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Be As You've Always Been

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CHAPTER ONE

2729 BCE - MESOPOTAMIA

Aziraphale walks the path to Abraham’s home with a spring in his step, which, it has to be said, is a little unusual. If his years on Earth have taught him anything, it’s that Official Angelic Business is typically not what you might call a good time. Not, of course, that Aziraphale is complaining; he is, obviously, fully aware that all of his work is in the service of the Great Plan, and that the very nature of that plan is to be beyond his understanding, and he wouldn’t dare to question it. [1] It’s just not, in general, all that much fun.

Luckily, today’s Heavenly task is to tell a woman who’s been trying to conceive for many years that she’s pregnant. As these things go, it’s as delightful an assignment as he’s ever likely to receive, and Aziraphale takes a moment to appreciate it, and make sure he’s presentable, when he reaches the end of the path.

“Hey!” calls a nearby voice. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“Oh!” Aziraphale says, jumping in surprise and completely creasing the robes he’d just smoothed down. So much for looking angelic. He turns, a little cross at this interruption in his process, only to see a woman with dark skin and hair scowling at him from a few yards away. Bugger, Aziraphale thinks with real feeling, recognizing her as Sarah, though what he says out loud, of course, is, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you — ”

“Seems like you’re the one who’s startled,” Sarah says, raising her eyebrows. “Again — who are you, and what are you doing here? I know I might look like a frail old woman, but I can fight better than you’d think, and scream like anything, too. My family will be on you in a second if I start yelling, and don’t you forget it.”

“I assure you that won’t be necessary,” Aziraphale says hastily, looking around to ensure that one of Sarah’s family members is not going to tackle him this very moment. Wouldn’t that be a conversation to have with Gabriel, explaining that he managed to get discorporated while delivering the news of a desperately wanted pregnancy — ah, best not to think of it.

Clearing his throat, and trying to sound Official and Grand and not at all put out by how badly off-script things have already gotten, Aziraphale says, “Well. In any case — I am an Angel of the Lord, and I have come to deliver good tidings.”

“Angel of the Lord, huh?” Sarah says, looking him up and down. “Another one?”

“I — what?” says Aziraphale.

“I swear, every day it’s something else,” Sarah mutters. She turns and, over her shoulder, calls, “Abe, as sure as I stand here, there’s another one now! You know I don’t like to mess around with this sort of thing at this time of the year! Can you please come take care of this?” To Aziraphale, a little too sweetly, she says, “He’ll be along in just a moment, I’m sure.”

“But — I — it’s actually you I came to speak with,” Aziraphale says, though admittedly his heart is only half in it. The other half is doing a complicated, panicky little dance at the prospect of not being the only angelic presence here right now. Dealing with Michael or Uriel or, God forbid, Sandalphon with no notice at all is a little more than he’s prepared to take. “Sorry, but — did you say someone else is here?”

I’m the one you want to speak with?” Sarah demands, ignoring his question entirely. She crosses her arms over her chest and stares at him, eyes narrowed, not even turning around to address her husband when he comes to stand just behind her. “Abe, this one says he’s here to talk to me.”

“What’d you call me for, then?” Abraham asks her grouchily, and holds up flour-covered hands. “I was right in the middle of making some cakes for our honored guests — oh, hello,” he adds to Aziraphale, seeming to remember abruptly that he, too, is meant to be counted among said honored guests. Aziraphale is prepared to forgive him for this, if there’s going to be cake.

“Hello,” Aziraphale says, craning his neck to look behind them for clues as to who he’s going to be dealing with here. “Lovely to meet you, I’m sure, much to say, but first, if you could just tell me who else is — ”

“Well?” Sarah demands, cutting him off. “Did you have something to say to me or not? I have things to do, you know.” The sharpness to her tone draws his focus back wholly to her, and the fierce irritation radiating off of her chastens him. He’s here on Heavenly business, isn’t he? He’s every bit the Angel of the Lord he announced himself to be, is he not? And yet he’s allowed himself to become distracted by, what — fear of other angels? Fear of his own bosses? Hardly the conduct of the Heavenly. He should be ashamed of himself.

It’s always a little disconcerting for Aziraphale, thinking a thought in Gabriel’s voice like that, but it does at least typically do the trick. Pushing his dread of encountering essentially any angel he knows aside, Aziraphale draws himself up to his full height, beams, and says, “My dear girl, I’m thrilled to tell you that you’re pregnant.”

Sarah stares at him. Behind her, Abraham’s mouth drops open. Aziraphale waits for a few moments for the shock to wear off, and then, in an attempt to steer them in the right direction, weakly says, “Yay!” He thinks he hears someone snort, though he doesn’t see anyone around save Sarah and Abraham, who are both immobile, utterly silent.

“I’m… pregnant,” Sarah repeats, finally. Her hand flies up to her mouth, and for a moment Aziraphale thinks she’s going to burst into tears. He puffs up his chest a little, weirdly gratified to have delivered news precious enough to elicit this reaction, before Sarah gasps and lets out a peal of what is, unmistakably, laughter.

Aziraphale would be lying if he said he wasn’t a little put out.

Pregnant,” Sarah gasps, and positively howls with mirth. Her whole body is shaking with laughter, and she falls back against Abraham cackling, quite obviously too overcome to speak.

Abraham is laughing too, though not nearly so hard, and he at least has the good grace to seem a little nervous about it. “Don’t mind her,” he says, the words only slightly choked with humor, and puts a hand on Sarah’s shoulder in an obvious, if ill-fated, attempt to calm her down. “It’s just — I mean — forty or fifty years ago, sure, this was all we wanted to hear, but you have to understand... it’s just, uh. A little hard to take you seriously? Now?”

“Whew, that was a good one,” Sarah says, straightening up. She puts a hand to her heart, still chuckling a little, and wipes tears from her face after all — though not, Aziraphale notes with some bitterness, the sort of tears he was aiming for. “Risky joke — might’ve gone real bad for you — but luckily I liked it, and that’s the best laugh I’ve had in ages. Now: what did you really come to tell me?”

“I already said!” Aziraphale says, and sniffs. “I hardly think I should have to repeat it, if that’s how you’re going to react.” The dread is taking over again — if Gabriel is around the corner watching this happen, there’s every chance Azirphale will just disintegrate in mortification and have to be issued a new body on top of everything else.

Then Sarah, who by Aziraphale’s guess [2] is in her early forties, says “Man, come on, I am ninety years old.”

“Oh — but — well, I mean, surely not,” says Aziraphale, thoroughly distracted by this obviously wrong information. “I don’t know that that’s even… possible. Perhaps it’s your counting; what system are you using to keep track? I don’t mean to insult you, madam, but I simply cannot believe that you’ve got the right of it here. You don’t look a day older than forty-five!”

“So now you’re a flatterer?” Sarah says, and gives him a speculative look. “You know what? I might like you, Angel. Usually I find your kind a little — uh —”

“Powerful and important?” Abraham says, pointedly, and mostly under his breath.

“Sure,” Sarah says, with a slow grin. “Powerful and important, that’s what I was going to say. But you, funny guy — you’re all right. You’re invited for dinner, where, if you like, you may try one of my husband’s very powerful and important cakes.”

“Make yourself at home,” Abraham adds, giving Sarah a speaking look that she seems to find amusing. Then they both just… turn and walk away, presumably towards the central hub of dinner production.

“But — but you really are pregnant!” Aziraphale calls after them, knowing it’s a lost cause even as the words fall out of his mouth. They don’t even turn around, and Aziraphale feels his shoulders sag in defeat. “Oh, I don’t know why I bother.”

“I wouldn’t sweat it, angel,” says an amused-sounding voice from the shadows. “They’ll figure it out eventually, one way or the other.”

Aziraphale whips around, feeling a smile tug at the edges of his mouth despite his better judgement. The other guest tonight isn’t Gabriel, or Uriel, or the dreaded Sandalphon; it’s Crawly.

Obviously, in the grand scheme of things — as beings — Aziraphale prefers his fellow angels to demons. To do otherwise would be insane, not to mention probably punishable by a swift and certain Fall. Angels are good and kind and right and true, and demons are bad and cruel and wrong and false; everyone knows that, and Aziraphale would hardly dare to say otherwise. [3] In general, in most cases, an angel is a better dinner companion than a demon, Aziraphale is sure.

But Crawly… well. Crawly’s always good for a conversation, isn’t he? Aziraphale’s seen him around a few times since the Ark, and while he is almost certainly sowing the seeds of evil somewhere at every moment, he’s easy enough to talk to. Still…

“Did you tell these people you’re an Angel of the Lord?” Aziraphale asks sharply. “And hello, of course, but — ”

“‘Course I didn’t, don’t be ridiculous,” Crawly says, scowling a little. “The tall one just got a look at my eyes and assumed, same as it always is. And then what am I supposed to say? ‘No, sir, in fact I am a Demon of Hell, best stab me quick with yon pruning hook,’ isn’t what you’d call a smart move, if you’re me.”

“Angels don’t have eyes like yours,” Aziraphale says, narrowing his own in suspicion.

“Oh, they don’t know that,” Crawly says. The bitterness in his voice surprises Aziraphale. “They’re humans — they think they know everything. These ones have encountered angels before, so now they think everything that isn’t like them is like you. Nothing to do with me either way, and I’m not one to turn down a dinner invitation.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, unreasonably cheered by this last. “So you’re a fan of food as well? The other angels seem to think I’m sullying my celestial body by consuming anything, but, well. I think it’s fascinating, really. So many unique tastes and flavors, and the textures — well, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you — anyway. I think it’s all really quite good.”

Crawly is giving Aziraphale a strange look, his head cocked, a small smile twitching in and out of focus at the edges of his mouth. Aziraphale can’t interpret his tone at all when he says, “I, ah, hadn’t given it quite so much thought, to be honest with you. I’m generally more interested in the company than the meal.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says again, more subdued this time. He should have known better, of course, and it’s not as though it matters in any case. He’d just thought —

“Interesting that you find it so interesting, though,” Crawly says generously, in the tones of someone extending a conversational olive branch. “Humans seem to care a lot about it, I know that for sure — I mean, that Cain and Abel business was something to behold, am I right? An awful lot of trouble to go to over a lettuce, that’s all I’m saying.”

“It was hardly about a lettuce,” Aziraphale returns as huffily as he can manage, which, admittedly, isn’t very huffily at all. Some days Aziraphale feels like there isn’t a single soul who understands him, like his every thought is just a little bit wrong, like everything about him is just a little bit off from who he’s supposed to be. But talking to Crawly… talking to Crawly, Aziraphale feels even-footed, demon or not. A little realer, somehow, than he feels when speaking to anyone else.

“Ah, who cares what it was, really,” Crawly says easily. “Coulda been a tuber, or a — whatsit, the other one — little buggers, nice L sound -- ”

“Legume?” Aziraphale guesses.

Legume,” Crawly says, with real feeling. “That’s the one -- coulda been a legume for all I care. Point is, I’m just here, not pretending to be an angel or anything. Seemed like an interesting enough way to pass a few hours.”

“Don’t you have… I don’t know… deeds to do?” Aziraphale says. “Evil ones?”

“Sure, sure, loads of ‘em,” Crawly says, waving a dismissive hand. “But, I mean, they’ll still be there tomorrow, and the day after that, and on and on until the apocalypse, right? And that’s ages away. Better to save up those deeds now, so when I get bored later, I’ve got something left to get done.”

“Well, I suppose that stands to reason,” Aziraphale says, after a moment’s thought. “And I guess it can’t really hurt to, ah, break bread with you, since you’re not here doing any actual evil…”

“Just passing through, that’s me,” Crawly says, holding his hands up as if to demonstrate his innocence. “Nice to see you delivering news about a kid, though. That’s better than what your side usually does to kids, isn’t it?”

“My side is perfectly lovely to children, on the whole,” Aziraphale snaps, nettled. [5] “That flood was just — certain parties, I’m told, were very angry — ”

“Hey, hey, I’m just a guy here for dinner, right?” Crawly says, pointedly rolling his shoulders back and away from Aziraphale. “Forget I brought it up. We can go eat to our hearts’ content of… well, of whatever they’re making, I guess. I didn’t think to ask.”

“There’s going to be cake,” Aziraphale says, a little rapturously. He wonders if he should just leave now, pretend he never even saw Crawly here -- it’s obvious that Crawly, as a demon, has his own agenda, and Aziraphale is probably being a fool by speaking to him at all. Really, if it weren’t for the cake, he’d go. But —

“Consider it forgotten,” he says brightly, and lets Crawly lead him to the table.

 

PRESENT DAY (TWO WEEKS AFTER THE NARROWLY AVERTED APOCALYPSE) - LONDON

Aziraphale stands for a long time outside of the little cheese shop in Southwark, trying to work up the nerve to go inside.

It’s just that he needs someone to talk to. Normally that person would be Crowley, of course, but Crowley is presumably still asleep, since the last thing he said to Aziraphale was, “Well, I’m knackered, I haven’t gotten a wink of sleep in eleven years. I think I shall celebrate the survival of the world as we know it with a nice long nap. Ciao!”

It was the ciao that really rankled. Aziraphale can understand well enough the desire to sleep [6] , but to say “Ciao!” — and so casually, like it would be nothing at all to him if they didn’t see each other for weeks at a time…

Well. Technically that would probably be fine, wouldn't it? That was how things had always worked back before the whole Armageddon business started up eleven years ago; they had gone decades at a time, and sometimes even centuries, without talking. Crowley is probably just going back to the way things used to operate, and why wouldn’t he? Sure, everything is different now, but things between them can just — go back to being the same, and that will be fine.

Even if Aziraphale had rather thought… oh, but it doesn’t matter what Aziraphale thought. Everybody thinks things now and again, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily come to anything, after all.

In any case, Crowley is asleep, and Aziraphale doesn’t think his current problem is the kind he can talk over with a human, even if, just lately, he’s been enjoying their company more than usual. He’s grown quite fond of both Anathema and Madame Tracy in the brief time he’s known them, but they’re still… mortal, the way that Aziraphale is not. They’re delightful people, but when the topic that needs discussing is “What, exactly, am I meant to do with the rest of eternity,” talking to either of them would be a bit like talking to a moth.

His fellow angels are, obviously, disqualified from conversations on merit of personality, as are all of the demons, save Crowley, that Aziraphale’s had the displeasure to encounter. Death is not the chatty sort, and summoning him would involve a lot more mess than Aziraphale is really looking to involve himself in; Famine, War and Pollution have presumably gone back to their respective business; Adam Young is human these days, and, also, eleven years old.

That leaves only one person, and Aziraphale takes a deep breath and steps into the shop, past the sign that reads RONALD SOAK, HYGIENIC DAIRYMAN. ⤖ESTABLISHED⬻. He probably owes Ronnie a visit anyway, all things considered. It’s his best option.

The store is packed with customers, which is no surprise. Aziraphale’s known Ronnie for a long time, and his store is almost always packed with customers — it’s an open secret in the food world that Ronnie’s is the best dairy there is. The fact that this was also true during the height of the Roman empire, and in the early days of the French revolution, and even back in the Middle Ages, is something that Aziraphale assumes Ronnie keeps on a need-to-know basis. It probably wouldn’t matter, anyway; the customers are here for the dairy, and the dairy speaks for itself.

Ronnie is standing behind the counter in the back, and he makes eye contact with Aziraphale over the bustle of the crowd, inclining his head in greeting. Aziraphale mirrors the gesture and busies himself looking around the shop. They’ve developed a routine for these visits over the years, and this is the opening salvo, these few minutes that Aziraphale will spend examining the new merchandise with a critical eye. It’s just as well; Aziraphale needs a moment to consider how best to… handle things today.

He knows who Ronnie really is, of course. How could he not know? Even if he hadn’t been there in the early days to hear the whispers among the angelic ranks — even if he hadn’t personally been sent to make corrections in several of the earlier Bibles — it would be hard not to see Ronnie’s obvious truth. Aziraphale is quite sure that the humans who encounter him see only a man, a bit on the shorter side, broad across the chest; the more perceptive among them maybe might notice something a little odd about his eyes.

But what Aziraphale sees when he looks at Ronnie is… shaped like a man, certainly, but that’s about as far as the comparison goes. His eyes are black wall-to-wall; his skin isn’t any one color, just an endless cascade of changing tones and patterns, all of them far outside the range a human being would consider normal. The very air around him ripples. Aziraphale would know he was the embodiment of chaos just by looking at him, even if he’d never heard a single one of the rumors about a fifth apocalyptic horseman (although Aziraphale presumes he prefers the spelling Kaos, given that he’s written it out backwards and slapped it on his door and all).

On the other hand — well, on the other hand, Aziraphale assumes that what Ronnie actually prefers is to be called Ronnie, given that he introduced himself accordingly when they first met. Certainly he’s never corrected Aziraphale even once over the years, or in fact brought the topic up at all. He’s always acted like he was just your average immortal cheese merchant, nothing to see here, and Aziraphale has always gone along with it, because it seemed the polite thing to do. What business is it of his, after all, if a being with Ronnie’s power wants to spend his time making the best dairy products on the planet? They understand each other perfectly well without ever discussing it, in any case. [7]

Under normal circumstances, Aziraphale wouldn’t even think of mentioning it, but. Well. There was an apocalypse, wasn’t there? Or the start of one, in any case? It would probably be rude to not at least inquire; Aziraphale would think it was rude, in Ronnie’s shoes. Better not to risk it. Resolved, he makes his way to the front of the shop, where Ronnie is wiping a milk bottle down with a rag.

“Aziraphale,” Ronnie says, without looking up.

“Ronnie,” Aziraphale returns, keeping his own eyes carefully on the cheese. “Anything new today?”

“Always something new,” Ronnie says, his voice taking on slight otherworldly harmonics. Clearing his throat, he adds, “What’s life without variety?”

“True, true,” Aziraphale says. He reaches out and plucks a sample of Mimolette off a nearby wooden board, popping it in his mouth. Ronnie always likes a little show of appreciation to start off with, and it’s not as though Aziraphale ever has to exaggerate. “Oh, that is absolutely divine. I haven’t had one like that since — ”

“France, 1680s?” Ronnie says, and grins. “Make sense. Dipped back there to get the milk for this batch; you just get a different flavor, you know?”

“Well, nobody knows flavor like you, Ronnie,” Aziraphale says, which is flattery, but the honest kind: he’s had a lot of opportunity to compare, after all.

Ronnie nods and turns away; this is clearly meant to cue the next part of their routine, the bit where Aziraphale eats several more samples while Ronnie pretends not to notice. Normally, and for obvious reasons, Aziraphale enjoys this part of the visit very much, but today he takes a deep breath and braces himself. It’s time.

“So,” Aziraphale says, sounding even to his own ears as forced-casual as he feels. It’s grim, but he presses on regardless: “I didn’t see you at the, ah… recent… happenings. I’d rather thought you might… ride out.”

There is a hanging pause, and Aziraphale has just enough time to wonder if he’s made a horrible mistake before Ronnie says, “Hah!”

The single syllable seems to shiver through the air; Aziraphale blinks and the shop’s cleared out, the customers gone, their baskets and items abandoned in the spots where they stood just moments ago. “Oh dear,” he says automatically, “I hope you haven’t sent them anywhere too dreadful — ”

“Forget them, they’re fine,” Ronnie says, waving a hand, and, again, says: “Hah! Always knew you were smart for an angel. So, you rumbled me, eh? How’d you figure it out?”

Aziraphale stares at him for a moment, gobsmacked. Then, as gently as he can, he says, “I’ve, ah, I’ve known for some time, Ronnie. You must remember, I’m not like the humans — to me you look like… well. Like what you are, I suppose? It’s not what you might call subtle.”

“Is that so,” Ronnie says, sounding thoughtful. “And you never said?”

“Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, it never seemed like you wanted to talk about it.”

“Don’t suppose I did, at that,” Ronnie says. He smiles at Aziraphale, his grin just a slash of teeth in his constantly changing face. “I can’t say I don’t appreciate you thinking of me, though, especially since the four of them didn’t even bother to call.”

“Well, that’s just rude,” Aziraphale says, reaching for another piece of the Mimolette. “The least they could do was give you a courtesy invitation, I would think.”

Ronnie sighs. “Ah, you know how it goes. Would’ve gotten under my skin once upon a time, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little hurt, but things change, right? That’s kind of the whole point. I’ve moved on, so I can hardly hold it against them for doing the same.” He pauses, and then, in a conspiratorial voice, adds, “But they got their asses handed to them without me, right?”

“Oh, absolutely,” says Aziraphale, quick and entirely truthful. “By a group of eleven year olds, no less. All in all, it was a very poor showing.”

“Hah!” Ronnie says for the third time. It’s the most Aziraphale has ever heard him laugh. “For that, lad, you get the smorgasbord.”

Ronnie waves his hands and the best part of the visit begins — before Aziraphale’s eyes, little trays pop up along the counter, laden with cheeses and yogurts, whipped and clotted creams with berries, little crackers, charcuterie. They do this every time, but somehow it never gets any less delightful, and so Aziraphale decides to forgo his reflexive objection to being called a “lad” and simply tuck in. He oohs and ahhs over Ronnie’s new offerings, waxes rhapsodic about the flavor of his old favorites, and orders an amount of cheese that should last him a millennia although, of course, it won’t. This is the meat of their relationship at the end of the day, Ronnie obviously getting as much joy from Aziraphale’s appreciation of his passion project as Aziraphale gets from consuming it. It works for them.

Aziraphale knows he’s probably Ronnie’s only real customer, the only one who can truly say he’s been coming in since the beginning. He imagines, without having to do much imagining at all, that it’s a lonely life.

When he’s sampled absolutely everything, Aziraphale rocks back on his heels with a satisfied sigh. “Well. It would have been worth coming in for that alone, I must say.”

“But you didn’t, did you?” Ronnie asks. “And you didn’t come just to ask me why I wasn’t in Tadfield, either. What is it you were wanting? Unless it’s a dairy product, I can’t make any promises, but I’ll do my best for you all the same.”

Despite coming here for this very purpose, Aziraphale briefly considers turning around and walking out of the shop. It just seems like it might be more dignified than forcing himself to say, “I, ah. It’s just — Heaven, you know, and Hell, and — then it all went rather — and now I’m — well! I’m — I’m — not sure what I’m meant to be doing, now. I’m not sure I entirely know who I… am.”

Brow furrowing, Ronnie says, “I don’t think I follow.”

“I was the Angel of the Eastern Gate!” Aziraphale bursts out, suddenly overcome with just how badly he needs to say this to someone. “And then I was the Angel of Wherever They Told Me To Be, and then after that I was just an angel. I did good deeds, and delivered the word of the Lord, and — helped the sick! And whatever else they asked! And sure, I also ran my bookstore, and had my Arrangement with Crowley, but there were always… assignments, and directives, and… and rules! And now, oh, now Crowley’s gone to have a nice nap, and I’m not an angel or a demon, not really, and I don’t know anything anymore! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!”

There is a beat of silence, and then, mildly, Ronnie says, “Oh. Is that all?”

“Is that all,” Aziraphale snaps, deeply annoyed and, underneath, a little hurt. So much for talking to someone. “I think it’s quite enough, thank you very much.”

He should have just waited for Crowley to wake up. He’d have said something ridiculous about it, surely, poked and prodded and made “Well,” into a sixteen-syllable word, but at least he’d have the decency to take Aziraphale somewhat seriously. But this dismissal — and after Aziraphale took the time to make nice about Ronnie’s failed horseman career! — well. There really is no helping some people.

“I just think it’s a little rich, that’s all,” Ronnie says, tone still perfectly bland. “Coming from you, that is.”

“I’m quite certain I don’t know what you mean,” Aziraphale says, his voice and his body language both going stiff. “And if that’s all you have to say, I’m afraid I must be going.”

“Come on now,” Ronnie says, and shakes his head. “Listen to yourself for a second, will you? The very idea that you don’t know what to do with your time — do you think I’ve got a lot of other angels coming in here to sample my wares, Aziraphale? And I’ve seen you at restaurants, too, while I’m making my deliveries. Whole community knows about you, getting your repeated custom is like a Michelin star in some parts of this town — you’re going to tell me Gabriel put you up to all that?”

“Oh!” Aziraphale says, badly wrongfooted and, horribly, a bit pleased. “That’s not — I mean, I had no idea, and it’s very flattering, of course, but it’s hardly — ”

“I’ve seen that shop of yours, too,” Ronnie interrupts, blithe and unconcerned in his rudeness. “Made a lot of deliveries to you over the years, haven’t I? And if you can honestly tell me that you’re hoarding all those books because Michael said you were supposed to, I will eat my cheese press.”

“I — believe the expression is typically ‘I will eat my hat,’” Aziraphale says weakly. He doesn’t want to watch Ronnie consume a large wood and metal contraption, although he’s sure Ronnie could, but of course he’s right, so he won’t have to either way — the bookshop certainly wasn’t set up on Heaven’s orders. Far from it, truth be told; he’s always got the sense that Sandalphon, in particular, harbors dreams of burning it down.

“Who has a hat?” Ronnie says, and puts his hands down flat on the counter between them. “Look. People like us — you and me, and the whole mess Above, and the folks in the basement, the other horsemen — we are as they made us.”

“Be that as it may, I’m not really sure how much good it does me,” Aziraphale says, but only a shade reproachfully. He appreciates the effort. “I’m fairly certain this isn’t what Heaven intended for me, and — ”

“Not them,” Ronnie snaps, pointing up at the sky. For the second time today, his voice takes on a slightly unsettling note, the edge of a long scream into an abyss. He waves a hand at the front of the shop, where, through the large glass window, Aziraphale can see people streaming by. “I’m talking about them.”

It takes Aziraphale a moment to catch his meaning, and then: “What?” he says, laughing on it a little in surprise and disbelief. “The humans?”

“You think I’m full of it, I take it,” Ronnie says, not sounding bothered. “That’s fine. You can think what you like. But I’ll tell you this, angel: when all this started, humans were terrified of me. I was a Horseman of the Apocalypse, that’s how frightening they found me — I rode alongside Death, War, Famine and Pestilence, and they cowered before me. ”

“And then one day,” he continues — revealing more personal detail in one afternoon than he has in thousands of years, Aziraphale realizes with a start — “the band broke up. It just wasn’t working for them anymore, somehow. And I was sore about it for a long time, I’ll tell you that. A long time. Started tinkering with the dairy just to keep my mind off things. And so it took me thousands of years to realize that I changed… because the way they thought of me changed.”

“My dear man,” Aziraphale begins, intending to explain that this just can’t be how things are, because Heaven would surely, at very least, know.

Ronnie cuts him off, slamming his hand down on the counter. “I changed because they changed. Listen! If Death is creation’s shadow then I am its byproduct, its voice -- there is no Life without Chaos. The two of us are inextricably intertwined. And the humans figured that out, do you understand me? They figured it out, and they accepted it. They started to plan around it, to count on it, to study it, even to find joy in it. All those years I thought I was running the dairy to occupy myself, out of boredom and loneliness, just for something to do! When really, that whole time, I was just becoming what I was to them: reliable as the morning milk delivery. Another fact of human life.”

Aziraphale stares at Ronnie with his mouth open for a long, stunned moment. Then, pulling himself together, he says, “So you’re telling me — what? That whatever I do, it’ll be the right thing to do, just because I’m doing it? That doesn’t — I mean, it’s a fascinating theory, and thank you for sharing it, I’ll certainly be thinking about it — but it doesn’t actually help me very much, per se.”

“You’re really very remarkably pig-headed, aren’t you?” Ronnie says, and there’s such fondness in it, just for a second, that it startles Aziraphale. The note vanishes from his voice as he continues speaking, gone so quickly Aziraphale wonders if he didn’t imagine it. “Just — honestly, are you really telling me there’s nothing you’ve been secretly itching to do all these years? Nothing at all that you denied yourself because Heaven wouldn’t approve? I have to say I find that hard to believe. ”

The image of Crowley slams into Aziraphale’s mind so quickly that he has to take a moment to compose himself. Of course, of course, there’s something he’s denied himself for years — something Heaven would never approve of — something Hell would never approve of — something that wasn’t worth the risk of losing everything, but only just. Of course Aziraphale wants to march up to Crowley’s ridiculous flat and stomp his way past Crowley’s ridiculous plants and yell “I love you,” into Crowley’s ridiculous, ridiculous face. He’s wanted to do it for years, for centuries. He’s been thinking about it so long he’s surprised it isn’t written all over his face.

But… well. Things had been going so wonderfully, that last day they spent together, and then — ugh. Aziraphale’s loath to even think about it. They dined at the Ritz, and then took a taxi back to Crowley’s flat, and then… well, then Aziraphale rather botched the whole thing, quite frankly. He made it clear that he intended to go upstairs with Crowley, and Crowley made it equally clear that he intended to give Aziraphale a ride home in the Bentley, and it all got horribly awkward with incredible speed, the entire conversation veering wildly off the road. And then that awful, awful ciao, at the end; oh, Aziraphale wishes he could obliterate the whole foul experience from his memory, and never have to think of it again.

It makes sense, of course. Aziraphale understands. He has hurt Crowley many times, in many ways. It was largely in the name of an organization he was created to be part of, to be sure, and while he is no longer a part of or, if he’s honest, really a believer in that organization, that doesn’t mean those things didn’t happen. Aziraphale has insulted Crowley and refused to listen to Crowley and even outright lied to Crowley over the years. Only a few weeks ago, Crowley asked Aziraphale to run away with him — a scenario Aziraphale had, before that moment, played out in his most secret fantasies many times — and Aziraphale all but forsook him there beneath the bandstand. That was inexcusable, however frightened for both of their lives he might have been at the time. Of course the window on the two of them being anything more than friends is closed; Aziraphale slammed it shut it himself, like a damned fool. He should be grateful, all things considered, that he didn’t lose Crowley’s friendship in the process.

“There is one thing,” Aziraphale admits, voice wistful, to Ronnie. “But it’s — I’m afraid I’ve messed it all up rather badly, so. It’s not really on the table as an option right now.”

“One thing?” Ronnie booms. “One thing? In six thousand years, you only found one thing about the rules up there to object to? Are you a lamp post? An oddly talkative log?”

“Well,” Aziraphale says slowly, absorbing this point. Now that he thinks of it: “One big thing, anyway. I suppose… I suppose there have been a number of what you might call smaller quibbles.”

“No quibble too small, that’s what it says on my complaint box,” Ronnie says cheerfully, gesturing.

“Yes,” Aziraphale says hesitantly, “but it looks like the bottom of that box empties out into a trash can, Ronnie.”

“It’s a metaphor,” Ronnie says with a shrug. “Sometimes it feels good to complain, but I’m definitely not listening, you know?”

“Certainly,” Aziraphale says, feeling quite sure he does know, especially after this little talk. Still. “It’s been… nice to see you, old friend. Informative, and of course the dairy was exceptional, as ever. I’ll think about what you’ve said.”

“You do that,” Ronnie says. “Or don’t; doesn’t really change things for me, whatever you do. Your order will be delivered tomorrow promptly at eight either way.”

“Same as always,” Aziraphale says, and feels a little chill run through him. Could it really be — that very idea that humans could affect — no, no. It’s just Ronnie’s little theory, and everyone knows he’s a bit on the odd side, that’s all. Nothing to get himself worked up about.

Still, when Ronnie says, “Same as always,” and grins, both his words and his expression follow Aziraphale out of the shop and most of the way home. It’s only when he’s unlocking the front door of the bookshop that he remembers to think about the other takeaway from their conversation. There is indeed a quiet list he’s kept so close to his heart that most of the time even he never realized it was there — a list of things he’d do and say and wear and be, if only he wouldn’t have to defend all of those choices, eventually, to Heaven.

Aziraphale has always been good — Aziraphale has always had no choice but to be good — at burying the parts of himself that might cause trouble with his former colleagues and bosses. He can’t repress his personality entirely, of course, but he’s certainly spent millennia reining back many of his first impulses, and a number of his second and third ones, too. So what if Crowley’s not interested in being with him? Aziraphale has plenty to get up to on his own. It’s time for him to… to do what the humans do. To change, and — and grow.

“Tomorrow,” Aziraphale tells his books, “is the first day of something new.”

They don’t say anything, of course, but he likes to believe they’re happy for him. [8]

 

CHAPTER TWO

1987 - LONDON

Aziraphale stands outside for a moment and takes a deep breath — ah, Harrods. It’s among Aziraphale’s favorite places on Earth, even if it is always a bittersweet trip in more ways than one. First in the category of bitterness, of course, is the fact that he only allows himself to go to Harrods when something in his (admittedly fairly comprehensive) wardrobe is damaged beyond reasonable repair. It might get to be a nasty habit, otherwise, and when it comes to matters of gluttony, Aziraphale could always stand to be a bit more careful.

The other bitterness — his memories of coming here in days long since gone by, snickering behind his hand as Oscar mocked the available merchandise or nodding his hesitant support for one of Noël’s [9] more questionable tie choices — is harder to dismiss than the loss of a garment, however well loved. It’s one of the more difficult things about his line of work, watching humans flare brilliantly into life and then fade just as quickly, leaving behind them only the memory of a flame in the darkness. He knows it bothers Crowley too, although, in true Crowley fashion, he never actually talks about it; Aziraphale has just picked it up, over the years. Crowley’s grief, like essentially everything else about Crowley, is never as subtle as he obviously thinks.

In any case, there’s hardly any point standing out here thinking about Crowley, of all things. Aziraphale huffs out a little laugh at himself — what a production he can make out of something so simple! — and heads into the store before he can talk himself out of it.

As always at Harrods, he’s met within moments of his arrival by a bright-eyed young employee, eager to assist him with whatever he might need. Cheered, as always, by the exceptional service, Aziraphale explains his recent clothing disaster to the young man, whose gleaming nametag declares him to be Stephen. He is led immediately to the outerwear department, where he spends several minutes attempting to choose between two different camel hair topcoats. Neither is a perfect match for the item he lost; so, frustrated, he tells Stephen he needs a few minutes to wander around and consider it, and it is on this little thinking jaunt that Aziraphale nearly walks right into —

Crowley?” He almost gasps this, but, in his defense, it’s very strange to see Crowley here. As far as Aziraphale can tell, Crowley’s wardrobe is a mixture of boutique pieces made by designers Aziraphale’s never heard of and things he found in the bottom of the charity shop sale pile. [10] He certainly would never have imagined Crowley shopping here, in his own favorite department store, though he supposes they do carry a pretty wide selection. Still; it wouldn’t do, would it, to have an angel and a demon regularly frequenting the same place? Somebody Above might notice, or, worse, have something to say about it.

“Aziraphale!” Crowley says, grinning at him. “Fancy seeing you here.”

It is at this point that Aziraphale notices the bag Crowley is holding, which is filled with nothing but sunglasses. “Stocking up?” he asks casually, gesturing at them, even as relief blossoms in his chest. Of course, this is nothing but a one-off, a happy accident, a chance encounter; for that matter, Aziraphale isn’t here very often himself, in the grand scheme of things. Nothing anyone would look at twice.

“Got to,” Crowley says, nodding. He points at the pair on his face — they’re new, Aziraphale realizes, square lenses in black plastic frames, the word RayBan written along one of the arms — and grimaces. “These aren’t what you might call inspired, but they were the best of the lot. Seems like there’s a new style out every bloody week now, and even I can’t keep up with that — who’s got the time? Can’t make them for myself, either; I never get the bits over the ear right. So once a decade or so I just find a sturdy pair I can live with, buy a whole sodding pile of ‘em, and stick with that until they start making me look too old.”

“But you are old,” Aziraphale says, amused. “By humans standards, we’re both ancient.”

“Oh, well, there’s old and then there’s old,” Crowley says, accompanying it with one of those sweeping, expressive gestures that seems to take over his whole body. “What’s thousands of years in the face of the right attitude, that’s my philosophy. Anyway — what’re you doing here?”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says. He frowns, remembering. “I — well, do you remember my camel hair topcoat?”

“Sure, sure,” Crowley says, in a tone that makes Aziraphale suspect he is being gently mocked. “The one with the lapels, yeah? And the, uh — the buttons, as well? Had buttons to spare, if I recall.”

“Well, whether you remember it or not, it was a beautiful piece,” Aziraphale says, a touch frostily, and then sighs. It’s not as though it’s Crowley’s fault, after all. “And it died a horrible death, I’m afraid.”

No,” Crowley says. He staggers back a half-step as if mortally wounded by this news, and puts a hand on his heart. “Has the murderer been brought to justice yet? Or are they just out there, stalking the streets, taking out innocent coats?”

Mockery or not, Aziraphale thinks begrudgingly, Crowley does have a remarkable talent for finding the levity in a situation. It makes it easier for him to say, as though it is not still causing him great pain: “I’m the murderer in question, I’m sorry to say. You may as well take me to… well… to wherever you take coat murderers, I suppose.”

A slight smile curves the edge of Crowley’s mouth under his new sunglasses — Aziraphale likes them, he decides. They’re not quite his usual style, but Aziraphale can, if he looks from just the right angle, see Crowley’s eyes. “Think you have to become a nudist, really. Only way I can see for the clothes to truly be safe.”

“Well, the safety of the clothes is the most important thing,” Aziraphale says. He’s smiling a little himself, now; Crowley really is dangerously good at cheering him up.

“What’d you do to it, then?” Crowley says, and cocks his head in curiosity. “I assume you didn’t actually take it out back and shoot it, though, of course, if you did, I would understand. Never can be too careful with topcoats.”

Aziraphale sighs again. “Well — not to put too fine a point on it — I sauced it.”

Crowley’s eyebrows go up over the plastic frames. Carefully enunciating every word, he says, “You — sauced — it?”

“There was just — rather a lot going on at Rules that day,” Aziraphale says. He’s glum again just thinking about it. “I was having the steak and kidney pudding — and it really is a marvelous dish, Crowley, no matter how you feel about organs; they balance all the flavors perfectly, and there’s just the right amount of this wonderfully rich red wine sauce — but that was the problem, of course. There were so many people moving around on the floor, and I realized the waitress passing my table was about to trip; I reached out to help unthinkingly, and with one thing and another… oh, I knocked the whole plate off the table, if you must know. It landed right on top of my coat, which would have been hanging, of course, if there had been a hook free for it. The whole affair was dreadful, to be honest with you. Ruined my coat and my lunch.”

“Oh, what?” Crowley says, and shakes his head, clearly holding back laughter. “I mean, sorry about your lunch, but the way you were talking I thought you meant you’d doused the thing in brown sauce and set it on fire or something. It’s just a stain?”

“An enormous stain,” Aziraphale says mournfully. “And not the kind of thing that a little dry cleaning magic can take care of, either; I already tried that.”

“Angel, I know this might come as a shock to you, but you can do actual magic,” Crowley says. He waves the hand holding the bag of sunglasses for emphasis; a few pairs start to fly out and then seem, about halfway to the ground, to think better of it. “Or is this a — what did you say — one of those ‘frivolous miracles’ Gabriel doesn’t like? Seems like the kind of thing my side would do, get on you for using your own powers like that.”

“Oh, it’s not about that,” Aziraphale snaps, perhaps a little too harshly. It’s not as though it’s Crowley’s fault that somehow, no matter how carefully he tries to ration them, Aziraphale always comes in well over quota on miracles. “It’s just — I could miracle it clean, of course, but it doesn’t get rid of the stain, not really. It just makes it look clean. I’d always be able to tell the stain was there, underneath.”

“Shame you’re not a demon, really,” Crowley says, and then winces dramatically, his whole face crumpling around the expression. “Er — ah — no, what I meant was — because we can remove ink, and things. From, uh, stuff... with ink on. Stands to reason it would work for sauce as well, ’s practically the same.”

“Demons have… ink removal powers?” Aziraphale says, deciding to leave the idea that ink and sauce are at all similar for another, perhaps less sober, time. He blinks at Crowley, puzzled. “Whatever for?”

“Part of the whole thing, isn’t it? Oathbreakers, and all that? Never really been my cuppa, mind you, but I can still do it, we all can. Like falling off a bicycle. Or as you probably still call it, a velocipede.” Crowley plucks the receipt out of his sunglasses bag and waves his fingers over it, smirking as all the ink floats off the paper in little specks and vanishes, leaving it blank. “Comes in handy if you want to back out of a deal, let’s say, or get a bunch of blood out of your clothing very quickly.”

“Blood is the same as ink now?”

“Blood, ink, sauce,” Crowley says dismissively, and then, before Aziraphale can even begin to address the horrors of that, adds, “And hey — isn’t that the purpose of literature, angel? Turning blood to ink? Somebody said that, right?”

Somebody: as if he doesn't know very well who. It’s always all fun and games with Crowley until it’s not, isn’t it? It’s always a barrel of laughs until he goes and says something like that, until he reminds Aziraphale that there’s more to him than the show he always seems to be trying, rather desperately, to put on. It’s not that Aziraphale isn’t aware of that all the time, of course — it’s not as though he hasn’t been aware that Crowley is more than he seems since the very beginning — but when Crowley forces him to look at it dead on like this, it upsets the careful balance Aziraphale always has to maintain around him. How could it not?

Aziraphale is desperately in love with Crowley, is the problem. He spent a few thousand years denying it to himself, of course, and then a few thousand more trying to talk himself out of it, but, alas, the situation seems to be incurable. It wouldn’t be so bad if Crowley wasn’t always turning up to rescue Aziraphale from danger, or popping ‘round after a few lonely months to get drunk with him in the back room of the bookshop — it would be easier, Aziraphale thinks, if Crowley would just treat him badly once in a while. Instead, Crowley talks to him like he’s a real person, and pays attention when he speaks like what Aziraphale says matters to him; like it’s important. Instead Crowley pulls a quote like that out of thin air for fun, just because he can, and because he knows it’s the kind of conversational turn Aziraphale enjoys. It’s intoxicating. It’s unfair.

“It’s Eliot,” Aziraphale says, wrestling the strangled affection out of his voice, “and yes, that’s the quote, more or less. I’ll just recite it to my coat and see if the stain vanishes, shall I?”

“No need to be like that about it,” Crowley says with a slight pout, obviously misinterpreting Aziraphale’s shift in tone as a rebuke. Just as well. If Crowley could tell what Aziraphale was really thinking, they’d both be in trouble. “Why don’t you show me the replacement coat, then?”

“Coats,” Aziraphale says, “there’s two I’m trying to decide between,” but he leads Crowley back to the outerwear department anyway.

Unsettlingly, Stephen is still standing where Aziraphale left him. “Oh dear,” Aziraphale says, “I hope I didn’t — keep you from anything important? I didn’t mean you had to stand here and wait for me.”

“I was happy to wait, Mr. Fell,” Stephen says. “When my manager realized you were here, he told me in no uncertain terms that you were my number one priority! I am at your service for anything you might require. Can I get you something to drink? Perhaps a snack?”

“Do you know, a little something does sound lovely,” Aziraphale says. He turns to ask Crowley if he wants anything, but Crowley is leaning against the nearest wall and looking at him with that face on, the one he makes when he finds something Aziraphale’s doing really hilarious. He’ll inevitably be poking fun within moments, and therefore does not deserve snacks, so Aziraphale won’t be getting him any. “A cup of Earl Grey, if you don’t mind, and maybe one of those beautiful chocolate eclairs they do upstairs? I can’t tell you how much I’d appreciate it.”

“Right away, Mr. Fell!” Stephen says cheerily. “You can let me know where you are on that coat when I get back.”

He dashes off, and Aziraphale takes one look at Crowley’s raised eyebrows and, coolly, says, “What?”

“I didn’t say anything, angel,” Crowley says, raising his hands in mock surrender. Even the bag of sunglasses now looped around his wrist puts up a token jiggle of innocence. “Just noticing you get very good service here, that’s all.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” Aziraphale says. He’s been coming here for more than a hundred and forty years, and the service has never wavered; he’d assumed it was that way for all their patrons, that it was simply the common-or-garden experience.

“They always treat me like I rolled in here directly out of a lagoon,” Crowley says mildly.

Cutting a sly glance sideways, Aziraphale can’t help but say, “Perhaps they can sense the demonic influence.”

“‘Perhaps they can sense the demonic influence,’” Crowley parrots back at him, his voice a terrible mockery of Aziraphale’s own. In his more usual register, he adds, “Maybe they’re all just incredible snobs, did you ever think of that? I swear, the worst humans in the world walk these floors, shopping and selling.”

“Well, yes,” Aziraphale admits. “I will grant you that it’s not always, ah, the cream of the crop, especially amongst the customers. But the employees are largely wonderful, Crowley, I’m sure you’ve just had bad luck. I’ve been helped by so many kind people here over the years.”

Crowley mutters something under his breath that sounds like, “Doesn’t sound like the whole story to me,” but before Aziraphale can find out what it was supposed to mean, Stephen returns. He hands Aziraphale a steaming paper cup, a little baggie that presumably contains a chocolate eclair, and a small stack of paper napkins, and then simply stands there, beaming at him.

Aziraphale hears Crowley make a choked-off little noise, but he resolutely ignores it as he takes a sip, sighs in satisfaction, and says, “Thank you very much, dear boy. I was parched.”

“Oh, well, if you were parched,” Crowley says, so softly Aziraphale’s sure he’s the only one who hears it. He turns and levels a glare at Crowley anyway, who meets it with nothing but a slow grin, horror that he is.

“Did you come to any conclusions about the coat?” Stephen asks, seeming not to notice or care about this little interplay between angel and demon. “I’m not trying to rush you, of course, Mr. Fell, just curious to know which way you’re leaning.”

Aziraphale looks between them again and sighs. It really is so difficult to choose. “Crowley?”

“Hmm?”

“What do you think?” He gestures at the two coats, which are currently hanging up side by side. “Which one?”

“Between these two?” Crowley studies them for a moment. Then he tilts his head, and studies them for a moment longer. Only then does he nod firmly, as if satisfying a little argument with himself, and says, “Can’t do it. Trick question. Same coat.”

“Same coat? Same coat?” Aziraphale says, incensed. “How could you even begin to think — this one, you see, has the slightly darker brown detailing at the collar, and this one — ”

“Look, Az — er — Fell, I guess — it’s a camel hair coat,” Crowley says. “Whichever one you pick’s going to look the same to me, you know? And to everyone else, I’m sure, because a camel hair coat is pretty much a camel hair coat. Stephen, am I right?”

Stephen, who seems frankly terrified to be in a position to contradict Aziraphale’s taste, stumbles back a half step. He honestly looks so stricken that Aziraphale feels a little guilty about it.

“All right, all right, nevermind,” Crowley says sourly, waving a hand. “Forget I asked. Why don’t you two make this decision without me? Angel, I’ll catch up with you later.”

Then he’s walking away — and without even a proper goodbye! — like that’s what he’d normally do here, like their chance meeting didn’t practically necessitate a follow-up dinner and drinks. Aziraphale feels his heart sink at the loss of an evening plan he supposes he never really had, only to see Crowley stop halfway across the floor to chat with another of the employees. Relieved that he doesn’t seem to actually be leaving, Aziraphale lets out a heavy sigh, and then, since Crowley’s not paying him any attention anymore, takes a moment to just look. He doesn’t allow himself to do so very often — too risky — but every now and again, it’s nice to really take Crowley in, the shape of him, the space he occupies in the word.

Ohhh,” Stephen says. It jerks Aziraphale back to reality, and he turns around, shame surely written across his face, to be met with a knowing look. “Nothing to blush about, Mr. Fell. You’ve got good taste! I certainly wouldn’t kick him out of bed.”

“Oh — I — it’s not like that at all,” Aziraphale says. He hears how thinly it comes out, how unconvincing it sounds, but it’s the best he can do in the circumstances. At least it’s the truth, however painful. “I mean, I — and he — well, it would never work, for so many reasons. We’re just… friends, I suppose you could say. I expect that’s all we’ll ever be.”

“That’s what they all say, Mr. Fell,” Stephen says, winking. “You’ll get him one day, I bet.”

Aziraphale takes a moment for the first time since their interaction began to really notice Stephen. [11] He’s a tall man of about twenty-five, dark hair, light brown skin, glasses; it would be the work of but a moment to find out more. If he really looked, Aziraphale could tell what kind of relationship Stephen has with each of his parents, whether or not he subscribes to any system of belief, how much he enjoys this job, what he dreams about at night — when push comes to shove, humans are as easy to read as most of Aziraphale’s books. As a matter of principle, though, Aziraphale does his best not to pry unless it’s absolutely necessary for Heavenly reasons, or to get someone out of his bookshop.

Aziraphale doesn’t have to reach for his ethereal powers, however, to know one other significant thing about Stephen: it’s clear, both from what he’s said and a dozen smaller signifiers that Aziraphale would be unable to quantify, that the man is a homosexual. Aziraphale feels himself relax, even though, of course, that little reflex is perfectly insane; it’s not as though angels have any concept of “gay” or “straight,” after all. [12] Still, Aziraphale has always felt most comfortable — most at home — with humans who fall somewhere outside the spectrum of the ordinary. He knows that man was made in God’s image, but a distressing number of them remind him powerfully of Sandalphon.

“What about you?” Aziraphale asks, as he reaches for one of the coats to try it on for the third time. “Anyone special in your life?”

“Oh, I won’t bore you with the details of my love life,” Stephen says with a sigh. “Same old story: meet a guy, think you’re onto something, spend the night, he says he’s gonna call, he doesn’t call, then you see him out one night and you’re like, ‘Oi! What happened to calling?’ and he feeds you some line about moving his grandmother to Sussex. I mean, for six weeks? What was he doing, building the care home himself?”

“I… see. Is that the same old story?” Aziraphale says. “It sounds novel enough to me.”

“Now that’s because you haven’t had to listen to me moan about it for months, Mr. Fell,” Stephen says, and rubs the back of his neck, a picture of good-natured sheepishness. “All my mates, they say I need to get a grip and let it go, but — ah. What can I say? I’m a romantic at heart. He’s a tosser, but I can’t help but think maybe he’s the tosser for me.”

For a hysterical, too-long moment, Aziraphale has to fight back the urge to burst out laughing in fellow-feeling; the effort it takes to quell the impulse makes him feel a little sick. Still, he sounds perfectly calm, utterly normal, when he says, “Well, I bet you’ll get him one day, how about that? And I do think I’ll take this coat — on examination, the detailing on the other one really is just a little too much.”

“An excellent choice,” Stephen says, and smiles at him. “Anything else you wanted to pick up while you’re here?”

Aziraphale manages to lose track of Crowley in the ensuing hour, as he follows Stephen around the store, chatting and picking things out. They talk about restaurants, about Stephen’s unfortunate taste in men, about their mutual hatred for Thatcher, about the merits of silk lining for winter gloves; it’s nice. Certainly the lad is too good a salesman by half — Aziraphale ends up buying a scarf, two pairs of leather gloves, four new bowties and a cravat as well as the coat he came in for — but the conversation is as much of an indulgence as the purchases. He forgets about it, most of the time, because of how awful some of them are and because of the way they almost always turn out to be a terrible bother, but Aziraphale does like humans. They’re so interesting, even if there’s no getting around their nasty habit of dying on him.

“Thank you, really, for a lovely experience,” Aziraphale says, as he gathers his bags and turns to go. “I appreciate your time enormously.”

“I could say the same thing to you,” Stephen says graciously, and then, in a tone Aziraphale would describe as less gracious than odd, “It was an honor to meet you, Mr. Fell.”

Aziraphale leaves quickly after that. It would spoil the evening for Stephen to turn out to be the overly-susceptible sort, of the group that end up seeing a little too much of Heaven in Aziraphale’s eyes and decide they can’t live without it. He didn’t seem that way, but in Aziraphale’s experience they never really do until it’s too late. In any case, Aziraphale has probably spoiled the evening himself — Crowley certainly wouldn’t have hung around waiting for him this long, and that’s Aziraphale’s own fault for losing track of —

“Angel!” Crowley says, peeling away from the wall he was leaning against as Aziraphale steps out onto the sidewalk. “There you are. I was starting to think the coats had come to life and strangled you for assassinating their brother.”

“Assassination implies intent,” Aziraphale says, though he’s too happy to see that Crowley’s waited for him to put any sting behind it. “At worst, it was manslaughter — well. Coat slaughter.”

“Not an hour ago you were telling me to remand you to a murderer’s prison, but sure, all right, coat slaughter,” says Crowley, in generous tones. “Dinner?”

“I could eat,” Aziraphale says, for all the world as though it’s the first time it’s occurred to him, and follows Crowley to where the Bentley is (illegally) parked.

Crowley drives them to Soho without having to ask, and they go to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant Aziraphale likes. The food is good and the wine is exceptional, and when they finish up they both start walking back to the bookshop in the sort of tacit agreement these nights always involve. Aziraphale cannot, after all, come right out and say, “Hey, Crowley, my demon adversary from the pits of Hell, can I interest you in coming back to my bookshop to get good and pissed with me? I’ll be terribly broken up about it if you don’t, as I’m mad about you and when you’re not around I am desperately lonely.” That would be humiliating, not to mention incredibly dangerous for them both.

On the other hand, if he simply walks back to his bookshop with Crowley at his heels, and if Crowley merely follows him through the open door, and if Aziraphale just happens to open a bottle of wine they both enjoy… well. That’s just circumstances, isn’t it? How could anyone hold that against them?

“Do you know,” Crowley says, as Aziraphale pours him a glass of Sauternes, “what everyone in that store thinks of you?”

“What?” Aziraphale says, wrongfooted. They’re both fairly drunk already, so it takes Aziraphale a second to realize: “Wait, Harrods? Oh, Crowley, if they hate me, don’t tell me. I can’t bear it.”

Hate you?” Crowley says, and hoots for a moment with laughter. “No, no, angel, they don’t hate you. They think you’re a — like, a — a supernatural creature, or something. The Phantom of the Opera, except… nice. And a good tipper; a lot of them had something to say about that — apparently there’s a legend about you giving someone a house because he found you some shoe??”

“Alistair,” Aziraphale says absently. “And it wasn’t really about the shoe — he was very kind to me, you know, and he’d never have managed to scrape the money together otherwise — they think I’m a supernatural creature?”

“Like a ghossssst,” Crowley hisses, the way he always starts to after a certain number of drinks. “Or whatever. None of them really know? But they all talk about it, and they fight over who gets to wait on you when you come in, in case — well — you’re in the mood to give out houses, I suppose. I smoked a lot of cigarettes, you know, to get this information, and one of them was a menthol, so I feel like I deserve some more wine. For my services and whatnot.”

“You’ve already got some wine in your glass,” Aziraphale says, but he tops him up all the same, then settles back in his chair. “A supernatural creature? I mean, I guess technically it isn’t wrong, and at least they seem to like me. And I suppose when I think about it, I have been shopping there for more than a hundred years…”

“Wait — did you never give them a fake name?” Crowley says, and starts laughing again. “None of the old ‘Oh, that last Crowley you met was my father, Crowley Senior, and I’m his son, Crowley Junior, he remembered you fondly to me?’ That’s amateur hour, angel. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true.”

“Well!” Aziraphale says, offended. “I’m hardly a — a — a demon, like you! It’s not in my nature to lie, or to tell people that I’m — my own son!”

“And that is why, whenever they see you, the people of that store shall cry,” Crowley pauses, belches, and then belts in the best singing voice he can manage, “The Phantom of the Opera is here! Inside my shop.

Aziraphale can’t help himself; he bursts out laughing. It’s funny, and it’s foolish, and oh, he’s drunk enough to admit it, isn’t he? He’s drunk enough to acknowledge, if only to himself, that he just never feels as good on his own as he does when he’s with Crowley. He lets himself lean into it, laugh, and pour another drink — he lets himself pretend, just for these few hours, that things can stay this way forever. He lets himself believe in the idea of him and Crowley the way the staff at Harrods must believe in Aziraphale: with wholehearted conviction in something that’s almost certainly wrong.

When, the following morning, Aziraphale pulls his ruined coat from his closet to make room for its replacement, he finds the stain has vanished, like it never was at all.

 

PRESENT DAY - LONDON

Aziraphale stands in front of Harrods filled with fierce determination. Usually coming here brings up a lot of complicated feelings for him — not today. Today, he’s here for one reason and one reason only, and he’s not going to let emotion get in his way.

“Are you really telling me there’s nothing you’ve been secretly itching to do?” Ronnie had asked him. As questions go, Aziraphale has realized in the twelve hours since they spoke, that one was a bit like kicking a whole dam out of the middle of a river. The list he started upon arriving home last night — the title “What Do I Actually Want To Do?” written boldly across the top — is currently six pages long, front and back, and he’s here to address one of the very first items.

Angels don’t have a uniform, per se, but there is certainly what you might call a dress code. It is not Heavenly to wear bright colors, dark colors, or really any colors that cannot be described with the word pastel; it is not Heavenly to choose an outfit that causes you to stand out, rather than to blend in; it is not Heavenly to wear anything that sparkles. Aziraphale largely learned these rules by breaking them and being chastised for it — the suggestion always was that, as an angel, Aziraphale shouldn’t have really needed to be told in the first place — and so he’s grown careful over the years. He wears mainly white and grey, though he allows himself the occasional light blue or tartan accessory, a little brown to balance things out here and there. His shoes are mostly sensible, and he makes sure to keep himself at least business-casual at all times. He’s struggled for years against the impulse to buy any item of clothing that might draw Heaven’s disapproval, on the theory that if he had it, he would wear it, and if he wore it, he would undoubtedly manage to run into Uriel somehow.

But today, Aziraphale has come to realize, is a new day. A brighter day. A better day. A day which, if Aziraphale has anything to say about it, is going to end with a brand new wardrobe.

He breezes through the doors without thinking any further, and is drawn up short when, as always, a bright-eyed young salesperson appears at his side. Aziraphale hasn’t actually been in here since… oh, it must have been the 1980s, or thereabouts, anyway. His Harrods visits had already been a rare enough indulgence before that little trip, and realizing he’d kept his cover so poorly that the employees thought of him as, essentially, an opera ghost… well, it had been sobering, to say the least. And, anyway, that evening taught Aziraphale about Crowley’s very useful stain-removing powers, so he hadn’t had nearly as many occasions to visit as he once did. The few times he had needed something, he’d simply ordered it online. [14]

In any case: it’s been more than thirty years since Aziraphale last stepped inside this building, and he’d rather assumed that would be long enough for Harrods to have forgotten about him. Humans are forgetful, aren’t they? Certainly they seem to repeat their own history in endless, vicious cycles — surely thirty years, a whole generation’s worth of time, should have been enough to relegate Aziraphale to a forgotten myth amongst the staff.

Yet there stands an eager young woman with a bright smile, practically vibrating with readiness to help him.

Maybe, Aziraphale thinks, a little desperately, this is just the Harrods standard, like I once thought, and Crowley was wrong about everything! Maybe they only treated him like — what did he say, like he’d just been pulled out of a lagoon? — because, well. He does sometimes seem like he’s just been pulled out of a lagoon. Maybe everyone but Crowley receives exceptional service here, and this young lady has no idea who I even am, and Crowley was pulling my leg about the rest of it, just for sport. I wouldn’t put it past him.

“Mr. Fell!” the woman says, and Aziraphale only just bites back his groan. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Everyone’s simply thrilled that you’re here — ”

“Dear, I’m so sorry to interrupt you, but I have to ask,” Aziraphale says, memory stirring just in time to give him an idea. “You wouldn’t happen to have anyone named Stephen working here, would you? He’d be… older, now, probably somewhere in his fifties.”

“I don’t think so, sir, no,” she says, looking crestfallen to have to tell him so.

Aziraphale tries not to let his own face fall too obviously. “Oh, well,” he says, “it was just a thought.” He’ll be fine, of course — he just thought that, maybe, it might… help. Aziraphale liked Stephen last time, didn’t he? Felt comfortable with him? He’s sure this young lady is perfectly lovely, but for the first time in six thousand years, the thought of picking out clothes in front of someone makes him feel a little exposed.

He wishes Crowley was here; it’s stupid and unhelpful, but true nevertheless. If Crowley was here he’d — well, make some horrible joke, probably, or pull an alarming face, or both — but he’d make it better, too, in that way he has that Aziraphale can never understand, much less explain. He’d do that thing where he relaxes Aziraphale just by being around, and then Aziraphale could get on with things, recapture the bold energy he walked in here with. It would all just be so much easier, with him. It usually is, which is something of a bother.

“Wait!” the woman says suddenly, as though something has just occurred to her. “I didn’t think — he’s Mr. Edwards to me — but I think my manager’s name is Stephen! Or, well, my manager’s…manager’s manager, but still. I can check if he’s in, if you’d like.”

“Oh!” Aziraphale says, flustered at this unexpected change, although of course he shouldn’t be — it’s been thirty years, after all, and time passes so quickly for humans. He couldn’t really have thought the lad would still be in sales. “Manager! Good for him, that’s wonderful. I certainly wouldn’t want to bother him, I’m sure he has quite a bit to do — ”

“Believe me, Mr. Fell, nobody in this building will ever be too busy for you,” the woman says, and bustles off, calling, “I’ll be back in just a minute,” over her shoulder.

When she returns a few minutes later, she is accompanied by a tall man of about 55, with light brown skin, glasses, and salt-and-pepper hair. Aziraphale can’t deny the swell of relief at his familiar face, even as, distantly, he wonders what about this whole idea he suddenly finds so frightening. It was his own plan in the first place, and they’re just clothes, after all.

“Mr. Fell!” Stephan says, sounding delighted to see him. He hurries over and shakes Aziraphale’s hand warmly. “How have you been? I must say, I worried a little that something had happened to you — or perhaps that I said something during our last encounter that put you off shopping with us?”

“Oh, no, quite the opposite, I assure you,” Aziraphale says, but he realizes with a start that it’s true — he’s avoided the store because of what Crowley told him, certainly, but a little part of him was avoiding Stephen, too. That night with the camel hair coat, he’d felt that peculiar feeling he gets when he meets a person like Oscar or Noël — someone who will, within the space of just a few conversations, become a friend for life.

Their life, anyway. That’s rather the problem.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” Stephen says. He sounds a little puzzled, which is fair, but it’s not as though Aziraphale can explain what he really meant. Humans, in his experience, don’t handle the topic of their own mortality all that well. [15] “Was there something you wanted my help with today?”

“Well,” Aziraphale says, hedging a little now, not certain quite what he wants, “I wouldn’t want to put you out — ”

“Please,” Stephen says, holding up a hand to stem the tide of Aziraphale’s protests. “It would be my pleasure.”

Aziraphale could leave now; he could turn around and go back to the bookshop and forget this whole idea. He could spare himself from whatever this feeling is in his chest, this combination of uncertainty and excitement and something else, something that’s a little like determination and a little like dread. He could stay the way he’s been all these years, dressed in clean whites and flat greys, doing his best to keep his distance from humans to avoid the lingering ache of losing them. He could do that — but without Heaven as an excuse, what kind of person would it make him?

Bit sad, really, Aziraphale thinks, in a voice he knows as well as his own, and makes up his mind.

“I’d like to make a change,” Aziraphale says firmly, drawing himself up straight and nodding his head in emphasis. “The fact of it is, I’ve been through a bit of a… shift in circumstances, you could say, and I’m tired of absolutely everything in my closet.”

“I see,” Stephen says. “Tell me, now — were you looking to just get a few new pieces, or — ”

“A whole new wardrobe,” Aziraphale says. His voice doesn’t waver at all. “And I don’t want it to be my old aesthetic, either! I want patterns and — and bright colors, and dark colors. And jeans, all these hu — ah — young people, that is — they all wear jeans these days, and I would quite honestly like to know what all that is about.”

Stephen’s eyes glaze over slightly. [16] turns to the woman who greeted Aziraphale when he arrived. “Samantha, would you mind running up to my office? Just let my assistant know that they’ll need to cancel the rest of my day.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to take up that much of your time,” Aziraphale begins, but Stephen smiles at him, waves his concerns away.

“Mr. Fell, don’t give that a moment’s thought,” he says, “I’m honestly looking forward to it,” and Aziraphale relents, allows himself to be led into the store.

~~~

Five hours later, Aziraphale walks out of Harrods carrying so many bags that he has to duck down an alley and discreetly miracle them into three manageable sacks. He’d been a little afraid that he would freeze up, or something — that with so many more options than usual, it would turn out his very soul was drab — but it had been fun, actually. It had been exciting.

Aziraphale had bought shirts and pants and shoes, blazers and overcoats, ties, ascots, two dresses and six pairs of pajamas. Aziraphale had bought a sequined dinner jacket. Aziraphale had not only tried on but purchased several different pairs of jeans, in a variety of colors, and one of those pairs was what Stephen called “distressed.”

“I suppose I have seen humans walk around in trousers like this,” Aziraphale said, examining the frayed patches of denim with suspicion. Then, catching himself, he added hastily, “Humans like me, of course! Ha ha. What a strange thing to say. I can’t imagine why I phrased it like that.”

Stephen had the courtesy to take this in stride, his face barely registering any surprise. “I assure you, Mr. Fell, the distressed look is very popular. Sometimes people just enjoy the sense that something’s been around a long time, you know?”

“I — I’m sure I do,” Aziraphale said, briefly and fervently wishing he’d just thought to claim he was his own son a hundred and twenty years ago, and hurriedly changed the subject.

Other than that little moment, which had really been Aziraphale’s own fault, Stephen was as lovely to talk to as he had been in the 1980s. Over the span of five hours their conversation had wandered from the benefits of various color schemes to a spirited debate on the merits of tartan, a long discussion about theater, their mutual hatred of Boris Johnson. He had encouraged Aziraphale to try on anything that caught his eye, and said things like, “That looks great on you, Mr. Fell,” and “I think this is how you were really meant to dress, Mr. Fell, if you don’t mind my saying so.” He was still too good a salesman by half — Aziraphale had purchased things he’d never imagined allowing himself to consider, far more than he intended to get — but honestly, Aziraphale was glad of it. With Stephen’s encouragement, the whole venture had felt slightly less ridiculous, and considerably less frightening.

And there had been that moment at the end of the visit, too, while Stephen was ringing him up.“Would you mind terribly if I ask you a question?” Stephen said, and Aziraphale, flush with the success of the trip, hadn’t seen any reason to say no.

“Whatever happened with you and that bloke of yours?” Stephen said, eyebrows waggling. “If it’s too personal, I understand and you have my apologies, but — I confess I’ve always been curious.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale said. He could feel his cheeks heating, but he waved a hand when Stephen opened his mouth again, obviously to rescind the question. “No, no, dear boy, it’s fine. Just — things are, ah, a bit complicated between the two of us, to be honest with you. I — I thought everything was one way, you could say, and because of that I didn’t think anything could ever really happen. And then things turned out to be rather another way, and I thought that meant that he and I — oh, it doesn’t matter what I thought!” Aziraphale cut himself off, voice curdling a little in frustration and banked despair. “I’m fairly certain he doesn’t — think what I’m thinking, so. No point dwelling on it, is there? Tomorrow’s a new day, and all that.”

Stephen gave him a skeptical look, tilting his head to peer doubtfully at Aziraphale over his glasses. “Look,” he said, “I know from hopeless romantics, okay? I count myself proudly amongst their number. But I know what I saw back then, and it definitely seemed like he was into you too.”

“Do you know, I think that he was,” Aziraphale said, a little wistfully. “Maybe, anyway — can’t be sure, of course, but I think for a minute there I could have had him. But I was so certain everything had to be… the way that I thought that it had to be, and I just… waited too long. I hurt him too many times, I think, making him wait like that, and now — well. Now I’ll take what I can get and be grateful.”

“Hmm,” Stephen said, not looking convinced. Lowering his voice, he added, “Here’s something I’m just going to say, and you can take it or leave it: if any part of this is concern that he might not be, ah, like you? I can put that one to rest. My colleagues in the sunglasses department say he’s been coming in here once a decade or so for generations. Always says he’s his own son, or something like that. They all think he’s a vampire.”

This, Aziraphale had to admit, was significantly cheering news.

“Is that so?” he said, keeping the laughter out of his voice by sheer force of will. “I will certainly keep that in mind, and please believe me when I say that I cannot thank you enough for this valuable information.”

“Happy to be of service,” Stephen said with a wink. “Maybe you two can work things out yet; you’d be amazed, in my experience, what a good bottle of wine and some roses can do.” He paused for a second, and then, thoughtfully, added, “Maybe put some sunglasses on the roses.”

He really is a romantic, Aziraphale thought, and, memory floating up to remind him, asked, “Say, whatever happened with you and your — I believe you described him as a tosser?”

Stephen grinned, long and slow. “Oh, him? He’s still a tosser, as it happens. We celebrated thirty-three years together this past spring, so I’d know, right?”

Well,” Aziraphale said, voice warm with delight and vicarious joy. It wasn’t, after all, as though he could throw stones when it came to hopeless romantics. “That is lovely, I must say. I hope you two are blessed with many more happy years together.”

Stephen’s face fell. Softly, he said, “I hope so too, Mr. Fell. He’s not well, actually. We’re doing all we can, but the odds aren’t good on many more years together, I’m afraid. But it’s like what you said, isn’t it — I’ll take what I can get, and be grateful.”

Pushing down the lump in his throat, Aziraphale had allowed himself to really look at Stephen then, to peer into the miasma of stressors, hopes, coping mechanisms, and past traumas that make up your average human being. Stephen’s partner’s name and diagnosis, his location, the names of his doctors, the medications he was on — it was all in Aziraphale’s mind in the space of an instant, along with the beginnings of an idea.

Before, Aziraphale had needed to ration his miracle usage, had needed to be sure he had a justification planned out in advance for anything that might come up. [17] If he wanted to do something like cure a stranger’s illness, he would have had to either a) submit paperwork in triplicate to Gabriel and wait for approval, a process that could take years to complete; b) find a way to manage the miracle in little bits and pieces, so it never looked like he was using too much power at once; or c) bully Crowley into doing it for him.

But Aziraphale had realized, standing at that counter laden down with his many bags, that for the first time in his life, there was no one monitoring his miracles. There was no one to report to, no one to call him in for a stern dressing down, no one to threaten him with a Fall. No Gabriel to condescend to him; no Uriel to sneer at him; no Sandalphon to intimidate him; no Michael to stare him down with ice-cold eyes. He had almost burst out laughing as he sent the miracle off, finding that it even felt easier to use his powers now, as though an overly cautious hand had at last eased off the throttle.

“I think you’ll find,” Aziraphale said brightly, “that sometimes things look up.” Then he had made his way to the door as quickly as possible; it wouldn’t do to have to answer any questions about it, after all.

~~~

Aziraphale goes home. He spends the rest of the afternoon sorting through his old wardrobe, deciding which pieces he wishes to keep in circulation, store for sentimental reasons, or outright give away. When the sun goes down, he orders himself some takeaway, eats it all, changes into a brand-new pair of purple silk pajamas, and spends the rest of the evening executing the decisions he’s made. It takes a long time, getting everything moved around and packed away correctly, and then there’s all the new clothing to put into its proper places — by the time he’s got it all sorted, it’s nearly four in the morning.

On a normal night, when Aziraphale runs out of things to do, he simply settles in to read a book until the sun comes up. Tonight, feeling a bit silly about it, he finds himself putting a record on and trying on his new clothes, mixing and matching them with his old favorites, attempting to get a sense of what he likes.

For something so simple, it’s fairly exhilarating. When, finally, he decides on an outfit for the day — a white Oxford shirt, no tie, beneath a beautiful blazer in a deep magenta sort of color, all over a pair of dark jeans that, despite clinging more than any of his old trousers, are somehow strangely comfortable — morning has properly broken. He goes about his usual routines, making and eating his breakfast, reading the paper, drinking tea, but the whole time he feels like something is buzzing around inside of him, like he’s overfull of either nerves or enthusiasm.

Be funny if you did the right thing and I did the wrong one, Crowley had said, once, so long ago now that it’s hard to reconcile. Is this the right thing, what Aziraphale’s doing here? Is it the right thing or the wrong one?

If he’s to believe Ronnie, of course, then whatever he does is the right thing to do, so long as he wants to do it. That, quite frankly, sounds too good to be true; Aziraphale’s no fool, and he knows life’s hard far more often than it isn’t, even for angels. Even for… well. For whatever he is now.

“I’ll just go for a little walk,” he says to himself, deciding it as it comes out of his mouth. He’ll just go walk around, and see how the humans react. That’s a good place to start, right? He’ll take a little stroll, just as a test run, and make sure nobody points and screams when they see him.

Naturally, he makes it about three steps out the bookshop’s front door before running into Crowley.

 

CHAPTER THREE

2701 BCE - GOMORRAH

Aziraphale sits in the ruins of the city for a long time.

He just wanted to come into town for… for a spot of dinner, for a cocktail. There’s this little place — there was this little place, anyway, on the west end of the city, that did these beautiful fermented date-palm drinks with nutmeg and crushed lemongrass. Aziraphale only wanted to indulge a bit of a craving, as he had last week and the week before, and he arrived to find… to find…

Well. A graveyard, really. That’s more or less the only word for it.

He gazes out at the wreckage that was Gomorrah and feels blank, empty inside, in the face of what’s been lost. It was bad enough, horrifying enough, when Above flooded this part of the world and doomed all those innocent people to drown, but this? To let them thrive enough to build a city like this one, full of life and personality and a beauty all its own, only to tear it all down and them along with it — why? What purpose could it possibly serve for Heaven?

And it was Heaven that did this; of that there is no doubt. Aziraphale would be able to tell it a hundred different ways, even if there wasn’t a pillar of salt that very obviously used to be a woman standing in what was once the road. That’ll have been Sandalphon, Aziraphale knows. He always did enjoy that kind of thing a little too much.

Feeling oddly detached from his corporeal body, Aziraphale stands up. He finds himself drawing the symbols for a Heavenly Gate in the nearest patch of rubble almost without thinking about it, taking a deep breath and preparing to go through once he’s charged it up. As he’s stepping in, he realizes that he doesn’t feel blank — he feels angry, the rage in him churning with such fervor that he’s surprised he didn’t notice it before.

“Aziraphale! Buddy!” Gabriel says, when Aziraphale steps out on the other side. He’s alone, which figures; usually Aziraphale would be glad of that, but just now he’d really like to give all of them a piece of his mind. Gabriel’s smile is wide and brittle as glass as he says, “So nice of you to stop by. A coupla decades early for your next report, though, aren’t you? You wouldn’t want to visit too often, you know. A guy can really wear out his welcome like that.”

On a purely technical level, this is my home too, Aziraphale thinks but does not say; it wouldn’t be worth the risk of Gabriel deciding it was time for him to return on a permanent basis. Instead, his voice trembling with rage, Aziraphale says, “I want to know about Gomorrah.”

Gabriel makes an exaggerated, wincing sort of face. “Oof. A little gauche to just come out and ask about it, isn’t it? Yikes, Aziraphale. We all know that sometimes shit happens, but that doesn’t mean we have to go around talking about it.” Gabriel laughs a horrible, vacant laugh, as if the very idea of talking is absurd. “I mean, it’s not as if we’re humans!

The ruins fixed in his mind — determined not to let his resolve break — Aziraphale does his best to ignore this. A little shakily, he repeats: “I want to know about Gomorrah.”

“I don’t know what you think this is going to accomplish,” Gabriel says sourly, his fake smile vanishing as if it never was. It flickers back into life a second later, though, as he spreads his hands in a what-can-you-do sort of gesture and adds, “God was very upset! Sometimes these things happen. I’m not sure what you want me to say.”

“I want you to say why,” Aziraphale says. He can feel himself crumbling in the face of Gabriel’s obvious annoyance with him, but his rage, undiminished, carries him forward. “Why would we do it? Why didn’t you tell me in advance? Why — ”

“Whoa there! It is not our place to question the Great Plan, and I know you know that,” Gabriel says. He pats Aziraphale lightly on the shoulder, looking faintly disgusted at having to touch him. “And if you want to know why we didn’t tell you, champ, why don’t you just think back on that meeting we had before the Flood? You really embarrassed yourself there, Aziraphale; everyone agreed. We just thought it would be better to spare you that, this time.”

“There were children in that city,” Aziraphale forces himself to say, though he can feel his cheeks burning with humiliation, and knows he won’t last much longer. “There were children in that flood, for that matter! And innocent men and women — ”

“Abraham couldn’t even find us ten good men in Gomorrah,” Gabriel says, voice hard now. “Not even ten!”

“Well you can’t ask a human to do it,” Aziraphale gasps, horrified. “They don’t — they can’t see the sum of a person just by looking like we can. They’re terrible judges of character! I could have found you ten good men in that city in as many minutes — ”

“You’re an angel,” Gabriel snaps. “It’s hardly the same — “

“I don’t understand how we can punish them for being the way we made them!” Aziraphale bursts out, too loud, and knows at once that he’s gone too far.

The light around Gabriel starts to brighten, slowly at first and then all at once, until looking at him is nearly blinding, an assault of brilliant white. “Well, Aziraphale,” he says, his voice billowing out from somewhere within the glow, “just because you intend for things to go a certain way doesn’t mean it all plays out as expected, now does it? I mean, we made you to be a certain way, didn’t we? And look how that turned out.”

“I,” Aziraphale starts, with no idea how he is going to continue, and is grateful when Gabriel cuts him off.

“Anyway,” Gabriel continues, still glowing so brightly that it’s an act of aggression, that it hurts Aziraphale’s eyes, “you could argue that what we really wanted the humans to do was live forever in peaceful ignorance in the Garden, couldn’t you? And if that was the case, and someone — and I’m not naming names here or anything, Aziraphale, but we both know who I’m talking about — if someone had, say, let the humans eat from the Tree of Knowledge on his watch, well. Then that idiot could hardly think he was in a place to question how the rest of us deal with his mistake. Right?”

“Right,” Aziraphale says quietly, to the floor. He was so stupid to come here. He was so stupid to think he had the right. “Of course. I apologize. I’ll go.”

Good,” Gabriel says. Then, dropping his halo and fixing his smile back in place, he adds, “Feel free to pop in any time, Aziraphale. But not too often, right? Okay then. Buh-bye.”

Aziraphale lands back in the ruins a few moments later. He scuffs the gateway out with the bottom of his shoe. He sits, again, for a long time, and tries not to think about anything at all.

Eventually, he goes looking for Crawly.

There is not a lot of logic to this move, admittedly. Crawly might be fun to talk to, but he’s from the other side; it’s not as though they could ever really matter to each other, really be friends, unless the unthinkable were to happen and Aziraphale were to Fall. He feels perilously close to that just now, which should be all the more reason to avoid seeking Crawly out. The thin ice he’s skating on with Gabriel would certainly break under the weight of a transgression as serious as actively desiring a demon’s company.

Despite this, Aziraphale wanders for days, asking whoever he meets if they’ve seen a person with yellow eyes. This tactic yields results relatively quickly, and after just a week of searching, Aziraphale finds himself walking through a raging thunderstorm, soaked to the skin, eyes fixed on a small building in the distance that he’s been told might be a good place to try.

A spike of lightning flashes, illuminating the building from behind. It is made entirely of black stone, and Aziraphale’s mouth twitches into a smile for the first time since he left the ruins; it’s so typical.

When he arrives he knocks on the door like a normal, polite person. When no one comes to answer it, he allows himself to really look at the house -- it’s occupied, all right, and not by a human, either. Knowing even as he does it that he won’t be proud of it later, Aziraphale scoops a couple of rocks off the ground and throws them against the side of the building, each one making a loud Thwack! as it hits the stone.

“Crawly!” Aziraphale yells over the heavy patter of rain, the distant boom of thunder. He knows this will look bad for him — bad for them both — if Heaven or Hell happen to be watching, but they never have been before, and right now he doesn’t really care. “I know you’re in there! I need to talk to you!”

It takes a few moments, but then the front door slams open and Crawly stalks out. His long hair is tied back away from his face, and he looks furious.

“It was the eyes, wasn’t it?” Crawly demands, before Aziraphale can even say hello. “The bloody eyes, that’s always what gets me! Ask a human to remember your drink order, or even their own age, and they’re about as much use as a broken plowshare, but you say, ‘Hey, you seen a guy with yellow eyes?’ and every one of them can suddenly recall exactly where I live.” He takes a deep breath and then huffs out half a laugh, pushing a loose strand of already-sodden hair out of his face. “What do you want, then? Here to thwart my wiles and whatnot? I haven’t really got anything on at the moment, but you can give it a go if you like.”

“I’m not here to thwart you,” Aziraphale says, and stops. He doesn’t — he came all the way here and he doesn’t know why, suddenly. What, exactly, is he supposed to say? That he spent a week tracking Crawly down just to talk to him? That he simply found himself doing it and decided it didn’t seem worth stopping? That something beautiful is gone, and it will never come back, and Aziraphale feels ripped up inside about it, and Crawly is the only person he could think of who might understand? All of that would sound ridiculous, so he just stares at Crawly, mouth half-open, panicking, for what feels like far too long.

“Hey,” Crawly says; all the irritation has mysteriously vanished from his tone. He lowers his head to peer directly into Aziraphale’s eyes as he says, “Are you all right, angel? Seems like — no offense, or anything — but it seems like you’re a little... off. You’re not usually one for getting wet, for one thing.”

“They destroyed Gomorrah,” Aziraphale says. He doesn’t even mean to; it just falls out of his mouth, as though Crawly’s concern has dragged it loose. “Heaven, I mean. It’s gone, the whole city. Everything. It’s just ruins. In a few years it’ll be as though it was never there at all.”

“Wait, what?” Crawly demands. He looks stunned, sick. “All of it? Even — I mean, all those people — ”

“Dead,” Aziraphale says, on a well-timed crack of thunder, and shudders. “Except the one Sandalphon turned into a pillar of salt. Or, well — I suppose she’s dead too, of course.”

“Doesn’t seem like the sort of thing someone would survive,” Crawly agrees cautiously. “Wow. Well. That is… deeply horrifying news, in fact, but thanks for telling me, I guess. Would’ve been a nasty shock to come across it unawares.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, at a bit of a remove, staring out into the storm. “It was.”

Crawly gives Aziraphale another long look. Then, in a voice that Aziraphale would call gentle if anyone else were using it, barely audible over the rain, he says, “Look — why don’t you come inside for a few minutes? We don’t have to tell anyone about it or anything. Just... come in for a bit, yeah? Sit down, dry off, maybe wait for the storm to pass. We can have a drink in honor of Gomorrah. Can’t see how there’d be any harm in that.”

Aziraphale should say no, obviously. He should tell Crawly that of course there’s harm in that, and that he’s an angel, and that he has better things to do with his time. But he’s tired and he’s heartsick and he’s soaked and he’s sad, and Gabriel’s words keep running through his mind, each one accompanied with a lash of humiliation and shame. What could it hurt, to follow Crawly inside? What could it matter, in the face of everything else that’s gone wrong?

“All right,” Aziraphale says quietly, and knows as he says it that this is what he came here for; this is what he wanted. “I suppose one drink would be fine.”

 

PRESENT DAY - LONDON

“Crowley!” Aziraphale says, drawn up short. “I — I wasn’t expecting — ah. Hello. How was… your nap?”

Crowley looks much the same as he did two weeks ago — same hairstyle, same basic outfit — other than the way his mouth is hanging open, of course. Aziraphale, desperate to notice anything but that, realizes that his sunglasses are different as well; they still have side shields, like his last pair, but these lenses are a mirrored yellow-amber color. It’s a clever trick, giving Crowley’s face something of the quality it has when you can actually see his eyes, and Aziraphale wonders with a start if perhaps they just missed each other at Harrods. Wryly, remembering what Stephen said about the sunglasses salespeople’s opinion of Crowley, he realizes it probably wouldn’t be the first time.

Oh, Aziraphale can’t ignore it anymore — Crowley’s still just standing there, mouth agape, staring at him. He’s so still he might as well be an ill-placed statue, or a pillar of salt. Then again, at least a statue wouldn’t be able to make him feel so nakedly seen; at least a pillar of salt would have lost any chance at judging him long ago. This is too much to ask Aziraphale to bear, isn’t it, right out of the gate like this? Surely he can’t be expected to just remain here, nerves screaming, waiting for Crowley to say something?

Aziraphale shifts uncomfortably on his feet and, deciding he can stand it no longer, hopefully says, “Perhaps you’re not awake. Sleepwalking’s something that happens, right? With sleeping? So maybe you’re doing that. It’s an awfully common literary device, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find — ”

Aziraphale,” Crowley says slowly, as if he is, in fact, just coming awake, “you’re — you’re wearing colors.

“I wear colors!” Aziraphale says, nettled. “Pastels are colors! Brown is a color! Beige is a color!”

“That’s — I mean, mostly rubbish, actually, ‘Beige is a color,’ that’s horrible — but. Listen. Those are jeans! You’re not even wearing a tie,” Crowley says. He sounds honestly stunned; maybe even a little breathless, for some reason. “I — your top button’s undone! I can see your neck, Aziraphale. Your whole neck!”

“Well, what’s so wrong with that?” Aziraphale demands, irritated now. He hadn’t expected much from Crowley — it wasn’t like this was something they ever really talked about, being more or less unable to share taste in clothing by default — but this is ridiculous, honestly. “You’ve seen my neck before, haven’t you? And anyway, it’s just — it’s just a neck! We’ve all got them!”

“Some debate on that,” Crowley says, still in a distant, shock-softened voice. “About snakes, I mean — kind of a “no neck” or “all neck” sort of situation, if you see what I’m saying -- neither here nor there, really — ”

“Oh, no one’s talking about snake necks,” Aziraphale snaps. He crosses his arms over his chest, surprised by how stung he feels. “You can just say that you hate it, you know. You’re not doing a very good job of hiding it, anyway.”

“Who’s hiding anything?” Crowley says. He puts his hands in the air as if to signal his innocence. “I didn’t say I hate it; I don’t hate it. It’s just — I mean — in six thousand years, I’ve only ever seen you in white, eggshell, cream, ivory, bone — ”

“I didn’t just wear white,” Aziraphale says tartly. “I also wore many pastels, and greys, and shades of brown. And I seem to recall having lunch with you in Paris in quite a brightly colored outfit — ”

“Oh, come on, you stole that off that revolutionary,” Crowley says. The shock seems to have faded away in favor of a familiar, warm amusement; Aziraphale will take it. “Mr. Guillotine Man! It’s not as though you picked it out yourself. And, if I recall, you complained all through lunch that it was garish. You said it made you look like a peppermint candy.”

“Well, yes,” Aziraphale admits. “In my defense, it did make me look like a peppermint candy.”

“My point,” Crowley says, waving as if to clear all thoughts of peppermint away, “is that, you know, I was only asleep for a couple of weeks, and a couple of weeks ago you wouldn’t wear anything brighter than beige, and most of your clothes were from the 1800s — ”

“Just some of them!” Aziraphale protests weakly. “A good piece is a good piece, Crowley, you can hardly have expected me to start anew every few years — ”

“And now you’re standing here in jeans and magenta,” Crowley finishes, cutting him off. “To be clear: I like it, angel. It suits you. It was just — you just surprised me, that’s all.”

“I suppose that’s fair,” Aziraphale says. After all, hasn’t he reacted to most of Crowley’s major changes with surprise over the years? Hasn’t he said “I’m sure I’ll get used to it,” in a snotty little voice time and again, even after promising himself that he’d stop, even after noticing the way it always made Crowley’s face fall? He’s never quite realized what that must have felt like until now, and he feels a sharp stab of regret, shame, to think of it.

Sometimes, Aziraphale thinks that humans are mortal because if they didn’t die, they’d have to do this, this long term — communication aggregation thing, which Aziraphale doesn’t know how to explain or even think about. In some ways, his entire relationship with Crowley is just a conversation that’s been going on for six thousand years, one that’s ranged over every topic and idea except those that they, by agreement, Didn’t Talk About. And that’s beautiful and it’s brilliant, of course, but it’s difficult, too; it means there are pockets of ground where past disagreements and slights and agonies are buried, ready to explode the minute either one of them steps wrong. Aziraphale thinks the average human, wonderful creatures though they are, would probably melt down into eternal hysterics after the first thousand years or so. Honestly, some days he feels like he might.

But then Crowley smiles, and he shakes his head, and he says, “So, I guess you’re — liking it, then?” He lowers his sunglasses so he can peer at Aziraphale with his eyes uncovered, and, conspiratorially, adds, “You know what I mean. Being… a free agent, let’s say. No longer knocking on Heaven’s door.”

“I think so,” Aziraphale says, and smiles hesitantly back. “It’s… new. I’ll have to let you know for certain once it’s all a little more familiar. What about you? How’s ex-demonhood?”

“Well, if you’re just going to come out and say it, where’s the fun,” Crowley mutters, but not with any real rancor. “Mostly I’ve just been asleep, to be honest with you. That was amazing. I ordered this pillow off an infomercial in the middle of the night a few months ago -- just apocalypse stress buying, you know how it is -- ”

“Oh, sure,” Aziraphale says easily, thinking about the enormous number of cooking devices currently stuffed into his hall closet, all acquired under similar circumstances. [18]

“And I tell you what,” Crowley says, “I don’t know if it was the whole ‘Actually, the world isn’t ending in blood and despair after all,’ thing, or if that pillow really did, as it claimed it would, realign my evening spine — ”

“Your evening spine?”

“My evening spine,” Crowley confirms. “Commercial had a whole thing about your day spine and your evening spine and your night spine — I think, anyway. I’d had a few bottles of wine, and as I say it out loud, it sounds a bit dodgy. Best sleep I’ve had in decades, though, so who knows?”

“Well,” Aziraphale says, amused despite himself, despite the complicated snarl of emotions that always finds itself tangled up in his chest when he looks at Crowley, “I’m glad to hear it, my dear. Did you want to — oh!” He remembers something, suddenly, and freezes, a hand over his mouth in horror. “I — I had an appointment today! I can’t believe I forgot — oh, it’s nearly an hour away and I’m supposed to be there in twenty minutes, how could I be so stupid — ”

“I’ll take you,” Crowley says at once, already stepping back towards his Bentley, which is parked up against the curb in a spot clearly marked for bicycles. “Come on, get in the car.”

“That’s very kind of you, but we’ll never make it,” Aziraphale says, dejected. “It was a silly idea anyway — oh, but I do feel so guilty for wasting the poor woman’s time!”

“Please,” Crowley says with a scoff. “I could get us there in ten if I had to. You know how I drive, angel — we’ll make it. Get in the Bentley. Give me the address. It’ll be fun.”

“Nothing good has ever happened after you’ve said that,” Aziraphale says warily. “Not even once, Crowley.”

Crowley just grins at him, and, really, what choice does Aziraphale have? He climbs into the Bentley, and holds on.

~~~

After the first few minutes have passed in the car [19] , and Aziraphale’s had time to adjust to the breakneck speed, he says, “Thank you, really, for doing this. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

“‘S no problem,” Crowley says easily. “Don’t really have anything to do with my time these days, do I? Except sleep, of course.”

“Of course,” Aziraphale allows, trying not to sound too mystified by the whole concept. “I confess, I’ve been struggling with an excess of free time myself. It’s strange; I never really thought of my Heavenly duties as particularly occupying, but I feel a bit unmoored without them.”

Exactly,” Crowley says. He makes an aggressive left turn at 95 miles per hour and ignores Aziraphale’s yelp. “I mean, my career in Hell, if you could call it that — talk about doing the bare minimum. I was doing your work some of the time, for Heav — for He — oh, for whoever’s bloody sake! But suddenly I’m realizing how much time I spent planning my lies, or putting together pitches for ideas I knew they wouldn’t pay any attention to, and things I mostly didn’t do.”

“You did some of them,” Aziraphale points out, good-naturedly enough.

“Don’t you start about the Dread Sigil Odegra,” Crowley warns, shooting Aziraphale a quelling look. “It wasn’t supposed to go that way, you know; it was just supposed to — ”

“Draw any soul that crossed it that much closer to Hell?”

“They were doing that to themselves,” Crowley mutters. “It wasn’t supposed to go like that, all right? There wasn’t supposed to be any apocalypse, first of all, not for ages, and secondly — they were all so miserable anyway. At least keeping it on the road, you know... kept it on the road.”

“What?” Aziraphale says, turning his head to stare at Crowley. “You — but I thought it was like a prayer wheel! I thought that everyone who drove on it sent a — well, not a prayer, I suppose, but a — whatever the equivalent is, to Hell!”

“Ah, yeah,” Crowley says, with a wince. Then, brightly, “You want to stop for a milkshake? I’ll still get us there in plenty of time — ”

“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, who knows all the signs from years of experience, “what are you not telling me?”

There’s a moment where Aziraphale thinks Crowley isn’t going to say anything; then he sags behind the wheel, clearly giving in, although of course he doesn’t slow down a single mile per minute.

“It did work like a prayer wheel,” Crowley says, on a sigh. “In a way. Certainly I told Hell it worked like a prayer wheel — but, you know. They never really check these things, and ultimately it doesn’t bloody matter what we do anyway, because the humans themselves are just half a step from grace and evil every minute of their lives. And they were already — I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love cars, nobody loves cars like I do — but cars make humans so much worse, somehow.”

“Do you really think so?” Aziraphale says. “I mean, I suppose humans have always been… complicated… when it comes to moving vehicles. Back in the chariot days — ”

“Nah, that was different,” Crowley says, waving a hand. “A car’s like a little moving room, angel, all closed off from the rest of the world. You roll up your windows and turn up your music and nothing else matters. The power goes to their heads, I swear. You’re not out there in it, but even without the Dread Sigil, most cars on the road are filled with humans at their worst, in their bitterest, angriest, most out-of-control moments.”

“So, what,” Aziraphale says, slowly, not quite understanding, “you put the sigil there to -- ”

“There wasn’t supposed to be an apocalypse,” Crowley says again, as though Aziraphale has put him on trial. “It was just supposed to — trap that energy on the road, you know? At least that way they didn’t take it home. The plan was that the apocalypse wouldn’t happen, or it’d be ages and ages away, way longer than that shoddy infrastructure would last. It was supposed to just fall apart, releasing all that pent-up energy into the ether or whatever, and in the meantime I could tell my bosses I was helping humanity along towards evil! Win-win. I never meant for all that stored energy to, er. Ignite.”

“But you weren’t helping humanity towards evil,” Aziraphale says. Though he shouldn’t be — he knows what kind of person Crowley really is, deep down — he can’t help but be a little surprised. “You were helping humanity towards — ”

“Oh, don’t,” Crowley says wretchedly, cutting him off. “Don’t say it; just because I’m not an ‘official’ demon anymore doesn’t mean I want to hear whatever that was going to be. And I wasn’t, anyway, I wasn’t helping them towards — whatever you were going to say. I was helping them towards neutral, if I was helping them towards anything.” He flexes his fingers against the steering wheel, and, more quietly, adds, “It’s so hard for most of them. Life, I mean. It shouldn’t be so hard, that’s the problem; what fun is there in kicking someone who’s already down?”

Aziraphale risks a look at Crowley, a proper one, the sort he can’t allow himself too often or it’ll get to be a habit. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches the way Crowley’s long fingers flex and thump against the steering wheel, the slightly cringing set of his shoulders, the uncomfortable little twist to his mouth. Crowley always gets this way after he admits to having been kind, despite the fact that he is kind, more often than not, when you know where to look for it; Aziraphale has always found it interesting. It’s an oddly endearing quality, the way Crowley prefers to take credit only for things that make him look bad, and that sometimes (perhaps often) he hasn’t even really done.

“I’m glad you are the way you are,” Aziraphale decides to say out loud, for some godforsaken reason. The moment it crosses his lips he’s consumed by regret, but, having no other options, he presses on frantically with: “I mean, ah. You know. It’s supposed to be — good — to, ah… give... affirmations! Yes! I’ve been missing giving affirmations, Crowley, like I used to when I was a soldier of Heaven. Ha ha! There it is! Perfectly normal thing for me to have said!”

“Is that right?” Crowley says. His voice is mild, but he’s giving Aziraphale a look he can’t interpret. “Don’t seem to recall much of that in the old Heavenly playbook. Of course, it has been a long time.”

“Oh, yes, many chapters — released after you were out — pages and pages on affirmations,” Aziraphale says firmly, although he is, himself, rather hazy on the details of the whole area. “The humans go crazy for them, or so I’m told.”

“Is that right,” Crowley says again, but this time it’s not a question. There’s something about his tone of voice, the smile twitching at the very edges of his mouth; just for a second, Aziraphale thinks that maybe -- maybe the window isn’t closed after all. Maybe the nap was just a nap, and the ciao was just a ciao, and —

“So, what’s this appointment for, then?” Crowley says, and the moment is broken.

“Oh, it’s — it’s just something Stephen set up for me yesterday,” Aziraphale says. In a moment of unfortunate mental mechanics, his thoughts screech away from a rather warm, fuzzy imagining of confessing his feelings for Crowley at the side of a pond, and back to the moment at hand. It occurs to him too late that Crowley might not have been the right person to bring along for this little errand. That, in fact, the whole thing might be a mistake.

“Stephen, Stephen,” Crowley says, as if to himself. Then he snaps his fingers and says, “Oh, Stephen — from Harrods, right? The late 80s?”

“The very same,” Aziraphale says, a little nervously. He thinks he can see the building they’re headed for on the horizon, and, oh, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be Crowley’s sort of thing at all.

“He must’ve been the one who,” Crowley stops, gestures at Aziraphale’s outfit, and continues, “helped with all this, right? Always nice to see an old face. So, what, we’re going to — pick up a very special pair of shoes, or something? A couple of bolts of satin?”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, very nervous now. They’re nearly there. In a moment, Crowley will realize where they’re going. “Not exactly. I’d been there for rather a long time, you see, and we got to talking about — well, London transportation, and I mentioned that recently I’ve thought it might be time to — to consider my options. On that front. And he said he had this friend, a lovely woman, who could take care of me, and, well, I just thought... ” Aziraphale trails off, because he can see the moment of truth is upon them. “Crowley, I — ”

No,” Crowley breathes in horror.

Before them, looming and unmissable, is a Smart Car dealership. Aziraphale looks from the building to Crowley’s face and sighs; this really is a cruel thing to do to him, however accidental.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” Aziraphale says, meaning it. “If I’d really thought about it before I got in the car I would have warned you, but I was late, and you offered, and… well. Here we are.”

Crowley wrenches the steering wheel to one side before they can actually enter the car park, and pulls to a stop on the side of the road. Urgently, he hisses, “Lissssten, angel, I can’t be seen in there!”

“You don’t have to come in with me,” Aziraphale says kindly. “You can stay out here, and — ”

“And loiter, in front of a — a — oh, don’t make me say it,” Crowley says, sounding ill. “People could see me, Aziraphale! And you’ll be in there, so it’ll look like I just came to — ogle the cars. These cars. That’s not — that’s not my brand! You can’t make me do it!”

“Your brand?” Aziraphale says, his guilt fading in the face of this nonsense. “Surely that’s wearing sunglasses in the night time, isn’t it? If it’s anything, that is; I’m not sure I entirely believe a person can have a ‘brand’ in the first place. In any case,” he continues, holding up a hand to keep Crowley from protesting, “no one is making you do anything. You may stay out here, or come inside, or, if you must, drive away and leave me here. I can always have someone call me a car, if needs be.”

“No, don’t — don’t do that,” Crowley says, strangled. “You don’t have to do that, I can… I can come inside.”

Aziraphale shrugs and gets out of the car. “Do what you feel you must,” he says as he shuts the door. “I have an appointment to keep.”

He only makes it a few steps before Crowley is at his side, speaking quickly and forcefully into his ear. “You can’t really be thinking of buying one of these cars, can you? Not really.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me wanting to drive,” Aziraphale says, largely to avoid answering the question. “You do it all the time, after all. Rather poorly, too, I hate to say.”

“I’m an excellent driver,” Crowley gasps. He staggers a little, as though Aziraphale has dealt him a killing blow. “How could you say that to me? And after all those times the Bentley has picked you up and whisked you away from danger!” Crowley crosses his arms over his chest, though he keeps up with Aziraphale’s quickening pace. “Ungrateful, that’s what I call it. Just because none of the humans are up to my standards doesn’t mean their laws are right!”

“Look, Crowley,” Aziraphale begins, in mollifying tones — he hadn’t realized it would be such a sore point, though in retrospect perhaps he should have.

Crowley doesn’t allow him to finish. “Oh, don’t give me that — we’re not talking about my driving, anyway, we can come back to that later! What — why — a Smart Car?” He grabs Aziraphale by the shoulder, drawing them both to a halt. “You can’t want a Smart Car.”

“Whyever not?” Aziraphale says, with as much hauteur as he can manage. In truth, he’d just been more or less drunk on several hours of shopping according to his most capricious whims; when Stephen said, “You might like a Smart Car, Mr. Fell,” Aziraphale had just liked the sound of the name. He is, admittedly, having some misgivings as they get closer to the front door — he hadn’t pictured them as being quite so small.

“Oh, come on,” Crowley says. He gestures at the nearest model, which looks, to Aziraphale, roughly the size of a large toaster. “You could have any car you wanted, angel. Any car at all! I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you were thinking of taking up driving, I could have told you this wasn’t the way to do it — ”

“Stephen says they’re very good for parking!” Aziraphale says, not sure why he’s bothering to defend the strange little machines. He knows Crowley’s right, but he feels so silly for bringing him out here at all that he can’t help but dig his heels in, just on reflex. “And — and they don’t use very much petrol — ”

“But you’re not going to have to use any petrol!” Crowley cries, throwing up his hands. “You think I’ve ever put new petrol in the Bentley? No! It got one tank in 1933 and that’s still doing the trick, because you and I don’t have to think about things like -- miles per gallon! Or parking! I mean, parking, Aziraphale? Listen to yourself!”

“Well,” Aziraphale says, knowing he needs to back down and edging his way along the cliffside, “I suppose they do look a bit… cramped. ”

Cramped,” Crowley repeats, flat. He opens and shuts his mouth soundlessly a few times, blows out a long breath, and then says, “Look. I know you; I know the way you are, and there is no way that — thing — is going to do it for you. It just can’t! You and all the stuff you’ll try to load in there — it’ll be like a clown car! You’ve got to see that! You’re going to want somewhere to put all the books you end up driving around to pick up, and your bags from ‘this lovely little stand I found on the side of the road, Crowley, can you imagine that?’”

“I’ll thank you to stop mocking me this instant,” Aziraphale snaps, a little hurt at this brutal (if accurate) caricature. He starts walking again towards the dealership, just on principle; he’s more grateful than annoyed when Crowley steps in front of him to stop him.

“Ah, come on, don’t be like that,” Crowley says. “I mean it as — it’s not like it’s a bad thing, that’s not what I’m saying. Buy whatever you want from the side of the road, angel, don’t let me stop you. That’s the whole thing I’m trying to say; your car should work for you. If it doesn’t, then what’s the point?”

Aziraphale looks at Crowley for a moment, and then at the long line of tiny cars stretched out before him, and sighs. “Oh, I suppose you’re probably right. It certainly isn’t what I was picturing, I’ll tell you that, and. Well. I do think I’d feel a bit silly trying to get anything more than myself in and out of it.”

Yes,” Crowley says, looking immensely relieved. “Finally! You really had me going for a minute there; I was afraid I might have to make my peace with this, and I’m genuinely not sure I could have done it.”

“No, no, you’re right. It’s not a good fit. You can just take me back to the bookshop,” Aziraphale says, looking at the ground. “I’ll call and apologize for missing the appointment later. I’m sorry I put you to the trouble of bringing me out here; it was a ridiculous idea in the first place.”

Crowley stares at him for a long moment. Then, slowly, he says, “Aziraphale. Do you really think I’m going to pass up the opportunity to see you behind the wheel of a proper car?”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, surprised and — and pleased, in this way only Crowley can ever wrest from him. There’s a smile growing into a grin on Crowley’s face, and Aziraphale can feel himself matching it as he says, “I… suppose not, when you put it like that. Did you have something in mind?”

Crowley just laughs, and leads him back to the car.

~~~

After a harrowing hour on backroads that weren’t built for Crowley’s style of driving, followed by a short walk up a narrow dirt path, Aziraphale finds himself in a large green field full of classic cars.

“Just a well-timed whim,” Crowley says with a shrug, correctly interpreting Aziraphale’s questioning glance. “Your picking today to start thinking about driving, I mean. You get outdoor car shows like this most weekends in the summer, but this happens to be one of the better ones.”

“Fascinating,” Aziraphale says, stepping out into the clearing with Crowley beside him. “So these are all — what, enthusiasts, then?”

“Pretty much,” Crowley says. One of the humans walking by waves at him; Aziraphale’s surprised when he hears Crowley say, “Hey, Dinesh! Nice to see you,” as they pass. A moment later, it happens again, this time with a woman called Matilda; the third time, it’s a little old man in a bowler hat named Moussa, and Aziraphale feels he has to say something.

“Do you come to a lot of these things?” Aziraphale says, instead of It’s very obvious, my dear, that you know most everyone here, and must be a very active part of this community. It’ll be better if Crowley tells Aziraphale himself.

“Oh, I keep my hand in,” Crowley says vaguely. “I’m not really a collector, you know — don’t really have any needs beyond the one — but I like to look, talk to the owners. I like cars; they’re interesting. No two models are quite alike.”

“Like people,” Aziraphale offers, and Crowley scoffs.

“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” he says, “but sure, if you want.” He catches the eye of a septuagenarian a few rows down and calls, “Morning, Mrs. Hoang!”

“Anthony, is that you?” she calls back, and waves her arms over her head. “You old devil -- come over here and give me a proper hello!”

As they cross to her, Crowley mutters, “Just follow my lead and don’t directly contradict anything I say, all right? I’ve got a careful system here, so they don’t figure out I’m, you know, an eldritch being from before time, and all that. Can’t have you blowing my cover.”

“Do you know, just yesterday Stephen told me the entire sunglasses department at Harrods thinks that you’re a vampire?” Aziraphale says sunnily, and enjoys Crowley’s look of open horror for the last few moments of their walk.

The woman — Mrs. Hoang — envelopes Crowley in a large hug a moment later. Aziraphale stands slightly back, frankly stunned to see Crowley not only accept this but even tentatively pat her, as if this is an unfortunate but expected imposition that he doesn’t really mind. In all the years Aziraphale’s known him, he’s never seen Crowley hug… well… anyone, come to think of it. Certainly not Aziraphale; for the first few thousand years the two of them studiously avoided touching at all, just in case an angel and a demon making physical contact opened up a black hole or something. When it eventually happened by accident, that night at Crowley’s house after Gomorrah fell, both of them were absolutely wasted on an atrocious beverage that Crowley had fermented himself. It had been riotously funny, at the time, the way their hands had brushed and they’d both frozen in terror; they’d laughed about it even years later, though mostly when they were similarly drunk.

It occurs to Aziraphale now, watching Crowley gently disentangle himself from Mrs. Hoang, his limbs folding with an unusual awkwardness back to his sides, to wonder if perhaps what they’d both thought was funny was, in fact, terribly sad. A small tragedy spinning out before their very eyes.

“Az — er — Mr. Fell!” Crowley says, catching himself at the last moment. He gives Aziraphale a brief but speaking look over his sunglasses. “You should go look around. Don’t worry about miles per gallon or how it’ll fit in a bloody parking space, all right? Just go and see if any of them make you feel something.”

“Now, what kind of advice is that to give him?” Mrs. Hoang snaps. “And you’re not even going to introduce me, Anthony? I call it rude.”

“Ah, Mr. Fell doesn’t need any better advice than that,” Crowley says. To Aziraphale’s shock, he gingerly puts his arm around Mrs. Hoang’s shoulders and begins to lead her away. “And you don’t want to meet him, anyway. You think I’m rude? He’s as rude as a — a — well, something rude, anyway.”

Aziraphale makes a little noise of outrage under his breath, though he understands what Crowley’s doing. He does it himself, sometimes, when circumstances align to bring Crowley around one of his own favorite humans; it’s just less messy that way. For better or worse, they have similar taste in people, and when someone they both care for shuffles off their mortal coil… it’s not pretty, is the truth. Things tend to get out of hand. It might hurt in the moment, watching Crowley steer this person he’s obviously close to hastily away from Aziraphale, but in the long term he knows it’s for the best. He’s learned that the hard way too many times to count.

He walks away slowly, catching snatches of Crowley and Mrs. Hoang’s conversation. She appears to be catching him up on her life as though he’s just any other person, talking about a recent trip to Vietnam to visit family, proudly bragging about her wife’s new job; it’s odd, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. Aziraphale’s always known, after all, that Crowley has human friends, the same way he himself does. Certainly he’s been there to witness the meltdown after enough of them have died to be quite sure of the fact.

It’s still strange to see Crowley like this, acting for all the world as though he’s just — just one of these humans. It’s ironic, given his eyes and the fact that he was actively cast out of Heaven for failing to conform, but Crowley’s always been better at this than Aziraphale; he’s always been good at blending in. It really shouldn’t work that way, since he’s exactly the same with everyone all the time, his personality as relentless and unavoidable as the sun rising each morning. Crowley’s changed enormously over the years, but the underlying bedrock of him is just as it was that first day on the Garden wall. He’s never really been able to shape himself around anyone’s desires but his own.

Strangely, Aziraphale feels something like jealousy stab at his gut, breathtaking and sharp. It’s absurd, of course; how could he be jealous of Crowley? Crowley’s spent the last six thousand years under the thumb of Hell — surely, of the two of them, he had it worse.

Aziraphale decides to turn his attention, at last, to the cars.

After a few minutes of walking around, he has to admit: he can understand why Crowley appreciates these machines. Aziraphale’s never spent much time thinking about cars, really; he’d quite enjoyed driving a chariot once upon a time, and everything after that had seemed rather a let down. What was the point? If you couldn’t feel the wind on your face, hear the steady thump thump of your horses pulling you forward, then honestly why even bother? [20]

Still, some of these machines are beautiful, in their own way. Aziraphale can see that. They’re not to his taste, exactly, but…

oh.

The car Aziraphale finds himself stopping in front of is a convertible, its white leather top folded back, painted in a cheerful blue just a shade darker than robin’s egg. The interior, like the top, is done in white leather, and the overall effect is a bit like something that might be painted on the window at one of those throwback diners. Despite this, Aziraphale can’t help but picture himself driving down the road in it, the wind in his hair, the sun in his eyes. The thought of it makes him feel unaccountably delighted.

“The 1969 Cadillac DeVille,” Crowley says, from just behind him. Aziraphale jumps a little, but composes himself quickly as Crowley adds, “That’s a nice choice, for what it’s worth. It’s not what I’d pick, but I’ve got what I’d pick. I think it would suit you.”

“I’m only looking at it,” Aziraphale says, though he is, in fact, resting two fingers ever so lightly against the driver’s side door handle. “It’s not as though I’ve chosen it or anything. I have — I should do some research, and — ”

“Oi, Gerald!” Crowley calls, waving to someone over Aziraphale’s head. “We’re going to take this one for a test drive, yeah?”

“If you’re not back in an hour I’ll set my dogs after you,” someone — presumably Gerald — replies, in rather a more cheerful tone than the sentiment would suggest.

Crowley snatches a set of keys presumably tossed by Gerald out of the air, and, sounding unconcerned, calls back, “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Then he turns, grinning widely, to Aziraphale. “Well? No research like experience, I always say.”

“When have you ever said that?” Aziraphale says, though he takes the keys from Crowley’s open palm anyway, glancing nervously from them to the DeVille. It’s one thing to look at it; the thought of actually driving it is a bit frightening. “I don’t know, Crowley. I’ve never really driven before — well, not a car, in any case. What if I crash it? It would be such a shame to ruin it; it’s a lovely machine.”

“You’ll be fine,” Crowley says, in a voice that somehow manages to communicate that he’s rolling his eyes behind his sunglasses. “Driving’s easy, you’ll see — the car more or less just does whatever you want it to do, although don’t get me started on the radio. And even if you do crash it, we’d just fix it up, right? So really, you haven’t got any good argument against it, and we might as well hit the road.”

“Are you taking that test drive or not?” calls the voice that Aziraphale associates with Gerald. “You don’t need the keys, you know, if you’re just going to stand there and look at it.”

“Shut it, Gerald!” Crowley calls back. “We’ll go when we go!” To Aziraphale, more quietly, he says, “Just get in, angel, will you?” in a tone which suggests, rather horrifyingly, that Aziraphale is embarrassing him in front of his friends.

Well. A little huffily, Aziraphale gets into the car; his sour mood fades when, before he’s even put the key in the ignition, the engine roars to life.

“Ah, yeah, that’ll happen,” Crowley says, as he climbs into the passenger’s seat. “Go ahead and put the keys in anyway, though, Gerald’ll have an absolute fit if you lose them.”

Aziraphale does as he’s told, and is surprised and pleased when the car puts itself in gear and pulls them out of the field, beeping gently to clear passengers out of the way. If he’d known driving would be this easy, he would have tried picking it up years ago.

“Well, you’ll never learn doing it that way,” Crowley observes, but he doesn’t sound that fussed about it. He reclines his seat, puts his feet up on the dash, and lets out a contented sigh. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.”

“Of course,” Aziraphale says. Tentatively, he puts his hands on the wheel.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

1912 - THE ATLANTIC OCEAN

Aziraphale looks down at his pocket watch and barely resists the urge to scream.

He had been puzzled, a month ago, to find himself itching with the urge to travel to America. He’d been more puzzled still when, after booking a same-day ticket on an absolute whim, packing in twenty minutes, and struggling through a long sea voyage with an inadequate selection of reading material, he’d set foot in New York City only to be seized just as urgently with the desire to return home at once. It had been odd, certainly, but after thousands of years as an ethereal being, Aziraphale has accepted that it’s best to just trust his instincts, however inconvenient or bizarre. Usually, he’s found, the purpose of these things made itself clear in fairly short order. He’d bemusedly booked passage on the RMS Carpathia and spent a few days rereading the paltry handful of books he bothered to bring along, waiting for something to happen.

When, earlier tonight, he just happened to be standing next to the open radio room door when the distress call came in — well. At that point things had all become rather obvious.

Still, it’s strange. Aziraphale shouldn’t be this nervous, for one thing. Oh, he’s horrified, of course; it’s certainly a tragedy, what they’re heading towards. He can feel it. Already he mourns, though he’s not sure yet what they’ll find; already he is sick with sadness about those he knows they won’t be in time to save. But Aziraphale has lived so many lifetimes, borne witness to so much loss; it doesn’t normally make him feel quite like this, fill him with this churning, vicious panic. He’s done all he can — the Carpathia is traveling faster than should be physically possible — and it’s not his job, anyway, to stop tragedies, to save lives. God’s ineffable plan often seems to involve a lot of people dying hideous deaths, for some reason, and Aziraphale hardly needs to be told, yet again, that it’s not his place to question that.

And yet… and yet he looks at his pocket watch and wants to shout, wants to tell it in no uncertain terms to stop ticking at once, to cease measuring out even a single second of time until he gets where he’s going. His heart feels too large in his chest, as though it’s rattling against his ribcage with every breath. He paces back and forth across the boat deck, sucking in huge lungfuls of the frigid night air, scanning the dark of the ocean as if his life depends on it until he sees —

“There!” Aziraphale calls, although of course no one is paying any attention to him. The crew seems to have spotted it themselves, in any case — the little gathering of lifeboats and floating wreckage, all that remains of the RMS Titanic.

“God rest their souls,” Aziraphale says softly, as he always does in moments like this. He’s not actually sure if it does anything or not [21] , but he likes to think that it helps.

He feels sick, as expected, to begin to truly realize what was lost here, what these surviving people have had to endure. But still — there’s something else — a swelling bubble of hysteria — some small part of him caterwauling for attention —

Out on the water, something Aziraphale thought was a floating piece of wreckage turns around, lifts its head, and opens a pair of eyes so brilliantly yellow he can see them even in the pitch-black night.

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, and then, rather more emphatically: “Fuck.

There’s nothing for him to do but rescue Crowley, of course. He doesn’t even think about it — he doesn’t consider what Gabriel will say if he finds out, or how far over quota it’ll put Aziraphale on miracles this quarter, or whether saving a demon from a truly horrible discorporation in the depths of the Atlantic is grounds for a Fall. He doesn’t stop to consider that he hasn’t seen Crowley in fifty years, or that they left things on absolutely abysmal terms, or that in all the times he’s imagined seeing Crowley again, he’s never pictured this. He just snaps his fingers and puts himself inside one of the rescue boats being lowered to the water, and then that’s not going fast enough so he snaps them again, and he and Crowley are in his cabin inside the Carpathia.

Angel?” Crowley says, blinking in surprise. He’s shivering, but not so badly that it keeps him from whipping around in the armchair Aziraphale plopped him down upon. “I — wha — you — how? How am I here? How are you here? I was — I mean, well, drowning, is what I was doing. Don’t recommend that. Horrible time. Or maybe the hypothermia would’ve got me first — bloody hell, did you know water could even get that cold? They never tell you the water’s that cold! Seems like somebody could’ve mentioned it, you know, at some point!”

“Yes, it seems rather an oversight,” Aziraphale says, as gently as he can. It’s quite clear that Crowley’s been through something of an ordeal; the rambling is normal enough for him in general, but especially after he’s really been through hell, so to speak. The best thing to do is typically to just nod along and let him burn himself out. What Aziraphale would really like to do is miracle his clothes dry, offer him a blanket, and make him some hot tea, but from long experience he knows that, in this mood, Crowley would probably take it wrong.

“I mean, a little courtesy heads-up for the cold blooded amongst us before we attempt water travel, that’s all I’m saying,” Crowley says. He shakes his head and then waves a hand; his soaked clothes dry instantly, and his shivering stops as though it never started in the first place. “There, that’s better. I hope you have wine, at least, if you’re just going to go — appearing in the middle of the ocean like that! Right when I was ready to give up and discorporate, too; it was eerie. How are you here?”

Aziraphale shrugs, as though the idea that he plucked Crowley out of the water seconds before the worst would’ve happened does not faze him at all, and busies himself with finding and opening a bottle of wine. “I’m not entirely sure, to tell you the truth. I… found myself in the mood to travel? It was just one of those urges I couldn’t ignore. You know how it goes, I’m sure.” Crowley winces an acknowledgement, though he doesn’t reply, so Aziraphale says, “What were you doing on that ship, if you don’t mind my asking? A similar sort of thing, or… ?”

Crowley barks out a brief laugh — there’s no hysteria in it now, but the sound is harsh, humorless. He takes the glass of red Aziraphale offers him and downs in all in one swallow before he says, “Nah. I just thought it sounded like it would be fun, if you can believe it. Human ingenuity, and all that — I didn’t think it would be this way. I’m sure I’ll get a commendation for it, though! ‘Oh, Crowley, so amazing how you’re always to hand when bunches of people die horribly, please have another sign of our esteem,’ as if I’m ever really behind any of it. They do most of it themselves! And it’s usually by mistake — I mean, this one’s just a cock-up! I’d never have anything to do with drowning a bunch of people!”

“No,” Aziraphale says thoughtfully. “I suppose that’s never really been your bag, now that you mention it.”

“Won’t matter, though,” Crowley says sourly. “Hell will be thrilled. They’ll congratulate me on all those lost souls as though it was my fault, as though I wanted it to go like this!” He stops, breathing heavily, and then, all but snarling, adds, “I got some of the children out, at least. Not enough! Not all of them! But some, so. At least that’s bloody something!”

Aziraphale looks at Crowley, the miserable slant to his mouth, the way his hands are still shaking as he pours himself another glass of wine, and wrings his own hands in indecision. He knows what he usually does when Crowley gets this way, bitter and shattered and railing against Hell, which — frankly — is be a bit of an ass. Normally when this kind of thing comes up Aziraphale makes some pitying noises, and then says something along the lines of, “What do you expect, though, from Hell?” Typically Crowley then gets distracted from his original misery by explaining that he didn’t choose to Fall, not really, he just kind of got caught up in the moment, and, anyway, it’s not like Aziraphale is so fond of Heaven, so who is he to judge? It’s not what Aziraphale would classify as either the kindest or healthiest conversational gambit, but it seems to yield the best results. Any attempt at sincerity will make Crowley spit and hiss in the best of circumstances, and Aziraphale knows too well that sometimes distracting Crowley from himself is the only path forward.

But Aziraphale’s never seen Crowley quite like this before. Furious, certainly, and heartbroken too, hopeful and vicious and even frightened, once or twice — but never like this. Never with this heaviness, this thick cloud of defeat draped over him; never quite so bare as this, without most of his personality on.

There’d been a time, not even very long ago, when Aziraphale thought he understood Crowley completely, had seen all his faces, all his moods. The very idea was ridiculous, of course. What a fool he’d been. He’d only realized his mistake when, in the middle of St. James Park, Crowley had rather abruptly revealed a side of himself Aziraphale had never seen, never ever guessed at. To ask him for Holy Water — to ask for a way to erase himself from existence, should everything go wrong — Aziraphale had never bothered to consider it before, the idea of a universe without Crowley in it. They were immortal, after all. He hadn’t really seen the point.

The feeling it had brought up for him then, those first significant musings on the topic of a Crowleyless existence, was much the same as the one that had coursed through him just a few moments ago, when he realized it was Crowley in the water. Cold as ice, that emotion, and too deep for words; not just terror and anguish but something else, a fundamental wrongness to the concept that was bone-chilling in and of itself. It was silly thing for him to feel in St. James Park — Crowley was only asking for an insurance policy, after all, and after a few years of replaying the argument in his mind it had occurred to Aziraphale that perhaps he’d meant against the other demons — but it’s even sillier now. After all, Crowley would only have been discorporated, wouldn’t he, if he’d drowned out there with all those poor people?

Crowley’s been discorporated before, Aziraphale knows; obviously when he Fell — every Fallen angel is discorporated, and their body recast with an aspect of The Beast — and Aziraphale knows it happened a handful of other times, too, in Crowley’s early days of demonhood. Aziraphale’s never been there to bear witness to it or, of course, been discorporated himself, but Crowley wouldn’t lie about something like that; it sounded unpleasant, but that was all. Nothing to be unduly frightened of; no reason to feel iced over inside, like his heart is frozen solid in his chest.

There’s a little part of Aziraphale that doesn’t agree. It’s the same part that put him on a ship to America so he’d be there to get on the Carpathia, the same part that pushed him, urgently, to speed up the boat — what he’d probably call his instincts, if push came to shove and someone was gauche enough to demand it of him. It says: If Crowley had drowned out there, it wouldn’t have been so easy to resolve. It says: If either one of us were to get discorporated these days, we might find our respective sides weren’t quite so keen on bringing us back.

Aziraphale doesn’t want to be a bit of an ass to Crowley, not right now, not even if it is what usually works best. He doesn’t have it in him; his heart’s still thawing down. His own hands are shaking every inch as much as Crowley’s, and he doesn’t have the excuse of having spent a few hours in the Atlantic. Between what Crowley’s said, his continued pallor, the fact that there are still a few wet spots on his clothes despite his demonic miracle, and Aziraphale’s general knowledge of his personality, Aziraphale is pretty certain that Crowley must have used a considerable amount of power to keep whoever he could alive. Aziraphale suspects that if he thinks about that too long, it will become an ache that never quite manages to go away, so he’s doing his best to ignore it.

Crowley might be a demon, but when the chips are down he always seems to try his best for people. Aziraphale can’t bear to treat him badly, even if that is, so often, what he makes it seem like he wants.

He sits down in the armchair across from Crowley, and — for the first time in all the thousands of years they’ve known each other — reaches out and places his palm, intentionally, on top of Crowley’s hand. Crowley looks up; without his sunglasses, which must have washed away into the depths somewhere, Aziraphale can see his eyes widen with surprise. He doesn’t move his hand away, just squeezes lightly and continues to meet Crowley’s gaze.

“My dear,” Aziraphale says softly, “I am truly so sorry.”

Don’t,” Crowley says, as Aziraphale knew he would. When he pulls his hand away Aziraphale lets him; when he curls up in his chair and gives Aziraphale a suspicious look, Aziraphale doesn’t comment. For once — for once! — he is not going to give in to the temptation of rising to Crowley’s bait. For once he is going to just… just… be here while Crowley is miserable, and not be goaded into poking and prodding at him while he’s down.

After a long, tense moment, Aziraphale is rewarded by Crowley’s suspicious face collapsing into something that looks a lot closer to exhaustion, or maybe despair. “Fine,” Crowley says, putting a hand over his eyes in lieu of his sunglasses. “I suppose I appreciate the sentiment, or whatever — ”

“Oh, stop,” Aziraphale says tartly, finding he has it within himself to be a bit of a bastard after all. “We both know that you don’t. You’ve had what I have to imagine was a rather terrible night, Crowley. There’s no need to go through the motions on my account.”

Crowley drops his hand and just looks at Aziraphale for a moment. The edges of his mouth twitch up into a smile for a fraction of a second, and he says, “Well, fine then.”

“Fine,” Aziraphale agrees, relieved to have that settled.

There’s a long moment of silence, and then Crowley says, “The wine’s shit, you know. Not that it matters, really.”

“It’s just what was here,” Aziraphale says with a shrug, all too aware that Crowley’s right. Then, realizing that he’s so far over quota already that it doesn’t really matter what other miracles he does, he adds, “I can take us both home, if you’d like.”

“No you can’t,” Crowley snaps, disbelieving, and starting to sound slightly drunk; Aziraphale realizes with a start that he’s managed to finish the bottle. “You’d — you’d — get in trouble! With Gabriel, and all them. It’s fine, anyway, I’m — I’ll be — it’s fine. It’ll be fine.”

Aziraphale shrugs. “I’m sure I’ll be in trouble anyway. ‘Frivolous miracles,’ they’ll say. So what does it matter, really, if I engage in a little more frivolity?”

Mind made up, he snaps his fingers before Crowley can argue; they materialize in the back room of his bookshop, seated in a similar fashion on two wholly different armchairs.

“There,” Aziraphale says, pleased to have been able to do that even after putting so much power into the Carpathia. “Isn’t that better?”

Crowley looks around him, blinks slowly. After a moment, very quietly, he says, “Yeah. It’s — yes. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it, honestly,” Aziraphale says. He stands, hurries off to find a bottle of decent wine and a couple of glasses, and turns the heat up a few degrees in the hopes that Crowley will appreciate, but not consciously notice, the extra warmth. It works a little too well, because when Aziraphale returns to the back room Crowley is asleep, passed out with his feet pulled up beneath him on his chair.

Aziraphale sighs. Then he gets a blanket, drapes it lightly over Crowley, and stands in the doorway of the back room for a long time, just looking at him. It’s nice seeing him there, after fifty years of radio silence. Eventually — after far, far too much time has passed — Aziraphale catches himself at it, shakes his head, and retires to his apartment on the second floor.

When he comes downstairs the next morning, Crowley is gone and so is Aziraphale’s blanket. It will be nearly thirty years before they meet again; the blanket will never turn up.

 

PRESENT DAY - SUFFOLK

After half an hour on the road, Aziraphale has determined that he loves driving. [22] In a convertible like this one, with the top down and the wind whipping, it has something of the chariot to it after all. It’s exhilarating, and somehow also soothing, which shouldn’t be possible. Aziraphale thinks he’s starting to understand why Crowley’s always been so obsessive about it.

Crowley, who Aziraphale had expected to be overinvolved and chatty, pointing things out and critiquing his techniques and doing whatever else people usually do in situations like this one, has been uncharacteristically quiet ever since they left the car show. He’s said exactly one thing since the tires hit pavement, his tone lazy and self-satisfied, and that thing was, “You’re not going fast enough.” When Aziraphale had decried this as bad advice from a road criminal, Crowley just laughed, reclined his seat, and put his feet up on the dashboard. For the last twenty minutes, he’s been watching Aziraphale in that way he has, a hand lightly stroking the underside of his chin, like he sometimes does when Aziraphale is enjoying a particularly exquisite dessert.

The radio, having played its way through a delightful selection of Chopin’s Nocturnes, offers up the opening bars of Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Aziraphale keeps his eyes purposefully on the road, willing himself not to blush. It’s just a song, isn’t it? A romantic song, certainly; a song that makes him think of Crowley, to be sure; but just a song all the same. It’s simply playing on a radio — it’s not as though Aziraphale is the one making it play — although. Oh. It occurs to him, embarrassingly late, to wonder if perhaps he should have paid more attention to the music that always blasts in Crowley’s car before he can get the sound system under control. [23]

It doesn’t matter, anyway. Crowley’s in one of his silent, observatory moods, so it’s not as though he’s going to say anything about —

“Interesting song choice,” Crowley says, too casually. Damn. “A little modern for you, isn’t it?”

“It’s almost a hundred years old,” Aziraphale retorts, tightening his grip on the wheel. “And anyway — I mean, that voice — I’ve enjoyed her work for many years, if you must know. I even saw her live, if only once, more’s the pity.”

“No kidding?” Crowley says. He shifts position in his seat, so his body is angled towards Aziraphale, observing him. “You never said.”

“Well, we weren’t exactly in regular contact at the time,” Aziraphale says. He means it to come out more sharply than it does — he sounds wistful, which is awful. He blames the song. “And I enjoy beauty wherever it is, Crowley, you know that. Just because I don’t, ah, necessarily appreciate the nuances of most modern music — ”

“Better,” Crowley says, with an approving little nod. “Much less judgemental than usual.”

“You stop it,” Aziraphale says. Again, it comes out sounding a lot less cross than he was intending, and floats away easily on the breeze. “I’m not judgemental, I just — I like what I like.”

“Oh, I know that’s true, angel,” Crowley says, settling back into his seat. “I think everyone who knows you figures that one out, one way or the other.”

Aziraphale doesn’t know what to say to that, so he focuses on the road, letting the song fade out into a Rachmaninov concerto. It isn’t exactly better, in terms of revealing his deeply held truths and whatnot, but at least it will just sound like someone banging away on the piano to Crowley.

Sure enough: “Don’t know how you can listen to this,” Crowley says, after a few minutes. “Just banging away like anything, isn’t he?”

“Now who’s judgemental?” Aziraphale says, though he’s actually deeply relieved. “You like what you like, too, you know.”

“Never said I didn’t,” Crowley says, and flops his arm out over the side of the car to hang loose in the air, fingers spread wide against the wind. “Speaking of things that I like: what’s the verdict on driving? Do you still think it’s a — what did you say — a ‘sad imitation of times long since gone by,’ hmm?”

“I never said that,” Aziraphale says, although he’s quite sure that he did, at one point or another. Before Crowley can make that very claim, he adds, “And if I did then I’m sorry; I was wrong. This is, I have to say, fairly delightful.”

“But?” Crowley says, correctly interpreting Aziraphale’s expression of mild discontent.

“Oh, it’s just — nothing against the car, of course, but — I am getting a bit peckish,” Aziraphale says. “I’ve sort of been hoping that perhaps we’d pass a nice restaurant, or — or — ”

“A roadside stand?” Crowley says, sounding very amused.

“Well,” Aziraphale says, a little sheepishly, knowing he’s being mocked and just... not particularly minding. “Yes, if you must know, a roadside stand would be lovely at this point.”

Crowley laughs, his head tipped back over the white leather bar seat; his hair looks brighter than usual in contrast, and beneath the late morning sun. The sound of his laughter is warm and rich as it fills the car, and Aziraphale realizes, in a stunned, brilliant moment, that Crowley isn’t mocking him, not exactly. Aziraphale knows what mockery looks like, sounds like, feels like, and it’s not this — a lovely rush of affection under a clear blue sky. Crowley is just… fond of him, Aziraphale realizes. He’s just laughing for the joy of it; because he’s enjoying Aziraphale’s company; because Aziraphale entertains him, whether he intends to or not.

Maybe, Aziraphale thinks for the second time today, the window isn’t closed, after all. Maybe he’s just been very foolish. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Look,” Crowley says, not unkindly, “why don’t you just pull over and we can check the car? There’s probably something to eat in here somewhere.”

“Gerald’s the sort of man who keeps a few snacks about, is he?” Aziraphale says, perking up. “I must say I’m glad to hear it — ”

“Ha! Gerald would cut off an arm to keep food out of his cars,” Crowley says, waving a hand. “Not his own arm, I wouldn’t think, but someone’s, anyway. That’s why I waited to put my feet up until we were well away — couldn’t let that mad old bastard see me do it. Who knows what he might have done? No; I meant because this is your car now, angel.”

“It — it is not,” Aziraphale says, though even he can hear how unconvincing it sounds. “This is only a test drive, I — “

“Oh, please,” Crowley says. “Listen — in my car there’s all kinds of stuff I didn’t really mean to put there, you know? Spare sunglasses, and extra jackets, and — all kinds of things! So you just pull the car over and I’ll bet you anything we find a snack, because it’s your car now, and that’ll prove it.”

“Fine,” Aziraphale says. “I’ll pull over as soon as I find a good place to stop, but only to show you that you’re wrong.”

“You’re on, angel,” Crowley says, grinning. “We’ll just see who wins, shall we?”

Fifteen minutes later, Aziraphale stands in front of the open trunk of the DeVille and experiences the sensation of being at war with himself. On the one hand, he is very excited to see the large picnic hamper, packed with a wide assortment of his favorite things to eat, most of them specific items he was thinking of longingly just a few minutes ago. On the other hand, Crowley does get so smug when he wins a bet. [24]

“Ugh,” Aziraphale says, though he picks up the hamper with some enthusiasm. “Fine, you were right — I love this car, are you happy? I love it and I don’t intend to go home without it.”

“I knew it,” Crowley says. “All those years you said, ‘Crowley, it’s just not the same as a chariot,’ and ‘Crowley, bodies weren’t built to go this fast,’ but I knew you’d like it if you just gave it a try!” He pumps his fist briefly in the air, and then, more calmly, says, “You will have to give it back, though. For a bit, anyway. The paperwork and things will take a few days to sort out, and you probably… shouldn’t miracle Gerald.”

“Why?” Aziraphale says, intrigued. This lot where he’s parked the car — which was just the first likely-looking spot to get off the road — appears to be attached to a small park, and he starts walking, hoping to find a place to sit and eat. “He’s not one of those, is he?”

“Yeah,” Crowley says, falling into step with him, and shudders. “I tried it once, and he just — stood there. Totally impervious. It freaks me out, honestly.”

“I don’t care for it myself,” Aziraphale says with a shrug. “But if it’s any comfort, my dear, it does just happen sometimes, even to the highest and most powerful angels. Michael always used to say that there was no helping some people, but I’ve always got the sense that some humans just play by their own rules. Or believe really, really hard in something… else.”

“Sure, I could see that,” Crowley says. “Gerald certainly believes in West Ham; there’s probably something there. The point is, you’ll have to do all the paperwork, or at least all the paperwork he cares about. He’ll pitch a fit elsewise. You should probably just let me take care of it, really.”

“Oh!” Aziraphale says, warmed by the offer. “I — I couldn’t put you out like that — ”

“‘S no trouble,” Crowley says easily. “It’ll be fun, actually. Gerald’s been after me for ‘just looking’ for forty years, so it should be a real pleasure to watch him eat crow.”

He rolls the word pleasure out of his mouth almost indecently. It shouldn’t be allowed, Aziraphale thinks; he busies himself with miracling a nearby picnic table, which was until this very moment looking a bit structurally unsound, into an acceptable place to eat lunch.

Crowley raises his eyebrows, and Aziraphale braces himself to hear something about frivolous miracles, how he would never have done something like that so cavalierly even a few weeks ago, except in the most dire of circumstances. But all Crowley says is, “I know that umbrella wasn’t there before, angel,” which, really, is fair enough.

“I thought it might be an improvement,” Aziraphale says, sitting down on one side of the table. “Why not brighten the place up a little, after all?”

Crowley sits down across from him and tilts his head back to stare up at the umbrella. After a moment, he says, “It’s tartan.” And then, after a longer moment, “Aziraphale, it’s neon yellow tartan.”

“Yes, the color did get away from me a bit,” Aziraphale says with a sigh. “I’m working on that, you know — are your powers a bit odd, lately?”

“Odd?” Crowley says, distracted from the umbrella at once. “Odd how?”

“Just — odd,” Aziraphale says, unpacking the hamper as he talks. “Everything’s working, of course — ooh, prosciutto — but perhaps a little too well, if you see what I mean? Take the umbrella. I thought, ‘Something with a little color might be nice,’ and got neon yellow. A few days ago I waved a hand over my mug to reheat my tea and I boiled it. It’s as though my calibrations are off.”

“I have had a bit of that, now that you mention it,” Crowley says, with a little frown. “Been asleep, mostly, but — when I woke up I realized my plants have been growing like mad, even for them, and I didn’t terrorize them at all before I went to bed. And then this morning on my way to yours, I tried to clear a pedestrian out of the road; ended up tossing her about half a street back.”

“Crowley!” Aziraphale chides, smearing fig jam on a piece of baguette and layering prosciutto on top. “I hope you didn’t hurt her!”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s fine,” Crowley says sourly. In a slightly quieter voice, as though he’s a bit ashamed of it, he adds, “I checked. She was thrilled, actually; one of those ‘the truth is out there’ types. She thinks it was an alien encounter, and I didn’t see any reason to tell her otherwise.”

“Maybe it’s just a side effect,” Aziraphale muses. “Of no longer being — well — affiliated, I suppose.” He assembles himself a cracker with a piece of cheese; it’s one of the aged cheddars he picked up at the shop the other day, and it reminds him of the conversation he had there. “Or maybe — I don’t know. Maybe our powers are… affected by the humans now? Somehow?”

Crowley tips his sunglasses down to really stare at Aziraphale; it’s unnerving. After a moment, his tone far more casual than his expression, he says, “Ah. You’ve been talking to Ronnie.”

“You know Ronnie?” Aziraphale says, nearly dropping his cracker in surprise.

“Of course I know Ronnie,” Crowley snaps. He pushes the sunglasses back on his face and crosses his arms over his chest. “Everyone knows Ronnie; he’s been around since the old days. The really old days. [25] I introduced you to him once, didn’t I? That day way back, with Abraham and Sarah — wait, no. Maybe he left right before you got there, now that I think of it. I was disappointed it would be a dull evening after all, and then you showed up.”

“Well, that solves a little personal mystery for me, if nothing else,” says Aziraphale, who has wondered for thousands of years why the story always seems to feature three angelic visitors. “But — well — I mean, I didn’t meet him til ages later! I know him through his cheese shop! I just never thought… you’re not really one for cheese, if you don’t mind my saying.”

“Nah, you can say it,” Crowley says. He drops his arms from his chest, and reaches out a finger to poke suspiciously at a nearby wedge of brie. It oozes in an affronted kind of way, and he shudders. “It’s not for me, cheese. Just a bit too… alive.”

“Works out just fine,” Aziraphale says cheerfully, pulling the wedge over to his side of the table. “In any case, yes, if you must know, I was there the other day. I picked up this very brie, in fact! And while we were chatting, he did mention something about — our powers being tied to the humans.”

“What, just the other day?” Crowley says, sounding boggled. “He’s been after me about it for thousands of years! Every time I see him, it’s ‘We are as they made us,’ and ‘Who is to say what the difference is between Heaven and Hell,’ and ‘What are any of us if not manifestations of collective belief?’”

“For thousands of years?” Aziraphale says. “And you never said?”

“Well, what was I going to say, really? ‘I keep getting drunk with the manifestation of Chaos’ — oh,” Crowley says, freezing. Then, hesitantly, he adds, “You — did know he was — ”

“Oh, of course I know he’s the manifestation of Chaos, what do you take me for?” Aziraphale snaps, annoyed. “It’s not exactly a subtle effect, Crowley!”

Crowley relaxes, the tension visibly bleeding out of his body. “Good, good. Some people can’t see it, you know — anyway, I’m glad. No good getting on Ronnie’s bad side. He’ll do anything.”

“So you’re, what,” Aziraphale says, putting the pieces together. “You’re telling me you and Ronnie are — drinking buddies?”

“Sure,” Crowley says. Carefully, he selects and starts peeling a hard-boiled egg. “You could call it that. Every couple hundred years we run into each other somewhere, get wasted, do something we probably shouldn’t. It’s interesting. Ronnie is… unpredictable.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, trying not to feel hurt — slighted — jealous — that Crowley’s been having drinks across the centuries with somebody else. It’s probably not the same as what’s between them, if there even is anything between them, that is; either way, Crowley’s allowed to have friendships, and do whatever else he wants with his time.

Still, Aziraphale can’t help but repeat: “You never said.”

“Neither did you,” Crowley points out, which is fair, and cheers Aziraphale up a little. That’s right; he never did tell Crowley about his regular visits to the cheese shop, which were far more often than every couple hundred years, and those didn’t mean anything at all. [26] “It just wasn’t... I don’t know. Didn’t feel like the kind of thing we talked about, I suppose.”

“I know what you mean,” Aziraphale says. He allows himself a small, nervous laugh, regretting it the instant it escapes. “I guess there have been a lot of things like that, haven’t there?”

“Had to be,” Crowley says with a shrug. “An angel and a demon, right? Can’t talk about everything.”

The weight of six thousand years hits Aziraphale smack in the face. It’s the emotional equivalent of stepping on a rake, and he blinks at Crowley, reeling, stunned. He’s right, of course — they were an angel and a demon — they couldn’t talk about everything — they couldn’t do everything, or even half of everything, that they wanted to do. It was forbidden; it was impossible. But who they were… wasn’t all of that a lie? Didn’t they both doubt their respective Sides, even in the early days? It all felt so insurmountable, so important at the time — the following of rules, the danger of the consequences — but it wasn’t quite real, was it? Because here they are, unharmed, unaffiliated, Aziraphale not Fallen, Crowley not erased from the face of existence. They’re eating lunch. They’re fine.

And if none of it was real — if none of those rules really mattered — then for all this time Aziraphale has been denying himself the only thing he’s ever really wanted for nothing. He could have taken Crowley’s hand outside of the Parthenon, or while they marveled at freshly-built Stonehenge, or at the edge of the Garden of Eden, or any of the other incredible places they’ve been; too many and varied to name. An encyclopedia of missed chances.

Every empty, sleepless night; every long, lonely year; every aching hour he thought he had no choice but to spend alone, he could have been with Crowley. He could have been with Crowley! They could have talked about everything; they could have done everything. They could have cared for each other, the way Aziraphale so desperately wanted them to, and it wouldn’t have hurt anyone. What a waste, Aziraphale realizes. A tragedy before their very eyes, indeed.

“Neither an angel nor a demon sits at this table,” Aziraphale says, instead of any of this. He feels a little shiver of excitement run through him all the same.

Crowley gives him a considering look, head tilted, lips pursed. Then, slowly, he smiles. “I suppose you’re right. Nobody here but us chickens.”

“Mhm,” Aziraphale says, biting down on a smile of his own. “Just so.”

~~~

They end up spending the rest of the day together in that unthinking way they sometimes do, where it doesn’t seem to occur to either of them to draw things to a close. A few minutes after they finish eating, Crowley’s mobile rings, and he answers it and says, “Hello, I — yes, Gerald, I know you don’t let just anyone test-drive the — well, it will take as long as it — listen, we’re buying the bloody thing, all right? Yes, even if we damage it. Yes, fine, go ahead and pack up if the show’s over! We’ll meet you at your garage later.” He makes a “What can you do?” sort of gesture as he hangs it up, and Aziraphale can’t help but ask after the obvious fact of Crowley’s involvement with these people.

The history of Crowley’s obsession with cars, which dates all the way back to Germany in the 1800s and apparently involves a lot of strange relationships with a variety of unusual folk, dominates the conversation as Aziraphale drives them to the seaside. He does it absently, paying more attention to the discussion than the road, but he’s glad to see the water when it comes into view. They park the DeVille and walk for a while, and the conversation drifts back to the old days, things they told each other that perhaps weren’t as true as they could have been, stories they once had to keep to themselves. Crowley nearly pitches into the ocean laughing when Aziraphale explains what really happened to the Ark of the Covenant, and Aziraphale has to stop for a second, hand on his chest, gasping with mirth, after Crowley tells him about being accidentally summoned by a stoned teenager with a bit of chalk in 1969.

They get back in the car and drive for a while longer, talking about nothing and everything, until they find a lovely little town with a bookshop and a few antique stores. Crowley puts up a few token complaints, but he lets Aziraphale drag him into each place, leans up against various walls and badly conceals a smile as Aziraphale attempts to get merchants who remind him of himself to part with their beloved wares. They have dinner after, in a quaint little restaurant near Gerald’s garage with candles on the table, and Aziraphale thinks about doing it, about saying something. He could say, “Crowley, I think I’m in love with you,” or, “Crowley, I feel we’ve wasted too many years apart,” or even, “Crowley, I cherish the time we spend together; can’t we talk about this, too? Can’t we finally discuss whatever it is that’s always been between us?”

Dinner is served before he can work up the nerve, and the food is fine, but hardly exceptional; Aziraphale decides to hold his cards to his chest just a little bit longer. The perfect moment will come eventually, after all. Aziraphale would feel like a fool if he fumbled through his confession here, over mediocre dishes that’ve been paired with terribly incorrect wine, only to find himself regretting it later. It’s been such a good day already, too, one that it would be a pity to have spoiled if Crowley doesn’t return his affections — it’s better to wait. It’s not cowardice at all.

They finish their meal; Aziraphale gets dessert; they split the check, and head back to the car. The drive to Gerald’s is spent in quiet contentment, Crowley with his arm again dangling from the window, Aziraphale humming along with the radio. Crowley leaves him outside while he goes into the garage to hand over the keys and take care of the paperwork, and Aziraphale’s not surprised to see the Bentley, which they left behind at the car show, waiting for them across the road.

“Will mine do that too?” Aziraphale asks, gesturing at the Bentley, when Crowley comes back outside. “Just show up when I need it?’

“Might do,” Crowley concedes with a shrug. “Might depend on its mood. It’s your car, so it’ll do what you want, probably. Gerald’ll have someone bring it ‘round to your bookshop in the next few days; I gave him the address and everything. It’s all set.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, suddenly drawn up short. “I — when you said you’d take care of the paperwork, I didn’t think you meant — did you — Crowley. Did you buy me that car?”

“‘Course I did,” Crowley says as he climbs into the Bentley. “Enjoyed it immensely; it made Gerald furious. And before you get after me about paying me back or whatever you’re going to say — don’t. It’s not as though it actually matters. [27]

Aziraphale thinks for a moment that he should refuse it, but then again — why? Who, after all, is going to object? Crowley’s right that the money doesn’t matter for either of them, and it’s probably too late already, and, honestly, Aziraphale rather likes the idea. He likes the thought of keeping this car in mint condition for many years, the way Crowley has kept the Bentley; he likes the thought of driving it and — oiling it, he supposes, or whatever it is you do with cars — knowing it was a gift from Crowley.

“Thank you,” Aziraphale says, meaning it, as he fastens his seatbelt. Crowley makes a horrible noise of acknowledgement and then waves a hand as if to shoo the topic out the slightly open window, so Aziraphale decides to leave it there for now.

He finds he misses being behind the wheel a little, but it’s nice to be back in the Bentley. Comfortable. Familiar. Change is good, but it’s nice that some things carry on, unaltered by all that’s wrought around them.

They start the drive back to London, and after a few minutes of comfortable silence Crowley says, “Listen, I have to ask — since we’re telling the truth today, and everything — be honest. Gabriel, Uriel, Michael — ?”

“Oh, I loathe them,” Aziraphale says; it bubbles up out of his mouth on a nervous little laugh, but he says it all the same. He’s half-expecting a lightning bolt to lance through the window and strike him where he sits, but he continues anyway: “And Sandalphon, ugh, he might be the worst of them all — no, what am I saying? Gabriel’s the worst, but it’s close.” He notices Crowley is staring at him instead of the road, eyebrows high on his forehead, obviously holding back laughter, and adds, “You can hardly blame me! They’re horrible, all of them. Never once, you know, did they listen to a single one of my ideas. Never one time! And I have good ideas, Crowley, you know that.”

“You do,” Crowley says, inclining his head slightly. “‘Course, they’re not all winners -- ”

“Well, nobody’s got it right all the time,” Aziraphale says, drawing himself up tall in his seat. “But sometimes, I’d go to them and say something perfectly reasonable, like, ‘Perhaps it would be best if we told the humans to stop killing each other on our behalf,’ or, ‘Seems like we ourselves do an awful lot of smiting, maybe that’s not the clearest reflection of a kind and loving God,’ and do you know what they’d do? Do you know?”

“Laugh at you, I expect,” Crowley says, a sour tone creeping into his voice for the first time in hours. “Bastards. All that talk, but they never listen. They never answer any bloody questions, either; that’s why I got kicked out, you know. Too many questions.”

“I thought you said it was the company you kept?” Aziraphale says, giving him a sidelong glance.

Crowley snorts. “That too. I think if it hadn’t been for the questions, the company wouldn’t have mattered so much, though; they just wanted any excuse to be rid of me, really.”

“Bastards,” Aziraphale says, just as Crowley did, feeling as free and alive as he ever has. “I’m sure you asked excellent questions, and as for the company — ”

“Eh,” Crowley says, waving away the rest of Aziraphale’s reply. “I appreciate it, angel, but don’t bother. It doesn’t matter, anyway; I learned a long time ago that I’m going to do what I’m going to do, no matter how hard I try not to. Just how I was made, I guess.” He accompanies this last with a little grimace directed at the sky, which Aziraphale politely pretends not to notice. “It was never going to go any other way, not in the long run.”

“Must’ve been horrible, though,” Aziraphale says gently. He’s finding he has a new appreciation for that, these last few weeks, since he’s still half-expecting to Fall himself at any moment; he’s braced at all times to pop right out of existence, only to reappear with hooves, or a beak, or something else unexpected and indicative. He can’t imagine what it must have been like for Crowley, though he knows the agony is the stuff of legends, and must have been incredible.

Crowley shrugs, looks out at the countryside rolling by. “‘S just life, though, isn’t it? Sometimes things are horrible, sometimes they’re not. When it all goes bad, you can try to learn something from the pain; you can try not to let it change you, but that’s all there really is. And it does, anyway — change you, I mean. No avoiding it.”

“Do you think?” Aziraphale says. He looks down at his fingernails, which are bright blue; his regular manicurist had been incredibly startled by the request. “That there’s no avoiding it, I mean? That pain always changes you?”

“I don’t think, I know it,” Crowley says, jaw setting, tone firm. After a moment, and a little softer, he adds, “You do too, I expect.”

“I hardly think that’s true,” Aziraphale says. He looks out the window, unwilling to risk meeting Crowley’s eyes, even through his all-but-omnipresent sunglasses. “After all, I didn’t really change much all those years. I didn’t — I mean, I’m hardly comparing — obviously you Fell, and I didn’t, and I don’t mean to suggest that I know what that’s like, what you must have gone through. But certainly I — experienced pain, from time to time, and I don’t think it changed me much at all.”

Crowley is silent for a moment. Then he makes a long, nonverbal, bomb-falling-from-sky kind of noise, which Aziraphale admittedly does not really understand. Then, in very careful tones, he says. “Aziraphale. You know I — you know you’re my best friend, right?”

“I,” Aziraphale says, surprised and admittedly a bit pleased with this abrupt conversational turn. “I mean, you’ve expressed it before, so I suppose that yes, I — ”

“Okay, good,” Crowley says, cutting him off. “So you’ll understand, right, that it comes from a place of friendship when I say: you’ve lost it, honestly, if you think you’re, what, still like you were in the early days? Or the middle ages, or even last month! Come on. Look at you! Look at what you’re wearing right now!”

“I didn’t mean — I don’t think all this really counts,” Aziraphale says, gesturing at his outfit, at himself. “This is all — new. Just from the last few days. But in general — ”

“Oh, in general you’re the same as you’ve always been and totally different, just like me,” Crowley says, shaking his head. “You’re blind if you can’t see that, angel. When I met you on the Eastern Gate you wouldn’t even have considered doing things you do every day now — ”

“Like what?” Aziraphale demands, crossing his arms. “Name one thing — ”

“Fine, for one thing, there’s no chance you’d have thought someone holding onto all those books you refuse to sell was anything but gluttony,” Crowley says, holding up a finger to mark the point. “Also, don’t think you’d have been interested in going anywhere with me, let alone climbing into my car — well. Weren’t any cars back then, of course. Bad times, the old days, but my point stands.”

“That’s hardly — I mean — obviously some things have changed, I’m not — saying otherwise,” Aziraphale says, though he falters on it, since he had in fact been saying exactly that mere moments ago. “That’s not the kind of change I mean. After all, one has to… to move with the times — ”

“One has to move with the times?” Crowley repeats incredulously. “Listen — don’t take this the wrong way, but when have you ever moved with the times?”

“Oh, there’s no winning with you,” Aziraphale says, throwing up his hands. “I’ve changed but I haven’t changed, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yeah,” Crowley says, with a strange smile that Aziraphale can’t interpret. Then, presumably in response to Aziraphale’s glare of outraged confusion, he adds, “You’ve changed, but it hasn’t been because of — the times, or whatever. You’ve changed when you’ve wanted to change, and only in the ways you’ve wanted to change. ‘S always been that way.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, in a small voice.

Crowley shifts a little in his seat. Then, trying too hard to be flippant about it, he says, “What, are you really telling me that comes as a shock?”

“Of course not,” Aziraphale says, but he’s lying.

“It does, doesn’t it,” Crowley says, voice full of grim certainty, no question in it at all. He always has been too perceptive. “Honestly — I didn’t mean anything by it, angel.”

“You don’t have to call me that anymore, you know,” Aziraphale says. He doesn’t even know why he says it; it’s unkind, for one thing, and for another he’s always liked that little vocal tic of Crowley’s. In his more optimistic moments, he’s even allowed himself to believe it might mean something more than just an acknowledgement of Aziraphale’s (now former) title. He knows that telling Crowley to stop saying it is a mistake the moment it comes out of his mouth — he knows as soon as he hears it that it’s going to break the mood that’s carried them through this whole day, light and effortless. It’s a pity, but that’s the problem, Aziraphale knows, with talking about the Forbidden Subjects; eventually, you hit a nerve. Crowley, however unintentionally, revealed something about Aziraphale that he, himself, did not know, and in his surprise and embarrassment at having been caught out, Aziraphale reflexively slammed a door in Crowley’s face.

He should apologize, really. That’s what he should do here. He should swallow his pride and apologize, tell Crowley to forget he said anything before this spirals out of control; he’s going to do it. He’s going to get over himself and do it. Any second now —

“I — I didn’t really mean it as — you know what, fine,” Crowley says, tone and body language both shifting, painting his whole affect a few shades sulkier than Aziraphale’s seen it all day. “I won’t, then.”

“Fine,” Aziraphale says, even though most of him is screaming Don’t say that, Aziraphale! Can’t you see that you’re making a hash of this? That’s the thing about moments like these, when a conversation spins off the road between them; part of Aziraphale always knows better. Part of Aziraphale always watches from the sidelines, eyes wide with horror, yelling things like, ‘Express your emotions, you dolt! For what other possible purpose do you know so many words?’ and ‘Surely even you can see that this isn’t becoming behavior!’ But somehow what ends up coming out of his mouth, far too often, is the sort of thing he might say to Gabriel. He gives flat, non-committal answers, or replies to barbs with icy rejoinders that he delivers with a dazzling smile. He says as little as possible about how he feels, no matter how much the smart part of him screams that what he should really do is open up.

It has always driven Crowley perfectly insane, which is fair. Aziraphale wouldn’t want to fight by Heaven’s rules in Crowley’s position either; he doesn’t even want to do it from his own position. He just can’t ever quite seem to stop.

They drive in silence for a few long moments, and then Crowley, sounding determined, says, “I didn’t mean anything by it, you know. The stuff about you changing, it — I was only saying. I didn’t mean it was a bad thing.”

Aziraphale looks out the window. He thinks they’re hitting the outskirts of the city now, though it’s hard to tell; the world streams by so quickly when one is travelling at Crowley’s preferred speeds. The way the Bentley flies, they can’t be more than ten minutes from the bookshop. If it’s true what Crowley’s said — if it’s true that Aziraphale has changed over the years only and exactly as he’s intended to — then surely he can change this, too. Surely he can force himself to listen to the part of his mind that knows what it’s talking about.

Aziraphale tells himself he can always get out of the car if it goes wrong, swallows a frankly disquieting amount of terror for such a simple task, keeps his eyes fixed on the blurred scenery and says, “If you must know, I was — I was a bit proud of… some of the… changes, which I’ve made. Lately, that is. I’ve always thought of myself as something of a bore — ” Crowley interrupts with a choking sound here, but Aziraphale ignores it, continues, “ — and it was nice to… oh, I don’t know. To feel like I was doing something original, I suppose? Something I was actually choosing for myself, for once.” He sighs, shakes his head. “But I guess I was doing that all along, wasn’t I? You’re absolutely right, I did change over the years; as the times moved on, I picked up what I liked and left the things I had tired of behind. Of course I did. It wasn’t quite so intentional, and so I didn’t think it counted, but — oh, I see that I’ve been silly, now. Made a big deal out of nothing.”

Crowley mutters something under his breath that sounds like “Oh, for the love of,” and then, more audibly, says, “All right, well, I definitely didn’t mean — any of that. And you’re not a bore, Aziraphale. I mean, for — for whoever’s sake! As if I’d spend six thousand years hanging out with someone boring.”

This is a fairly compelling point, but: “It’s not like it was the whole six thousand years — ”

“Unbelievable,” Crowley says, shaking his head, but he’s smiling slightly now. “Look, I didn’t mean to — I think all the new stuff is great, okay? I don’t think you’re making a big deal out of nothing. I only meant that — it all counts, right? Even if you weren’t doing it on purpose, change is change, and being able to change is kind of the only difference between you and me and… well… Sandalphon, more or less. That’s all I was saying. I meant it as something good.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, but this time his voice is soft, not small. “Well — thank you, then. I suppose.”

Crowley nods an acknowledgement, and then, carefully, he says, “You planning on making any other big changes in the near future? Just so I can encourage them, mind. Wouldn’t want to stomp on any dreams by mistake.”

Aziraphale snorts out a slight laugh and turns his head, at last, from the window; they’re minutes from the bookshop now. “I thought I might get a mobile?”

“Oh, please,” Crowley says at once. “Please get a mobile, Aziraphale, do you know how many years I’ve spent waiting for you to cave? Do you know how many phone calls we’ve had that could’ve been texts? Do you know how many emojis I invented just because I thought they would bother you?”

Aziraphale shouldn’t ask, but: “How many?”

“All of ‘em,” Crowley says, with a savage grin. “You’re going to hate it, I can’t wait. What else?”

“Well,” Aziraphale says, which is frankly brave in the face of Crowley’s unsettling eagerness, “I also thought I might get a newer computer, you know. One that can do more than just run my old sales program.”

“Oh, good, put those poor librarians out of their misery,” Crowley says, lightly enough. [28]

“And I thought maybe — oh, I don’t know.” Aziraphale thinks of driving through the beautiful countryside, the wind in his hair, Crowley beside him, and lets himself drift to a fantasy he’s had many times, that he’s worn smooth as seaglass turning it over and over in his mind. “Sometimes I think about — shutting down the bookshop for a bit, and getting a cottage somewhere in the country. The Cotswolds, perhaps, or maybe the South Downs. I know it’s perfectly ridiculous, and I doubt it would really be as idyllic as what I’m picturing, but I imagine it now and again. Not quite retirement, but… a small life, somewhere pretty and quiet. Might be nice.”

The Bentley pulls to a stop in front of Aziraphale’s bookshop. Aziraphale’s so busy unbuckling his seatbelt and climbing out of the car that he doesn’t notice that something’s gone badly wrong until Crowley, in a strange voice, says, “You’d leave London?”

“I,” Aziraphale says, startled by his shift in tone. Crowley doesn’t seem to be getting out of the Bentley, so Aziraphale crouches to speak to him through the open passenger door window. “I mean — of course not forever, and not right away — ”

“Oh, not right away,” Crowley snarls. He sounds furious, Aziraphale realizes. Confirming this, the Bentley's radio starts to play something loud and angry; Crowley wrenches the volume knob down so hard it snaps off in his hand as he says, “So I’ll just wait around for that fateful day, then, shall I? Stop by every few weeks and see if you’re still open, or if you’ve decided to head off to the countryside to retire? I suppose it’s a good thing you’ll be getting a mobile; at least that way I’ll be able to keep track of you after you’ve gone.”

“Crowley, wait, that isn’t it at all,” Aziraphale says, horrified. He didn’t think — he assumed it was obvious that his fantasy included Crowley too, that it wouldn’t be any fun at all without him. That was foolish, of course. How was Crowley meant to know? It’s just that Aziraphale’s thought about it so many times, for so many years; it never occurred to him that Crowley might not hear himself in the telling of it, and thus assume Aziraphale meant to leave him behind.

But that’s clearly what’s happened, and before Aziraphale can work himself up to explaining the truth — the whole truth, the truth that puts everything on the line — Crowley snaps, “Do you know what? I don’t think I got enough sleep after all. Good luck with retirement.” He pulls the Bentley away from the curb before he’s even finished the sentence, taking off into the night with the wrong impression and several of Aziraphale’s newly acquired antiques.

“Crowley, wait!” Aziraphale calls after him, but the damned car’s out of sight by the time the sound of his voice fades, hopeless, into the darkening night.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

722 AD - THE KINGDOM OF ESSEX

Aziraphale and Crowley are sitting on the ground behind two large barrels. They were crouching behind said barrels, trying to be surreptitious, when they started talking, but the argument has gone on for so long now that they’ve both given up and plopped down upon the dirt. Aziraphale is not looking forward to the state his tunic will be in when he gets up, never mind his hose, but he supposes he’ll have to cross that bridge when he comes to it. There are more important matters at hand just now.

“We’re both here, is the thing,” Crowley says, for the third time. “You’re here on Heavenly business, I’m here on a mission from Hell — if we were ever going to test it out, now would be the perfect time. If somebody notices, we just say it was an honest mistake! And that’s worst-case, angel; I’ll bet you anything nobody’s paying attention. They never have been before.”

“Oh, that’s easy for you to say,” Aziraphale snaps, thinking uneasily of Heaven’s favorite admonition: that God is always watching. “Maybe Hell is known for — for looking the other way, but Heaven — ”

“Known for looking the other way?” Crowley interrupts, voice cracking on it in incredulity. “Hell? No, Aziraphale. They’re not what you might call a lax bunch.”

“Then I don’t understand,” Aziraphale says, a little shrill, “how you can think this is a good idea! If they find out — ”

“They won’t find out,” Crowley says, tone wheedling now. “Don’t you think if anyone was watching, they would have noticed about the two of us by now?”

Aziraphale freezes, horrified to realize he’s never considered this before. Oh, of course he’s thought about what Heaven would think of their… their… whatever-it-is, of what Gabriel might say if he were to catch the two of them spending time together, of how Sandalphon might react to running into them out in the world. He’s thought, too, about how things might spin out if Michael were to peer into his innermost thoughts, see the truth of what Aziraphale feels for Crowley despite his halfhearted, shoddy burial job. He’s thought about how easy it would be to Fall, and he’s tried to think about what might happen to Crowley — something worse than Falling, something inescapably awful — although admittedly his mind tends to skid rather sharply away from the topic.

But somehow, despite all his caution, despite all his worry, Aziraphale’s never thought about what a damning picture the two of them have already painted, these last several thousand years on Earth. Between the Garden wall and the fall of Gomorrah — between the binding of Isaac and the sacking of Rome — between all the nights they’ve spent drunkenly talking about (almost) everything — they’re well past the point of excuse. Their respective Sides should have noticed by now.

“I didn’t mean — not that there’s anything to notice about us anyway,” Crowley says, apparently misinterpreting Aziraphale’s silence as offense. He seems unusually put out by this as he continues, grimly, “I only meant that if someone was watching, we probably would have heard already, that’s all.”

“You’re right,” says Aziraphale.

“I’m — what?” Crowley says, his eyes going wide over his tiny, ineffective sunglasses. “I’m right? You’re saying that I’m right?”

“You don’t have to make such a production out of it, my dear, it’s gauche,” Aziraphale says, trying to project calm indifference he does not actually feel in any way. “But yes: you’re right. I’d never thought about it before, I suppose, but I have to admit it: they certainly would have had something to say by now! If they were really paying attention! So they mustn’t be. Simple as that, really! A wonder I didn’t see it before! So you just tell me which of these humans I’m supposed to tempt, won’t you, and I’ll get on with it — it’s not as though it really matters, after all!”

Crowley makes a strange face at him; it’s a sort of panicky grimace, and he holds up his hands too, as if to draw a halt to the proceedings. Drawing the word out far too long, he says, “Okay. It seems I’ve gone a bit too far — ”

“Who’s gone too far?” Aziraphale says, with a dangerous, glittering brightness. If he just tells himself he’s fine, he will be; it’s always worked in Heaven, hasn’t it? “Point them out, I said! It’s time to tempt!”

“Maybe,” Crowley says slowly, in tones that suggest Aziraphale is currently reminding him of a wild animal, “we should start small. Test the waters, if you see what I’m saying. Yours was just a little miracle, right?”

Aziraphale nods tightly. “Just a quick boost to some crops. I can manage them both, if you like, since nobody’s really keeping score! A little good, a little evil: what’s the difference, right?”

“So this is what’s going to happen,” Crowley says, looking actively alarmed now. “We’re just not going to do — either thing. Let the humans get up to it without us, right? That’s the best test we could run; if nobody says anything, then, great, we can go from there, and if they notice then we know they are paying attention, at least a little.”

“Oh, what, we’ll just go — entertain ourselves, then?” Aziraphale demands waspishly.

Crowley shrugs. Then, his mouth curving up into a small smile, he says, “We could have a drink. Some dinner, maybe.”

Aziraphale could go for a good meal just now, but: “You don’t have to do this, you know, Crowley. I can see that you mean well, but it’s not — it’s not necessary. I’m fully capable of looking at the hard truths, you know. I can handle it.”

“I know that,” Crowley says, wincing. “But... ”

He trails off without finishing the sentence, and so Aziraphale has no choice but to demand, “But what?”

“You’re sounding a bit like me, angel,” Crowley says. His tone is apologetic; his eyes are kind. “Before, I mean. Right before, to be a little more specific.”

It takes Aziraphale a second; then he gasps, and puts a hand over his mouth in horror. “You mean before — before you — ”

Yes,” Crowley says; for just the length of that single syllable, his voice is shot through with grief. Then, his tone gone softer and more gentle than Aziraphale probably deserves, he says, “So let’s just go get that dinner, yeah? Let the humans try it on their own, for once. It’s the smart move, really, and I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t want you to lose track of yourself.”

Aziraphale, shaken, tries to break Crowley’s gaze and finds he can’t quite bring himself to look away. He knows that Crowley’s eyes are an aspect of his Fall; he knows that Crowley resents them most of the time, the way they make him stand out amongst the humans, the way they mean he can never truly forget. The two of them have discussed it, in the sense that Crowley has talked around it enough times to give Aziraphale the vague shape of the problem. Aziraphale can understand. He doesn’t think he’d enjoy being in Crowley’s position, either.

But just now… just now, all he can see in Crowley’s eyes, in the sharp angles of his face, is genuine care, honest concern. It’s beautiful; just looking at it is drawing Aziraphale away from a precipice he hadn’t even realized he was teetering upon. Crowley is a demon, and Aziraphale is an angel, and so that shouldn’t be how it is, but Aziraphale is starting to wonder whether all that even matters. What kind of organization, after all, would kick someone like Crowley out?

“Dinner sounds nice,” Aziraphale says. “Perhaps we can discuss the details of this little arrangement somewhere more atmospheric; that way, if things go well here, we’ll be ready to implement things down the line.”

Cautiously, Crowley says, “That sounds fine. Just no more of that ‘What does it all matter,’ talk, okay? Take it from me: you don’t want to see where that train of thought can take you.”

“Of course,” Aziraphale says easily, “I’ll let it go,” but the truth is that he doesn’t. He shoves it down deep instead, amongst all the other secrets he’s keeping from Heaven; if nobody’s watching, if they haven’t caught him at it yet, then really, what’s one more?

 

PRESENT DAY - LONDON

Aziraphale spends the next twenty-four hours essentially marinating in self-pity and distress. It’s not his best day.

He calls Crowley, of course, and leaves several messages when he doesn’t pick up, but he doesn’t say anything in them, not really. What could Aziraphale say about this over voicemail? He’s hardly going to leave Crowley a rambling message explaining that his fantasies about retiring to the country have always involved both of them, let alone that thinking about it has sustained Aziraphale in his debilitating affections for the last however-many centuries. It would be undignified, and unseemly, and also Crowley would have a recording of it, which seems unwise.

For several hours he considers going over to Crowley’s apartment — he knows where it is now, after all — but ultimately decides against it. It would probably be a rather egregious violation of Crowley’s boundaries, for one thing, and for another all the blasted buildings in his neighborhood look identical to Aziraphale. He’d probably end up knocking on some poor human’s door, and he just doesn’t think he has it in him, right now, to deal with all that. The idea of explaining this situation to a stranger is, honestly, a little chilling, even if a sad little part of him does think it might be nice to talk about it.

In the end, he orders an excessive amount of takeaway around lunchtime and grouchily spends the rest of the day (and much of the night) picking his way through it a few bites at a time. [29] It helps a little, but by the time the next day rolls around he’s in a truly foul mood anyway, annoyed with himself and with Crowley and with the way things had been going so well, until they weren’t anymore.

He’s sitting in the back room, glaring down at some tome or another without actually reading it at all, when the bell at the bookshop’s door chimes. Aziraphale frowns — technically, just in the spirit of things, he did unlock it when he came downstairs this morning, but he’s quite certain he left the Closed sign firmly in place. The nerve of some people.

“It’s a 50 percent up sale today,” Aziraphale calls tetchily, without looking up from whatever it is he’s trying and failing to read. “Everything’s 50 percent more than usual.” He waits, a little impatiently, to hear the bell signaling that the rude interloper has left; when it doesn’t sound, he adds, more sharply, “And it’s our one for two sale, as well — that is, if you buy one book, you pay the price of two.”

The bell still doesn’t sound. Aziraphale, very annoyed now, puts his book down and huffily walks to the front, where a bemused-looking woman in a mechanic’s jumpsuit is standing awkwardly in front of the counter.

“Well?” Aziraphale demands. Subtly, he starts encouraging some unfortunate smells to develop; sometimes stench is the only way with the more determined customers. “What is it you’d like? We probably don’t have it, of course, and if we do have it, you can almost certainly find it at a better price someplace else.”

“Uh,” the woman says, a little nervously. “I’m not shopping? Gerald sent me? I brought your car?”

“Oh!” Aziraphale says, brightening significantly. He’d been a bit worried that Crowley might have cancelled the order in a fit of pique or something. “Well, that’s another matter entirely! Thank you so much, really; I’m terribly sorry if I was cold before. Is there somewhere I need to sign?”

The woman holds out her clipboard and, while Aziraphale is signing A.Z. Fell in looping script, says, “Your, uh, one for two sale sounds pretty interesting, if you don’t mind my saying so. You move a lot of these books that way?”

“Not if I can help it,” Aziraphale says absently, and then, catching himself, adds, “Ah, that is — I try to ensure I only sell to the most discerning and trustworthy bibliophiles.”

“You collector types are all the same,” the woman sighs, shaking her head. “I’m honestly amazed you talked my boss into selling you this car, I was sure he’d insist on being buried in it. But hey, good on you, right? Here’s your keys, it’s parked just outside. Left a card in the cupholder; if it’s needing service, just give us a call.”

“I’m sure it won’t, but thanks all the same,” Aziraphale says. She gives him an alarmed look, but he just smiles brightly at her until she gets out of the shop, at which point he lets out a sigh of relief and promptly locks the door. He doesn’t know what he was thinking unlocking it in the first place; he’s clearly not in the sort of mood to weather the emotional onslaught that is dealing with customers. [30]

In fact, Aziraphale thinks, clutching the keys tightly in his hand, he’s not in the sort of mood to be here in the bookshop at all. Despite the cloud that’s been hanging over him since Crowley drove off the other night, he feels a little thrill run through him to realize he can just… go somewhere. Do something. Get in his car and drive, without worrying that he’ll have to explain himself later, or come up with an excuse for why he’s gone. In the broadest sense, of course, Aziraphale has had freedom of movement for many millennia, but there’s something to be said for not having to answer to anyone. For all that Aziraphale spent years telling Crowley he didn’t want a car because it wouldn’t be the same as a chariot, the truth was more that he was certain Heaven would relish the opportunity to track his mileage.

He grabs a scarf for his hair — driving around without one the other day left him looking terribly unkempt — and leaves the shop without so much as another thought. The DeVille is parked nearby, just as the woman who delivered it suggested it would be, and when he climbs inside, the car again purrs to life before he can quite get the keys into the ignition. Aziraphale sighs happily, running his fingers over the steering wheel, the dashboard. Things can’t be that bad between him and Crowley, can they? Nobody — nobody buys a car for someone they don’t care for; that would be an incomprehensible thing to do. Surely if Aziraphale had really ruined everything, as a rather histrionic part of himself has been suggesting for the better part of two days, Crowley would have called Gerald up and cancelled the order.

The DeVille pulls itself out neatly out into the road without much input from Aziraphale; it sets out at a nice, respectable speed, the sort of speed Crowley would describe as “horrible,” and “obstructing traffic,” but that any posted limit would approve of. Aziraphale fiddles with the dials on the radio until an opera he loves comes on, and after a few minutes of steady driving he finds himself humming along with the music. It’s not that he feels better, exactly, but it’s nice to be out in the world, instead of inside eating two bites of tikka masala every hour while replaying his and Crowley’s entire history in his mind.

The DeVille pulls to a stop at a traffic light; Aziraphale glances absently to his left and starts to see his own reflection in a shop window. The person staring back at him, wide-eyed, white silk scarf neatly wrapped over his hair, hardly looks like Aziraphale. Is that really him, sitting in a beautiful vintage car, wearing a deep purple sweater, looking for all the world like the person he’s never dared to be?

The light changes, and the DeVille pulls away; the reflection is gone in an instant. Still, after a few minutes more, Aziraphale finds himself singing along with the radio.

~~~

He shouldn’t be surprised that he ends up in Tadfield.

It’s not as though he’s really been driving with any intent; it’s not as though he’s really been driving, come to that. Oh, his hands have been on the wheel, certainly, but the car itself has been doing the bulk of the work. He’s just been sitting here, running over the past few weeks in his mind, trying to work out the things he’ll be able to see later when he looks back on it all. Things are always so much easier in retrospect, when he’s had a few decades to properly ruminate on them; the steps he should have taken, the choices he should have made, become crystal clear once he has all the information. Just this once, it would be nice if he could figure everything out right now, before he makes too many mistakes to right the ship and has to live with his regrets. He’s already changed so much, hasn’t he? Surely an alteration in this grim little pattern isn’t too much to ask.

Anyway, it figures that the DeVille brought him here — the place where it all didn’t happen, where the beginning of the end became the end of the beginning. Aziraphale looks around at the quaint little houses, the cobbled streets; it still looks like a place out of a storybook. Of course it’s wonderful that the world didn’t end for a variety of reasons, but Aziraphale has to take a moment and be grateful that the apocalypse didn’t end up starting specifically here. It would have been horrible to see something so obviously well-loved torn to shreds just for the sake of it. The fact that the person who would have destroyed it was the one who loved it so well in the first place would just have made the whole thing that much more awful.

Aziraphale shakes his head, tries to clear that thought away — the apocalypse didn’t happen, after all. Despite his litany of mistakes, despite eleven years of attempting to shape the entirely wrong boy, everything and everyone is still here. He doesn’t have to spend eternity in Heaven without his favorite restaurants, or his bookshop, or almost all the decent music there is, or Crowley.

Of course, there is the chance he’ll have to spend eternity on Earth without Crowley. It’s a maudlin thought Aziraphale shouldn’t entertain, but the blasted radio cuts off a perfectly acceptable aria to start playing “One,” a song Aziraphale only knows because of an unfortunate incident in one of the Heavenly elevators in the mid 1990s. [31] He lets out a strangled little noise and turns it off at once, and is relieved to realize he recognizes the cottage he’s drawing to a stop in front of.

It will be nice, Aziraphale thinks determinedly as he shuts off and climbs out of the car, to see Anathema. It will be nice! Yes, perhaps a little awkward; he probably should have called first, and he would have, of course, if he’d known he was coming. As it is, it will be a bit rude, maybe, to just knock on her door in the middle of the day out of nowhere, but — well! What else is he going to do? Just sit out of here in front of her cottage all day? That would be rude as well, and creepy to boot.

And… and maybe it might be good, also, to speak to Anathema about Crowley. Not a lot, obviously — that might be too much for a human to handle — and they don’t know each other that well, not really — and anyway, talk about rude. But it probably couldn’t hurt to just tell her a little bit about it, could it? After all, humans excel at love, always falling into and out of it; despite their fleeting lifespans, they manage to make so many connections to each other. It’s breathtaking.

Also, Aziraphale probably needs the help.

He dithers a bit as he’s walking up the drive, wondering if it would be better to turn around after all, and nearly runs right into Anathema’s young man. Oh, Aziraphale can’t remember his name — it couldn’t be Salamander, could it? No, surely not — wait —

Newt,” Aziraphale says, pleased as punch to have pulled it up. “And how are you doing today?”

“It’s… you,” Newt says, after a long moment. Then, rather more urgently: “Is the world ending again? Because, you know, it’s only been a couple of weeks, and I just. I don’t think that’s really very… fair? Give people a chance to bounce back, that’s what I say.”

“I’m hardly the one making those decisions,” Aziraphale says, a little offended. “And if I was, you can rest assured it would never be the apocalypse again!”

“So it is the apocalypse?” Newt yelps. He tightens his grip on the rake he was presumably, just moments ago, using to tidy up the garden.

“Of course it’s not, don’t be absurd,” Aziraphale says, in a slightly chiding tone. “I was just in the neighborhood; I thought I’d drop by.”

Newt does not look comforted by this. Voice a little shaky, he says, “To — see me?”

Aziraphale, taking pity on the boy, says, “To see Anathema,” in a kinder voice. “Is she in?”

“Inside, I think,” Newt says, his whole body sagging with relief, and goes back to his lawn care.

Aziraphale knocks at the door, but nobody answers him; he follows the sound of laughter around the side of the house, where he can see Anathema and, in a delightful turn of events, Madame Tracy having a cup of tea in the back garden. He spots them at the exact moment they spot him; Anathema contents herself with a single raised eyebrow in reaction, but Tracy bursts into a huge grin, calls, “Well, hello there!” in warm tones, as though they’ve known each other for years. Aziraphale can’t help grin back; it’s hard not to feel close to someone after spending even a few minutes, let alone a few hours, sharing a body with them.

“Hello!” Aziraphale says, walking the last few steps to meet them. “I’m sorry to just drop in on you like this, but I must say, it’s a lovely surprise to find both of you here. Tracy, I thought you were — ”

“I’m all moved in with Sergeant Shadwell already, but it’s kind of you to think of me,” Tracy says, beaming at him. “He didn’t have much to move, really — poor man’s lived like a raccoon all this time, it was honestly a bit tragic to see it all packed up. Barely more than a box and a bed to his name! But that’s all taken care of now; I just came out here to see Anathema because — we got to talking, you know, after all the... happenings, and it’s always nice to find someone in a similar field, isn’t it? Anyway, I’m having some trouble winding down my business, to tell you the truth. Some people just do not want to hear that I’m retiring! Well, semi-retiring. Well…”

“I don’t know that anyone really retires,” Anathema says, stirring her spoon in her mug and giving Aziraphale an oddly perceptive look. “Not in our line of work.”

“It’s sweet of you to say, love,” Tracy says, “but I hardly think I could call myself a practitioner. I’m a medium, right enough, and certainly I’ll never really give that up — as if I could! The ghost in my toilet would be heartbroken, and I couldn’t just sit there and ignore him weeping; it wouldn’t be right. But that’s not witchcraft.

“Sounds like it to me,” Anathema says with a little shrug, no longer seeming even remotely interested in Aziraphale. “But you should identify however you’re comfortable; I’m just saying I don’t think you should count yourself out unless you want to. In any case, I certainly think you’d be fine to tell your more persistent customers you’re a witch. They already trust that you speak to the dead, so it’s not much of leap, and the threat of a curse can really do wonders for getting people to fuck off, in my experience.”

“Hmm,” Tracy says, and lifts her mug to Anathema. “I’ll give that a ponder, thank you.”

“Anytime,” Anathema says with a smile, and takes a long, satisfied sip of her tea. Then, turning to Aziraphale, she says, “Well? Aren’t you going to tell me?”

Aziraphale stares at her. “Tell you what?”

“Whatever you came here to tell me,” Anathema says, as if Aziraphale is very slow. “I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want — I can kind of tell anyway. New clothes, new aura, new car; I know a midlife crisis when I see one.” [32]

“I — I am not having a midlife crisis,” Aziraphale splutters, horrified. “I mean, I’m an — an — well I’m something, anyway! And in any case, there’s no midpoint on eternity! The concept fundamentally doesn’t apply!”

“Yeah, okay, if you want to get pedantic about it,” Anathema says, rolling her eyes. “Call it a mid-eternity crisis if you have to — something’s obviously going on.”

“Did you say he has a new aura?” Tracy says, sounding interested, while Aziraphale tries to come up with a response to this that won’t humiliate him any further. “I’ve always wanted to see one, myself. Never could quite get it, but I’d swear I’ve caught the edges a couple of times.”

“I can teach you,” Anathema tells her easily, “but not on him. His is always… weird.”

Excuse me?” Aziraphale snaps, offended.

“Don’t take it personally,” Anathema advises him. She gives him a calm, considering look over her mug. “I think it’s because of what you are. Your aura is just a lot — bigger, and more complicated, than they usually get, at least for regular people. It took me a while to figure out how to see it properly. The goth one is even weirder, if that helps you at all.”

“The goth -- wait, Crowley?” Aziraphale says, laughing on it a little. He supposes it’s a fair enough cop, though he wouldn’t have thought of it himself. “You’ve seen Crowley’s aura?”

“Oh, yes. Certainly. It is... not subtle,” Anathema says. “Can you not see it?”

Aziraphale opens his mouth intending to explain that “seeing auras” isn’t really in the angelic job description, and to point out that it’s therefore an absurd thing to expect of him. He’s as surprised as anyone to find himself saying, “Well,” and, “I hardly think,” and then, apropos of exactly nothing, launching into an explanation of the situation between himself and Crowley.

He tells them — well, not all of it, of course, they don’t have that kind of time — but certainly the more significant parts of the story. He tells them about Eden, about the flood, about Gomorrah; he tells them about the Arrangement, and about a variety of their drunken evenings together, and about Crowley rescuing him from Nazis in the 1940s, consecrated ground and all. He tells them about the Carpathia, and about all those years they spent going the wrong way about averting the apocalypse, and about fooling Heaven and Hell at Agnes’s suggestion, finally breaking those ties. He tells them about the day they just spent together, about Crowley buying him the car, and about the way it felt like things were, at long last, going to work out between them, until it all abruptly went wrong. He even tells them about the horrible ciao, though he hates even briefly reliving it, to be honest.

When he stops talking, Anathema and Tracy both stare at him in stunned silence, their faces glazed over and faintly horrified. Belatedly, Aziraphale wonders if maybe it was a little… too much, putting all of that on them at once. They’re only human, after all. He offers them an apologetic wince, which they don’t really seem to notice.

“Well,” Anathema says finally. Her gaze is fixed on some point far in the distance. “That certainly was a lot of… information.”

“It’s just,” Tracy says, in a shaken voice that is clearly trying to be kind, “it’s one thing, you know, to have you possess my body and tell me you’re a six thousand year old angel. That’s all well and good, I’m sure; not the oddest person to possess me in my time, let me tell you! But… to really hear about all of it… it’s just quite a bit to process, love. That’s all.”

“That’s fair,” Aziraphale says, wincing again. “I do apologize; I didn’t exactly mean to -- get into it all like that. I just started talking and couldn’t quite... stop.”

“Yeah, six thousand years of repression will probably do that to you,” Anathema says, sounding a little faint. Her eyes visibly snap back into focus, and she pushes up her glasses, gives Aziraphale a considering look, and says in a firmer voice: “Look. Do you want to smoke some weed?”

“Oh!” Aziraphale says, surprised. He’s done it before, of course — Crowley was very into it in the 1960s — but not in years. The question catches him off-guard.

“Because I could really use some weed,” Anathema continues, tone very determined now. “And what I mean, actually, is that I’m going to smoke some weed, because you just told me all kinds of stuff about — the nature of Heaven and Hell, and things that happened in the really deep past, and I know we just stopped the apocalypse last month, but still. Some things are just too much to take sober, in my professional opinion! You can have some if you want, but I’m doing it either way.”

“I could smoke,” Tracy says, which would shock Aziraphale a lot more if he hadn’t spent enough time inside her body to really get a sense of her personality. “Since you’re offering, and all. Wouldn’t want to be rude.”

“I — you know, why not?” Aziraphale says. He’s always had fun with it before, and maybe it will make him feel less — exposed, less like he’s waiting desperately for them to say something, to offer some kind of opinion on everything he’s told them. He might not be an angel anymore, but he still doesn’t particularly care for sitting on this side of judgement.

“Great,” Anathema says. “Weed for everyone. We should go inside; there’s this horrible little man who lives in town and he’ll pop up out of nowhere to shame us if we light up out here, I guarantee it.”

She leads them into the house, politely waits for them to situate themselves in the living room, and then pulls an innocent-enough looking volume from a bookshelf. It turns out to be one of those false books people use for storage [33] , and Anathema pulls a pre-rolled joint and a lighter out of the box, settles herself atop a nearby ottoman.

They smoke in silence for a few minutes, just passing the joint back and forth between them, only interrupted when Newt sticks his head in the window and hopefully asks, “Weed?” Anathema obligingly hands the joint over, and he takes a few cheerful puffs before he and his rake vanish again, leaving them alone with their thoughts once more.

Aziraphale does find that he feels less nervous after a few hits. It all seems a bit — funnier, from this perspective, though he’s not sure it’s worth the tradeoff of the sharp uptick in his ever-present desire to snack.

Eventually, in a slow, calm voice, Anathema says, “Well, it sounds like Heaven sucks.”

“Do you know, I was just thinking that myself,” Tracy says, with a long sigh. “A bit of a letdown, I have to say, especially at my time of life.”

“Oh, you two don’t have to worry about Heaven,” Aziraphale says, waving a hand to dismiss the very concept. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Are you saying we’re going to Hell, Aziraphale?” Anathema says, though she’s laughing on it a little. “That’s very rude, you know.”

“Of course you’re not going to Hell,” Aziraphale says, rolling his eyes. It really is remarkable humans manage to survive at all, with so little information about the way things are. “You’re not going to Heaven or Hell. People mostly don’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tracy demands, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “What was all that about Gabriel and all, then? And the other bit, the — the Antichrist! I know he was real; I had to stop you killing him.”

“Dear lady, I don’t mean for a moment that Heaven and Hell aren’t real,” Aziraphale protests, holding up his hands. “Heaven’s up there and Hell’s down there and that’s — well. That. But humans… when your souls are done here it all gets a bit… ineffable. You go… on. Don’t know where; don’t think anybody really does know, except for Her, of course. Anyway, Heaven’s for angels and Hell’s for demons. Humans aren’t really part of it either way.”

“But,” Anathema says, sounding rattled, “but — I mean, people believe in Heaven! I don’t myself — or, I mean, I didn’t before I met you, now I kind of don’t know what to think — but so many people believe in Heaven. And you’re telling me none of them go? Like... you’re telling me that the archangels and God and all that exist, and Heaven exists, but it isn’t for humans? I mean — I mean — what’s the point? Why get a bunch of people to believe in a lie?”

Aziraphale shrugs, and then thinks about it, and then laughs. When he says, quite honestly, “Bugger if I know,” it is among the greatest reliefs of his life.

“But,” Tracy says, eyes wide, “you’re an angel, aren’t you? If you don’t know — who does?”

“I told the humans all kinds of things, back in the old days,” Aziraphale says, sighing heavily just to think of it. “Told them about the stuff Heaven said I should, and told them about some other stuff, too. About being good and kind and trying to do right by people, and all that. Just thought someone should say it! Just thought they should know! But then they went and wrote it down, and do you know — they said all kinds of things Heaven didn’t say, and I didn’t say, and nobody said. You know? People do what they want to do. It’s their best thing, and their worst thing, but it never changes, not in all the thousands of years I’ve known them.”

“You’re a tricky one, you,” Tracy says, after a beat of silence. “You say something like that and you seem so smart, you know?”

“Oh, I know,” Anathema says, before Aziraphale can begin to think of a reply. “It’s like, how can someone so smart be so stupid?”

“I am not stupid,” Aziraphale protests, but falls silent when Tracy and Anathema turn to him with identical pitying looks.

“Oh, you poor thing,” Tracy says, although she sounds like she’s trying fairly hard not to laugh. “We don’t mean any offense, of course — personally, I think it’s terribly romantic, the whole horrible story — but, well… ”

“Aziraphale, when I met you I thought you and Crowley were a couple,” Anathema cuts in. “And then I kept thinking that the next time I saw you, and I continued to think it even after you’d left. I thought you two were together until you showed up here today and started freaking out about it, actually, and honestly I’m still not sure it isn’t the case. Is it possible you’re just confused? A blow to the head or something?”

“I’m sure you’re doing your best, but — last month — well, it did seem a bit like he altered the fabric of reality because you threatened to stop talking to him, love,” Tracy says, in wheedling tones. “Definitely wasn’t what I’d call a normal reaction, what happened there. I wouldn’t want to speak for him, naturally, but in my experience you can take a lot less than that as a good sign.”

“But,” Aziraphale says, not daring to believe it, “he was so angry the other night — ”

“Because you said you wanted to leave town,” Anathema says, rolling her eyes. “I kind of can’t believe I have to spell this out to someone who’s literally been alive forever, but usually when a guy loses his shit because you’re thinking of moving away, he’s into you! That’s a pretty solid tell!”

“The whole story is more tell than anything else,” Tracy says, patting Aziraphale kindly on the hand to soften the blow. “I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it, though. He’s just as bad as you are.”

“Worse, maybe,” Anathema says, “although the thought of that makes me very sad. Is there anything left of that joint?”

They pass what’s left around again, and then Aziraphale, coughing a little, says, “So you think I should just — say something to him, then? Screw my courage to the sticking-place, as it were?”

“I think if one of you doesn’t say something soon, the world might end after all,” Tracy says with a little grimace. “Don’t take this wrong, love, but it doesn’t exactly fill me with comfort to know two people with your — abilities — are out there this wound up about each other.”

“That’s a good point,” Anathema says, nodding firmly. “Can’t be good for anyone, that kind of pent-up — whatever. Makes humans crazy; I’d hate to think what it could do to the two of you.”

“Nothing good,” Tracy agrees. “Oughta say something. No choice. For society.”

“For the world,” Anathema agrees. “It’s the only way.”

To the world, Aziraphale thinks, as Tracy and Anathema glance at each other and burst out laughing. That was just a few weeks ago, Crowley sitting next to him at the Ritz, holding Aziraphale’s gaze across their favorite table. Aziraphale’s never thought of what’s between them the way Tracy and Anathema must see it, as an entanglement of powers as much as anything else; as a clash, so to speak, of titans. It’s humbling, in a strange way. It makes all his worries, his centuries of wondering and millennia of doubt, feel small.

“I will,” Aziraphale decides. “I’ll do it, I’ll — tell him. I’ll tell him. As soon as I see him next, I’ll just — I’ll just tell him the truth.”

“Yes!” Anathema says, pumping her fist in the air.

“I think it’s for the best,” Tracy says, patting him again. “Now, how about you tell me a bit more about what happens after we die?”

~~~

Aziraphale ends up spending the better part of the afternoon and much of the evening with Tracy and Anathema. They eat dinner together, and talk about all kinds of things — history, witchcraft, the inner workings of the Heavenly order — quite a lot more, Aziraphale realizes towards the end, then he’s ever discussed with any human. It’s fun. Conversation flows more easily now that he’s not afraid he’ll have to file a report about it, or be issued a reprimand for saying too much.

It is, he reflects as he bids the two of them farewell, entirely possible that he did say too much, of course. He suspects he’ll have some regrets about it at some point, but, honestly, it’s not as though they didn’t already see more than any human was meant to, that day at the airbase. It’ll probably be fine.

“You’re sure you don’t want a ride home?” Aziraphale asks Tracy one last time before he leaves, but she just swats him on the arm.

“I’ve told you already, I’m perfectly happy to let Mr. Shadwell come pick me up,” Tracy says, shaking her head. “It does make him feel so valued, having a reason to get out of the house, and I think he likes getting the chance to check in with young Newt.”

“Speaking of whom,” Anathema says, pulling a face, “I haven’t seen him in hours; he doesn’t always hold his weed so well. If you see him, can you use your — angelic powers, or whatever you call them — to send him back this way? Preferably without his getting hit by a car?”

“Ah, I can do that from here,” Aziraphale says, and sends the miracle off without another thought. Somewhere in the distance, he hears someone yelp. “He should be along presently.”

“Thanks, I think,” Anathema says, eyebrows high on her forehead. “Text if you need anything, all right? Or if you’re thinking about chickening out; I’d be so happy to yell at you.”

“I don’t exactly have a mobile,” Aziraphale admits. “It’s on my list to pick one up, but until then I can call?”

“Ew,” Anathema says, in the bright tones of someone who has beheld true horror. “Hold on one second.” She vanishes back into the house, only to reappear with a small cardboard box. The picture on the front looks a lot like Crowley’s mobile. “I just got the new one — my mom loves to send me phones — anyway. You should take this. It should walk you through the set-up, and I wrote my number and Tracy’s on a Post-It and stuck it to the back; text me when it’s up and running, okay?”

“Me too,” Tracy chimes in, grinning. “Or you can call me, if you’d like; I’m not picky like she is.”

“I can’t just take this,” Aziraphale protests, even though he’s already plucked it out of Anathema’s hand. “Let me pay you, at least — ”

“How about you owe me a favor, instead?” Anathema says. Her voice is innocent, but there’s a gleam in her eyes; shrewd girl. Aziraphale knew that he liked her from the moment he met her, but it’s always nice to be proven right. [34]

“Fair enough,” he says. “Thank you, Anathema. Thank you both, honestly. You two take care of yourselves, all right?”

They agree that they will, and Aziraphale heads off calmer than he arrived by a wide margin. There’s something to be said for just making a decision, for finally deciding to act. When he climbs into the DeVille, the radio puts on a Bach Passion he’s always found particularly soothing, and the sun is just setting on the horizon; he eases out into the early night feeling more settled in himself than he has in… well. Than he maybe ever has, if he’s honest.

He drives by 4 Hogback Lane before heading out of town, just for the sake of looking at it. He’s half expecting Adam Young to come bounding out in front of the car — Aziraphale, who has encountered many children over the millennia, knows that they’re simply small people, and thus often just as tricky as adults. He doesn’t trust for an instant that the boy made himself completely human, and even if he did, it wouldn’t be in any human’s nature to strip themselves of all their powers.

But the drive down Hogback Lane is uneventful, even after he decides to park and wait for a moment, just in case something ends up happening after all. The Youngs are clearly home; the house is lit up from the inside, and Aziraphale can see silhouettes moving around, the shapes indistinct in the growing darkness. He’s glad, with a fierceness that shocks him, that he didn’t end up doing the horrible thing Tracy stopped him from doing, the grim act that Crowley wanted Aziraphale to go through with because he couldn’t do it himself. Even a child like Adam, born of evil, intended since time began to bring the end of all things — even a child like that deserves a chance to change and grow. To become whoever he wants to become, unencumbered by any expectations but his own.

“Everyone deserves the chance to shape themselves,” Aziraphale says to his empty car, realizing only as he says it that he believes it fiercely, that believing it is a foundational part of himself. He spent so long trying and failing to fit into Heaven’s strict guidelines, castigating himself for missing the mark, that what he was really missing was who he is, and has been, perhaps, this whole time.

Aziraphale takes a deep breath, and then another. He feels, just for a second, almost on the edge of hysteria, as though he is going to be overcome by laughter at any moment; then the thought passes easily, as quickly as it came, and Aziraphale shakes his head with a soft sigh. Here he is, getting maudlin on the side of the road — anyone would think he was just a regular person. Just a human taking a moment to himself after a hard day, before mustering that incredible spirit they all seem to have for carrying on.

It’s an oddly cheering thought, if hardly dignified. Aziraphale wipes his eyes and takes off into the deepening night, towards home; towards Crowley.

 

CHAPTER SIX

4004 BCE - EDEN

God’s fury is cold.

Aziraphale’s never seen anything like it before. Granted, he hasn’t seen much — he was only materialized a few years ago, after all. He’s practically a baby in the grand scheme of things, as the rest of the angels are ever so fond of reminding him, so it’s not as though he has much of a basis for comparison. It’s not as though he really knows anything at all.

Still: it’s singular, God’s rage. It’s frightening. Her voice lashes through the air with the swiftness and precision of a blade, and Aziraphale could swear the entire Garden is several degrees cooler than it was just a few moments ago. Adam and Eve are certainly shivering, huddled together under the protection of an already wilting tree, but that could just be from the fear, Aziraphale supposes.

He’s supposed to watch the Eastern Gate; that’s his job. That’s what he was sent here to do; that’s what he was created to do. He shouldn’t be looking at this — he shouldn’t be watching despair and regret dance across faces that, until just a few hours ago, had never known anything but uncomplicated delight. It’s his duty to turn away. It’s his duty, so that’s what he does.

It doesn’t really help. Even with his back turned on their suffering, Aziraphale can still hear God’s diatribe, the vicious intensity of Her anger. He can hear Her remind them that what they did was not just forbidden, but the only forbidden thing; he can hear Her lament that they have cursed themselves and their children and their children’s children with knowledge they’ll never be able to let go. He can hear Her lay out Her punishments, and cast them out of the Garden, and their soft gasps of shock and horror, the sound of Adam crying.

Aziraphale might be a young angel, but he’s a good one. Or, well — he’s trying, anyway. He’s trying to be good. So much of what goes on in Heaven confuses him, but that’s his own fault, he’s sure. It must be. Why else would he be the only one with questions? Why else would so much that is presented to him as Holy seem so… cruel?

The air itself seems to change when God leaves, as though it’s swelling all at once with grief, heavy with unshed tears. Aziraphale, looking down at the two mostly naked figures below him, can relate. As clouds start to form in the distant sky, he finds himself picking up his sword and — and — running, of all things. He abandons his post, something he has solemnly sworn never to do, to meet the humans on their way out of the Garden.

He’s never actually met them before, is the thing. Watched them, certainly, but they’ve never spoken — Aziraphale is strictly forbidden from talking to them, in fact. Despite this, he can’t help but feel like he knows them, although that may be because until today there wasn’t much to know. They weren’t what you’d call particularly complicated people before they ate of the forbidden fruit, but Aziraphale always waved back at them cheerfully enough whenever they noticed him up on the wall. It was always nice to see them, if only from a distance. They seemed happy; it was novel.

The people in front of him now do not seem happy. They look frightened and determined and heartbroken and… complex, Aziraphale realizes, a piece of understanding clicking into place. This isn’t simply about knowing the difference between good and evil; with knowledge comes the ability to make informed choices, real decisions, the chance to want more than just what one is told to desire. With knowledge comes the ability to see the self. Heaven might call it the Tree of Knowledge, but what it really is, what it really has to be, is the difference between what these humans were before and what they are now. Is the difference between what these humans were before and… and angels.

Eve meets Aziraphale’s eyes, and where he expected to see wretchedness and panic, he sees only calm certainty, resolve. He can tell from this close that she’s pregnant, though of course she’s not showing yet, and he can only sense it because of his ethereal powers — still, he wonders if she knows. It seems so unfair, to turn the two of them out into the vicious, violent world for having the temerity to… what? See things for themselves? Get just a taste of the understanding possessed by those whose image they were meant to be made in?

Aziraphale has a thought he cannot have, here and now, in this peculiar, precarious moment. It’s a terrible thought. A blasphemous thought. A thought so dangerous that he will spend more than six thousand years trying to convince himself that it never occurred to him, that he didn’t consider it for even a moment. This will work, more or less — with knowledge comes the ability to see the self, certainly, but also the ability to convince the self that, in fact, there’s nothing to see, please carry right along — but here, in this moment, Aziraphale knows. The horrible thought thrums through him, all-consuming, inescapable, and it is what drives him to hold out his hand and offer his sword.

Adam, after a frightened beat, accepts the weapon; he looks badly shaken by all of this, carrying none of Eve’s steadying calm. The sword seems to center him; Aziraphale’s glad. It’s really the least he can do, in the circumstances. He doesn’t speak — he’s not ready to break that rule, somehow, even after disregarding so many others — but they seem to understand each other all the same. Eve reaches out just for a moment, cups Aziraphale’s cheek in thanks, before they’re gone.

He returns to his post. He tells himself he can forget about his dreadful thought, can carry on as though he never had it at all. When Crawly appears next to him a few minutes later, Aziraphale is grateful for the distraction.

When, later, God asks after the sword, he lies.

 

PRESENT DAY - LONDON

Aziraphale spends most of the night setting up his new phone — well, no. Not really. The truth is the phone just works the minute he turns it on, like everything man-made seems to eventually. [35] What he actually spends most of the night doing is staring at the little text box he’s pulled up, Crowley’s name at the top.

He types and deletes so many messages he loses count. Really, it’s very sad; if he could bear to think about it for more than a few minutes, Aziraphale would be extremely disappointed in himself. As it is, he drafts and erases thousands of words while sort of — very intentionally not thinking about it. This is not a particularly effective communication strategy, although it is, at least, better than sending all of his messages through. Some of them are truly horrifying.

Eventually, around four in the morning, Aziraphale snarls, “Oh, enough,” and types, Dear Crowley, It’s me, Aziraphale! I finally got a mobile! I’m terribly sorry about the other night, I think I expressed myself very poorly. I would love the chance to explain. I hope that you’re well. Best wishes, Aziraphale. He hits send, throws the phone into his laundry hamper, and miracles himself up a spot of early breakfast. It’s fine — miracled food never does taste quite the same as the real thing — but it’s grounding, and something to do other than think about everything going on with Crowley.

Of course, life soon provides him with distraction enough, because when he goes downstairs to open the bookshop, he finds a gigantic wheel of cheese sitting on his front counter. The words SEE ME are carved in huge block letters into the top, and below that, in rather smaller letters, is the message BLOODY VAGUE TRADITION, IN MY OPINION — COME AFTER CLOSE TODAY. ROUNDABOUT 8PM. THE USUAL PLACE. -SOAK

“Well, thank goodness he added his name,” Aziraphale says, allowing himself a moment of truly vicious sarcasm where no one but his books will hear it. [36] “However else would I know who left this enormous cheese in my locked shop! And to just set a time for this very afternoon and assume I can be there, too; I call that presumptuous.” Muttering to himself about the indignity of it all, he pulls a penknife out of the nearest drawer and slices off a small chunk of the cheese, just out of curiosity. He brightens somewhat upon tasting it, realizing it’s an earthy Bianco Sardo, with notes of grassiness and wood — a personal favorite, which Ronnie certainly knows by now. For Ronnie, this is as thoughtful as gestures come, and Aziraphale, mollified, hustles the wheel away to the back room where it will be safe from any customers before he unlocks the front door.

Aziraphale spends the rest of the morning wondering what Ronnie could possibly want, trying not to go look at his phone, and halfheartedly discouraging people who might be interested in coming inside. He enjoys this activity enormously most days — there’s an art, really, to making a waft of cold air hit someone’s face just as they’re thinking about approaching the door, to creating haunting shadows in the windows — but he just can’t really bring himself to care, right now. Eventually, at his breaking point, he storms upstairs and fishes his phone out of the laundry.

There is one unread text from Crowley. Aziraphale takes a deep breath, steels himself, and opens it.

It is a little picture of a hand giving a thumbs-up. It is a little picture of a hand giving a thumbs-up, and nothing else. Aziraphale has to exercise all his self control to keep himself from whipping the phone out the bloody window.

But — it’s fine, Aziraphale tells himself. It’s fine. At least he answered! At least he’s awake! The little picture he sent was probably one of those… emojos, or whatever it was he said. He probably did it to be funny, and that means he’s almost certainly gotten over his little snit from the other night. And a thumbs-up — that means he’s willing to talk to Aziraphale, doesn’t it? So overall the message is a good thing, even if it does make Aziraphale feel a bit like screaming every time he looks at it.

He decides to wait until he’s done with whatever it is Ronnie wants to send a reply to the emojo. If it’s just a brief meeting, Aziraphale will see if Crowley’s free afterward, but the last thing he wants to do right now is set plans and break them. He putters around impatiently for the rest of the day, closes the bookshop early [37] , and heads to the little cheese shop in Southwark.

He’s surprised, as he walks up the street towards Ronnie’s dairy, to see Crowley approaching from the other direction. Crowley looks equally startled, though he recovers quickly, his shocked expression dropping away to one of casual nonchalance. “Aziraphale! I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

“I could say the same thing to you,” Aziraphale says faintly. He had a whole plan — the next time he laid eyes on Crowley he was just going to tell him, regardless of the circumstances or perceived perfection of the moment. But he hadn’t planned on being here, in front of Ronnie’s shop, having received some sort of weird and vaguely eldritch cheese summons. He can’t do it like this; it would be insane. He’s not prepared. Ronnie would probably be watching.

There’s nothing for it. He’ll just have to wait. The minute all of this is over — then. Then he’ll do it. He’s certain he will.

“You get one of these too, then?” Crowley says. He pulls a considerably smaller wheel of cheese than the one Aziraphale received out of a pocket and tosses it to him. Aziraphale catches it, looks it over; this one also has SEE ME carved into it, but underneath it just says, SHOP. 8PM -R

“He must have run out of room,” Aziraphale muses aloud, and then, in response to Crowley’s inquisitive head-tilt, “He was a bit wordier on mine, but it was, ah. Quite a large cheese. He had space for even more than he wrote.”

“Yeah, he knows I don’t really go in for dairy,” Crowley says, shrugging. “Always been a bit of a sore point between us. You can have that, if you want.”

Aziraphale, pleased, takes a little nibble. “Ooh, Manchego!”

“If you say so, ang — ah — Aziraphale,” Crowley says. He puts a hand to the back of his neck, gives Aziraphale an awkward, sheepish sort of look. “I’m, uh. About the other night — the way I acted — that… wasn’t great. Not your fault; you don’t have to explain. I would have said so in my text, but I really couldn’t pass up the chance to use the emoji. And also, at some point, we have to talk about how to text -- it’s not like sending a letter, okay, and it’s very important to me that you know that — anyway. Er. We can forget about it, if you like.”

Aziraphale, touched, knows that must have been very difficult for Crowley; his usual method of conflict resolution is more along the lines of a prolonged period of silence, followed by pretending the conflict never happened in the first place. It’s effectively been Aziraphale’s strategy too, of course, but it’s never actually gotten all that much resolved.

What Crowley just said, on the other hand, was very nearly an apology.

Perhaps, Aziraphale thinks, they’ve both been changing, now that they’re out from underneath their former Sides’ respective thumbs. Perhaps they’re both smack in the middle of a metamorphosis, altering this very instant, and when they come out on the other side they’ll find all their worries just don’t matter so much anymore. It’s not ridiculous to hope, is it? Crazier things have happened, after all. Crazier things happen all the time.

“I want to explain anyway,” Aziraphale says firmly, meaning it. “But thank you all the same, dear boy, I appreciate it enormously, I simply — I have some things I’d like to say. After this, though, all right? Ronnie can be a bit nosy, in my experience.”

“Agreed,” Crowley says cautiously, although he looks as though he’s not entirely certain it’s the right choice. “What do you think this is all about? SEE ME — that’s pretty official, I think. It’s the sort of thing they really went in for back in the old days.”

“Oh, who knows?” Aziraphale says, voice very casual, though he can’t help but shift a little nervously at the thought of the old days. “He’s the embodiment of Chaos, after all; it hardly makes sense to guess. It could be anything.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says, and swallows hard, squares his shoulders. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Still: best to face the music, don’t you think?”

“After you,” Aziraphale says, gesturing, and follows Crowley into the shop.

The dairy is empty save for Ronnie; he looks up from the counter he’s polishing with a rag and sighs. Adopting a graver and more officious manner than Aziraphale has ever seen him display, he says, “You two. Hello. It’s good of you to come.”

“Well, you didn’t exactly present it as an invitation, Ronnie,” Aziraphale says, as gently as he can.

“Not one to ignore an official summons, me,” Crowley says with a shrug. Then, after a thoughtful pause, he adds, “Well. Not always, anyway.”

“I thought it was time that we spoke,” Ronnie says, wringing the rag between his hands; Aziraphale realizes with both shock and apprehension that Ronnie is nervous. “The thing is, the two of you have been… well… something of a curiosity of mine over the years, I have to admit. Probably I should have said something when I first realized, but — honestly, it usually doesn’t go this way, and it was interesting. I just wanted to see what would happen; it’s my nature. You know how that goes, don’t you?” Ronnie drops the rag as he continues, tone plaintive now, “And I really thought that you would figure it out eventually. That’s the way things are supposed to be, you know! Because it’s not really my place, is it, to tell someone something like that? Usually people work these things out on their own! But thousands of years went by and you never realized, and then I thought for sure after you broke ties — ”

“Mmm, hello?” Crowley says, cutting him off. His tone is mild but his body language is stiff with tension as he lifts two fingers in the air, like a disaffected youth asking a rare question in class. “Sorry to interrupt, but what the fuck are you talking about?”

“Admittedly,” Aziraphale says, hearing his own voice come out high and thin, “I’d rather like to know the answer to that question myself.”

“I’m trying to explain,” Ronnie snaps, visibly bristling. “If you’d just let me get on with it, I could already be welcoming you to the community — ”

“What community?” Crowley demands.

“Oh, you know, the community,” Ronnie says, waving a vague hand. “People like us. Or the Tooth Fairies, or the Soul Cake Duck — wait, no, don’t think that’s you guys. The, uh — Easter Bunny, there we go. Santa Claus.”

“The Easter Bunny?” Aziraphale says, unable to believe what he’s hearing. “Santa Claus? But they’re just — stories! Told to children! They’re not real!

Crowley says nothing, but crosses his arms over his chest and stands up so straight that Aziraphale’s own back aches a little for him. [38]

Ronnie stares at the both of them for a long time, and then blows out a long, slow breath that whistles between his teeth. “Whew. They really do a number on you guys up there, don’t they? And down below, of course, but it’s all the same really. It’s wild to see it; no wonder so many of you are such arseholes. Of course Santa and the Bunny are real — as real as any of us, anyway. What do you think all this is? What do you think you are?”

Aziraphale stares at him for a long time, mouth working soundlessly, too badly wrongfooted to speak. He half expects Crowley to jump in, but Crowley is just standing next to him taut as a drawn wire, utterly silent.

“I — I — I’m sure it doesn’t matter what I am,” Aziraphale says finally. “You can’t honestly expect us to believe that we’re somehow — that Tooth Fairies are real, first of all, is an absurd claim —”

“Fine!” Ronnie cries, throwing his hands in the air. “I thought this might happen, stubborn bastard that you are. I’ll prove it to you.” He snaps his fingers and suddenly there’s a live rat in one of his hands, a cleaver in the other; before Aziraphale can even process what’s happening, he’s gone and chopped the poor creature’s head clean off.

“Oi!” Crowley snaps, already moving forward towards the corpse. “What did you go and do that for, that — ”

Crowley stops talking and moving abruptly. Aziraphale wouldn’t presume to know what goes on in Crowley’s head, but if he had to hazard a guess, he’d say that Crowley was struck silent by the sudden appearance of a walking rat skeleton in a robe on the counter in front of them.

“Does it… have a little scythe?” Crowley says faintly, to no reply.

The skeletal rat turns furiously on Ronnie. “SQUEAK! SQUEAK SQUEAK SQUEAK!” he intones, in a voice that somehow sounds both like the rise and fall of all things, and... well. Like a really angry rat, mostly.

“Calm down, calm down, I’ll fix it,” Ronnie says. He waves a hand, and the flesh-and-blood rat springs up at once; its original head is attached as if it was never severed, and there also seems to be a second head now, entirely distinct from the first. “There! Good as new, and now he’s got a friend to boot. Really it’s lucky for him that I grabbed him, when you think about it.”

“SQUEAK SQUEAK! SQUEAK! SQUEAK!!” the bone rat says. He is, Aziraphale notes at a bit of a remove, waving his little hands — paws? finger bones? — in emphasis; the tiny scythe is flicking furiously through the air as he squeaks. “SQUEAK SQUEAK SQUEAK!”

“Well, how the hell else is a guy supposed to get a hold of you?” Ronnie demands, crossing his arms over his chest. “You don’t write, you don’t call, if I try to go through the big guy I get a whole spiel about how he’s not your social secretary — ”

“SQUEAK SQUEAK,” the rat says, somehow managing to sound hurt. “SQUEAK.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that,” Ronnie says, sounding exasperated. “Of course I understand that you’re two separate entities. I just meant ‘big guy’ in the sense that he’s physically — you know what? Just forget I ever said it. My point is, you’re the Death of Rats, so if I need to talk to you quick, a rat has to die. Those’re the rules.”

“Sorry,” Crowley says, sounding about as gobsmacked as Aziraphale feels. “Did you say the Death… of Rats?”

“Say hello,” Ronnie says, in a stage whisper, to the tiny animate skeleton that is apparently the Death of Rats. “Then you can go.”

Conveying irritation with every motion, the rat turns around to face Crowley and Aziraphale, crosses his little arms over his chest, and says, “SQUEAK.” Then he turns around again, gives Ronnie a speaking (if very small) finger, grabs the two-headed rat by the tail, and vanishes in much the same way he arrived.

“There you have it,” Ronnie says, beaming at Crowley and Aziraphale as though everything that just happened was perfectly normal, if not actively delightful. “The Death of Rats is just one of the many and varied members of our little community. There’s quite a lot of us, all told, though of course not everyone participates in the picnics and potlucks and such.”

“Picnics?” Crowley says, sounding well and truly terrified now. “Potlucks?”

“Sorry,” Aziraphale says, still blinking at the spot where the Death of Rats just vanished. “I’m sorry, can we just go back for a moment to — why do Rats have a Death? Isn’t Death just... Death? For all things great and small?”

Ronnie shrugs. “Sure he is, but it’s all a bit more — complicated than that. Someone probably just thought about rats having their own Death once, and maybe they told somebody else, or maybe they wrote it down. Or maybe a bunch of other people just spontaneously thought of the same thing on their own; you’d be surprised how much that kind of thing can happen. Anyway, somebody believed in him, and then he was. Is. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! There’s all kinds of us; humans believe all kinds of things.”

“You keep saying ‘us,’” Crowley says sharply. “What does that mean, Ronnie? Is this more of your ‘We are as they made us’ shit? Because honestly — ”

Enough!” Ronnie bellows. His voice takes on that odd, eldritch harmonic it sometimes does when he’s really serious; nervously, Aziraphale notices that the edge of his polishing rag has started putting off smoke. “We are as they made us. We are! Even Heaven! Even Hell! I’ve been trying to tell you all these years — I knew I’d never get through to him, but you, I thought, could be reasoned with. We exist because they believe we exist; that’s the truth.”

“But that’s ridiculous,” Aziraphale snaps. “Heaven made the humans -- ”

“Did they?” Ronnie asks, tilting his head. His eyes are their usual opaque black, but just for an instant Aziraphale catches a glimpse of a yawning forever within them, the bouncing echo of a billion universes. “Or do humans just believe that they did? Heaven would believe it too, if the humans believed it. It’s a funny old world; all this time spent salivating for a war to end all things, to destroy humanity and fight it out once and for all between Heaven and Hell, but if they were to actually do it, no one would survive. Above, Below, it wouldn’t matter — they’d be lost the instant humanity was. We all would.” He pauses, and then, somewhat begrudgingly, adds “Well. Our incarnations in this world, anyway. Technically there’s infinite variations of each of us, scattered all across the cosmos, but that gets complicated quickly. You’re better off leaving it alone.”

“So you’re telling us… what, exactly?” Aziraphale says, voice very high now. “That we’re — that Heaven and Hell are just — manifestations of collective belief? And so we’re, what, going to fade away to nothing because we’re not affiliated anymore — ”

“The two of you haven’t been affiliated for thousands of years,” Ronnie says, cutting him off. “Or — that is to say, you have, but not in the way that you think. If you’d just listen — this is all about what we are to humans, right? Angels are a manifestation of belief in angels; demons are a manifestation of belief in demons. But the two of you… you’ve been on Earth for so long… you’ve interacted with so many of them… you’ve become something else. Manifestations in your own right, neither of Heaven or Hell.”

What?” Crowley and Aziraphale say in the same moment.

Ronnie smiles at them. “You’re Kindness,” he says, “and Free Will. Don’t blame you if you don’t want to be addressed that way, of course — I hate it myself — but, well. There it is. Like I said, I probably should have mentioned it sooner, but people really do usually get there on their own.”

There is a long, long moment of silence, in which the world spins on under their feet even though the enormity of what has just been said makes Aziraphale feel unmoored from it, from time and space itself.

Then, voice strangled but desperately attempting cool indifference, Crowley says, “Ah, well. That’s not so bad is it, Free Will? I mean, big fan of it, I’ve always said. Probably better than being a demon, when you think about it. Might have been nice! To know! But I guess things could be worse!”

“I suppose Kindness is a fairly lovely thing to represent,” Aziraphale says slowly, trying to get a handle on the concept. “I certainly have always tried to be kind.”

Ronnie’s snort cuts off his train of thought. “Ha! Incredible, the two of you. No, lads: you’ve got it the wrong way round.”

Aziraphale’s mouth drops open; Crowley takes off his sunglasses and openly stares, eyes wide with shock. They both look at Ronnie for what feels like forever, and then at each other for just long enough to communicate that yes, indeed, they are both freaking the fuck out.

Crowley breaks the silence first, his voice cracking on the word, “What?

“I — you — you must have it wrong,” Aziraphale says slowly, his mind working frantically behind his eyes. It’s too much to absorb at once; Aziraphale feels like he might be pushing his body’s limits, and wonders if anyone’s ever discorporated from shock. Desperately — knowing even as it comes out of his mouth that it’s probably futile — he says, “How would you know, anyway? How are we supposed to believe you’re even telling us the truth, hmm? That’s what I’d like to know!”

In an instant, the room around them vanishes; the three of them are in the middle of a black void, no sign of the dairy they were standing in just moments ago. Sounding nothing at all like a person, a howl of something beyond understanding underscoring every syllable, Ronnie says, “THE POWERS OF CHAOS EXPAND BEYOND WHAT YOUR SIMPLE MINDS CAN COMPREHEND. I AM EVERYWHERE, ALWAYS, EVEN WHERE CHAOS IS NOT, FOR THE UNIVERSE IS BUILT ON CHAOS; FOR CHAOS EXISTS WHEREVER LIFE MAKES ITS HOME. WHERE YOU HAVE WALKED, I HAVE WALKED. WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN, I HAVE SEEN. I AM BEYOND HUMAN BELIEF — I AM A HUMAN REALITY, PEERLESS BUT FOR LIFE AND DEATH. TO QUESTION ME IS TO QUESTION THE FABRIC OF THE UNIVERSE ITSELF!”

Then, before Aziraphale can react to that, Ronnie says, “OH, BUGGER IT ALL, EVERY TIME,” and snaps his fingers. The dairy materializes around them again abruptly, and Ronnie says, “SORRY,” coughs, and then, in his more regular voice says, “Ah, that is — sorry. I try to keep a handle on my anger these days, I do, but I’m capricious, me. Sometimes I forget myself. I know because I know, is what I meant to say. Got a little carried away, I’m afraid.”

“No… no worries,” says Aziraphale shakily, though in fact he suspects he will still be worrying about what just happened for many years to come. “I’ll, ah, just take your word for it, then, shall I?”

“Well, I won’t,” Crowley snarls. He strides forward a few steps, suddenly full of purpose, and jabs Ronnie in the chest with one finger. Aziraphale sucks in a breath in horror — he’s half expecting Ronnie to turn Crowley into a duck or something — but Ronnie just raises his eyebrows, looking amused, as Crowley says, “I’m not — I can’t be — I can’t even say it! I can’t say it, because it can’t be the truth.”

“True kindness abhors credit,” Ronnie says mildly, looking down at his fingernails calm as anything, as though Crowley isn’t bristling with fury mere inches from him. “In a cruel world, the truly kind never feel they’ve done enough.”

“I’m — that’s — just fancy wordplay!” Crowley yells, jabbing Ronnie in the chest again. “I’ve been a demon all these years! I’ve seen horrible things and said nothing, done nothing! I’ve done horrible things myself! I mean, sure, I did my best to — to let the humans take care of it on their own, but it’s not as though they needed Hell’s help! I tried not to interfere too much, and when I did interfere I tried to steer clear of the really awful stuff, but that’s the best you can say for me! It really is! I’m not a nice person. I’ve never been nice! Anyone will tell you!”

“Kindness and being nice have nothing to do with one another,” Ronnie says, still in that horribly calm voice. “Kindness — true kindness — asks the hard questions, and tells the harsh truths, even and especially when it isn’t nice. True kindness does the best it can in the worst situations, in whatever small way. True kindness often sells itself short, as I’ve watched you do for thousands of years; it’s remarkable that you don’t understand just how much harm you didn’t do to this world, how much of Hell’s planning you quietly derailed.”

“But,” Crowley says. His voice is smaller and more shattered than any Aziraphale’s ever heard him use, and he takes a step back from Ronnie as he says it, as though in need of some physical distance from what’s been spoken. “I Fell.”

“Well, of course you Fell,” Ronnie says, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “They were hardly going to keep you up there, where only the fantastically cruel can thrive! Anyway — it’s human kindness you embody, you know. Usually there’s a fair amount of pain involved, and quite a lot of trying your best and feeling as though you’ve failed. Really, you’re proving my point.”

“But — but my plants!” Crowley says, with the air of a man desperately casting around for something to hold onto in the wreckage. “They’re terrified of me! Because I terrorize them! That’s not something I’d do if I was — if I was — what you said I was!”

Ronnie sighs heavily. “So it’s come to this, then,” he says, and snaps his fingers again; suddenly, they’re standing in Crowley’s apartment, in the center of his makeshift greenhouse. “I know you won’t like this, Crowley, but I want you to remember that you drove me to it.”

“Wha — ” Crowley starts, but Ronnie holds up a hand to silence him and, remarkably, he shuts up.

Then, before Aziraphale’s amazed eyes, Ronnie says, “All right, folks. Tell us how you feel about him,” and all the plants start rustling furiously at once.

After a moment, a hush falls; a ficus near the front shakes its leaves in an officious manner and then, in a reedy but enthusiastic little voice, says, “We all agree that Crowley is the best keeper we’ve ever had, sir! A dab hand with the watering can, and never shy with the plant food either! We also appreciate all his coaching — very motivational!”

Crowley’s mouth moves soundlessly around the word “coaching” a few times; his eyes are very wide. Sounding like he’s seen a ghost, he says, “But — but you’re scared of me! I yell at you and you tremble — ”

“We’re — growing — Coach,” grunts a fern near the back, sounding as though it’s doing so this very instant. “Getting — swole!”

“We’re all very grateful for our placement here, you see,” says the reedy ficus who seems to be speaking for the group. “The most verdant plants in London, you know — we’re athletes, really, when you think about it. Crowley always lights a fire under us, sir, so to speak! Much easier to keep ourselves working at peak performance with motivation like that! We really like the bit where if one of us gets a spot, he pretends to put them in the garbage disposal.”

“Who says I won’t put you in the garbage disposal?” Crowley demands, sounding hunted. “Who says that’s just a bit?”

“Well, you bring us back when we’re better, is the thing,” says the reedy ficus, sounding confused. “And we don’t really have anything to do all day except gossip and grow, really, and we do recognize each other, you know. We all know about the room where you put us until we’re fixed up.”

“Crowley rescued me from a lady who was killing me!” chimes in a pothos near the back. “Just picked me up off her desk while she was in the toilet and walked me away! I would’ve been dead in hours, and look at me now! I’m a professional!”

A number of other plants chime in to offer their own similar stories; Ronnie, not unkindly, says, “In fact, all of these plants were liberated from humans who were mistreating them, Crowley, isn’t that right?”

Well,” Crowley says, looking well and truly desperate now, “I mean, what was I supposed to do? You can’t just leave them there, that would be… wrong… ” Seeming to realize what he’s saying, Crowley clamps his mouth shut.

Ronnie rolls his eyes, and snaps his fingers once more to return them to the dairy. “There! Is that enough, or do you need me to write it all down for you in big letters? Sing a little song, maybe?”

“Aziraphale,” Crowley says, turning to him. His sunglasses are still off, and his eyes are pleading. “Tell him. Tell him that I’m a bastard! You know me better than anyone; you know I can’t be — I can’t be — you know! Tell him!”

Aziraphale bites the inside of his cheek in brief but painful indecision. Oh, he hates to deny Crowley anything, especially something he obviously wants with such desperation, but:

“I’m sorry, Crowley,” Aziraphale says, voice soft, a little sad. “You’ve shown me nothing but kindness for thousands of years, even when I haven’t deserved it. And I’ve watched you care about so many people, about so much injustice — I could hardly deny it. You had to ask me to kill Adam Young, for crying out loud, and at that point I was an angel and you were a demon!”

“Technically,” Ronnie says, holding up a finger to mark the point, “both of you have been beyond Heaven and Hell for millennia, and just kind of… playing the part, you could say. I imagine you’ve both seen a bit of a power shift since you’ve stopped using your energy to maintain those relationships; it must have been draining, being something you weren’t. I see the point you’re making, though, and that’s on the money.”

“Are you okay?” Aziraphale asks Crowley, ignoring Ronnie to peer at his friend with some concern. “You look a bit... peaky.”

“Oh, of course I’m okay,” Crowley snarls, not sounding it at all. “I’m fine! I’m great! I love to discover essential truths about my nature; who doesn’t?! I’m just going to -- to -- sit down for a moment!” He waves a hand, and a sleek, uncomfortable looking chair made out of black leather and metal appears behind him; he plops down into it, swings his legs over one of the armrests, and crosses his arms over his chest. “There! All seated! No need to worry about old Crowley!”

“I’ve seen him get like this once before,” Ronnie says, sotto voce. “Right after he found out about the Spanish Inquisition. Best to just give him a minute, I think.”

“I hardly need you to tell me that,” Aziraphale sniffs, annoyed. And then, because he might as well, while they wait: “Not to, ah, question the fabric of the universe, was it? But I do feel I have to ask if you’re quite sure about my title.”

Ronnie sighs. “Of course you do.”

“I mean,” Aziraphale says, proud that only the faintest edge of his enormous confusion bleeds through into his voice. “It’s not as though I’ve been… so willful, really. I spent so long trying to live according to Heaven’s rules that I’m not even sure I know who I am! Not in — in the context you’ve just informed me of, of course, just — just generally! So it’s a bit difficult to believe that I represent the free will of humankind at large.”

“Ha!” Ronnie says, shaking his head. “You’re both unbelievable, honesty. It’s like I was saying to him — it’s about human belief, at the end of the day. What better expression of human free will is there than choosing to spend years attempting to fit in somewhere you don’t really belong? Humans are out there doing that very thing in droves right now, just as some of them are doing what you’ve been up to lately; breaking loose. Living their ecstatic truths, or whatever you want to call it.” Ronnie shrugs, spreading his hands wide. “Haven’t you always liked the strange ones, Aziraphale? The ones who didn’t quite fit? Haven’t you always done what you’ve really wanted, at the end of the day? Since the very beginning?”

“The very beginning,” Crowley says, sitting up straight suddenly. “The very beginning! There you have it, there you go — I gave them the apple, in the garden! That was me! So that’s some free will right there, and Aziraphale gave them the sword — kindness — there it is! It should be the other way ‘round, like we thought!”

Ronnie makes a little tsking sound. “No, mate, you’re proving my side again. First of all -- I think any right-minded human would have looked at what you did as kindness.”

“It was the original sin,” Crowley says. He both looks and sounds enormously frustrated. “That’s literally what they call it! So if this is about — human belief or whatever — ”

“Like I said, humans believe all kinds of things. They’re not all winners,” Ronnie says, his tone taking on a grim affect. Then, brightening, he adds, “But if you go back to the source — Adam and Eve looked at it as a kindness, didn’t they? Even after they were cast out of the Garden, they were glad to know. Nobody deserves to be kept in the dark, just a plaything of some higher power; what you did kicked off a significant portion of human history. It’s been good and bad, certainly, but I’d think they’re grateful to have gotten the chance, as a whole. And, anyway: what he did was hardly a kindness.”

“Because it introduced humanity to violence?” Aziraphale asks nervously. He’s been afraid of that since he saw War wielding his old sword. “Because if I’d just left them to fend for themselves without it, perhaps they wouldn’t have found themselves quite so… ah…. warlike?”

“Well, yes,” Ronnie says, bluntly confirming Aziraphale’s worries and breezing right along, “but that wasn’t even what I meant. What did you do when God asked you about that sword, Aziraphale?”

Aziraphale swallows hard, glances at Crowley, looks away. He’s never told anyone this; he’s never so much as said it out loud, but now seems like the time for honesty, so: “I lied,” Aziraphale says quietly.

Crowley jumps in his chair. “You lied? What, to God? You lied to God?”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, crossing his arms defensively over his chest to protect himself from Crowley’s gobsmacked stare. “Yes, I — I did! It was too late to undo what I’d done, and I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I — I lied!”

“Nah,” Ronnie says; when Aziraphale turns back to look at him, there’s a knowing, wry expression on his face, one that bodes very ill. “That’s not it. Why’d you really lie to Her, Aziraphale? Why couldn’t you tell Her what you’d done? Why did you give them the sword?

Aziraphale stares at him in horror; he couldn’t possibly know that, could he? He couldn’t know about… about the horrible thought, the thought Aziraphale has spent these last six thousand years trying to forget. He couldn’t know, but Aziraphale can tell that he does somehow anyway, can see it in his black eyes, his ever-changing face. There’s no point in hiding it anymore.

“I thought God was wrong,” Aziraphale whispers, and then, when Ronnie holds a hand up to his ear, he yells it: “I thought God was wrong! Those poor people didn’t do anything but get a taste of the kind of knowledge angels and demons pass around unthinkingly; why shouldn’t humans have it? Isn’t it enough that they die? Isn’t it enough that inside each of them is towering good and bottomless evil? What’s so wrong with a little information? They deserved to know enough to make informed choices! Everyone does! All of us!”

He’s breathing heavily by the time he stops talking. Ronnie is staring at him with the smug air of someone who has just been proven unequivocally correct, which is fair. Crowley, on the other hand, is looking at Aziraphale like he’s a total stranger, someone Crowley has never seen before.

“You never said,” Crowley says, finally. His voice is wondering. “I never knew.”

“I tried not to think about it,” Aziraphale says, with a nervous little shrug. “I’m… a little too good at that.”

“Humans use quite a bit of their free will to hide things from themselves, you know,” Ronnie chimes in, but he holds his hands up in supplication when Aziraphale turns a glare on him. “Okay, okay! I see you get it. I’ll stop.”

Silence falls between them, and for a few minutes they all just stand there — well. Aziraphale and Ronnie stand, and Crowley sits, and they all manage to simply hold their peace, for once. Ronnie looks a little uncomfortable, which is fair, and Crowley looks like he’s seconds away from running out of the shop screaming, which is so utterly justified that Aziraphale is surprised, honestly, that he doesn’t just go for it.

For his own part, Aziraphale feels — strange. It’s as though everything that’s been revealed here is a torrential rainstorm that’s been caught just over his head, but only barely, in a large but straining balloon. Any moment now, he’s sure, it’s all going to wash over him and soak in properly. He’s not looking forward to that, and expects it will be very unpleasant. Just now, though, he feels freer than he’s ever felt; untethered from everything he ever thought he was doing, everything he ever convinced himself to care about.

Everything save Crowley, of course. That part of Aziraphale is true bedrock, like his love of a good meal or a tasteful tartan, like his passionate interest in books. He doesn’t need Ronnie to tell him what it means that he, Aziraphale, has always worked hard to be kind, even though if he’s being honest it hasn’t always come naturally; he doesn’t need an explanation as to why Crowley has always been so pointedly in favor of free will, either, all the way back to that very first day with Adam and Eve and the apple. It’s so simple, as obvious as anything: they believe in each other. There’s not really any denying it.

“Look, lads,” Ronnie says, a little awkwardly. “It’s not that I don’t understand that this has been — a lot, but, uh. I didn’t actually think it would take this long? And as it happens I have plans tonight. So if you don’t mind… ” He gestures, wincing, at the door.

“Oh, you’re just going to — to kick us out, then?” Crowley says, incredulous. “Just drop something like that on us and boot us right out the door? What happened to ‘Welcome to the community,’ Ronnie?”

“You guys don’t really seem… there yet,” Ronnie says, with a little shrug. “No offense. I do kind of need you to go, though.”

“Aziraphale gets to take whatever he wants, then,” Crowley demands, standing up and vanishing his chair behind him. “Whatever — I don’t know, cheeses or yogurts or — whatever he likes!”

“Oh, well, can’t argue with that,” Aziraphale says brightly, beaming at Crowley for his quick thinking. He busies himself with gathering cheeses at once. “Least you can do, really.”

“And I don’t want any dairy so... you buy the rounds for the next — next — forever! Eternity! Drinks are on you til the heat death of the bloody universe, all right?” Crowley looks wild about the eyes, and, seeming to realize this, he shoves his sunglasses back onto his face at speed. “Say you agree!”

“Fine,” Ronnie says, spreading his hands. “But for what it’s worth — ”

“Oh, don’t, Ronnie,” Crowley says, voice like acid. “It’s been thousands of years; you could have told me! You could have said something so many times! So you can just… shut up, right now, if it’s all the same to you. Aziraphale? You ready?”

Armed with two tubs of goat butter, another of mascarpone, and a large wedge of halloumi, Aziraphale says, “I suppose I can call it even here. For now.”

“Of course,” Ronnie says. He and Aziraphale exchange a look which clearly acknowledges that, in fact, very little about their relationship will functionally change. Aziraphale can understand why Crowley feels betrayed, of course — he and Ronnie are obviously close, in an odd way that Aziraphale isn’t quite certain he understands — but for Aziraphale, Ronnie is first and foremost his dairyman. That’s what Ronnie chose to be, after all; Aziraphale, of all people, can respect a choice.

Crowley turns on a heel and stalks out the door without so much as saying goodbye. As an act of solidarity, Aziraphale also does not say goodbye, although he does mouth, “Thanks for the cheese!” on his way out of the shop.

It is much darker outside than it was when they arrived, and Aziraphale blinks a little to realize it. He’d expected to have to follow Crowley up the street, but Crowley has only made it about three feet past the shop window, where he is leaning up against a brick wall. He doesn’t say anything, and Aziraphale finds himself leaning up against the wall as well, just for curiosity’s sake.

He regrets it at first — how does Crowley do this and look so comfortable? — but then the cold of the brick against his back, through the knit of his sweater, settles in. It soothes him, grounds him, and before Aziraphale can brace himself for it, the bubble of knowledge that’s been hovering over him bursts.

He expected it would hurt, when it really hit. Instead — amazed — he finds himself laughing, quietly at first and then harder, until he’s howling, hand pressed to his chest. He realizes with tears of mirth in his eyes that it is only now, in this moment, that he really understands that conversation he had with Sarah, all those years ago. In the face of information that contradicts everything you once believed to be true, what is there to do but laugh? What else could one do with all those years of misconceived emotion? All those feelings, and decisions, and mistakes Aziraphale built upon believing in the structures of Heaven, upon believing himself to be angelic: they tumble out of his mouth in the language of humor, older even than he is, and drift away into the night.

After a moment, Crowley surprises Aziraphale, and starts laughing too. They stand there for a long time, cackling; they must look like fools, but what does it matter, really? What does anything matter, beyond this little patch of sidewalk, the worn brown brickwork behind them? The world spans wider than Southwark, of course, and soon enough Aziraphale will have to think about it, about who he is and what it means, about how he fits in now that he knows what’s what. He can see that work looming before him — he knows the process of becoming is long and arduous, never truly done.

But for now it’s just him and Crowley, creasing up under the soft halo of the streetlights. It’s good. For once in his life, Aziraphale doesn’t feel the need to bloody complicate things; he just savors the moment like he would an exceptional wine, drinking in the way he feels, which is not quite like any way he’s ever felt before. Smarter, and older, and more himself, and less… ashamed, maybe. Less certain that there’s been something wrong with him, subtle but incurable, all this time.

“I,” Crowley announces, after they’ve both finally wound down laughing, “am going to need to get extremely drunk in incredibly short order. Things’ll get ugly otherwise; I can tell.”

“Too right,” Aziraphale says feelingly. “Come back to mine? We’ll get something to eat on the way. And I’m driving; you looked ready to keel over in there, my dear, if you don’t mind my saying it, so you should hardly be out on the road.”

“Well, that one’s your own fault, Crowley, isn’t it,” Crowley mutters, clearly to himself, but all the same, he follows Aziraphale to his car.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

TOO MANY TIMES TO COUNT - TOO MANY PLACES TO NAME

Aziraphale meets Crowley at the bookshop, or at the park, or in the forest, or behind the local pub. They confirm to one another that no one saw them come. Crowley makes a joke and Aziraphale laughs; Aziraphale makes a pointed comment and Crowley smirks. They exchange reports of the deeds they’ve done, some of them in one another’s name, and are more honest with each other than they ever are with their bosses.

Aziraphale smiles at Crowley when he thinks Crowley isn’t looking. Crowley watches Aziraphale closely from behind the limited cover of his sunglasses.

They talk about more than they intend to, and for longer than either of them expected — somehow this always happens, no matter how many thousands of years they’ve had to learn better. Somehow they’re always surprised. Crowley comments on the hour, and Aziraphale comments that he’s hungry; they get dinner. With dinner comes wine, and then dessert, and still more conversation, and after they’ve left the restaurant it only makes sense to keep drinking, keep talking.

What gets you about eternal life isn’t the boredom, the inherent obligation, the weight of carrying power even you don’t fully understand: it’s the loneliness. It’s the millennia of aching loss. Perhaps this is why neither Crowley nor Aziraphale can ever seem to tear themselves away from one another in a timely fashion; perhaps this is why neither Crowley nor Aziraphale can ever quite bring themselves to acknowledge this obvious fact out loud. Instead they retire to the back room of Aziraphale’s bookshop, or to one of the various places kept for evenings such as these in the days before Aziraphale’s bookshop, and act as though this simply happened, the way they have many times before.

As they have more to drink, the conversation winds out into the outside edges of their relationship, the places where things start to feather and fray. The talk gets sacrilegious, even somewhat seditious; the talk gets dangerous, too close to something from which they cannot step away. Crowley puts a stop to things, and leaves. Aziraphale is saved this way, more than once, from his own rather weaker impulse control.

Over and over they do this, across the span of human history, popping up in the background of endless lifetimes. Nothing changes. Nobody is extinguished from reality. No one Falls. And so, though each of them withers in want of the other, they tell themselves that their strategy is working, that they can do this. They press forward convinced this is all there is, the best they can hope for, because of the fate they each can’t bear to see the other suffer. They carry on certain that this is the only safe path, that what they’re doing must be carefully handled, kept hidden away.

They build something enormous and unmistakable between themselves anyway, something beautiful, something that anyone could see. In their defense: you can hardly blame them. They are, after all, who they are.

 

PRESENT DAY - LONDON

Aziraphale and Crowley are drunk in the back of the bookshop.

It’s always nice, Aziraphale muses, to be drunk in the back of his bookshop with Crowley. If he’s honest, it’s one of his very favorite activities. But it is particularly nice at this time, and that is because it’s familiar. Sometimes you need the familiar! Sometimes, when everything you once believed to be true turns out to be a lie, there is nothing to do but retreat to what little firm ground remains to your name and hold on.

“Do you know,” Crowley says, waving his hands in the air as he says it. “I mean, do you know? Do you know how many times, okay, Ronnie could’ve — he could’ve said any old time, do you know that? Do you?”

Aziraphale is just very drunk; Crowley is wasted, which Aziraphale thinks is only fair. They’ve both had a shock today, but Crowley’s was certainly the more severe. Aziraphale is shaken, of course, and overwhelmed, and he suspects he won’t really know how he feels right now for years to come, but at least he didn’t spend six millennia falsely believing himself to be an irredeemable creature of Hell.

“Does sound like he could have said it. Many times,” Aziraphale says. He takes another swig of Taurasi — aged beautifully, all its youthful sharpness long since developed into something a little more dimensional; it’s almost a shame to toss it back like last week’s Tesco Simply, but only almost — and shakes his head as he swallows. “Could’ve said to me, too, but to tell you the truth, dear boy, we’ve mostly talked about cheese. Such remarkable cheese! So I’m not, I guess, all that surprised it didn’t come up.”

We didn’t talk about cheese,” Crowley says moodily. “Came up once and he got so mad — buncha, buncha — whatsits.” He looks at Aziraphale plaintively, as if Aziraphale is going to be able to suss out what he’s talking about on that information alone. When Aziraphale slowly raises an eyebrow to indicate that no, he cannot fathom what whatsits might be without further clues, Crowley huffs and adds, “You know. Little guys, with feathers on. You get them on — beaches, and things. Aggressive little buggers. Steal the bread clean out of your hand if you don’t keep a sharp eye out.”

“Seagulls?” Aziraphale guesses hopefully. It can take a long time, when Crowley’s this drunk, to correctly guess what he’s thinking of, and he does struggle so horribly with letting things go.

“Seagulls,” Crowley says, and lets out a brief cackle. “That’s what they were — whole bunch of ‘em, and Ronnie got so mad that he turned them all purple.” There is a pause, and then, sounding decidedly less amused, Crowley adds, “‘Course, then I told him to turn them all back; that might have been a good time to tell me I was — what he said!”

“You might have to come to terms with saying it at some point,” Aziraphale says, trying to keep a smile off his face and out of his voice. Crowley would take it the wrong way, probably, but it’s just — weirdly endearing to see him like this, so viciously determined to deny this particular truth. It’s heartbreaking, too, of course, but it’s so Crowley that Aziraphale can’t help but be fond.

“And that point is later,” Crowley says heartily, lifting his glass in the air and then downing it all in one go. “What about you, then? You telling me you’re all adjusted to this? Gonna start going by ‘Will’ any moment now, are you?”

“Ugh,” Aziraphale says, shuddering at the very thought. “No, of course not, don’t be ridiculous. I’m perfectly shocked, same as you, just… well.”

“Well what?” Crowley demands.

Well, isn’t it kind of… nice?” Aziraphale says, wincing at the expression on Crowley’s face. “I mean, obviously it’s a terrible shock, and certainly Ronnie should have said something before, and all those wasted years are rather a tragedy, but… in the long term… doesn’t it kind of… make everything make a lot more sense?”

“Maybe I was happier with the nonsense,” Crowley says, but in a grudgingly interested tone. “Maybe I liked my — my ways of thinking, and my understanding of reality, and all of that!”

“Did you, though?” Aziraphale asks gently. “Reality as we thought it was always seemed to make you terribly angry, if I recall. Either that or you pretended, rather shoddily, not to care about it at all.”

Crowley groans. “I can hear Ronnie in my head now, you know. ‘True kindness is always angry at an unjust world.’ I could actually kill him, angel, I swear that I could. [39] How’s that for kindness, huh?”

“At least you’ve progressed to voicing the word,” Aziraphale says brightly. This is not the first time Crowley’s brought up murdering Ronnie tonight, but it is the first time he’s managed to say “kindness” without choking on it.

“Hated it,” Crowley says. He throws himself back in his chair, sprawling into an unusual position Aziraphale is too drunk to focus on and decides to just let go. “How’re you doing? I mean, I know you — you said, but you didn’t say, you see what I’m saying?”

“Not remotely,” Aziraphale says, although he suspects, in fact, that he does. “But if you must know I’m -- I’m glad I wasn’t really an angel all those years, I suppose. I’m glad. But I’m a bit stuck on… all the wasted time.”

“Mmm,” Crowley says, pointing a finger at Aziraphale and nodding furiously. “That’s a good one to be stuck on, right there. Right — right there with you on that! All those years… wasted. Terrible shame.”

“I mean, I went to so many meetings,” Aziraphale says moodily. He takes a long sip of wine and adds, “And the check-ins, don’t get me started on those. They’d just show up and start poking around in my things! And so I passed up on dozens of fascinating texts I could have purchased that they wouldn’t have liked — it boils my blood a little just thinking about it!”

Crowley stares at him for a second, and then, the word seeming to bounce out of his mouth, he says, “Books? All the things you could be upset about, and you’re on books?

“I like books,” Aziraphale snaps, flushing; Crowley is already laughing. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of! You — you may well laugh, but my collection speaks for itself!”

“Far be it from me to laugh at your collection,” Crowley says, though he doesn’t actually stop chuckling, just kind of rolls his amusement into his tone and carries on. “I just think — I mean — I’m thinking about all the things we could have just done out in the open, instead of hiding. Or not done, for that matter. Think of all the things we could’ve just not done.”

“That whole mess with Joan of Arc,” Aziraphale says at once, wishing he could make it so. He’s felt guilty about his involvement for centuries. “And the bloody Crusades, they had me do so many horrifying things — ”

“Yeah, believe me, Hell had its hand in that too. Nasty business,” Crowley says darkly. Then, his tone going wistful, he adds, “We could’ve just been… doing whatever we wanted, that whole time. Whatever we felt like doing, and nothing to do with them.”

The two of them look at each other across the back room. Crowley’s sunglasses are dangling haphazardly from his breast pocket, and his eyes are sad, and strange, and full of… full of something Aziraphale might only be telling himself is there. No point getting ahead of things, is there, and so he won’t name what he thinks he sees in Crowley’s eyes.

He’s pretty certain, though. It would be hard to call it anything else.

“We should go out,” Aziraphale decides boldly, putting his now-empty glass out with a clatter. “Amongst the world. No need to hide anymore, right? So let’s go! Right now!”

“It’s five in the morning, angel,” Crowley says, either too drunk or too bloody-minded to remember that Aziraphale told him to stop using that word the other night. Aziraphale’s glad; hopefully, they’ll both just forget that ever happened, and Crowley will go back to the way things were before. Aziraphale isn’t an angel anymore, but he can’t help but like the way the title sounds coming out of Crowley’s mouth.

“So?” Aziraphale says. “We’re — who we are, right? So who’s to say we can’t walk the streets at five in the morning drunk as skunks? Might be interesting. Might be fun.”

After a considering pause, Crowley says, “We’re bringing the wine, though, right?”

“Obviously,” Aziraphale sniffs, “we are bringing the wine,” and that seems to settle that.

It’s still dark outside when they step out of the front door of the bookshop a few minutes later. The streets are all but deserted at this hour, just a few harried-looking humans heading off to what must be early shifts. Now in a pleasant, loose stage of drunkenness, Crowley and Aziraphale wander up and down the London streets, at home within the lightly sleeping city, not really saying anything to one another. There’s not much to be said, after so many hours of talking; it’s enough just to walk together, in this world that people built.

Aziraphale peers into empty shop windows, and waves when they pass his favorite bakery, where the staff is already hard at work. He takes deep breaths of the early morning air, sharp and fresh, and thinks about the irony: all that time he thought he was an angel, a guiding Heavenly force, but everything he ever knew that was really true, he learned from humans. Heaven talked a big game about the love of God, but when it came to practicing love, they largely decided against it. Aziraphale suspects a number of his former colleagues wouldn’t know how to do it even if they wanted to.

But humans… humans love so fiercely, and with all their short-lived hearts. They love each other; they love themselves; they love places and things and art and music, animals and plants, delicious food, the warmth of a fire on a cold night. Hasn’t Aziraphale watched them all these years, the way they take their hopeless chances and make their earnest mistakes? Hasn’t Aziraphale been part of that, all this time, whether he was aware of it or not?

Aziraphale has lived amongst humans for so many lifetimes, for far longer than than he ever lived in Heaven. It’s been long enough to know that loving someone, truly loving them, is more than just ineffable interpersonal alchemy, or a charged glance exchanged across a crowded room. True love is a choice you make, day in and day out, to be good to someone else just for the sake of it; just because who they are deserves the very best of yourself. The reality of this has been obvious since the very first — since Sarah and Abraham — since Adam and Eve — but Aziraphale couldn’t understand it until now. He couldn’t see the whole picture.

He looks up at Crowley a few paces ahead of him. They’re at the far edge of St. James Park, and the sun is just starting to cast a few weak beams of light out into the morning sky. It’ll be proper daybreak soon, and maybe that would be a better moment; maybe Aziraphale should wait until they inevitably end up on their usual bench, for tradition’s sake. Maybe he should plan some kind of fancy dinner, or miracle it into the sky, or compose some sort of poem about it, or something.

The thing of it, though, is that when push comes to shove, Aziraphale usually just does what he wants.

“Crowley,” Aziraphale says. Crowley turns, an eyebrow raised quizzically, and before he can change his mind, Aziraphale says, “I — I have something I need to say to you.”

“How ominous,” Crowley says lightly. “Should I sober up?”

“You can do what you like,” Aziraphale says. “But it’s that I’m in love with you, if that helps in making the determination at all.”

Crowley’s mouth drops open. After a moment, he holds up a finger, and a nearby fountain briefly spits red wine; Aziraphale takes the opportunity to remove the alcohol from his system, too, giving a nearby bush a rather boozier start to the day than it had anticipated. When they’re through expelling their respective buzzes, and have both made the requisite face at the horrible taste the process always leaves behind, Crowley says, “I’m sorry, you’re what?

“I’m in love with you,” Aziraphale repeats, just as firmly even without the liquid courage in his system. All this time he’s spent dithering about this, worrying what Heaven would think, and what Crowley would think, and whether they’d both be destroyed for his foolishness — what a waste. It’s so simple, really. “I’m in love with you, and I’ve been in love with you for thousands of years, and I just — I just don’t see the point in hiding it anymore!”

He waits, more than a little nervously, for Crowley to say something to this. When he doesn’t, just stares at Aziraphale with his eyes obscured behind his sunglasses, Aziraphale can’t help but add, desperately, “I don’t — I mean, obviously if you don’t feel the same way, it doesn’t have to change anything, Crowley. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, and I know it’s already been a… difficult twenty-four hours. But I — I thought maybe — maybe you might? Feel something for me as well? And I just keep thinking about all those millennia we wasted and I… I don’t want to waste any more time!” He slams one fist decisively against the palm of his other hand, and, only a little tremulously, concludes: “I know I’m no picnic, you know! I can be a bastard, as you’ve noted before, and I’m terribly stubborn and extremely particular, and I’ve got the unfortunate tendency, I’m afraid, to be a bit of a sanctimonious prat. I’m not saying that I don’t! But all I ask is that you tell me honestly where you stand. I’ll respect whatever your wishes are.”

Crowley still doesn’t reply; after a moment, Aziraphale, unable to help himself, snaps, “Well? What say you?”

“What… say I,” Crowley murmurs, as if from very far away. Then, much more sharply: “What say I?” He throws his hands in the air and shakes them for a second, as if to convey the enormity of his frustration, and says, “What — you — I mean, of course you’re a stubborn, sanctimonious bastard, known it for years, but — I — how can you ask me what I have to say to that? I’ve been in love with you since the beginning, angel. Since the very first day.

Aziraphale gasps; he can’t help it. “You have not.”

“Oh, I have too!” Crowley says, a little wildly. “There you were — fresh off lying to God, by the way, if you’d told me that bit I might have said something right then and spared us both a lot of bloody trouble! But you were there, and you were interesting, and I thought ‘Careful now, Crowley, you could have a real problem on your hands here,’ and that was it for me! Day one! It only got worse from there!”

“But — but the other day — I went to go up to your flat!” Aziraphale says, utterly unable to believe this is the truth. “We — we’d had such a good time, and we’d fooled Heaven and Hell, and then I went to go up to your flat and you looked at me like I was insane! You said you needed some sleep and were going to bed! You said ciao like — like I’d been a fool to think there was anything between us!”

“What?” Crowley says, sounding bewildered. “What? You mean — are you talking about after the Ritz, the other week?”

“Yes!”

“When you… started walking towards the building across the street from mine?” Crowley says.

Aziraphale opens his mouth to reply, processes what Crowley’s said, and closes it again. After a moment, a bit weakly, he says, “Ah. What?”

“You were walking towards the building across the street!” Crowley yells. He looks truly unhinged, as though he might start wordlessly shrieking at any moment. Honestly, Aziraphale can relate. “I didn’t mean — that you were a fool to think I liked you, or whatever you said! I just thought it was a bit weird that you were walking away from my flat, so I asked if you wanted a ride home, and you said ‘Uh, um, that is, I just thought, no! No thank you! I’ll get myself home, I’m sure!’ And I figured that was a clear enough message, between one thing and another, that you didn’t feel like spending any more time together, so I decided it was as good a time as any to get some shut eye!”

“But,” Aziraphale says, scarcely believing what he’s hearing, “what about the ciao? There was a tone to the ciao, I know there was!”

Crowley stares at him for a moment. Then, spreading his hands helplessly, he says, “It was just a ciao, really.”

“But — I — why didn’t you say anything?” Aziraphale demands. “If you’ve felt this way all this time, why haven’t you ever mentioned it before?”

“Why didn’t I — I thought you knew!” Crowley cries. “I was so obvious about it; it was embarrassing! Everybody knew! Even the humans could tell!”

“Oh, well, I don’t know about that,” Aziraphale says. Somewhere, very far in the back of his mind, part of him is screaming and crying and popping twelve bottles of celebratory champagne, but that just doesn’t seem as urgent as this argument right now. “It might have felt obvious to you, Crowley, my dear, but let me assure you — ”

“‘Let me assure you,’” Crowley says, in a horrible imitation of Aziraphale, before switching back into his more usual register to continue, “it was not subtle! That’s not really something that’s up for debate! All that swanning about and rescuing you from things; what did you think that was about, Aziraphale? D’you think I’ve been getting drunk with you all these years for my health? Why do you think I proposed the Arrangement in the first place? I just wanted an excuse to talk to you, and you were always going on about — how Heaven wouldn’t like it, and what a horrible creature of Hell I was — ”

“I was joking,” Aziraphale says. And then, when Crowley just raises his eyebrows in utter incredulity, he adds, “Well! I was — mostly joking. And even the times I wasn’t joking, I didn’t really believe it, you know that.” A horrible thought occurs to Aziraphale, and, hesitantly, terrified of the answer, he says, “You did… know that, didn’t you?” When Crowley says nothing, Aziraphale feels his blood run cold, and hastily he adds, “I freely admit that I was very confused, and misinformed, and I’m sure I said a lot of horrible things to you — I know I did — and I really am terribly -- ”

“Don’t apologize,” Crowley says. He runs a hand through his hair, lets out a long, choppy-sounding breath. “Don’t — don’t apologize.” He takes off his sunglasses and just looks at Aziraphale for a long moment; it’s been many years since Aziraphale’s seen him reveal his eyes in a public place like this, even one so early-morning empty.

Eventually, voice threaded with only the faintest edge of suspicion, Crowley says, “Really? You’re really — you’re not having me on?”

“Of course I’m not having you on,” Aziraphale says. He means it to come out tartly — honestly, the very idea — but the small party that’s been going on in the back of his mind for several minutes has finally caught up to the rest of him, so it just comes out sounding fond. Crowley loves him. Crowley loves him. It’s hard to really be bothered by anything else.

“Since when?” Crowley demands, though a stunned, delighted expression is starting to spread across his face, undercutting his urgency somewhat. “How long?”

“I’m not certain,” Aziraphale says, with a little shrug. He’s smiling, he realizes; he doesn’t quite seem able to stop. “If I’d been honest with myself at the time, it probably did start that first day, but I didn’t know know until — you remember that night after Gomorrah?”

“For fuck’s sake, that long?!” Crowley yelps, sounding genuinely horrified. “That was four thousand years ago!”

Aziraphale winces, although he still can’t seem to stop smiling; he imagines the effect of the two expressions together is odd. “I spent a considerable amount of time lying to myself about it after that, if that’s any comfort. At least another thousand years or so. But I did know, at that point, that I was lying to myself about it, which means I knew the truth, so. Take from that what you will.”

“So you’re telling me,” Crowley says slowly, “that for the last four thousand years, give or take, I’ve been in love with you, and you’ve been in love with me, and we’ve both just been… pretending that it didn’t matter? Hoping it wouldn’t come up?”

“It does seem that way,” Aziraphale admits. “Certainly it’s true on my end, in any case.”

“It almost makes you wish the Apocalypse had happened after all,” Crowley says, but he’s grinning so widely now that Aziraphale knows he doesn’t mean it.

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, his own smile bright and thrilled. “Almost.”

The sun rises, as it has done every day for many thousands of years and will do for many thousands more. In a similar spirit, Crowley and Aziraphale pick up some breakfast and return to the bookshop, where, for the first time since the invention of takeaway, Aziraphale lets the food grow cold on the counter.

 

EPILOGUE: ONE YEAR LATER - LONDON

Aziraphale is hungry.

He’s been waiting outside of Borough Market for fifteen minutes now; as soon as Crowley concludes his business inside, they’re going for dinner at a restaurant nearby. It seemed like a good enough plan when they made it over breakfast this morning — “Something for each of us,” Crowley said, smirking slightly, and who was Aziraphale to argue with that — but it had all been fairly ephemeral, at the time. The reality of standing here, waiting with slowly decreasing patience, a little too eager to tuck into a meal, is grimmer than what Aziraphale was picturing when Crowley proposed it.

Normally, the solution to this problem would be self-evident; Aziraphale would just go into Borough Market himself, purchase whatever piece of fruit he found most tempting, and snack until Crowley materialized. Unfortunately, the Market has been closed for the better part of an hour. Whatever Crowley’s business is within, it’s obviously not quite on the up and up.

Aziraphale could, of course, simply miracle himself up a little something, but he’d rather not. It’s never as good as he hopes it will be, and it would be a waste to spoil his appetite on something unworthy of his time.

It occurs to him, after another five minutes of waiting, that Ronnie’s shop is only a few streets away. Crowley wouldn’t mind too much, would he, if Aziraphale just popped over there for a quick snack? It would hardly take any time at all; at this rate, Aziraphale might be able to go and return before Crowley even gets back.

Resolved, Aziraphale makes his way up the street quickly, his mind dancing with thoughts of cheese. It’s a familiar walk, a series of steps he and Crowley have followed more than a few times over the course of the last year; without really intending to, Aziraphale finds himself marveling at how much has changed in such a relatively short amount of time. A year ago, he and Crowley were only just finding out who they were, to the world and to each other — it seems almost impossible now to think there was ever a time that they didn’t know.

It shouldn’t work like that, Aziraphale’s aware. In the grand scheme of the lives they’ve led, a single year should hardly be enough to count for anything, let alone to overwrite millennia of incorrect thinking, or change patterns of behavior so deeply settled they should have taken decades to unseat. That, Aziraphale thinks wryly, is the risk of throwing in your lot with human beings — the way they’re constantly shaping and reshaping themselves seems to be somewhat contagious. At this point, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

Aziraphale smiles as he passes the various places he knows in this neighborhood now; Ronnie hadn’t been kidding about community. Every few weeks, it seems, there’s another invitation. Crowley has drawn the line at attending potlucks [40] , but the two of them have been to movie outings, pub crawls, dinner parties, and picnics with all manner of interesting people. They’re not all to Aziraphale’s taste — Jack Frost, in particular, is a very single-minded conversationalist, and if Aziraphale never has to speak to the incarnation of Creativity again it’ll be too soon — but it’s nice, in its way, to feel part of a group where everyone’s allowed to simply be as they are.

And it’s nice, too, to feel ready to leave that group, to catch Crowley’s eye across a crowded room and know he feels the same. It’s nice to take Crowley’s hand and retreat with him to the place where they both live, neither of them dancing around what they feel for the other, neither of them afraid. Ironic though it is, since leaving the Heavenly fold Aziraphale has felt holier than he ever managed to in all his years as an angel. His understanding of the sacred has shifted dramatically, of course, but it’s not only that.

What lives in the space between himself and Crowley is the same as it has been for thousands of years, but it’s also shifting and growing every day, becoming newer and better with each unfolding moment, each shared breath. It changes as they change; if that isn’t holiness, Aziraphale doesn’t know what is. It’s hard to imagine, looking back on it all, that he spent so many years unable to see that simple truth — it is, in retrospect, glaringly obvious.

Smiling, the expression drawn out of him by this last thought and sustained by his proximity to a snack, Aziraphale crosses the road and finds himself, at last, in front of Ronnie’s cheese shop. His face falls dramatically when he realizes that the sign is firmly in the Closed position, and the lights on the window display have all been turned off.

Hating himself for it — feeling like the worst of the vultures who attempt to shop at his bookstore — Aziraphale can’t help but lean close to the window and peer inside. Maybe Ronnie isn’t open to the public, but surely he’d consider throwing Aziraphale a little wedge of Gouda and a box of crackers before fully closing up for the night?

After a minute, Ronnie does indeed step into view from the back of the dairy. But before Aziraphale can muster up the nerve to violate all of his personal principles by knocking on the window, a woman Aziraphale has never seen before steps up behind Ronnie. She might be the most beautiful person Aziraphale has ever laid eyes upon — she’s tall and broadly built, with deep brown skin and hair the color of the ocean. Her fingernails are painted forest green, and her lipstick is a true blood red, unmistakable even from this distance.

“Life,” Aziraphale realizes, awed to be seeing her in person. He can’t help but gasp when Ronnie gathers her into his arms, though he supposes, really, that he shouldn't be surprised. Ronnie all but told him, didn’t he, that day in the shop more than a year ago now? What was it he’d said — that Life and Chaos were inextricably intertwined? That should have been enough for Aziraphale to work it out, and if he’d bothered to think of it over the last year, he probably would have figured something like this was going on.

After all, he’s put some thought into the situation between him and Crowley, hasn’t it? It’s not as though it was a really difficult riddle to solve, once all the facts were finally lined up. Aziraphale knows that what he and Crowley feel for one another and what exists at the intersection of Kindness and Free Will are the same thing, when push comes to shove. There’s no need to do anything so gauche as go around bragging about it.

“I thought I’d find you here,” calls a well-loved voice; speak of the devil. Aziraphale turns to see Crowley, smirking, close the distance between them. “Got a bit peckish, did you?”

“As it happens, yes,” Aziraphale says pointedly. “What on earth were you doing in there that took so long?”

“Oh, one of the traders sells me this plant food he makes,” Crowley says with a shrug. He waves his bag a little, as if in proof. “It’s all very hush-hush — he’s a botany student or something, none of it’s been properly tested — but the plants seem to like it, and I’d be able to tell if it was poison. Probably, anyway.”

“And he had to fabricate it for you right there, I suppose?” Aziraphale says.

Crowley just grins at him, the bastard. “Had to wait for his shift to end, in fact; he’d left it in the back of his car. Why don’t you just go in and get something, angel? I can tell that you want to.”

“Tragically, they’re closed,” Aziraphale says, in a mournful little voice. And then, because he can’t help himself, he adds, “Looks like Ronnie’s having a bit of fun in there, actually. Hard to begrudge the man that, I suppose.”

Immediately, Crowley presses himself against the window to look. After a moment, he lets out a low whistle of surprise and says, “Holy shit, is that — ?”

“I mean, it has to be, doesn’t it?” Aziraphale says. “Can’t really mistake her, though I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what she looked like before now.”

“I haven’t seen her since way back,” Crowley says, shaking his head. “Not that she’d remember me, of course — still. Good on Ronnie! I sort of thought he was maybe getting up to some weird stuff with the cheese; this is definitely better.” There’s a pause, and then, in musing tones, Crowley says, “Does she step out on him with Death, though, do you think?”

Crowley,” Aziraphale hisses, trying to sound scandalized and not like what he really is, which is fairly amused and a little curious himself. He takes Crowley’s hand and pulls him away from the window before Ronnie can look up and catch them spying; marching them purposefully away from the shop, he adds, “It’s hardly our business, is it?”

“She must do, right?” Crowley says, undeterred. “I mean, it only stands to reason — Life and Death, you know, you can’t deny there’s something there. Everybody knows about that one. Although... when you think about it, I suppose Death and Chaos are common bedfellows too, so to speak. So maybe all three of them — ”

“Oh, that I cannot think about,” Aziraphale says, with a little shudder. “I’m sure you’re right, my dear, honestly, but I just… I don’t think I can picture Death like that, in that... way. The mental images are too horrible.”

“Eh,” Crowley says, “whatever makes them happy, I say.”

Aziraphale looks down at the place where their hands are still joined, their fingers laced together beneath the sleeve of Crowley’s leather jacket, Aziraphale’s sequined coat. For a dizzying, breathtaking instant, he thinks he can see everything — the way it all fits together, Life and Death and Chaos, God and Satan, angels and demons, human beings. It is beautiful and brutal and bigger than any one of them alone — bigger than Aziraphale could possibly express in words — ineffable, he realizes. The same as it has been all along.

“I imagine you’re right,” Aziraphale says. He squeezes Crowley’s hand, and smiles to see a bright green apple sitting at the top of the bag of plant food. Any moment now Crowley will offer it to Aziraphale, and Aziraphale will take it; it will taste crisp and bright and delicious, the way good apples always do, and always have, since the very first one. “After all, these things have a way of working themselves out.”

THE END

FOOTNOTES:

1 If he were to dare, he might want a little more information on a couple of significant topics — he could, just for example, stand to know a bit more about why they’d decided to drown all those people a few generations back — but Heaven has never been in the business of giving straight answers to uncomfortable questions, so the point is moot. [ return to text ]

2 Calling it a guess isn’t exactly correct. Angels and demons can tell a human’s age just by looking at them in much the same way that a gifted farmer can tell the age of a crop, and for largely the same reasons. [ return to text ]

3 But if he were to dare, he might ask what exactly it was that made a demon so different from an angel, in the end? Weren’t they all of the same stock? And if angels were so good and kind and right and true, then why were so many of them so… unfortunate, in terms of personality? But of course he would never dare, so it’s moot. [4]

4 Aziraphale has a number of thoughts that he considers moot based on this logic. As systems go, it isn’t the most elegant, but he maintains it with grace by never, ever looking at any of it too closely. [ return to text ]

5 Some years later, Crawly would remind Aziraphale of this comment while Isaac, who was named for his mother’s laughter, pleaded for his life beneath his father’s axe. God turned up to spare the child at the last moment; even so, Aziraphale never could quite get Crawly’s tone, the weight of his heavy gaze, out of his mind. [ return to text ]

6 In fact, Aziraphale understands the desire to sleep about as well as your average house cat understands tax law. The one time he attempted sleep himself, it was 1910, he hadn’t heard from Crowley in forty-eight years, and he was bored out of his mind. He dreamed a single dream about a very large dog eating his 1535 Coverdale Bible, and, after waking up screaming, resolved never to do it again. At best, Aziraphale might be able to understand why someone might want to understand sleeping, although he himself no longer does. [ return to text ]

7The bond that exists between a dedicated maker of foods and an equally dedicated eater of foods cannot be quantified or charted by science. It is, nevertheless, responsible for the flavor of every dish you’ve ever enjoyed. [ return to text ]

8 And in fact they are, in a sense. If Aziraphale’s books could talk, they’d all, to a one, say, “Deeply fond of him, of course, who wouldn’t be? I do worry he spends a bit too much time with us, though. Poor dear; he’s a lovely man, but you can’t help but wish he’d get a life.” [ return to text ]

9 As a whole, Aziraphale loathes the sort of people who refer to pillars of literature like Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward by their first names, as if they’d not only known the men but counted them as friends. Nothing gets his blood boiling quite like, “Oh, I’m a big fan of Bill,” from a customer in his Shakespeare section — the impudence! The absolute nerve! However, since Aziraphale did count all those gentlemen as friends — if, sadly, mortal ones — he makes an exception to this otherwise strict rule for himself. [ return to text ]

10 In fact this is incorrect; Crowley does not shop for clothing. What would be the point? He sees something he likes, and then it appears in his closet. It’s the sartorial equivalent of a “see food diet.” [ return to text ]

11While this might sound like rank snobbery, placing Aziraphale amongst those rotten souls who treat people in service jobs like things, in fact the truth is far from it. Aziraphale just tries to avoid giving his full attention to any human, most of the time. They’re lovely people, he’s sure, but one time too many he’s tried to have a pleasant customer service encounter and found somebody quitting their job to follow him home instead. These days, for their protection as much as his, Aziraphale tries to keep things as superficial as possible. [ return to text ]

12For angels, genderless creatures who are neither men nor women in any sense, the long history of humans punishing those among their ranks who deviate from their self-generated, constantly changing gender norms has always been something of a puzzler. [13]

13In one particularly unpleasant quarterly meeting, Aziraphale had the temerity to suggest that perhaps it was not, on the whole, a good thing that so many of the humans who were determined to hate one another on grounds of gender or sexuality claimed to do so in the name of Heaven. It took only a few moments for things to devolve into a shouting match about the Great Plan, who was and was not responsible for human behavior, and what the angels in attendance were meant to do about it, which did not, in Aziraphale’s opinion, really do all that much to address the problem. On the other hand, the whole affair did get Aziraphale banned from appearing at quarterly meetings for a thousand years, so all in all, it worked out in his favor. [ return to text ]

14There is a computer in Aziraphale’s bookshop; it dates back to the 1980s, runs a single, equally ancient version of a bookselling program called IBID, and does not have a web browser. Being, however, a brick-and-mortar bookshop owner in the late 1990s, Aziraphale had found himself with no choice but to investigate what all that “Amazon” fuss was about. He had discovered online shopping in the process, but had been unwilling to allow it over the threshold, so to speak. When he needs to, as he persists in putting it, “surf the net,” he walks the fifteen minutes to the London Library and uses one of their public computers. This has, unbeknownst to Aziraphale, caused a considerable amount of consternation to the librarians, who can’t figure out how he keeps getting around the machines’ hard-coded time limits. [ return to text ]

15You can hardly blame them, of course. Still, it does make conversations difficult [ return to text ]

16 Stephen is fond of Aziraphale, and would have been even without the rumors of supernatural powers, or the large sum of money that mysteriously appeared in his bank account the day after they met in the 80s. Nevertheless, there is something that happens to all managers of all department stores when a high-profile client arrives looking to purchase an entirely new wardrobe, and that something typically involves a loud “Cha-ching” sort of sound. [ return to text ]

17 After many millennia of trial and error, Aziraphale has largely worked out Heaven’s system for monitoring angelic activity. It is, in practice, not unlike a controlling parent studying their child’s cell phone bill. They don’t actually want to know what’s happening — they find the very thought a little disgusting — so they look, instead, for suspicious charges at the end of the month. This system does not work for keeping track of either angels or teenagers, but those who implement it rarely learn enough to figure that out. [ return to text ]

18It is a well-known truth of apocalypses that the closer you get to one, the more fervently your brain insists that you need things like a can opener which sings “Don’t worry, be happy,” or a lifetime supply of Mallomars. [ return to text ]

19 Since the invention of Bluetooth, getting into Crowley’s Bentley has pretty much always involved the following sequence of events: the car (somehow) connects to Crowley’s phone and immediately starts to play Queen; Crowley says, “Every time,” in extremely aggrieved tones and attempts to use voice control to change the song; this fails spectacularly, often by way of putting on an exponentially more iconic Queen song, as if the phone itself is mocking him; Crowley gives up and manually forces the phone to play whatever it is he actually wants to listen to (which is usually, to Aziraphale, largely indistinguishable from Queen anyway). Every twenty minutes or so the entire cycle repeats itself, unless Crowley’s in a particularly bleak mood or he throws the phone out the window. Technology may change, but some things stay the same. [ return to text ]

20 Aziraphale mentioned this to Crowley exactly once, sometime in the late 1950s. The resulting four-hour discussion involved quite a bit of wine, some shouting, and a long, horrible series of moments where Crowley pointed wildly at a diagram of an engine which he’d sketched out, rather poorly, on a napkin. The whole affair taught Aziraphale exactly one thing about cars, and it was that they were best left to Crowley. [ return to text ]

21 A number of humans, over the years, have become convinced they understand the power of angels. Most angels find this concept quite funny. [ return to text ]

22 Technically, “driving” is a generous term for what both Crowley and Aziraphale do behind the wheel of a car. Both angels and demons are capable of manifestations of will, though demons are typically slightly better at it, having rebelled against ideas like “Wanting things you’re not explicitly told to want is inherently bad,” and, “Using your own powers too much seems a little gluttonous to me, don’t you think?” What Crowley and Aziraphale think of as “driving” does, indeed, involve the car going where they intend it to go, and in the manner they intend it to get there. If any human, however, were to copy their exact movements in the same vehicle, they would crash and die within moments. [ return to text ]

23 And indeed he should have; Crowley’s Bentley has never been known for its subtlety. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Queen’s discography would have been able to recognize what was implied by hearing the opening bars of “Somebody to Love,” “You’re My Best Friend,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and “I Was Born To Love You,” every time they got in the car. Aziraphale, to the Bentley’s enormous consternation, never got the message, though Crowley certainly did, several times to the point of throwing bits of the radio (or, as technology advanced, his phone) out the window. [ return to text ]

24By mutual agreement, Aziraphale and Crowley don’t bet for anything in these sorts of situations. They’d tried to for years with a variety of stakes — alcohol, money, dinners, even horses, for an unfortunate period of time that involved a lot of shoveling of poop — before determining that, ultimately, all either of them really wanted was the credit. The fact that they determined this by having a screaming row in front of Aziraphale’s stables, which led to Crowley releasing all of Aziraphale’s horses, which led to a stampede that injured twelve people, caused a fire which burned down more than a few homes, and got them both banished from that particular area, is something they try not to talk about. [ return to text ]

25Technically, Crowley is quite a bit older than Aziraphale. He was a demon for roughly the same amount of time Aziraphale was an angel, but before that he spent a considerable period in the Heavenly ranks, so to speak. He was about as good at it as Aziraphale — which is to say not at all good, and with less talent for concealing that unfortunate fact — but he did skate by for a number of millennia by spending most of his time making stars at the far end of the universe, where none of the higher-ups would bother to come talk to him. [ return to text ]

26This is, in fact, incorrect. Those visits had enormous meaning, and what they meant was that Aziraphale loved cheese. [ return to text ]

27 Economics is just another system of belief, after all; the value of money entirely depends on what people believe its value to be. Crowley and Aziraphale, and others like them, always have the same amount in their coffers, and that amount is “enough.” [ return to text ]

28One time and only one time, Crowley came with Aziraphale to the London Library to observe his “web surfing” in horrified astonishment. Aziraphale had assumed that the librarians would dislike Crowley even more than they did Aziraphale, but to Aziraphale’s great shock and slight offense, Crowley got along famously with every librarian he met. He has refused to enter the building with Aziraphale since, and once ducked behind the wine bucket to hide when one of the library staffers showed up at a restaurant where they were eating lunch. He claims being seen with Aziraphale would ruin his reputation. The whole thing really is very galling. [ return to text ]

29Though Aziraphale spent many years unsuccessfully attempting to curb his miracle use, it never occurred to him to wonder exactly how much energy it took to keep every plate of food he ever ate in exactly the condition it was in upon plating, no matter how many hours (or in some cases, years) it had been since the food was cooked. More than one closet in Aziraphale’s flat, in fact, is dedicated to the long-term preservation of delicacies that would otherwise have been lost to the unrelenting march of time, which is why, despite otherwise striving to live fairly carefully, he always found himself coming in over quota. [ return to text ]

30In the mid-1990s, brought to his breaking point by nearly two hundred years of witnessing hideous customer behavior, Aziraphale had started visiting the worst offenders with miraculous, Dickens-inspired Ghosts of Behaviors Past. The results were largely disheartening, even after he roped Crowley into (sort of) helping, and eventually he gave it up as a bad job. These days, when he witnesses breaches of basic decency, he usually contents himself with giving the perpetrators instant laryngitis. [ return to text ]

31 The building, so to speak, where Heaven and Hell are headquartered has changed a lot over the years. In the earliest days it was only accessible by flight, but after a while a set of stairs was installed, and then another set of stairs going in rather a different direction; eventually, they put in elevators. Due to something Gabriel described as an “ethereal disturbance,” and which Crowley, upon hearing about it later, suggested was “probably just your average cock-up,” Aziraphale got stuck in one of the aforementioned elevators for approximately two days in 1996. It would have been a horrible enough time on its face — Aziraphale, unwilling to be witnessed miracling takeout into the intra-dimensional void, had to subsist on what few snacks he had on his person — but Gabriel insisted on piping in an American oldies radio station he enjoyed, ostensibly for “morale.” Unfortunately, the intra-dimensional void has a cruel sense of humor, so Aziraphale was ultimately treated to forty-eight hours of “One,” “Staying Alive,” and, worst of all, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”. The escalators currently in operation were installed shortly after this incident came to a close; Aziraphale was given a small paper card upon which the words “Whoopsie Daisy!” were embossed in apology. [ return to text ]

32The vilification of witches makes a lot more sense once you understand that, at its core, witchcraft is simply the art of seeing what’s really there. It’s tended to make people throughout the ages very cross. [ return to text ]

33Aziraphale has one of these in his bookshop, but it’s just got an actual book inside. [ return to text ]

34 In general, there is nothing an immortal being of great power can grant you that is worth more than an owed favor. You never know when you’re going to really need someone like that in your corner. [ return to text ]

35 Admittedly, Aziraphale still has not been able to find any success with his microwave, which he purchased new in the box in 1979. It was the highest quality model available at the time and it has not occurred to him to upgrade, although he is, just lately, beginning to suspect the technology itself is faulty.] What he actually spends most of the night doing is staring at the little text box he’s pulled up, Crowley’s name at the top. [ return to text ]

36 Aziraphale’s books, having all, at some point, been acquired by Aziraphale, are aware of the more uncharitable parts of his personality already, and don’t judge. [ return to text ]

37 Of course, Aziraphale’s bookshop doesn’t actually keep regular enough hours to be closed “early,” or “late,” or even “on time,” on any given day. However, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there is real pleasure to be derived from leaving work early, and as such Aziraphale tells himself he is doing so several times a week. [ return to text ]

38 After watching him slouch for the better part of six millennia, Aziraphale assumes any non-slouching state must be actively painful for Crowley. [ return to text ]

39In fact he could not; any attempt would be roughly equivalent to a fish endeavoring to bring down the ocean. Both Crowley and Aziraphale are implicitly aware of this, for more or less the same reason a fish would know it was doomed to fail in the aforementioned ocean-toppling plot. [ return to text ]

40 Anyone will tell you there is rarely any kindness to be found at a potluck. [ return to text ]