Aziraphale’s shop was quiet and strangely dark. Crowley had let himself in, as usual, and as should have been expected. He waved two tickets to the Palace Theatre in the air and called “Angel, c’mon, we don’t want to be late!”
He’d expected a flurry of activity from some corner or another as Aziraphale realized he’d gotten absorbed in a book and completely forgotten about both the time and the need for light. There was no response. Crowley sucked on his teeth and poked his head in the back room, and then out in the alley, and then back in the main part of the shop. Upstairs, then? Aziraphale did have a flat above the shop, a bathroom and a bedroom and a kitchen, though Crowley was rarely invited up.
Bracing himself for an extremely disapproving glare at his intrusion, Crowley slunk up the staircase. Aziraphale was not in the kitchen. The bathroom door was ajar but, except for a frankly alarming assortment of lotions, shampoos, and bath salts, that room was empty too. The bedroom door was closed. Crowley knocked. More and more on edge at the lack of response, he cracked the door open.
Aziraphale was inside, lying on the bed and dressed in a faded pink nightshirt that had seen the better part of a century. One arm was tucked under his head, the other rested on his round belly. He stared at the ceiling blankly, not even acknowledging Crowley’s presence.
“There you are,” Crowley said, going first for disdainful and second for not-panicked. “Don’t tell me you forgot we have a theater date.”
Aziraphale’s stomach rose and fell as he took a breath. “Oh,” he said finally. “I’m sorry, my dear, I don’t think I’m in the mood for it.”
“What do you mean, ‘not in the mood’? It’s Jesus Christ: Superstar. Everybody’s in the mood for it constantly.”
“I know you were looking forward to it. Please do go on without me.” Aziraphale was still staring at the ceiling. The low sun from the window left bright squares along his body, which seemed inappropriate somehow for this degree of sulking.
Crowley nearly went. He didn’t like the looks of the situation, or his chances of doing anything about it. Aziraphale didn’t get in moods like this, at least, not in front of him. Instead, after a moment of snake-in-the-headlights silence he said, “aw, come on, Angel. We’ve got to watch together. You're the only other one who was there when the whole Jesus thing went down.”
Aziraphale sighed. “I’ll make it up to you later,” he promised. “I’m simply… not in the right frame of mind to have fun today.”
“That’s exactly the time to go out,” Crowley said temptingly, ignoring the sick feeling in his chest. “Treat yourself. Let yourself feel better.” He got no answer for several, long moments. Aziraphale must really have been upset. Finally, he bolstered himself enough to take a single step further into the room. “Why?” he asked, and even he couldn’t figure out what intention his tone betrayed.
At first it seemed like Aziraphale wasn’t going to answer. Then he said, “do you remember the gentleman’s club where I learned to Gavotte?”
Crowley shifted from one foot to the other. "You've mentioned it."
“It closed up ages ago,” Aziraphale said, his voice distant. “The managers passed on and the members moved away. There was almost a scandal, a whole nasty affair, or several really. But, er, they were taken care of." Aziraphale sniffed importantly and Crowley grew distinctly certain Aziraphale had done the taking care himself. “Still, the younger men found new sorts of spaces. Time moves on."
Crowley’s shoes were new and his watch was new and he was planning to purchase a machine called a Magnavox Odyssey because it seemed very cutting edge, even if he wasn’t sure what it did. He tried to always keep one step ahead of time, because being a step behind was a nuisance. He knew Aziraphale knew this about him, just as Aziraphale knew that Crowley knew that he preferred to linger in old clothes and old books, lest he lose all connection with the past.
“They’re all dead now,” Aziraphale said. “Every man who belonged to that club. I’ve been keeping tabs, you know, and I tried to watch out for them a bit.”
Crowley reeled. Aziraphale hated taking responsibility for people that way. Hadn’t done in centuries.
“They, well, London’s not the friendliest place for queer folk, and it was even less so then. And they were so good to me you see.”
“Ah,” said Crowley.
Aziraphale swallowed. “Johan died this week, and he was the last. Not even a century old.”
There it was, then. The answer Crowley had been looking for, and nothing to be done about it. He shifted his weight and scratched his shin awkwardly with one foot.
Aziraphale passed a hand absently in and out of a patch of sunlight. His nails, today, were a deep gold, and seemed to absorb the light. “The end of an era,” he said softly.
“Humans don’t live long,” Crowley said, then kicked himself for stating the obvious.
Aziraphale looked at Crowley for the first time that afternoon, a touch of reproach in his eyes. “No,” he said. “They don’t.”
“I just meant,” Crowley said, “this guy lived a long time, for a human. He must have, I don’t know, felt accomplished. And it’s certainly better than when they all kicked it in their thirties.” He would have liked to tell himself that humans almost lived long enough now to bother getting attached to. The truth was he’d always gotten attached anyway, while swallowing down the slick sense of foreboding that crept in on him regardless of average lifespan and likely causes of death.
“I hadn’t seen him in decades,” Aziraphale murmured. “Between being discorporated, not aging, simply losing track of time…”
“It happens to the best of them.”
“I don’t think,” Aziraphale said slowly, “that it’s the fact that they’re dead that really bothers me. I knew it was coming, and most of them— Johan, certainly— maybe all of them were bound for Heaven, so they’ll be all right. It’s just… you know." He couldn't be certain- ineffability- but Crowley didn't contradict him.
“It’s just that you have to get used to the idea.”
“It’s just that it feels so lonely.”
Crowley hissed softly.
Aziraphale sniffed. “I know you think it was ridiculous, but I really enjoyed being part of that club. Humans, as a group, finding themselves, finding the joy in life together. Pierre was a dear who loved manuscripts as much as I did, and we discussed literature not once, not twice, but dozens of times. He loved the shop. Oh, and Damian was sweet on me. He always paid me such attention, with such feeling behind every touch.”
“And were you—?”
“Oh no, dear. He was a lovely man, they all were, but… no.”
Aziraphale’s voice softened around the edges as he kept talking. “Johan could sing. He would go to every concert and write the words down in a little notebook so he could sing them back later. Never forgot a melody. The men would all ask him for a song for their occasions.”
Crowley squirmed. He didn’t begrudge Aziraphale for having friends, but there was something unsettling about hearing him talk like this. He had only heard bits and pieces of what Aziraphale had gotten up to during the 19th century, and wasn’t sure he wanted to know more. Wasn’t sure he wanted to acknowledge just how much the world, and Aziraphale, had managed without him. He felt as though the air in the room was crushing him slowly.
“Well, then he’d definitely want you to go to Superstar,” Crowley said, a bit desperately. “Learn some new music for him and all that.”
“I sang to him,” Aziraphale said, taking no notice. “Just once. Just when he was off.”
“You didn't,” Crowley said.
“I did. Properly angelic too.”
Crowley’s mouth went dry. Any member of the heavenly host singing, even Aziraphale by himself, was something not really meant for Earth. Aziraphale could and sometimes did carry a tune in a human range, slightly off-key and often under his breath, just to be on the safe side. More often he simply demurred when anyone asked, saying he was a bit rubbish at it, really. In the six millennia they’d been on Earth, Crowley had only heard him properly sing twice, and both times he’d felt like he was being wrapped in gold-plated sandpaper, like he was made of glass, just from the intensity of it all.
“What did he think?” he asked weakly.
“I can’t be sure he heard,” Aziraphale said, and his mouth almost twitched into a smile. “He wasn’t responding to anything. I like to think—” he sighed, letting the thought trail into the air and settle like dust on the dresser.
“Oh,” said Crowley, wishing he had left several minutes ago.
“His family liked it, though. His partner is still alive, a lovely old man he must have met after we lost touch. I met their adopted daughter and his sister. They let me in, though I daresay I confused the lot of them, and I like to think I lifted their spirits somewhat. They held hands and sang along—people don’t usually do that, you know—and it was beautiful.”
“Well,” said Crowley, swallowing down intrusive thoughts of bloody and choking deaths, of plague and fear and shock and crushing loneliness; all the ways death could be anything but beautiful. “I suppose that’s one way to do it.”
He almost didn’t notice Aziraphale sitting up, folding his legs over the side of the bed. When he looked back, the angel was staring at him with eyes that had sat beside countless deathbeds, whether intentionally or not. Crowley wondered how many of them he had sung for. How many of them had inspired this reflective melancholy, how many had been beautiful. He had seen grief and anger filling Aziraphale’s body at the sight of the dead, as well as despair, helplessness, indifference, satisfaction (though Aziraphale didn't like to admit to those last two). He wasn't sure how to place this expression, though, and the thought put him off balance.
“I think you’re getting old,” he said, the thought terrifying in its simplicity.
Aziraphale chuckled, barely audible. “I don’t think that’s quite it.”
So perhaps this sort of mood was more common than Aziraphale let on. Crowley wasn’t sure which thought unsettled him more. He sucked in a breath.
“Are you quite all right?”
“Fine,” Crowley said, feeling ill. “I’m just fixing our tickets.” He pulled them out of his pocket and waved them. Some poor couple’s reservations had changed to today’s date with no warning, which Crowley absently considered to be rather clever on his part. “When you’re feeling better, eh?”
Aziraphale smiled and placed a hand on Crowley’s shoulder. “Thank you, my dear.”
“Any time,” Crowley said, then squinted at the tickets. “Well, actually, one week from today to be precise. And that’s cutting close to the end of its run, so you’d better not be all reflective then too.”
Aziraphale nodded but did not answer.
In fact, he was quiet for several minutes, eyes distant, so Crowley made another attempt at drawing him out. “So they’re okay with it? The family I mean.”
“No,” Aziraphale said softly. “But that’s not something I can give them.”
“Have you checked in at least? Brought a casserole or biscuits or something?” Gone at it the human way, Crowley meant, but Aziraphale looked at him with a slight frown and Crowley shook his head. “Nevermind. That’s not really your style, is it?”
“I have to choose, Crowley. You know. The early days, when we both ran ourselves ragged over each and every soul? I can’t do that again.”
Crowley nodded. A little distance was good for the both of them, which was part of why this was rubbing him up the wrong way. “It seems to me like you already have.”
“Shall we go for a walk?” Aziraphale suggested suddenly. “I think I could use the air.”
Evening was falling, and Superstar was just about to open house. Crowley's body temperature dropped to match the bitter fall air, and he almost suggested a ride in the Bentley or perhaps a drink instead, but Aziraphale set off determinedly down the street, still in his pajamas, and Crowley had no choice but to follow, crossing his arms and trying to convince his body it was warm-blooded.
Aziraphale breathed deeply and Crowley tried not to panic because he didn't know what to do about any of this, and he was thinking about death now, lots of death, so much of it, sometimes in horrible nasty torturous ways that were hard to reconcile with Aziraphale's claim of beauty.
He was glad Aziraphale had found something in it, anyway. He’d actually gone to the trouble of caring for this man beyond the generic heavenly love he tended towards. But that almost made it worse because with a pinprick focus on a single human it was easy to lose track of the vast ebb and flow of time, to fall into despair because this one tiny point of it would never be the same.
Nothing really matters, his thoughts lilted, a naggingly familiar melody that would not be released on record for another three years. Anyone can see. It was enough to make him want to sleep for another year.
Perhaps Aziraphale noticed him shivering, because he reached up and stroked Crowley's spine before letting his hand settle, warm, in the small of Crowley's back. More likely Aziraphale just wanted to reassure himself of Crowley's presence, but it worked out for both of them. Crowley's panic settled back into unease, and Aziraphale's pace slowed as he decided it was less urgent to out-walk his thoughts.
Still, Crowley was never good at letting things go. ”You were close to these men, then," he said. “You keep people at arm’s length, usually."
Aziraphale’s breath clouded before his face. “This time I didn’t.”
"What made them different?"
Aziraphale turned to him with an unreadable expression that made Crowley squirm with the layers of it. There was sadness there, and reproach, and other things Crowley couldn't name before Aziraphale turned away again with a cough. His hand disappeared off Crowley's back. “I don’t see that it’s any concern of yours.”
“None of my concern?” Crowley nearly stopped in his tracks. “I dressed up to see a musical, and instead find myself parading around in this blessed cold weather with a morose angel in a nightie, and that’s not supposed to concern me?”
“It’s a bit late for that,” Aziraphale said with a tight smile. He did spare a glance at his pajamas and, with a wave of his hand, turned them into something that more closely resembled normal clothes (though only barely).
“What do you mean, late?” Crowley pressed, but he knew. It didn’t matter that Aziraphale didn’t answer. Crowley had forfeited any right to have opinions about Aziraphale’s activities when he’d given himself up to a century of unconsciousness and depression. He almost continued to ask, in the hopes that he could get Aziraphale to say aloud that he’d missed Crowley, that he’d been lonely, just to have it proven.
But Aziraphale wouldn’t do that, and now there was this. Grief that Crowley was unexpectedly privy to but couldn’t touch. Silence, as they walked. Aziraphale staring straight ahead, not shooing Crowley away, but not lending Crowley any of his body heat either.
Crowley thought up a warmer coat and ignored the lifeless eyes that stared at him from odd corners of his memory, and waited for another chance to push at some of the distance between them.
It was only a matter of time before Aziraphale led them to a park— not St. James' park, for which Crowley was grateful— but something closer and a bit more overgrown. Warm streetlights indicated the path, but on the whole it was dark and still. Once past the gates, Aziraphale's shoulders relaxed just enough for Crowley to take note.
“I don’t mind the walk, really,” Crowley offered. “I didn’t mean to say that I did.”
Aziraphale’s tone was still chilly, but he answered with a clipped, “thank you, dear.”
Crowley cast his eyes around the dusky park; trees shedding their last leaves, flowers and grass reduced to brown clumps on the ground. It hadn’t snowed yet this year. Maybe it would soon, cover all this up. “You can keep talking about it, if you want.”
Crowley had not quite been forgiven. Aziraphale stared distantly at his nails. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t know where to begin."
There were lots of things Crowley could have asked, but instead he found himself asking the one that, perhaps, terrified him the most: “Did you see him there?”
Aziraphale looked at him sideways. “Death, you mean?”
“Of course, dear boy. He sang along.”
Crowley thought up a scarf from the back room of Aziraphale’s shop, thick wool in deep yellow and brown. Hopefully Aziraphale wouldn’t recognize it, since it had been shoved in a drawer for nearly a hundred and fifty years. “I’m sure he enjoyed himself.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“You said yourself it was beautiful.”
“It was beautiful,” Aziraphale said, “because the rest of us were there.”
Some unnamable feeling turned over in Crowley's chest. Aziraphale’s face was tight, and lines creased around his mouth and his eyes. They did not, could not betray his true age, but still they reminded Crowley that the two of them really had seen a lot of time.
“What did you sing?” he asked a bit desperately. “Something angelic, no doubt.”
“Oh, dear me, no. He would have hated it, not being able to write it down.” Aziraphale chuckled to himself, then sobered. “He’d heard this one before. Actually, you might know it. That feline fellow made a lovely recording just recently, but I’m sure I’ve heard my people singing it before.”
"Well then I—” Crowley began. His mind stumbled a little on Aziraphale knowing anything that had been recorded recently.
"I think you'll like it," Aziraphale insisted. He took Crowley’s hand in his, unexpected, soft, warm, and began to sing.
It was not angelic singing, beauteous beyond compare and possibly deadly. This was Aziraphale’s human voice: familiar, purposely a bit off-key, and soft at first, almost bashful, but rising as Aziraphale found his footing. Crowley still felt brittle, transparent, as though the song and the voice were cutting right through him, as though he was on the verge of shattering.
“Morning has broken
like the first morning
blackbird has spoken
like the first bird
praise for the singing
praise for the morning
praise for them springing
fresh from the world.”
Crowley’s breath caught. It was… it was the Garden. Back before either of them had really understood what death meant, or life, or time. Back when things simply were. He’d been a snake, then, but still, the smallest piece of the Earth had seemed so vast. He remembered green and gold.
He gripped Aziraphale’s hand tighter.
“Sweet the rain's new fall
sunlit from heaven
like the first dewfall
on the first grass
praise for the sweetness
of the wet garden
sprung in completeness
where his feet pass”
It ought to have been the sort of song he hated on principle, but Crowley had never been good at doing what he was told. He could almost smell it in the air; the dew, the bright freshness of leaves and the deep comfort of soil. He sniffed and, with his free hand, rubbed his eyes under his sunglasses.
Adam and Eve had been the first they'd seen die, so very long ago. There had been quiet afterwards, like the Earth holding its breath in anticipation of a return that would never happen. There had been a slimy sense of guilt that Crowley could still feel sometimes, and Aziraphale had held tight to a sense of indignation and anger that Heaven would not have approved of until it finally cooled between his tightly pursed lips.
How many had they lost since then? And still they had the sunlight and the grass and the concept of people. And, angel and demon, they were still here.
“Mine is the sunlight
mine is the morning
born of the one light
Eden saw play
praise with elation
praise every morning
of the new day”
Aziraphale trailed off, stumbling over another m as though he wasn’t sure if he was repeating a verse or not. Apparently not. He cleared his throat and nodded. “Something like that, anyway.”
“Ah,” Crowley said.
“The family sang too,” Aziraphale added. “It wasn’t just… that is… er.” His voice had gone wavery. Crowley didn’t look up, but he suspected if he did he’d see tears in the angel’s eyes.
“It was nice,” he managed, feeling a bit strangled.
This time Aziraphale sounded genuine. “Thank you, dear.”
Crowley glanced around the park. It was properly night, now, but he could see fairly well in the dark, and the glow of the streetlamps cast soft gold patches around the edges of the path. It could have been his imagination, but some of the dead foliage looked significantly greener than it had a few minutes ago. Leave it to an angel to cheat on growing plants.
Crowley leaned his head on Aziraphale’s shoulder. A few minutes later, Aziraphale let go of his hand in favor of wrapping his arm around Crowley’s shoulders and pulling him close. Crowley curled into his side with a sigh, and snuck an arm around Aziraphale’s waist. Aziraphale did not sing any more, but the melody continued to echo in Crowley’s ribs.
“You didn’t sing about Heaven,” he mumbled, vaguely approving.
“It wouldn’t have felt right.”
“No,” Crowley agreed. “Earth’s where it’s at.”
“But not Johan. Not anymore.”
And then he was shaking with it, and all Crowley could do was hold him close and rub his back and wave a hand to conjure up a handkerchief. “All right, Angel,” he murmured. “You did what you could.” Anything he could say would be inadequate, but he couldn’t stop hmself from saying it anyway. "You were there.”
“He was there,” Aziraphale sniffed. “For me.”
“I’m glad he was,” Crowley said, finding he truly meant it.
“Sssshhh. Angel.” Crowley didn’t say it’s okay because it wasn’t really. He did say, “I’m here now.”
“Stay,” Aziraphale said, voice thick.
“Yeah,” said Crowley, his tongue tripping on anything more eloquent than that. “I’m not going anywhere. Not really.”
It took another minute for Aziraphale to compose himself. He wiped his face with the handkerchief and took a shaky breath. “Would you listen?” he asked quietly. “If I talked about him? About all of them?”
Crowley sucked in a breath. The thought of more knowledge pressed tight around his lungs.
Aziraphale waited, and dabbed at his eyes. He was putting the sadness away. Crowley could feel the tightness of his shoulders, see the stiffness in his face. In a few hours it would be as though this conversation had never happened, and Crowley would have proved to be no better awake than asleep.
Praise for the singing, Aziraphale's voice echoed between his teeth. Praise for the morning
“Yes,” Crowley said, knowing that at this rate they’d be walking all night. “Tell me. I’m here.”