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Just a stranger on the bus

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Aziraphale is so absorbed in his book that he nearly doesn’t notice Her.

It’s a lovely golden late afternoon, a few months after what Aziraphale has come to call the Event and what Crowley bluntly calls the Armageddon’t and once, after quite a lot of champagne, had memorably dubbed the Apocacock-up. The remains of their picnic on Hampstead Heath are packed into the basket tucked under their feet, and they’re sitting together on the top deck of the bus back to Soho. One of Crowley’s slow-burning demonic interventions has hopelessly snarled TfL running into and out of King’s Cross, for which he’d been snarkily apologetic, but Aziraphale had assured him that he preferred the omnibus anyway. The sight of Crowley’s expression at his century out of date terminology had been well worth it.

At the moment, the demon—his demon—his better half, really, which is a thought that Aziraphale doesn’t examine too closely even as he feels the truth of it in his bones—is tucked into Aziraphale’s side, fast asleep in what he calls a “nap.” Aziraphale still doesn’t really understand the appeal of sleep, though he fancies that he grasps why humans like dreams, but he does understand the appeal of Crowley sprawled low enough that he can press his face to Aziraphale’s neck, the lenses of his sunglasses rubbing against Aziraphale’s collar. Aziraphale has slipped his arm around him, keeping him close. It’s not that he thinks he and Crowley could lose one another now, after everything. It’s just that after everything he doesn’t want to take the chance.

The top deck of the bus is sparsely populated, the few humans up here mostly ignoring them, eyes fixed on their mobiles or their tablets or on their own troubles. It is something of a risk, to be out in public with Crowley like this. But at least for now, the risk is purely mortal, and Aziraphale isn’t afraid of humans, even in London.

The woman ascends the stairs and sits down in one of the bench seats opposite them; absorbed in a book that Anathema had recommended, The Secret Commonwealth, Aziraphale only registers that she’s wearing a conservatively tailored pantsuit the color of fog. But the sense of attention on him increases gradually, becoming a distinct pressure on his worldly and ethereal senses, and when he looks up he just barely registers that the suit is sparkling subtly before he realizes that it’s Her.

“Lord,” Aziraphale says involuntarily, unable to hold Her gaze for more than a few seconds. He settles for staring at the second button of her blouse, a pearly blue-grey that seems familiar. “Forgive me, I—”

It’s been nearly six thousand years since She last spoke to him, and eons before that since he was last in her Presence. The full power and the glory of it is unspeakably muted, here on Earth; Earth wasn’t made to bear that much reality. But Aziraphale saw enough of Her features to know that he’s never seen Her in this form before: a middle aged woman, pale blonde hair clipped short and slightly curling, Her face neither particularly attractive nor ugly, but full of character. “Well, you did recognize me, Aziraphale,” She says when he finds himself unable to continue. “You’re not doing so badly, no matter what Gabriel says.”

Almost despite himself, Aziraphale manages to turn his instinctive cringe into a wince. He sets the book down in his lap, but he doesn’t let go of Crowley; he won’t. Even if this is what Gabriel had once euphemistically termed his exit interview, he will not pretend he regrets things he doesn’t. He’s not afraid of Hell, as long as Crowley is with him. “Has Gabriel, er, said things to You about me? I got the impression from Metatron that You, er, haven’t been taking many calls…recently.”

“Well, as a gatekeeper Metatron makes an excellent secretary,” the Almighty says, Her amusement unmistakable. “For Heaven’s sake, Aziraphale, look at me. I am not displeased.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, after he does force himself to look at Her once more. “Er. Good. But in that case…”

“I came to see how you two were getting on,” God tells him, and unmistakably, She is smiling now.

Aziraphale opens his mouth and shuts it again, then turns his head to the demon beside him. Crowley sleeps on, which is decidedly a good thing. For all that it’s been countless eons, Crowley is still extremely touchy about the subject of the Fall in general and his own fall in particular; Aziraphale has no desire to find out what he would do if he found himself in the presence of the Almighty once more.

Particularly since part of him suspects that Crowley’s primary emotion would not be hatred or fear, but yearning. It’s an article of faith in Heaven and in Hell that the fallen angels can never be forgiven. But on Earth, humans have argued convincingly that if the Devil cannot be redeemed, no one else is assured of their own salvation. Aziraphale doesn’t want to find out one way or the other; he can bear most things in the universe, but seeing Crowley sad is decidedly not one of them.

Eventually, he’s able to collect himself sufficiently to get the words out. “We’re, er, quite well, thank You. It was a bit touch and go there for a while, it seemed like the grand plan was about to be fulfilled, but then it…wasn’t.” Aziraphale shuts his mouth, willing the question he almost asked back behind his teeth. Traditionally, one was allowed one question not about the mission in these interviews; he doesn’t want to waste his asking Her something that seems quite clear already.

But of course, thoughts can’t be hidden from Her so easily. “Ah yes, the grand plan,” She says, and if She were as human as She appears, Aziraphale would identify the small smile on Her face as a species of smirk. “It did work out nicely, if I do say so Myself. Anathema and Newton, Sergeant Shadwell and Madame Tracy, Adam and his father…you and Crowley.”

“Crowley and I?” Aziraphale repeats, his voice nearly a squeak. “Lord, do You mean to say that…all that…was all for the sake of…them? Us? Relationships?”

Her smile grows, the expression now holding genuine fondness. “Would it be so bad if it were, Aziraphale, O Angel of the Eastern Gate?”

The old flush of chagrin rises within, but Aziraphale pushes it aside. “We thought we were saving the world!” he says, voice rising slightly before he can stop himself. Remembering Who he is talking to, he swallows and says more normally, “We thought we were doing the right thing.”

The Almighty raises one pale eyebrow at him. “And who says you weren’t? Haven’t you ever heard that saving the world, and saving one person, come down to much the same thing?”

“That’s not how the head office thinks of it,” Aziraphale says, greatly daring. Perhaps some of Crowley has rubbed off on him after all.

She shrugs. “I swore off micromanaging after the business with the Ark, Aziraphale; this is the result. And it isn’t Gabriel’s fault, or Michael’s or Uriel’s or any of the rest; they are what they are.” Which was what they had chosen to be; angels had free will, though most of them didn’t put much stock in it anymore. The most interesting of Her servants were no longer numbered among the heavenly hosts, though Crowley, were he awake, would have insisted that their sojourn in Hell had ground most of the demons into the dark mirrors of their heavenly counterparts: hidebound, bureaucratic, incurious, obsessed with revenge. She looked at him, pointedly. “As are you, and Crowley.”

Aziraphale’s arm tightens around Crowley, who sleeps on, oblivious to the fact that he had, at that bus stop in Tadfield, correctly intuited this very thing. His being right again suggests that he was right the first time, on the wall around the Garden; his sword winding up in the hands of War is further proof that Aziraphale had not done the entirely right thing then. But three months ago was another matter. “If we did do right…” he says slowly. “If we did do right, and we are as You meant for us to be, does that mean that we are part of the ineffable plan after all?”

“If it could be put into words, it would be all too effable,” the Almighty reminds him, but She is clearly pleased with his deduction. “You know I work in mysterious ways.”

“Indeed, Lord.” Aziraphale opens his mouth to ask another question when the unmistakable sound of a cellular phone resounds throughout the bus. The ringtone, unless Aziraphale was quite mistaken, is J.S. Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” She feels around in Her pockets for the phone, pulling it out and rolling Her eyes at the name on the screen before swiping it, sending the call to voicemail. With a start, Aziraphale recognizes the Italian country code prefix: She had just ignored a call from the Pope.

She notices his poorly concealed shock. “Francis may have my direct number, but that doesn’t mean I have to take his calls. And he isn’t infallible, no matter where he sits.” She leans forward a little. “He’s much like Gabriel, in his own way; so convinced that he’s right that he doesn’t bother to wonder whether he might be wrong. He forgets that I am the Beginning and the End; humanity, even the angels and the demons…all of you are only the middle. And humans do like to make even the simplest things overly complicated.”

That was the other downside of swearing off micromanaging, but She doesn’t need Aziraphale to point that out. Instead, he gathers his courage: the bus is nearing Euston Road. “Lord, if I may—was Crowley right, about the last great battle? Will it be angels and demons against humanity, at the End? The real End?”

Her expression turns grave. He doesn’t doubt that She knows what he’s really asking, and who for. “Ah, now that would be telling. You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?”

They didn’t call Her the Clouded Mountain for nothing, though no one ever said it where She could hear. Aziraphale bows his head, and after another moment, She reaches out, pressing the button to request a stop. “This is Me,” She says, gathering up Her bag.

“Do you want company, Lord?” Aziraphale asks, old habit reasserting itself forcefully. “We—that is, I—” Just then, Crowley shifts in his sleep, turning slightly to snuggle even closer.

She stands and smiles down at them, the pure warmth and light of Her expression reminding Aziraphale of the old days, before the Garden, before humans and the Earth and all the creatures thereof. He likes the Earth quite a lot, and all of Creation generally speaking. But the old days had not been without their joys…though they had lacked Crowley. If the two of them had ever met in Heaven, before the Fall, Crowley has never mentioned it, and Aziraphale has never asked. He rather thinks that they hadn’t, and that they wouldn’t have. Given the choice between then and now, Aziraphale knows which he would pick.

“No need,” She says; “I know the way.” Her gaze falls on Crowley, then shifts back to him. “Take care of your demon, Aziraphale. He may be the best of them; he’s certainly the only one with an imagination. And he needs you every bit as much as you need him.”

“I shall do my best,” Aziraphale says, with total honesty.

She smiles once more. “And that shall be enough.” The bus begins to slow, and She heads for the stairs, looking back just long enough to give him a nod. “See you, space cowboy.”

Aziraphale sits quietly after She leaves as the bus continues south. Crowley wakes up as they’re rolling through Fitzrovia, peering at him from behind his glasses. “What’s wrong, angel?” he asks with his usual disconcerting perspicacity. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Not quite,” Aziraphale says, gathering his wits and turning to smile at him. “Did you have a good nap, my dear?”

Crowley covers a yawn with one hand. “Delightful. You should try it sometime.”

“Perhaps in a few centuries. Or perhaps you can teach me.”

“Just say the word,” Crowley says, reaching out to hit the stop button. He takes the picnic basket in one hand, then gestures for Aziraphale to proceed him down the stairs and out onto the street. Once there, not without a certain air of steeling himself, he takes Aziraphale’s hand in his empty one. Unlearning the habits of millennia takes time, and they’re quite lucky that they have this earthly city to do it in. Most of them wouldn’t tolerate this kind of thing even if they were mortal. “Are you sure you’re all right?” Crowley asks. He sounds casual, but he can’t hide his real concern; they know each other far too well.

Aziraphale can’t help it; it’s second nature to beam at him. It’s been second nature to feel this pulse of happiness at the sight of him for millennia now, and no longer feeling the need to deny it is, well, heavenly. And he remembers, even before he loved Crowley, the strange feeling of lightness he’d had when Eden was lost, standing on the wall watching the first thunderstorm of the world roll in. He hadn’t recognized it then, but he feels it again now: despite everything, it’s hope.

“Never better, my dear,” Aziraphale reassures him. “Can I interest you in dinner?”

“Lead on, angel,” Crowley says, inclining his head, and hand in hand, with steps that are neither particularly wandering nor especially fast, Aziraphale does just that. Through London they make their blessedly together way.