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Light and Minor Miracles

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Aziraphale sidled up the bank away from the pond, flapping his coat at a particularly persistent mallard. “Do I look as though I make a habit of carrying rye?” he was saying. “Seed cake presents a bit of a buoyancy problem, you know.”

“Sorry, angel,” Crowley cut in, from the safety of the footpath. “But do you mean to say you have cake in your pocket? You know we’re not rationing anymore, yes?”

“I stopped at a cafe earlier, if you must know,” Aziraphale huffed. The duck lunged for his shoes. “I got a bit peckish after breakfast.” He glanced furtively up and down the path, and then snapped his fingers. The duck reappeared a foot over the center of the pond, and splashed down with an affronted squawk.

Crowley grinned. “Cake’s too good for them anyway,” he said. “Come on, there’s a cafe behind Green Park Station I’ve been meaning to show you. Newly opened by this Greek fellow, you’ll like it.”

Aziraphale flapped a hand at the duck, and it turned and began to paddle vigorously in the opposite direction. “Oh, could we?” he said. “That sounds lovely.”

“‘Course it does,” Crowley said, all satisfaction.

It was 1978, and clandestine meetings in St. James’s Park were very in. So in, in fact, that panhandlers and buskers were outnumbered by furtive-looking people with attache cases or newspapers cunningly folded to conceal manila envelopes. Crowley often brought his cutting-edge instant camera and pretended to be a tourist—it amused him to see half a dozen somberly dressed men go diving away from the lens every time he held it up.

(The camera was, in fact, practically unused. Crowley had taken a few snapshots of random statuary and warring ducks, and then given up, feeling like he was rather missing the point.)

Neither he nor Aziraphale were expecting the young woman who approached them as they headed for the gate. On the whole, people in St. James’ Park didn’t approach one another unless it was to inform them in hoarse whispers that the hawk flew at midnight, or the watchman had left the nest, or something of the sort. She did not have an attache case, or a cunningly folded newspaper. She had a camera of her own.

“Excuse—um, hey, excuse me,” she said, dodging in front of them. She was American. “Would you take our picture?”

“No,” Crowley said, at the same time Aziraphale said “Yes, why not?” Aziraphale took the offered camera. The woman went to pose by the fence with a group of other young people wearing backpacks and baseball caps, while Crowley hovered by Aziraphale’s shoulder.

“Come on, angel,” he said. “Thought we were doing lunch.”

“A moment,” Aziraphale said, flapping a hand at him in much the same way he’d flapped it at the duck. His tone, however, said he’d realized that this put him one step further from stuffed grape leaves and baklava. “The last time I saw one of these up close, there was only one button,” he said.

“It’s the twentieth century,” Crowley said. “There’s at least five buttons. And a dial.”

Aziraphale looked at him expectantly.

Crowley relented. The camera wasn’t so different from his own, though it had cost a good deal less. “That one,” he said, pointing. The flash flashed. Crowley took hold of the print as it emerged, and watched the white of it begin to resolve into an image of their shoes.

Aziraphale brought the camera to his face, leaning forward a little as he peered through the viewfinder. “Now,” he waved to the Americans, “say—er—”

“Bees,” Crowley offered.

“Smile,” Aziraphale said firmly. The Americans smiled, and the flash flashed once more, and the owner of the camera approached them again.

“Looks good,” she said. “Thanks so much—I can take one of you two, if you like?”

“No!” Aziraphale yelped.

“Ngk,” Crowley said. “Uh, yeah—better—better not.” He didn’t look at Aziraphale.

It was one thing to meet clandestinely, or even to do lunch clandestinely, followed, as was generally the case, by covert coffee, discreet dinner, a businesslike stroll, and a bit of a nightcap to round the whole thing off. It was quite another thing to introduce a material witness.

A photograph of the two of them together was not—whatever you took photographs for. Not a memory. It was evidence.

“It’s very kind of you to offer,” Aziraphale told the young woman. “But it’s really not necessary.”

“Okay,” the woman said. “Um. Thanks again.”

“Of course, my dear,” Aziraphale said tightly, tugging at Crowley’s arm. “Do enjoy the park.”

“’Do enjoy the park,’” Crowley singsonged, once they were far enough away. “What are you, a tour guide?”

“Oh, let’s not,” Aziraphale sighed.

“Yeah, all right,” Crowley conceded. “Come on—Greek coffee, remember?”

“How could I forget,” Aziraphale said gratefully.

They walked the few blocks to the restaurant blissfully unimpeded by things like cars, traffic lights, emergency vehicles, and other pedestrians. As they walked, Crowley thought about what Aziraphale had said. He was, in fact, completely correct.

A picture wasn’t necessary. There was no point. What use did they have for a picture to remind them where they’d been? Human memory was faulty for a reason, though whether that reason was biological or ineffable was anyone’s guess. Humans spent a great deal of their lives cutting up the truth with shears and pasting it back down in prettier configurations. They liked photography because it fooled them into thinking it was real—that they were capturing the world as it really was. But a camera was an eye unto itself.

Crowley and Aziraphale were of angel stock: not made to forget, but to bear witness. Like humans, they’d vanish from the world someday too, taking their memories with them. But when that happened, there would be very little left to remember.

“I don’t suppose this cafe has those orange biscuits,” Aziraphale was saying. “The crumbly ones. I hope so, I haven’t tasted those since—well, since there was an Ottoman Empire, come to think of it.”

“They do,” Crowley told him. “The best.”

“How nice!” Aziraphale brightened. “You find the best places.”

Quite apart from the question of the camera, Crowley needed no reminder of what Aziraphale looked like. Of what it was like to walk through the world beside him, day by day. Light had got in and etched the image on his heart a long time ago.

In the late afternoon, over tiny cups of strong coffee, they argued music and made plans to see Deathtrap at the West End, and ate huge quantities of orange biscuits sprinkled with sesame seeds. The sun went down and the coffee turned to ouzo and then to dessert wine, and Aziraphale’s opinions about the relative merits of Handel versus Schubert grew more pronounced, punctuated by hand-waving. He glowed when he was in the grip of a strong opinion. Crowley played devil’s advocate just to keep him holding forth, shedding that light all over everything.

They strolled back to the bookshop by the long route. Aziraphale was tipsy and weaving; Crowley’ s gait had gone on from there to something knitted and complex, with lots of dropped stitches. His camera bumped against his chest.

There was a man studying the Hours of Operation posted on the door. With an expression of genteel affront Aziraphale inserted first his elbow and then his shoulder between the man and the door, and somehow contrived to get inside without opening it more than a few handsbreadths. Crowley slithered after him.

“Are you open?” the man called hopefully after them.

“Of all the questions. Do read the sign,” Aziraphale huffed, and pulled the curtain.

In the back room, Crowley shed his coat and camera and roamed along the shelves while Aziraphale rummaged through the bar. Glasses and bottles clinked, and without either of them having put it on, Water Music was playing. Crowley dragged his fingers along the spines of the books. He felt warm from the center out. He wanted to look at Aziraphale, so he did, but not all at once. Instead he stole glances as the angel puttered unsteadily around the table.

Humanity had, on the whole, rather missed the mark when it came to images of angels. Sure, they were there in the paintings and illuminated manuscripts. Some of them were even curly-headed and round-cheeked and bright-eyed (although Aziraphale would have something to say about being associated with that kind of angel, beginning with the clothes-optional part). But generally, angels in art showed up wearing drapery and expressions of divine remove, whereas Aziraphale’s chief hallmarks were tartan and meddling.

There was no image anywhere of Aziraphale as he truly was, day by day. Precise and steadfast, petty and stubborn and easily delighted, with crumbs on his shirt front and crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. Except in Crowley’s mind—there the image lived quite clearly.

The wine stopped glugging into the glasses. Crowley turned back to claim his, and saw Aziraphale across the table, framing him in the camera’s viewfinder.

“I confess I don’t understand the impulse,” Aziraphale said. He was running his fingers slowly around the housing of the lens. Crowley considered the books all around them, and thought privately that whether Aziraphale would acknowledge it or not, he understood just fine.

“Suppose I give it a try anyway,” the angel said.

Crowley strangled the stem of his wine glass. “Hasn’t got any film in it,” he admitted. “It's just, you know. For appearances.”

“I thought appearances were the point,” Aziraphale said.

“What d’you want to go taking pictures of me for anyway? Nobody’s believed in occult photography since the Victorians,” Crowley said desperately.

Aziraphale wrinkled his nose, looking like he was trying to decide whether he should laugh or not.

“Joking, I’m joking,” Crowley said, and gulped from his glass.

Aziraphale put the camera down. “Well,” he said. “More’s the pity.”

Even Soho’s late-nighters were winding down by the time Crowley sauntered out onto the street, heading for home. Generally the Bentley was parked outside the bookshop because that was where he’d expected it to be, regardless of where he’d left it earlier in the day. But this time it seemed that Aziraphale had expected it first.

“Oh,” Crowley said, fishing for the keys, which were likewise where he expected them to be. “I—thanks.” He probably ought to be upset that someone else had gone miracling his car around town, but he wasn’t.

“Sober up first, won’t you,” Aziraphale said, swaying after him. “You’re going to give someone an awful fright.”

“Don’t want me to go bump in the night?” Crowley said. “’S practically my prerog—pregroga—my right, going bump in the night. Key occupational skill. And I’m good at it.”

“’S morning,” Aziraphale said. “Technically speaking.”

“Oh, as you like,” Crowley said. He sobered up. Beside him, the Bentley gleamed pink and blue under bar neon. He swung into the driver’s seat and turned the engine on, and dug in his jacket pocket.

He leaned out the window, looking up into Aziraphale’s flushed face. The angel blinked at him, with the slow weighty focus of the very drunk. Crowley pushed the picture of their shoes into his unresisting hand, and drove away.

Several decades later, spies no longer met in St. James’ Park. Not because the world had become a more honest place, but because the game was different these days. Less bread and more money, for one thing. The ducks noted the difference but didn’t think much of it—tourists more than made up for the deficit in rye, crackers, and frozen peas.

Crowley paused at an intersection in the path, and then crossed into the background of a young couple’s in-progress selfie. The man turned and scowled; Crowley waved. Aziraphale tutted but followed after him.

“You know, it’s not as if you have to do that any more,” he said.

The truth of it hung between them like the proverbial lead balloon. “Do what,” Crowley said, looking anywhere else but at the angel.

“The, the acts of evil. Well, of minor inconvenience.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m puncturing the illusions engendered by the sin of Pride,” Crowley said. He risked a glance over, in time to see Aziraphale’s pointed expression waver into a wry smile.

“Well, that’s all right then,” he said. They walked on in silence for a little while longer.

One week ago to the day, the world had not ended. Communications from both Upstairs and Down There had ceased not long after, and in the space afforded by that rather embarrassed radio silence, Crowley and Aziraphale had—well, mostly they’d been doing lunch.

London this week, but other weeks promised other places: Chez Panisse, it turned out, was all you needed to get Aziraphale to agree to visit America. They’d been working on a list. Kyoto, Venice, Mexico City, Mumbai. There was world enough, and time.

“Listen—” Aziraphale said, and stopped.

“Hmm?” Crowley said. He stopped too, on a part of the path where the ground was dusted with magnolia blossoms.

“Have you—have you given any thought to what it is you do want to do next?” Aziraphale said.

“Thought we agreed on that place in Copenhagen,” said Crowley.

“I didn’t mean restaurants,” Aziraphale said. “You know I didn’t mean restaurants.”

“Learn to cook, then,” Crowley said carelessly. “You come over to mine, and I’ll make us something. You can miracle the scorch marks off if you have to.”

“It rather sounds as though you want to keep on having lunch with me forever,” Aziraphale said.

“Dinner too,” Crowley said. “Breakfast if you like.” He found, abruptly, that he’d completely lost the ability to convince himself that this was just another walk in the park, on just another day, devoid of reasons for his heart to be beating like a drum.

“Well,” Aziraphale said. “I—well.” He was playing with his ring, his gazed fixed on a spot slightly to the left of Crowley’s ear. “I suppose that’s enough of a plan to be going on with.”

“Plans,” Crowley said expansively, “are overrated, angel.”

Another tourist couple went by, preceded by a swinging selfie stick. Out on the pond, a duck touched down with a faint splash. It was as fine a day as Eden had ever seen.

“We ought to do that,” Aziraphale said suddenly. “Take a photograph, I mean.”

“What? What for?” Crowley said, but he was already fumbling his phone out of his pocket.

“Whatever they’re doing it for,” Aziraphale said, floundering a bit. “To—to commemorate.”

“Commemorate,” Crowley repeated.

Aziraphale hesitated. “This, here, now,” he said softly. “No other place and time. It is a lovely day.”

“Guess we don’t need to worry about covert any longer,” Crowley managed.

“The only one I was supposed to be covert to was you,” Aziraphale said. “And you found me along time ago.”

Crowley ducked his head and busied himself opening his camera app. It took longer than usual. He held his phone, trying to get both of them in frame with the bloom-laden branches of the magnolia behind them.

“You’d better come closer,” he said. He meant it to sound like a temptation. It didn’t.

Aziraphale’s mouth quirked knowingly, and he stepped close. Their shoulders brushed.

“Closer than that,” Crowley said.

Aziraphale leaned in, and the bird-down puff of his hair tickled Crowley’s ear. Crowley looked sideways at him as far as he could manage.

Aziraphale was smiling, the sky in his clear eyes, and he looked grave and joyful and unafraid. After a long moment Crowley remembered to hit the shutter button.

“Let’s see it, then,” Aziraphale said. Crowley showed him.

It was a little blurred, blossoms falling in the background. Light framed them both, burning from between the branches of the tree. Aziraphale’s curls were limned in sun. Crowley was wide-eyed behind his shades, his mouth half-open with the beginnings of a soppy grin tugging at the corners. He looked ridiculous. He could feel his face heating up.

“Ah,” Aziraphale said.

“I, er—yeah,” Crowley said. He reached out just a little bit and his fingers found Aziraphale’s. Aziraphale squeezed his hand. “If you don’t like it we can take another one,” he said. “These days you can try as many times as you want to get it right.”

“I like this one just fine,” Aziraphale said. He stepped away without letting go of Crowley’s hand, looking at him as if they were meeting again for the first time.

“You really do mean that, don’t you,” Crowley said.

“Well, of course I do,” Aziraphale said, and Crowley knew that it was true.