Aziraphale was getting the hang of this. As he watched the last of the guests leave Sunday lunch, he sighed with satisfaction. It was getting easier. Not easy, but easier.
He was learning who was who, which guests liked a chat, and which preferred to be left to their own devices. He was learning how to anticipate issues by catching sharp changes in tone of voice over the din of scraped plates and dinner conversation. He was listening so much better than before.
Before she had left tonight, Dahlia had hugged him, quickly and when he wasn’t paying much attention. Aziraphale watched her bolt up the stairs after, chuckling to himself. Anathema had been right, that what people wanted most was for someone to talk to.
After the lunch hall had cleared out, Aziraphale and Anathema lingered in the kitchen, tossing ideas back and forth about how the church could do more, beyond the Sunday lunch.
“I think you’re on the money with a day program.” Anathema said. “The shelter is closed during the day and lots of people won’t want to ride the subway for hours. It wouldn’t even have to run every day. Not to start.” Aziraphale admired her enthusiasm.
Since he began coming to St. Sebastian’s everyday a month ago, he had noticed that the church was empty throughout the week. The administrative assistant was part-time and there didn’t seem to be any established clubs or groups using the space. Surely they could be doing more. It was a shame in a city like this to have an empty, warm space when others had nowhere to go.
Over each week they worked together, Anathema had only grown in Aziraphale’s esteem. She had established herself as a trusted colleague and collaborator, and slowly, Aziraphale hoped to also call her a friend. Each week following lunch, she offered Aziraphale personal artifacts as they cleaned, stories from her past, most shockingly how she had grown up surrounded by wealth on the sunny American west coast, and he would do his best to reciprocate. He told her how his now-deceased parents were never keen on his entry into ministry, and would ask every visit if maybe he’d consider going back to school (right through his thirties). How he hadn’t yet gotten a proper book shelf for his flat, but he couldn’t resist bringing more books in, and the haphazard piles continued to grow. How he was struggling to find things to love about London.
She had sympathized with him on that point. “This city can swallow you whole if you’re not careful.”
They left together, as they had been since the Sunday they had met. When they emerged to the street, the night seemed nearly upon them, even though it was really only mid-afternoon. Winter was rapidly approaching.
“What are your plans for the even-” Before Anathema could finish her sentence, a car horn sounded twice, from very close by. The pair turned and looked towards a sleek sedan with dark tinted windows parked a stone’s throw away from the church entrance. As they watched, the driver’s side door opened and Crowley stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Azirphale hadn’t seen Crowley in weeks, but he had heard from him sporadically via text. The messages were brief - no one is giving you trouble, i trust? - and largely impersonal. Aziraphale had noticed that Crowley never capitalized anything, not the beginning of sentences or names. He initially found it irritating, but as he read back over the messages (which he had now done more times than he would admit) he had come to find it charming. The last message had come in Monday of that week.
plans for next sunday? after work? The message had thrilled Aziraphale. He made himself wait twenty minutes to respond, as to not appear too eager.
None. What about you? But Crowley hadn’t responded after that, and Aziraphale’s excitement had dampened considerably. By Thursday he forced himself to stop looking at his phone every five minutes just in case he had missed a response. By Friday, he told himself that he’d probably never see Crowley again, just to manage his own expectations.
But here he was, in front of him. Aziraphale couldn’t feel his own face.
“Sorry I didn’t follow up. You didn’t make plans, did you?”
Aziraphale was momentarily lost for words, and his mouth hung slightly open. He turned to Anathema, the spark of delight plain behind her eyes as she took in the scene in front of her. In an effort to move the moment forward she stepped in for the reverend. “You didn’t make plans. You have no plans.” Angling her body away from Crowley, she reached out and gripped Aziraphale’s arm. Making what Aziraphale took to be Very Meaningful Eye Contact, she mouthed, Oh my God!
“Fancy a drive?” Crowley called out. The pair turned back to the red haired man in unison.
Aziraphale swallowed dryly. “That sounds lovely.”
“That’s my cue to say goodnight. Gentlemen!” Anathema gave a small wave and began walking away, occasionally looking back over her shoulder, her face bright with a wide smile.
Crowley slipped back into the car. Aziraphale approached slowly, looking over the vehicle. Black, sleek, expensive-looking. Quite a lot like its driver. He reached the passenger side door and the tell-tale clunk of a car door unlocking sounded out. Aziraphale steadied himself, and with a deep breath opened the door and got into the car.
The car was immaculately kept. Aziraphale had no real interest in cars and had only kept his license active for the occasional ministry based errand when he lived out in Cornwall. He considered one of the few benefits of moving to London to have been the ability to get around without needing to drive. But even in his disinterest he could acknowledge the interior of Crowley’s car was very well taken care of, indeed.
The dark red leather on the seats was soft and thick, and as he peered across the dashboard there was not a single speck of dust to be seen. Aziraphale wondered what this suggested about Crowley’s home. In all the spare moments he had thought about Crowley, imagined him since their first meeting, he realized that it had never occurred to him to imagine where Crowley lived. Would it be perfectly designed and dark like this? Would Aziraphale ever see it? He didn’t think he could stand to imagine the latter thought in Crowley’s presence. Not now. He filed it away for later.
Crowley was looking at his phone. He shut the screen off and tossed it into the console between them. As he looked up at Aziraphale he smiled, and here in the privacy of the car, Aziraphale felt he was seeing Crowley for the first time. The smile was inviting, natural without airs or masks. And it was just for Aziraphale. There was no one else here, just them.
“Where are we going?” Aziraphale asked, voice quiet, as if speaking at a normal volume might break him out of his small reverie.
Crowley grinned and turned his attention to the wheel, shifting the car into gear. “Do you like surprises?”
Not particularly, if Aziraphale was being entirely honest, and the more practical part of his brain questioned whether he should go to an undisclosed location with a man who, in truth, he barely knew.
Not waiting for Aziraphale’s response, Crowley continued. “Nowhere spooky. I promise.”
“Well, as long as it isn’t spooky.”
Crowley released a genuine and unaffected laugh at Aziraphale’s reply, and Aziraphale was in turn elated to have elicited it. He couldn’t hide the intensity of smile, so he turned his face towards the window as the car pulled out onto the street.
As they drove, Aziraphale watched unfamiliar sites pass by. He hadn’t done much exploring since coming to London, choosing to stick close to St. Sebastian’s and his flat for the most part, trying to foster the same sense of community he’d had back in Cornwall. They passed market streets and other churches, schools and parks.
At a corner, Aziraphale looked out and noticed a young couple waiting for the light to turn. They were holding hands in a way that suggested that this was not a new practice. They were seasoned hand-holders. There was nothing remarkable about the couple, they were entirely average in every way. He, watching the crosswalk light intently. She, adjusting her coat, fiddling with her lapel. But their image inspired a question in Aziraphale that he wasn’t immediately able to answer: was this a date?
He looked over to Crowley, weaving expertly through the busy streets of London. Was it? He didn’t even know what Crowley’s preferences were, though he had his suspicions. Aziraphale wished he were more perceptive when it came to this sort of thing. He used to be, but he was so out of practice. It had been how many years? Aziraphale didn’t want to do the math. He had gotten comfortable - no, not comfortable - accustomed to his single life in Cornwall, and after a while, had stopped making any efforts to change it.
Crowley took an exit ramp to the circular road, quiet, content to leave Aziraphale to his thoughts.
Now that he had started on this train of thinking, it was like he couldn’t stop. Five years. It had been five years since his last romantic encounter. At a conference in Cardiff. It had been a younger man. New to ministry. Darren, maybe? Dylan. His name was Dylan. They had chatted in the hotel bar having recognized each other from the day’s events. Aziraphale knew, of course, immediately. Knew the second he shook his hand. Dylan had known too. The ninety minute conversation they had over their drinks was just preamble.
In Dylan’s room the younger man had been almost frantic, unpredictable. He moved at a pace that had left Aziraphale wanting. Aziraphale was deliberate, thoughtful. This was neither. Dylan had pulled Aziraphale’s hair a little too hard, spat words in his ear that felt out of place and clumsy. But they didn’t stop.
After they had finished, Aziraphale laid under the sheets in the dark, pushing away the scratchy, polyester bedspread ubiquitous to this type of mid-tier hotel. He listened to the sound of water hitting the tiles in the bathroom as Dylan showered. He felt disconnected from himself, unfulfilled. As he got up and pulled on his clothes, Dylan had emerged, wrapped in a towel.
“Are you going?” There was no emotion to his voice. No disappointment, no longing, no eagerness even. Just a question.
“Afraid so, dear. Early morning.”
They had kissed goodbye chastly. There was no attempt to pretend that they would see each other again, keep in touch. Nothing of the kind. Aziraphale returned to his room, showered and fell swiftly into a dreamless sleep. When they saw each other in the morning in the lobby, they didn’t say hello.
Aziraphale emerged from the memory, suddenly realized just how very, very fast they were moving.
“You drive…” Aziraphale stuttered, his anxiety spiking. “... quickly.”
Crowley glanced his way, smirking. “I like driving.” As if to demonstrate, he changed lanes into the far right quickly, slipping smoothly between two cars in a fashion no reasonable driver would have attempted.
Aziraphale involuntarily braced himself on the dashboard with one hand for an impact that never arrived.
Crowley kept his eyes on the traffic ahead of the, smirk still playing on his lips. “I’m also a very good driver. Don’t worry. We’re nearly there.”
He wasn’t lying. Within minutes, Crowley had taken an exit and entered into a neighbourhood of low-rise post-war apartment blocks and townhouses.
With an abrupt and uneasy realization, Aziraphale knew where they were. He had grown up here. He had walked these streets countless times as a boy with his parents, then with friends as he had gotten older. There was nothing distinctive about this place. The streets were identical to countless other developments that had come up all over the country at the same time. But he knew this was where he was from. He said nothing to Crowley, simply staring out the window, watching scenes from his younger years play out in his mind’s eye.
Finally, Crowley pulled up outside a primary school, the exact primary school Aziraphale had attended as a child.
“I… I went here.” Aziraphale stammed, confused. What in heaven’s name was this about?
“So did I.”
Aziraphale shut his mouth and studied Crowley’s face.
Crowley turned the car off, leaving the keys in the ignition. “When I saw you a few weeks ago in the pub, you said I seemed familiar.”
Aziraphale made a small noise of acknowledgment, and brought a hand to his lips. He wrapped his other arm around his own chest. A protective gesture. He felt he had just been plunged very deep in the known unknown.
“You did to me, too. But it didn’t hit me until later. We went to school here together. When we were boys, very young.”
Both men turned to look out on the schoolyard. The equipment had clearly been updated over the years. No more metal slide that burned the backs of your legs on sunny days. No more metal monkey bars that reached a height unreasonable for any child to attempt to cross. But the school was largely the same.
“Were we friends?” Aziraphale asked. His mind ached with the effort of searching for Crowley in his memory.
“No. I don’t think we were.”
Aziraphale turned back to Crowley now, who still stared towards the school, deep in thought. Aziraphale said nothing. He wanted to see where Crowley was going, and he was starting to think the best thing would to be quiet. No questions, no prying, just quiet.
“But you helped me once. In an accident.”
And there it was. The memory came to Aziraphale immediately and fully formed, like a slap across the face.
Without thinking, Aziraphale reaching out and lightly encircled Crowley’s forearm with his fingers. “You fell.”
He could hear it, the sound of a busy school playground at midday. The creak of metal equipment, children laughing and yelling out. It was spring. He had shed his jacket along with his classmates, ignoring the damp chill that remained in the air, celebrating that going without a jacket was even possible. In his memory, Crowley was almost entirely in silhouette, rays of sun curling around the edges of his body, a shadow of a boy. Crowley stood on the very top of the monkey bars, balancing, looking out. In an instant he lost his balance. Unable to catch himself, he went head over feet onto the pavement below.
The cacophony of childrens’ voices ceased. The school yard grew quiet as they looked over, shocked. No one moved until Aziraphale did. He ran to Crowley, kneeling beside the still boy laid out on his back.
“He’s dead!” An anonymous girl’s voice called.
As if summoned, the boy Crowley let out a quiet whimper.
“He’s not!” Aziraphale cried out. “Someone get the teacher! Someone get a teacher!” He was vaguely aware of some classmates taking off towards the school. He turned his attention back to Crowley. The boy’s eyes opened, looking straight up to Aziraphale. They were rimmed with tears. He made a move as if to speak, but didn’t. Couldn’t.
Aziraphale remembered feeling so overwhelmed, so confused, wanting so badly for a grown-up to tell him what to do. He took the other boy’s hand gently, holding it in both of his. “Don’t move until the teacher gets here, okay? I think you’ve really hurt yourself.” He paused. “You’re not supposed to stand on top.” Even as a child he had felt silly bringing up the rules. The damage had been done.
The two boys had looked at one another, for what felt like an age. Slowly breathing, unaware of the children closing in around them.
From the school came the headmaster, a teacher, running. The teacher, a sturdy woman in cat eye glasses knelt beside Aziraphale. She took his hands and gently unwrapped his fingers. “That’s a good boy, Aziraphale. So kind of you to stay with your friend. Now back up please, sweetheart. That’s good. Thank you.” He backed up, swallowed into the crowd of students who now encircled them.
The memory ended there. The ambulance must have come, but he didn’t remember.
Aziraphale returned to the present. He looked to the school, back to Crowley, and then landed on his hand, still holding on to the other man. He withdrew it, slowly. “When did you remember?”
Crowley turned his face to Aziraphale, a small smile playing on his lips. “After the pub. I should have realized the second I heard your name. Not like there’s a bunch of Aziraphales running about. The hair too. Uncommon.”
Aziraphale chuckled softly, and brought one of his hands up behind his head, fingering the hair at the nape of his neck. “I was a boy. I don’t know if I really helped you.”
“You did.” Crowley’s reply was quick, certain.
For a moment they just looked at one another. Both, it seemed, uncertain in this new territory where they had known each other for years and years, in a way.
“I don’t remember you after,” said Aziraphale, searching his mind for any other instance of interaction, playing, talking. Anything.
“I had a very bad concussion. They kept me out of school for the rest of the year, and then we moved.”
“But you recovered.” It was both a question and a statement.
Crowley smiled, and his tone changed suddenly, as if to shift gears, take them out of the past and into the present. “Very nearly. Let’s go for a walk.” Without waiting for Aziraphale’s answer Crowley opened the door and swung his long legs out of the car and onto the asphalt. Aziraphale followed.
They walked past the school and into the townhouse development that came up against its edge, Crowley leading the way and Aziraphale trailing a few steps behind. Crowley pointed out the house he had lived in, though admitted he couldn’t remember much about the years he spent there.
Something felt reduced in Crowley now. In his reveal, for a spare few moments, Aziraphale had felt something open up between them. By resurrecting the memory of that small, slight boy, lying prone in the school yard, Crowley had opened himself to Aziraphale, but had closed the door almost immediately. Had he wanted more from Aziraphale? A bigger reaction? Aziraphale retreated into himself, playing the conversation over and over as they walked.
Before he knew it, they were back at the car. Aziraphale had barely been paying attention. The two men got back in.
“We’ll drive back thought the city this time. No motorways. Don’t think your nerves could take it again.” Crowley smiled as he leaned over to Aziraphale, but there was still something restricted in him.
“How perceptive of you.” Aziraphale said, more clipped than he had intended or even really meant.
For the first half of the drive back, they travelled in an uneasy quiet. Perhaps Crowley had felt over exposed, returning to what must have been a traumatic moment, especially for a young child. Aziraphale considered this. Crowley had given him back this memory and he had done it for a reason. What was that reason?
Aziraphale inhaled sharply, and broke the silence between them. “I’m so grateful Crowley, that you brought me back. Thank you for reminding me how we met. I’m so sorry I didn’t get there on my own.”
Crowley shifted in the driver’s seat. “Don’t apologize. It was, what, bloody odd forty years ago or something.”
“But I remember it now! Everything about you.” There was a plea lacing Aziraphale’s voice that he himself was unfamiliar with. The quietest desperation. He wanted that broken open moment back. He wanted unrestricted access to the man sitting next to him. “And it feels so wonderful to know someone who knew me, then. Crowley, I don’t have anyone else like that.” It was true. He had moved back to London knowing no one, and had kept in touch with no one from before. He felt like a man without a trace, a history, until right now.
Crowley turned his face towards Aziraphale quickly, before turning back to the road. “I don’t either.”
“Well, then.” Aziraphale clasped his hands in front of him, preemptively feeling silly for what he was going to say next. “We should be friends.”
Crowley let out a short bark of a laugh and a smile broke across his face. “I thought we already were.”
Aziraphale felt his lips match Crowley’s smile. He glanced in the driver’s direction, and caught Crowley’s gaze. Aziraphale felt a rush of affection for him, more than the attraction he felt since their meeting a few weeks ago. Or was it their reintroduction? The timeline had changed. In recovering the memory to which Crowley had led him, Aziraphale felt he had seen a secret side of him.
The streets outside became more familiar. Aziraphale noticed the underground station he had used before, the shops he visited. “Now that we’re friends,” he started, going against his instinct to let Crowley come to things and share them with Aziraphale on his own, “you should tell me what your very mysterious security job entails.” Crowley’s opaqueness regarding his job had left remaining questions for Aziraphale, especially now that he had seen the car. What kind of east end security job let a man buy a car like this?
It was then he realized that Crowley had pulled up beside Aziraphale’s home. He had remembered.
“Bit of a long story. Boring too. But next time.” Crowley put the car into park. “I’ll tell you next time.”
Next time. Aziraphale could feel his heart rate pick up. Next time, next time.
“Thank you for today. And again, for reminding me. This meeting again… it’s been a happy accident.” Aziraphale got out of the car before Crowley could respond. Before closing the door behind him, he leaned over and studied the other man still in the car. “I’ll see you soon?”
“Yeah.” Crowley made a small gesture of farewell. “Soon.”
Aziraphale closed the door and stepped back, and Crowley drove away.
As Aziraphale lay in bed that night, courting sleep, he replayed all the moments he had earlier shared with Crowley. Something was settling on him, and it was the idea that their reconnecting was not a happy accident at all. There was nothing accidental about it. It felt, to Aziraphale, preordained. This had been planned, but not by them.
Hours later, Aziraphale woke with a start, the last facades of a dream slipping away. An adult Crowley laid out on the pavement, having fallen from a great height, looking up at Aziraphale with scared, golden yellow eyes. The dream slipped away from Aziraphale as it had never been, and he settled back into sleep for the rest of the night.