Once, in the world, there was a cottage.
As cottages went, it was not remarkable. It had been built in the early twenties by a bored, wealthy Londoner for his bored, wealthy wife. They spent two happy weekends under its roof, after which sojourns they decided that the fog was much too damp and the fine kitchen tiles much too cold. Some years later, they remembered that they had built it, and brought their bored, spoiled children on holiday in hope of good weather.
It rained the whole time, and the mist was still damp.
They sold it.
* * *
Some mornings, gazing out the back window, Aziraphale catches sight of the limestone cliffs through the mist. The seasons seem to turn faster than they did in London, blowing over the fields and down the grassy slope of shore. It isn't a proper inlet by any stretch, no easy boating access to the open sea, as the neighbors had got that. It wouldn't have been worth it, Aziraphale remembers saying, and takes a sip of tea as steam curls gently into his eyes. But this one, with the view, is. He sets the cup down and opens the window, breathing in the chilly air.
Out here, what he misses most—Predictably, Crowley says—is sushi restaurants. The nearest town is six miles away, and it has a grand total of three pubs and one respectable café. When Crowley can be buggered to get up before breakfast, they sometimes take a drive and have breakfast there. The Bentley has become the envy of every local mechanic, and the crestfallen glances they cast upon it are palpable. It never needs repairing, and nobody does a better wash and wax than Crowley.
Aziraphale breathes in, picking up his cup again, and finds the newspaper already inside. Morning in the kitchen is always quiet, not a sound except for his slippered feet on the tile. They discovered promptly that shoes and tile are a bad combination, so Aziraphale bought slippers, and Crowley shrugged and went barefoot. The tile is old, but the restoration job had been a snap. The kitchen floor is the envy of their neighbors, and Aziraphale enjoys having something trivial to beam about.
Outside, the fog is drifting into a transparent mist. Aziraphale takes a seat at the table, unfolding the paper, and opens the patio door with a slight inclination of his head. The Sunday puzzles usually manage to be as good as the ones he used to do in the Telegraph, and sometimes Crowley remembers to fetch a copy of the Times.
Sipping his tea, Aziraphale sets his pen to the page and enjoys the breeze.
* * *
The cottage would not have known what to think of its new owner.
The gentleman was not rich, but he was not poor, either. He had recently lost his wife, and they had been childless. He had invested wisely, saving enough to retire in comfort. The bedroom, at least, was comfortable, as long as you never left it.
He very rarely did.
* * *
Driving down a deserted, winding road with the chilly wind streaming through his window, Crowley feels guilty for leaving the house alone. Still, there are errands to be run, and Aziraphale is too lazy to run them. Not that he disapproves.
Unless you count the M25 through Oxfordshire, you really can't get this kind of scenery living in London and environs. This is part of the reason why Crowley doesn't live in London anymore. Also, he had been getting tired of not being able to do 110 miles per hour down Oxford Street. Ever since things changed, something—or, he thinks acerbically, someone—has made it harder for him to tamper with police cars.
Out here, where there are no sushi restaurants, nobody gives a damn, and Crowley is all right with that. He shoves a tape into the Blaupunkt, and it trills solid Haydn. A motorist coming from the opposite direction, one of the neighbors, recognizes Crowley and waves. Cheerfully, Crowley waves back and watches the tiny car whiz past.
He's not the only one speeding, and he approves of that, too.
* * *
For a decade, the cottage lay locked and abandoned.
The widower's brother, after inheriting the property, didn't exactly know what to do with it. He had the vague feeling that he might also inherit a patch of bad luck if he were to be too hasty in selling it. He stayed on a total of one week, just long enough to gather his brother's belongings, and spent six uncomfortable nights in an uncomfortable bed. On leaving, he dragged out the mattress with the trash.
Without fresh air and music, a decade is a very long time.
* * *
By noon, sunlight is streaming through the cottage windows. The limestone cliffs catch the light, blinding to look at. Aziraphale tilts the blinds just so, content with the slats of brightness that they cast. He walks back to the table and collects up the newspaper and the teacup. One, he tosses neatly in the bin, and the other, he sets in the sink.
Crowley has left the breadbox open and a jar of jam on the counter. Aziraphale closes the breadbox and takes the jam back to the refrigerator. They seldom lack for necessaries, as many of the locals bake, garden, and keep bees. Three months ago, when they'd first moved in, they'd ended up with enough honey to last a year.
Aziraphale leaves his slippers next to the doorway, pads across hardwood hall-floor and into the living room. The carpet is new and soft—Almost too plush, he'd said. Crowley had insisted that his furniture would look ridiculous without carpet. Aziraphale had said his furniture would look ridiculous anyway. They'd struck a bargain: Crowley had brought his furniture, and, now that they're settled in, Aziraphale has picked the carpet.
He understands why Crowley likes to go barefoot.
* * *
In 1978, the cottage got a name. The plaque was nailed above its door.
They were, as everyone called them, a bunch of hippies. Three men and one woman, to be exact. They stayed all of five months before deciding that the place was a bit too close to the shore. The woman, who was getting pronouncedly rounder about the middle, pointed out that the nighttime storms would scare her daughter.
You don't have a daughter, said the men.
Yet, said the woman.
They moved out before the child was born. The plaque stayed.
It said: Lothlórien. Which was not a very creative name.
* * *
Crowley doesn't like running errands, but they seem to be his lot in life. From the very Beginning, he's been running errands, whether it's causing trouble in a garden called Eden or renewing Aziraphale's subscriptions online so they don't run out. They come naturally, and in the end he supposes that is better than messing people about.
He hasn't taken the wrong turning for a couple of weeks now, though he catches himself just in time. He has to be careful not to let his mind wander, or he falls into old habits, usually ones that result in the unpleasant experience of having to stop and ask for directions. He is almost on the high street now, which has grown familiar, but the place he is looking for is not. He starts counting the box numbers, anxious.
There had been a rusty metal plaque above the door when they moved in, and, as names went, what was on it hadn't been satisfactory at all. In fact, it had been boring, and it was currently in the back seat, rattling around with the screws still attached.
Crowley has the distinct feeling he's going to have to ask for directions.
* * *
In 1985, the cottage got a new name. It was not necessarily a better one.
Ms. Jean Alice Prewett—J. Alice to you—got her seven cats and fifteen goldfish all settled in and decided that the plaque had to go.
So, she called up some local workmen and had them throw the rusty thing away, and repaint the cottage a pale, soothing blue while they were at it. All in all, J. Alice was pleased with the result, and she lived out the remainder of her days—twenty years, six hours, eleven minutes—in her newly named cottage. None of the animals outlived her.
The cottage might have told you it didn't feel much like a Windy Knoll at all.
* * *
Lacking anything useful to do, Aziraphale decides to take a walk. The mist has slunk off for the day, and the ocean is particularly calm. He doesn't bother with shoes, as there's nobody around to see him, and they track in the sand something awful.
The cottage is on a bit of a rise, and the slope down to the water is a long, grassy incline where water birds, and even a few ducks, nest in summer, according to the neighbors. Crowley wishes it were summer already, and Aziraphale tells him to be patient. The water is cold, and something scuttles out from under Aziraphale's toe.
Aziraphale tried feeding the seagulls once, but he quickly learned why that was a bad idea. These days, he keeps his hands in his pockets and doesn't make eye contact.
In the living room, Crowley has started a bizarre collection of found objects on the mantelpiece. There are waterlogged watches, shells, china-fragments, and small pieces of driftwood. There are bits of colored glass and a delicate, rose-colored globe with a rotted piece of netting for a shroud. There is a ring, a crab's claw, a pearl. Aziraphale suspects Crowley cheated to get that last one, but it isn't worth arguing over.
Something small has washed up a few feet away, and Aziraphale bends to examine it.
Crowley hasn't got a piece of eight yet, so into his pocket it goes.
* * *
The estate agent had begun to despair of ever finding a buyer.
The cottage was mouldy, dusty, and the paint was chipping. The name plaque was rusty, and it had one of the worst names she'd ever seen on one of her sale listings. Over the months, she had shown it to dozens of potential buyers, all of whom had shaken their heads because it was too small or too old, or had stubbornly, nervously insisted that something rattled and thumped in the bedroom.
She had hoped that J. Alice Prewett's second cousin would just move in and have done with it, but the cousin had been the one to object to the rattling and thumping.
She'd been about to give up and sell it to a contractor, who had wanted to demolish it, when a young man in sunglasses and his fussy-looking partner had turned up asking to arrange a viewing. In the end, it was the young man in sunglasses who'd been the fussy one and his partner easy to win over. Prewett's cousin had accepted their offer.
The estate agent hadn't known whether to take the Windy Knoll plaque down or not.
She'd left it.
* * *
It's thirty minutes before Crowley manages to locate 10 Vine Street. He isn't pleased. The receptionist looks frightened, and he wonders vaguely if it's his sunglasses. He takes them off, and she looks even more frightened. She stammers into her phone.
"N—No, Mr. Andrews. I tried, Mr. Andrews. He's very impatient."
The receptionist makes an exasperated noise. Crowley raises his eyebrows.
"Apparently it's arrived," she says. "He said he'll bring it down himself if you can just wait a few minutes. Can you?"
"I have all day," replies Crowley, smiling until she squirms.
"The light must, um, hurt your eyes," babbles the receptionist, uncomfortably. "I've heard of conditions like that. I'm sorry."
Crowley replaces his sunglasses and, taking a seat, says nothing.
When Mr. Andrews finally appears, he seems unhappy about having cut his lunch break short. He is middle-aged, huffy, and will probably have a heart attack sometime in the next decade. Crowley tilts his head, regarding the small parcel in his hands.
"Allow me to apologize for the wait," he says, holding out the parcel. "Thank you, Mr. Crowley. Andrews Signage and Sales appreciates your business." Crowley takes the parcel, flips it over, and stands up, offering a hand to Mr. Andrews.
"You're welcome," he says, smiling in a completely different way. "Any time."
With that, he turns to leave. Behind him, the secretary is wishing silently, but loudly, that she had got his name and phone number instead of making a fool of herself.
Whistling softly, Crowley drives, already half a mile away.
* * *
These days, the cottage might say it feels much better.
Its roof doesn't leak anymore, and its chipping blue paint has been replaced with a sedate cream color. It has new shingles, and even double glazing. There is the start of a small, terrified garden staked off in the back yard.
Still, it would have said it felt naked somehow without a bloody plaque.
* * *
Aziraphale is doing the dishes when he hears a car pull up in the driveway. He knows who it is, of course. Mentally, he goes through a list of all the things he's going to say when Crowley walks in the door. You're late, and Lunch is almost ready, and, of course, What could be more important than spending a Saturday morning in?
"I had something to pick up," says Crowley, on his way in the door. "Business."
Aziraphale wanders up the hall to meet him, still holding the dishcloth.
"You missed a lovely walk," he says. "I found something."
Crowley hasn't closed the door yet, and he's wearing a curious expression.
"Yes," says Aziraphale, and takes the piece of eight out of his pocket.
Crowley lights up and turns the coin over in his hands for a few seconds before palming it in such a way that it vanishes. Aziraphale knows exactly where it's gone. "I always wanted one of those. Thanks."
Aziraphale clears his throat. "This errand of yours—?"
"Yeah," says Crowley, grabbing Aziraphale's hand and leading him outside. "Terribly important." He points above their heads, and Aziraphale looks up. "I'm here," he says, anxiously biting his lip. "Isn't that what matters?"
Aziraphale peruses the plaque, then glances at Crowley, and back at the plaque again.
"Hm," he says, nodding, and sets the dishcloth on the porch railing. "Yes, I suppose."
Predictably, Crowley looks crestfallen. "Is that all you've got to—"
"No, my dear," says Aziraphale, and kisses him soft and slow there on the threshold.
* * *
All in all, if you had asked it, the cottage would have said it had seen worse days.
In spring, the garden bloomed into something miraculous. The double glazing got redone on a regular basis, and the paint never seemed to chip. Its new inhabitants took better care of it than any of its previous owners had, but then, none of its previous owners had exactly been inhabitants. Either they had spent too much time outside, or not gone out at all, and everybody knows that neither extreme will do.
The mattress in the bedroom—where the rattling and thumping has stopped—is new, and quite comfortable. There, on stormy nights, the new inhabitants lie still, and sometimes not so still, and listen to the thunder. On not so stormy nights, they read, and talk, and sometimes take their not-so-stillness outside. Sometimes they walk, and sometimes they don't. Regardless of which it is, they are almost always touching.
And while the world was not a better place, the cottage, which was in it, was.
It would tell you that it feels exactly like a Home.