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The Fortune Teller

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The intense sensory input from his surroundings diminished into dull haziness floating on the edges of Aziraphale’s perception. The cacophony of delighted shrieks and squeals, whooshing air, clattering rails, thunderous roars and booming music softened into a deep, pulsating thrum against his eardrums, reverberating in his solar plexus. The sickly sweet scent of candyfloss permeating the air, so potent that Aziraphale had almost been able to taste it, was carried away by the gusting breeze, replaced by oil and exhaust fumes. The brightly coloured lights were no longer flashing rapidly, instead merging into one another in his peripheral vision, surrounding him with nothing more than a vague impression of light against the darkness. Whilst Aziraphale's awareness collapsed inwards, those around him continued on as normal in this place of fun and laughter, of escape, as if there was nothing untoward to be found here. As if the only ghosts were those in the haunted house; ebullient youngsters with face paint and casual contracts, paid to deliver harmless frights to those seeking exhilaration free from risk. 

Aziraphale shuffled forward, hesitant steps carrying him away from the buoyant crowd into a neglected, forgotten place, tucked away behind rumbling generators, intended to be ignored. He ventured tentatively into this graveyard of obsolescence, within which only one soul was destined to remain, for reasons that no one living could explain. 

The sickening weight of apprehension manifested in Aziraphale’s gut, his pulse quickening as he focused on his target. He steeled himself for the Fortune Teller machine to somehow detect his approach and burst into life, hopelessly trying to stave off the fear that the unexpected disruption to the calm, quiet haze in which he now existed would invoke. Within the turbulent core concealed by that state of peripheral calm, fear dug its claws into him regardless.

Aziraphale’s last few steps were slow and cautious, punctuated by furtive glances over his shoulder, the feeling of being watched trickling like ice water down his spine. But there was no one living to be seen here, just the inanimate figure of the automaton in its glass prison standing before him. Upon embarking on his PhD examining works of prophecy, Aziraphale would never have imagined his research leading him here. He had envisaged himself visiting other universities’ libraries and trawling through silent, deserted archives, not dodging his way around the exuberance of the living, in a place where everything was designed to be a relentless onslaught on the senses, seeking out a fortune telling machine over one hundred years old.

Aziraphale pulled his wallet out of his pocket, his trembling hand getting caught between the leather and the fabric as he fumbled. He flicked it open and shakily unzipped the coin purse within. Aziraphale had done his research. He had come prepared.

Aziraphale extracted a 1903 florin, its size and shape that which the coin slot of the machine had been designed to accept. He smoothed his thumb over it, admiring the portrait of King Edward VII one more time, his last chance to do so before parting with it. He glanced up, away from the coin slot, taking a moment to examine the automaton before it sprang to life. Its form had been carved from wood to give it the appearance of a man - a specific man, Aziraphale knew, although he wondered how close an approximation the face before him might actually be to the infamous seer he had read about. It had an angular face with defined cheekbones, upon which the paint had flaked off over time, revealing a layer of pallid gesso beneath. Its eyes were closed, such that it appeared to exist simply in a state of peaceful slumber. Aziraphale prayed for such to be true. The automaton's copper-red hair fell in delicate waves around its face, brushing against its shoulders, over which hung a smart tailored suit jacket with accompanying shirt, tie, and trousers, all in black, reminiscent of funeral attire.

“It’s probably just a story,” Aziraphale whispered to himself, hurriedly slipping the florin into the coin slot before he had chance to talk himself out of it. The curse he had uncovered, it couldn't really be true, could it? The coin fell into the machine with a dull clunk, and Aziraphale instinctively shuffled backwards.

For a moment, nothing happened, and Aziraphale once again reflexively glanced around, checking there was no one in the vicinity to bear witness to his foolishness, a flush of embarrassment crawling across his skin. He did not berate himself, for had he not tried, he would always have wondered.

Aziraphale started, gasping as the machine lit up and the automaton’s eyes flashed open, marbles of swirling amber pinning him in place with their preternatural stare. Aziraphale’s heart leapt into his throat and his hand flew up to his chest, rising and falling in time with each of his rapid breaths. Hidden mechanisms whirred as the automaton’s head jerked uncannily, rigid movements of its mouth accompanying its speech.

“I am Crowley. I will reveal your future. Come close, place your hand on the glass and tell me what it is you wish to know.”

Aziraphale surreptitiously peered over his shoulder one more time before stepping in closer to the machine, pressing his palm onto the glass panel and launching into his prepared speech.

“I know who you are, Crowley. My name is Aziraphale Fell, and it is an honour to meet you. I know what happened to you, and I know why, but it wasn’t your fault, you didn’t deserve this. I know about the prophecies you made, how people blamed you when those events came to pass, but I’ve read about you, what you tried to do. I know you have a good heart. I want to help you.”

There was a pause before the automaton spoke again. 

“Your endeavours will be unsuccessful. You are aiming beyond your capabilities. I foresee that you will fail.”

Aziraphale blinked, clutching his arms around him, willing his pulse to slow, to allow him to stay focused. There was no way of knowing whether those words were truly a response to his own or merely a random selection dictated by primitive mechanisms controlling a lifeless automaton, but he had come this far and couldn’t give up now.

“You’re wrong. I won’t fail. Every curse can be broken, I just need to work out how."

“You have been spending too much time focusing on things that should not concern you.”

“You would be more believable as a true automaton if you weren’t so gloomy,” Aziraphale said with a pout, although he was trying to convince himself more than anything else. There was a very real chance that he was standing here, alone in a neglected corner of a fairground, well beyond the boundaries of where he should be, simply talking to himself. “I’m fairly sure these fortune telling machines were always intended to provide people with joy. To give them confidence that they would succeed.”

“Do not be disheartened. My prophecies are not always what one wishes to hear, but may they steer you to focus your efforts where they will generate reward.”

“I know how you used your knowledge of the future. I know about the children you saved.”

“You are advised not to rely on information if you are not certain that you can trust the source.”

“I know that the only reason those children survived is because of you. I’m descended from one of them! Please listen to me; I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for you. There must be something I can do, and I promise, I won’t give up! If there’s anything you know that can help me, please tell me. Please tell me how I can help you.”

“I will now prepare a written prophecy for you. It will reveal that upon which you must focus to ensure yourself a bright and bountiful future.”

The automaton stilled, its eyes falling closed with a click. Aziraphale’s eyes pricked with tears and he squeezed them shut, desperately trying to bring his breathing back under control. A mechanical whirring sound drew his attention back to the machine, a small rectangular card now poking free from beneath the coin slot. Aziraphale retrieved it, a hive of furious bees buzzing in his stomach as he read the text contained thereon.

Express gratitude. Recognise that which you do not have the power to change. Solutions often lie in putting an end to something rather than trying to fix it. Destroy that which no longer serves you to free yourself of your burdens. Embrace companionship, it will bring you peace and joy.

Aziraphale narrowed his eyes and gazed sadly at the hollow, artificial shell of a man standing before him encased in glass. “I am grateful, and I won’t give up on you. I promise.”


Aziraphale had read the card Crowley had given him more times than he could count before the realisation had finally struck him. At first, he had interpreted the message as Crowley telling him to give up on trying to save him, to focus on living people rather than those who should be long since dead. But it had occurred to him, upon waking in the early hours of the morning after his visit to the fairground, that it might not have meant that at all. When he shifted his perspective, Aziraphale considered that since Crowley’s only means of communication was through the prophetic guiding words programmed into the machine, what if when the message spoke of gratitude, that was Crowley's way of expressing gratitude towards him? When he spoke of destruction, of putting an end to something… was that Crowley telling him that that was what he wanted him to do? To try to destroy him? And if so, was that because he believed to do so would break the curse, or because after more than a century of isolation, he simply wanted it all to be over? Aziraphale swallowed back the lump that had formed in the back of his throat. He would do no such thing, not unless he was sure that it would save Crowley rather than destroy him.

Aziraphale’s gaze lingered on the very last part of the message. ‘Embrace companionship, it will bring you peace and joy.’ Could that have been intended as a request too? Is that what Crowley wanted? Companionship? Edwardian florins were hardly easy to come by, but a late Victorian coin was likely to be the same shape, was it not? Aziraphale determined to investigate that as soon as he got up, but for now, he needed to sleep. He had a busy day of research ahead of him.


On his second visit, Aziraphale strode through the fairground with an all-encompassing sense of purpose, disregarding the enticing aroma of freshly fried doughnuts and bypassing the attractions completely. He slipped discreetly between two of the generators, his shoes clunking against the metal board covering the cables, and headed straight for the fortune telling machine, florin already in hand as he approached it.

“I am Crowley. I will reveal your future. Come close, place your hand on the glass and tell me what it is you wish to know.” The automaton spoke in the same deep, low tone as yesterday, its voice even and measured, the recording unfaltering, existing outside the rush of relentless change that had befallen the modern world. Aziraphale pressed his palm to the glass.

“Hello Crowley. I wanted you to know that I spent the whole day researching your… situation, and I won’t give up until I’ve exhausted every possibility. And before you tell me to focus on other things, I’m a PhD student, my research is all about prophecies, so I am very much doing what I’m supposed to be doing, thank you very much. I wasn’t sure whether… um, your message yesterday… you mentioned companionship. Is that something that you want? Is that what you meant?”

“You have an agile mind. That will serve you well in your endeavours. Your future is bright,” the automaton replied, another series of recorded messages that would be dismissed as random by anyone unaware of the truth of Crowley’s curse.

“You’re in a better mood this evening, I see,” Aziraphale observed lightly, guilt immediately clawing at his insides. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” he sighed and leaned his forehead against the glass. “I’m sorry. I hope you mean that you would like for me to keep you company, because unless you give me an indication that that isn’t what you want, then I intend to keep coming back here until I find a solution.”

“The conclusions you have drawn about your current situation are accurate.”

Aziraphale smiled. “I’m very happy to hear that. I’ve been reading a lot about you, you know. You were working with your father as a naturalist, weren’t you? That must have been fascinating, so many exciting discoveries to be made! Your father’s diaries are in the archives at the university, I spend a lot of my time there for my PhD,” Aziraphale explained. “He wrote about you frequently. The archivist had to come and tell me that she needed to lock up last night; I'd rather lost track of time, I was so caught up in your adventures. The two of you travelling the world together... it sounds marvellous.”

"I see travel in your future. Visiting new places will offer you new perspectives, and will bring joy and adventure to your life."

"Yes, I had a feeling you enjoyed it too! Your father wrote of your insatiable curiosity, your wonder at making new discoveries. I've always been something of a homebody, but I must admit, you've inspired me. I won't be going anywhere until I've figured out how to help you though. I won’t abandon you, I promise."

"You are pure of heart. In your future, I see someone who will offer the same kindness in return. Be wary of those who will take advantage of you."

Aziraphale recognised Crowley’s words for what they were: gratitude, albeit tainted by some of the cynicism and concern that he had demonstrated yesterday.

"Thank you, I appreciate that. The archivist is going to give me access to some other materials tomorrow. You're listed as the author of one of them; I'm excited to see what it is. So far, the only thing I've read that was actually written by you was the collection of your prophecies. I focused on the commentaries that had been written on them for a while, my research involves looking at the impact of prophetic visions within communities, you see, and I came across names I recognised from my own lineage. I began to piece together who you were, what had happened."

"Your studiousness is a virtue, it will steer you well and ensure you a prosperous future. However, you must remember that the real world exists beyond the written word. You must look up, or in your future, you will look back and find that you have missed it."

"I know, don't worry, but for now, you have my undivided attention and I won’t hear anything else about it."

“I will now prepare a written prophecy for you. It will reveal that upon which you must focus to ensure yourself a bright and bountiful future.”

Aziraphale caught himself laughing, bringing his hand up to cover his face. "Oh, very funny. I suppose I am to read more about it instead? Well, thank you for talking to me. I am hopeful that these resources the archivist intends to share with me will shed some light on the situation." Aziraphale addressed his words to the now closed eyes and lifeless form of the automaton. When the card poked out from beneath the coin slot, he extracted it eagerly.

You may be feeling run down and in the same daily round. Help could come from an unexpected quarter. A friend is important to you. Your efforts will not go unappreciated.

Aziraphale smiled. "Thank you, Crowley. I'd like for us to be friends too."


"Good evening, Crowley. I read your diary today. Gosh, that sounds ever so intrusive, I hope you don’t mind. It's clear how much you were haunted by your visions, I'm so sorry for what you had to go through, but please remember how much suffering you prevented with your warnings. Those who accused you of taking their loved ones away, those who called you selfish… they couldn't have been more wrong."

"You must ensure that you have gathered all of the pertinent information before making a decision on this matter."

"Yes! Yes, exactly! They were wrong to leap to conclusions. Even more so to punish you, to curse you like this for simply using your knowledge to protect the vulnerable! I promise I will do everything I can to put this right."

"There is no harm in being guided by your instincts, but do not allow them to cloud your judgement."

"Even if you're trying to tell me that you think you somehow deserved to be punished for taking those children away to safety, I will not accept that you believe this to have been warranted," Aziraphale responded passionately, gesturing to the glass case in front of him. The automaton's mechanisms ground together as its head tilted to one side.

"Be wary of actions taken in the heat of emotion, for they may not serve to advance you towards your goals."

"They were frightened and angry, I know. I'm sorry, but you did the right thing. The landslide destroyed the school completely, the children never would have survived. The fear those people experienced when they realised their children were gone, it is nothing compared to the grief they would have experienced had they truly lost their children in that disaster, knowing that you had seen it, that their deaths could have been prevented. I can't believe they blamed you," Aziraphale said sadly. "As if anyone would go to such lengths, inventing prophecies and then ensuring they came to pass! As if anyone could be so cruel! But then I see what they have done to you, and I realise how they believed it possible to be so cruel, since they were clearly capable of such cruelty themselves."

"Listen closely, the information you receive could be important to you," Crowley responded, and Aziraphale took that to mean that he was grateful Aziraphale had uncovered the truth about what had happened. "You are pure of heart. In your future, I see someone who will offer the same kindness in return." Crowley had used these words before, every sentence he uttered chosen from a selection acoustically recorded over a century prior when the machine had been created, but Aziraphale appreciated them all the same. He locked eyes with the automaton and smiled.

"It's been wonderful learning about you. You were a very kind man, and you certainly do deserve kindness in return. I found a photograph of you today amongst the materials the archivist provided. It's nice to be able to picture you when I'm reading your words, and when we're talking now. You were very handsome, weren’t you?” Aziraphale's cheeks prickled with warmth as his blood rushed to them. He would never have dared make such an admission were Crowley flesh-and-blood, but despite the lack of response from the figure before him, he found himself feeling rather flustered and subtly cleared his throat. “The photograph is black and white, of course, but I imagine your hair must have been red, as it is now? I can imagine that it suited you very well."

The silent pause that followed hung heavy in the air, a tangible thing compressing the space around him as though Aziraphale were the one being confined within a cage of glass. His heart gave an almighty thump when the automaton’s mouth began to move again.

“I will now prepare a written prophecy for you. It will reveal that upon which you must focus to ensure yourself a bright and bountiful future.”

Aziraphale could feel the flush across his cheeks intensifying. Had he said too much? He couldn’t deny the fascination he had developed regarding this brave, generous, enigmatic man, but he certainly didn’t intend to make Crowley uncomfortable. He fiddled with the card nervously after pulling it free from the slot.

Those who are generous will reap rewards for their kindness. Afford yourself the same care that you afford others. Everything that is was first a dream. You have an admirer.

Aziraphale's stomach swooped and he released a shaky breath, licking his lips as he read and re-read the card held tightly in his grasp. 

You have an admirer.

He swallowed and cleared his throat before attempting to speak, hoping he wasn't misinterpreting Crowley’s words.

"Thank you," he breathed, his words almost swallowed up by the relentless drone of the generators. "I’ll be back tomorrow. Goodnight, my dear."


Weeks turned into months with Aziraphale spending his days conducting research and his evenings visiting the fairground. His supervisor was supportive of his inclusion of his discoveries about Anthony Crowley in his thesis, appreciating the 'local interest' aspect and the contrast it provided with the other prophetic visionaries Aziraphale had included, all of them much older than Crowley. He had found a copy of Crowley’s death certificate, although he still refused to believe the man had ever truly died, unfalteringly convinced now that his cursed soul somehow resided within the archaic automaton at the fairground. The certificate revealed that Crowley had been only twenty-two years old when he had seemingly died, a couple of years younger than Aziraphale was now.

Aziraphale had not told his supervisor about the curse, of course, but as the research he was conducting in his attempts to elucidate how to break it was wrapped up with his other work, he was able to get away with it without any noticeable drop in his productivity.

The more Aziraphale learned about Crowley, the more enamoured with him he became. Crowley’s life had been short but remarkable, and he had demonstrated such courage, putting himself at risk to do what he knew was right. His inquisitiveness and propensity towards mischief were evident in his written accounts, and Aziraphale found himself feeling rather inspired, having spent his life adhering to every condition imposed upon him, never having the courage to deviate from the expectations of others.

When he visited Crowley, Aziraphale would talk about the things he had read, freely expressing his admiration for him. One day, Crowley had said, "Be open about your own desires. Share more of yourself with the world," and so Aziraphale had started to talk more about himself too, sharing his perspectives, experiences and interests. Crowley’s messages in response became increasingly affectionate, eliciting a rapid fluttering in Aziraphale’s heart that always persisted long after he departed the fairground and preceded his arrival each night.

Your smile is a gift to those around you.

The world is your oyster but you are its pearl.

You make the world better just by being in it.

Aziraphale had spent a considerable amount of money procuring sufficient florins from the right era to activate the machine, although each only seemed to grant Crowley a short bout of activity. Once the lights dimmed and the automaton stilled, returning to its apparent slumber, Aziraphale would sit on the ground beside it and continue talking, hoping that Crowley could still hear him. One night, he even fell asleep there, his head resting against the machine, until he was discovered, presumed drunk, and forcibly aided to leave by one of the fairground workers.

The following evening, he could tell that something was different with Crowley. His responses were curt, more brusque than usual, a note of sombreness in the words of fortune he chose to share.

"Do not mistake temptation for opportunity. Some endeavours are best not pursued."

"Crowley, what's wrong? You haven't given up, have you? Because I assure you, I haven't! I still have much ground to cover."

"If you walk in circles, you will only ever cover the same ground. You would be wise to remember that the only difference between a rut and a grave is depth. It is time to pursue new adventures."

"Crowley, stop it! I don't know what's put you in this mood but there really is no need to give up hope! And in the meantime, I will keep coming here to keep you company, all right?"

“I will now prepare a written prophecy for you. It will reveal that upon which you must focus to ensure yourself a bright and bountiful future.”

Aziraphale’s stomach lurched when he read the message that Crowley had prepared for him.

You have been investing too much time in fruitless endeavours. Cut ties with those who are holding you back. Move on. Seek new opportunities and take on new challenges. Visit new places. Leave the past behind you and live your life to the fullest. Stop giving so much of yourself when you are receiving nothing in return. Stop wasting time on those who do not deserve you.

“Oh, Crowley… I’m not wasting my time, and I have no intention of moving on.”

Aziraphale huffed out a long breath, gazing sadly at the unmoving figure of the automaton. He dug another florin out of his wallet and inserted it into the coin slot, his heart clenching as he listened to it immediately roll back out.

“Crowley, no, please talk to me.” Aziraphale tried the coin again, but to no avail, panic creeping up along his spine. “ Please.” 

Aziraphale must have tried at least twenty more times before finally giving up and whispering a solemn goodbye. A film of moisture coated his eyes, causing the bright lights of the fairground to streak and wobble, dancing across his vision as he trudged along, the gravel crunching beneath his feet until he emerged back out onto the grass, immersing himself once more in the vibrant world of the living with a heavy ache deep in his heart.


Aziraphale refused to give up. He continued his research during the day, and each evening would return to the fairground, lowering himself down onto the rough ground beside the fortune telling machine, spending sometimes as long as an hour there just talking to Crowley. He continued to tell him about his research, his latest thoughts and findings. He told him about other aspects of his life too, hoping that Crowley would trust that he was not neglecting himself and his own happiness for the sake of keeping him company. He never ceased to futilely insert an assortment of florins into the slot in an attempt to entice Crowley to respond, determined to demonstrate that he hadn’t given up.

“I’m going to keep coming anyway, so you might as well talk to me.”

Aziraphale pouted and tried the coin in the slot again. Once more it was rejected. He sighed heavily and scooped it back up.

“All right. If you really want me to go, if you really, truly, without any doubt in your mind want me to leave and never talk to you again, then tell me, and I promise I’ll do as you ask.”

As Aziraphale deposited the coin in the slot, for the first time he visualised it being rejected, attempting to will such an outcome into being. He squeezed his eyes closed and breathed out a sad sigh as the coin fell into the machine with a clunk, disappearing from sight.

“Crowley, no, please…” Aziraphale smoothed his palm down the front of the glass, waiting for Crowley to speak. But despite the coin being accepted, the automaton did not stir to life. Instead, a mechanical whirring sound emanated from the base of the machine, and a few seconds later, a card poked out of the slot.

You know what you have to do. Leave the past behind you and live your life to the fullest. Keep your promises.

Tears spilled from Aziraphale’s eyes, landing on the small printed card. He allowed himself to cry for a while, taking the time to compose himself, not wanting to walk away without properly saying goodbye.

“I will keep my promise. I won’t come here anymore. Just know that from everything that I’ve learnt about you, I know that you’re a good person, and if there’s anything I’m missing, anything I can’t know that leads you to believe otherwise, then I forgive you for it. Goodbye, Crowley. You have my eternal gratitude for the sacrifice you made for my family. I’ll never forget you."

Aziraphale cried openly as he walked away, his heart feeling like it might implode from the compressive force surrounding it, as though his chest was caving in on itself. He would need to revisit his notes about Crowley at some point in order to write his thesis, and could only hope that by then, the overwhelming ache he was experiencing would have faded into something vaguely tolerable.

 

The next day, Aziraphale brushed off the archivist's concern when she said he looked tired. She asked if he was feeling unwell and challenged him about staying up too late working on his thesis. He forced a smile, rubbing his weary eyes, and told her that he had simply slept poorly, the noise from a houseparty next door keeping him awake. He was not a proficient liar, but she seemed to accept his explanation, tutting and shaking her head disapprovingly. Aziraphale stifled a yawn, and asked the archivist for the book written by famous seventeenth century witch and prophetess, Agnes Nutter. He needed to move on to something new.

Aziraphale carefully carried the precious volume he'd been given over to an empty desk tucked away in the corner, opening it to a random page. His shoulders were so hunched over that his forehead nearly grazed the parchment, his unfocused eyes staring through it until the text blurred into nothing more than a fuzzy impression of illegible words. Aziraphale sighed heavily and scrunched his eyes closed. He had to try to concentrate. He blinked a few times and let his gaze settle on one of Agnes’s prophecies.

A prison forged of glass can only be broken from within.

Aziraphale sighed and shook his head. This wouldn’t do. His mind was so clouded with thoughts of Crowley that his objectivity had been compromised. The only image Agnes’s words summoned in his mind was that of the automaton he had unwillingly abandoned, but if Crowley could set himself free, surely he would already have done so by now? Aziraphale blinked back his tears and scrubbed his hand across his face, turning the page and trying to focus on something else. He was interrupted by the click-clack of the archivist’s heels against the tiled floor.

“Aziraphale, could you come back to the front desk for a moment please?”

“Oh… er… yes, all right. Do I need to bring the book back?”

“No, you can leave it there, it’ll be all right for a minute.”

Unease prickled at Aziraphale’s nape as he tried to deduce what the archivist might need him for. Had he damaged or misplaced one of the materials he had borrowed? Had something gone missing? Would he be accused of stealing?

“Is something wrong?” he asked after a few steps, his anxiety bubbling over to the point that he could no longer remain silent.

“No, no, there’s just a young man here asking after you, but he doesn’t have his student ID with him, so I’m afraid I can’t let him in here. You’ll have to pop outside for a moment, but I’ll keep an eye on your things for you.”

It was a rule that phones needed to be switched off in the archives, but Aziraphale didn’t exactly have many friends; he couldn’t imagine who might need his attention so urgently that they would seek him out down here in the basement of the library. He gave the archivist a polite acknowledging smile, the gesture feeling unnatural, illicit, like a betrayal of the throbbing ache deep in his chest. He pushed open the door, stepping out into the corridor, blinking to adjust to the increased illumination.

Aziraphale…

Aziraphale squinted at the man standing in front of him, his formal, impeccably tailored attire incongruous here, bathed in the harsh glow from the fluorescent lights on the stained, cobweb-ridden ceiling. It took only a moment for Aziraphale’s eyes to widen with recognition, his breath catching near the top of his lungs as his gaze drifted over the elegant copper-red curls falling around the man’s face before settling on his warm, deep brown eyes.

“Crowley?” Aziraphale asked hesitantly, feeling incredibly self-conscious about daring to utter something so foolish aloud. It couldn't possibly be. Could it? The man’s face broke into a beaming smile.

“I found you,” he whispered, his eyes shimmering with a sheen of moisture. Aziraphale's mind felt like it was trapped in quicksand, and the harder he tried to break free, the more it seemed to surround and restrict him.

“I don’t understand. What happened? How is this possible?”

“I think…" Crowley ventured slowly, "because I let you go.” 

“I don’t understand,” Aziraphale repeated, struggling against the turbulent confusion in his mind, his heart adopting a disconcertingly frantic rhythm.

“They blamed me for persuading the children that they needed to leave. Perhaps they wished for me to have to…” Crowley trailed off, catching his breath as though speaking required considerable strength. “For me to have to persuade someone that I cared about to leave me. I’m sorry for hurting you. I just didn’t want to stop you from living the life of freedom and adventure that you deserve.”

Aziraphale stared at him, unblinking and frozen, willing his mind to catch-up, to process the unfathomable reality with which he was confronted.

“I can’t believe you’re really here," he whispered incredulously.

“I’m going to need some help.” Crowley held out a newspaper that he'd had tucked underneath his arm, one of the free copies of The Guardian from upstairs in the main hall of the library. His fingertips rested on the date at the top of the front page. “I’ve been sleeping for over a century.”

“It’s all right; I’ll help you,” Aziraphale said softly, instinctively taking a step closer but then halting abruptly, unsure how to proceed. He gently took the newspaper from Crowley, setting it down onto one of the torn, stained, plush chairs beside one of the vending machines in the corridor. Crowley shuffled tentatively towards him, the distance between them gradually closing, and Aziraphale allowed himself to yield to temptation, opening his arms and welcoming Crowley into a tender embrace. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’m here. You’ll be safe now.”

Aziraphale tightened his hold when he felt Crowley’s body quaking as he cried against his shoulder. Crowley held onto him like he might never let go, and Aziraphale was in no hurry to part from him either, sweeping his hands reassuringly over Crowley’s back, savouring the soft texture of his woollen jacket and the warmth radiating from his body. Eventually, Crowley’s tears subsided and he stepped back a little, reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief and dabbing at his cheeks and the corners of his eyes.

“I can never thank you enough for not giving up on me. I could not believe my good fortune to be visited by someone so pure-hearted and caring as you.” Crowley reached out, tentatively cradling Aziraphale’s jaw and smoothing his thumb across his cheek, eliciting a tingling sensation that spread across Aziraphale’s skin and skittered down his spine. “It was as though the Lord had sent to me an angel.”

Aziraphale gently wrapped his fingers around Crowley’s wrist, holding his hand in place, and leaned into his touch, so overwhelmed with emotion that he struggled to speak.

“What will happen now?” Crowley asked, his tone laced with uncertainty. "What will I do?"

“I’m not sure, but we’ll figure it out together, all right? For a start, perhaps I could show you some of what’s changed while you’ve been sleeping?”

Crowley smiled and nodded, releasing his hold on Aziraphale’s jaw and clasping their hands together instead. “I’d like that.”

Aziraphale glanced over his shoulder towards the closed door leading to the archives.

“I just need to get my things.”

“I’ll wait for you.”

Aziraphale squeezed Crowley’s hand and reluctantly turned away, taking the few steps along the corridor towards the archives, but turned back to face Crowley once he reached the door, his pulse racing and butterflies fluttering wildly in his stomach. “I was right, you know. You are very handsome,” he ventured bravely before rushing through the door without giving Crowley chance to respond. The cooler air inside the archives struck his face, drawing his attention to his burning cheeks. Aziraphale ducked his chin and walked briskly over to the corner, lifting the strap of his satchel up over his shoulder before carefully scooping up The Nice And Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter to return it to the archivist. He hoped his blush had faded somewhat by the time he set the book down at the front desk.

“I’m sorry, I need to go. Could I look at this again tomorrow please? Or perhaps next week?”

“Of course, dear, off you go,” the archivist replied, with a look that told him she thought she knew exactly what was going on, when in truth, she couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Aziraphale gasped with surprise when he stepped back into the corridor, finding Crowley right on the other side of the door, his lips curled up into an affectionate smile. Aziraphale quietly pulled the door closed, taking a moment to steady himself, undeniably affected by Crowley’s proximity. Crowley placed his hand on Aziraphale’s forearm, squeezing gently. 

"Thank you," he said sincerely, looking deeply into Aziraphale’s eyes as if searching for something, the intensity of it leaving Aziraphale feeling rather flustered.

"Oh, well… I… ah…"

Crowley's fingertips trailed up and down Aziraphale’s arm a few times before settling at his wrist, tracing irregular patterns into the delicate skin there, prompting Aziraphale’s breathing to quicken.

“You have an admirer,” Crowley whispered softly, holding Aziraphale’s gaze as he leaned in close, his eyes silently fluttering closed, lips hovering over Aziraphale’s. Aziraphale tilted his head up, their lips softly brushing together, making his skin tingle all over. “Please show me your world, angel. I want to see everything.”

“So do I. Thank you for helping me to realise that.”

Crowley gently drew him into another hug, and Aziraphale melted into it, relishing the feel of Crowley tenderly carding his fingers through his hair, the reassuring pressure of his palm on his lower back. The weight of apprehension, anguish and self-imposed limitation all lifted from him, discarded into the ether, replaced by an all-encompassing sense of peace and possibility. Aziraphale nuzzled Crowley’s neck, his smile pressing into his skin as his stomach fluttered with excitement, finally unencumbered by fear as he remembered Crowley’s words: ‘Time to pursue new adventures.’