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The End of an Era

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1.  September 9, 1989

The sky was a clotted gray over St. James Park, and half the people hovering desultorily around the pond looked like spies. This was an illusion. It couldn’t possibly have been more than a quarter.

Aziraphale tossed a scrap of bread to the ducks and looked around for his rendezvous. “Aziraphale” was not, of course, his given name. It wasn’t even the name that graced the front of his bookshop, a longstanding front for his operations that he spent far too much of his time chasing customers out of. But the Kremlin had been sending missives to that code name since 1965, and it was the name that Crowley had always used for him. After so long, it had become who he was, even in his own head.

“Lovely day, isn’t it?” Crowley said, appearing at his elbow from the opposite of the direction he’d expected him.

“For the time of year,” Aziraphale responded. That meant they were unobserved. Crowley offered Aziraphale a paper coffee cup, and for an instant Aziraphale assumed it contained the data. But the cup was warm, and Crowley’s right hand darted into the pocket of Aziraphale’s tweed coat before retreating inside the glossy cuff of his black suit jacket. These days Crowley always dressed like he was about to deliver a speech on Wall Street about the virtues of greed.

Aziraphale took a sip from the cup Crowley had handed him. Hot cocoa. He couldn’t repress the satisfied smile that bubbled up in response.

“That cocoa stand you liked last year is back again. The one with all the overly complicated spice options? Thought I might as well treat you,” Crowley said and smiled back, with a pleased dip of his head that was almost shy. He had his sunglasses on, in spite of the cloudy weather. He almost always did, even in smoky bars and midnight alleyways. He’d had them on during their first meeting back in ’67, in that ridiculous death trap of a Bentley that he insisted on keeping, even though it drew attention everywhere he went, and so was the worst possible car for a spy. He’d been so obvious that night, even behind the aviators, a lanky not-quite-handsome boy with his paisley jacket and his fashionable mop of red hair, cocky and calculating and terrified. He had a terrible face for this line of work, flexible and expressive. Aziraphale had thought the sunglasses were a useless affectation until the first time he’d seen Crowley without them, several drinks into the evening, and he’d realized that no, they were absolutely necessary. Those eyes gave everything away.

“So,” said Crowley after a moment, “it seems we may be out of a job soon.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Aziraphale replied stiffly, although he did. Over the last few months messages from his handler had gone from defensively optimistic, to confused, to nonexistent, while the world watched the Soviet Union crumble.

“You do. It’s like the song says, Angel, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Crowley had laughed the first time he’d heard Aziraphale’s code name. “Angel,” he’d said, and it had sounded like mockery. He’d kept on saying it, for the past twenty-two years. He’d said it so often that it didn’t sound like a joke anymore, just a name. Just a thing that Aziraphale might, implausibly, be.    

Aziraphale drew his coat close. “We’ve both seen these kind of . . .” Aziraphale hunted for the right word, “kerfuffles before. How many politicians have we outlasted? We’ll be right back here in ten years, having the same conversation.” He wanted it to be true. It felt true. Standing there in St. James park, feeding the ducks and drinking hot cocoa like he’d done for decades, it seemed impossible that political unrest on the other side of the world could ever reach him here.

“I hope you’re right,” Crowley said amicably. “But I have to admit I’ve been thinking about what comes next, if they decide we’re not useful anymore. Retirement, and all that. I wanted to be a writer once, you know. Maybe there’s still time.”

“I thought you said you didn’t read books,” said Aziraphale, amused. “Rather vehemently, in fact.”

“Don’t need to read in order to write.” Crowley looked more embarrassed than an accusation of reading generally warranted. “I could tell a story based on my experiences, with a few enhancements. A James Bond sort of thing.”

“You know you can’t write about spies,” said Aziraphale. “You’ve got too many secrets.” Including more than a few of Aziraphale’s.  

“I’m not talking about publishing the MI6’s archives,” Crowley said. “LeCarre did it, didn’t he? And Graham Greene. I like his funny ones.”

“Neither of them were in as deep as you.” His friend had an unfortunate talent for coming up with ideas that might get him killed.

“It doesn’t have to be about spies, come to that,” Crowley insisted. “I’ve got an idea for a story about angels and demons, no espionage in sight.”

“You never struck me as the religious type,” Aziraphale said, dubious. “How would that one go?”

“I’m an atheist,” Crowley said. “It would be a comedy. There’s this angel, assigned to work in London doing Heaven’s business. Obviously, Heaven being so very holy, they’re a stern lot. Don’t go in for filthy capitalist—I mean, earthly—luxuries.” Crowley’s grin showed off his teeth. “But the angel, having lived so long in the heart of corruption, has developed a taste for fine dining, first edition novels, and Sondheim premieres. Maybe even hot cocoa. He runs a bookshop, but he loathes customers. Terribly clever bloke, but a bit absent minded.”

“What a charming portrait.” Aziraphale wasn’t sure if he should feel offended by the description or not. He settled for straightening a waistcoat that was already in place. “Absent minded, really?”

Crowley laughed. “That’s the part you object to? You’ve known me 22 years, what color are my eyes? And no sneaky trying to peek behind the glasses.”

“Well, really! I don’t see what that proves,” Aziraphale said primly. “And you’re casting the Soviet Union as Heaven? Not what I’d expect from you.”

“I would have thought you’d approve. Glorious worker’s paradise, as you’d say.”

Aziraphale felt certain Heath had still been PM the last time he’d said anything even remotely along those lines. “Are you an angel too, in this scenario?”

“I’m not in the book. Any resemblances the characters bear to real people are strictly coincidental.” Crowley smiled. “The angel does have a friend who’s a demon, though. A flash bastard with an impractical car who always wears sunglasses to hide his yellow eyes. They’re on opposite sides, but secretly they work together to please their handlers, because they’ve realized it makes more sense than constantly cancelling each other out.” Aziraphale couldn’t see Crowley’s eyes, but he had the sense they were watching him, even though Crowley was facing the pond. “What do you think?”

“I think if you ever actually wrote it we’d both be shot,” Aziraphale said without much heat. Crowley had odd notions sometimes, but this one was clearly a joke.

“We’re not important enough to shoot.”

“We’re not important at all, which is exactly important enough to shoot.”

“What happens to them, anyway?” Aziraphale asked, when Crowley fell silent. “The angel and the demon?”

“Not sure yet,” Crowley admitted.

Aziraphale sighed. “Well, let me know if you ever figure it out.” He tossed the remainder of his bread to the ducks before he walked away.

2.  October 3, 1989

“Could I trouble you for a light?” Aziraphale asked as he approached Crowley, who was standing under the concrete overhang by the side of an office building. It had been raining half-heartedly for the past four hours, and the damp wind wasn’t cutting into Aziraphale so much as it was jabbing at his joints with a butter knife. Only a smoker would stand outside in this weather. Huddled together over their cigarettes, they were safely alone and entirely unremarkable.

Crowley lowered his sunglasses to cast a quick glance around and nodded. “It’s no trouble,” he said. He wrapped his warm fingers around Aziraphale’s wrist, as he lit the offered cigarette with his unwisely memorable silver Zippo. He leaned in closer than necessary while Aziraphale inhaled, and his hair brushed against Aziraphale’s forehead before he pulled away. Aziraphale had never been sure how deliberate these moments were. Maybe this was just how Crowley was, a little too flirtatious and a little too forward, giving away these casual touches without realizing their effect. Either way, the ready excuse to be in Crowley’s personal space was higher than Aziraphale wanted to consider on the list of reasons why he’d never managed to quit smoking.

Crowley settled back against the damp wall and lit his own cigarette casually. “Any particular reason you wanted to meet?”

“What do your people say?” Aziraphale was grateful to have something in his hands. It was the only thing that stopped him from wringing them fretfully.

“What, about your government? They say the wheels are coming off. You must know that already. What do your people say?”  

Aziraphale hesitated. Pride and anxiety pushed him to insist that everything was normal, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. But he needed to confide in someone. “I haven’t heard from them in weeks. That is to say, weeks before our last meeting,” he admitted, which meant the radio silence would be more accurately measured in months, but he wasn’t ready to think in those terms. “I’m sure . . . well, that is,” he stumbled awkwardly over his tongue, “I’m sure it’ll all sort itself out in the end. It always does. But, I must say, one can’t help but worry.”

Crowley’s lips worked briefly before he started to speak, like he was trying out answers. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Angel,” was what he settled on. “You’re good at your job. No matter who’s in charge, they’ll always need men like us.”

Aziraphale bowed his head and nodded, although he didn’t take much comfort in Crowley’s response. They might always need men like him, but that was entirely different from needing him, in particular. A new leadership might prefer to replace him with someone younger, someone with less complicated loyalties.

His loyalties hadn’t been complicated when he’d arrived in London. He’d been well-programmed in ideological orthodoxy. He wasn’t sure when it all started to fall apart. Not the first time he’d met Crowley, surely, or even the second or third. No matter how much Aziraphale might have liked him, connecting with local agents was part of his job. Maybe it wasn’t Crowley at all. Maybe that was just a sentimental excuse for the gradual rot that had hollowed out his officially sanctioned principles. Somewhere along the line he’d grown to love his bookshop, not as a front, but for its own sake, as a collection of books that were dear to him. He enjoyed the London theaters and the city’s endless supply of fascinating little restaurants. He liked to feel the gentle hands of his barber on his neck, and appreciated discussing all the subtle details of fabric with the tailor who designed his clothes.

Crowley didn’t have a tailor, even in the face of Aziraphale’s insistence, but leaning against the wall he somehow managed to look like the model of fashion, his peacoat sleek and dark. He’d been almost handsome when Aziraphale met him in 1967 as a nervous boy, and he was almost handsome now as a man approaching fifty, his body jagged and lined, but still somehow graceful.

Aziraphale had been almost handsome when they’d first met too, a slender twenty-eight year old with pretty features, smiling uneasily from the passenger seat of the Bentley. His looks had faded faster than Crowley’s, though. No one had given him a second glance in ten years. He preferred it that way: he had the look of a plump, middle aged man without passion or ambition, and it made him safe. Safe from prying eyes, and safe from Crowley. Even if there’d been a spark once, surely his old friend didn’t still lust for Aziraphale in this diminished form.

“How’s your new career going?” Aziraphale asked after they’d smoked in silence for a minute. He would be grateful to think about anything but what might be happening right now in Moscow.

“Hmm?” said Crowley, sounding puzzled.

“You told me you wanted to write a book.”

“Oh, that! Yes, yes, done lots of thinking about that.” Aziraphale got the distinct impression that, until just now, Crowley had forgotten all about that particular fantasy. “The angel and demon story, mostly. They, uh, well, obviously, as an angel and a demon, they have a bead on when Armageddon is going to happen, and they want to stop it, because they like their lives on earth, and they don’t want that to change. And they’re both afraid they might have to leave each other and go back to their opposing sides, even if they won’t admit it. And . . .” Crowley appeared to consider. “And the antichrist who’s going to bring about Armageddon is this baby who’s been given to the American ambassador in England, to raise as his son.”

“That’s the plot of The Omen,” Aziraphale pointed out.

“Shut up,” said Crowley fondly. “The angel and the demon help raise him so they can make sure he doesn’t turn out evil, after all. That’s not in The Omen, so there.”

“Fair enough,” said Aziraphale. “Does their plan work?”

Crowley shrugged. “Depends, I guess. On whether you think the Antichrist is stuck being what he was made to be from the beginning, or has the freedom to choose to be something else.” He tossed the butt of his cigarette on the ground, and smiled when Aziraphale made a sound of disapproval. “Let me think it over,” he said, and walked off in the direction of the tube station.

3.  November 14, 1989

“Is this seat taken?” Aziraphale asked.

Crowley scanned the dining room over the top of his sunglasses and nodded once. “No one here but me.”

The cafeteria of the British Museum was a reliable meeting location. By its nature it didn’t attract regulars, and no one paid much attention to what passed between the diners.

Aziraphale had opened his mouth to speak when a lone man in a suit sat down at the table closest to them. Aziraphale and Crowley exchanged a look, and spent the next 20 minutes in silence, Crowley picking at his sandwich like he suspected the British Museum of attempted poisoning, and Aziraphale sipping his rather dreadful tea. They needed to figure out more meeting spots with decent food. Crowley eventually surrendered the whole project of pretending to eat, and pushed the crisps across the table. Aziraphale shook his head. He’d had no appetite the past few days. He found Crowley’s responding look of concern irritating. He didn’t like knowing that there were visible cracks in his facade. Maybe he just didn’t want the bloody crisps.

Crowley watched the man at the next table leave with evident relief. “So,” he said when they were alone, “what do you think about it? All those people pouring into West Berlin?”

“No one has asked me to think anything about it. I don’t make policy, and I don’t see a reason to worry about what I can’t control.” He’d finally been contacted by his people the day after the wall fell, but it wasn’t the handler he’d had for fifteen years. It was someone new, someone Aziraphale had never even heard of. The communication had offered no explanation of what had happened to his predecessor, and gave Aziraphale no specific instructions. Aziraphale assumed there’d been a major shakeup in intelligence, but his old contacts were silent.

It terrified him. He’d done everything he could during his time in London to keep his head down, to make certain that he was useful enough to keep, without being so successful that he drew the attention of people in authority. He had his little Arrangement with Crowley, of course, but there was no way that had been discovered—Aziraphale was alive, for one thing. Anyway, Aziraphale had never betrayed the Soviet Union. His exchanges with Crowley had only served to avoid duplicating effort, and to ensure that both their careers went smoothly. If the people above him had spent as long in the field as he had, they’d understand he was just being practical.

“You know what I think?” Crowley asked, leaning forward, head in hand, his eyebrows raised curiously over his glasses. “I think it’s funny how many people can’t wait to escape from under the thumb of your government. Given how benevolent it is.”

“And what about your government?   How many democratic leaders has your side killed, just because they might be pink?” Aziraphale didn’t disagree with him on this at heart, hadn’t in years, but he didn’t see any good in admitting it, even to himself most days. Especially to himself. It was far too late for him to start over.  

“None, officially,” Crowley said. “Anyway, I’m not saying my side isn’t terrible, I’m just saying yours is too. Might not be the end of the world if you said it out loud for once.”

“It’s so easy for you, isn’t it?” Aziraphale snapped. “You never believed, not in your job, not in your country, not in anything but yourself.” Aziraphale generally enjoyed verbally sparring with Crowley about the merits of their respective governments, but all he could think about right now was the ominous message from his new handler, and the possibility that his time in London was about to come to a sudden and violent close.

“Nah, you’re wrong there,” Crowley said with a bitter smile. “Don’t believe in myself, either.” He glanced at his watch and then pulled a flask out of his coat pocket. He tipped a generous portion into Aziraphale’s empty cup, and then another into his own. “I wasn’t trying to start a fight. Look, let’s just talk about something else, all right?”

Aziraphale nodded dully over his whisky, before he finished it off. His mind was a miserable blank.

“You want to hear more about my novel?” Crowley asked after a stretch of uncomfortable silence, as if he’d just run through the contents of his head and found nothing else worth sharing.

“Go on then,” Aziraphale said. He took the flask out of Crowley’s hand, and refilled his paper cup.

“Okay, so. I was thinking there should be a love story. Comedies usually have those, don’t they? There’s this witch, and she falls in love with a witchfinder. One of the lot that went around burning witches in the old days. Well, not actual witches, obviously, because that was nonsense. Went around burning women they didn’t like, mostly. But the point is, love. Star crossed, conquering all, and all that rot. They’re hereditary enemies, they ought to hate each other, and they try, but somehow it never sticks.”

Aziraphale was oddly the touched that Crowley had been thinking about the story since they’d spoken last. He knew full well there was no novel. Crowley wasn’t in a position to write one safely, and even if he were, he couldn’t possibly write one that was so transparently about the two of them. This was a game he was playing to amuse Aziraphale. Even exhausted as he was, Aziraphale couldn’t help but be charmed.

“What do these two have to do with the angel and the demon?” Aziraphale asked, forcing himself to give something back in the face of Crowley’s earnest yarn-spinning. “This sounds like the plot of a whole other novel.”

“The humans are helping them stop the Antichrist, obviously.” Crowley seemed pleased that Aziraphale was engaging with him. “All hands on deck for preventing Armageddon.”

“And your lovers are a witch and a witchfinder?” It did seem like a very Crowley notion. Which was to say, obviously doomed for reasons Crowley preferred not to think about.

“What’s wrong with that?” Crowley demanded.

“I’m afraid this may be dreadfully unromantic of me,” said Aziraphale, “but if I found myself in the witch’s position, I’m not sure I could fall in love with someone who wanted to set me on fire.”

Crowley was startled into a laugh. “Fair, Angel, very fair. Maybe he’s not a proper witchfinder then. Still in training. Or it’s more of a part time gig, no burning at the stake required.”

A woman in a blazer cast them a lingering glance as she walked past, and they both fell silent and looked away. Probably they just made an odd pair, but Aziraphale was already on edge. “We should go,” he said, when she’d left the dining hall. Crowley nodded once, and walked to the door without looking back.

4.  December 18, 1989

“Have we met before?” Aziraphale asked. Crowley was nursing his martini at a dark wood table in the corner of a dimly lit bar with sticky floors, sunglasses still in place, even though they must have half-blinded him. It was their first time here, but they’d been to countless places like it over the past 22 years.

Crowley glanced around the room cautiously, although there were only a handful of people drinking on a Tuesday night. “Maybe in another life,” he said, and Aziraphale took a seat across the table. That particular call-and-response was Crowley’s script. Aziraphale had always thought it was a touch melodramatic. On another night he might have teased Crowley about it, but he had no heart for it now.

“I need a look at the documents we talked about last year,” he said instead.

“Right to business, huh?” A flash of emotion passed across Crowley’s face almost too fast to be labelled as disappointment. “Yeah, that might be possible,” he added. “I do owe you. What do you need it for?”

Aziraphale hadn’t bothered to come up with an explanation. “It’s . . . it’s complicated. It’s not something you need to worry about right now.”

Crowley arched an eyebrow over his lenses. He looked like he was about to argue, but then the fight went out of him. “Fine, have it your way. Is that all you wanted?” He made like he was going to stand up from the table.

“You don’t have to go just yet, do you? We could stay, talk awhile.” Aziraphale sounded embarrassingly desperate to his own ears.

Crowley hesitated halfway to his feet. The glasses were doing their job, because Aziraphale had no idea what he was thinking. After a moment he settled again, with only the briefest glance around the bar. “Nah, I’ve got time.”

Aziraphale nodded cautiously. He knew Crowley was smart enough to sense something was off about their meeting, and he didn’t care. He just wanted to spend one last evening with his friend.

He’d gotten a message that morning from his mysterious new handler. He’d been ordered to meet up at a rendezvous point tomorrow at 9 a.m. for extraction back to the Soviet Union. He had no idea if he was going to be pensioned off, tried for treason, or shot in the alleyway where he’d been told to wait. If he were a better man, and a better friend, he would have kept the terrible summons to himself, and avoided Crowley like he had the plague during his final hours in London. But he hadn’t been able to stand the thought of leaving without seeing Crowley one last time.

Aziraphale knew Crowley well enough to understand how to nudge him to talk, his questions carefully placed and non-threatening. Crowley continued to study him, but he seemed willing to accept Aziraphale’s attempts to direct the discussion. It took only the softest suggestion to convince Crowley to share more details about his impossible novel, and Aziraphale found the topic comforting. Crowley had incorporated alien life forms and the lost continent of Atlantis into the narrative since they’d spoken last. Aziraphale didn’t understand what these detours had to do with the story of the angel and the demon, or even the witch and the witchfinder, and he suspected the plot had gone off whatever rails it might once have had. He was happy just to listen to the sound of Crowley’s voice, though, so warm and familiar, and soon to be lost to him forever. He sipped his scotch carefully. This time tomorrow he might be dead, or headed to a Soviet prison, or on his way to a miserable government-funded flat. No matter which option he ended up with, there wouldn’t be single malt. He’d take his pleasure in these final hours where he could find it.

Another martini arrived for Crowley, and he offered the olive to Aziraphale, plucking the toothpick out of the drink and holding it toward him with a casual flourish. “You know I don’t like them,” he said, like Aziraphale was doing him a favor. Aziraphale took it, of course, their fingers brushing for an instant before he popped it into his mouth. It was a bright burst of salt and gin, and had the bitter aftertaste of unrequited love.        

“I should probably head off,” said Aziraphale, with the taste of the olive still in his mouth.

“Look,” Crowley said, suddenly earnest. “Don’t go off like this. I know something’s happened. Tell me. I can help.” Crowley pinned Aziraphale with an unreadable look from behind the blank glare of his lenses.

Aziraphale hadn’t meant to say anything when he came to this meeting. He really hadn’t. He’d only wanted to enjoy a final few minutes of safety. But he wanted at least one person to know what had become of him. No, he wanted Crowley to know. To know, and to miss him, when he was gone.

“I . . . I got a message from my handler. They’re pulling me out. Tomorrow. Just wanted to say goodbye. Considering our history.”

If Aziraphale expected anything, he expected a look of weary acceptance; maybe a subtle glimpse of sadness, mostly hidden behind the glasses. That wasn’t what he got. Crowley looked like he’d been slapped. Shocked, breathless, and absolutely horrified.

“That can’t be right. That can’t . . .” He grabbed for Aziraphale’s hand, and Aziraphale instinctively pulled away. Crowley didn’t even seem to feel the rejection in the face of his desperate fumbling. “There must be something we can do!” Aziraphale knew in that instant that Crowley understood the situation exactly the same way he did: retirement in a terrible Russian suburb was the fantasy scenario. He wasn’t making it back to Moscow, or if he did, it was only a waystation to prison.

“Crowley,” he said, tenderly, like it was ‘darling,’ like it was all the words he could never, ever say. “There’s nothing you can do, absolutely nothing. They told me to go, and I’ll go. That’s all there is.” He got to his feet. He swayed embarrassingly as he struggled to hold himself steady on the floor. He wasn’t even that drunk, but it would have been easier if he had been.

“Please,” Crowley said, and caught his sleeve. “Let’s talk about this.”

Aziraphale hadn’t foreseen this final fit of desperation, although perhaps he should have. It was like Crowley to want to fix the unfixable. He just hadn’t imagined Crowley would care so much. He shook off Crowley’s hand and turned to go, but a terrible ache in his gut forced him to look back.

“They’re green, by the way,” he said. Why not? If he was going to die, he might as well die having spilled all his secrets. “Your eyes. Bit of yellow around the pupil. Yellow, like your demon. I do pay attention to you, you know. I always have. There’s a freckle on the base of your right thumb, fades in winter, but it’s always there. You pretend you don’t like books, I don’t know why, but you read constantly. There’s a paperback in the pocket of your coat right now. You wish you were James Bond, and you’ve never quite gotten over the fact that you aren’t. That’s why you had those awful bullet hole windscreen transfers when we first met in your car in the sixties. And the martinis, of course. You’d rather have a gin and tonic, but you think the martinis make you look suave. And then you pretend you don’t like the olives so you can give them to me, because you like to watch me eat them. You love the stars. You talked about Carl Sagan constantly for months after Cosmos aired. You wanted to be an astronaut before you wanted to be James Bond. You have a green thumb. Your flat has been taken over by spider plants because you can’t bear to throw them out and you have no one to give them to. You never start drinking before noon, but you want to. You check your watch before you decide to reach for your flask. Almost no one visits you, but every now and then, a young man leaves your flat in the early hours of the morning. Never the same one twice. Sorry, I know I shouldn’t have staked out your place, but it’s the nature of the business. I suppose you must have done the same to me at some point, so you must know we have a lot in common, in that regard.”

Aziraphale straightened his jacket and bowtie for the sake of something to do with his hands. “So, you see, I have been paying attention, all this time. Not such a terrible spy after all, am I?” Crowley was gawping at him as if he’d been hit upside the head. “You don’t need to worry about the young men,” Aziraphale added, “or any of it. I won’t tell them about you, or our little arrangement.   No matter what happens to me, you’re safe. I’ll make sure of it.”

“Aziraphale,” Crowley said, like the name pained him.

Aziraphale repressed the urge to grab Crowley’s hand off the table and press it to his heart. It was futile and dangerous, now more than ever.

“Goodbye, Crowley,” he said instead. “May we meet on a better occasion.”

5.  December 19, 1989

Aziraphale didn’t sleep that night. There’d be time for that wherever he was going in the morning. Instead he wandered around the shop as he slowly finished his best bottle of wine. He’d put it aside twelve years ago with the vague notion that he’d save it for a special occasion that had never come.

He pulled down his favorite books one by one, touching their covers tenderly. The bookshop had been devised as a front before he’d even arrived in the country, stocked with a haphazard assortment of wretched secondhand paperbacks bought in bulk. Twenty-two years later, most of them were still there. He’d developed a grudging affection for them, tattered and worthless as they were, like they were a pack of stray cats he’d had no choice but to let in from the cold.

The ones he truly loved, though, were the ones he’d added himself, first editions and rare printings discovered at antique shops and estate sales, then painstakingly restored. He’d shelved them among the others in a system no one else would ever have been able to make sense of, but he could always put his hand on the one he wanted. The thought of leaving them behind stung, but he had no way to take them with him. He briefly considered boxing them up and leaving them for Crowley – he hoped his friend might find some comfort in them, and he liked the idea that they’d be cared for when he was gone -- but there was no way to deliver them that wouldn’t put Crowley in unnecessary danger. He had to resign himself to the idea they’d be destroyed.

Destroyed, along with all the other trivial scraps that were the sum of his life in London. He felt a pang of regret thinking of the meticulously curated collection of clothes he’d maintained in the otherwise ill-kempt flat upstairs. By now he’d discarded much of what he’d bought on his early visits to Savile Row as too small to ever fit into again, but he still had the ascot he’d worn on his first meeting with Crowley, a sentimental reminder of their past, and of the dedicated, overly earnest boy he’d once been. It would burn. It probably should burn. He’d lived a life of fleeting pleasures and constant, low level dread. A life in which he’d accomplished little, and much of that, he’d come to suspect, had been bad. His failures weren’t even grand enough to be tragic. He was a fat, fussy fifty year old man, who’d spent his life running on the bureaucratic treadmill of a government that was rapidly dissolving, and who’d nurtured an impossible twenty-two year long crush he’d had just enough dignity never to act on.      

Aziraphale startled when he heard someone pounding on the door. He glanced at the clock: 6am. It surely couldn’t be a customer, and if the decision had been made to remove him permanently, he didn’t imagine the assassin would knock. Still, he approached the front room with his heart in his throat.      

Crowley was on the other side of the door, banging against the glass with both fists. He redoubled his efforts when he caught sight of Aziraphale. “Let me in!”

“Go, you idiot!” Aziraphale shouted back. This was absurd. Crowley knew better than to be here, now of all times. He’d be lucky not to get himself killed.

“Let me in!” Crowley insisted through the door. “I’m not leaving. I’ll make a scene in the street if I have to.” He was well aware that was the last thing Aziraphale wanted. It would also be the last thing Crowley wanted, if he had any sense, but at the moment Aziraphale wasn’t inclined to bet on it.

Aziraphale opened the door with a sigh. “It’s not safe for you here.” Even as he said it, he stepped aside to make room. He knew it was a useless argument. “They could be watching this place.”

“Don’t care,” said Crowley, stepping into the shadows of the bookshop. “Thank God you’re here. I was afraid . . . Doesn’t matter. Listen, I didn’t get a chance to tell you about the end of my novel.”

Aziraphale retreated behind the counter, his hands clutching at each other like a pair of friends in need of comfort.

“Fine,” he said, too exhausted for a fight. “Say what you have to say, and get out.”

Crowley took off his glasses and tucked them into his coat pocket. He stared down Aziraphale with his wide, yellow-green eyes. “It all goes pear-shaped, in the end. None of their old plans matter anymore. And it’s only then, at the last possible moment, that the demon realizes that all he cares about in this whole marvelous, stupid world is the angel. He goes to the angel and he tells him to forget about Heaven and Hell. They’re on their own side. ‘We can always go off together,’ he says.”

Crowley reached across the counter to grab Aziraphale’s right hand. His grip was clammy and uncertain, his long fingers trembling. They’d touched a thousand times over the years, grabbing for a drink, or adjusting a coat, or stealing each other away from danger with a smile and a flourish. But they’d never held hands with conscious intent before.  

“We can always go off together,” he repeated softly. He squeezed Aziraphale’s hand against the desk, hard enough to hurt.

“That’s a lovely story,” said Aziraphale. He drew his hand away, and forced himself to say what he had to. “But I’m not an angel, and you’re not a demon, and we both know they’d never let us go.”

Crowley hesitated for an instant, looking at the empty place where Aziraphale’s hand had been, but he shook off whatever doubt had settled on him. He pulled a pair of tickets from his suit jacket. “The plane leaves for Honduras in two hours. We’d be in the air before they even knew you’d missed the rendezvous.”

Aziraphale felt the simultaneous thrill and disappointment that comes with a temporary reprieve of execution. “That doesn’t mean anything. They’d find us eventually, and when they did they’d kill us both.”

“You don’t know that!” Crowley lowered his voice, struggling to sound reasonable. “We have other identities, stashes of cash. We could stay ahead of them. Both our governments have enough problems right now. Eventually they’ll realize we’re not a threat, and they’ll stop coming after us so hard.”

“And you don’t know that,” Aziraphale insisted. He wanted to say yes. His life as he knew it was scheduled to end, one way or another, at 9 a.m. Of course he’d rather be on a plane with Crowley. But that was selfish. He didn’t want his last act in this world to be getting the only other person he cared about murdered. “I told you, you’re safe. You could live the rest of your life in London with no trouble at all. Why would you do this?”

“You know why,” Crowley said. He reached for the side of his own face like he meant to adjust the glasses that weren’t there, and flinched when he remembered he’d taken them off. His eyes were bright and scared. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it won’t last forever. What do I have to lose? No family, no friends, I have to check my watch to keep from drinking before noon. I’d trade however long I have left of that life for more time with you. Even if it was only a little. If you’d have me.”

Aziraphale felt a familiar urge to reach across the counter and touch Crowley’s face, to run his fingers through his graying red hair. For the first time, he could imagine a world where he did it, and his love was welcomed.

“I’m afraid I could make a terrible fool of myself over you, given the chance.”

“Oh,” said Crowley, sounding strangled, as if this could be any sort of surprise. “I . . . I don’t think you have anything to worry about, that way. I’ve been in love with you for twenty-two years.”

It seemed only proper that Aziraphale should say the words back to him, but they were beyond his ability. “In your book, do they end up together, the angel and the demon?”

Crowley gave a wobbly smile. “I think that depends on you. Angel.”

Aziraphale reached across the counter and took his hand with intent for the first time in twenty-two years. “All right,” he said, “let’s find out.”