trash talking someone's religion wasn’t the best way to endear himself.
Aziraphale’s fond smile turned into a little chuckle against his pool cue as he took his next shot, his face bright with amusement and wine and the time slipping by around them. Crowley let his jaw unclench.
The ball bounced close to the pocket but didn’t sink. Aziraphale stepped back. “Are you suggesting that an ideology ought to be flawless and universally agreed upon to have value? Is there no room for discussion, for growth?”
Crowley shrugged. “M’just saying in a religion that encourages obedience you’re more likely to be following some pervert with a book and a pulpit than God’s holy instruction.”
He started lining up his next shot, steadying his hands, trying not to make a complete drunken mess of this. He needed to shut up.
“Isn’t it a good Christian’s duty, then, to try to bring a positive influence to the community, a more generous understanding of Christ’s teachings?”
Crowley took his shot. The balls clacked harmlessly to one side, didn’t come anywhere near anything. “You really are too good to be true, aren’t you, angel?”
“And you’re terrible at pool, aren’t you?” Aziraphale teased back, even as the compliment made him demure happily away. That wasn’t going to get old anytime soon.
“M’excellent at pool,” said Crowley with the confidence of three glasses of wine and three beers. “Just thought you could use a win.”
The look of devilish delight that crossed Aziraphale’s face made Crowley’s heart jump about in this chest, his stomach wind itself into some complicated arrangement that had nothing to do with anxiety. Damn, he wanted this to be a date, wanted Aziraphale’s interest to be more than flattered receptiveness. Wanted to walk him home and snog him senseless on his doorstep.
“Care for a wager, then?” Aziraphale asked.
“You’re already ahead!”
“Oh, now, that shouldn’t be a problem. I have it reliably that you’re excellent at pool.”
Bastard. “Yeah, ‘course I am.”
“And what should be the terms?”
“You have to order all your drinks with cocktail umbrellas,” Crowley said without thinking about it. He had enough experience with pranks to have an entire back catalogue, mostly from mates he had stopped talking to after uni. He could have been much, much more cruel.
Aziraphale set him with a judging, unnerving eye for a moment, then nodded in decision. “You have to take off your sunglasses.”
“What if I need them for medical reasons?”
Fair. “What if I have terrible self esteem issues about my eyes and you’re being very cruel?”
“Then you shouldn’t lie about being good at pool.”
Crowley grinned. Hard to argue with that. He stepped back and let Aziraphale take his next shot. He strongly suspected he knew where this was going and he didn’t mind overmuch. The night was warm and he’d had too much to drink and it wasn’t like he could keep his eyes hidden forever anyway. It was sometimes fun to show them off anyway, like a gentle trick to play on someone new.
When the match was done he went to the bar and ordered them two glasses of light cider with cocktail umbrellas. The publican didn’t look like he approved of this kind of tomfoolery but didn’t argue beyond a few pointed looks which Crowley returned with a polite smile and a raised eyebrow. Aziraphale thought it was funny, anyway. He was as sloshed as Crowley, though, so he probably would have thought anything was funny.
As soon as they were nestled back at their table Aziraphale looked at him expectantly. “Well? Pay up.”
Crowley poised himself for the dramatic reveal, leaning in a little, away from the light behind him so his face was shadowed and grinning so his canines showed. He eased the sunglasses off just slowly enough to be a tease.
The reaction was everything he’d hoped for, Aziraphale’s brilliantly expressive, tipsily open face going through the full spectrum. Surprise, alarm, straight into fascination and ending on remembering his primary school manners about not making any of those faces about other peoples’ appearance. He managed to arrange his face into a drunk man’s impression of polite interest and mumble out, “Oh.”
Crowley kept him pleased smirk for another moment before supplying, “Polycoria. The evil eye.”
If anything Crowley liked the way his eyes looked, two small pupils in each eye, a luminous chestnut that bordered on yellow. It was distinctive. It was him. It scared small children and some adults.
“You do need them for medical reasons,” Aziraphale suddenly decided on an emotion. “And you let me goad you with that bet, you fiend!”
Crowley chuckled and slid the glasses back on. “Relax, I’m not going to blind myself over a game of pool. It’s worst by the beach, all that sand, but it’s dim enough in here. I just wear them to stop this lot putting me on trial for witchcraft and pressing me to death.” He gestured broadly to the pub, although ‘this lot’ was now about three other people, all of whom looked like they basically lived here.
Aziraphale was pouting at him and he leaned back against his seat with a happy sigh, teasingly returning the pout. It didn’t last, barely seconds before their chatter was back up again. If he thought too hard about kissing that look off Aziraphale’s face it was going to start hurting. For now it was a nice, tender ache that didn’t squeeze too tight, didn’t twist him up too badly. Just enough for him to feel it.
He drank the cider, cold and barely alcoholic enough to start bringing him back down. The sun had well and truly set even with these long summer days, the pub was empty, the whole night washed away in the loose, easy haze of Aziraphale’s company. It wouldn’t last, he knew, he’d go home, sleep off the alcohol and start twisting himself up again, that was just who he was. But there was something intoxicating in how easily Aziraphale’s smiles and teases and pouts seemed to dig strong fingers into the knots and release them as easily as anything, let him drift out to sea untethered.
And it turned out that the way they knew the night was over was when the bar closed and left them walking home side by side in the dark, eking out every last minute before their paths diverged and there were fences and closed doors between them again.
Chapter 6: Running
Friday morning came, turned into Saturday and then Sunday after it, like days usually do, and Crowley replayed his dinner with Aziraphale on repeat. He cringed at the worst of his drunken silliness, let his heart skip over the fonder moments, played a game of push and pull with himself. Maybe if he asked Aziraphale out for real he’d say yes? Maybe Crowley was being a judgemental little shit and the interest was real and there and not some pretty bait to bring out his flirty side?
The thoughts hung around him as he worked. He explained to the aster that Aziraphale was single and out, there was no real reason for him to turn Crowley down. He told the wisteria about how funny he was in Aziraphale’s eyes – he laughed at all his jokes and even his mildly insulting ranting.
Nope, down that path lay madness. If Aziraphale wanted more than friendship he was going to have to say it out loud, unambiguously. And even then there would be extensive follow up questions and maybe a background check. Crowley was happy to play this game, but he wasn’t happy to lose.
Some inappropriate solo drinking helped with the repeating images in his head, the little trip and skip of his heart, but come Monday morning Crowley decided he had to take some action. He scraped himself off the walls and texted Anathema.
And that was how he ended up exercising. Running. On a beach. In the sun. If nothing else it definitely took his mind off Aziraphale.
“It’ll give you killer calves,” Anathema assured him.
“It’ll give me a heart attack,” he wheezed back.
“Good for your ass, too.” She pretended not to hear him, also ignoring the way he panted, red-faced, his legs nearly falling out from under him. It had better give him the nicest calves and arse in the history of mankind. He’d better end up looking like the Vitruvian man, getting sculpted like David, because this made every single inch of him ache. Maybe he needed special shoes or something. Or to travel back in time about twenty years. (Maybe thirty years).
Some people said exercise cleared their mind, gave them space to think. The trick to not doing that, Crowley had decided, was to try to keep up with a woman twenty-five years his junior doing an activity he was woefully unprepared for. He couldn’t get a thought in edgewise and he was going to sleep the sleep of the just tonight. It was perfect.
“So how did you date go?” Anathema asked breezily, barely breathing hard. “I assume that’s what this is about.”
“Not… date…” Crowley managed.
“Your very platonic evening out with the guy you’re crazy about.”
“Never said I was… m’not… “
Anathema smirked. “It was implied.”
He gave her a rude grimace instead of answering. He had agreed to this torture to get his mind off Aziraphale, not to gossip about him. An attempt to run ahead didn’t go particularly well for him when she easily kept pace. Damn her young little legs.
Crowley kept himself panting and flushed enough to not engage with her, ignoring the cramps climbing their way up his legs. Maybe this was good for him? Not just his brain but his body. If it hurt this much now it must have meant he wasn’t far off becoming one of those old men who couldn’t bend down to pick things up. Everyone nowadays was putting on something skintight and flailing about, there must be something to it.
After about fifteen minutes the aching wasn’t so bad and his mind went pleasantly blank, something zen creeping over him where all he could focus on was the pain in his calves and the sound of the waves and the way the cool air whipped his hair about behind him. He could see them coming up on Aziraphale’s property but the thought was nothing, flowing past him like running water. Yeah, definitely something to this.
His zen lasted right up until he spotted the tartan picnic blanket on the sand. It was getting close to lunchtime, Aziraphale must have decided to read on the beach again. Was he disappointed not to find Crowley hopping his fence? Had he thought about calling since Thursday? Did it play on his mind the way it played on Crowley’s?
“Well now I have to ask,” Anathema said. “Do we have to turn back before this gets awkward?”
Crowley shook his head and they kept pace. Aziraphale was reclined on a pillow on his blanket but looked up as they approached and offered a friendly wave. Anathema mercifully slowed to a stop and Crowley doubled over, hands on his knees.
“Good morning, Aziraphale,” Anathema said. “Enjoying the sunshine?”
“Ever so much. How are you two this morning? Making the most of the summer?”
Crowley tried to catch his breath, lungs burning. He could make a better showing than this. He focused on his knees while the other two chatted, took one deep breath, then two, then pulled himself up straight and pushed his hair back from his face.
Aziraphale caught his gaze and smiled a little smile that bordered on cheeky. Like they shared a secret. Maybe they did. All the good the run had done was swiftly being unworked. He must have looked a bloody sight because Aziraphale reached into his picnic basket and offered a bottle of water.
“Hope you brought sunscreen as well, this time,” Crowley said, taking the offered bottle.
Anathema raised an eyebrow and mouthed to him: this time?
Crowley ignored her and poured the water down his throat gratefully. Once he was down to the last third he tipped his head back and sloshed the rest over his face and through his hair, and if this angle happened to make his shirt ride up a bit then so be it. He didn’t put on too much of a show, what with Anathema being right there, but when he righted himself and returned the empty bottle he noticed Aziraphale had stopped talking. The other man had gone three shades pinker, lips parted. Crowley gave him a smirk and he turned even pinker.
Right, now he remembered why he was putting himself through all this. It felt good to be wanted.
“I don’t suppose I could tempt you two to some lunch? It’s about that time.” Aziraphale asked, a little squeaky note finding its way into his voice.
“Actually this is where I turn back,” Anathema said. “I have to open the shop for the afternoon and I’m late as it is. But don’t let me stop you.”
Crowley nodded to her. “Better go lick my wounds. Tomorrow?”
“Bright and early!” she trilled, then leaned in to murmur to him, “You owe me one.”
“I know,” he whispered back.
She padded off down the beach and Aziraphale gave him a nonplussed look. “I didn’t know you ran.”
“Yeah, definitely do that. All the time.” He slumped and leaned over again, the delayed onset pains making themselves known. “Jesus Christ, she’s young.”
Crowley assessed him options from most ridiculous to least. Most ridiculous was to strip off his shirt and dive onto the blanket under some combined pretence of cooling off and sunbathing. It would be smelly. Middle ground was to take a quick dip into the waves and do something similar. Less smelly, more soggy. Actually sensible would be to excuse himself to go home, take a shower, find something to contribute to the picnic. God, Aziraphale was so handsome in his beach clothes, button down shirt open at the collar with sleeves rolled to the elbows.
He really didn’t think he needed to lay it on any thicker right now, Aziraphale’s eyes were already dark and hungry. That opened up option four, even more than most ridiculous: offer to take him up the hill and shag him senseless.
Crowley hesitated. Thursday had gone so well he didn’t want to push his luck, so rather than any of the sillier options, he stretched with his hands above his head.
“Let me grab a quick shower. Twenty minutes?”
Aziraphale’s eyes dropped to the hem of his shirt where the stretch revealed his skin. He looked back up to Crowley’s face in the firm, deliberate fashion of someone who didn’t want to be caught staring but definitely had been. “Of course. You know where I’ll be.”
Crowley limped as quickly as he could up the hill. He would probably be better off sinking into a bath for a few hours, it might mitigate whatever political protest his leg muscles were planning for tomorrow morning, but get real. He wasn’t missing a picnic on the beach with Aziraphale. Not after he’d looked at Crowley like that.
So, mixed results from the running experiment. On one hand it was awful and any moment it gave him peacefully free of his little crush could be undone with a single heated glance. On the other hand if he kept up with it he was more likely to get those glances. Also he might not turn into an arthritic skeleton by his 60s. Worth a shot, he supposed.
He lingered on that moment his brain had switched gears, from all his thoughts focused on the salt air chilling his sweat-slick scalp, the pain in his legs, then that tartan blanket. Fucking tartan. That was his undoing now. The epicentre of his hopes and insecurities. There was no exercise, no friend, nothing short of calling it off right now and never seeing Aziraphale again that would stop this.
And honestly? Fuck that. He hadn’t had this much fun in a decade and the burning wish that Aziraphale felt the same way wasn’t going to stop him enjoying this. He’d make a catalogue of his favourite foods, keep them in the fridge for picnic supplies. He’d run until he had the nicest arse in the South Downs. He’d lavish Aziraphale with every attention because it felt so good to do it.
He could worry about later when it came.
Chapter 7: Secret
The weeks marched on and Crowley fell into a new routine. Up with the sunrise to run with Anathema, spend the morning gardening, free afternoons were for arguing with local florists, Thursdays were some painfully provincial outing with Aziraphale, Mondays were picnics on the beach which they always swore would just be lunch but somehow blurred into whole afternoons and sometimes staggering up the hill to Aziraphale’s kitchen to dig out something for dinner.
Aziraphale’s place was nice. Homey. Still crowded with boxes Crowley suspected would stay packed and sealed for a really silly amount of time, but already a lived-in space cluttered up with books and knick-knacks and abandoned tea cups. The aloe vera he’d gifted sat proudly on the kitchen bench, surrounded by the detritus of plenty of cooking and the bare minimum of cleaning. Whenever he hung around this kitchen he’d find himself absently picking things up and finding some place to put them but Aziraphale was a whirlwind of mess he could never keep up with.
A cute whirlwind, though, and cutest when he was in his Masterchef apron, nose dusted with flour. The summer was in full swing now and with the oven on they were both covered with a film of sweat.
The bench was covered with bowls of batter, patty pans and so much flour. Aziraphale was beating one batch with a wooden spoon and had been at it so long he was out of breath. Crowley perched on a bar stool, homemade lemonade in hand, and watched on.
“How is it still lumpy?” Aziraphale said, looking down at the bowl in despair. “I sifted the flour, that’s supposed to make it not lumpy.”
Crowley shrugged. “Maybe it’ll come out in the oven?”
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“I don’t know anything about baking, angel.”
Aziraphale shot him an irritated glare. “Yes, you’ve made that very clear.”
Crowley gave him a rakish grin and raised his glass. This might actually be true love. He was sure nothing else could convince him to help out for a church bake sale, even if his form of help was to offer moral support while drinking all the lemonade. And maybe not so much moral support as snarky commentary.
He was used to this house now, in that comfy place where he could raid the fridge and use the chairs as footstools. The whole space was starting to form a bittersweet ache in his chest, this house where he was so welcome on the surface of it, could pluck and prod at it, but then the sun would set and he’d be gone, everything rearranged back to how it had been.
He hadn’t invited Aziraphale round to his. If Aziraphale was immune to Crowley’s physical presence in his space, Crowley wasn’t. He’d cultivated his gardens, his greenhouses, the wisteria arches and the Instagram-worthy compost and the twisted herb ecosystem for years. It had been his recovery, turning the barren spaces in his life into quiet, leafy, colourful places, turning the ball of sadness that lived in his chest into a bursting, blooming thing. To have Aziraphale there would carve a new pattern in it, something that would take years to grow over if (when) he needed to.
It was a fantasy, though. To show it off. The biggest bloom of the year had just passed by but there would be colour in all seasons. He could take Aziraphale by the hand and walk with him, quietly, letting him take it all in. Not everything was a commercial operation. Sure, the greenhouses looked a bit industrial at times, but outdoors there were the weeping, climbing plants, the little flowers that craved as much sunlight as he could give them. There was the little orchard he’d mostly planted for a lark, an impulse to grow fruit even if he didn’t eat it. He’d take Aziraphale through all of it, watching the enchanted gleam in his eye, knuckles brushing against his thigh, the dappled light through the leaves making him look all the softer and paler.
Just a fantasy, but a nice one.
Nothing wrong with what was happening right in front of him. Aziraphale wiped his brow with his forearm and had another go at the batter, trying to whip it into shape, tongue between his teeth in determination. Crowley made a note to get him an electric mixer for his birthday.
“I think it’s as mixed as it’s going to get,” Crowley said.
“Well it’s still lumpy so it’s not.”
“Yeah, but have you considered my genius solution?”
Aziraphale looked up. “What genius solution?”
Crowley picked the bag of chocolate chips that sat open on the bench and dumped half of it into the bowl. “There. Now you can’t tell it’s lumpy.”
“Ack!” Aziraphale let out the most endearing outraged cry. He blinked owlishly at the bowl. “These ones were supposed to be vanilla. That’s not even a real solution!”
“No one wants vanilla cupcakes. When was the last time you looked at a big thing of cupcakes and went ‘oh, I wonder if they’ve got any vanilla’?”
Crowley popped a few of the little compound chocolate nibs into his own mouth. “Don’t pout. You’ve got work to do.”
What was more fun: suavely romancing Aziraphale or annoying the bejeezus out of him? Impossible to say. Especially when his hair was all fluffed out of sorts and that smudge of flour was still on his nose and he was flapping his hands about trying to think how to remove chocolate chips from cupcake batter.
I fucking adore you.
Crowley started laying out rows of blue patty pans while Aziraphale came to terms with his vastly improved mixture. He stole another pinch of chocolate chips.
Aziraphale sighed in resignation and reached for the bag himself. “Well, don’t hog them.”
Crowley slapped his sticky hand away. “Oh no, batter-hands.”
Instead he grabbed his own pinch and held his fingers to Aziraphale’s lips. He wished he could say it was some unspeakably sexy moment of licked fingers and intense eye contact but it was more like when toddlers try to smoosh m&ms into each others’ faces. It left both of them giggling and most of the chocolate chips on the floor, and he’d be damned if he didn’t love how Aziraphale’s eyes crinkled when he laughed.
How did this not sear itself into this space for him? If this had happened in Crowley’s kitchen he would never be able to make a cup of coffee again without thinking of it.
It’s because I’m absolutely gone for him. Done for.
Aziraphale handed him a spoon and together they scooped out the batter. It wasn’t pretty. Crowley hoped that the secret ingredient of love was enough to make good cupcakes because skill wasn’t coming into this.
With the first batch safely in the oven Aziraphale started working on a bowl of bright blue icing with considerably more success, since it only had two ingredients and neither leant itself to clumping. Blue food dye stained his fingers right the way to the wrist even with his careful handling. Crowley watched, lemonade forgotten at his elbow. He lingered on the broad, flat nail beds, the perfect square fingernails, smooth, deliberate movements of someone used to precision instead of speed. The sort of hands that threaded book bindings and refreshed embossing in a thousand tiny, agonising movements. Soft hands now all stained blue like he’d broken a pen.
Crowley ached for how much he wanted this ghost in his gardens. If this could last forever, this sticky-sweet flirtation, it would fit in like the last piece of the puzzle. His acres and acres of tender care, of chickens and olive trees and the flowers used in every wedding bouquet for miles around. They were already his love, something that filled a hole where family might have fit. This was so different, so much sharper, laced with a different desperation and a different happiness.
It was almost as good to trail that ghost around the town, the beach, the paths, everywhere they took their cheesy Thursday outings slowly filling up with memories. If he needed to he could still wall himself off from those things, he’d hardly been a social butterfly before. As long as he had Anathema’s shop and his gardens he’d be fine.
“How many do you think we should make?” Aziraphale asked, already onto the next bowl of batter.
“Do I look like a man who knows his bake sales?”
“Hmm, you raise a good point. Let’s just keep at it until we run out of ingredients then, shall we?”
They did, and it didn’t go much better than the first round. They eventually figured out that the lumps were butter, not flour, and melted it appropriately before adding it to the mixture, but by that point egg shells had come into play. They used all the chocolate chips. Crowley was roped into helping with the mixing, begrudgingly accepting a blue and white striped apron to protect his clothes.
But when Aziraphale managed to get a full, smooth, eggshell-less bowl of chocolate batter that looked like it would come out alright he looked so pleased with himself that Crowley called the whole affair a success based on nothing else.
With their first batch of cooked, iced, bright blue cupcakes in front of them both men considered the sight.
“I think we were supposed to let them cool before icing,” Aziraphale said.
It was true, the whole affair had ended up a melted sea of blue icing and possibly the least appetising thing Crowley had ever seen. “At least they won’t ask for your help again next year?”
But by the time they were finished they had trays upon trays of brightly coloured monstrosities, oozing icing everywhere, pretty tasty while they were still warm at least, and Aziraphale was so proud. Crowley decided he’d go and buy out the whole damned sale before he let that expression slip from Aziraphale’s face.
Chapter 8: Rescue
The rockpools down the beach weren’t some Discovery Channel treasure trove of wildlife, but Crowley liked them. The heat of the summer turned Mondays from lunch under the sun to sunset walks, trousers rolled up to their knees and shoes in hand as they strolled, Crowley occasionally dipping into the rockpools to bother crabs while Aziraphale made token objections from the sand.
Wet sand would squelch between his toes when they walked, the heat of the day gentled by the sea breeze, and Crowley’s eyes would dart to Aziraphale’s hand where it hung loose by his side. Their flirtation hadn’t lost any of its novelty, and he counted a day as wasted if he didn’t manage to make Aziraphale blush and demure and call him a flatterer.
Crowley was knee deep in one of the rockpools, wondering if he could capture a hermit crab and keep it in a tank at home while Aziraphale sat on one of the rock outcroppings and mused on the theological implications of shellfish. The sun was just touching down over the ocean, casting the sky brilliant red and orange as Crowley tried to snatch up one of the little creatures that scuttled along the bottom of the pool.
When had his life become like this? He pinpointed the moment in early June. Mondays on the Beach, Thursdays on the town. And other days, whenever he felt like, whenever they felt like. Aziraphale rarely cried off, was only busy when he was really busy, was never uninterested. Anathema was complaining that Crowley didn’t have time for her anymore.
He’d made a point of taking a night off for Anathema, spending quality time with the only sort of friend he’d had since moving here. And of course they’d gotten uproariously drunk and he’d made his argument: I’m in love, Device, there’s nothing for it.
And of course she’d giggled into her glass: Oh, this’ll end well.
Who cared if it ended well? It was starting well, it was going well. He just shoved and swallowed down his thousand fantasies of pulling Aziraphale close and kissing him.
He could pull him down into the rockpool, watch him sputter in dramatic outrage as the cuffs of his pants soaked through, and kiss him. Kiss him until he couldn’t speak anymore. His lips would be softer than his hands, his mouth hotter than the summer, the breathy moan sweeter than bad chocolate chip cupcakes.
Aziraphale was looking at something in the distance, listening intently but Crowley was lost, all his brain focused on what, exactly, Aziraphale would sound like when kissed. What he’d sound like after that, in bed, sheets clenched in his fists.
If he’d just give some indication, Crowley would take anything. Just the tiniest sign that he thought about Crowley the same way Crowley thought about him. But he didn’t. He smiled and laughed and took the compliments and never let on anything that might indicate it was more than friendship.
“Did you hear that?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley listened, nothing but the waves reaching him. “What?”
Aziraphale held up a hand to silence him and cocked his head. The lapping of the ocean against shore was all that disturbed the air for a long moment, until… meep.
They met eyes. No, that wasn’t just the wind.
Crowley looked around for something that might make a meep sound. It wasn’t a common sound on a beach. He climbed out onto the sand to watch Aziraphale search through the seaweed and the rocks, silently so as to listen for the sound again to guide him. Probably a seagull chick fallen from its nest and then they could argue over whether mothers would abandon baby birds touched by humans or if that was just a myth.
“If you go hunting through all that you’ll get seaweed on your trousers,” Crowley said. And it was true. Even if he managed to save a flock of orphaned seagulls Crowley would be hearing about the stains for weeks. Just the thought of salt-wet seaweed against that white linen made him want to do laundry.
“Stop being so ‘cool’ and come help me.”
Crowley did, sort of, putting his hands in his pockets and strolling about the crags, looking for any little corner some critter might try to hide in, following the occasional meep like a tiny SOS. Wonderful, now they were the wildlife rescue service on the beach. The things he did for this man. He sauntered about, not really expecting to find anything. Until he did.
Tiny, slitted, yellow eyes peered up at him from a corner of the rocks. A healthy kitten would have found a better hiding spot, but this one was so bedraggled, swaying on its tiny little paws, it seemed to think this was good enough.
It was so tiny. So tiny. A little, scruffy ball of black fur, its little mouth just opening enough for another meep.
“Aziraphale,” Crowley hissed, trying not to make any loud noises or sudden movements.
“Oh, I can’t see anything, the poor thing…”
The little fluffball huddled closer to the rock, blinking big yellow eyes. Crowley felt a sort of sympathy for the poor little thing, hiding out on the beach, trying to make itself disappear against the rocks when it clearly didn’t have the energy or know-how for it. Aziraphale’s hand came down on Crowley’s shoulder and he froze.
“Oh,” Aziraphale breathed. “Oh, hello there.”
The little kitten tried to shy away from Aziraphale’s hands but he scooped it up, brought it out of the wet and held it close to his chest. The little thing looked so confused by what was happening. It didn’t seem to know whether to leap away or snuggle closer to Aziraphale’s creamy shirt, its little paws padding against his palm uncertainly.
Aziraphale with a soggy kitten cuddled to his chest was almost unbearably cute. Crowley should have known he was an animal person. He would have looked better with a slobbering labrador at his side, but this would do just fine.
“I think he likes you,” Crowley said.
“He’s too worried to like anything, I would say.” Aziraphale cupped the kitten in both hands and held it up at the hollow of his throat like it brought the poor thing closer. “I think we’d better get him home.”
“We’re not getting a cat.”
“We’re not leaving him here. I’m sure there’ll be posters out tomorrow. Just a night in a dry house.”
Optimistic at best. Aziraphale was from the city, he didn’t know how many feral cats were out and about, or how many people decided not to spay their cats then ‘lost’ the kittens.
Crowley rolled his eyes. “If you take that thing home I promise you’ve got a cat.”
It was a hopeless protest. As if Aziraphale would ever let a kitten fend for itself on a lonely night. The little thing was already snuggled into him and purring. Couldn’t blame him, Crowley had taken about the same amount of time to want to bury his face in Aziraphale’s neck and never look up again.
Aziraphale led the way back up the beach toward his house, murmuring sweet nothings to the little kitten. He’d completely forgotten Crowley existed. Crowley sauntered behind, a little miffed at this turn of events. He’d been enjoying a perfectly nice evening with his not-boyfriend and hadn’t counted on this kitten interrupting so rudely. Certainly hadn’t counted on anyone or anything else so entirely stealing Aziraphale’s attention.
He glared at the kitten. The kitten eyed him smugly from Aziraphale’s chest.
They made their way up to Aziraphale’s house before the sun set entirely. Crowley had visions in his eyes of Aziraphale discreetly ignoring any ‘missing’ posters displayed about the neighbourhood. He was smitten. The kitten was as well, by the way it squinted and purred.
There was no way in hell this thing was ever making it inside the Bentley. Crowley didn’t care what vet appointments it needed. He was already steeling himself for that argument in two month’s time.
“Get me a box, would you, dear?” Aziraphale said over his shoulder, already halfway to the kitchen.
Crowley frowned. This evening wasn’t going at all to plan. He picked one of the half unpacked boxes from the hallway and dumped three books and a coat onto the ground. He delivered the empty box to Aziraphale who filled it with fluffy towels and one cat, cooing over the little thing the whole time.
“What are you going to call it?” Crowley asked.
“Well I’m still hoping the owners will contact us,” Aziraphale lied, like a liar. “But I’m thinking Kraken.”
“Yes, as he rose from the sea.”
“You biblical wanker.”
Aziraphale only grinned, eyes still fixed firmly on Kraken, his new cat despite any protestations. Fucks sake. How was Crowley supposed to run a seduction when there was a kitten in the mix?
Crowley edged toward the door. This was too personal, Aziraphale restyling his home, reimagining himself as a pet owner. “I should… I should get going. You’re going to have a lot…”
“Nonsense,” Aziraphale said firmly. “Come on, watch some telly with me while he calms down, you know how to work the Netflix. Do you think kittens drink milk or is that just in cartoons?”
Crowley laughed, the knot in his chest loosening as he imagined their night, a movie on the TV while the kitten dozed in a box at their feet. He snagged his phone from his pocket and googled what human food they could feed to a kitten. He came to the unfortunate conclusion that he was about to be cooking scrambled eggs for a cat. Kraken peered up at him smugly, as if he knew. Much like his owner, he was lucky he was cute.
“I think it’s a kitchen job, yeah?” Crowley said. He tugged Aziraphale along by the waist, guiding him to the kitchen, Kraken’s box on the counter.
Ten minutes later the three of them were settled on the couch, the kitten noisily munching on the scrambled eggs, Aziraphale gazing adoringly at the kitten, Crowley pretending to watch the movie while gazing adoringly at Aziraphale. With the cat between their legs Crowley managed to snuggle close, the three of them making up a strange family, gathered on the couch for movie night.
Alright, the cat could stay. For now.
Chapter 9: Lightning
Aziraphale had been right about his view. The porch on his house looked out over the ocean from the vantage of the hill, much closer to the water than Crowley’s. He had stuffed it with cushioned wicker furniture, Anathema had donated some hanging crystals and Crowley’s gifted plants were making themselves more known hanging in macrame slings.
It was mostly Aziraphale’s reading spot but when the storm rolled in over the ocean they had migrated outside to watch. A bottle of whisky between them, Kraken curled up on Aziraphale’s lap and purring. They sat on the huge loveseat, the light rain pattering on the roof overhead. Summer was still too full for the evening air to be uncomfortable.
Aziraphale looked different in the stormlights. There was something about him at nighttime, Crowley realised. As long as he had sunlight on his face, or the warm glow of indoors, he was all bright smiles and nervous ticks and outdated slang. But the calm of the night did more than gentle him. It let Crowley peek into something bigger, calmer, more profound. There was a side to him that was hidden, that Crowley didn’t think he’d been let in on.
Crowley felt too antsy in these moments. If anything, the lightning strikes on water, the thickness to the air made him more energetic, but Aziraphale looked so much bigger than the storm. The rock it would break upon.
The cat was out cold in his lap, sensing his safety, the perfect calm that Aziraphale exuded.
“What are you thinking about?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale blinked, his thousand yard stare dragged back to the porch, the cat, the glass in his hand. “Soho, actually. My old bookshop.”
“You miss it?”
“No,” Aziraphale answered immediately, the word a huffing laugh. “Strange, isn’t it? I spent the better part of my life there and now it just seems like a part I was playing. A role better left to another actor.”
“Must have been something you liked about it. No one does something they don’t like for thirty years.”
“On the contrary, I’ve done plenty of things I don’t like for thirty years.” He swirled the glass in his hand and took a sip, the movement languid like he was buying time for his thoughts to coalesce. Crowley tried to mimic him, his gravitas. “I loved the books, of course, although I preferred collecting to selling. I adored the restaurants and galleries and the theatre, pain au chocolat and jasmine tea on every block. Culture and convenience, I suppose. The vibrancy of city life.”
Crowley thought of him there, sometimes, with a pang of jealousy. He was so bright, in every way, Crowley could see him swanning through the city with every barista knowing him by name, customers thrilled to get to his store, church group reaching out with all hands, waves and waves of attention from all quarters.
Maybe that was Crowley’s charm. Just a little taste of what he used to have.
“But..?” Crowley prompted, suddenly uncomfortable, hoping there was some looming dark side he hadn’t thought about.
Aziraphale glanced down. “It was all a bit silly, really. All those people, none of them more than acquaintance. Rude customers, sex shops, aggressive commercial developers. I can’t think how I convinced myself to stay for so long.”
“Sex shops and chocolate pastries don’t sound so bad,” Crowley joked. He unwound a little but he sensed he was close to something. That big, steely, profound thing that the storm brought out. “What was the last straw?”
Aziraphale didn’t answer for a long moment. If anything he stilled further, staring into his drink. He considered the glass at length, patted the cat who responded with a little mmrn, then let out a long breath. “My family. We fell out.”
“Over what?” He couldn’t stop the incredulous question popping out.
The wind whipped up, sending a light mist of raindrops over them. Aziraphale looked so sad and Crowley couldn’t find any emotion beyond confusion. How could anyone fall out with this angel? He was occasionally rude, finicky and more than a little twee, but Crowley couldn’t imagine him in a proper argument over anything.
Aziraphale laughed, a spark of humour but a flame of sadness. “A big, traditional, religious family like mine, surely you can imagine.”
Oh, no. Oh, fuck no. Now he had to go to London and fistfight an entire family. Discreetly, because it would upset Aziraphale. He’d take Kraken, between the two of them they might cover the amount of protective rage required.
“Wait, they waited until you were fifty?”
“I’m forty-nine!” Aziraphale objected, a little flash of amusement finding its way back to him, the storm-sadness lifting for a breath before crashing back down. He sighed again. “Anyway, they weren’t the ones who were fed up. I was sick to my heart of pretending for them. I think they were prepared to ignore it as long as I didn’t, well, as they would say ‘shove it in their faces’. But I just couldn’t make one more offhand comment about not finding the right girl yet.”
“The right girl?” Crowley repeated incredulously. “I am trying to imagine you on a date with a woman.”
“I’ve dated women!”
Crowley snorted. “Like hell you have.”
“Even inner London isn’t immune to meddlesome personalities. Speaking of, Deirdre Young keeps asking me if we’re spending much time together and I’m afraid I’m going to be rude if she keeps up.”
“Tell her to go jump in a lake.”
“I’ll leave that to you, if it’s all the same.” Aziraphale looked out over the swelling ocean with a look of fond bemusement. “And I suppose you’re right, about the women. It seemed my family were the only ones capable of such willful ignorance. My dates always looked as befuddled as you look right now. You’re very rude, you know.”
Crowley scoffed. “No, angel, rude is sending some poor, unsuspecting woman on a date with the gayest man in London.”
“Stop it,” Aziraphale laughed.
It made more sense now, thinking about it, what Aziraphale would have looked like in London. Crowley was certain he was right about the amount of general adoration that was thrown at him but the Aziraphale of his imagination was also harried. Weighed down with expectations. A thousand Facebook friends (if he had figured out Facebook) and a family with their collective heads up their arses. A busy shop where he could never just sit down and read.
Aziraphale looked light here by the beach, unburdened. Crowley was so used to him in his loose shirts and cardigans, ambling by the water or curled up with books that the old image of him, every day in his waistcoat and bowtie, engaged and active at all times just seemed exhausting. He was better with a glass of good whisky, a fluffy black kitten and a thunderstorm raging over a distant ocean.
There was one part of the equation he hadn’t calculated yet and he had never had such a good opening to ask.
“And no… boyfriend?” Crowley hoped his question sounded more casual to Aziraphale than it had in his own ears.
To Crowley’s horror Aziraphale’s laughter died a gentle death and the shadow of bad memories took up its place again. Somehow the only thing worse than him confessing to having some bloke back in London was the possibility that it was complicated. Because Crowley just knew that the second Aziraphale started complaining about some tosser who wasn’t walking over water for him, Crowley would be transformed into the sorry creature who spent his nights comforting the man he was in love with over some other man. And what a pathetic sight that would be to see.
“Nothing serious. This may shock you, but most people don’t consider me much of a romantic prospect.”
Crowley nearly let out a whimper of relief, the worst future having just flashed before his eyes. “They’re mental, then. Bonkers. Just look at you.”
Aziraphale looked away. “Thank you, my dear.”
The relief was a blessing, but with it crept the sadness. Crowley would give his left arm to be able to lavish attention on Aziraphale, turn his gifts of potplants into flowers, toss him on that big fluffy bed and make him scream with pleasure. Every night as he lay in bed, room dark, he couldn’t stop fantasising about the sounds Aziraphale would make while Crowley sucked him off. It buzzed under his skin, set his blood sizzling like the air on a stormy night. And the people who had the chance just… hadn’t. Ungrateful bastards.
It wasn’t fair. His mantra, nowadays, his motto. Unfair that he meet this man now, after all these years. Unfair that he burned while Aziraphale remained pristine and fireproof.
Thunder rumbled overhead, solemn stormlight stealing away the laughter he’d managed to tease out and Crowley didn’t have it in him to be a jealous, bitter tit.
He grabbed Aziraphale’s hand, heart jumping at the thought he might be rejected. Aziraphale stiffened and Crowley could almost see the words forming oh, dear boy, I’m afraid you misunderstood. But they didn’t come. Aziraphale relaxed and then they were holding hands.
Lightning struck the ocean, lighting them up brilliant white for just a heartbeat.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Crowley said, testing his luck to breaking point.
“As am I,” Aziraphale said, something Crowley couldn’t identify making his lip tremble. “I think I much prefer it here. I like it by the ocean, with my cottage, and Kraken,” he said the last in a kissy voice, raising another mneh from the cat. “And… and you, my dear. I’m so very glad to have met you.”
Crowley was sure Aziraphale could feel the way his skin burned, could see behind his glasses to where all his heart sat exposed. If he did, he said nothing, just squeezed Crowley’s fingers with his downy-soft hand and took another swig of his drink.
Crowley said nothing. If he opened his mouth it was all going to come tumbling out and he’d already gambled too much tonight.
So he counted his blessings, stopped his mouth with a drink and sat back. He kept his eyes on the horizon, pretending to watch the storm, pretending he could think of anything except Aziraphale’s hand in his.
Chapter 10: Library
This was getting ridiculous. Hand holding and adopting kittens and the church group basically planning their wedding, it was all getting to Crowley. He could joke with Anathema about being in love, spit out the words as an excuse for anything and everything but it was actually starting to get to him.
He curled up in bed and thought of Tantalus, the water up to his chin, the fruit just above his head. How maddening, how sickening, and once his frustration had worn through like old shoes, how fucking sad. He’d signed up for this knowing he’d have these days. He just needed the space to feel sorry for himself, just for a bit.
He cancelled his plans with Aziraphale. “M’just not feeling well. Under the weather.”
He liked under the weather because it discouraged questions. Anathema knew him well enough to wish him a speedy recovery from his little bitch syndrome, but Aziraphale was new to the party. He offered to come over, to bring chicken soup, keep him company. Crowley begged off.
He just needed to lie in bed and feel sorry for himself. Give him two days, three or four at the most and he’d miss Aziraphale more than he wanted to strangle him. It was all a matter of balance. Until then he’d disappear with his fake flu and the complete series of Golden Girls and get it all back under control.
It felt bad. It felt bad behind his eyes and in his ribs and throbbed bad in his toes and curdled bad in his stomach.
Every day with Aziraphale he came to love him a bit more, whether it was finding out something new or just confirming all the other stuff was for real. Crowley’s flu had been brought on by a late night phone call, a client deciding to take his business to a cheaper and less proficient conservator. Aziraphale had been angry and Crowley had watched, waiting for the appearance of bad manners, a flare of temper, waited to see how it would turn on him. He’d been fully prepared to make his excuses and leave for the evening when Aziraphale had sighed, straightened his shoulders and turned a rueful smile on Crowley. Let’s not let it ruin our night.
It felt like a punch straight through his chest. This didn’t feel like playing anymore. When he’d prepared himself to be alright with unrequited love he couldn’t have counted on just how in love he was going to be. He thought he could lean on those old mainstays to justify why, really, he was better off with Aziraphale breaking his heart and leaving.
One of those was anger. Short tempers, mercurial moods, they reared their ugly heads sooner or later. Crowley’s own shitty moods that made him distant and caustic would clash with Aziraphale’s snits once they got down to it, he had been certain. He had been certain. It wasn’t like he needed it yet, but it had been like finding out his parachute didn’t have a ripcord ten seconds after jumping out of the plane. Not a problem yet but definitely something that needed sorting.
And it felt really bad.
Crowley curled in on himself in bed, hair loose over his face, covers up to his ears. Beside him his tablet asked if he was still watching. He wasn’t. His phone was switched off and face down on the nightstand.
He closed his eyes and sunk further into the bed, letting himself doze on and off until the sun was shining in his eyes through the slits of the blinds and he had to reposition. He heard the footsteps outside, the patter on his porch. Something slipped through the parcel slot on his door although the mailman wouldn’t bother coming this far.
Aziraphale. Crowley curled into himself further, but eventually his curiosity got the better of him. He padded out on bare feet, wood creaking under each muddled footfall.
A book lay behind his front door. It wasn’t one of the really ancient ones from Aziraphale’s collection, it was so modern it had a colour photo on the cover. Rare Orchids of the World. Crowley picked it up and turned it over in his hands.
He cracked it open and found the front page to be desecrated with writing. Aziraphale’s tight, loopy script, no less.
In case you get bored. Feel better soon. - A (2019)
“I have the internet, angel,” Crowley murmured into the dead air.
Aziraphale was thinking about him. Worried about him? Of course he was, they’d been seeing each other all the time, joined at the hip for at least a month and then Crowley disappears with a mysterious illness. Aziraphale probably thought he was at best some sort of mucus fountain and at worst laid up with the black plague.
Crowley clutched the book in both hands, staring at the inscription. He was allowed to need time. He was allowed to feel bad. If he pushed himself to act like things were normal he’d do something stupid, say something stupid and ruin everything. If he stood a chance (in his dreams) then he wasn’t improving it by showing off his needy, moody, damaged side. Better to be in bed reading an outdated book about orchids.
He took the book to bed with him, that and a bottle of wine. He set the book and the drink on his nightstand and paused. He’d feel better for a change of clothes, even if he wasn’t up to showering yet.
A fresh pair of pants and some clean pyjamas later he fluffed the pillows so he could sit up in bed, Aziraphale’s gift clenched tightly in hand. He drank in moderation and read up on what botanists of the 60s thought about orchids. He tried not to linger on the guilt of keeping Aziraphale away or the crisis compounding in his heart.
Most of the day disappeared into sleep, some of it disappeared to staring into the middle distance and feeling awful. A lot of it was spent on the book.
When the next morning broke Crowley dragged himself out of bed to water the plants. He had a big order due at the end of the week and planned to leave it to the last second. If he tried to do it in this state he’d end up losing a finger to clumsy secateurs.
Back at the house another book lay by the front door. Crowley swallowed around the lump in his throat. Carnivorous Plants.
Thought you might find this interesting. Rest up. - A (2019)
Today he managed a shower. Greasy hair wasn’t helping his mood. He made a point of eating something with vegetables. Drank some water. Still felt horrible.
He wanted to turn on his phone, call Aziraphale and beg for company. Wanted to call him up and say all sorts of embarrassing things like I miss you and you’re devastating and please run away with me I’ll make you happy I promise. Instead he buried his face in his pillow and let out some undignified noises, clenching his fists to stop himself reaching for the phone.
He flicked through some carnivorous plants but the book hurt too much, he ended up back on his tablet with the first cartoon he could find blaring into the quiet room.
It was too much, he was convinced, like a car crash victim whose morphine hadn’t kicked in yet. This was just too much to live with. He couldn’t look at Aziraphale every day and never touch. He couldn’t be exposed to all that tenderness and kindness without wanting it for himself. He was only human. This wasn’t fair. He crushed the pillow to his chest and refused to reach for his phone and kept his eyes fixed on the tablet.
On the third day he knew he was borrowing trouble. It hadn’t even happened yet and he was living in the day after Aziraphale rejected him. He was dying in words that hadn’t been spoken. And they wouldn’t be, they wouldn’t ever be if he could just get himself under control. Maybe Aziraphale would be his friend for longer than he thought. Maybe forever. If he just shut up. He laughed to himself. He’d never once in his life been able to stop his mouth going.
Crowley got dressed. Just sweatpants and a t-shirt, but they were real clothes. He made himself fried eggs on toast with asparagus. Asparagus had… something in it, didn’t it? Iron or zinc? It was green.
Something clattered at the door while he was eating, a thump on the wooden floor. Crowley set his fork down and rose.
The History of the Giant Sequoias of North America. The photo on the front was brilliant, a tree as tall as a skyscraper with a tiny little man beside it for scale.
Buck up. I’ll see you soon. - A (2019)
And what was that supposed to mean? Crowley pressed the book to his forehead, breathing deep. Borrowing trouble. He still felt terrible, but if Aziraphale pulled away he’d feel much, much worse. It was time to shake it off.
He opened the door.
“Aziraphale,” he called out. The man was already a ways up the driveway, moseying along with his hands behind his back.
Aziraphale turned back to him and smiled warmly. He reversed course immediately, making his way back to Crowley’s door. “Oh, hello. How are you feeling?”
“Awful,” Crowley said truthfully.
“May I come in? I could make you some tea?”
Crowley shook his head. He realised too late that he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses. Weird eyes on a weird guy. “Come sit with me.”
Aziraphale followed him inside and took a seat on his couch. The three feet of space between them seemed to radiate, too empty, too big. Crowley felt bad, right down to the soles of his feet, but also strong enough for this.
With one eyebrow quirked, Aziraphale held out an arm. He glanced down at his knee, then back at Crowley. Too exhausted to argue or even wonder if it was a good decision, Crowley keeled over, his head in Aziraphale’s lap, short, strong fingers finding his hair.
He didn’t say anything, offer any explanation for his absence. He flung an arm around Aziraphale’s waist and tried not to think about anything. Aziraphale murmured comforting nothings, fingers digging into Crowley’s scalp, and in no time Crowley was drifting off again.
Chapter 11: Addict
The annoying part about sort of dating your best friend, Crowley was finding, was that it meant he was a regular sight in the town now. He used to lurk like a bad smell in Anathema’s shop and that was the extent of his social life. That was how he liked it.
Now he had, of all things, a favourite cafe. The barista knew his name, but he’d made a point of not learning hers. Or, well, he’d tried, but of course Aziraphale wouldn’t let that stand.
“Kelly’s off to university next month,” Aziraphale said. “I hope the next one makes coffee how you like it.”
“As long as they make it caffeinated I don’t care.”
That was doubly untrue. He liked Kelly’s coffee, and she made sure no one was looking before adding a sneaky caramel shot. But it was also a lie in that if they were serving up straight dishwater he’d still have his arse in this chair, right here, and pay them three pounds fifty for the pleasure. He’d dress in his good jacket, a tamed man, and withstand the discreet stares from all Aziraphale’s friends. He’d do literally anything he needed to do to be the one on the other side of this table while Aziraphale ate cake.
There was something about cake. Aziraphale was an epicurean in all things, had dragged Crowley all about the countryside to weird restaurants that served reductions of things and foams of other things and really good wine, but get a slice of ordinary chocolate cake in front of him and things took a turn for the pornographic.
Aziraphale raised a tiny, civilised bite to his lips. Crowley leaned forward, coffee forgotten at his elbow. The fork passed Aziraphale’s lips, his eyes closed. Crowley held his breath. Then right there, the little exhale, the mmm, blissed out, filthy.
Is there any chance, angel, Crowley considered saying, that you would fuck me bow-legged while making that sound?
Crowley did not say this.
Instead he remembered his coffee existed while preparing himself for the next bite, trying not to look too obvious about his frankly ridiculous staring. Thursdays had their challenges and not falling off his chair was one of them. He always made sure there was cake. Even if wherever they visited wasn’t a food thing he’d suggest getting coffee afterwards, and somehow a slice of devil’s food or black forest would make its way to their table. It would be a lot easier to keep this bad habit in check if Aziraphale wasn’t just as weak for the ritual. For different reasons, but the result was the same.
“We should go to London,” Aziraphale said. “I’d like to show you some of my old haunts.”
“Thought this was about broadening our horizons. Being part of the community,” Crowley said this with as much sarcasm as he could muster. Given that they actually had become a bit of a fixture it wasn’t much.
“Our horizons could withstand a weekend away, I’m sure.”
Crowley had gone a little bit strange over the noises. Not just the cake noises, although those were very good noises. All the noises. Specifically, the noises he imagined Aziraphale would make when naked while Crowley did terrible things to him. The real Pornhub stuff. His brain would catch the thread of that thought and he’d be done for, totally useless until he’d played out all the hypothetical groans and cries and breathless gasps and that fucking cake moan. The sunglasses and a carefully chosen posture were all that stopped him making a spectacle of himself in public. At home, on his own, it was spectacle city.
“Try mine,” Crowley said, pushing his carefully chosen fudge slice toward Aziraphale, untouched.
“Oh, thank you,” Aziraphale said, eyes crinkling with fondness. Totally guileless. Fork, lips, eyes closed, mmm. One fucked up gardener was all his.
He had to stop this, he was already so eccentric it bordered on actual hermitry. Walking about the town getting all weird about the fact that Aziraphale had a voice he used for things was a bridge too far.
“You know,” Aziraphale gestured with his fork, oblivious. “There’s an antique book auction at Sotheby’s in October. You ought to come with me.”
That might have been the first time Aziraphale had suggested an outing that Crowley was going to have to refuse. It had all sorts of possibilities, taking Aziraphale to the Ritz or the Savoy and seeing what the pâtissiers there could do to Aziraphale's palate and by extension Crowley’s imagination. Share a hotel room. All very nice if the very idea of London didn’t give him a compound headache.
“No can do, angel. You need me to take care of the cat. Try not to miss me too much in that hotel room.” Crowley managed to time it so he said the last while Anne Wensleydale walked past their table, making her eyes widen. Aziraphale turned bright pink and shot him a look. Crowley shrugged, all innocence.
“They don’t need more encouragement, thank you.”
“No, but you need more sweets.”
Aziraphale looked at the two empty plates in front of him. “Oh.”
“Yes, ‘oh’, you cake fiend.”
“I shouldn’t have more.”
Whatever little white lies Crowley told, he would never be as bad as Aziraphale, who said ‘shouldn’t’ only when he meant ‘definitely will’. He also used ‘oh, you’ for ‘go on’ and ‘how could you?’ for ‘that was pretty funny’. And on Thursdays he used ‘mmm’ in place of ‘please start spontaneously drooling, Crowley, there’s a good chap’.
“Let’s get some raspberry pie from Leo’s, take it back to your place,” Crowley said.
Aziraphale smiled in that indulge-me way of his. “Or down to the water?”
The water sounded just fine. Ten minutes later Aziraphale was nursing a pie and Crowley was manoeuvring his prized Bentley down the narrow path that led to the tourist beach that had sand for days and colourful flags and a pier that stretched out across the water. Sunset by the water had been romantic the first few times and hadn’t entirely lost its charms.
Crowley slipped out of the car and folded his sunglasses into his pocket. He’d gotten into the habit, when it was dim enough. The eyes thing was a funny prank to pull on unsuspecting newcomers but it didn’t make him feel much like a Romeo and he needed any edge to cool down tonight.
Aziraphale spread out his jacket on the ground and settled on it, pie in his lap. Crowley folded himself into the sand next to him, both of them looking out over the water. Aziraphale was a calm, grounding presence. He ignored the unopened box in his lap, just watching, the sound of the sea washing over them. A few other people dotted the sand, two couples spaced out at appropriate intervals and a group of teenagers passing a joint back and forth between them.
It was nice. Relaxing.
“So,” Aziraphale said, cracking open the box and not looking at him. “Do you want to talk about London?”
“I thought we agreed. The cat.”
“That’s not what I meant, my dear. You looked like I’d proposed a six month expedition to the arctic circle.”
Damn. He hadn’t meant to give so much away. “Just… don’t like the city. Don’t have to like the city, it’s not required.”
“Can I ask what happened?” Aziraphale’s voice was so gentle, a tone Crowley had never heard from him before.
“Don’t treat me like an invalid, Aziraphale. I’m not your charity case.”
Aziraphale cracked open the box, unintimidated by Crowley’s tone. He picked up the plastic fork the shop had given them and started picking at the pie. He looked from the food to the sunset, saying nothing, apparently giving Crowley the time to get over his wounded pride at being so easily called out.
He shouldn’t be doing this. If he had to, and he did, he could hang around for little cakey moans and blue eyes and the lovely fluster he could raise with a ribald comment. It wasn’t allowed to feel like he should open up, not really, not beyond what he had to. He looked at Aziraphale and saw himself reflected back, his creepy eyes that he didn’t want Aziraphale to see. But here he was, sunglasses in his pocket. A moth to the flame.
“I just,” Crowley searched for some words, something that wouldn’t make him sound completely insane. “I just don’t like it there. Too many people. Stayed there too long and went strange, now if I go back…” He shook his head. “Shouldn’t go back.”
“Then don’t.” That beautiful, warm smile, understanding that sank bone deep. Aziraphale reached out and tucked his hair behind his ear, baby-soft fingertips grazing Crowley’s cheek. “I like you strange, my dear, but don’t if you don’t want to. I’m sorry to pry.”
Crowley stopped himself from physically leaning into Aziraphale, burying his face in his neck and hiding there for eight to ten hours. His cheeks were burning and his bare face had nowhere to hide. All he could do was look at Aziraphale, vulnerable and open and trying not to feel understood. This didn’t mean anything. A little brush to the cheek, a kind word, he wouldn’t back it up with anything.
The waves broke against the shore, seagulls started encroaching, realising there was food afoot, and Aziraphale let him go, his attention back on the pie. Like it hadn’t even happened.
Crowley fished his glasses out of his pocket and slid them back into place. He had to remember that Aziraphale was kind, and that kindness looked too much like reciprocation sometimes. He curled his hands into fists against the sand and closed his eyes. Aziraphale raised his first mouthful to his lips, Crowley could tell, could hear the little exhale. It was safer here, in dirty thoughts, and no matter how Aziraphale cracked him open those noises didn’t lose their appeal. So he let the little moan carry him back to safety and resolved to sit a bit further away next time.
Chapter 12: Bentley
Crowley liked to get Aziraphale gifts. Plants, mostly, to give his house a bit more life. The house wasn’t new anymore, the unpacked boxes had dwindled to an unlucky few and Aziraphale’s roots were firmly in the ground. So there were the houseplants, sometimes flowers, endless pastries. And today something that was definitely going to irritate him.
Crowley parked on the driveway, picked up the little package and prepared to defend himself.
Aziraphale was already setting his book aside, ensconced on the love seat on his porch, dappled by the potato vine Crowley was growing for shade. It was starting to look pretty good. By next summer, it would keep the worst of the sun off and cover the area with white flowers.
“Good morning, my dear. Tea?”
“Yeah, but first: this.” Crowley tossed the box over the railing onto the seat beside Aziraphale, then jumped up the few steps to lean against the railing.
Aziraphale looked at the box, narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips. “No.”
“Hear me out –”
“I went all the way to Brighton for that. I set it up for you and everything.”
Aziraphale pointedly opened his book again and began reading. “I don’t need a mobile telephone.”
“You do. I promise, I’ll keep dick pics to a bare minimum. Three, four a week at the most.”
Aziraphale let out a surprised snort of laughter, breaking his prim affect. He glared at Crowley, or tried to while still half laughing. “I don’t need one. I have a perfectly good landline.”
“Get with the millennium, angel,” Crowley goaded.
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow. “You drive up here in a car from the 1920s and have the nerve to call me outdated.”
Oh. Oh, that was how he was going to play it. Crowley wasn’t going to rise to the bait. Much. “That car is a classic! It’s fashionable.”
“It bounces like a haycart on a cobbled road,” Aziraphale said. “It doesn’t even have a radio.”
“I can’t believe you’d test our love by having a go at the Bentley. How could you?”
Something in Aziraphale’s expression shifted, his laughter dying, the breath knocked out of him. Crowley saw the boundary too late, crashed head into it. It was fine to joke about sex, but not love. The earnest sympathy in Aziraphale’s eyes sucked all the fun out of their argument.
He did an about face, swaggering back down the stairs. He could at least save himself a little by pretending not to notice the shift in the air. “Ungrateful git. I’m leaving, I’ll make plans with you again when you text me.”
“Crowley…” Aziraphale called after him, exasperated.
“With a dick pic,” Crowley insisted, not turning back. He made a point of tearing off down the driveway a bit too fast. Dumb. Didn’t do anything but scratch the paintwork with loose gravel. Aziraphale was right, it wasn’t exactly a practical car.
He had a practical car, a plain white van for moving orders around, but where was the style in that? The Bentley was gorgeous, chic, and there was just something about holding up traffic and watching the veins throb in peoples’ temples.
He drove home and paused at the door, studying his phone. He pulled up a blank text message and selected Aziraphale from his contacts. Had to leave some bait or the new smartphone (an older model, simpler, fewer functions) would get played with for thirty seconds and discarded, never to be touched again. He could almost see Aziraphale putting on his little disdainful act as if Kraken was a worthy audience, toying with the phone, learning the satisfying swiping motion to unlock it, then declaring it all very silly and putting it face down on the kitchen bench.
It’s rude to refuse a gift, angel :P
Crowley usually made a point of texting like a teenager, just to annoy people, but in this case he let autocorrect make the spelling and grammar bearable. No point scaring him off too quickly.
He slid the phone back into his pocket, made a cup of coffee and drank it in three swallows, then made his way to the gardens. Armed with gardening gloves and secateurs, his hair tied back in a ponytail, he decided to stop procrastinating with the azaleas and set to work taking the excess growth off.
It was rhythmic, hypnotic work, on his knees with the sound of the ocean at his back. An old, established weeping willow shaded the plants from the full sun of the summer, shielding Crowley from the ocean breeze as he worked. This whole area was flowers, azaleas and begonias and rhododendrons, the soil soaked acidic. In the spring it was all white and pink, but the bloom was gone, the colder weather threatening to move in, so he worked with a sea of almost indistinguishable green, finding the little buds tucked away amongst the leaves.
His pocket buzzed and pulled him from the plants. He pressed his lips together against the smile. The battle wasn’t won yet.
Is rude to change someone phone number without telling them.
Crowley grinned. He held up the phone and took a snap of the garden, managing to catch it at a flattering angle, sun catching the willow leaves.
Don’t be sour on such a pretty morning.
The message back was almost instant. How did you do that?
Crowley found himself texting instructions, telling Aziraphale to look for the little camera icon, the smiley face, tap on the words the phone predicted. The sun was straight overhead when he realised he wasn’t pruning, but sitting in his azalea beds with his gloves and secateurs to one side, tapping away at his phone like a naughty school child.
He shook himself and abandoned the gloves, keeping at his pruning but one hand always on his phone. He scored himself some bad pictures of the cat, the ocean, the book Aziraphale was pretending to read while taking to his new toy like a fish to water.
The afternoon wore on and the torrent of texts slowed to a trickle. Crowley made dinner, sent a picture, got one in return. Ate his dinner smiling.
Sometimes Crowley was too clingy. He knew that. People in the past had made it perfectly clear. Most of the time he didn’t care for people, but when he hit on someone he liked he had a bit of a habit of coming on too strong. Fine. Everyone had their foibles. People preferred him as a potential romance, it gave him leeway to be annoying and overly honest. It was the quiet, uncharged moments that grated on the people around him. He had a workaround with Aziraphale, tossing out compliments and ribald jokes, the flattery he couldn’t seem to get enough of. It wasn’t until his fifth snarky text about the bad horror movie he was watching that he realised he hadn’t blown any hot air in that direction since morning.
Oh, sure, it was easy to put on the show, just let all his painfully cheesy feelings spill out without a filter. But that wasn’t this. This was just chatter, spending the day with someone.
He’s my best friend. The thought hit Crowley like a brick to the head. Even without all the other stuff, they were friends. Aziraphale liked him.
Crowley stared at his phone, movie forgotten. It was like a door unlocked in his brain, presented him with a whole other option he hadn’t thought of. He’d just assumed this would fall apart, eventually his flirting would stop being entertaining and Aziraphale would find something better to do. But this… this changed things. It didn’t have to end. Or at least not nearly so soon.
A text lingered on the screen, waiting to be clicked.
I don’t know how you stand those horror shows.
And well, Crowley could say something back, something like how much better they were with company, something suggestive about cuddling under blankets and holding hands during the scary parts. How can I be scared when I have an angel to protect me?
He hovered. Thought. I just like them is all.
I think I’ll stick with bake off.
Just like that. Just saying what he’d say to Anathema, to anyone. Just talking. If Aziraphale liked that he wouldn’t get tired of it, not in a hurry, it was what people did.
Crowley turned the thought over in his mind as the rest of the night passed him by, looked at it from this way and that. If Aziraphale was really, actually interested in being his friend then what did he make of the flirting? Did he think that was just how Crowley was with everyone? Or did he think the thousand gentle refusals were a small enough price to pay for the company?
He thought, of all things, of the fucking car. How Aziraphale loved and hated it. Through his eyes it was an awful thing, prone to rust from the sea air, bouncy and uncomfortable, expensive to insure, as silly and outdated as a landline telephone. But worth it. Beautiful enough, just the right sort of joie de vivre that it was worth all the inconveniences. Swings and roundabouts. Aziraphale knew, but he still got in the car, let Crowley enjoy doing ninety on the highway, was always careful not to scratch or scuff.
And maybe it was enough to be a hundred year old car to be doted on and preened over even if they both knew it wasn’t able to keep up. There was no reason to crack the hood and see if they could wring another hundred horsepower out of it. That wasn’t the point, it never had been. And if Crowley loved it despite everything, it seemed like Aziraphale did, too.
He was still staring at his phone when he got into bed, piled blankets over himself and rearranged his lumpy pillows into some sort of arrangement. The room was black except for the glow of the screen. He curled into the nest he’d made for himself, not sure he’d be able to sleep.
Chapter 13: Questions
The windchimes jingled as Crowley entered Anathema’s shop. He could swear there were more there every week. There had to be some sort of upper windchime limit, even for her.
Anathema looked up from her book, eyes owlish behind her glasses. She raised an eyebrow and opened her mouth and Crowley already knew he was in for a bollocksing.
“I know,” he preempted her.
She raised her chin. “There’s nothing more tedious than a friend who forgets you exist when they get a boyfriend.”
“He’s not… I haven’t! You’ve got a phone too.”
“You left me on read eight days ago.”
Crowley checked his phone to verify. That did sound like him. A text from Aziraphale sat unread in his notifications but if Anathema caught him texting at this very moment his life would be forfeit.
She was right. He’d left her mid-conversation, he remembered it now. Aziraphale had called him over for a bottle of the best red wine he’d had in years and they’d spent the evening getting fancy with a plate of cheeses and dolmades. Aziraphale had shown him this silly aerating thing he did with his mouth which involved sucking air through a mouthful of wine and it was so ridiculous they’d done it a dozen times trying not to spit the wine out with laughter.
It all gave him the weird breathless feeling he was living with nowadays. A permanent case of indigestion.
“Give me a break, you know I’m pathetic.” Crowley slumped down into the stuffed green chair she kept for bored husbands to pout in while their wives shopped. Or, really, she kept it for Crowley even when he was being a bad friend, and allowed bored husbands to use it. He sighed into his hand. “A mess. I’m a bloody mess over him. It’s getting worse.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve mentioned this to him.”
Crowley glared at her. His phone pinged. A picture of Aziraphale’s morning tea and scones on his porcelain tea set, little blue flowers and vines in the paintwork. He really needed to show Aziraphale Instagram, the man had a knack for it.
Save some for me. Crowley fired off the text and went back to glaring, trying to ignore Anathema’s incredulous look.
“I can’t believe you got him a phone so you can ignore me in person as well.”
“Me either,” he shrugged. Gotta go, Anathemas going to kill me >:(
“This is unsustainable.”
“Don’t I know it.” He turned the phone to silent.
She was judging him. In her judgey way. It was the dress and the hair and the whole ensemble that made it so effective. Also that she was doing it so very deliberately, turning the full force of a young person’s know-it-all superiority on him like a lamp in an interrogation.
“It’s been four months,” she said.
Four months? Bloody hell. It had been. He’d fallen arse over teakettle when June was just setting in and now the weather was starting to turn. How long could a person live with a rose bramble growing in their chest, choking them?
“You’re the one talking about him. I came here to get some… shiny rocks or something. Get my tarot read.” He regretted saying that as soon as it left his lips. Anathema brightened, her posture straightening, eyes lighting up. He held up a hand, “No, Device, you know the rules!”
“You said it!” she perked, already reaching below the counter for her deck.
Crowley groaned. Now he’d done it. He was going to be witched at.
She slid the deck out of its pouch and shuffled the too-large cards in her little hands, trying not to let them slip and spill all over. They were worn around the corners from a few hundred gullible tourists getting told they needed to be at harmony with the world or whatever.
Anathema split the deck and dealt out three cards. Crowley tried his best to ignore her without looking at his phone, instead finding fascination with the unthinkably tacky crystal ball sitting beside him.
“Past, king of wands, reversed,” Anathema said. “Ruthlessness, selfishness and rashness. You’ve been overbearing and domineering.”
“Hey, steady on!” Mention tarot cards once and she goes straight for the throat.
Anathema ignored him. “You’ve also had high expectations that were frustrated and taken risks that haven’t worked out. You’ve been ambitious and self reliant, to the point where you’ve left yourself isolated.”
“Oh, thanks. Great insight there, O fortune teller. I hope you’re nicer than this with your customers.” That could be anyone. It was like horoscopes, saying stuff general enough that anyone could see themselves in it. And it didn’t hurt that Anathema definitely knew he was a little sensitive about some things.
“Of course I am. I don’t care about them.” She flipped the next card and a little smile tugged at her mouth. “Present, three of pentacles. Growth and community. You’ve started achieving your goals but you need the people around you to complete them. Other people have skills you don’t and you need to trust and depend on them.”
“I’m not doing that.”
Anathema looked so smug she almost had one of those auras she liked to go on about. “Oh, really? So you just spend all your time alone nowadays? Just you, by yourself, in your garden? And I misheard Deirdre when she said you were coming to her garden party next week?”
The phone in his pocket buzzed and it was so very tempting to pointedly, dramatically answer Aziraphale’s text and ignore the witch. She could pull ooh, Crowley, I’m so worried about your mental health all she wanted but she was enjoying this far too much. So much for him trying to be a good friend and coming to see her.
And what was Deirdre doing telling everyone he was going to the garden party? It was a favour. A favour for Aziraphale that he was only doing on the condition that he could drink too much and make a fool of himself.
Anathema flipped the last card. “Future.”
Her smug little smile curdled. She looked for all the world like someone who had taken a sip of their coffee and realised they’d mistakenly put salt in it and was trying to be cool about it.
“What?” he asked.
She took a little breath in through her nose and opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
Crowley couldn’t bear it, he stood up and took a look at the cards.
“Haaaah!” he crowed, buckling with laughter. “What does that one mean? What does that one mean, Device? What are your mystical senses telling you?”
The Lovers sat face up in the third position.
“Oh, be quiet,” Anathema grumbled.
“Is it something about good fortune? Is a load of money coming my way? Does it mean dear old mum up in heaven is watching over me? Wait, it does mean what I think it does, doesn’t it? It’s not some bullshit about peace of mind or something?”
“Oh, look who’s a believer now,” Anathema said with a snitty little frown.
“It’s pronounced ‘belieber’,” he corrected, just to rile her up further.
She scowled at him and examined the card. “The lovers are in Eden, the snake and the apple represent the temptations of the flesh.”
“So I am going to get laid?”
“Oh, gross! You’re a hundred years old, you don’t have sex anymore.”
Crowley grinned. “Whatever you say.”
“Well, you’re not allowed to tell me about it.”
“Oh, no, you started this, Miss Occultist. You’re the matchmaker. You’re going to get details.”
“Why am I friends with you?” She huffed.
Crowley picked up his phone, an ingrained instinct now that whenever he was feeling good he had to tell Aziraphale about it. He saw the text sitting unread. Oh dear. I hope you survive.
I always come out on top. Crowley studied it for a second, still chuckling, then added, Well, not always ;)
He looked up at the disapproving frown. “What? You wouldn’t keep the lovers away from each other, would you?”
She shook her head and looked back down at the card, dragging two fingers over the image. Her exasperation melted into a soft smile, something wistful in it. “The angel over them is Raphael, the archangel of healing. That’s what it means. Loving and healing, finding peace.”
Crowley swallowed. “Don’t get sentimental. It’s disgusting.”
He didn’t check for a return text. Healing. Great bloody lot of healing he was doing following Aziraphale around like a lovesick puppy. This didn’t feel like peace. It felt like he was developing an ulcer, every day more heartsick, weak and nervous and not breathing properly. Why wasn’t anyone just letting him have his dumb sex jokes, why did they always have to bring reality into it? If he had to cope with this, with where it was heading, either to fiery failure or years of unrequited yearning, he would do it without all the pitying stares.
Was it so much to ask to just have an unwanted flower infestation in his chest in peace? To feel like his teeth were made of sunshine whenever Aziraphale smiled and not be hounded about it?
Crowley took up his seat again and watched Anathema pack away her cards. She should have known better than to get them out in the first place. He didn’t need her witchcraft any more than he needed other peoples’ armchair psychology. He had his garden and half a cat and Aziraphale. That was what he was working with and it was going just fine.
“You do realise,” Anathema said, tapping the card before sliding it back into the deck, “that if you want this, you’re going to have to tell him how you feel? Eventually?”
He realised. But he never said he wanted it in the first place. “Ugh, stop with the feelings and tell me you’re going to be at the garden party. I have plans.”
“Of course. I assumed as much.”
Chapter 14: Winner
The last hot day of the year and it was a stinker. The clouds had been moving in, showers of rain perking up the gardens, the beach going grey and thick coats retrieved from the back of wardrobes, but the sun had made a return after weeks of dreariness. Crowley was restless with it, he had just stopped being accustomed to the sweat on his skin, his collar hot on his neck.
Aziraphale had been the voice of optimism as always, scrunching up his nose and grinning at the idea of one more beach day.
“It’s going to be a long winter, we should take advantage,” Aziraphale had said.
And that was that. Settled. Crowley hadn’t taken him to his favourite spot on the beach yet, had kept it secret settled in his chest. But the ocean was still, barely lapping and it seemed like someone up there was giving him a last chance for the year.
It was a good chance, he recognised, when he talked Aziraphale into rolling his trousers up to the knee and wading through the lapping waves with him, the sand smooth under their feet, shoes dangling from their hands.
Crowley stole glances at Aziraphale’s free hand, hanging loose at his side. They’d held hands before, hadn’t they? The sky was laid out in stars, thousands on thousands of them bright against the black, the moon cast the whole sea silver. It was romantic. Would that make it better or worse to reach out and grab his hand and hold it while they strolled ankle deep through the water?
“Down here,” he said, using the excuse and taking Aziraphale’s hand, tugging him down the rocky outcrop, back toward the sand. He held the hand loosely, judging Aziraphale’s reaction, ready to let go if he started to pull away. He didn’t.
Crowley led him, hand in hand down the beach under the stars, west of where they’d ever roamed before.
“Must be one of the benefits of being a local,” Aziraphale said, voice even as if no one was quietly having an attack. “You know all the secret places.”
“You’re a local now. Give it another six months and I’ll have nothing left to show you.”
“Oh, I doubt that, my dear.” Aziraphale punctuated the statement with a little squeeze of his hand and Crowley stumbled, tripping on his own feet. Aziraphale pulled him straight. “Careful, now.”
“Meant to do that,” Crowley said, finding his feet again.
Just be cool. It’s impossible not to be cool right now.
The little pier he’d made his private spot was just down the beach. It was probably the dock for a dinghy at some point, years before he’d moved to town. He’d never seen anyone around this place, now. Whoever owned the beach didn’t use it, probably a holiday house for someone obnoxiously rich. Whatever. It was old and wooden and wouldn’t last another ten years, but for now it dipped perfectly against the high tide, inches off the water.
His brain was largely focused on Aziraphale’s silk-soft skin in his hand, but he kept it together enough to bring him to the end of the pier.
“This doesn’t look safe,” Aziraphale said, eyeing the ageing wood suspiciously.
“Probably not. Afraid of a little water, angel?”
Crowley let go of his hand and dropped down, dangling his legs off the pier and into the water. It was shockingly cold, even with the late summer heat and he tried not to make too big a show of adjusting in case it threw Aziraphale off.
His angel studied the whole situation with increasing scepticism. “This can’t be sanitary.”
“Sit down or I’m going to push you in the water.”
Aziraphale frowned but clambered down to sit beside him, raising his feet above the gently swelling salt water before letting them dip below the surface.
“Oh!” he cried out in shock, the freezing water hitting him and leaving the most comical, open-mouthed shock written across his face. “Oh, Jiminy Christmas, that’s cold.”
“You’ll live,” Crowley grinned at him. He really was a special kind of lovely in the moonlight, even when he was panting and wide-eyed with surprise.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Crowley wrapped an arm around Aziraphale’s waist and held him there, sharing their body warmth. He was right, it was bloody cold in the water, but it was worth it. Four cold white feet in the black ocean that stretched out around them, Crowley wishing Aziraphale’s cardigan was more forgiving so he could feel like he was cradling the object of his most ardent desire instead of a sheep.
“There’s seaweed in here,” Aziraphale complained.
“Yeah. It’s the sea. Look closer.”
Crowley leaned forward, holding Aziraphale tight to his side so neither was in danger of losing their perch. Aziraphale snatched his free hand, holding them so close. It was just to keep them balanced, Crowley told himself; these little intimacies were just the casual closeness of friends who could hold each other for safety. It was only his desperate mind that turned this into something more.
He watched Aziraphale’s face instead of the water, pinpointing the exact moment he saw the schools of tiny silver fish beneath the surface, swimming around their feet. Aziraphale lit up, any complaints about the temperature and the seaweed dissolved in an instant.
“Oh, Crowley. They’re right there. I could catch them in my hands.”
“Pretty, isn’t it?”
“Oh,” Aziraphale let the word out on a breath, looking from the fish to the silver ocean, the stars above and finally to Crowley himself. “Oh, my dear, it’s lovely.”
“I’ve never brought anyone here before,” Crowley said, the confession coming out before he’d thought about it. The night was so beautiful, the water so cold, Aziraphale always so handsome in moonlight. “I just wanted you to see.”
Aziraphale’s free hand gripped his own knee, the last holdout, the last point of contact not indulged. His eyes were all love, always, a longing as deep as Crowley’s, but his body remained relaxed, walled off, accepting but not giving.
“I’m glad you brought me here. I’m glad you trust me. I don’t know what I’ve done to earn it.”
Nothing. The word, the thought, took the breath out of Crowley’s lungs. Aziraphale had showed him kindness, the same he showed to everyone. It was Crowley’s own delirious fantasies that made him trust Aziraphale even when he had no right or reason. Some stupid, unthinkably stupid need for reciprocation, a fairytale he told himself. He’d keep telling himself that story until Aziraphale gave him a reason to rewrite it. Until he had a hard no he’d pretend this could end happily.
Aziraphale was looking at him with those eyes. Soft, silver in the moonlight, his face so close their noses were almost touching. How could he hold anything against this man? It didn’t matter that he knew what he was doing, that he was playing this game knowing it would end with Crowley’s heart in pieces. Crowley didn’t care. He just didn’t care.
The soft lap of waves against the shore seemed to mimic his breath, in and out, blood rushing, caught in Aziraphale’s eyes.
He wasn’t sure which of them leaned forward.
Their lips met, mouths half open and warm and Crowley let the last of his breath leave him. He kissed Aziraphale, gently sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, squeezed him closer with the arm around his waist, the hand in his own. It was soft and warm, so gentle, the tentative search of lips and tongues. Crowley pulled back, just enough to take another breath, then press gentle pecks to Aziraphale’s mouth, their noses nudging each other.
Aziraphale swept back in, deepening the kiss, getting tongue involved. Crowley could hear the little huffing sounds from his own chest as he responded, letting Aziraphale take what he wanted. His angel was touching his tongue in little, gentle licks, taking advantage of his pliant recklessness.
Oh, my greedy angel, Crowley thought miserably, ecstatically, don’t enjoy this. Don’t you know you’re going to ruin me?
There was nothing of desperation in it. They stayed like that, hands entwined, exploratory kisses traded. Pulling back, diving back in, noses touching, eyes meeting and closing and meeting again, breathless exclamations in the cooling ocean air.
It was Crowley who couldn’t take it anymore, crushing Aziraphale close and burying his face in the crook of his neck, smothered in cardigan and skin that smelled of expensive cologne. He squeezed his eyes shut. This wasn’t going to mean anything tomorrow. Whenever they got close enough to something it just disappeared into the air, sunlight melting it like ice. Aziraphale’s hand was still on his own knee.
Crowley breathed deep, trying to memorise the scent. His heart trembled in his chest, the sickness welling up from his guts, the need for this to be more than it was. To just blurt out I love you, be mine, I love you. He couldn’t. That wasn’t part of the game.
He knew the rules. There could only be one winner and it wasn’t him.
Crowley raised his face, looking into Aziraphale’s worried, wanting eyes. He wasn’t cruel. Naive, maybe, easy to convince, easy to lead, missing the affection of other men his whole life and finally free to accept it. Deep inside, hurt and wanting, not sure where he fit into all this. Flattered and curious to have an experienced man show him the ropes. Not meaning to trample on anyone’s heart, but also not looking too hard as he did just that. It was everything that made him so lovable, including that bastard streak he tried to hide.
Crowley dropped his eyes to those lips, soft and sweet, welcoming him. He let go of Aziraphale’s hand and dug his fingers into white curls. He pressed forward again, bringing their mouths back together.
Doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.
Chapter 15: Good Deeds
If there was anything to be said about the sickly sweet bimonthly church group meetups, it was that Crowley would have rather eaten a hot poker than been involved. But he would also be eating that poker instead of disappointing Aziraphale, so, stalemate.
Anathema refilled his plastic cup with cheap champagne, a bottle she’d nicked wholesale from the snacks table along with a full plate of cucumber sandwiches. It was too cold to be out in a garden, sitting on lawn chairs, making small talk with middle aged women and their bored husbands. Well, really the cold was the least of the problems. And they weren’t so much making small talk as eating all the sandwiches.
He didn’t even need to be there. Aziraphale had made some noises about still being new in town, needing the moral support, all that, but these people loved him. They’d learned some years ago that Crowley wasn’t going to be their pet gay so they could all prove how progressive they were, but Aziraphale had no such compunctions. It was humiliating.
Anathema was having the time of her life.
“So the bumper was all smashed in,” some lady who was almost certainly named Sharon was telling her, “and you wouldn’t believe what the mechanic wanted to charge us. Highway robbery.”
“Mmm,” Anathema nodded. “Have you considered carrying some jasper to help with your finances? It’s very effective.”
“Oh. I… oh, no, I don’t suppose I have,” Sharon said.
They were alone again very shortly and Crowley waved his cup at her for another refill. She was so totally serene, enjoying every aspect of this. He wondered if he should tell her they were never going to invite her back, but why spoil the mood? At least one of them was enjoying it.
“You know,” she said, leaning over to fill his cup. “I thought you were just being dramatic, but you’re in love with him, aren’t you?”
Crowley was full of just enough champagne to laugh. “What gave me away?”
She made a general gesture to him, in his lawn chair, with his plastic cup of champagne, sitting next to a badly trimmed rose bush. He was even wearing his favourite jacket.
What did she want? Of course he’d do this for Aziraphale. It wasn’t about getting into those genuinely painful plaid trousers anymore, if it ever had been. He’d go to a hundred ridiculous garden parties, eat as many cucumber sandwiches as they wanted for another kiss at the end of a pier under the moonlight.
The man of the hour wandered their way, smiling. He didn’t look any more at home here than either of them, but he liked these people, wanted to be part of their lives.
“Having fun, you two?” he asked, eyes all for Crowley.
“So much fun,” Anathema said, pointedly pouring herself more champagne.
Aziraphale smiled brighter. Maybe three months ago Crowley would have thought he didn’t notice that the two of them were getting drunk and scaring the locals. The smile was so innocent, his eyes so blue, he could be mistaken for someone who just thought the best of everyone, who thought his friends would never do something embarrassing. Now Crowley knew better and extended one of the plastic cups. Aziraphale took it.
“Thank you both for coming, I know it’s not exactly your ‘scene’.”
“Nonsense, angel,” Crowley said, hoping he wasn’t slurring. “What ever gave you that impression?”
Anathema giggled beside him, well and truly on her way to being sloshed. She munched down another sandwich.
“Of course, how silly of me. You don’t mind if I steal Crowley for a bit, Miss Device?”
“He’s all yours,” she said.
Crowley took his cue, clambering to his feet and stuffing his hands in his pockets. Aziraphale led them away, a slow walk around the edge of the garden. The yard wasn’t the most impressive sight but the plants were loved and healthy. It had heart, he’d give it that.
“Thank you for coming today,” Aziraphale said. “I do appreciate it.”
Eyes were on them. As subtle as this lot could manage. He jerked his head to the little apple orchard and Aziraphale followed. It wasn’t exactly privacy but as good as they were going to get. The world was starting to tilt, the insipid conversation was easier to bear. Everything was just fine, he had Aziraphale with him.
“You looked like you might need a few minutes of quiet,” Aziraphale said. “Or maybe a strong cup of coffee.”
Yeah that did sound like the ticket. A bottle of water, a black coffee and a four hour nap. “We had a deal.”
Aziraphale bit down a smile. “That we did. You seem to be enjoying it.”
“Have to find something to do while you’re romancing the Women’s Institute.”
“Oh dear, I’ve been ignoring you.”
There was a little shed down by the hedge, long since fallen out of use. Crowley took Aziraphale’s hand and pulled him in that direction, hoping for just a minute’s real privacy. It felt natural now, to be a little physical. There were no complaints, at least.
“There’s going to be talk,” Aziraphale breathed as Crowley pulled him behind the shed and crowded him up against the corrugated steel wall, all grown over with moss.
“There’s already talk,” Crowley breathed, then kissed him. They hadn’t talked about The Kiss. It was just like he’d suspected, overwhelming in the moment and gone as soon as the sun rose. This one would be the same. C’est la vie.
He pressed Aziraphale against that wall, kissing him hotly, one hand cupping his face and the other splayed out against the old steel. Aziraphale’s hands clenched tight at his waist, his eyes fluttered shut. He enjoyed this.
“You’re drunk,” he huffed, not opening his eyes.
“Yep. And you’re thanking me for my good deed.” Crowley leaned against him, using his full weight to keep him there while they kissed.
“It only counts – as a favour –“ Aziraphale breathed out between kisses. “If I – can still show my face here again – after.”
“Who says?” Crowley mumbled into his mouth.
Laughter bubbled out of Aziraphale and Crowley pulled back enough to look, to appreciate. He was bright pink, eyes lidded and fixed on Crowley’s lips. Their bodies were locked together in a strange wearing-four-layers-of-clothing sort of way. Not an inch between them but also a wall of wool and cotton. Just enough to be warm and drunk and happy.
“You scoundrel,” Aziraphale said. “This isn’t the place.”
“Then invite me somewhere different next time.”
Crowley leaned in again, but suddenly the world tilted, hand strong like iron on his hips, his jelly legs stumbling. His back hit the wall, and where he had been so very suavely and confidently pinning his angel to the wall he now found himself pinned, hands dropping meekly to Aziraphale’s shoulders.
Aziraphale kissed him, hard, and there was nothing innocent about the lack of space between them. Crowley’s thoughts spiralled into some blissful, overheated place. Aziraphale could overpower him. His body found this information very, very interesting.
While Crowley was still overwhelmed and gasping Aziraphale pulled back. Crowley was suddenly free, the liquid joy of being handled like that pooling and draining away in a heartbeat. He looked up at Aziraphale, bewildered, breaths sharp and short.
Aziraphale was straightening his bowtie, tugging on his waistcoat. Getting himself presentable for the flock of hens when they could spend a perfectly good afternoon making out behind the pruning shed. He shot Crowley a cheeky smirk, dragging his eyes up and down him, appreciating his own work in flustering and dishevelling his friend.
Crowley coughed and tried to straighten himself out, pulling his sleeves straight and running a hand through his hair.
“Back to the party?” Aziraphale said brightly, as if that could hold a candle to what they’d just been doing.
“Party. Yeah,” Crowley managed, stumbling back to his own two feet. The impact of hitting that wall vibrated in him, Aziraphale’s hips pressing into his own. They were both lucky he was in any state to be seen in public. Fuck, at least he’d filled up his wank bank for the next two or three years.
Aziraphale led the way around the orchard, as if they’d never taken their detour, making comments on the trees and the fruit as they went. Just a couple of friends having a stroll on an overcast day. Walking off the champagne. The main yard was back in earshot too soon, they were rejoining the blasted party and their little interlude was over.
Crowley was barely reinstalled in his place next to Anathema when Deirdre Young was upon them, all her chipper smiles and innocuous pleasantries. She’d never done anything really wrong to him, exactly, but Crowley found her an irritant like sand in his underpants.
“Oh, Crowley, we’re so glad you could make it,” she said, and almost sounded like she meant it. “Aziraphale said you were coming but we didn’t think even your boyfriend could get you out of that house.”
“Oh, he’s not my boyfriend,” Aziraphale said before Crowley had a chance. “Just…” He glanced between Dierdre and Crowley, wringing his hands. “...friends. Just friends.”
He would have said the same thing. It wasn’t… He knew things hadn’t changed. It might have been nice if Aziraphale hadn’t been so quick to correct her. Crowley’s stomach churned, the heartsickness rising again. Didn’t change anything.
“Thanks for the invite,” Crowley said, dripping as much sarcasm as he could, gesturing with his now-empty cup in a mock toast.
Deirdre’s smile stiffened on her face and she turned her attention to Aziraphale. “I have some people I’d like you to meet. Shall we?”
Aziraphale cast a glance to Crowley as he was led away, their eyes locking for a long second.
Then he was gone.
Crowley realised Anathema was staring. She looked at him, eyebrows raised, mouth open. Even if Deirdre could ignore it he knew how he must look, rumpled and kiss-flushed, watching his very-not-boyfriend get led away by a tedious woman. Anathema was starting to get it, how deep he was in, how fucked he was.
He held out his plastic cup and she filled it again without a word.
Chapter 16: Cactus
The aloe vera in Aziraphale’s kitchen was thriving. Even the ones in Crowley’s greenhouse hadn’t grown as much as this one, bright green and spiky and bigger every time Crowley saw it.
The sky was grey, the wind rushing against the walls, rain on its way, but the kitchen was warm from the oven, well lit, Kraken was watching intently from the windowsill and the aloe vera was looking like it was posing for a magazine. Cosy, that was the word for it. Like someone had transformed one of Aziraphale’s fluffy cardigans into a room.
Aziraphale’s baking was coming along. He’d thrown in the cakes in favour of pastries, his constant fussing with his hands turned to folding and buttering filo pastry, a new sheet, keep it moist, fill it with a bunch of whatever, brush the butter, fold and fold and fold and done. It was hypnotic.
Should Crowley be here, sitting on this bar stool, pretending he could think about anything but flinging Aziraphale down on the couch and riding him into the sunset? No, probably not. Was he? Oh, yes.
The Neruda book was out on the bench and Crowley flicked through it idly.
“In this part of the story I am the one who dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you, because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.” He read the passage aloud, letting the words soak into the air. As close to a confession as he could come. “Cheery bugger, wasn’t he?”
“Are you accusing a Nobel laureate of melodrama?” Aziraphale asked, eyes still focused on his pastry work.
“They don’t give you melodrama immunity with the medal.”
“Oh, that’s a pity. I might have suggested you try for one.”
Crowley opened his mouth to give an elaborately offended protest, then snapped it shut again. Sometimes this man just came out of nowhere and he couldn’t stop himself being proud of him every single time. “You want some dramatics, angel? I can get dramatic for you.”
“Oh, no, it’s far too early for that.” He folded another pastry into its little triangle, popped in on the baking tray as part of a neat row. “Though we really ought to invite Anathema around sometime. I didn’t realise how amusing the two of you were together. I daresay she’s as much of a misanthrope as you, though she hides it better.”
“You’ve got it backwards. She enjoys riling people up, I prefer to keep out of it.”
“I think you might enjoy riling people up a bit.”
“Never.” Crowley leaned over and scooped a bit of the filling out of the bowl with his finger, quickly popping it in his mouth before he could be stopped.
Aziraphale gave him a fondly chiding look. “I don’t mean that. Not when you’re being cute.”
“Adorable,” Aziraphale said, leaning into the word to antagonise him. “But not always. You’re so very prickly with other people, I don’t understand it. You’ve always been so lovely to me.”
Crowley laughed genuinely, a bubble of lightness bursting in his chest. “I’m prickly with you, too, you’re just too nice to notice it.”
“You aren’t, not like with them.”
Crowley shrugged. “Just don’t like them.” Not head over heels for any of them.
“I know the church group can be a little overbearing but they’re not bad sorts.”
Aziraphale was broadly right. They weren’t bad sorts. But that was only one half of the equation and Crowley was a bad sort. The people around could be as inoffensive as anything, it didn’t really matter. The first time he said something weird or cracked a joke they didn’t find funny or rolled up in his eccentric car something changed. A whole flock of perfectly normal people could suddenly make him feel like an alien who’d just landed his flying saucer on their lawn. It was just easier to keep out of it and quietly dislike them from the sidelines.
This was where Aziraphale distinguished himself. He was nice in a real way. Not just a veneer of pleasantries until he’d passed his judgement, he actually listened, didn’t toss Crowley aside the first time he was a bit off beat.
“Get a face tattoo and see if you feel the same,” Crowley muttered, stealing more of the filling.
The point was that Crowley had been happy alone in his house and his gardens, he was happy and only half dying of heartache with Aziraphale and Kraken. Anyone else could go jump off the bloody cliffs for all he cared, they only made his life more difficult.
“Really, dear. You’re too hard on people.”
“You’re too soft on them. Why hang around them anyway? I bet they don’t even read.”
“You hardly read and I hang around you.”
“Yeah, but, I’m better looking than them.”
A little spark flashed in Aziraphale’s eye, his mouth curling wickedly. His gaze flicked down Crowley’s body before he caught himself, looking away, then back, trying to organise himself. “Oh, good lord.”
“Also, none of them snog you behind the garden shed,” Crowley grinned, leaning forward.
Aziraphale’s already flushed skin darkened a shade. He probably shouldn’t tease, they still hadn’t talked about the kissing, probably never would. But there was no fun in just letting Aziraphale pretend it hadn’t happened.
“Or maybe they do?” Crowley continued. “Who else are you hiding away with in dark corners, angel?”
“Why, I – No one!” Aziraphale said, indignant, all aflutter with his buttery hands and beet red face.
“It’s Sharon’s husband isn’t it? I saw the way you were looking at him.”
“Who’s Sharon? I–I would never! Not with anyone’s… You know I don’t…“
How could anyone be so intelligent and so easily tricked at the same time? Aziraphale was starting to look genuinely hurt that Crowley believed he was sneaking around with married men.
Crowley grinned. “Now who’s adorable?”
Aziraphale grabbed the tea towel that sat slung over his shoulder and took a swipe, sending a little puff of flour over Crowley’s clothes, his mouth all pursed in frustration. “You fiend.”
“Watch the clothes,” Crowley said, brushing the flour off his black shirt.
“Maybe I was wrong,” Aziraphale said primly. “Maybe you’re just awful.”
“Nah, you don’t mean that.”
Watching Aziraphale clutch his pearls was the best thing in the world, Crowley had decided. Especially when he was also trying to check Crowley out on the sly and not doing a very good job of it. It would have been a good time to try to talk him into some more snogging, lick the butter off his fingers, get their clothes all messed up. Maybe even goad him into being Mr. Forceful again.
The voice of reason in his head was growing stronger these days, getting more and more anxious that he was going to push Aziraphale away, or sacrifice their friendship on the altar of a good shag. He had to hold back. Go slow. Let Aziraphale set the limits.
Aziraphale softened. “You’re right, I don’t think that at all.”
“I know. I don’t get it, though.” Crowley tried to make it sound casual. He got a little bit of it, knew Aziraphale was being forgiving because of their flirtation. But that was only enough to take the edge off it. If he really didn’t like Crowley he wouldn’t have hung around this long.
“I think you might be a bit more of a good person than you play at, Crowley.” The last of his pastries all lines up, Aziraphale gave Crowley a fond, inscrutable glance before picking the tray up with one hand and turning to the oven.
Crowley was making sarcastic mimicky noises about him being a good person when Aziraphale, hand halfway into the oven, dropped the tray. He instantly clutched his hand to his chest and let out a cry of pain as the pan fell to the ground, unbaked pastries scattering across the floor. Kraken was out of the room like a shot, so fast he almost teleported away from the big clatter.
“Oh, bother,” Aziraphale hissed.
Crowley was on his feet, round the other side of the island before he registered he was moving. He took Aziraphale’s injured hand and examined the burn forming on the skin.
“Come on, Pooh Bear,” he said, guiding Aziraphale to the sink while he was still wincing in pain. Crowley turned on the cold tap and directed the burned hand under it, holding it there. That was going to be a nasty burn, looked like he’d brushed the element.
Crowley left him with his hand under the running water and approached the aloe vera. He tore off the plumpest looking leaf and found himself a paring knife, cutting it clean down one side so he could peel it open, exposing the clear, sticky goo on the inside.
When the burn had been under the cold water long enough Crowley took Aziraphale’s hand out and dabbed at it with the nearest tea towel to dry the skin, then scraped the innards out of the cactus leaf with the paring knife and eased the goo onto the burn. Aziraphale winced at his ministrations but didn’t fight him, and when the soothing gel hit his hand he let out a long breath.
Crowley focused on the injury, trying to get the stuff rubbed into the skin without hurting the burn too badly. Bloody hell. He’d been right there. Three metres away and he couldn’t stop Aziraphale getting hurt.
After a minute of massaging the aloe vera into Aziraphale’s hand Crowley looked up, feeling eyes on him. Aziraphale’s baby blues were swimming with affection, so warm and fond that it was Crowley’s turn to blush, to turn away and be unable to hold eye contact.
“This is pretty bad, I’ll just go and… and find a bandage.”
Aziraphale nodded, little smile still playing at his lips, injury forgotten. Crowley escaped to the bathroom to find a first aid kit before his reputation was completely destroyed.
Chapter 17: Memory
They were falling out of Thursday night routine. It had started out as every week and they’d kept it that way for longer than Crowley would have expected, but now laziness and comfort zones kept them indoors two weeks out of three. Crowley didn’t really mind giving the kitschy activities a miss, he’d only been doing them as an excuse to hang out, but Aziraphale was so openly, honestly delighted by every stupid little thing he couldn’t bring himself to nix his ideas.
The boardwalk opening the arcade out of season had lit Aziraphale up like a Christmas tree. Some memorial for some local… someone had the tourists flocking in and the funfair going for the weekend.
“I thought we’d have to wait for next year!” Aziraphale had exclaimed.
I hoped we would, Crowley hadn’t said. He couldn’t. How could he play the curmudgeon when Aziraphale was practically bouncing with anticipation? The least he could do would be to walk about among screaming children and photo-snapping tourists for a few hours.
Crowley didn’t mind the boardwalk. It was one of the things that had decided this town for him when he was picking where to move. He didn’t remember a lot of his childhood but he could pull up the glittering lights against the black sea, blue candy floss and he won a stuffed pig at some point. It all blurred together a bit.
Looked different now. It had been old then but the pier had been refurbished since, so the rusted hardware and sea-worn wooden boards beneath his feet were now fresh, the weather just barely beginning to creep in again. He’d also seen it through a sea of legs where now he was taller than most. The lights were just as bright, the ringing bells and arcade music somehow louder. The sea wind was bitter at this time of year and Crowley was in a heavy coat and scarf, but Aziraphale seemed to be warmed from within, wrapped in sunlight and the ugliest argyle sweater Crowley had ever seen.
I need to get you out of those clothes, Crowley thought, because they are just the worst.
A particularly loud burst of child-yelling drew their attention, Adam Young and his friends celebrating knocking over a single pin at a ball-toss game. Aziraphale looked on fondly and before Crowley knew it they were socialising.
“Adam!” Aziraphale cried happily. “What a good throwing arm you have.”
“Going to get them all next time,” Adam said with a certain nod. “Watch, watch.”
The kid picked up his last shot and took aim. Crowley lingered back, not sure how to interact with this situation. Really not his scene. Adam pitched the ball and it went wide, hitting nothing. The kids all gave the kind of exaggerated groans of disappointment only possible for preteens.
“Oh, now,” Aziraphale started rolling up his sleeves. “Let me show you young whippersnappers how it’s done.”
The kids giggled and one of them rolled their eyes. Crowley supposed Aziraphale had a certain embarrassing charm to kids, like Santa or a stage magician. He passed off a few pounds to the bored teenager running the game, then made a show of taking one of the rubber balls, inspecting it, polishing it on his trouser leg like a cricket ball. Crowley bit down his smile. He shouldn’t be indulging this sort of behaviour.
Aziraphale drew back and threw, nailing the stack of pins in a single hit. The children shrieked with surprised laughter and Crowley’s eyebrows shot up. The vivid memory of Aziraphale pinning him to the garden shed replayed itself for about the thousandth time. Had he fallen for an athlete? Interesting. Very, very interesting. Not helping with the keeping himself in check.
He turned away, redirecting his attention to the nearest guy with a candy floss machine. He just needed a few breaths, a moment to sink back into jangly music and lurid lighting and away from Aziraphale could kick his arse.
The distraction was forgotten once he had a giant puff of blue candy floss in his hands, catching the orange lights, the sense memory from childhood stronger than his ridiculous crush.
Had this been what it was like when he was a kid? He had been closer with his mother, with his brothers and sisters, before it all fell apart, before he became the black sheep. But there had been a before, and it had involved this, right here.
Crowley turned back to see Aziraphale handing a stuffed toy off to Adam and clapping the boy on the shoulder before looking around for him. Crowley offered out the spun sugar. He didn’t want to eat it, just look at it, and it would look better in Aziraphale’s hands.
Aziraphale smiled at him and took the treat. “Oh, thank you, my dear.”
“Anything for you, slugger.”
Another man might have been embarrassed but Aziraphale smiled so broadly at him, sweet and happy. “I haven’t been to an arcade since I was a boy.”
“Same,” Crowley found himself saying without really meaning to. He glanced around. “Prizes haven’t improved in forty years.”
“You didn’t tell me you’d been here before.”
Crowley shrugged and started walking, moving them along. The rotating clowns had given him nightmares with their wide open mouths and dead eyes. That also hadn’t improved with time, still creepy as anything. Crowley gave them a disdainful glare. “How are those things still allowed in public?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“What? I came here as a kid. Fun little fact about me, I didn’t just get made from whole cloth the day you met me.”
“Oh, I’m sure you did. You just fell right out of the sky and landed flat on your back as I was taking my walk. Given how little I know of your past it seems the most likely prospect.”
Aziraphale tore at the candy floss, twisting a long string around his fingers and popping it into his mouth, eyes fixed innocently elsewhere.
There was always this line between not talking about the things he didn’t like thinking about and needlessly acting like he was in witness protection, and Crowley hadn’t quite figured out how to walk it. None of it was a secret, he wasn’t ashamed. He’d had all the usual arguments with his family, they just weren’t a very forgiving lot. He’d done soulless but generally honest work, it was only a mismatch of temperament that had made him leave London. He didn’t have anything to be ashamed about. Maybe it wasn’t the healthiest thing to cut his life into the Before and the After and then refuse to talk about the majority of it.
“I came here twice, 1980 and 1982. With my family. You know, beach holiday, like families do.”
“I never hear you talk about them.”
“That’s because I don’t.”
Aziraphale walked closer to him, their elbows brushing. Sometimes he was so understanding it gave Crowley a toothache. “You don’t sound like you have many good memories of them.”
Crowley let the smell of popcorn and sugar, the glare of bright lights ground him in the moment. The whole start of his life was a blur, even his teen years. Even his twenties, really. He could mark off the big events, recall a month, a year, a name, a place, but he couldn’t really sink into it. “Guess not,” he said. “But this one is.”
Aziraphale took him lightly by the wrist, encouraging one hand out of his pocket, and linked their fingers together. Comfort. Even when Crowley didn’t ask for it, he always had it with Aziraphale. Warm hand in his, warm smile shining up at him, no pushing, no pressure. He really was an angel.
“Let’s make another one then, shall we?” Aziraphale asked and Crowley didn’t feel a burning at the back of his eyes, didn’t feel a shake in his hands.
Aziraphale pulled him back toward the games, singling out a ring toss and handing a few notes to the vendor. Crowley found a handful of flimsy plastic rings in his hands, staring at the almost-certainly-rigged game in front of him, blue and red lightbulbs flashing above his head, too stuck in Aziraphale’s unironic joy to beg off.
He flung a few of the little hoops, watching them wobble through the air on the breeze into nothingness, but he couldn’t mind much. Aziraphale furrowed his brow in concentration and flung his first hoop, pitching it effortlessly around one of the wooden blocks. And again, and again. Crowley was laughing too much by his fifth hoop to even pretend he was aiming.
“Your hidden skill is carnival games, angel, I should have expected. It couldn’t be something useful like betting on horses or picking lotto numbers.”
Aziraphale grinned. “I prefer this, I think.”
“Of course you do.”
For all his perfect aim Aziraphale only received a little stuffed dog at the end of it.
“Rigged,” Crowley muttered.
“I’m sure it’s not.” Aziraphale held out the toy to him, like it had been obvious from the start that’s what he intended. “Anyway, he can keep you company when you’re missing Kraken.”
Crowley’s hands took the toy without his permission, cradling it like it was made of glass. He looked down and saw his own little hands at eight years old, sticky with blue candy floss, clutched around a toy pig. He’d kept it for years. His mother had lavished praise on him like he’d won an Olympic medal.
He clenched one hand around the little grey dog and reached out with the other, taking Aziraphale’s again. Every day it was harder to believe that this wasn’t another Before, waiting to mark the end of it with the day Aziraphale got bored of him. But it wasn’t. He was here with his best friend, in the After, where his life had really begun.
“Come on, angel,” he said, voice only a little wibbly. “I want to see what you can do on the strongman game.”
Chapter 18: Weekend
Don’t go, Crowley had whined like the petulant child he was turning into.
Don’t pout, it’s only one weekend, Aziraphale had said, like the responsible adult he was.
A bloody book auction three hours away had ruined his whole flow, his vibe, the blissful beach romance novella his life had turned into. Six months ago he wouldn’t have known Aziraphale from Adam and now a whole forty-eight hours without him seemed impossible. The whole house was empty and eerily silent, even when he was playing music.
Kraken had been dumped on his doorstep, the little monster howling at him every minute as if it was his fault they’d been abandoned to nature. He was just at that age where he was all obscenely cute long limbs and had a habit of scratching up leather furniture.
Crowley was tossing and turning in his bed, three scotches deep, a pouting furball at his feet, staring into the blackness of his bedroom. He couldn’t even have a wank with the cat on the bed. This was bullshit.
I’ll have my mobile telephone with me, don’t fret.
Angel, I’m begging you to just call it a phone.
Crowley eyed the phone on his nightstand. It was a fucking temptress that tried to beguile him too often. Just reach out and touch it, and he could be talking to Aziraphale. Tell him his cat’s farts could kill an elephant at ten paces. Complain about the weather. Ask about the auction. Hear his voice.
Crowley was concentrating so hard on the phone that when it started ringing he nearly jumped out of his skin.
The cat was off the bed like a shot, startled as badly as Crowley.
He let out a gasping breath, pretending he hadn’t just got a fright, and reached for the phone. It would be cool and aloof of him to wait a few rings before answering, but he didn’t.
“Oh, Crowley, you’re still awake,” Aziraphale said, as if he didn’t know Crowley would launch himself at his phone even if he’d been dead asleep.
“Mm, s’time? Everything okay?”
“It’s… late. I couldn’t sleep.”
Miss you, too. Crowley stared at his pitch black ceiling, felt Aziraphale’s absence. It wasn’t like he’d be here, in this room, if he was at home. They didn’t see each other every day. It was just that this time they couldn’t, and that made a weird kind of difference.
“How was the auction?”
“Fine. A few good finds, nothing to write home about.”
Crowley lounged back on his pillows, one hand behind his head. He’d got his wish, and that was enough, to hear Aziraphale’s voice before bedtime. “Then what’s got you worked up?”
“Nothing,” Aziraphale said. Lied. He sounded so anxious. “I’m just full of nervous energy. Too much excitement for one day.”
“You’re worried about the cat, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I miss him.”
What a bloody loaded sentiment. “Then maybe you won’t abandon him to my lair in future.”
“Oh, don’t tease. Is he alright?”
“He’s a cat, Aziraphale. He’s fine.”
Crowley grinned into the darkness. “What are you wearing?”
“Oh, honestly, Crowley.”
“It’s the frou frou pyjamas, isn’t it?”
The cute little set, pale blue satin. Paired with his grandpa slippers and with Kraken winding around his ankles they were just the kind of cute and homey Crowley was craving about now. The sort of Sunday morning getup that came with early cups of coffee and a blanket wrapped around his shoulders like a shawl.
“You look good in them.”
Aziraphale paused. “Do I?”
The scotch must have loosened his tongue, because before he knew it he was risking Aziraphale never letting him see his pyjamas again. “Mm, yeah. Wearing something like that? Called me up to relieve a little tension, did you, angel?”
“Crowley.” There was a lot of scolding in his tone, but also something distinctly… not.
Crowley’s eyebrows shot up. Had he actually called for that? Would Aziraphale ever do something so daring in his whole stuffy life? No, maybe not. It was the sort of thing he’d have to be talked into. Something he might enjoy being talked into. Their kisses still burned on Crowley’s lips.
“You did. Lying there in those silky pyjamas. What’s the point of a hotel room if you don’t dirty it up a bit?”
“Oh, you tease,” Aziraphale offered him his last out. Push this and he could lose everything. Everything that pressed against his chest like flowers blooming. Bring them to some awkward place where Aziraphale avoided his eyes when he came to pick up Kraken and then mysteriously stopped answering his phone, muttered something about being busy.
“It’s alright, angel, I can get you to sleep. Unless you’d rather…”
“I… oh…“ Aziraphale’s breath was coming hard. He paused for an excruciating second, then, “…alright.”
Crowley hadn’t really been prepared for this. Couldn’t have been. His brain was still 40% taken up by Aziraphale’s tongue in his mouth, little breathy moans shared between them. He had no time to marshal the other 60% to do something useful. Aziraphale’s agreement to his suggestion had taken the legs out from under him and when he spoke again he had no idea how he managed to summon a voice rather than some breathy whimpers. “Just relax, angel. Undo a couple of buttons for me.”
“Alright, I have.” Aziraphale didn’t sound like this was relieving tension. He sounded like a tightly coiled spring.
“Put me on speaker phone, on the pillow, yeah?” Crowley suggested. He heard the fumbling of a phone between shaking hands and smirked.
“You’re… you’re on the pillow.”
Fuck, that voice had his cock perking up, breathy and uncertain and trusting. This was going to be a very poor showing if he wasn’t careful. “Good. Just lie back. Close your eyes. I think about it, you know, unbuttoning that shirt, running my hands down your chest. You’ll be my hands tonight.”
“Hush, shhh, it’s alright. You don’t have to talk, just let me. I’ll tell you what I think about, late at night, when you’ve spent all night getting me all hot and bothered.” Crowley slipped a hand into his pants and wrapped it around the base of his cock. He bucked gently into his hand, not overdoing it. He wouldn’t last. “Starting with getting into that shirt. I think about undoing the buttons, one by one until you’re all laid out for me. I’d kiss your neck, and down your collarbone, your ribs, your cute little belly. Are you all bare for me, angel?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale breathed.
“Good,” Crowley grunted. He started stroking himself lazily. “Good, run your hands down your chest for me, I can feel it. You’ve got the softest skin I’ve ever felt, I want to smother it all with my hands and my mouth. Can you feel me there, angel, kneeling between your legs?”
Aziraphale whimpered, the sound far away like he’d flung his face away from the phone. God, Crowley couldn’t believe he was allowed to be doing this.
Crowley continued. “Do you want to know what I think about? I think about slipping my fingers into your waistband. I’d tease you, just along the sweet spots of your hips, run my fingers along there.”
A gasp of air. The angel was touching himself, just like Crowley dictated. Oh, he was going to fucking explode.
“That’s it,” Crowley growled into the phone, palming his cock harder. “Slip them down your hips for me. I’m there, with you, dragging them down. It’s my eyes on you.”
Aziraphale let out an oh that convinced Crowley that he was doing as told but was blushing five different shades of red while doing it. He could see it, clear as day, Aziraphale’s face pressed into the pillow in embarrassment, eyes squeezed shut, slipping his pants down his hips to mid-thigh. And what a fucking sight that that would be.
“I’d start kissing your belly. Think about it all the time. Your skin is so soft, don’t know how you keep it like that. Touch yourself for me, yeah? Follow my mouth with your hands. What do you taste like? I’d use my tongue, taste every inch of you.”
Aziraphale’s heavy breathing was intoxicating, shooting straight to his cock. He’d been thinking about those noises for so long, his brain designing some amalgam of his out-of-breath pants when they walked up the hill and his obscene moans when he ate good chocolate cake. It was close, but there was something new here, something making him painfully hard, hypersensitive to his own touch.
“Bet you’ve got the loveliest cock,” Crowley growled. “Think about it all the time. How fucking pretty your cock is.”
“I don’t…” Aziraphale tried to protest.
“Shhh. You do. Pretty and pale and silky smooth as the rest of you, isn’t it? Touch it for me. I’d do it for you, if I could. Get my hands on it, jerk it for you. Is it starting to drip for me?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale gasped. He was panting at this point, breathy, wanting sounds right into the phone.
Crowley squeezed his eyes shut, trying to cope with this. He squeezed the head of his cock, trying not to think too hard on the image of Aziraphale leaking precome onto his hands as they touched themselves together. He’d made his angel hard, dripping, moaning. He started stroking himself in earnest, it was too much for him, for any red blooded man.
“Think about sucking you.” The words spilled off his tongue now, the alcohol and the blood rushing in his ears refusing to let him think straight. “Think about getting my mouth on you, licking and sucking, licking up everything you give me. Bet you taste like nectar. Even if you don’t. I’ll lick every inch of you, be a really sloppy mess about it. Would you like that?”
Aziraphale didn’t answer except to give a strangled moan. Crowley kept touching himself, aware of something big and intense building at the base of his spine. He slowed it down, he had to hold off, wait for Aziraphale.
“Want your hands in my hair. Get big thick handfuls of it. Yank as hard as you like, I’ll suck you better for it.” Crowley took a breath, trying to calm down enough to keep his chatter going. It was hard through panting breaths, when his cock felt like it was on fire. “I don’t know how far I can take you, but I’ll try, I’ll choke if I have to, just to get you at the back of my throat. Oh, gorgeous, want you to lose yourself in me.”
He could hear the obscene sound of slick skin on skin through the phone, Aziraphale getting himself off to the sound of his voice.
“Fuck, angel,” Crowley gasped. He feathered his cock with touches, keeping himself close to the edge, bucking into his hand. “Want you. Want you to come in my mouth.”
“Oh, oh Crowley,” Aziraphale moaned in frantic, broken tones.
Crowley squeezed his eyes closed. He was so close he was edging himself at this point, just running his fingertips along his own length, in real danger of finishing himself off with his own filthy mouth. “Think of my tongue on you while you fuck my mouth. I’ll keep it moving, I’ll lick that little spot where -“
He was cut off by a sudden gasp through the phone, a cry, something that might have been a word. Crowley grabbed his cock and stroked once, twice, toppling over the edge he’d been hanging on. He called out for Aziraphale, their unintelligible begging mingling in the night air. Crowley curled in on himself, body twitching, coming all over himself.
He lay against his pillows, gasping, staring sightless at the ceiling. Aziraphale’s delicate breaths echoed through the phone line, almost like they were lying together. He couldn’t quite pull himself together. It felt too good, his whole body pulsing with the aftershocks.
Fuck, he was an idiot, but the luckiest idiot who ever lived.
“How’s that, angel?” he breathed. “Think you can sleep now?”
Aziraphale let out a hysterical giggle — a reedy, breathy thing. “I daresay.”
Crowley grinned. Grinned like a cat that got the canary. He couldn’t seem to stop grinning. “Good. Sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Love you.
“Tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow,” Aziraphale gasped. “Tomorrow evening, I’ll be there with you.”
“I’ll look forward to it.”
“Yes, yes so will I. Goodnight, Crowley.”
“Night, angel. Call me again if you need to.”
Crowley hung up and flopped back against his pillows, wrung out and jelly-legged. Fuck. He laughed to the ceiling.
Yellow eyes peered at him in the darkness. Kraken glared at him accusingly and he gave the cat the middle finger. “Yeah, I did that with your dad. Deal with it.”
Crowley closed his eyes, cheeks hurting from smiling and laughing, whole body turned to a quivering mess. The angel had the best ideas, because he was about to sleep like a baby.
Chapter 19: Trial
You shouldn’t have done that. The thought ricocheted around Crowley’s brain like a pinball.
Making his morning coffee (you shouldn’t have done that).
Driving an order out to a florist (you shouldn’t have done that).
Arguing with Kraken about who got what seat on the couch (you shouldn’t have done that).
No morning text from Aziraphale, no picture of his breakfast, no on my way home, pip pip cheerio. Total radio silence. What had seemed like a good idea in the darkness after a few drinks was now seeming like the most ridiculous thing he’d ever done. They couldn’t pretend that hadn’t happened. Or, well, they could, but it didn’t look like Aziraphale was going to. And not in the good way where they cut the bullshit and spent the next month locked in the bedroom.
It pinged around inside his head (you shouldn’t have done that) and he couldn’t get it together. He’d wrecked things. Ruined the best thing he had. A part of him, a dumb, stupid part he’d cultivated like growing weeds in his garden, told him he was being paranoid, that Aziraphale was just busy. But he knew. No point ignoring what he knew.
When the knock came at his door Crowley fought the urge to pretend he wasn’t home. Aziraphale knew he was home.
And it was awful.
Aziraphale talked to him in that high, soft tone he used when people were making him uncomfortable. They never quite made eye contact. Kraken was mercifully receptive to being packed into his carrier and the whole awkward interaction was over relatively painlessly.
“Aziraphale,” Crowley called as he was leaving. He turned back, cat carrier in hand, eyebrows raised politely. Crowley gestured helplessly, not finding the words. “Nothing.”
Aziraphale softened. “It’s good to be home, dear boy.”
Crowley let him go. Flung himself onto his bed and made strangled noises into his pillow. He couldn’t breathe right. If he’d ruined this he was going to die, he was going to crawl into bed and never get out. He’d been so careful, not pushing boundaries, letting Aziraphale set the speed.
It had been fantastic and hot as hell and he had Aziraphale’s moans painted on all the flowers in his chest, but it wasn’t worth losing him. Not completely, not suddenly without a chance to say goodbye.
Not knowing what to do and not having any other options, he called Anathema. Once he started talking he just didn’t stop, it all spilled out in disjointed, confused exclamations, what had happened, why it shouldn’t have, couldn’t have, how much he loved Aziraphale and how he’d lost him.
There must have been something in his voice, in his confessions, because she didn’t make fun of him.
“Okay, Crowley, take a breath. We’re going to do two things.”
“Two things, right, yeah,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut. Thank God, thank Someone for Anathema.
“The first thing is, get your running shoes, you’re joining me again.”
He took a deep breath. “Running, yeah, okay.”
He’d let that slip and was regretting it now.
“The second thing is you’re not going to panic. Okay? You’re going to stay calm and give him some space and not panic.”
Don’t panic. Emblazoned on the front of the Hitchhiker's Guide in big letters. Don’t panic.
She was at his doorstep half an hour later and they were running. It was just as miserable as the first time, burning muscles and racing heart and his chest already hurt, but by the time he was standing in his shower afterwards he was too tired to have a panic attack.
He stood in the cubicle, fingers dragging over the condensation on the glass, water sluicing through his hair, and he could breathe again. He leaned his forehead against the cool tile, letting the hot water run down his back. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Aziraphale didn’t know how to deal with this, so he’d have to lead the way. It wasn’t over. They were just looking for a way forward.
It would all be fine if he didn’t get overexcited and do something stupid. Just ease back, give the kissing a rest, definitely no more phone sex, just dial it all back and let Aziraphale get comfortable again.
He took his mind off it, watching Netflix, strumming aimlessly as his guitar until he was tired enough to sink into bed.
He looked at his phone. Considered it. Took a breath.
He turned the phone off and set it face down.
When he woke in the morning he found one unread message. Goodnight, my dear.
Crowley breathed deep. He could do this.
He made breakfast, ran with Anathema, let the scalding hot shower bring him back to himself. No huddling in bed, no Golden Girls. His garden needed him, his house needed a clean, he needed better running shoes and he was going to do it all like a functional adult. He wasn’t going to panic.
In the evening he cracked open a bottle of wine and took his tablet out into the gardens, remembering how he’d spent his nights before Aziraphale. It shouldn’t be some terrible test of his patience and his nerves to go without and he wouldn’t let it be.
When the night sky was full of stars and his breath was a foggy cloud in front of him his phone buzzed.
Goodnight, my dear.
Maybe this was for the best. Maybe they both needed the breathing room. If Aziraphale didn’t know the way forward well neither did Crowley. He didn’t know what to do now except follow Anathema’s advice and just breathe through it.
His past lovelife hadn’t been a complete disaster, there were bright spots – shared apartments, great sex, shopping for fridges and all that. But Crowley’s temper had been a constant companion, his insecurities and his moods and the insurmountable walls he threw up when things got too hard. He couldn’t avoid it forever but he was in control of this one. Aziraphale could be the one freaking out, Crowley could cater to him this time while they found their feet.
On Wednesday Crowley’s phone buzzed early in the morning, a picture of eggs on toast, and the knot in his chest finally gave in and loosened. He sent back a picture of his black coffee.
Baby steps. He’d crossed a line and he needed to walk it back. That was okay. This wasn’t some flimsy flirtation anymore. He didn’t have to be perfect, Aziraphale cared about him, they could come back from mistakes.
It’s Thursday. He sent the text just after lunch, give Aziraphale time to make his excuses if he needed to.
Quite right. Where shall we go?
Crowley pressed the phone to his forehead and closed his eyes, trembling with relief.
Nowhere, I’m coming over to raid your wine.
I’ll make dinner at 7.
Another chance. He was back in. Just had to walk it back a little, back to that sweet spot. It was such a sweet spot, honey and cinnamon drizzled over days of gardening and running and making coffee. He wasn’t prepared to give it up.
His stomach tightened when he showed up to Aziraphale’s house, the anxiety trying to creep back in, but he bit down on it, kept it in check. He breezed in, screen door banging behind him to find Aziraphale in the kitchen, Masterchef apron and sleeves rolled up, stirring a pot of something that smelled of garlic and tomatoes.
There was a brief, electric moment when it struck him, half memory and half imagination, Aziraphale with dark eyes and swollen lips, crying out his name, eyes shut in ecstasy. It hit him at the base of his spine, a shock of arousal and longing and needing.
Crowley sat, landing a little too hard on his usual bar stool where Aziraphale already had clean wineglasses sat on the bench, a bottle of red airing next to it. He breathed through it. This wasn’t worth losing him. Nothing was worth that.
“Smells good,” he said instead.
Aziraphale smiled, something behind it, hesitant, unsure. “Bolognese sauce. I hope you brought your appetite.”
“Always,” he said wryly, thinking of how many half-finished plates he’d left on this kitchen table. He poured out two glasses and sipped at his, trying to ignore the silence in the kitchen, the only sound the bubbling pots on the stove.
They both started at the same time, and stopped. Aziraphale finally met his eyes, helpless, the smallest self-effacing smile making itself known.
“This is dreadful,” Aziraphale said.
“Yep,” Crowley agreed. What was he supposed to do now? Offer to pretend it hadn’t happened? Ask for it to happen again? It was a choose-your-own-adventure and the next page he flicked could lead to getting eaten by alligators. He sighed. “I was drunk. Didn’t mean to push you.”
Aziraphale seemed to process that, turning it over in his mind, then let out a relieved breath. “Well, I’m certain we’ve both done worse things drunk.”
There it was, what Crowley had dreaded and wanted, but with it said out loud he couldn’t seem to feel either disappointed or relieved. The air wasn’t clear, he realised. Something had shifted. They could walk this back but it wasn’t going anywhere. It had happened and whatever path they had been walking before, they couldn’t just jump back on it.
He took the lifeline, even if it was anchored to the wrong boat. “Well, let’s get a couple more bottles in us and make some trouble. Go steal some garden gnomes. Shave the cat.”
“You leave Kraken out of this!” Aziraphale all but squealed, eyes wide in mock outrage.
“Four or five wines and you’ll be grabbing the clippers, angel. I know you’re a devil at heart.”
And just like that they were laughing again, the thing in the air releasing its stranglehold. Crowley was in control, his temper in check, Anathema’s advice had worked this time. But looking at Aziraphale, feeling the shifting ground beneath them both, Crowley just knew there was going to be a next time, and he wasn’t prepared for it.
Chapter 20: River
They hadn’t talked, exactly, about what was happening between them. They skirted around it like they always did. They still did all the nice stuff, texting and drinking and being together, but none of the really nice stuff, like snogging or phone sex. Crowley wasn’t sure where he fit in Aziraphale’s life, except today his position was perfectly clear: in the husband chair while Aziraphale manhandled every piece of merchandise in Brighton.
Crowley guarded a stack of brightly coloured this-and-thats, the holiday hires competing to see who had the best gift wrapping skills. He couldn’t imagine who they were all for. Some for the church group, sure, a few baubles for the kids who had taken to calling him Uncle Aziraphale.
The family thing had come up. Aziraphale had nodded firmly, “I’ll be seeing them.” But he hadn’t sounded happy about it. He talked about his plans to visit London the week before Christmas the same way most people talked about a dentist appointment.
And when he was all vulnerable and sad eyes and trying to lift his spirits what could Crowley do? Well, he could snark and complain, but ultimately it was his arse in that husband chair, it was him following around after Aziraphale as he chattered and brightened, holding doors for him, carrying packages.
It was working; that made it worthwhile. The weird, tense distance between them had relaxed for the afternoon and the shadow of Aziraphale’s awful family had evaporated. Nothing like some retail therapy.
Crowley was shopping, too, but the sensible way. As he shifted himself from store to store, chair to chair, he flicked through online stores on his phone.
He was regretting spending his sick days as a kid watching Lifetime movies because there was some amalgam of a hundred Christmas scenes playing out in his head. The romantic lead would bust out some thing on Christmas Eve, like the ghost of the heroine’s dead dog or whatever and they’d be so overwhelmed with love that the music would swell and everything would fade to black and then the rest of the movie was just them hanging off each other like gross teenagers. That was how it went, right?
Nah. Even if it was on the table, he wasn’t going to win Aziraphale like that. All he wanted was thoughtful, passable, something to punctuate a nice day. Eventually, somewhere around 2pm when the pile of presents was up to his knees he decided on tickets to the West End production of Hamilton. He’d brave London, get a hotel room, make a weekend of it. Perfect romantic-but-not-too-romantic gesture.
Aziraphale was finally at the counter, chatting up the young girl wrapping the thing he’d bought.
Crowley sighed his way to his feet, balancing the stacks of packages under one arm and picking up a handful of bags with the other. He strode over to lean against the counter. “We nearly done?”
“Last one,” Aziraphale promised, giving Crowley’s arm an indulgent squeeze. “Let’s take a break, shall we? Get some tea?”
“Your shout. You owe me one.”
“I certainly do after today. Thank you for your patience, dear.”
Aziraphale took the package from the girl with a smile, then absentmindedly tucked it under Crowley’s arm and moved off.
Crowley rolled his eyes and followed out the door. They dropped the parcels in the car and found a cafe. He was going to make Aziraphale eat six slices of cake for this.
Once they had a couple of steaming cups in front of them Aziraphale looked better, lighter and easier than he had in the morning. He was in his usual pale blue jumper but Crowley could just tell something hideous was on the horizon. Knitted reindeer or snowmen. He’d weather it.
The coffee was good, he hadn’t noticed his nose and ears getting cold as they walked from store to store. Aziraphale had a piece of chocolate cheesecake and was making some questionable noises in the middle of a cafe in Brighton. Crowley’s brain was dragged kicking and screaming back to his bedroom in the middle of the night in October, the slick sound of Aziraphale touching himself, the breathy moans through the phone.
Crowley cleared his throat and took a sip of his coffee. The cake was a mistake. “So when are you headed to London?”
“Oh,” Aziraphale paused to swallow his mouthful, dabbing daintily at his mouth like he wasn’t a porn star, “I think it’ll just be a day trip. Christmas Eve perhaps.”
“Long drive for one day.”
“I don’t really fancy having to stay in my brother’s house, all things considered. No, I’ll just pop in for lunch and be back home in no time at all.”
“They’re not being tits, are they?”
Aziraphale looked into his teacup. “They are, a bit. But they’re family, and ‘tis the season.”
Tis the season for being cruel to your little brother. “If they do one thing to upset you…”
“Then what?” Aziraphale asked with a benign smile. “You’ll beat them up? You’re so protective of me, my darling, but don’t be. I can handle my family.”
The endearment slipped out into the air, nothing keeping it in. Aziraphale didn’t even seem to have noticed, too occupied with musing about his family.
“If they do one thing to upset you, come home,” Crowley said, my darling ringing in his head like church bells. “I’ll be here. You can tell me loads of embarrassing childhood stories about them.”
The cafe was bustling around them, dozens of other Christmas shoppers with bags and packages stuffed under their tables, harried wait staff. Just another Saturday in Brighton. Tis the season.
Aziraphale sipped at his tea, not quite meeting Crowley’s eye. “I suppose I’ve been rather presumptuous, just assuming you and I would have Christmas day together. Do you have other plans?”
“You know I don’t.”
“We’ll make a day of it then. I can cook a… a ham.”
Crowley grinned. “You don’t know how to cook a ham.”
“Yes, I thought ham was already cooked. Cured. Whatever they do with ham,” Aziraphale said with a wave of a hand. “Or maybe a turkey.”
Crowley barked out a laugh, trying desperately to ignore whatever was blooming in his chest, choking him. “You definitely don’t know how to cook a turkey.”
“And who’s going to eat an entire turkey? It feeds about ten people.”
Aziraphale looked up at him, lips pursed, challenge written all over his face. My darling. “I can cook a turkey.”
“Please don’t. What about a chicken? Cook a chicken.”
“I can cook a turkey,” Aziraphale said again, firmly, as if his entire masculinity has been challenged by the notion that the two of them couldn’t eat a twelve-person turkey.
Crowley had future visions of himself choking down whatever passed for Christmas dinner, full of Aziraphale’s cooking experiments. Deciding dish by dish whether he would pretend it was excellent or mock his angel mercilessly. Whatever the result, making sure they had the best Christmas they’d ever had in dry turkey and good red wine and theatre tickets and my darling.
He wondered if he should have tried for that Hallmark movie scenario after all.
“You already have the tree up, mid-November, don’t you?” he said, rather than why don’t we elope to Brazil it’s lovely this time of year?
Aziraphale blushed, a luminous pink that Crowley hadn’t seen in a while. Maybe since the first time he’d called Aziraphale sexy. He dandled his teaspoon, eyes fixed on his drink. “I thought we might… do it together, if I’m honest.”
Crowley licked his lips, mouth suddenly dry, teasing failed and dropped away like a fizzling firework. He didn’t know how to get this all in step. He wanted to take Aziraphale’s hand again, to kiss him again, to just shake his shoulders and tell him to get his shit together because living in jumps and starts like this was unsustainable. He couldn’t. Could he? It wasn’t like blunt honesty had ever worked well for him in the past.
A lot of things hadn’t worked well for him in the past. Christmas, roast turkey, coming back from the sort of disaster he’d brought down on their heads with the phone sex. No one else would have forgiven him. He’d crashed and burned out of promising things on much less.
A stupid, promising, tantalising voice in the back of his head told him he was being judgemental. Can’t step in the same river twice, it told him. It’s not the same river and you’re not the same man.
“Come to the best interior decorator in the South Downs, have you?” Crowley winked. “I’ll see what I can do.”
If he could talk him out of this stupid trip to see his family everything would be perfect, but as it was it wasn’t bad. Crowley paid the bill while Aziraphale wasn’t looking.
They made their way back to the Bentley. Crowley had insisted on bringing her, it was his price of admission for being Shopping Husband for the day. The back seat was so full of brightly coloured presents it wouldn’t have fit a passenger. They’d look good in a Country Life way under the Christmas tree he was going to decorate with Aziraphale.
He opened the door for Aziraphale but before he could step in Crowley took him by the elbow. He leaned him against the side of the Bentley, wide eyes gazing up at him, questioning.
Crowley leaned in, capturing Aziraphale’s mouth in a long, slow kiss. Damn this distance between them, they didn’t need it. He held Aziraphale against the side of the car, not caring who saw or who said what or what the consequences for this might be.
When he let Aziraphale go he kept eye contact, watching his laboured breaths, his dark eyes.
“It’s going to be a good Christmas,” Crowley promised, and he meant it. He released his hold on Aziraphale’s arm, not acknowledging how he swayed to follow him, and made his way back to the driver’s seat. It was going to be a good Christmas.
Chapter 21: Noon
Christmas was a glimpse into the past. Specifically, Aziraphale’s past. Something had been good about his church upbringing because decorating his tree for Christmas was weighted with tradition and memory and it warmed Crowley through.
They sat on the floor and unpacked fragile glass ornaments and untangled fairy lights in front of an open fire, a bottle of red half-finished between them. Each thing had to be fussed about, some story told. What year did Aziraphale get this one and from whom or what store and why it didn’t even matter that it was overpriced because it was just so pretty.
The morning passed in a haze, time blurry about the edges. Crowley spent most of it taunting the cat with priceless Swarovski ornaments while Aziraphale talked, demonstrated, turned pretty baubles over in his hands.
He wanted to do this every year. That was his takeaway from the experience. Everything had come full circle, his thoughts had taken a little holiday to picturing himself getting ravished on every surface of the cottage, then they’d decided to come home to the sickeningly sweet visions of days like this together, and he finally settled on both. He didn’t want to choose between being a casual lay or a best friend, he wanted both, he wanted to be with Aziraphale as someone who shared his life.
It should have been easier, over time, to deal with this, but it wasn’t. The beginning had only been the first hints of Aziraphale’s light, how he would make Crowley feel, and now it was high noon.
It went both ways. He knew it, he could feel it. Six months since they’d met and he knew Aziraphale wanted as much as he did. Crowley wasn’t the one in denial, he didn’t miss the lingering touches, the glances, the smiles that were just for him.
I love you was speeding toward Crowley head on, rattling behind his teeth. Everything they did, said. Crowley could see the words in the negative space left behind.
His fears had morphed with it. There was no way he could get hit with I’m afraid that’s not how I feel about you at this stage. They were doing romance, living it. Now the real danger was I’m just not ready for something so serious, and to his eternal shame Crowley wasn’t sure he cared. He’d be Aziraphale’s dirty little secret, his fling on the side. He couldn’t deny him anything, not even something so painful.
“Would you do the honours?” Aziraphale handed him an angel, a spindly gold frame dripping with hanging crystals. It was beautiful, just like everything else, this designer tree collected over the course of a lifetime.
Crowley settled the precious thing on top of the tree and as he stepped back Aziraphale hit the switch on the fairy lights.
The tree glowed from within, the crystals and glass and shiny paint scattering the light. It was beautiful.
Aziraphale took his hand and leaned against his shoulder, lighting Crowley up like the Christmas tree. He hadn’t thought this would be where he ended up at this stage of his life, drinking good wine, decorating this Vogue tree, a soft, precious man cuddled up to his side.
“I have to go,” Crowley choked out.
Aziraphale looked up at him, bemused and disappointed. “Whatever for, dear?”
Because if I don’t then I’m going to fucking propose to you. Do you have any idea how cute you are after three glasses of wine?
“Got my own trees to tend to.” Crowley tried to keep his voice casual, hoped it sounded like he’d always planned to do this rather than like he was running away with his tail between his legs.
“Oh.” Aziraphale frowned. “I’ll… I’ll see you out, then.”
Crowley retrieved his sunglasses from his pocket and put them on, already moving toward the door, so close to escape he could taste it. He’d go home and call Anathema or just scream into his pillow for a bit, anything to stop him caving in and spilling everything right there at their feet.
He paused in the doorway, wanting to soothe a little of the hurt he’d caused, keep it casual. “This was fun.”
“Yes, thank you for your help. It’s been lovely having company for it.” Aziraphale tried for a smile but didn’t quite get there. He glanced up, then quickly down, like he’d seen a spider and didn’t want to panic anyone.
Crowley looked above his head. A sprig of mistletoe hung in the door frame.
He’d nearly made it out. Really. Two more steps and he would have been safe, back to easygoing and available next time they saw each other. Out of this burning sunlight before it scorched him.
But he wasn’t. Wasn’t safe, wasn’t easy. The grin sprung to his face, his chest fit to burst and he took Aziraphale’s face in his hands, leaning in.
“You cheesy bastard,” he mumbled into Aziraphale’s mouth, taking the kisses he’d wanted all morning. Aziraphale laughed into the kiss, wrapping his arms around Crowley’s waist and pulling him in.
He couldn’t stay, it was too good. Every minute with Aziraphale felt too good. The idea of having more, asking for more, was overwhelming. If a laughing kiss in the doorway was enough to turn him inside out what would happen if they took the next step?
He eased back from the kiss, holding Aziraphale at a safe distance with both hands, trying to let his fondness spill into his hands, his eyes, soften the hurt of his departing early. “I’ll see you soon, yeah? Tomorrow morning?”
“Of course, my dear.” Aziraphale was looking at him with such tenderness he just had to flinch away.
In a few swift movements he was out, disentangled and into the brisk November air. It knocked his brain a few degrees back into place. He couldn’t get so caught up in his fantasies, couldn’t just go around kissing Aziraphale whenever he wanted.
The ache in his gut was constant now. Or maybe his heart. His knees. There was plenty to go around.
He slammed his car door too hard getting in, took off too fast. He wanted that. The image repeated behind his eyes – Aziraphale taking each little trinket out of its wrapping, each one safe and loved, each one with its own story.
Those stories were starting to pile up in Aziraphale’s house. The aloe vera that was his first gift, the kitten they’d found who was now almost a proper cat, the books they’d bought on shopping trips, souvenirs from places they visited.
In his own home Crowley looked around. Almost everything was new, bought when he’d moved in. Three books nestled on a shelf, his tiny library of Aziraphale’s making. That was it. His story.
The ache was worst thinking about this. He could picture Aziraphale in his kitchen, the memorabilia of their life together stacked all around him. Crowley liked to toss most of his memories over his left shoulder, only checking in with them at the worst possible times. He wanted a cardboard box full of carefully packed recollections to be taken out once a year and shown off.
Here’s where we met on the beach. I loved you immediately.
This is when we first kissed. You were beautiful.
He threw himself on his couch and looked at the ficus on which he’d hung a single bauble as a joke. It was all of a sudden not funny. It was sad.
“Ugh,” he groaned aloud into his lounge room. He should have stayed. Should have bitten his tongue and stayed right there. It would have made Aziraphale happy. It might have made him happy, too.
So what was the point? He asked himself. What was the point of this push-me-pull-me game? He already knew the answer, it was just an ugly one. He was doing a badly choreographed dance to try to soak up as much of Aziraphale’s happiness as he could before things went sour, making up the moves as he went along and sometimes getting it all wrong.
He turned on his telly, sinking deeper into the couch. One hand was already on his phone, trying to word his apology text to Aziraphale.
I love you so much it hurts, please understand.
He didn’t send the text, Dr. Phil was assuring him that taking personal space was fine.
Maybe he’d get him a bauble. One of those expensive Tiffany ones that were hand-painted by Tibetan monks or whatever. So every year when he unpacked it all he’d hold it in his hands, no matter how things went between them, and think Crowley gave me this.
Maybe next year, if it didn’t hurt too much to think about.
Crowley pulled himself off the couch and went to kneel beside the ficus. He touched the plastic bauble, a gaudy gold, and tried to memorise it. Tried to imbue it with this moment. The year I was so in love with Aziraphale I had to run and hide from his Christmas tree.
Next year, next year, if he made it to next year he’d take it. Dangle it from one of the branches of Aziraphale’s designer tree and say This one’s from last year, the day I had to skip out early. It reminds me of you.
He sat beside his ficus and watched Dr. Phil, fingers running absently over the solitary gold bauble.
He’d wallow for the afternoon, he promised himself. Then in the morning he’d pick himself up, text Aziraphale, and go buy himself something. Something to keep on his counter or hang on a tree. Christmas 2019. The days of torturing himself with the things he wanted were over, he was here by the seaside and that meant he was free. And if he couldn’t have Aziraphale, he could have memories.
And if he plucked up his courage a little further, let the hurt settle and got himself back in order, maybe he could have both.
Chapter 22: Holiday
Crowley hadn’t celebrated Christmas in the strictest sense for a long time. He wasn’t opposed – though it was more about sparkly trees and Santa in his mind than midnight mass – just without a family or close friends to share it with he’d sort of lapsed. The best part of the season was trolling eBay for the perfect gag gift for Anathema. (A set of Garfield tarot cards. The look on her face had been priceless. She’d returned a fake potted succulent which sat proudly beside his bed.) But he liked Christmas in practise if not so much in theory.
It shouldn’t have surprised him that Aziraphale was a Christmas connoisseur. He spent the morning in church but by the time Crowley rocked up for dinner it was all on. Expensive brandy, cherry chocolates, shortbread and plum pudding, a spread that could have fed a dozen people and Edward Woodward playing on the old gramophone. The tree looked spectacular with all the fairy lights going. And Aziraphale was, of course, wearing the ugliest reindeer jumper Crowley had ever seen.
Aziraphale had followed through on his threat and cooked a turkey, but it wasn’t bad for a beginner’s attempt. He kept pushing food toward Crowley until he had to beg for mercy, fit to bursting.
“Are you trying to fatten me up for the kill?” Crowley asked as Aziraphale set a plate of pudding and custard in front of him and refilled his brandy.
“Why, my dear boy, I don’t think that’s possible.”
They exchanged presents in front of the fire, the theatre tickets tucked into a card, a plain white envelope in Crowley’s breast pocket that made Aziraphale shine with happiness. Aziraphale presented him with a monstera deliciosa, dark green leaves striped with galaxy white, it must have cost him a fortune. But it was no Christmas rom com and the presents were quickly forgotten in favour of lounging on the giant brown couch, brandy snifters in hand.
It didn’t snow by the sea but it was cold and the fire and the brandy and the gentle music had Crowley unseasonably warm. He sprawled on the couch, loose and relaxed and ready to slip into a food coma.
He was taking Christmas off, he’d decided. Taking it off from worrying. No desperate thoughts of I love you or run away with me, no considering the implications of Aziraphale’s kisses or touches, and absolutely no thinking about tomorrow. He was just going to have a nice Christmas.
“Not everything made after 1940 is bebop, angel,” he attempted to explain.
“This album is from 1972,” Aziraphale said, indignant.
“’72! You know who was about in ‘72? David Bowie. The Beatles. Queen. The Rolling Stones. Were you born a grandpa?”
“The Rolling Stones made a Christmas album?”
Sometimes it was hard to tell if Aziraphale was oblivious or messing with him.
Crowley leaned in close and flicked the tip of Aziraphale’s nose affectionately. “Stop being cute.”
Aziraphale kissed him. It was just a matter of inches, a surge forward, warm lips against his, then gone and Aziraphale was so close to him, smiling like sunshine. “I will when you stop being prickly.”
Crowley let the brandy render him dopey and kissed Aziraphale back. A quick kiss. Forward, warmth, gone. He traced a finger down Aziraphale’s jaw. “I’m going to get you some new music. Something you’ll like. At least Kristin Chenoweth.”
“What if I don’t like it?” Aziraphale dropped his forehead to Crowley’s, his breath blooming warm between them.
“You will. Nothing wrong with an update now and then.”
Then they were kissing, lazily dipping into each other, noses pressed together. No rush. Nothing to hurry them along. Just his angel’s warm mouth, tasting of brandy and plum pudding, the crackle of the fire and old Ned’s crooning to keep them company.
It was different than before. No freezing water around their ankles, no one else expecting them to stop and get themselves presentable. The couch was comfortable, easy just to relax into each other and keep kissing. So they did. Crowley leaned into it, cupped Aziraphale’s face in his free hand and just kept kissing him. He would never get tired of this, he could spend every night kissing Aziraphale, taking hours on end to float away in his softness and light.
They shuffled closer with every kiss until Crowley’s shoulder came up against Aziraphale’s in an uncomfortable, crowded position. He pulled back enough to orient himself, to set his glass on the console table behind the couch and then lifted himself up to straddle Aziraphale’s hips.
He was face to face with Aziraphale, his eyes reflecting the fairy lights from the tree, the moment hanging in between them.
“Alright?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale nodded, just barely, his voice came out breathy. “Alright.”
His hands fell to Crowley’s thighs, jerked him forward and the whole tone of it changed. The kiss was open, hot, edging towards urgent. Crowley closed his eyes and fell into it. His whole body was flush against Aziraphale’s and it was just as soft and strong as his most entertaining fantasies.
No rush. Crowley kissed him, kissed him, kissed him for what felt like hours, hands clutching at each other but not exploring, making out like teenagers on Aziraphale’s plush couch.
Something must have happened, Aziraphale’s fingertips digging into his thigh or his hands in Aziraphale’s hair, or just something because he was jerked forward, their hips meeting at a different angle, and suddenly it wasn’t innocent. Crowley was hard, he could feel Aziraphale was, too, unable to hide from each other with Crowley’s weight bearing him down into it.
He should say something. Stop this. The phone sex had been a disaster. It was too fast for Aziraphale, too much for their unspoken arrangement. But before the thought hand even completed itself in his brain Aziraphale’s hands were on his arse, pulling him closer, grinding them together.
The breath all punched out of Crowley’s lungs at the first suggestion of their cocks rubbing together through their clothing. His hips bucked on their own, leaning into the pressure while his brain provided him with the all-too-real image of him coming in his pants without Aziraphale ever touching him.
He pulled back, just a few inches, just enough to hold him clear and let a little cool air between them. He had to take a chance, no rejection would be as embarrassing as coming in Aziraphale’s arms, untouched.
He smoothed a hand over Aziraphale’s cheek, staring into darkened blue eyes. “Can I?”
This time the nod was sure, immediate. “Please.”
Merry fucking Christmas to me.
Crowley reached for Aziraphale’s belt buckle. His hands were unsteady but he didn’t fumble it, even when Aziraphale’s fingers found the buttons on his shirt. It was a bad angle for this sort of thing, but their nerve-and-brandy-shaken bodies managed it with only minor shuffling. Crowley found his shirt pulled off his shoulders down to his elbows, Aziraphale huffing out heavy breaths when Crowley’s hand closed around his cock. Then he was onto Crowley’s jeans.
This was happening. It was happening and he wasn’t going to question it. Christmas off. Tomorrow didn’t matter.
And just like that he was jelly in Aziraphale’s arms, hands working between them, knuckles brushing as they groaned into each other’s mouths. It was slow and lazy and the best thing Crowley had ever felt. He had been right. Aziraphale had a pretty cock.
He squeezed the cock in his hand, running his thumb over the tip and revelled in how Aziraphale’s hand stilled for a moment, a dark, breathy sound groaned into his skin.
I love you. I love you.
It didn’t take long, all the kissing had Crowley already teetering on an edge, pressure building at the base of his spine. All too soon he was gasping into the crook of Aziraphale’s neck, spilling over his fist. He just barely kept enough presence of mind to keep his hand moving, dragging his angel over the edge with him, the two of them splayed out on the old brown sofa, Edward Woodward warbling something about love in the background.
Crowley collapsed against Aziraphale, his chest heaving. Aziraphale threaded his free hand through Crowley’s hair and held him close. Thank god, they’d ruined that jumper and he could never wear it again.
The world sat still for a while, Aziraphale so comfortable and soft that Crowley had to fight to keep the food coma from overtaking him.
So. That had happened.
“Are you alright there, dearest?” He could hear the smile in Aziraphale’s voice.
“M’fine.” Crowley took a deep breath, steeled himself, then used all his strength and energy to peel himself off Aziraphale’s chest, sitting back a bare few inches. “Going to call me in the morning, angel?”
He expected Aziraphale to blush, to stammer and demure, but he didn’t. Instead he cupped Crowley’s face in one hand, holding him like a cherished thing and meeting his eyes. “I’m sorry for last time. It won’t happen again.”
Crowley didn’t meet his eye, it was too much. He looked down instead and laughed. The jumper really was ruined. “We’ve made a mess of you.”
Aziraphale glanced down and started chuckling as well, eyes bright and full of humour, both of them giddy in the aftermath. Very giddy, maybe, given Aziraphale’s next confession. “Quite alright, I only wore this to annoy you.”
“You-!” Crowley bit off the angry exclamation, scowling. Holding Aziraphale’s eyes he slowly, deliberately wiped his hand on the jumper, feeling Aziraphale’s belly shake as he laughed all the harder.
“It was a gift from my brother,” he said through mirthful tears.
“You’re a bastard,” Crowley said as Aziraphale took him by the hair and pulled him in for another kiss. It lingered, both of them sighing into it in the firelight.
Crowley let himself be gently rolled to the side, sinking back into the couch as Aziraphale rose to go clean himself off. He tucked himself back into his jeans and redid the fly, leaving his shirt open to feel the warmth from the fire against his bare chest and gave himself a moment while Aziraphale was gone to just enjoy the afterglow.
As it turned out, this Christmas had wildly exceeded his memories of the occasion. Didn’t know why he didn’t do this every year.
Chapter 23: Good News
“Do you know what sea air is really good for?” Crowley asked, leaning halfway out Aziraphale’s window. The one with the good view, right over the surf. “Restoring ancient textiles.”
“Really?” Aziraphale asked, half-listening. His funny little eyeglasses were perched on his nose, 98% of his attention given to the old, old, old bible he was carefully rebinding, hands in soft cotton gloves, needle held between fingertips. “I thought it was ideal for growing inland flowers.”
He drew the thread through again. The concentration was unreal, he looked so still apart from the slow, deliberate movements of his stitching. Crowley wasn’t even certain he was breathing. It was slow, tedious work, piercing stitches through a thousand membrane-thin pages then gently, gently tugging the silk thread through. Crowley would have gone mad in about four minutes.
But Aziraphale seemed not only fine with doing this awful work but with Crowley throwing jabs at him from the sidelines, chattering away and occasionally putting a video on his phone, or running the gramophone. Hanging out, as it were. He was a little bit fascinated by Aziraphale’s hands as he worked. Always had been a little, but a little bit more now that their evenings sometimes ended in tipsy handjobs on the couch and those white cotton gloves were giving him ideas.
It wasn’t ideal, but it was skirting so fucking close to ideal that it was sharing a postcode.
“Shouldn’t you have a… a vault? Somewhere hermetically sealed or…?” Crowley didn’t really know.
“Ah, now, that’s very interesting,” said Aziraphale in a tone that suggested this was going to be the furthest thing from interesting. “You see while air conditions matter in long term storage, the principal source of damage to older specimens is… you’re not listening.”
“Is it cats?” Crowley suggested. “I bet it’s cats.”
“It’s handling. Acid on the skin.”
“Chuck the book in the bin, let’s go to the beach.”
Aziraphale somehow laughed without moving a muscle, hands still working with perfect precision. “Even if I wanted to go to the beach in this weather I wouldn’t be throwing out a customer’s priceless Bible.”
How was Crowley spending his Saturday watching a bible getting mended by his casual-not-boyfriend who went to church and said his evening prayers? When had that become normal?
“So it’s a million years old and he’s just thumbing through the thing?” Crowley asked. “What’s wrong with the Gideons one?”
“I couldn’t say, my dear. Perhaps he finds it more spiritually satisfying.”
“Does he think Matthew, Mark, Luke and John personally wrote this one?”
Aziraphale chuckled. “Perhaps. I can’t say his academia is particularly rigorous.”
Crowley gasped theatrically. “Did you just insult a customer, Aziraphale? He must really be a tosser for you to go for the throat like that.”
“Alright, alright,” Aziraphale broke his statue stillness to wiggle his fingers in a sort of ‘sit down and be quiet’ gesture. “You mustn’t be rude to him, he’s very…”
Aziraphale trailed off and Crowley snorted. “A tosser. When would I meet him, anyway? He’s not coming over today?”
“Hardly, I’ll be at this a good while yet. But I planned to invite some regulars to my 50th. It seems like the polite thing to do.”
Oh, no, he hadn’t forgotten, had he? “When’s that?”
“Oh, not until May. Thought I’d start planning, though. The church group has been hassling me to host something and, well… it seems a nice way to really… that is, I…”
“Putting your roots down,” Crowley finished for him and Aziraphale smiled for him. Of course it was like that. In May he would have been in the cottage at the end of Rose Road for almost a year. His family had been officially relegated to formal Christmas lunches and birthday cards. His clients knew to make home visits. And he woke up and went to sleep and spent a serious portion of the hours in between with his neighbour. He was a local.
He wasn’t going anywhere.
“You should…” Crowley swallowed, voice betraying him for a moment. He couldn’t kid himself forever. Aziraphale was here to stay. “You should have it in the gardens.”
Aziraphale looked up over the rim of his glasses. “What gardens?”
“You know, the gardens,” Crowley mumbled. “My gardens.”
The working hands came to a stop, halfway through pulling a strand of silk. If Crowley thought he’d seen still before, he was wrong. Aziraphale was frozen mid-stroke, eyes pinning Crowley to the spot. The air hung heavy between them and wow Crowley had really missed the mark for casual apparently. He fought down the urge to explain himself, to protest that it was ridiculous to try to keep Aziraphale’s fingerprints off his life when they were all over everything, his evenings, his car, his days on and days off and even his naked body.
Whatever they were doing, they were doing it.
“I’ve never seen your gardens,” Aziraphale decided on, his voice soft.
He wasn’t going to be able to do this if Aziraphale made a thing of it. This wasn’t some big romantic gesture, it was just accepting the facts.
“Then finish your book or whatever and we’ll go see them. I’ll pack us dinner.”
“It’s freezing out!”
“I have outdoor heaters.”
Crowley used the excuse to escape, leaving Aziraphale trapped with his book and his silk and his gloves. There was a picnic basket kept on top of the fridge, and as always the cupboards were stocked with the sorts of things that could be stuffed into it. Last weekend had been the farmers market so there was all sorts of pretentious nonsense that wouldn’t get eaten unless Crowley put it on a water cracker and shoved it under Aziraphale’s nose.
Once the basket was full, Crowley’s working hands keeping any thoughts crowded to the back of his head where they belonged, he took apart the linen cupboard in search of the tartan picnic blanket that had seen them through many a good afternoon on the beach. Aziraphale called out from the other room when he heard him emptying the cupboard onto the floor and redirected him to where the blanket sat draped over the arm of a couch.
“Come on, then!” Crowley called back. “Book in the bin and let’s go!”
“Hold your horses,” Aziraphale grumbled as he joined Crowley by the door, still peeling off the gloves. “Alright, ready to go. Shall we take the car?”
“Nah, not that cold.”
They walked in the bracing wind, Crowley carrying their picnic, down Rose Road and up onto the parkview to his own driveway. His house sat close to the road, the acres of land behind it mostly sacrificed to gardens. It wasn’t as industrial as it could have been. He’d had plenty of money stashed away when he moved here so the land didn’t need to be wrung for every profitable inch, it was a mix of proper business-making plants and a hobby garden. The natural trees and shrubs kept most of it from the road view.
As they approached Aziraphale took his arm, tucking cold fingers into the crook of his elbow and squeezing tighter than necessary. So much for Crowley thinking he’d been smooth, just coincidentally never extending this invitation. Aziraphale saw right through him at all the worst times. Maybe all the time.
Crowley bypassed the house, taking the old wooden side gate instead. It gave way with a creak and he ushered Aziraphale forward.
He wished it was some Beauty and the Beast library moment, a gasp in the cold February air and some magical revelation. It wasn’t. But it was nice. It was green, he kept most evergreen trees, and it was pretty, a little rambling. The nicest a garden could really look in the middle of winter.
“It’ll be better in the spring, with the, y’know, the flowers,” he said.
“It’s beautiful,” Aziraphale said, earnest and admiring. Crowley handed off the picnic and grabbed one of the heaters, jerking his head toward a tree a little further out and leading the way.
He settled the heavy thing down beside his prize apple tree. It was bare and dormant for the season but the grass underneath with still the softest, the little rise it rested on high enough to get a good look at the ocean.
Aziraphale laid the blanket out for them and weighed down the corners with rocks he snagged from the garden bed edging while Crowley set the heater running. Once it was set he slunk down next to Aziraphale, reclining on the blanket and accepting a cracker slathered with pâté.
The gardens spread out around them and they could look down on them all from the rise. Crowley’s stomach clenched, looking at Aziraphale here in his refuge. It felt right, the two of them there, watching over this place from under the apple tree.
“Just beautiful.” Aziraphale gazed at him with soft blue eyes and smiled, “Thank you for sharing this with me, my dear.”
“’Course,” Crowley said around the lump in his throat. Part of him was terrified that Aziraphale would play therapist and ask why he’d never been invited before, what his inspired this act of vulnerability. But another part, the siren-song, the idiot who betrayed Crowley again and again, the voice that grew louder every day until it was almost the only voice left, told him that wasn’t going to happen. Aziraphale didn’t analyse and pry. Aziraphale accepted him as he was.
He had a whole speech lined up for himself, to repeat and mull over and drill into his own brain – Aziraphale wasn’t serious, if he was really interested he would have said something by now, this would never be what he wanted it to be – and he tried to remember it, he really did. He knew he’d remember it, word for word, once the sun was down and he was alone.
But for right now Aziraphale poured them both a glass of wine in the little picnic cups they’d bought, handed Crowley his, then held up his own for a toast. Crowley clinked the edge of his cup against Aziraphale’s and thought about drowning in that soft smile. It felt good to have someone in his garden.
Chapter 24: Blended
Ever since the picnic under the apple tree Aziraphale had been looking at him funny. Not like funny haha, like funny. Judging, questioning, making an assessment every time he thought Crowley wasn’t looking. Gathering data. He was still present, laughing at their jokes, holding up his side of the conversation, but in every quiet moment, every time Crowley glanced away to take a sip of his drink, there was that look again.
It was starting to feel less like an expression and more like a guillotine blade over his neck. Aziraphale was making a decision. Maybe the garden had been too fast. Maybe he was finally taking some pity and realising just how deep his claws were sunk into Crowley’s heart, if he left it any longer to remove them they’d leave a mortal wound.
Crowley found himself twitchy, unable to focus on what he was saying. The only thing that held his attention was that blade wobbling above his head. The progress bar loading.
Twice Aziraphale had seemed to work up his courage, opened his mouth, paused, and gone off on a tangent he clearly hadn’t been planning.
He was going to end things. Or at least back them off. Crowley thought he might be able to handle that. Not in the moment, in the moment he was going to overreact and make an idiot out of himself, but once the dust cleared he could handle going back to platonic friends minus the occasional bit of slap and tickle.
“Crowley…” Aziraphale started, one afternoon when they were just back from lunch, the day overcast but bright. He let the word hang in the air, gazing up at Crowley’s sunglasses. A beat passed. “I’ll just make us some tea, shall I?”
“Yeah?” Crowley offered, trying not to tremble.
He crumpled into a chair while Aziraphale rattled around in the kitchen, tried to keep his focus on the clink of cups, the whistle of the kettle, the open and close of the cupboard. He stared at his own hands, trying to disassociate himself from what was about to happen.
Aziraphale set a cup of tea on the coffee table in front of him. Chamomile. Chamomile was supposed to calm people down. Great. He kept standing, hovering really, looking between the other chairs before finally settling in the one beside Crowley, his cup of tea in his hands.
Crowley didn’t touch the tea, not wanting to give away how his hands were shaking. Aziraphale was looking at him with kind eyes. He tried to breathe through it. He’d survive this.
“My dear…” Aziraphale trailed off, not meeting his eye.
Crowley gave him some time, determined not to let his distress show, but eventually the air was just too thick. “Spit it out, will you?”
“The thing is,” Aziraphale said, nodding, not really looking at him, not really looking at anything. “The thing is that I need to talk to you about something.”
This was it. It jolted through Crowley like turbulence, like the floor dropping out from under him, like waking in the middle of the night just as his body hit the ground.
“We are talking.”
“Only the thing is,” Aziraphale continued, his voice getting weaker, his hands fluttering around his cup. “The thing is that we’ve been seeing each other for a while now. And I know we haven’t talked about it, exactly, but with… with your kind invitation for me to invite people to your gardens I did wonder… I did wonder if I might – that is to say – if you would be comfortable with me introducing you as my boyfriend. Or… or partner… beau, whichever term you find most amenable.”
Crowley felt that every drop of his blood had drained from his head. And his chest. His gut. It must all be hiding in his shoes because it certainly wasn’t powering the rest of him.
Aziraphale was looking at him expectantly and Crowley could only imagine the blank, shocked look on his own face.
“Right, yeah,” he said, voice coming out shockingly clear and calm when its owner’s brain had melted. “How long have we been seeing each other, now?”
“Since June, so eight months now,” Aziraphale mused, apparently not seeing anything wrong with that sentence.
Crowley had fantasies of Aziraphale falling for him, of course he did, he was only human. He had fantasies of some particular favour or gift that would freeze Aziraphale in his tracks, stun him into place. Make him see Crowley in a new light. Or even, on his drunkest, saddest nights the wild idea that Aziraphale might murmur, softly into his skin, that he had loved him since the beginning and had been too shy to say it.
He would have panicked if there was so much as a hint of those fantasies coming to life.
But still. Still. At least he might have had some foundation to build his response. He could have muddled through some middle ground between his suave, cool, romantic imaginings and the freezy, melty, stammery reality. He could have done something.
But nowhere in his life, not in his wildest fantasies or stupidest memories was there any precedent for this.
He’d never said anything. Not one word, not one breath of a whisper of a suggestion that this was more than fooling around. Crowley was certain. If he’d said anything he would have been clinging to it, would have had it tattooed over his heart.
He didn’t know what Aziraphale was talking about and didn’t know how to react and he didn’t know how he, Anthony J. Crowley, could be the stupidest person alive.
So he burst into tears.
He couldn’t breathe, the weeds in his chest finally winning their battle, wrapping around his throat and heart and lungs. Tears spilled from his eyes as he wheezed, desperately trying to get in enough air.
The first hacking sob had barely left his mouth and Aziraphale was on him, kneeling between his legs and bundling him into his arms. Crowley curled down into him, just trying to breathe but he couldn’t. The ugly, heaving gasps were muffled into Aziraphale’s shoulder, one sure hand pulling off his sunglasses, strong arms around him, hands rubbing his back.
“There you are, I’ve got you,” Aziraphale murmured. “I’ve got you, it’s alright.”
He was an idiot. Idiot, idiot, idiot. No one could possibly be this stupid. He’d spent all this time thinking so badly of Aziraphale, thinking he didn’t know, couldn’t see, that he was… he was… using him as some sick ego boost.
“I’ve got you, my darling.” Aziraphale cradled him while he gasped for air, ran a hand through his hair, one down his back, calming him like a frightened animal. Crowley’s eyes burned, his head swam. Aziraphale was still here, holding him like some precious thing, like he wasn’t the stupidest, cruellest, most cynical man alive.
He didn’t even know why he was crying, why he couldn’t calm down, why every time he tried to breathe in his chest seized up. Aziraphale’s hand cupped his face, raised him enough to be free of the sweater and the spreading wet patch he was creating. A tea cup was pushed into his hand, held steady.
“There we go, just a sip.”
Crowley did as instructed without thinking about it. He took a sip, the action, the swallow enough to calm his chest for as long as it took to get the tea down, and then he was breathing again. Breathing in short, sharp gasps but breathing.
Aziraphale reached for a white bottle Crowley hadn’t noticed him put down and then there was a small white pill in his hand. Aziraphale cupped his hand in his own. “To help you settle, if you want it.”
Crowley downed the pill, let Aziraphale help him lift the teacup to his lips again. Was he happy or sad? Was he crying something out or crying it to life? Why couldn’t he stop?
You’ve misunderstood. You got it wrong. It was all in your head.
Anger would be a comfort. He could yell and snarl, spit painful memories at Aziraphale’s feet, curse the people who had mistreated him or just run and find something to smash. Rage against the heavens for time lost, for each time Aziraphale reached for him and he didn’t reach back, thinking it would hurt too much. But he wasn’t angry.
He stayed there, clutched against Aziraphale’s shoulder, until his breathing returned to him. The valium kicked in and he couldn’t heave and choke anymore, a warm, liquid sensation spreading through him. He was disoriented as he was moved, one foot in front of the other, boots abandoned at the door.
Aziraphale settled him in the bed, pulled the pale eiderdown over him and climbed in to sit beside him, Crowley’s head in his lap, strong fingers in copper hair.
“I’m so sorry, my darling,” Aziraphale murmured. “I tried to move slowly for you. I know how anxious this makes you.”
He couldn’t gasp anymore but he could cry. Idiot. What a fucking idiot he was. Eight months. Eight months Aziraphale had been holding back for his sake. Eight months of loving him as best he could and getting only Crowley’s ridiculous, flirtatious teasing in return.
Should he be more ashamed that Aziraphale had chamomile tea and valium on hand to ask him this, or that he’d needed them? He wasn’t even surprised! Not the tiniest bit flustered that this simple request had ended up like this. Crowley was even more of a disaster than he’d thought, and in a way that was apparently obvious.
He held Aziraphale and let himself cry. There was no point trying to stop it now, no hiding it. He cried himself exhausted in the soft cocoon, dozens of pillows and Aziraphale strong and sure in his arms. And when the drugs and the pain and the tears had worn him down to nothing, he drifted off.
However many hours later the sound of waves registered in his groggy brain. He was warm, bordering on too warm, the softest blanket in the world pulled up to his nose and the heat of another person wrapped around him. Something was trapping his legs in place and when he sluggishly opened his eyes Kraken stared back at him, fluffed up to his full fluffiness and curled into Crowley’s legs, purring. Out the window he could see the sun setting on the ocean, turning the waves golden.
He was groggy, limbs heavy, maybe too heavy to move. He shuffled, one inch at a time turning his limp body over to face Aziraphale, who just opened his eyes enough to acknowledge the shift, their noses inches apart.
“Oh, hello there,” Aziraphale whispered, as if they couldn’t break the cosiness of the room with something as crass as sound. “How are you feeling?”
Crowley’s mouth quirked down, a lump welled in his throat again, but this time it was something different overwhelming him. This bloody git had asked him out exactly once, eight months ago, and decided to manage his anxiety by being emotionally ambiguous and determinedly casual since then. Their stupidity and anxiety had been perfectly matched, a fine artisanal blend of self-conscious nonsense.
“I love you,” Crowley said, his hoarse voice cracking the words into pieces.
Aziraphale smiled like sunlight, eyes as soft and as blue as his stupid jumpers. “I love you, as well, my dear.”
Crowley leaned forward, hugging Aziraphale back against his body and closed his eyes again, happy to sleep away the rest of the night right here.
He wasn’t the stupidest person alive, he saw now that the shock had worn off.
It was an even tie with his boyfriend.
Chapter 25: Sharp
Crowley drifted in and out that night, eyes closed, every so often rearranging himself against Aziraphale’s chest, waking to find Aziraphale had done the same. It was warm and soft, Aziraphale’s silky pyjamas easy to cuddle into. The moon was full and high and he could steal moments of watching Aziraphale sleep, silver in the light before sleep claimed him again.
It must have been early morning when he reached for Aziraphale at the same time Aziraphale reached for him, both moving closer, wrapping around each other. Crowley slid a hand down Aziraphale’s back, returning the suggestive slide of Aziraphale’s hand on his hip. By some silent consensus they didn’t settle back to sleep. Still groggy, Crowley leaned into the lazy, messy kisses they shared.
It was so fucking warm. And fluffy. He felt like he’d sunk a foot and a half into the mattress, propped up on pillows upon pillows, satin warmed through by body heat, pulled tight against Aziraphale’s giving body. His sleep-muddled brain couldn't disentangle the sensations, the hands on him felt good, the thigh between his legs, Aziraphale’s mouth, and the gauze that padded and padded and padded all his jagged edges.
“I love you.” He wasn’t sure which of them said it, wrapped in their shelter, in each other.
“I love you,” Crowley breathed or maybe repeated. Aziraphale worked the buttons of his shirt free. He couldn’t respond like he usually would have, with passion, with fire. But that was alright, he realised, boneless and warm and tired as Aziraphale eased him onto his back.
Aziraphale was going to take care of him. He was safe here. The thought sank into Crowley’s chest, formed the glowing core of him as he sank further back into the pillows while Aziraphale tugged his trousers down his hips. It was freeing, his skin exposed to the air inch by inch, then wrapped up again against the cottony blankets, the glide of warm satin, Aziraphale’s cream-soft skin. He grabbed the pillows behind his head and closed his eyes.
“Darling, you’re so beautiful like this,” Aziraphale whispered, running his hand down Crowley’s side, his hip, to wrap firm around one thigh, a shiver chasing the touch. Was it the touch, or the words? Did it matter? Aziraphale wanted Crowley the same way Crowley had wanted Aziraphale all these long months. He could see it mirrored back, the need to touch cloud-fluff curls turned to the need to touch copper locks, the desperation for soft-mouthed kisses, the imperative to press body to body, hip to hip, hands to hands. Aziraphale had seen him and found him good, desirable. He let his legs fall open, welcomed the warm body between them, leaned up for another messy kiss.
“Can I, my darling?”
“Yes. Yes. Angel, whatever you want, yes.”
Crowley canted his hips as Aziraphale hooked one of his knees over the crook of his elbow, spreading his legs. Lube slick fingers pressed into him and Crowley moaned, squeezed his eyes more firmly closed, let his body splay and relax and all his sharp edges be cushioned. He moaned. He held the pillows and breathed and moaned.
What was for just a moment alien and intrusive soon became just another tangled up sensation, mixed in with his heart beating and the sound of the ocean and Aziraphale’s heavy breathing. He was comfortable, he was tired, he was so safe and his body felt so good. Aziraphale crooked his fingers just so and Crowley’s hips surged like the ocean, his voice rising to meet them.
When Aziraphale released him he gasped, looking up through half-lidded eyes, about to complain until he heard the crinkle of the condom wrapper. Aziraphale shone in the moonlight, strong and sure, soft and comforting, loving, loving right to the core of him. Crowley sighed again and buried himself deeper, let his legs splay open further, waited to be swept away.
He didn’t have to wait long before he felt the blunt pressure against him, the heavy promise of what was to come, then the slick, stretching intrusion. It didn’t hurt, didn’t pinch or burn like it had in the past, the initial wall to climb over before he could get to the good bit. Aziraphale had taken good care of him.
“Oh, God, oh, God, oh, Crowley,” his angel babbled, hips working themselves like he couldn’t stop them. His fingertips dug into Crowley’s thigh and he held tight, crushed his eyes closed and spoke through half-closed lips. “Oh, God, you feel so good, you’re so beautiful. Oh, yes...”
Crowley rose to meet him, gasping into the warm night air. It felt good. Aziraphale’s shower of praise felt good and Aziraphale pushing into him felt good and sinking into a mountain of pillows felt good. He couldn’t move, not really, not when he was held off the bed, Aziraphale angling his hips how he wanted them. All he could do was lie back and feel good.
“Oh, my darling,” Aziraphale moaned, hands squeezing against his thighs, pushing one leg back toward Crowley’s shoulder and sinking in that much deeper, making them both cry out. “Yes, yes – that’s – just arch your back for me, just like that, oh, my God, my God, you feel...”
Crowley arched into him, his legs trembling as Aziraphale started pushing into him with short, staggered thrusts, the joy of it radiating out to the tips of his fingers. Every so often a flash of light burst at the base of his spine, Aziraphale nailing something deep inside him that made him moan helplessly. He hung on tighter. His cock ached and twitched.
“Love you,” Crowley moaned, finding new things to love by the second. Loved being manhandled, loved being fucked. Loved being told he was beautiful and good, loved having that chanted into the air like a prayer.
“I love you, I love you so much.” Aziraphale’s voice was getting more frantic, his strokes shorter. “You’re so good for me – oh, if you could see yourself, if you…”
Crowley reached out with one arm and Aziraphale leaned forward into his embrace, barely missing a beat. Crowley was desperate to press back against him, to bear down and fuck himself harder, faster. Aziraphale’s weight held his hips fast to the mattress. Firm, yielding, trapping softness on all sides, not letting him squirm or wriggle.
He hung from Aziraphale’s shoulders and begged for more friction, harder, faster, please. His pleas landed and Aziraphale began to work him harder, holding his weight up on one arm, pressing Crowley further into the mattress as he snuck one hand down between them. “Oh, you beautiful thing, you precious thing, I love you so…”
Crowley let out a cry when Aziraphale’s hand wrapped around him, that frantic, teasing pressure that hadn’t been enough was all of a sudden way too much. He wrapped his arms tight around Aziraphale, tugging his hair, keening into his temple, his cheek.
His body tried to rally, the rubber band winding and winding and winding, but he had started so floppy and loose that it twisted itself up more than he thought it could. Aziraphale’s hand around him, his cock in him, his body holding him down, it kept winding him until he was delirious, frenzied. All he could do was curl his toes and sob into Aziraphale’s hair.
Aziraphale spread him open, fucked into him and breathed hot against his ear. “I can’t hold back anymore, oh, my love, my love, my love…” His words dissolved into whimpers, hips jerking and staggering. Something tugged loose deep in Crowley’s gut and then he was arching, tightening, wailing into the darkness. He spilled over Aziraphale’s fist as Aziraphale came inside him and it was perfect, it felt good and it was perfect.
When he collapsed back against the bed again Aziraphale eased back, releasing his much-abused hips and letting him loll, loose-jointed and jelly-legged on the covers in the warm night air. He might have fallen asleep again, right then and there.
The bed dipped under Aziraphale’s weight as he stood up and before Crowley could even tell up from down again he had a fluffy beige towel draped in one hand. With jerky, uncoordinated movements he cleaned up the worst of the mess and dropped the towel on the ground.
He curled into Aziraphale’s side again, a bit sticky, a bit sweaty, completely boneless. His face was smooshed into Aziraphale’s chest, half-witted, more relaxed than he could ever remember being. “Can’t believe we waited eight months to do that.”
Aziraphale chuckled. “I rather thought it was worth the wait.”
Short fingers dragged through his hair, lulling him further back toward sleep. He pulled the eiderdown up to their hips again although it was warm enough. He was addicted to this, to being covered and smothered and held from all angles. Let Aziraphale keep him here, put him in this bed for all time and visit occasionally to fuck him senseless.
“Sleep, darling,” Aziraphale murmured into his hair, still twisting fingers through, scratching along his scalp. “You’ve had such a big day.”
“M’not five. I don’t need naptime or else I get cranky.”
“Oh, my dear boy. I’m afraid only half of that is true.”
Crowley laughed, still giddy from the high. “Fine, fine, but don’t think just because we’re together you get to be all…”
“Caring? Loving?” Aziraphale suggested.
“Fine, fine,” Crowley yawned. “You win this round.”
He’d let Aziraphale pamper him as much as he liked, really. At least for one night. Crowley sunk down, making his little groove against the mattress, even more comfortable now that he was naked as a newborn. Aziraphale kept one arm around him, holding him tight, holding him like a precious thing.
For the first time since he could remember Crowley was completely at ease. Safe, cherished and relaxed, wrapped around his lover without a care in the world. He should be planning how to be careful, how to not become dependent and let it spoil him. But he wasn’t. For the first time since he could remember, he just knew someone was going to take care of him. He was safe.
Chapter 26: Privacy
London was still busy. Fucking busy, all people everywhere all the time and Crowley realised he hadn’t missed it for a second. The theatre wasn’t any different, in fact it was deliberately packed with as many people as it could seat and that was about as pleasant as he remembered it.
But, and there was a ‘but’ now, it was okay. It took him back to his twenties, when he’d enjoyed this sort of thing. It had all tired him out through the years, the worst of burnout, but it was different with Aziraphale. Maybe he just had more energy from being hopelessly, helplessly in love or maybe just having one person to focus on in the crowds and the noise was easier. Whatever it was they spent the whole day in the city without Crowley’s moods rearing their ugly head.
The show was good, Aziraphale’s delight was better, walking out into the cool London night, streets lit up by streetlamps and the glare from restaurant windows was best of all. Crowley was young again, on a date in the city.
“I know a little sushi place that’s open late,” Aziraphale said, and they walked the streets in their own little bubble, impervious to all the things that used to weigh him down.
The sushi place was little, it was quiet, the sort of small intimate tables tucked away in corners that muffled sound, made it feel like there was no one else in the room. Aziraphale looked so right in his buttoned up clothes, lit by the soft glow of candles, the tinkle of a piano in the air. He radiated fondness for the luxuries of the big city, looked at home here as much as he did in his cottage by the sea.
He ordered in Japanese and Crowley gave him a look over the rim of his sunglasses.
“What?” Aziraphale asked, one hundred percent aware of what the look was about.
“Did you bring me here to show off your Japanese?” Crowley teased.
Aziraphale blushed, a pleased smile teasing at his mouth. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Adorable. Funny how he could be so sweet and prim and cute all put together in a high end sushi joint when Crowley knew it would be a different story once they made it back to the hotel room. He was lucky. At that moment he was the luckiest man in London.
Aziraphale showed him all the weird different etiquettes for eating each kind of fish thing, what to dip it in, how many bites. Mostly Crowley watched and drank plum wine, letting a flush rise up his chest, forgetting about the distance between here and home. He took Aziraphale’s hand across the table, holding it even as his angel gestured with chopsticks, chattered about the history of sushi.
“There are dozens of different ways to cut the fish, each for different occasions or with different meanings. Like flower language but with fish.”
“How much time did ancient samurai have on their hands?” Crowley said, wrinkling up his nose.
“A lot, it would seem.”
“What’s wrong with just sending a birthday card? Seems a lot easier than a diced fish.”
Aziraphale smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind when yours rolls around.”
“Me too. You’re going to wake up to a fish in your mailbox.”
Aziraphale laughed. He was lovely here. Crowley had thought that this would be more difficult than it was. That smile, the chopsticks, the dim lights, he knew he’d be making more city trips. Aziraphale didn’t need him to come to the city but after so long it seemed unimaginable to go a whole weekend without each other, to deprive him of the chance to show off his old haunts and flawless Japanese.
Crowley’s hand ached and he looked down to find it clutched, white knuckled, around the little porcelain cup. He took a breath and relaxed. He didn’t have to go without Aziraphale again, didn’t ever have to watch him go off and not be allowed to follow.
It was like trying to fix a waterbed, pressing patches to all the leaks only to realise they’d been hiding something disastrous just out of his line of sight. He had fingers pressed to all his anxiety, his fear and his distrust, his self-consciousness, and with all that proudly sealed up he was still losing water. Aziraphale had his hand over the big wound, the puncture straight through his heart, and if he left then all the rest wouldn’t mean much.
He might have been able to stretch himself about and hit every spot by himself, but it was easier by a mile when he had that extra hand. Everything was better when he had his other half, the last piece of his puzzle. Aziraphale made everything easier, made everything better. Without him Crowley wouldn’t be sitting here now, enjoying himself like the weight of the world had lifted from his shoulders.
He drank too much plum wine and ate too much seaweed, watching Aziraphale preside over his tiny kingdom, talking animatedly, swishing chopsticks back and forth. No one else in the world.
If he looked at himself through his own eyes at forty, at thirty, at twenty, what would he see?
At twenty he would have scoffed and rolled his eyes, mortified at middle aged gay men who loved the theatre, disgusted by people who passed over high-powered careers to potter about at the seaside in their gardens. The life of a boring, unfulfilled old man, a failure.
At thirty he still would have winced. Him? His younger self would demand. Really? Aziraphale wasn’t even six feet tall, not an ab in sight. At that age he had been busy shagging every gym junkie he could get his hands on. He might have tolerated the gardening, provided it had a good business plan to back it and a five-year expansion strategy. What a pompous git.
At forty… was it that early that he was looking at retired men and holding back a wistful sigh? Was he sick of it all by then? He had been tired, burnt out. The sight of happy couples in restaurants looked like a glimpse into a parallel universe where life might have been kinder, where he’d taken the time to breathe and think and made softer choices. The sight of happy gay couples in their fifties was like staring at a mirage, something impossibly out of reach. He hadn’t regretted it, though, he felt accomplished. He’d beaten the odds, risen out of poverty, made something of himself.
It was at forty-five he’d broken down crying in his flat at 5.30 in the evening on a Monday. Two minutes in the door and it had been silent, sterile, all his fancy toys like cheap plastic ornaments on a Christmas tree set up in September. All his life’s accomplishments and nothing worth coming home to. He’d decided, then, that something had to give. A month of mulling it over and he gave his notice. Two months to find his place by the sea.
He’d given up on the handsome young men who liked his money and his car. He’d given up on hope of finding someone else. It had been excised like a tumour. Just another shiny bauble he’d sold his soul for.
If, in that moment, someone could have shown him two old men sharing sushi, chattering about the show they’d just seen, living it up for a night in the city before they’d head back to their cottages by the sea, he would have begged for it to be him. He would have prostrated himself, wept, ached for this to be his future.
“I love you,” he said, as if realising it for the first time. Realising for the first time that he had to marry this man. It was that kind of love.
Aziraphale looked up at him, curious. “I love you, too, dear. Are you thinking profound thoughts?”
I think I’m going to spend my life with you.
“Fish things, really,” Crowley replied with a shrug. “Just… fishy, fishy things.”
There was no rush. Aziraphale would wait for him, until he was ready. This wasn’t like the flashy pleasures of the past, all adrenaline and money and gone once the shiny varnish started to scratch. If he took another ten years Aziraphale would wait for him. But he had to do it. If not for Aziraphale then for himself. To remind him even on his darkest days that this was here to stay.
Crowley waved down a waiter and paid the bill over Aziraphale’s protest.
“Your Christmas present,” he said, handing over his card, then took Aziraphale’s hand and pressed a kiss to his knuckles. Once the card was returned he led Aziraphale from the restaurant. “I want to take you somewhere.”
It was getting late but they still had time. They walked the streets, still full of people on a Saturday night, puddles in the street mirroring the streetlamps. It was busy and loud but also… not. Not in their bubble. It was just background noise. It was just nice to walk off the food and wine in the cooling air.
He took Aziraphale to St James’s Park and stood with him by the lake. It wasn’t their ocean, too small and too still, but when he was forty-five Crowley had stood at the lakes edge, watching the ducks, and decided this was where he’d wanted to be. In the garden, by the water. He’d called the real estate agent from this spot to make his offer, not knowing where it would lead him.
Now he stood in this spot and held Aziraphale’s hand, pulled him in for a kiss, in the garden by the water.
“It’s lovely here,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley took in a deep breath, letting the smell of the water fill him up and the hand in his warm him through. “Yeah, it is.”
It only seemed right to make the next big decision here. But who was he kidding? That decision had been made for him a long time ago.
Chapter 27: Grace
The night was clear and starry, the air just starting to chill after a warm day and the gardens were filled with laughter. Crowley and Aziraphale sat on a blanket under the apple tree, now thick with leafy foliage, and traded the remnants of a bottle of Glenfiddich between them.
The world had gone muzzy at the edges some time ago, the passage of time obligingly slowing and speeding itself so all Crowley experienced was Aziraphale’s laughter, his smile, the wittiest of jabs traded between them. He could feel that the air around them was getting cold, but the whisky had warmed him right through and he wasn’t going to move for anything.
“My point, my point, my point is…” Crowley tried, but Aziraphale had the giggles and they were contagious. He kept trying to get the words out but all that would come was another sputter of laughter.
“What?” Aziraphale asked between fits. “What’s… what’s your point?”
“It’s…” Crowley gestured broadly with the bottle, having entirely forgotten what his point was and trying to come up with something. Aziraphale was looking up at him from the blanket with those soft eyes, slightly unfocused, his hair a mess and his collar askew. “It’s that you’re so fucking pretty.”
Aziraphale dissolved into laughter again, hunching forward with it. “I’m not ‘pretty’! How dare you.”
“You are.” Crowley leaned down and kissed him, messy and grinning. He overbalanced but caught himself, trapping Aziraphale against the blanket, smothering him with kisses, mumbling out words between them. “You are. With your pretty hair.” Kiss. “And your pretty eyes.” Kiss. “And your pretty, pretty cock.”
The shocked laugh against his mouth made Crowley grin over again, rolling to lie on top of his lover, his wiry arms either side of Aziraphale’s head, muscles raised. He looked down, pleased with the rumpled, flustered, deliriously happy sight beneath him.
“I have church in the morning,” Aziraphale admonished, somewhat undercut by how broadly he was smiling.
“Mm, I know you do. Better do something to atone for, then.” Crowley leaned down, nudged Aziraphale’s jaw with his nose and attacked the pulse point of his neck. The reaction was immediate and oh, so enjoyable, Aziraphale arching underneath him with a gasp. Crowley parted his lips and sucked the tender skin between his teeth, hoping he could leave a mark before Aziraphale realised what he was doing.
“You-!” Aziraphale wriggled under him, managing to dislodge him enough to prevent the hickey.
Crowley chuckled into his skin. “Oh, come on, church boy. Let me leave some marks on your pretty skin.”
He flicked open the first button on Aziraphale’s shirt, then the second, trailing teasing, barely-there kisses down his collarbone. With one thigh he pressed up between Aziraphale’s legs, giving just a hint of friction. It was already enough for Crowley to feel it, his cock starting to harden against Aziraphale’s hip as his angel squirmed beneath him.
“You scoundrel,” Aziraphale protested, his hands sliding up Crowley’s thighs. “You’re drunk.”
“So are you.” A third button sacrificed to the cause. Crowley nuzzled his way down suggestively, glancing up to see Aziraphale watching him with dark eyes. “I bet you’re dying for me to unbutton you, angel.”
“No,” Aziraphale breathed. “No, I’m not.”
Crowley drew back, sitting back on his heels. He was uncomfortably hot and constrained, but he’d heard the refusal. “Alright, I’m…”
He stopped talking when Aziraphale sat up, bringing them nose-to-nose again. Then there was a hand pushing his shirt up his stomach and another dug into his hip. “No my dear, I’m dying to unbutton you.”
Crowley helped pull the t-shirt over his head and came back in, Aziraphale kissing him. He moaned as those soft hands worked the fly of his jeans, fumbling for a second with his belt buckle before it gave way.
“Fuck, yes, angel,” Crowley gasped, bucking into Aziraphale’s hand, searching for pressure that his angel refused to give.
“No, not like this. Stand up for me. Against the tree.”
Crowley shot to his feet, overeager, his mind suddenly filled with images of what was about to happen. He stumbled, leaning on Aziraphale’s shoulder to steady him as he staggered the single step to the apple tree and let his bare back hit the bark.
Aziraphale knelt at his feet, fingertips digging into the most tender part of his hips and Crowley whined. “Please, please, angel, please.”
He was hard, oversensitive, flinching at the lightest touch as Aziraphale eased his jeans and pants down enough to free him. When Aziraphale’s hand closed around him he moaned shamelessly, staring down at his pretty angel about to suck his cock under the apple tree.
Aziraphale’s intense stare cracked a little as Crowley whimpered, a power-drunk smirk flashing across his face. Then he leaned forward and took Crowley’s cock in his mouth.
Crowley threw his head back, cracking hard against the tree, gasping. “Oh, fuck, angel, yes, yes, fuck…”
He fisted his hands in his own hair to stop him grabbing Aziraphale’s, breathing hard, all his drunken brain power focused on not shoving forward into that soft, soft mouth. Aziraphale held one hand wrapped around the base of his cock and bobbed forward, tongue dragging along the underside.
Crowley whined into his own arm. “Oh, yes, angel, suck me. Suck me just like that, your fucking mouth…”
He was wrecked from the start, the whisky and the night sky and Aziraphale worshipping at his feet. The filthy babbling only seemed to spur Aziraphale on, which was good because he wasn’t sure he could stop. He risked a glance down and moaned.
“Oh, fuck, my angel, you look so fucking good with my cock in your mouth… my pretty angel… oh, God, suck me…”
He couldn’t help it any longer, letting one hand drop to Aziraphale’s hair. Not forcing, never forcing, just to hold him, just to have something to touch as Aziraphale took him deeper. His whole world was the impossibly hot, impossibly wet mouth around him, the tongue working him.
“…tongue feels so good…” The words tumbled out, every one making Aziraphale moan around his cock, take more of him until he felt himself hit the back of his throat, the sucking and licking turning into frantic swallowing. “Fuck, ‘Ziraphale, gonna come… can I – want your mouth…”
Aziraphale started clenching the hand at his hip convulsively, meeting his eye, a moan he prayed was permission vibrating through him. Crowley gripped the ash blond curls in his hand, trembling, his knees threatening to give out on him, and let himself come, swearing loudly into the still night.
Aziraphale swallowed around him, holding him in place, dragging out every excruciatingly perfect moment of it until he slumped back against the apple tree, exhausted.
Crowley’s head swam, the drink and the orgasm working together to bring him back to his knees, clumsily falling into Aziraphale’s arms. He kissed him, hot and open and more in love than he’d ever been, hands already working at Aziraphale’s fly.
“Love you,” he groaned into Aziraphale’s mouth, sharing gasping breaths, hand wrapping around his cock and starting to work him. “Love you.”
They fell backwards, an uncoordinated dance of hands and knees and open kisses as Crowley eased Aziraphale onto his back. He stroked Aziraphale’s cock as he tugged his shirt up, letting him press kisses against the fine hair trailing down from his bellybutton.
“My angel,” Crowley mumbled into the skin. “My pretty angel.”
He leaned forward and took Aziraphale’s cock in his mouth, sucking the salty precome off his skin and taking him deep.
Aziraphale’s cry was weak, the hands that wrapped in Crowley’s hair were clumsy, the muscles of his thighs already trembling. There was no finesse to it, Crowley gave him everything he had. He swallowed around him, using his tongue as best he could.
Aziraphale thrust up into his mouth and Crowley moaned, relaxing and letting him take what he needed. He was so worked up it wouldn’t take long. The hands in his hair pulled harder than usual, Aziraphale’s soft oh, oh, oh ringing in his ears. Before long he was coming, hot and thick in Crowley’s mouth. Crowley swallowed everything he was given and licked him clean, the last few drops landing on his lips to be swept up by his tongue.
He used the last of his strength to pull back and lie down beside Aziraphale, their hands finding each other and squeezing tight. They lay under the stars, under the apple tree, breathing hard, side by side.
Crowley rolled his head to the side, looking at Aziraphale. He was already half asleep. Crowley grinned. What a compliment, to have worn his man out like that. A bloody compliment he’d managed to get him to come at all after that much whisky.
Fuck, he was so lovely. Pretty, just like Crowley said, but lovelier, to him, because they could get whisky-drunk and fool around in Crowley’s favourite spot on a Saturday night. Lovelier because they fit, they matched, they worked together.
“C’mon,” he said, just barely finding his voice, tugging his jeans back into place and casting about for his shirt. “You’re staying here tonight.”
Aziraphale made a wordless sound of protest but buttoned himself up again as well. “Nn, I have… have…”
Crowley smiled fondly. He heaved himself to his feet, only staggering a little, and offered a hand. He had to get Aziraphale to bed before they fell asleep in the garden and caught their death. And if it was nice to wake up next to a warm body after a big night, that was just a bonus.
“Don’t worry, angel.” Crowley dragged him to his feet under protest, wrapping an arm around his waist so they could support each other back to the house. He smiled into Aziraphale’s hair, thinking of the velvet ring box stashed in his nightstand, chuckling to himself over his own joke. “I’ll get you to the church on time.”
Chapter 28: Fireflies
Crowley’s gardens had always been empty except for him. A solitary figure wandering amongst wisteria and willow, nothing but the flowers and the wind. It had been his sanctuary.
He worked to make it right for Aziraphale’s party. He trimmed down the rose bushes, packed away all his equipment, rearranged the outdoor heaters and what furniture he had. It had only been set up for him, just a couple of chairs, a little table. In the weeks leading up Crowley thought about it, thought about another presence in his garden, the ring that burned a hole in his pocket, what he wanted for himself, and eventually gave in and got some more benches and tables.
He could picture it, not just a single night but going forward. Aziraphale reading under the apple tree, having friends around to drink tea and gossip, the sort of things he’d need if… if… Crowley couldn’t even think it.
So he didn’t. The night of Aziraphale’s 50th he found a quiet corner with Anathema, hoarding the best snacks, allowed Aziraphale to play the dashing host, and obstinately enjoyed himself instead of melting into a pile of wobbling jelly. The weather was warm enough, the sky clear and turning pink as the sun set, the flowers in brilliant full bloom. There was something nice about seeing it full of people.
“You almost look like you’re enjoying yourself,” Anathema said. She looked better here, as well, with decent champagne in a proper glass, nestled against the potato vines that spilled tiny white flowers through her hair.
“It’s just one night,” Crowley said.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see people in your garden. Come to think of it, I didn’t think I’d ever see your garden. It’s nice.”
“So glad it meets your standards, your majesty.”
Anathema rolled her eyes. “So I take it true love hasn’t improved your ability to take a compliment. Is tonight the night?”
“Don’t ask me, we’re not talking about it.” He wasn’t thinking about it. It was like ripping off a plaster or jumping out of a plane; he could do it, just not if he thought too hard about it beforehand.
“He’d love it if you did it out here, in front of all these people.”
“He would. Do you know who wouldn’t love that?”
“Is it you?”
“It is. It’s me,” Crowley nodded. Aziraphale was talking to some people, standing under the wisteria, and looked up as if he’d felt Crowley’s eyes on him. He offered the softest smile, and Crowley could already hear his voice – thank you for this.
He ignored whatever Anathema was saying and climbed to his feet. He’d spent forever getting this garden into shape, making it perfect for the occasion, and he was pretty proud of his finishing touch. Under the porch he found the power outlet, ancient and cobwebbed over with one shiny new plug attached. He threw the switch.
The gardens lit up, dozens of strings of pilfered Christmas lights threaded around the trees and through the taller bushes.
There was a little murmur of approval from Aziraphale’s guests, his guests, as the low sunlight suddenly turned to fireflies, people turning to look around them.
Aziraphale caught his eye again, somehow looking even more sticky sweet and lovestruck, eyes big and glassy. And that was it. Crowley knew the moment was on him. His insides twisted up like someone was trying to giftwrap them. He looked to Anathema who offered him a cheeky grin and mouthed good luck.
Crowley cleared his throat as he walked, not sure his voice would come out normal. He approached Aziraphale and took him by the elbow. “Come on. Little walk.”
Aziraphale nodded, eyes starry, and followed him without question, their hands tangled together as they moved away from the party. Crowley didn’t understand what he found so enjoyable about hanging out with all these people, but he did, he was light with it, relaxed and happy. Maybe it was the people, or the gardens, or just where he found himself at fifty, but Aziraphale was almost floating as Crowley led him to the apple tree.
The glitter of the fairylights was still visible, still catching against Aziraphale’s hair and skin, the silver buttons of his waistcoat. The stars above were vibrant, no clouds in the sky. A blanket of flickering silver and gold, above and below.
“Are we going to cause another scandal?” Aziraphale asked with a smirk. “Because I did receive a good bit of ribbing about Deirdre’s garden party.”
“We’re going to cause… what’s the opposite of a scandal?”
“A celebration, I should think.”
“A celebration.” Crowley stuck his hand in his pocket, closing his fingers around the velvet ring box. He held onto the thing for dear life, his heart leaping to action in his chest, trying to hammer its way out. “I… Aziraphale… I want… Got you a present. Might be cheating to double up, birthday and…”
Whose brilliant idea had it been to wing this? He should have memorised a speech or something. What was that Neruda poem? The one he liked? I love you because I know no other way, so close my hand on your chest – No, fuck. Your hand on my chest –
He dropped Aziraphale’s hand and pulled off his sunglasses, rubbed his eyes. Too dark to see with the bloody things anyway. If he was going to fuck this all up he might as well look the man in the eye while he did it.
Gathering all his courage, he clasped the ring box in his hand and shoved it into Aziraphale’s. Both their hands wrapped around the box, not yet letting Aziraphale look, just feel, but his eyes were already widening. Crowley held their hands together around that box like it was a live grenade.
“I want… We should wake up together every morning. And have your parties here. And do just one Christmas tree, our Christmas tree. And you’re too soft on that cat, he’s got the run of the place.”
He should write romance novels, he should. Really show other idiots how to propose to the love of their life.
But Aziraphale was looking up at him, lip trembling, a disbelieving smile spreading across his face. He looked down at their hands, then back to Crowley, then eased the ring box free, leaving Crowley’s shaking hands without their tether.
Under the apple tree, in the firefly light, Aziraphale opened the box and looked at the simple, shining ring. He let out a sigh, his smile brighter than sunshine.
“I’m afraid I need you to say the words, my darling,” he breathed.
“Marry me,” Crowley blurted. “Will you… Please, marry me.”
Aziraphale laughed, somehow even happier than he had been before, joyful tears springing to his eyes as he nodded. “Of course, of course I will.”
He pulled the ring free and slid it onto his left hand, then lunged forward, wrapping Crowley in an embrace that pushed him back against the old apple tree. A weak, relieved laugh escaped Crowley, pushed out by the impact and he buried his face in Aziraphale’s neck, crushing his fiance to him.
The nervous tension holding him up all dropped at once and he turned to mush, holding Aziraphale tight. He said yes. Everything he’d had for the past year, that he hadn’t thought he’d ever have, now it was his forever.
They were still laughing, relieved and a little hysterical, as they made their way back to the party. Crowley had meant to stand back, allow all the attention to fall on Aziraphale, but as soon as the warmth of the gathering hit them he realised he couldn’t let go of Aziraphale’s hand. He wanted to wrap himself around his angel and never, ever let go of him again.
He let Aziraphale break the news to the party at large, smile so wide he couldn’t seem to help it, happy tears still lingering on his eyelashes. And they were bombarded, because of course they were, but Crowley let Aziraphale field the congratulations and just held on, refusing to let go for even a heartbeat.
Anathema dragged him in for a hug, maybe the most sincere he’d ever seen her.
“I’m happy for you,” she said, then smiled. “And the cards never lie.”
“I can’t stand you,” he replied, squeezing her tightly before letting her go.
The quiet night of hiding in the corner with the hors d’oeuvres was out the window, but the party wound down as time wore on, the stream of social situations bleeding down to a trickle. He danced with Aziraphale amongst the fairy lights, like someone cast a magic spell on them so they could only look at each other. For one night he could be the sappiest bastard in the South Downs. He was all full of those rose-coloured feelings. Aziraphale in his garden, under his fairy lights, wearing his ring.
It seemed like they danced for hours, a blur of strummy guitar music and champagne and Aziraphale’s dopey, blissed out smile. Crowley thought he must have looked just as love drunk.
Aziraphale held his hands and leaned into his chest. “If someone had told me at twenty that the happiest night of my life would be my fiftieth birthday…”
Crowley chuckled and pressed a kiss into his hair. “You would have called them a liar, and a mean one, at that?”
“How grand it is to be proven wrong. How wonderful to have such a blessing in my life.”
Aziraphale sighed happily and swayed to the music. Crowley held him close and swayed with him. He would have thought the same at twenty. In fact, he would have said the same at forty-five. This had all seemed so impossible such a short time ago. Aziraphale was right, it was a great thing to be proven wrong.
He closed his eyes and reminded himself again that this was real. As improbable as it all seemed, it had happened. He was going to wake up beside Aziraphale every day, was going to argue about dishes and money, was going to meet his stupid family, was going to be there for every smile and every kiss.
He smiled into Aziraphale’s hair. “Happy birthday, angel.”
On the morning of Aziraphale’s 51st birthday Crowley sat under the apple tree, looking out over the ocean. Kraken was curled up beside him, purring, and Crowley let one hand rest buried in his fur, gently scratching. His sunglasses sat in his breast pocket.
The flowers were all in bloom, bursting white and pink and red through a sea of green. The apple tree had begun to blossom, though it would be a few months before they saw any fruit. When it did he’d come out and pick them all for Aziraphale before the birds got to them and have weeks of preserving and stewing and weird apple experiments.
He breathed deeply, letting the ocean air and the scent of the flowers fill his lungs, and closed his eyes for a minute.
“C’mon, puss,” he said, letting the moment pass. “Better go see what he’s up to.”
The cat looked up at him, offended to be woken from his nap, but dutifully uncurled with him and trotted back to the cottage. The fairy lights were strung up again, a tradition now, and the furniture was starting to grow into its surroundings, sinking into the ground, creeping vines twisting around the bases.
Crowley stopped at the patio, gazing through the window into the kitchen. His husband (husband) was hard at work, filo pastry laid out, one hand wielding a basting brush dripping with butter while the other hand folded, working his concoction into perfect little triangles. He was sweating from the heat of the kitchen, sleeves rolled up, a crinkle of concentration between his eyebrows. A cake sat cooling on the bench alongside the general debris that followed Aziraphale everywhere. Cookbooks and regular books, the aloe vera plant, wooden spoons and balled up tea towels and a thin layer of flour over it all.
Crowley opened the door, letting Kraken slink his way in before following. It had been a hard choice, not so long ago, to let go of the cottage on Rose Road with its spectacular view. But Aziraphale’s presence was not so much creeping into Crowley’s home as it had taken over. Bookshelves lined half the walls, there was a tartan throw rug on his crisp leather couch and they had combined their respective pillows into a pillow mountain fit for a sultan.
They’d also brought in the bar stools where Crowley could sit and annoy his husband (husband) while he cooked.
Aziraphale brushed down another sheet of pastry, fingers glistening with warm butter. “How’s the garden looking?”
“Tickety boo. All ready for tonight. How’s the food?” Crowley stuck a finger into some sweet looking batter, earning himself a swat on the hand but winning his scoop of chocolatey goo.
“Better without sticky fingers in it. Deirdre called ahead, she wanted to know if they could pick up those lemon trees while they’re here tonight.”
“Mm, s’all bagged up,” Crowley mumbled, finger in his mouth. “I’ll call her.”
“Thank you, dear.” Aziraphale leaned up for a kiss and Crowley obliged. “It’s going to be quite a get-together tonight. Are you sure you’re up for it?”
“I’ll be fine. Worst comes to worst I’ll get drunk and make a scene.”
When had his teasing threats stopped working? Aziraphale only laughed at him. “I’ll task Anathema with keeping an eye on your consumption then.”
“You wouldn’t dare.” She’d be unbearable. If he thought she was unbearable before it was only because he didn’t know what it was like when they ganged up on him to make him ‘behave himself’ or ‘not die young’.
“That’s the last of the pastries, I’ll start on the canapes after lunch.” Aziraphale slid the baking tray of little filo triangles into the fridge and turned to grab a tea towel off the counter to wipe down his buttery hands.
Crowley caught his wrist.
“Lunch, you say?” Crowley leaned forward, smirking and raised Aziraphale’s hand to his mouth. He licked the butter from the tip of his thumb, then lightly sucked.
Aziraphale turned bright pink, his free hand fluttering. “Crowley! I have work to do.”
Crowley sucked the next finger clean. “Mm, that’s why I’m cleaning you up. So you can get to work.”
He loved the way Aziraphale’s hand trembled in his, how he kept opening his mouth to launch some objection only to let out a breathy bit of nothing. He grinned, the tip of Aziraphale’s finger caught in his teeth.
“Crowley…” Aziraphale breathed in what had surely been meant as a stern tone.
“We’ve got some time before lunch, I want to give my husband…” (husband) “…a birthday gift.”
Crowley coaxed him out of the kitchen, trading smiling kisses, greasy hands clasping. Aziraphale tasted like pine nuts and brown sugar, smelled like a day of baking, mixing his soft floured essence with the earth and greenery of Crowley’s day gardening as they tugged each other toward the bedroom.
Before the end of the day the house would be full of people. Anathema would be set up in the lounge reading people’s fortunes, the mother hens would be trading pie recipes with Aziraphale and Crowley would be talking classic cars with the old bloke from the hardware store. The gardens would be lit with fairy lights and the house would smell like freshly baked pastry.
Five years to build a new life. Five years to grow an orchard, to develop a career he could enjoy, to get killer calves running on the beach. Five years ago it had been a dream, an almost insurmountable task that tested every limit of his patience and determination. He had only kept going by chasing that golden goal, the far-fetched dream that he could be happy. And it had been such hard work, but he had put in the work, made something to be proud of.
And now the lovingly tended pieces of his life knitted back together in silk thread and tartan. The last piece of the puzzle. His other half. The part of the dream he’d never dared hope for. He fell against the bed with his husband, a smile free and easy on his face.