Anathema stood in the kitchen, looking out over the serving counter to the Sunday lunch crowd before her, eyebrows furrowed. She was a serious woman, Aziraphale knew, but the look on her face was new to him.
He moved in beside her, trying to follow her gaze, but nothing was out of the ordinary. Guests ate, chatted, asked for second helpings. “Anathema, my dear,” he said to her in a hushed voice. “Are you quite all right?”
She tilted her head in his direction, expression unchanging. “Something isn’t right.” Her lips pressed together into a thin, unhappy line. “I don’t know what it is.”
An uneasiness abruptly settled on Aziraphale. He trusted Anathema. Her judgement up until this point had been unimpeachable. If she said something was wrong… He left the kitchen then, moving between the tables, studying faces. Was there anyone unfamiliar? Anyone doing something they shouldn’t?
Then, a calamity in the stairwell. A voice yelled down, frantic, near hysterical. “There’s a fight outside! They’re fighting!”
Aziraphale’s light blue eyes flew to Anathema and she looked back at him. They held contact for only a fraction of a second, but an electric frisson moved between them that set the hair on the back of Aziraphale’s neck on end. He watched the young woman throw down the utensils in her hand and they clattered onto the floor. She was out of the kitchen and up the stairs to the ground level in a flash, her long plaid skirt flowing behind her.
Aziraphale followed in her wake, moving faster than he could ever remember moving. He passed another shelter worker, Anathema’s right-hand-man, a tall lad with round glasses and a bad haircut. “Keep everyone down here! Don’t let anyone up!” He yelled to the younger man as he ran past. The man moved to protest but Aziraphale was gone, taking the stairs two at a time, an energy coursing through him that made him want to shout, or vomit.
He caught the wooden door as it was falling shut behind Anathema and flung it open.
She stood ahead of him on the steps. The scene in front of them was chaos.
A group of young men engaged in a ugly street fight. Were there twelve or fourteen of them? It was impossible to count, they moved so quickly and weaved between each others’ bodies as if in a brutal dance. They grabbed at jackets, fists meeting faces, growling and yelping. The air was permeated with a frenzied rage, an unrestrained toxic masculinity, as they tried in earnest to rip each other into pieces.
Aziraphale sensed rather than watched Anathema start to descend the church steps, and he reached out to hold her back, the tips of his fingers skimming the fabric of her blouse. She was too quick, too motivated. “Anathema, don’t!”
She stopped short of the whirling brawl, hands up and arms wide. The winter wind whipped her hair to the side and her skirt blew around her. “Stop!” Aziraphale was awed by her composure, her lack of fear. “Stop, please!”
At her plea, one man halted and shoved his adversary off of him. With a glance at Anathema, he took off down the street. In realizing one of their own was abandoning the skirmish, other men followed, the two factions running in opposite directions.
Aziraphale stood, astonished and slack jawed. How had she compelled them? Her mere presence had urged them outward and away from the church. She was miraculous.
She turned her attention to the last man, trailing the others. His run slowed to a jog, then a walk, then he collapsed onto his hands and knees, back heaving with effort. He had been left behind. The other men were out of sight now, God knows where.
Aziraphale’s body urged him forward, his mind not entirely in control. The cold wind bit into his skin but he could barely feel it. He ran to where the man had collapsed, Anathema on his heels. His arms reached out to the man, and as he crouched beside him - still not controlling his own movements, still spurred by something completely outside of himself - the man reached out to Aziraphale, and his hand fisted in the reverend’s sweater.
Aziraphale reached his hands underneath the man, turning him, revealing his face.
With a snap, he was back in his own body. The weight of the young man leaned into him, desperately clawing. The expression on his face was pure, unadulterated fear. But it wasn’t a man at all. It was a boy. The same bold boy that had threatened him on the church steps so many weeks ago.
The boy was heavy in Aziraphale's arms, chest heaving. He gasped for air violently. And then Aziraphale saw it, the bloom of red blood rising from his abdomen. “Mary, Mother of Mercy.” He whispered, his heart rising to his throat. Immediately Aziraphale pressed his palm to the place the stain originated, hoping to stop the flow, to slow it, anything. “Anathema, call an ambulance.” His eyes never left the boy, and his voice was legions calmer that he hurricane swirling inside of him.
“I need your phone.” Her slim hand reached into Aziraphale’s pocket, taking his mobile out.
Aziraphale knew she was calling, but the universe closed in on him, to just him and this terrified boy. Everything else was white noise. He gently applied more pressure and the boy groaned. “I am sorry, child. I know it hurts. But I want to stop the bleeding. Breathe. I will not let anything happen to you. You are safe.” The boy’s eyes closed and he whimpered pitifully. Silently, Aziraphale bargained with God.
Dear Lord, in your goodness and all knowing, I beg of you to cover this boy and protect him. Hold him in your arms, dear Lord. Heal him, please.
There were more people around him now. Being broken from his prayer felt like being woken up mid dream. It took Aziraphale a moment to realize what was happening, where he was. The ambulance was there, the paramedics. He hadn’t heard the sirens, the truck, the voices until now.
“What’s happened?” A paramedic knelt down beside Aziraphale. He couldn’t speak.
“There was a fight. We think he’s been stabbed. We don’t know him.” Thank God for Anathema Device.
The paramedic nodded, no nonsense and focused. “Right. You’ll need to let me in there, Reverend. We’ve got this, move back please.” Another paramedic swooped in beside Aziraphale, and he found himself pushed away. As he came to standing his hand grabbed the front of his shirt in worry.
“Take it easy there, son. Alright? We’re going to take you to the hospital. You’ll be there soon,” the second paramedic said to the boy.
Aziraphale and Anathema watched them treat the boy, load him onto a stretcher. “I’ll go with you.” Aziraphale turned to Anathema as she approached the back of the ambulance. She handed Aziraphale’s phone back to him. “I’ll call you, okay?” She climbed in and the paramedic closed the door behind her. Aziraphale’s heart rate began to slow. As the ambulance pulled away, a police car pulled up.
Guests from dinner were now spilling onto the street. Aziraphale supposed that they could only be held down in the dining hall so long. He turned towards the police car, but found himself looking past it, down the street. A black sedan was parked at the curb.
Aziraphale took one step forward, and as he did the car’s headlights snapped on, and it pulled away from the curb in a hasty U-turn. It drove out of sight, well over the speed limit. Watching the taillights fade into the creeping evening light, Aziraphale was immediately plunged into discomfort.
The police officer who approached him had questions. Of course he did. Aziraphale steadied himself, and turned to tell the officer what he knew.
After the guests had gone and the volunteers cleared out, Aziraphale didn’t go home. He couldn’t. He had washed the boy’s blood off his hands hours ago, but it still felt like it was there, coating his fingers. He kept looking at his palms, watched them tremor slightly, surprised each time to find them clean.
As darkness settled, and it became night, the reverend sat in the sanctuary, facing the altar. It was the second Sunday of Advent.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart...
It should have been one of the most joyful times of the year. But with the events of the afternoon he felt bereft. Is this why God had sent him here, to hold onto boys as they bled out on the pavement? He had known that this neighbourhood had been somewhat troubled, but this? He had been naive. God had not prepared him.
And beyond the boy, beyond Aziraphale feeling his terror and violent uncertainty and holding it in his very own hands, there was the question of Crowley.
When the image of Crowley’s car peeling away arose in his mind, Aziraphale tried to convince himself he had been seeing things. That he had been confused, or traumatized even. That would be a lie, though. Aziraphale’s senses had been so focused then. He had been hyper aware of his surroundings, the technicolour world around him.
It had been Crowley’s car. He knew it well, now.
Why had Crowley been there? Why had he left so quickly? Something hot, heavy settled in Aziraphale’s chest. He wanted to pray, but as he bowed his head and clasped his still shaking hands in his lap all he could conjure were all the moments he should have asked Crowley questions and he hadn’t. He cursed his complacency, his own selfish desire.
He couldn’t sit with it any longer. In the dark sanctuary, the only light spilling in from the open door to the lobby several rows back, Aziraphale took out his phone, and called Crowley.
He spun around in the pew, and dropped the phone from his ear. Crowley stood in the doorway, holding his phone in his hand.
“How’s that for timing?”
Aziraphale cancelled the call and placed the phone down beside him. He looked down at his lap. If he looked at Crowley now, he might lose his nerve. “You’ve never come in here before.”
“The church? It’s not really my scene.” Crowley approached, walking down the centre aisle. Aziraphale could tell his tone was aiming for levity, but it was strained, hesitant, as if he could sense Aziraphale’s internal disquiet.
In the silent church, Aziraphale could feel Crowley next to him now, could hear the gentle slip of him taking off his gloves. He turned his face towards the opposite wall. “Was that you, earlier? In your car, when the police came?” Crowley didn’t answer immediately and in those empty seconds, Aziraphale found himself immediately impatient. “Please don’t lie to me.”
“Oh, you think I’d lie to you?” Aziraphale could hear the offence lace Crowley’s reply.
He inhaled and exhaled slowly, suppressing his own anger. “I don’t know what you’d do, Crowley. I’m starting to realize that I may not know you very well at all.” With that he looked up at the man standing next to him and found himself soften involuntarily. What was it about Crowley that affected him so? A mere look on his face and the fury that had fueled Aziraphale until this very moment began to slip through his fingers. There was so much he wanted to know. How much had Crowley seen? Why had he left when Aziraphale saw him? He didn’t know where to start.
As if he could sense Aziraphale deflating, Crowley began to move into the pew. “Move over, would you?”
Aziraphale acquiesced. When Crowley finally sat, it was as close to Aziraphale as he had ever been. Their thighs a mere inch apart. Crowley leaned back, stretching his arm along the back of the pew behind Aziraphale, and Aziraphale leaned forward, not wanting to touch him in this moment. The feeling of the taller man’s arm across his back might undo him entirely. He hated this push and pull. In any other moment, he would have taken the arm across the back of his chair as an invitation. Now he was left questioning Crowley’s motive.
“That was me, earlier. And that was my car.”
Aziraphale groaned quietly, placing his face in his hands, elbows balancing on his knees. He was painfully confused. What was happening? “Why did you leave?”
Again, Crowley didn’t speak, allowing Aziraphale to fill the silence with his own conclusions. He had known about the fight, somehow. He had known where it was. And he didn’t care enough about Aziraphale to intervene in any way.
“The people I work for.” Aziraphale could almost hear Crowley searching for words. “They like me to know what’s going on. But I can’t get involved.”
The infuriating murkiness of it all. “What does that mean, Crowley?” He had intended his question to come out expressionless, measured. Instead he sounded strangled, in agony.
“The less you know about this, the better.”
The fury that had left Aziraphale before came storming back, filling him, fueling him. He sat up with force, bumping into Crowley’s arm. Absorbed in his realization, he barely noticed. “What is it then? Are you some kind of bloody gangster?”
Crowley grimaced. “Aziraphale.”
That was all the confirmation he needed. Aziraphale launched himself out of the pew, bumping into Crowley's knees as he went. “ Security . I should have known it.” He talked to himself now, pacing in the aisle, one hand on his hip, the other rubbing his face in frustration.
“Brought it right to my doorstep. Fraternising with a member some crime fam-”
Aziraphale turned to Crowley, who stood now, arms open, pained look plain across his face. He opened his mouth to speak and closed it. Then in a voice so low Aziraphale could barely hear him, he offered, “I’m not a gangster.”
“Then what are you!?” Aziraphale’s question came out as a yell. His voice echoed in the sanctuary, the silence otherwise smothering. “Help me to understand, Crowley.” He took a step towards the man as he came down off another wave of anger. He was caught in a storm of his own making. “Please.”
Crowley took a deep breath through his nose and looked at the floor. “I don’t want to lie to you. I’m sorry. But it’s better for both of us if you don’t know. I just can’t tell you. Can you not just have a little faith in me?”
Faith. Aziraphale extended a hand behind him. Finding the edge of a pew, he leaned back, putting all his weight into it. He felt as if he were wilting. What could Crowley do that was so awful he refused to tell Aziraphale? Or was it that he trusted Aziraphale so little… Both possibilities gnawed at Aziraphale’s rapidly breaking heart.
The silence was heavy, thick between them, neither one wanting to speak first, to continue the conversation neither one of them had wanted to have. Aziraphale felt as if something had ended, though in truth nothing had really happened between them. He mourned it all the same. He had allowed himself to want so much, to imagine that maybe… no. He couldn’t let himself look back.
“That boy today,” Aziraphale touched his fingers to the bloodstain that remained on his sweater from earlier, “He wasn’t one of mine, but he could have been.” As Aziraphale gestured around the sanctuary with his other hand, Crowley began to speak.
“I wouldn’t let-”
“No, no. You’re going to have to let me finish my de-. Crowley.” Aziraphale cringed at his slip-up. “If there was a greater than zero chance that something, someone, that I had been close to could harm a single hair on any one of these people’s heads… Unless you tell me what you’re up to...” He closed his eyes and brought his hands to his lips, as if praying, a security blanket of a gesture. “I cannot risk it.”
It was quiet for a moment before Crowley spoke. “Yeah. Alright then.”
Neither of them moved. Aziraphale could hear his heart beat in his ears.
“I’d better get going.” Aziraphale opened his eyes and watched Crowley grit his teeth, the angles of his jaw set into a hard line.
So, that was it. Done. End of conversation. Aziraphale brought himself to standing. His legs shook. He felt hollow. “I’ll walk you out.”
The two men walked towards the lobby, towards the light. Aziraphale was keenly aware of how wretched he must look, but couldn’t bring himself to care. As they moved towards the front door, Aziraphale allowed himself to drink Crowley’s image in one last time.
The jacket he wore was immaculately tailored, made of a rich black, smooth wool. The silver buttons on the double breasted front gleamed. His slim legs in black trousers. The long slip of his nose. His tousled hair. His lips, that Aziraphale would never get to know in the way he had so wanted.
Aziraphale extended his hand. “Goodbye, Crowley. Drive safe.”
Crowley stared at Aziraphale’s hand for a moment. The stony expression on his face faltered. He reached out and took the shorter man’s hand and pulled Aziraphale to him, wrapping his other arm around Aziraphale's shoulders. With Aziraphale's face pressed into the crook of Crowley's neck, Crowley buried his face into Aziraphale’s curls.
Aziraphale's free hand floated in space, itching to touch Crowley, to run his fingers through his hair, to trace his cheekbones. He wanted to memorize the lines of Crowley's body, but he froze. He made a noise, a stilted moan that nearly became a sob before Aziraphale caught it. The weight of the entire day crashed down on him at once. The fight, the boy, Crowley. Leaving. The mere memory of this may kill him.
Crowley broke the embrace, turned quickly, and without saying anything more, left.
The cold air from outside rushed into the lobby, surrounding Aziraphale. But the cold he felt now wasn't from the December evening, but the acute absence of a man who had had only been so close the once, and never would be again.
Aziraphale’s phone let out a shrill ring, and the screen lit up in the dark. From his seat at his kitchen table where he had sat for several hours in silence, he glanced over. Worried it might be Crowley. Hoping desperately it might be Crowley. The phone number on the screen was unfamiliar to him. Tentatively, he answered it.
“Aziraphale? It’s me. I’m just leaving the hospital. The boy’s okay. He’ll be fine... I can’t believe you’re still awake.”
Anathema. “My dear girl. I have your things at home with me.” He had collected them after Crowley left. Her purse, her coat.
“Can I come get them?”
“Of course, of course.”
In twenty minutes, shortly after two in the morning, she was at his threshold. As he opened the door to her, Anathema’s reaction was immediate. “Aziraphale! You look…. You’ve got blood all over your sweater.”
His hand absentmindedly drifted to his front. “Oh. Yes.” He couldn’t look at her concerned brown eyes. He would break right in two.
“Aziraphale…” He closed his eyes, and felt her slight arms wrap around him. “Let’s go inside.” He let her turn him around, lead him into his own home, grateful and embarrassed all at once.