Crowley looked at Aziraphale. Aziraphale looked back.
“Are you quite sure,” Aziraphale began. The scepticism dripped from every word, landing with a squelch between them.
“Yes,” Crowley said quickly. He was, in fact, not sure at all, but now was not the time to lose face in front of the Adversary, even if the Adversary was less about the whole hereditary enemies thing these days and more about having a spot of lunch with an old chum. There were just certain things you didn’t let go of, even if you did save the world together.
Aziraphale gave Crowley another look. Crowley ignored it.
“It’s really very simple,” Crowley went on, hoping that once they got started, it would actually be. “It’s just a lot of insert tab a into slot b over and over again, looks like.”
“What if the wrong tab a goes into the wrong slot b?” Aziraphale wanted to know.
“That’s what the diagram is for, so you know which goes where.” Crowley looked at the diagram again to double-check it. “That seems about right.”
There was a pause as they both studied the diagram together. After a moment or two, Aziraphale reached out and adjusted it so that it was right-side up.
“Why are we doing this again?” he asked. It was not the first time he had asked.
Actually, for having agreed to the whole thing in the first place, he was being a bit of a tit about it. Crowley suspected that Aziraphale knew he was being a bit of a tit about it, and that he was just using whatever space he still had from Heaven over the whole end-of-the-world business to get away with it. It only made Crowley double-down on his determination.
“Because,” Crowley said shortly. “We decided—together, I might add—that if we were going to vouch for humanity, we ought to know a thing or two about how they really live. I suggested it, you thought it was a good idea, and we’re sticking with it.”
“I thought it was a good idea because I was six sheets to the wind,” Aziraphale grumbled under his breath, and then he sighed. “Fine. I’ll read off this, you go ahead and do the tab and slot bits.”
“It’s a two man job,” Crowley pointed out.
“We’re not men. Not really.”
“No, but we’re doing this as men, so come on. Cheer up, angel. You might even enjoy it.”
And Crowley gave him his winningest, temptingest grin. Aziraphale hated that grin, Crowley knew—he’d told Crowley once that it gave him the heebie-jeebies, which had been a mistake, because then Crowley knew he could use it to get Aziraphale to do whatever it was that would make him stop using it.
One of the perks of being a demon, of course, was that Crowley felt no obligation to use the tools available to him in any way approaching sparingly. He grinned a little bit harder.
Sure enough, Aziraphale folded. “Fine,” he snapped. He wrestled himself up out of his armchair and stood next to Crowley, picking up a little plastic baggie full of screws and washers and wooden dowels and glaring down at a collection of pressed particleboard masquerading as a potential bookshelf. “Looks like we start by sticking the dowels—that’ll be tab a—into the holes on the sides of the individual shelves. Slot b.”
“Right,” Crowley said, folding himself into a complicated knot of legs on the floor and pulling the shelves closer to him. “We’ll have this bookcase built in no time, and then we can get on with the rest of the List.”
The List was exactly what it purported itself to be, which was a list.
Crowley’d gotten the idea from some film he’d seen ten or so years ago, which he’d really only taken note of because people had started talking about it with the sort of great annoyance that only excessively schmaltzy displays of unrelatable sentiment could inspire in people that had to live in reality, with things like bills and Tescos and friends that said oh yeah let’s get together sometime but didn’t actually mean it. The film itself had been perfectly horrible and only seemed to get more horrible with age—Crowley had actually taken credit for it in a report three years after it had been released, when the horribleness seemed to reach some zenith—but the premise itself had actually not been bad, which was probably why the film seemed so terrible by comparison.
The premise was simple: you were supposed to write a list of all the things you wanted to do before you died, which was supposed to be called a bucket list, and then you crossed them off using someone else’s money. Crowley couldn’t remember what buckets had to do with it, but that wasn’t the point anyway.
“But we’re not going to die,” Aziraphale had said, when Crowley had first proposed starting a list of their own over drinks the week after Armageddon. There had been a lot of drinks after Armageddon—it had just seemed like the thing to do. “We have always just sort of done whatever we wanted.”
“No,” Crowley had disagreed, “we’ve done what they expected us to do. Heaven, Hell, whomever. Tempting and thwarting and all that. Always working toward the ineffable plan, which if you think about it was pretty stupid, considering nobody ever knew what the plan actually was.”
“That’s ineffability for you,” Aziraphale had said.
Crowley had been getting quite worked up by then. “Well, it’s bollocks. I mean, how many times have you had to stop doing whatever you were doing in order to go do what you thought they wanted you to be doing? And then what did they get? Hm? Half-hearted tempting and thwarting, that’s what. Craftsmanship went out of the game a long time ago, which isn’t to say that we were bad at our jobs.” He paused. “Though, actually, we were. But that was because neither of us really wanted to be doing it, now did we?”
He had looked expectantly at Aziraphale, who seemed to have lost track of what Crowley was saying halfway through and had instead been making the whisky in his glass do a swirl. “I just want to read my books,” he had said forlornly. “Is that so much to ask? To read a book?”
That had not been at all the point Crowley was trying to get at, so he had said, very loudly, “Anyway,” and pressed on. “We should make a list of things they like doing. We already know what we like, right? I like sleep, and good wine, and—and—”
“Vintage cars,” Aziraphale had supplied.
“My vintage car,” Crowley had corrected. “And you like books.”
“And little antique shops. And good restaurants. And tartan. Oh, and—”
“And snuffboxes, yes, I know. Point is, angel, the point is, we know what we like. We know what we think is worthwhile down here. But who’s to say that we won’t have to explain it to someone else again, see? Who’s to say that the Antichrist won’t grow up and decide he’d rather burn the world down than to, you know, pay the tax on the car or what have you? Gets sick of queuing at the bank? No, we’ve got to be prepared.”
There was a certain look that Aziraphale wore occasionally—a pinched sort of moue that looked like he’d just taken a very large mouthful of cinnamon—which meant he thought Crowley was being ridiculous. He had put it on.
“Hang on,” he had said. “You want us to do human things?”
“Not just doing human things, we already do a lot of that,” Crowley had said, gesturing wildly. He had felt that Aziraphale was just on the cusp of getting it, or at least of giving in, mostly because Aziraphale pretty commonly wore the You’re-Ridiculous look immediately before sighing and agreeing to an ill-advised lunch at the Ritz. “Doing human things the human way. Trying to really understand what about the way humans do things makes them the way that they are, with all that contradiction and so on. What about the human experience makes humans so…well, human.”
Aziraphale had made the whisky in his glass swirl in the other direction, frowning at it. Then he had sighed, and groaned, and said, “What sort of human things?”
Crowley had grinned.
They did not have the bookcase built in no time.
They had it mostly assembled in about three hours, which felt surprisingly like forever to a couple of immortals, and then Aziraphale went to stand it upright. It promptly wobbled, then wibbled, then slammed itself back down to the ground with an ominous crack.
Crowley sat down next to it like a puppet with cut strings.
“You know,” he mused, “I always thought that Hell was working overtime unnecessarily, and this is a prime example. Perfectly good bookshelves are built everyday, but no. Humans have to invent IKEA, and IKEA has to invent flat-packed furniture, and we end up with this. Satan should just call it a day, really. He can just sit back, relax, and wait for the BILLY bookcases of the world to fill the underworld right bloody up.”
Aziraphale frowned. “You’re not giving up, are you?”
“Aren’t you?” Crowley asked glumly.
Aziraphale thought about it. They could give up, but then they’d have failed to do something that millions of humans had managed to do over the years, and that was a bit embarrassing. And Crowley had been so pleased when he’d brought the thing into the bookshop, and now he wasn’t at all pleased, not even a little, and, well. What was the point of saving the world if you didn’t even get to be pleased with yourself afterwards?
He sighed, and stuck out his hand. “Come on,” he said. “We can get this, and then I’ll treat you to sushi.”
Crowley looked at the offered hand for a moment. “Can I make an octopus piece wiggle at someone?”
Aziraphale made a much bigger show of thinking about this than he had about thinking over Crowley being pleased, just because it wouldn’t do to let the Adversary think he was going soft. “I’ll let you do one,” he finally offered.
It was worth it to see the grin split Crowley’s face. “Deal,” he said, taking Aziraphale’s hand and letting himself be pulled to his feet. “Let’s do it.”
So maybe it had taken a few minor miracles, but Crowley had to admit that it was worth it to see Aziraphale’s face light up once the bookshelf was standing on its own accord. He had insisted Crowley remove it from his bookshop immediately before any of his other bookshelves got ideas about pressed particle-board, but still, it had been a nice moment.
It had also been worth it to make the octopus bit wiggle and watch the chaos spread, even if Crowley did have to take the Yelp app down for several days afterward just to be sure the story didn’t spread—it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault, after all, and it was the best sushi this side of London.
Aziraphale was a bit pink, and he’d left his bow tie—which he’d taken off sometime around realising that they’d put one side of the bookcase on upside-down—at the shop. Crowley had lost his sunglasses somewhere and had to keep swiping the waiter’s memory whenever he came by with another tray. They’d both had quite a lot of sake, and then they’d both had quite a lot of champagne.
“So,” Crowley said, spreading the List out onto the table in between their glasses. “First one done. What do you think?”
“I think,” Aziraphale said sagely, waving his chopsticks and absolutely failing to pick up a piece of sashimi, “if you have done the first one, it only makes sense that, after that, you’ve got to do the second.”
Crowley took Aziraphale’s chopsticks and used it to stab the elusive bit of salmon, then handed it back to Aziraphale, who was just drunk enough not to be aghast by it. “You want to keep going with it then?”
“Of course,” Aziraphale said, as if to say, obviously. “It would be bad form to stop after just one.”
“Good,” Crowley grinned. He couldn’t stop grinning. He didn’t even really want to.
Aziraphale grinned too, and then he took a long sip of champagne and toasted Crowley with the sashimi. “To conquering IKEA,” he said, giggling through his mock-solemnity. “If ever humans got close to recreating the sense of divine bliss, triumph over IKEA furniture is definitely it.”
“Blasphemous,” Crowley said, laughing, and then he tapped Aziraphale’s sashimi with his bit of tuna roll and leaned back in his chair a little, trying to look blasé instead of drunk on bubbly and shared victory. “To humanity,” he toasted, as coolly as he could.
Azirphale’s eyes softened, and he set his champagne glass down in favour of slipping his hand over Crowley’s, which made Crowley suspect that as coolly as he could meant not very cool at all.
He didn’t mind, really. Aziraphale’s hand was warm.
“To humanity,” Aziraphale agreed.
He looked at Crowley. Crowley looked back.
Then the waiter slipped by and dropped off another pitcher of sake, and Aziraphale took his hand back. Crowley cleared his throat and busied himself looking at the List. “Perfect,” he said, rubbing his hands together. He could still feel Aziraphale’s warmth on his skin. “Now: what’s next?”
It had admittedly taken them a while to think up the first couple of things to put on the List, mostly because they were neither of them very well versed in how humans actually went about doing the things they all seemed to be very busy going about doing.
In the end, Crowley, sodden with conviction and very good whisky, had simply miracled half a page of text off the nearest copy of the Daily Telegraph and started writing down whatever came to mind. Put together IKEA furniture had been first on the List merely because an IKEA advert had fallen out of the sheaf of Telegraph pages, but that was advertising for you.
Crowley had also written, in no particular order: re-decorate, also due to the IKEA advert; get a pet, to which Aziraphale had immediately and horrifiedly said no; see all the tourist things in London, mostly because he’d always thought Hell should’ve got credit for the London Eye and it hadn’t, so he had never been to see it out of sheer spite; go somewhere we’ve never been before, which he’d written traveling the human way very small next to, as if they’d both need the reminder when the time came; eat something we’ve never eaten before, at Aziraphale’s suggestion, though Crowley thought that would be a rather ambitious goal for the two of them, considering; take up a new hobby, after which Aziraphale had asked if he still had that old guitar he’d obnoxiously gone about with in the 1970s, which Crowley did; and finally, at the bottom, do something magnificently reckless.
“You don’t think stopping Armageddon was magnificently reckless?” Aziraphale had asked, scowling at Crowley’s crabbed handwriting on the page.
“No, it absolutely was,” Crowley had said. “Most exhilarating thing I’d done in six thousand years, though.”
“As long as it’s not the same magnificently reckless thing, then,” Aziraphale had said, going stern. “Once is quite enough, thank you very much.”
“I’ll be sure to drop the Antichrist a note about it, if it pleases you,” Crowley offered. He put on a very serious tone that sounded a bit like Death, if Death were wearing a three-piece suit on a Sunday evening and writing a complaint to the Tadfield Advertiser. “Dear Sir: I must inform you that I am about to do something magnificently reckless, and I want to make absolutely clear that I and the general public do not need your help in arranging it.”
And then they’d both laughed until their sides hurt. It hadn’t been that funny, actually, but it was a bit like pulling the stopper out of a plug: once it started, it all had to go.
When they’d finally gotten themselves under control and Aziraphale had gone to find out about another bottle of whisky, Crowley had leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, still giggling, thinking about how it had felt to walk away from Armageddon, himself and Earth and Aziraphale all unscathed. Almost like Falling, he thought, but as if he’d been flying instead.
They decided on the tourist traps for their next.
“The London Eye,” Crowley declared, raising his arms triumphantly in front of it. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Aziraphale struggled to come up with a suitable compliment. “It’s, erm, big. And—” he was unable to help himself, frowning at the swirls and eddies of people coming and going— “Crowded.”
Crowley laughed somewhat embarrassedly. “Yes, well. It’s possible that the whole tourist idea has gone a bit beyond what I’d originally envisioned—put a food cart and a pop-up shop outside an amphitheatre to help draw in the crowds, that sort of thing, but then marketing was invented and the rest was downhill from there. Anyway,” he cleared his throat loudly. “Best get used to it, angel. Here be the public.”
Aziraphale muttered something about plans backfiring spectacularly and joined Crowley in the queue, which, as far as he was concerned, lasted about as long as the nineteenth century had. He considered doing a little miracling on the sly to get the group in front of them to suddenly remember that they had—all twelve of them—left their respective stoves on, but Crowley caught him by the wrist just as his fingers began to twitch.
“Isn’t patience a virtue?” Crowley asked out of the side of his grin.
“I’m an angel, the virtue is built-in,” Aziraphale threw back, which they both knew wasn’t precisely true. He let the miracle go unfinished though; he had given his word, after all.
They’d agreed there’d be no miracling at all for the day—no unexpected gestures of goodwill for cuts in the queues, no surprisingly vacant spaces in front of the best views, no opportune breakdowns of tourist tour busses all over the greater London area. Crowley was almost delighted at the thought of it, as much as any demon could be delighted (which, in Crowley’s case anyway, meant very delighted but pretending not to be) and he had gone online and got some sort of complicated fast-track combination ticket with reservations for certain things at certain times instead.
If he’d been pleasantly surprised that all the best times were still available when he checked, well, the no-miracling rule hadn’t taken effect yet, had it?
The glass-walled pod they eventually filed into was much bigger than the various postcards of London’s stylised skyline made it look, and through some stroke of luck—“Honestly, I didn’t do anything,” Aziraphale whispered defensively, at Crowley’s glare—they were only joined by about four other people, all of whom seem quite content to leave them alone.
“It’s a half hour for the full rotation,” Crowley told him as they took a spot looking out over the Houses of Parliament. “On a clear day you can see about forty kilometres. Well, they can see about forty kilometres; I suspect we can see a bit further than that.”
It was a strangely familiar sensation, watching the streets fall away as they rose into the sky. Aziraphale’s wings, tucked away out of reality, felt oddly cramped against his back, as if they knew they should have manifested and taken to beating. It made him feel unsteady, as though he had sunk both his feet into quicksand; he put a hand on a railing to steady himself.
“Aside from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben,” Crowley said loudly, putting his hand right next to Aziraphale’s on the rail and sounding a bit like he’d swallowed a tourist pamphlet, making Aziraphale wonder if he’d been responsible for those too, “you can also see Embankment station and the Golden Jubilee pedestrian bridge, all the good weird buildings like the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater, and then St Paul’s, a bit to the east. On a clear day, to the west, some people claim you can see as far as Windsor.” He studied Aziraphale for a moment, and then added, much quieter, “It’s been a while since you’ve flown, hasn’t it?”
“It’s not the height,” Aziraphale answered shortly. “It’s the sensation that I should have manifested in order to be up here. Feel like I’m trying to fly with both my wings behind my back and two bottles of very expensive wine in me.”
Crowley flashed a very quick smile. “Focus on your feet instead. Actually these pods are surprisingly steady—I might’ve got the commendation after all if they’d been just a little more shaky.”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t help the huff of laughter.
“All right, dear boy,” he finally managed, once he had found his breath and his balance again. “Show me where I can see St Paul’s.”
“Would you look at that,” Aziraphale said softly, forgetting his white-knuckled grip on the railing for a moment as the dome of St Paul’s soared out of the surrounding city. “I haven’t seen it so clearly since Wren was puttering about with it, after the fires.”
Crowley wasn’t much for churches, perhaps predictably, but he watched Aziraphale taking it all in, and knew better than to say.
I suppose this is really why I didn’t get the commendation, he thought instead, when Aziraphale turned to him with a blinding grin, already pointing out this or that detail that may have had a little divine inspiration behind them whenever Wren himself was being too much of an egotistical git to listen to anybody else. Risk-benefit analyses being what they are.
He tucked his hands into his pockets and decided he didn’t actually mind.
“Bit surprising that we both settled on London, isn’t it? Of all the cities in the world we could’ve ended up.”
Crowley looked over. Aziraphale’s face had gone back to a much healthier colour since they disembarked from their Eye-pod. (“Puns,” Aziraphale had said, in that exasperatedly amused tone he got sometimes, “are below even you.”) They’d gone into the SeaLife aquarium, per their fast-track combination tickets, and the muted noise and cool air seemed to suit him much better.
“I dunno,” Crowley said easily. “Where would we be if not here?”
Aziraphale shrugged, studying the tank in front of them. Dazzlingly bright little fish swam through coral formations, darting in and out of the false rock foundations of the exhibits. “We weren’t here for about five and three-quarters millenia. Where were we before?”
“Nowhere any good, that’s for certain. Look, that giant starfish, there in the corner.”
Aziraphale leaned in to see it better. “I’d have thought somewhere like Las Vegas would’ve been more your speed,” he said, then he straightened and moved on to the next tank, which had a bunch of anemones and tiny clown fishes in it. “Though I guess you never really have been about the flash in your temptations.”
“Excuse me,” Crowley said, affronted, “I’m plenty flash.”
He was wearing sunglasses indoors, for pity’s sake. He had flash.
Aziraphale just looked smug. “They’ve got sea turtles round this way,” he said, ignoring Crowley’s protests. “There’s apparently some kind of tunnel through the tank.”
The tunnel was full to the brim with schoolchildren when they got to it, a dozen or more tiny little white polo shirts clamouring and gasping as shoals of fish shivered and danced alongside them and enormous green turtles soared calmly over their heads. Aziraphale and Crowley hung around the entrance for a while, watching the fish and the kids in equal measure, and if a miracle or two happened while they were standing there—a green turtle lifting a flipper to high-five one little boy through the glass; a shoal of fish darting into complicated, recognisable formations for a collection of wide-eyed little girls—there was no one there to call them out on it.
“You’re a soft touch for kids,” Crowley said, once their chaperones had successfully moved them all along. He took his sunglasses off and stepped closer to the glass. “Typical angel, eh?”
Aziraphale hummed. “I wasn’t the one doing the letter formations,” he pointed out. He put on the tone he used when he was allowing a waiter to think he’d been talked into a dessert he wasn’t really sure on when he’d been planning to order it all along, and granted, quite magnanimously, “I suppose you are a bit flash. Just sometimes.”
Crowley grinned. In the cool blue light of the water, he looked like someone had wet down all his edges, leaving them smooth and a little intangible. His gaze tracked a sea turtle as it swam over his head; his eyes shone.
It wasn’t until they were leaving that Aziraphale even remembered that they could have miracled away some of the crowds, if they’d wanted to. He was glad they hadn’t.
An angel and a demon walked into Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.
Twenty minutes later, an angel and a demon walked back out.
“I guess not everything humans enjoy is really translatable across experiences, is it?” Aziraphale said, feeling disturbed.
“It’s really not,” Crowley agreed. “Come on, I’ve got a better idea.”
Aziraphale looked up at the white columns and grinned. “Not exactly what I’d call a tourist trap,” he called up to Crowley, who was already climbing the steps.
“Trafalgar counts on its own. Besides, I needed a palate cleanser,” Crowley called back. He stopped at the top step and waited for Aziraphale to join him before leading on to the doors of the National Gallery. “Have you been before?”
“Mm. Once or twice. Not in the last fifty-odd years, I don’t think.”
He followed Crowley in, and then nearly ran into him when he stopped just inside the door, inhaling deeply, the sort of intimate, habitual gesture you do when you’ve been to a place so many times you have pinpointed exactly what you like about it. It had the same smell all old museums have—climate-controlled air and cleaning supplies and very old, very faded varnish.
“You’ve been a few times, I take it,” Aziraphale said.
It was odd, all of a sudden, to realise that Crowley did things without him. Of course, he had always known on some level that Crowley did loads of things without him—they’d spent the vast majority of the last six thousand years just barely brushing past enough other every odd century or two, especially in the beginning—but he supposed most of it had been nefarious demon-related things, not pursuing high-brow interest things.
In retrospect, he should’ve known better. Crowley had never been one to spend an awful lot of time on the demon-related business of existence; he’d been positively shoddy about it once the Arrangement had begun. And Aziraphale had known about the plants, after all, and the Bentley, and the wine. He thought about Crowley trying to come up with a list of things he liked and struggling to say anything beyond those few things; it occurred to Aziraphale now that it was less that there weren’t other things and more that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to share them.
He considered, very briefly, being offended—what was the National Gallery compared to Armageddon, especially when they spent half their evenings ensconced among Aziraphale’s books!—but in the end that felt counter to what Aziraphale really wanted, which was to know what else there was pinging about in Crowley’s interests.
“We won’t count it for the List,” Crowley shrugged, deliberately misinterpreting Aziraphale’s unspoken question. “Since it’s a repeat.”
Aziraphale let him.
Crowley led Aziraphale through the galleries, wandering from portrait to portrait, seascape to seascape, history to history. He knew most of the works fairly well by now, and he’d known a fair number of the artists besides, and before he knew it he found himself quietly recounting the stories to Aziraphale, noting the techniques, the provenances, the movements, the connections. Aziraphale, he knew, had never been as interested in the physical arts as he was—he preferred books and music to paintings and sculptures—but he’d listened to Crowley so intently that it wasn’t until they were slipping into his favourite room on the second floor that Crowley realised he’d been talking through nearly the entire building.
He shut his mouth with a decided click, and something in him tried to blush. He beat it back with a pointy-ended stick of sheer determination.
Aziraphale looked over, but Crowley had forged ahead before he could voice the question. Together they made their way through the room, the soft light of the afternoon sun filtering through the muted glass of the skylight.
“Which one is your favourite?” Aziraphale finally asked quietly. He wasn’t looking at Crowley—studying a Gainsborough instead, as if Gainsborough were even all that interesting—but his eyes had gone nearly cobalt in the pale light, against the dusty blue damask of the walls.
A studied casualness came over Crowley before he could stop himself: a defence mechanism. Aziraphale isn’t dangerous, he scolded himself, but he couldn’t shake it off; he felt like his snake-self had been slipped over onto his back and pinned, the soft red scales of his belly exposed for tooth or claw. “What makes you think my favourite is in here?”
Aziraphale didn’t answer right away; Crowley began to feel somewhat irate at the stupid Gainsborough he was studying so thoroughly.
“The way you come into this room,” he said eventually. “Like you’re stepping into a presence.” He finally turned and looked at Crowley, abandoning the Gainsborough as though he hadn’t really been looking at it at all. “You come into this room holding your breath.”
Is this how humans feel, Crowley thought suddenly, when we know how to reach them? What will tempt them, what blessing they need—do they all feel like this? Exposed down to their marrow?
Crowley took a breath and held it, and held it, and held it. Aziraphale waited.
“The Turners,” Crowley admitted softly, all in a rush. “Group of three on the end—the one in the middle.” They were there, right behind him—Aziraphale peered quietly over his shoulder, his gaze drifting over Ulysses deriding Polyphemus and settling instead on Rain, Steam, and Speed.
“What do you like about it?” Aziraphale asked. His voice was still gentle, as though he’d taken Crowley’s hand to ask it.
Crowley meant to say something careless about early impressionism, about the way Turner’s style had developed from traditional landscapes into something almost violently elusive. He meant to say something about how Turner had created furiously, about how he’d been a solitary, rude, morose man at the end of his life and how he’d bequeathed his works—his hundreds of works—to the British nation anyway, desperate to be remembered; he could even have said something about how most of the Bequest was at the Tate, separated from these, set apart from these, even though Turner had wanted them to remain together, always together.
Crowley didn’t say any of that. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth, and without having to turn to look, he said, “It doesn’t feel like it’s running away. That’s London, there in the background, but it’s gone ephemeral in the rain, as though it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s going somewhere else. It feels like it’s running toward.”
Aziraphale studied at the painting for a long time over Crowley’s shoulder.
“I hope it found whatever it was hoping to find,” he said, and something in Crowley’s belly unfurled like a new leaf, shiny and verdant and reaching.
Aziraphale looked at Crowley. Crowley looked back at Aziraphale.
He said, “I think it did.”
“Where in the world,” Crowley drawled, “could we eat something we’ve never eaten before?”
He was sitting haphazardly on the sofa in Aziraphale’s back room, making a nuisance of himself. Outside, September have given way to October, and it was a bit of cold, blustery day; Crowley had banged in complaining about it, wrapped himself immediately in the knit blanket Aziraphale kept over the back of his armchair, and started fussing. “We’ve eaten everything.”
Aziraphale nodded absently, his nose still stuck in his book—more to teach Crowley a lesson about interrupting than actual disinterest. “I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
“Thinking,” Crowley sneered, in the same voice that three-year-olds use to say vegetables. “Bah.”
Turning a page of his book, Aziraphale considered it. There had to be a little restaurant somewhere around London doing something, surely—food styles changed often enough, and London was as good a place as any for it to do so, with so many different cultures and traditions melting into one another. They just had to find what sort of thing they were in the mood for, and find someone who was making it in a different sort of way.
His gaze drifted to the window as he thought. The skies had gone dark an hour ago, but the rain was just starting.
On the sofa, Crowley curled deeper into himself at the sound, making a huffing little noise as he pulled the blanket tighter around himself. He looked a little miserable there, actually, clutching the crumpled newspaper of the List and trying to coil up a body that didn’t coil so much as it got in the way of itself.
Aziraphale was suddenly in the mood for something warm.
And then he knew.
“I have an idea,” he heard himself saying, and on the sofa, Crowley’s head perked up.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in every collection of books, there comes to be a cookbook.
Not because anyone ever bought the damn thing, not because it was ever given as a gift. They just simply tended to appear: maintain a bookshelf for long enough, and you’d have one. Aziraphale, who’d owned the shop for more than two hundred years, owned ten.
“No,” he muttered to himself, flipping through one. “No, no, no.” He tossed the book aside and picked up another. “Aspic? Definitely no.” He joined the first, landing carelessly on its spine.
“Aspic?” Crowley had straightened up on the sofa a little, watching. “What are you on about?”
“Ah-ha!” Aziraphale tapped a page inside yet another book and snapped it closed. “Just the ticket.”
“What’s the ticket?”
“Never you mind,” Aziraphale said breezily, tucking the little book into his jacket. “You wait here, warm up, and when I come back,” here he grinned, almost maniacally, “We’ll eat.”
Crowley, though he’d never admit it, liked being alone in Aziraphale’s bookshop. That is to say, he liked it best with Aziraphale, but being alone in it felt cosy and quiet, and a bit proud: Aziraphale wouldn’t let just anyone float about on their own.
Alone in it now, he hunkered further down into his blanket and unfolded the List.
All right, so newspaper hadn’t been the best medium for it—it was already crumpled, smudged where the print hadn’t been miracled away. There were tiny rips and tears forming on the edges. He supposed he could copy it out somewhere, but he knew he wouldn’t. Sloth, he justified to himself, but he was grinning.
Maybe a bit of deception too, he thought, looking down at it, but he suspected this wasn’t the sort of deception his side had really gone in for.
The original List had been written neatly down the left side of the newspaper, or as neatly as Crowley could have made it when he was soused, which wasn’t very. But next to that List, Crowley thought there was just enough room for a second list.
A secret list.
He rummaged about Aziraphale’s desk for a moment, looking for a pen, and then he wrote, in much neater handwriting: take Aziraphale proper flying.
There had to be someplace out in the country they could go where they wouldn’t be seen—perhaps up in Scotland somewhere, where the views would be worth it. Crisp mornings, sunrise climbing over the hills and heather: he could miracle them up a bit of cocoa, shot of whisky for warmth, let some tourists get some unusually good shots of a lake monster. . .it was too bad they’d both been to the highlands or he would’ve had a good excuse. As it was he’d have to think of a really good reason if he wanted it to be a surprise.
Crowley looked at the list for a moment longer, then he grinned and added, with a flourish: Burn down Tussaud’s.
It was, after all, a secret list—though he rather suspected Aziraphale wouldn’t mind anyway.
He was still curled up on the sofa when Aziraphale got back, the List tucked safely back away into his jacket. Aziraphale looked incredibly pleased with himself; Crowley suddenly had a premonition of dread, and understood, for the first time in his life, why people said, “I don’t like this, it feels spooky.”
If Aziraphale felt it, he didn’t say. “Refreshed?” he asked instead, quite brightly.
“Ngk,” Crowley said.
“Good,” Aziraphale said. “You’re going to need your wits about you. We’re going to eat something we’ve never eaten before.” He raised the plastic bags in his hands. “We’re going to eat something we made ourselves.”
Crowley blinked. “You mean like, putting together a charcuterie platter?” he asked, with the sort of resigned hopefulness of someone who already knows the answer is no.
“No,” Aziraphale answered. He smiled, huge and wide. “We’re making a lasagne.”
Funny, this: having Crowley upstairs. In the flat.
“I wasn’t sure you actually had a flat up here,” Crowley said, looking about, taking in the stacks of old newspapers, the collection of loose-leaf teas, the floor-standing radio. He had the blanket from downstairs still wrapped around his shoulders like an elaborate toga, and every so often he tucked his neck down into it a little, as if the sound of the rain on the roof overhead reminded him he was cold. “It’s nice.”
Aziraphale didn’t know if he agreed, actually—it was no Mayfair high rise—but it was comfortable. For the last two hundred years, it had been something of a home.
And now Crowley was in it.
It was ridiculous to be flustered about it. The bookshop was by far the more important space in Aziraphale’s life, the space where Aziraphale felt far more of his time, and Crowley was as familiar with that as the back of his own hand. And Aziraphale had been to Crowley’s flat. They’d bloody well saved the world together—it wasn’t like there wasn’t anything Crowley didn’t already know about him.
Aziraphale busied himself with unloading the shop onto the little rickety table in his kitchen, trying not to watch Crowley as he craned his head to look down the hall toward the bath, and beyond, the bedroom. “Now this is a bit of an older recipe,” he said, lining up tinned tomato, beef mince, a head of garlic. “But it looked simple enough. If they can do it, we ought to be able to, right?”
“They’ve done loads of things we’re pants at,” Crowley pointed out. “Do you even own a pan?”
Aziraphale frowned, and there was a suspicious cacophony of metal suddenly coming into existence in great quantities in the small spaces of his cupboards. “Yes,” he said, very primly, and then, at Crowley’s raised eyebrow, “Oh, hush—it’s not like they don’t just find everything in their cupboards when they’re ready to cook!”
Crowley laughed. “All right, all right,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. He slung himself into one of the kitchen chairs and snuck one hand out of his blanket to reach for the bottle of red wine. “What’s first? Wine opener?”
“That’s for the ragu,” Aziraphale said, taking it back.
“You’re no fun,” Crowley said, but he was grinning; under the bright flash of it, Aziraphale forgot all about the rain.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll chop; you can sauté.”
The radio played crackly and rough, and Crowley suspected it was tuned to a station that no longer actually aired, but he couldn’t help humming along. It had been a good song, back in its day, and the flat was starting to warm up now that Crowley was installed in front of the cooktop.
“Smells good,” Aziraphale said, peeking around Crowley’s shoulder at the garlic and onion in the pan. “That’s got to be a good sign.”
“I don’t think we’ve messed it up yet,” Crowley agreed. “What’s next, chef?”
Aziraphale went and retrieved the book from the table, drifting back to the spot by Crowley’s side as he read. “Browning the mince, adding the tomatoey things. You think that all looks soft enough?”
Crowley poked at the onion; it had gone translucent, a little brown on the edges. It was strangely calming, actually, to watch it, to listen to it. It did smell good. “I think so. Hand me the mince?”
The mince browned easily enough, Crowley thought. He added in the tomato paste, which looked like it had absolutely nothing at all to do with tomatoes. Apparently that had to cook together for two minutes.
“Here,” Aziraphale said, handing Crowley a cup of wine.
“I thought you said it was for the ragu,” Crowley said, but he took it. The cup had a handle on it, and little red lines up along the side. It wasn’t a very good wine, but he sniffed it again, raising his expectations, and it got considerably better.
“That is for the ragu,” Aziraphale laughed. “I’ve got yours over here.”
Crowley looked over, and sure enough, Aziraphale had two regular wine glasses half-full with dark red wine. His cheeks were pink in the warmth of the kitchen; he’d taken off his jacket.
“Oh,” Crowley said.
“No no no,” Aziraphale fussed, “we’re suppose to put the ragu down first, and then the bechamel—”
“I thought it was ragu, noodle, bechamel—”
“Ragu, bechamel, noodle, parmesan, hang on, let me grab the parmesan—”
“Wait, how many layers is this supposed to make, two? Three?”
“I think three, let me check quick—”
“Well, hurry up, I’m losing bechamel all over the place here—”
“Well, hold the spoon over the pan, you numpty—”
“Numpty, I’ll show you who’s a numpty—”
“We don’t have to clean this mess up the human way, do we?” Crowley asked, ten minutes later. The lasagne had finally made its way into the oven, all three and a half layers that had fit in the baking tin; he and Aziraphale had collapsed, surprisingly exhausted, into the kitchen chairs, and opened another bottle of much better wine.
“Absolutely not,” Aziraphale said, taking a long drink.
Crowley chuckled, but half a second later, Aziraphale’s tiny crowded kitchen was clean again—lucky thing, too, because he hadn’t really thought they were going to the get the ragu stain off the wall with nothing but elbow grease.
It was nothing like the kitchen at Crowley’s place, which had always been more about aesthetic than function. He made tea there occasionally, but that was it; everything else was better made by people who knew what they were doing, and Crowley had always thought that humans had the upper hand in this arena, seeing as how they were the ones with the incentive.
But this was nice, he thought. In his flat, there were no tea towels, no stacks of old books, no mismatched chairs or blankets that smelled familiar, like dust and leather, the dry desert smell of old pages.
You couldn’t hear the rain, in Crowley’s flat.
The radio slipped into another song, Bing Crosby’s voice crooning through the airwaves. “I remember this one,” Crowley said, watching the wine in the bottom of his glass.
“Do you?” Aziraphale listened a moment. “I don’t think I do.”
“Only forever,” Crowley sang along softly. “That’s puttin’ it mild. You don’t remember this one? 1940s, angel, think back another decade.”
“1940s, 1940s. There was the war, and that time with the—oh!” He looked up at Crowley, with those eyes, with that smile: unbearably gentle, impossibly soft. “You know, I think I do remember, actually.”
“Terrible decade,” Crowley said.
“Oh, one of the worst,” Aziraphale agreed. “But you know, it’s in those moments—the worst ones, the one where you have no hope left—that you really understand what’s important. And everything else just seems, I don’t know. Little, by comparison. Even if just for that moment.”
Crowley looked at him, really looked at him. Aziraphale in his shirt sleeves, Aziraphale smelling faintly like garlic, Aziraphale at the kitchen table in a flat he’d lived in and yet hadn’t, really, for the last two hundred years. Aziraphale, who’d made him soften vegetables, and brown mince, and layer noodles; Aziraphale, who’d made him want to.
“I know what you mean,” he said.
The timer on the oven went off.
The lasagne was a mess, if Aziraphale were being quite honest, which he always was: scrupulously so. Noodles every which way—cognisable layers were a dream of the past. Still, looks weren’t everything, and it was hot and it was smooth and it was comforting, and Crowley had given a delighted little noise when he’d taken his first bite, and wrapped himself back up inside the blanket from downstairs quite happily to finish the rest of his serving.
“Something we’ve never eaten before,” Crowley said, reciting from memory. “A big ol’ check mark for that one, wouldn’t you say?”
“Resounding success,” Aziraphale agreed. “Who knows? Maybe we ought to do this again sometime. It wasn’t as bad as all that.”
“Never as bad if you don’t have to do the washing up,” Crowley laughed. “Next time you could even get the shop in via miracle, save yourself the trip.”
“Next time you could come to the shop with me,” Aziraphale said, and he laughed at that, too: the idea of Crowley in a Sainsbury’s, squeezing through the crowds and picking out yoghurts from the dairy case.
Crowley pulled a face. “Why in heaven would anyone want to go to the shop if they didn’t have to?”
“Some people actually enjoy it,” Aziraphale said, and then, just to tease, he added, “Perhaps we ought to put that on the List. You can see what the fuss is about.”
“Oh, don’t say you’re one of them? Really, Aziraphale. And besides, it wouldn’t count because you’ve done it—doubles, you know.”
“We did your National Gallery thing, and that was one we’d both done.”
Crowley poured them both another glass of wine. “Tell you what,” he said, grinning. “You do the shop, and next time I’ll cook the whole thing myself.”
Aziraphale grinned back. “Deal,” he said. “I’ll hold you to that, you know.”
“And probably pick the most complicated thing you can find in your little recipe books, I’m sure,” Crowley sighed, rolling his eyes. “Just remember—” he pointed his fork at Aziraphale, warningly— “You have to eat whatever I turn out.”
“I’ll take the risk,” Aziraphale said, and he put his hand out. Crowley shook it, and then got up to miraculously find a lovely little tiramisu in Aziraphale’s fridge, just big enough for two; by the time he found two clean forks and made it back to the table, there were cups of coffee to go with.
Aziraphale didn’t think his little flat had ever felt like so much of a home before.
In Crowley’s jacket pocket, the List rustled against itself, and squeezed itself in, and momentarily went warm, like a hot water bottle tucked fresh between the sheets. The second, secret list now had a new addition: Take Aziraphale to do the shop.
Crowley didn’t like predicaments. Oh, sure, he liked creating them, but that was an apple of a different colour. That was just business. This predicament was his, and it was personal.
His predicament was this: Aziraphale had absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, and Crowley was in love with him.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Aziraphale muttered to himself, rearranging his fingers on the neck of Crowley’s old guitar. He leaned forward and tapped at Crowley’s mobile, trying to rewind the YouTube video that was ostensibly teaching him how to strum. It would’ve been easier to miracle the screen larger, or to get a laptop at the very least, but Aziraphale had committed to doing it the human way, and once Aziraphale committed himself to something, he was stubborn to a fault, and usually beyond even that.
And Crowley was in love with him.
This was not, unfortunately, a surprise to Crowley: he’d known it for a very long time actually. He’d known it for so long, in fact, that he was usually quite good at compartmentalising it away into a large black box with six big padlocks on it, and aside from a few relatively minor slip-ups throughout the years, it hadn’t made much of a difference.
(Except 1967: Crowley rather felt that slip-up was less of a slip and more of a fancy headlong dive into a pool of boiling holy water, and Crowley had fucked off to America for a few years to recover, tartan thermos in tow. You go too fast for me, Crowley: the stuff of nightmares. When he’d gotten back, Aziraphale had either decided to ignore it or he’d forgotten it entirely. Crowley never did decide which was worse.)
So that was that. Crowley was in love with him, and they both in their own way pretended he wasn’t. It had been fine, for the most part.
And then Armageddon had happened, or had almost happened. And the thing about black boxes is that, even though the big black box always survives the plane crash, someone still has to open it up occasionally and make sure none of the contents had shifted during flight.
The contents of this particular big black box had shifted, all right.
They’d bloody well exploded, and after years and years and years of letting Aziraphale set the pace, of letting Aziraphale decide when and how and whether, all the things Crowley kept locked up had burst from their centuries-old restraints and out of the cage of Crowley’s ribs, leaving the wet, bloody centre of him exposed and vulnerable, and he hadn’t been able to stop it, hadn’t even wanted to stop it, hadn’t wanted to back down from what was almost certainly the most important now-or-never of their eternal lives. He’d popped off the padlocks and opened himself wide, again and again, and again, and again, and—
—and Aziraphale had not reached for him.
It was what it was. Once the dust had settled, Aziraphale had gone back to his bookshop, Crowley had gone into the nearest off-license, and now here they were, with Aziraphale attempting strumming on Crowley’s old guitar and Crowley attempting to not be horribly in love with him.
They were both failing rather badly.
“We should go somewhere,” Aziraphale said suddenly, looking up from the guitar and interrupting Crowley’s train of thought—thank Whomever. “For the List. We should decide where we want to go, if we’re going to do it all the human way. I just remembered about reservations, so we ought to start planning something.”
Crowley pulled out the List to look like he’d been doing something other than watching Aziraphale with the guitar, folding it carefully to make sure the second, secret list couldn’t be seen. Aziraphale was right: go somewhere we’ve never been before was next.
“All right,” he said. “Where haven’t you been?”
There was something a bit wrong with Crowley, Aziraphale thought. He’d brought his old guitar over the bookshop for Aziraphale, for take up a new hobby, but hadn’t offered to teach him, or to help him learn the strings, or even to show him how to hold it. Instead he’d set some videos up on his mobile phone for Aziraphale to watch and then had gone slinking off through the shelves, meandering aimlessly.
Crowley was a mover, by nature—his feet tapped and his hips shifted and he tended to pace—but he wasn’t really a meanderer. He usually stayed within Aziraphale’s orbit, at least. It made Aziraphale surprisingly nervous, which in turn had very quickly given rise to the theory that guitars could sense fear.
“Well,” Aziraphale said, “I suppose the point is to go see something fantastic, isn’t it? Some big sort of destination or another. Something incredible. Like the Taj Mahal.”
“I’ve seen the Taj Mahal,” Crowley said. “What about Machu Picchu?”
“I’ve been,” Aziraphale said. “Joined the campaign for Christ the Redeemer in Rio to be named a new wonder of the world in ‘07 and did a tour, lovely place, crawling with tourists, though. I know we’ve pretty much done all of Europe time and again . . . what about Australia?”
“Been,” Crowley said. “Japan?”
“Been. Kenya? A safari could get us around to some new things, I’m sure.”
Crowley winced. “Oof, sorry. Safaris were one of mine. What about San Francisco?”
Aziraphale gave him a look. “Of course I’ve been to San Francisco,” he said, a little tartly.
“I have too, actually,” Crowley admitted. “I would’ve lied if you hadn’t, though. I like San Francisco.”
“I suppose having six thousand years on the planet does tend to give you the time to see all the good spots, doesn’t it?” Aziraphale drummed his fingers on the body of the guitar. It would be nice if he could take it with them, wherever they went. He’d like to keep at it—he was certain that he could be at least okay at it if he weren’t worrying about other things. Maybe Crowley would get over whatever was bothering him and show Aziraphale a few tips. It would be easiest if they could just drive to wherever; he wondered if there was anywhere in the British Isles they both hadn’t been.
“What about,” Crowley began, his fingers tapping his bottom lip, but then he shook his head. “No, it’s too close. It’s ridiculous that I haven’t been. And it’s not really a big destination anyhow.”
Aziraphale watched him for a moment, and thought again, there’s something wrong with Crowley. Something that was making him hesitate—something that was holding him back, a little, like an invisible hand had planted in the centre of his chest and was keeping him from striding forward. He was suddenly reminded of another time Crowley had asked to go off somewhere, and thought that no matter what Crowley offered next, as far as Crowley was concerned, Aziraphale had never been.
After all, what Crowley didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
“Where?” he asked.
The South Downs.
If Aziraphale had been surprised when Crowley had suggested a little seaside getaway, he’d firmly squashed the urge to squawk and ask if Crowley were actually serious, because it had been quite plain that Crowley was. He wanted to do some walking through the hills and see the chalk cliffs by Eastbourne, apparently, and had never been to Brighton.
Aziraphale wasn’t sure how that could be true, but he had shrugged. “I’ve been to Winchester, but not Eastbourne,” he had said, which wasn’t actually a lie. “Can’t remember about Brighton, though, or the cliffs.” That, of course, was a lie—anybody who’d been anybody since the 1730s had been to Brighton—but Aziraphale didn’t think anyone was counting these days.
Either way, the plans had been made. The cottage Crowley had found was nestled in the hills of the Downs, but Brighton was just a hop and a skip down the road, really, and Seaford and Eastbourne were just a bit past that. They’d be out of season, with November quickly breezing into the English Channel, but both agreed that the lack of crowds would make up for any inconvenience, and besides, it wasn’t like they were terribly interested in the tourist spots.
“I still can’t believe you’ve never been,” Crowley had said as he was looking everything up on the Internet; Aziraphale suspected he had miracled himself a bank card to do all the bookings, but opted not to say. “It’s always been such a popular day-trip.”
“You‘ve never been, apparently,” Aziraphale had reminded him, avoiding the question.
“Always had a lot of other things to do, I s’pose,” Crowley had said. “It’ll be nice to just breathe for a few days, don’t you think?”
However long you need, Aziraphale had thought, making a noncommittal noise. A few days seemed like a good enough place to start.
It was only about an hour and half outside of London—no farther than Tadfield, but in a different direction. Crowley drove the Bentley at the posted limits as a compromise after Aziraphale pointed out that no 1926 make or model would have approached anything near Crowley’s preferred speeds without a little miraculous interference, and they were supposed to be doing this as humans. Crowley found he didn’t really mind.
The cottage was an old stone thing with a thatched sort of roof: very picturesque. It had a tiny kitchen and an enormous fireplace in the sitting room with an old leather sofa that looked like it would swallow Crowley right up, and an antique claw-foot bathtub for long soaks after walks out in the chilly air. There was a bench in the back garden where Aziraphale could practice his guitar with a view of the rolling hills, underneath an ancient, gnarled apple tree with its bare branches reaching up to the sky.
It was very quiet, Crowley thought, poking through the house as Aziraphale fussed over their bags in the entryway. It didn’t get quiet like this in London. It felt like an exhale: a weight lifting from his shoulders.
Aziraphale looking up to see him in the doorway, smiling in the late afternoon sun, lifted the weight a little bit more.
“Lovely, isn’t it,” Aziraphale said, when Crowley finally made his way back. “Don’t know how you found it, dear boy, but this is really going to be perfect, I think.”
His smile was soft; for a moment, Crowley expected him to reach out and put a hand to his arm. He didn’t, though, and some of the weight found its way back to Crowley. Figure out how to touch you, Crowley thought without really thinking, looking at Aziraphale’s hand as it twitched by his side. The crumpled newspaper in his jacket pocket went warm against his chest for a moment, and he realised he’d added it to the second list without meaning to.
He erased it in a rush. Some things you just didn’t write down: it made it too real.
Aziraphale was rambling on obliviously about the kitchen, and whether they’d be able to make a decent cheese toastie on an unfamiliar cooktop. Apparently he’d been practicing at home. “But before that,” he said, producing a long, red-and-black knit scarf and handing it to Crowley, “we ought to go for a walk while the light’s still good. Get a feel for the land, don’t you think?”
Crowley did think. The red-and-black scarf was made of something almost silky, like a skein of cloud, and nothing about it was tartan. He suddenly felt like the little cottage was suffocating, the entryway with him and Aziraphale and their bags all shoved up inside it too cramped and small to hold it all.
It was too late in the afternoon to try and find a proper walking path, but they were both content to walk along the road for a little while, up to the top of the next hill anyway, for the view. “Like St James’, but bigger,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “If a toy car is anything like the Bentley.”
“A park is a park,” Aziraphale shrugged. “A garden’s a garden.” He looked sidelong at Crowley then. “Do you ever think about it? The garden?”
Suddenly all of the South Downs seemed too cramped and small to hold them both. Crowley stopped in the road. “Eden?”
Aziraphale shrugged again, a little less certain of himself than he’d been a moment ago, as if he had the same sense of the space shrinking around them—Crowley could see it in the way his hands tightened around themselves. “Do you?”
That was a bit of a loaded question. The short answer, of course, was yes; the slightly longer answer had something to do with a big black box Crowley was currently trying very hard to fit six padlocks around. He settled instead for dodging the question completely. “Do you?”
“I didn’t for a long time,” Aziraphale answered easily, starting to walk again, and oh, if that didn’t lodge somewhere underneath Crowley’s ribs. “But since the whole end of the world business, I have been, a little. Your plants reminded me, actually. Made me think that perhaps I ought to think of it more often.”
“What’s to think about?” Crowley asked. They were nearly to the top of the hill they were aiming for; they’d be right on time for sunset. The sun was already flirting with the line of the trees on the horizon.
“Well, that was the start of it all, wasn’t it? Where we met, where the humans really got started. For so long, I just sort of took for granted that things were working out the way they were meant to. Now I wonder if we didn’t get a little off course along the way.”
Crowley swallowed hard, shoving his hands into his pockets. “You mean, if we weren’t supposed to have met back then.”
“No,” Aziraphale said. “I wonder if maybe you were never actually meant to be the Adversary at all.”
He left Crowley standing in the road as they reached the crest of the hill, crossing to the low stone wall that served as a boundary line and, between one blink and the next, moving to the other side of it so he could sit and watch the sunset over the rolling land. Crowley watched him for a long moment, the line of his silhouette as the sun began to set, the light catching in his hair, the familiar shape of his shoulders in that coat. He’d been right, actually, that afternoon a lifetime ago, in Tadfield—you couldn’t see where the paint stain had been, but Crowley knew it had been there.
After a long moment, he followed, and sat next to Aziraphale. He wanted very much to say, do you wonder if we were always meant to find each other, or maybe to say, do you wonder if we were always meant to be together, but he couldn’t quite figure out how to form the words in his mouth.
“I’m a demon,” he said eventually, haltingly. “You’re an angel. If it wasn’t supposed to be Adversaries, what else could it have been?”
Aziraphale looked up at him, briefly, almost in surprise, before looking back to study the horizon. “Well,” he said. “Whatever we are now, I suppose.”
Crowley studied the horizon as well. It really was picturesque, with the hills and the fields, the lines of forest easing around the landscape, the river cutting a line through to the east. He sank his neck down a little into the scarf Aziraphale had given him; it smelled like lavender. “I’m glad we are whatever we are, then,” he said, forcing himself not to turn and ask Aziraphale to define it for him. “Whatever we might’ve got wrong or right or whatever, I’m glad we’re this.”
The overcast sky cleared a little, painting the view with delicate pinks and violets, watercolour washes of gold. Aziraphale’s hand was curled around the edge of the stone wall, right next to Crowley’s, and Crowley twitched a pinky, aching to take it. Take his hand, Crowley thought at himself, furiously and far away. Just reach out and take it. Just reach out and take it.
Aziraphale folded his hands together in front of him, the way he always did when he was settling in comfortably somewhere. Crowley’s shoulders curved in a little, but he kept his hands to himself.
Out of the corner of his eye, in the golden light of the setting sun, he saw Aziraphale smile. “Yes,” he said. “I’m glad we’re this too.”
Whatever the bloody hell this is, Aziraphale thought, as they walked back to the cottage in the growing twilight. He wasn’t sure quite what he’d been getting at when he’d started the conversation, but he had the undeniable sense that he hadn’t gotten to whatever it was.
There had been a moment, sitting watching the sunset, when he’d thought Crowley was going to reach for his hand. Crowley hadn’t—Aziraphale, halfway into reaching for him, had had to snap his own hand back to where it belonged.
Now, though, watching Crowley amble quietly along the lane, he wondered if maybe he ought to have finished reaching.
Crowley had nice hands, actually. Aziraphale was distracted the whole walk back, thinking about it.
Humans, Aziraphale knew, liked Doing Things. Their limited lifespans meant there was a certain anxiety in them, a certain sense of time running out. They tended to cram as many things as they could into a limited number of days, rushing through this or that, crossing things off lists, as if competing against one another for a title prize in Having Done the Most Things. To Aziraphale, it was exhausting.
To Crowley, it apparently seemed like a Good Idea.
There was a sudden whirlwind of activity that lasted for days: they walked portions of the South Downs Way, slipping into villages and wandering along the banks of the river; they went up to the Chanctonbury Ring, where rumour had it that running the ring counterclockwise would summon a devil—Aziraphale tried, just to see; when he’d made it back, Crowley looked around and said, “Just me, looks like,” and they’d both laughed; they went into Winchester, where Crowley waited in the square while Aziraphale popped into the cathedral for a look around, and into Chichester, where they spent and afternoon going in and out of antiques shops, and into Brighton, where they ate cheap hot dogs and stood for too long on the boardwalk, until Crowley was shivering in his leather jacket.
It was nice, certainly. They explored and they wandered and they found secret little gems of shops and bakeries and bookstores, and Crowley stayed in Aziraphale’s orbit like he usually did, pacing around behind him or sidling up next to him. In the mornings, Aziraphale practiced the guitar under the apple tree in the garden, and Crowley brought fresh pastries and coffee from the village up the road. He wore the scarf Aziraphale had brought for him without fuss; he ate Aziraphale’s cheese toastie without complaint, even though Aziraphale had burnt it.
But there was something still not quite right about Crowley.
He seemed a little absent behind the lenses of his sunglasses, as though he were going through the motions, as though he were following a diagram. He listened to Aziraphale strum ineffectively at the guitar, but still didn’t offer to help him learn to play it. He spent a lot of time in the garden, whether or not Aziraphale was out there, studying the bare bushes, the dead leaves piling up in the flowerbeds, the empty meadow beyond.
Aziraphale watched him from the windows of the cottage, watched him scrunch up his nose at some wayward shrub, watched him kick a few pebbles back into place in the gravel path, his hands in his pockets, his face serious, until Aziraphale, unable to stand it any more, opened the door and called out to him, and then Crowley would look up and grin like he’d always grinned, and off they would go again.
Aziraphale wondered how many times he’d missed that same thing happening, over the years. How many times he’d missed that serious expression as it slid behind a familiar grin. He thought about the Turners in the National Gallery, and Crowley wanting to come here out of anywhere in the entire world, and the lingering way Crowley watched when Aziraphale took out the guitar to fumble through another lesson. He thought about the hurried way Crowley moved through Winchester and Chichester, to this shop and that, into this bakery and that gourmet shop, past this historical site and that museum; he thought about the way the Bentley raced through the two-track lanes and narrow highways of the Downs, as if he were trying to get to something that was always one step ahead.
On the fifth day, they went into Seaford, and saw the Seven Sisters: tall white chalk cliffs, shining out over the sea.
“Huh,” Crowley said, gesturing widely. “Angel, look at that. Do you know they’re named? Haven Brow, Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flagstaff Point, Flat Hill, Baily’s Hill. They’re protected, see, like the cliffs at Dover, but here they’re allowed to erode naturally, they’re just—” he stopped. Aziraphale thought it was the first time he’d stopped moving in days. His voice turned low, almost pensive, almost wistful. “They’re just allowed to erode naturally into the sea. Just breaking down, drifting away.”
“I think,” Aziraphale said, watching him, “that we need to slow down.”
Crowley’s gaze snapped over to him; his eyes were hidden, of course, behind the sunglasses, but Aziraphale knew how to read his expression from his mouth, from his forehead. This expression said, in a very shocked way, what did you just say?
“I mean,” Aziraphale went on quickly, “I mean that we’ve just been very busy, haven’t we? And you’ve done—such a lovely job, planning things for us to do, but when we left London, you had said that you wanted room to breathe for a few days, and we—we haven’t done much just sitting and breathing, really.”
The expression behind Crowley’s sunglasses was shifting, changing from that very open look to something very closed off, and Aziraphale cleared his throat, trying to make a decisive end. “So I think,” he said, giving a hard nod, “that yes. We ought to slow down. We ought to take some time and sit still for a moment before we go home.”
Far below, the sound of sea crashing into the shore seemed impossibly loud. The sunglasses seemed darker than usual; Aziraphale couldn’t even make out the shape of Crowley’s eyes behind them. The shape of Crowley’s mouth said enough, though: it had gone thin, and cold, and turned down at the corners.
“Sitting still,” Crowley said, very slowly.
There is a certain way people sound when they have hit some limit, when their emotional capacity has gone absolutely as far as it could go, and now they were staring down a wall of fire on the M25 with nowhere to go. Figuratively, of course—literally, that had only happened the once, and probably only would. It was a quiet way people sounded, half-warning, half-heartbreak, and Aziraphale knew from experience that whatever he said next would either force Crowley through the blockade of flame that had been making up whatever was wrong with him these last few weeks, or it would allow him the safe retreat into the status quo.
Aziraphale had absolutely no idea what it was about sitting still that had driven Crowley to such a point, but he rather thought it was time for Crowley to break through.
He said, very firmly, “Yes. Sitting still. Sounds much more my pace.”
Crowley pinched his lips together. “Yeah, all right,” he said suddenly, nodding in that certain sarcastic way he had, that way that covered upset with anger and bitterness, and Aziraphale took a step back. It was the same voice Crowley had used before the end of the world, and it made something in Aziraphale’s belly go slick and cold, like oil had been sliding down his throat. “Sitting still! Love a good sit-still myself, you know. Who moves? Who’s into that? No, sitting still, that’s where we’re at these days. Good! Good.”
And he set off back toward the Bentley.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale called after him. “Now, wait—Crowley, wait.”
“I’ve been waiting,” Crowley said, veering back suddenly to look at him, and now the fury was much closer to the surface, the fury and the hurt. “And I thought, you know, I know it’s difficult, I know what that’s like, but I thought we were getting somewhere, and it turns out, angel, it just turns out, that all this time you never thought about the garden because you’re still bloody well sitting in it.”
There was a silence in which Aziraphale was quite sure he was supposed to say something, but for the life of him, he couldn’t think of what. The noise in his head was all jumbled up, crowded with the echo of Crowley’s voice. “I—” he began, and faltered. “I don’t—”
Below the cliffs, the tide was going out. The sound of the waves crashing on the beach drowned out any of a million things Aziraphale could have said, but didn’t.
Finally Crowley nodded, and he sighed, deeply. The pieces of him—shoulders and neck, wrists and knees—slipped into the same resigned tension Crowley had worn for thousands of years: a resigned tension Aziraphale hadn’t even realised had been gone.
“I know you don’t, angel,” Crowley said quietly. “But I—I can’t do it anymore. I can’t sit still any longer.”
Aziraphale watched as he turned back. As he got into the Bentley. As he drove away. Aziraphale let him go, and wondered, if angels were supposed to be the ones always getting it right, what he could’ve said that was so wrong.
You go too fast for me, Crowley. It seemed like a lifetime ago that Aziraphale had said it.
It didn’t matter how long ago it’d been. Crowley pushed the pedal nearer to the floor and heard, I think we need to slow down, still echoing in his ears. Sitting still—much more my pace.
The Bentley roared on.
It was dark when Aziraphale got back to the cottage.
He could have miracled himself there in a blink, of course, but he’d needed the time to think. He’d stayed at the cliffs for hours, watching the tide recede away from the base of the gleaming white faces and leave a sludge behind, thinking about the end of the world, thinking about the arguments they’d had, thinking about the visible distress and desperation Crowley had worn in those last days.
Crowley had always worn a layer of terror underneath his skin. It had been there since the garden, since that first rainfall, and Aziraphale had always just assumed it was a product of being a fallen angel—something that was injected under the subcutaneous tissue like a poison. Aziraphale had needled at it a little throughout the years, looking for ways it might be lanced, the infection purged, the wound healed. If there’d been a way, he’d never found it.
He’d thought, though, after everything that had happened, that perhaps it wouldn’t matter. That after the world didn’t end, after Hell didn’t come back for Crowley, after Heaven left them alone—he’d thought that Crowley would finally be free.
Aziraphale just didn’t know what he was still so afraid of—why Crowley had suddenly seemed like he’d been afraid of him.
Eventually Aziraphale had turned back toward Seaport, walking along the road until a lorry miraculously happened by and, quite without meaning to, offered Aziraphale a lift. The driver had been pleasant enough, and he’d dropped Aziraphale off at the top of the hill by the cottage, wished him luck, and went home to find he’d inherited a tidy sum of money from an uncle he hadn’t known he’d even had.
There was a single candle lit in the kitchen window of the darkened cottage. Aziraphale stood and looked at it for a long time, imagining Crowley’s drive alone in the Bentley with his fear, imagining Crowley alone in the cottage with his rage. Imagining Crowley lighting this single candle for him anyway, as if to guide him home.
He found Crowley in the back garden, sitting under the bare apple tree. He had the guitar tucked under one arm, plucking something slow and melancholy into the night air; he had his wings loose, inky black against the blue velvet dark.
Aziraphale scuffed his feet along the pebble paths as he approached. Crowley lifted his head at the sound, recognising that he was there, but didn’t turn around.
“You know,” Crowley said over the sound of the guitar, “when I booked this cottage, I thought, what a perfect opportunity. Isolated little place, no people around. I thought I’d take you flying. Proper flying, like you can’t do in London.” His wings, folded neatly along his back, twitched and opened a bit, as if in involuntary reaction. “Nice clear night like this one would’ve been perfect for it.”
Something in Aziraphale wanted very much to say, we could still go up, but he knew somehow that that was never going to happen now. “I think we’ve rather had some kind of miscommunication,” Aziraphale said instead.
The tune Crowley was plucking out dropped into a lower chord, but he didn’t stop playing. “I know,” Crowley said eventually. “Look, I’m sorry I left you back there. I didn’t mean for you to make your way back here the human way.”
“I didn’t,” Aziraphale assured him. “Well, I did a little, but it’s not important. Crowley, I think—we’ve had a little confusion, I think.”
“My fault,” Crowley said easily. He finally laid a hand over the guitar strings to silence them and looked up to Aziraphale and smiled: a thin, brittle thing that seemed like it would dissolve if Aziraphale touched it. His eyes were an acrid yellow in the dark. “Don’t worry about it, angel.”
Aziraphale shifted. He wanted to worry about it. He wanted to understand it. He wanted Crowley to trust him, to confide in him, to know that Aziraphale wasn’t ever going to turn his back on him. “What did you mean,” he asked, as Crowley started a new melody on the guitar, “when you said I was still sitting in the garden?”
Crowley huffed a little laugh. “Nothing,” he said. “Just that we are who we are, you know? You’re always going to be yourself. I’m always going to be myself. I just had started expecting something that we weren’t ever going to be able to live up to. It was just unrealistic.”
He looked back to the guitar and started playing again. The tune was a little more complicated now, just as quiet and melancholy as it had been before, but Crowley shifted on the bench to make room for Aziraphale, nodding his head at the empty space in invitation.
“I don’t suppose you’d tell me what it was?” Aziraphale asked as he took the seat, loosing his wings into the dark, but he already knew the answer.
“Nah,” Crowley said. His grin this time was a little more familiar, a little more genuine: reassuring, but when Aziraphale looked a little closer, it still seemed false. “It’s fine, angel. Gave myself a good bonk on the head on the way back here and sorted myself out.”
“You know, we are the way we are,” Aziraphale said slowly, pressing it a little, brushing his wing up against Crowley’s, “but we can also change, Crowley. We have done, over the years. We’ve changed quite a lot, since we first met.”
“I know,” he answered. “And it’s good, isn’t it? And I’ve been thinking. About changing some things up. You know, with Heaven and Hell out of our hair, there’s a lot more freedom, a lot more flexibility. I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time for a bigger change.”
Aziraphale looked at him. Crowley looked back.
Crowley said, “I’m not going back to London.”