The year was 1896. Aziraphale was busy. As busy as he could make himself, desperate to find anything he could do with his regrettably free time. Anything to forget the last few years, anything to scour away the memory of his beloved friend being taken from his sight forever. Unable to help. Powerless, despite his ethereal nature.
He was beginning to see the appeal in sleep, as Crowley did. At least then he wouldn’t have to be conscious, to be aware, with every passing second of every interminable day, of all that went so horribly, frightfully wrong, and all that he could not do to right it.
He sighed heavily, the cataloguing on which he had been forcing himself to focus drifting away from him, second by second.
He missed him so much.
In the early days, he had taken to checking on the demon once a week or so, expecting a rather overlong nap. Then it had been once a month. Then a few times a year. By 1823, it was an annual pilgrimage. By 1850, he decided to try and move on. And oh, how he tried.
Flung himself into the heart and soul of bohemian life, where he knew he belonged. These were his people: the black sheep, the near-outcasts, hovering constantly between damnation and redemption, the ones who were further ahead of their time than their sheltered, close society could comprehend. (These were his secret thoughts, the thoughts he summoned in the dead of night, as though Heaven could read the sin from his mind during the bright, punishing day.)
Of course he met the man they all knew as Oscar. He knew from the start that he would be a vital fixture in the ensuing years.
And so he was. Not just to Aziraphale, who buried bitterness and loss and aching loneliness in blithe words and beautiful companionship, but to the world around him. That head of his housed a mind more brilliant by far than any of those who caused his downfall.
Aziraphale’s thoughts returned, unbidden, to his signed copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, sequestered upstairs. He couldn’t see it but all the memories swamped him; the good times and the bad, and the abjectly terrible. He tried to refocus on his cataloguing, feeling more alone than he ever had in those first few millennia when he and Crowley had been at each other’s throats.
The bell over the door tinkled merrily, unconcerned with his mental anguish, and he sighed, dragging himself out from behind the shelves, unseeing, yet deep down somewhat glad for the distraction.
He nodded at the customer, not really looking at them, and sat at the desk which served as a countertop, flicking through his book of sales (four pages long, and bought in 1634. One couldn’t win every time.).
He was vaguely aware that the customer hadn’t moved from just inside the doorway, but couldn’t bring himself to care overly. Either they would leave, or they would stay. Either way, they wouldn’t be making a purchase.
If he had been a little less exhausted, a little less abstracted, he would have recalled that he hadn’t actually unlocked the door that morning.
Aziraphale physically felt his heart stop. A horrible sensation, even if the body wasn’t strictly his own, but-
He knew that voice, would never forget it, no matter how many corporations it used, or how long it had slept.
He opened his mouth, but no words came forth. He couldn’t make himself look up, couldn’t bear to see instead some trick of Heaven, Hell or his own mind. A tic jumped in his jaw.
“I didn’t realise,” the voice was continuing, doing a bloody good job of imitating his demon, “How long it would be. I-” it cut itself off, then started again, “I saw a newspaper vendor as I came. 1896. That’s right, isn’t it? Only I had to guess for clothes and in the end thought head to toe black might be discreet enough, and I wasn’t sure about the cut but people weren’t really looking at me as I walked here and oh- isn’t it noisy now with all those people milling everywhere and angel I’m- I’m so sorry please look at me.”
The increasingly panicked monologue cut itself short with a strangled noise.
Aziraphale, very carefully, very deliberately, placed both hands flat upon the desk before him, sitting up perfectly straight in the functional wooden chair he kept for business purposes. He inhaled once, deeply. He looked up, head moving at infinitesimal increments, to take in the figure standing by his door. He thanked someone, anyone that he had chosen to remain seated for the experience. His jaw dropped, his throat constricted. It couldn’t be.
“C- come here,” he said, unable to speak the name as yet, unable to credit that he might again use it for its intended purpose.
The figure obligingly, although a little hesitantly, ventured into the darker confines of the shop, to the back wall where the desk, and the angel, sat.
“Sunglasses,” Aziraphale whispered, transfixed.
The demon smiled minutely and banished them from his face to who knew where.
Aziraphale felt something twist in his chest, and suddenly found that he wasn’t seated any longer, his instincts having miracled him to within inches of his demon. His Crowley. Crowley.
He couldn’t tear his eyes from the ones before him, revelling in their unique glow, too enraptured to perceive the worry buried deep within them.
“I began to... to think I would- you...” He cut himself off awkwardly, averting his gaze to the floor. However, given their proximity, this only succeeded in drawing his gaze to the demon’s lips, which parted involuntarily – perhaps Crowley had been going to speak, perhaps he was simply drawing breath. It was no matter.
It had finally registered with the angel that what was stood in front of him was no mere apparition, and this was most decidedly proven when he threw all his not-inconsiderable weight into a desperate kiss full of so much longing, pent-up frustration, loneliness, anger and grief that it was a miracle the demon was left standing. An apparition would have vanished like so much mist under the onslaught. Crowley responded in kind, and then some. If Aziraphale had been in possession of his faculties, he might have considered it a blessing that neither entity needed to breathe to live (before reconsidering his word choice in light of the object concerned).
They continued in this manner for some five minutes, until Aziraphale began to yearn for another glimpse of those treasured eyes, drawing away a little to regard the being enclosed in his arms.
Then he slapped him.
“You- you absolute bastard! You- snake, you awful, awful creature...” His voice tailed off as quickly as it had risen. “I hate you so much, I hate you – but,” he clasped Crowley’s face in soft hands, “I love you more than anything. You bastard,” he murmured. “I hate you,” he whispered against Crowley’s lips, one hand wrapping around the back of the demon’s neck gently.
“Getting, uh, some mixed messages here, angel,” Crowley said on an aborted laugh, before gasping when Aziraphale, fast as lighting, turned his attention to his neck and fairly nipped.
“Don’t be cheeky,” he muttered, “Or I may yet send you back out again.” He inhaled sharply, his brow furrowing. “I don’t mean it, my love. I- I don’t-”
“Peace,” said Crowley, gently but firmly, inveigling a hand between them to rest a thumb over Aziraphale’s lips. His own twitched a little. “I will stop your mouth.”
“Now really, Crowley, Sh-” He found his mouth stopped. But he really, really didn’t mind.
The pair stood, shrouded in shadow, entwined like a serpent and its vine, reacquainting themselves with forgotten contours, half-remembered quirks, until Aziraphale dragged himself away, holding Crowley’s hand hard enough to bruise, if the demon had been bothered to manifest some.
He gathered up the other hand to stop himself from reaching again for his- his Crowley, pressing them both to his lips as he murmured desperately into the skin. “I want to see you. All of you. Please.”
Crowley’s eyes glittered with mirth, but he doubted Aziraphale would even understand an innuendo in his current state, so he complied with nary a murmur, his wings erupting from his back like a feathered fountain. (Despite a century asleep, they were of course pristine as always.) He stretched widely and let out a moan which might leniently be described as obscene, before noting the look in Aziraphale’s eyes and miracling them both upstairs, where prying eyes couldn’t see several swans’ worth of bright white feathers filling the really rather small bookshop.
Aziraphale promptly reaffixed them both at the mouth – and indeed at any other point he could manage, pinning Crowley firmly against the wall, where the demon found that his legs no longer had to do any work in order to keep him upright.
The angel ran his hands up the length of Crowley’s torso, fanning out over the leading edge of his wings, which were spread flat against the wall and trembling slightly with the effort of remaining stationary. (They had once put a hole through an interior wall when someone’s wings got a little carried away; of course each strongly asserted that the other was the perpetrator.)
All attempts at keeping it together fled, however, when Aziraphale sank both hands deep into Crowley’s coverts, and Crowley threw back his head and moaned. He also hit his head on the wall behind him, but that was unimportant, and he absently miracled the pain away as he clung desperately to Aziraphale’s shoulders.
“I think it... rather unfair,” he ground out, “That I don’t get the pleasure of seeing the ragged monstrosities you call wings, if-” he broke off with another cry as the angel twisted his fingers in the feathers, just a little. He knew what he was doing, the bastard.
“I told you not to be cheeky, my dear,” Aziraphale whispered into his neck. “But just for you-”
A second pair of wings materialised in the now very cramped bedroom, shedding feathers as they unfurled. Crowley took one look at them and rolled his eyes, banging his head on the wall on purpose this time.
“When was the last time you groomed those, angel?”
“Oh, a very helpful demon gave me a hand in 1799.”
Crowley sighed heavily, belying his actions with a fond smile. “You’re an idiot.”
“I? I am not the one who slept away a century, my dear.” Aziraphale raised an accusatory eyebrow.
Crowley looked down at the floor and had the good grace to blush, finally managing to get a foothold and pushing the angel gently away, over to the bed, shuddering slightly as Aziraphale’s hands slipped from their hold in his wings.
“Angel.” He turned around and beamed at the man-shaped being before him. “Let’s just... stay here a while.”
He flumped down on the bed and scooted backwards towards the wall to make room for Aziraphale (a feat which should not have been possible, given that the bed had always been a single, but the pair of them expected it to fit them both, and so it did).
The angel sat a little more primly, although without taking his eyes from Crowley’s form, and peeled off his bespoke buttoned boots.
All decorum was thrown from the proverbial window once he was un-booted, however, as he draped himself, shedding wings and all, across the really obnoxiously large bed to lie on Crowley’s legs. Crowley saw an opportunity and grabbed it, immediately setting to work on Aziraphale’s shabby wings. This would be at least a day’s worth of work – and that was only if distractions didn’t materialise.
In the end, they remained there, wrapped in each other, for somewhere between three days and a week – with all the time in the world, time has no real meaning, although it serves its purpose when required. (This did not apply to bookshop opening hours. Never that.) They hadn’t left the other’s side for the duration, perpetually linked through at the very least a pair of interlocked hands.
At the minute, however, quite a bit more than hands were interlocked. Crowley was dozing lightly, having co-opted Aziraphale’s unresisting wing as a blanket, head laid on the angel’s shoulder and arms wrapped around his plump middle. He should be quite content, he thought, if he never moved again. Wiles be blessed, did not preventing an angel from carrying out his work qualify?
As though sensing such blasphemous thoughts, Aziraphale turned in his arms, the beginnings of a smile immediately materialising on his face.
Crowley, as he did every time the angel caught his eye, felt a wash of deep guilt envelop him – but couldn’t prevent himself from returning a lopsided grin. After a minute or so of this, just existing, how peaceful – he found that he rather wanted to bury his face in Aziraphale’s neck. So he did. Which meant that when the angel spoke, the vibrations suffused his delicate human cartilage like a pool of cotton wool. He smiled broadly.
“What would you say to an outing, my dear?” The angel plucked one of his hands from its place around his middle and pressed a gentle kiss to his inner wrist. “I should like to show you some of my favourite haunts during this century which you have barely deigned to grace with your presence.”
Crowley sighed happily, snuggled closer. “I should enjoy that, angel. I wouldn’t know the first thing to do with myself – I didn’t see a single street show the whole way over, save for a man with an organ and a sad little monkey – but then I suppose I was rather distracted. What do we do for fun now?”
“First of all we find you some more suitable clothes. You stood out like a sore thumb in your other outfit.”
“Didn’t help you notice me,” Crowley muttered ungraciously, pointedly not disentangling himself from the angel.
And so it was that around an hour later, and after much consultation of various books and magazines which Aziraphale had lying around, Crowley was decently attired (black from head to toe, of course; one has to maintain demonic appearances (and, if he was honest, he enjoyed the contrast he made with the beige-clad angel; like two halves of a matched set)).
“I thought we could go to St James’ Park – you remember? It’s had something of a facelift, not to mention the surrounding area – it would be well worthwhile exploring before... dinner, I think, and then perhaps back here to the theatre? The Pirates of Penzance is playing at the Palace Theatre just up from here; you might enjoy it. You always got on well with that Anne Bonny, didn’t you?” Aziraphale paused a second, narrowed his eyes. “It won’t... remind you of the days of piracy, but it is rather fun.” He clasped one of Crowley’s arms briefly, eyes alight, before dropping it again to lock the door as they stepped out.
“Shall we?” He gestured down the lane.
Crowley found himself completely absorbed by the new sights and smells assaulting his senses, making him, he knew, a poor conversational partner. Well, he would make it up at dinner, he mused as he dodged a hansom driving perilously close to the pavement.
His guide was keeping to the main paths, meaning that he saw quite an array of life – from bookshops to ladies’ hatshops to pawnbrokers, all housed in tall, beautiful white buildings. But it was the people he found most fascinating – the obviously rich and the utterly destitute mingling on the streets, barefooted children darting between the cabs, distinguished gentlemen stepping from dark alleys, beautiful women idling with their lace parasols. There were so many of them – and so much sin. Why, he barely had to breathe but it flooded his senses: surely this was proof that demons, and angels, had played their part on this world. Surely it was all purely academic now. The humans had made their Earth their own.
So enraptured was he that he failed to register at all when they approached the gates of the park, starting a little and laughing sheepishly.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” asked Aziraphale, smiling. “You could never take it all in, even if you stood all day in silence and just watched.”
“Do you speak from experience, angel?” Crowley grinned. “You must have been terribly bored without me to thwart, to be reduced to watching people for days on end.”
Aziraphale went pink, spluttering a bit as he attempted to refute that claim, but ultimately gave up the charade and sighed a little self-deprecatingly, saying, “I was, you know.” Before Crowley could reply, he was off into the park, along the sweet winding paths which had replaced the wide open walkways of the past.
He had been right. Crowley loved this – the trees and the flowers, the naturalised paths, all of it imitating nature so beautifully. It was like a new Eden – although with considerably more people, of course. It was peaceful despite that, however, a fact compounded by the clearly man-made lake they had just approached, and the-
“Ducks!” exclaimed Crowley delightedly, making a beeline for the creatures as he produced a bag of bread crusts, which he most definitely had not had earlier, from within his coat.
Aziraphale followed at a slightly slower pace, smiling fondly at his demon.
It had been early afternoon when they had left, and it turned quickly into early evening as they wandered, as aimlessly as only the very rich or the very old know how. The ducks had sought out new pastures by the time they had looped around to their former haunt, and Crowley’s shoulders sank an infinitesimal amount when he realised.
Aziraphale pursed his lips and looked about a little shiftily, before manifesting up a squirrel with a discreet flick of his wrist, directing it silently to run down a tree and across their path.
It did so, and he was rewarded with a gasp from his companion, who pointed excitedly at the little grey rodent. The squirrel froze before them, as small creatures are wont to do in the presence of other, more dangerous creatures – like, for example, snakes.
Crowley paid this reaction no mind, however, and stopped in the middle of the path to admire it, beaming widely. “Incredible, that they should all be so happy here, in the middle of a city so loud, so vibrant... it’s like another world.” He sighed contentedly. “A world within a world, angel. Our world.” He smiled up at the ethereal being, and Aziraphale found himself wishing, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, that he could see his eyes.
Then Crowley tried to link their arms, as they had done in the past, as had been perfectly acceptable until oh, so damnably recently – and Aziraphale jerked away as though stung. The memory of Oscar’s downfall swam nebulously to the forefront of his mind, and he felt his face crumple with the recollection. This was a new era indeed.
He realised rather belatedly that Crowley was staring at him, expression unfathomable behind those dark glasses.
“I- ah, sorry, my dear, um- I had better not, uh... I’ll explain later. Don’t worry.” With this less than reassuring explanation, he edged forwards again, along the path. “We don’t- um- want to be late for the restaurant, my dear.”
Crowley’s head quirked to one side as he regarded him keenly, but his voice when he said “All right,” was as calm as it had ever been.
Ten minutes later, he had noticed a woman wearing a lizard on her hat and had launched into a monologue on sensitivity towards others, so Aziraphale considered no real harm done.
“‘Don’t worry’? He should know by now that the fastest way to provoke worry is to say such platitudes as ‘don’t worry’” was the sum of Crowley’s internal monologue during the short walk to Aziraphale’s chosen hotel restaurant. (“It has been the haunt of some very notable authors of this time; you might actually enjoy them.” – “Only if you read me them, angel.”) Ssstupid, thoughtlesss angel. ’Don’t worry’, indeed. He didn’t exactly know how he wanted Aziraphale to reassure him, but he knew it wasn’t like that.
He was still sulking as they handed over their coats to the doorboy, but grudgingly admired the glittering, arching decor when they entered the Langham Hotel.
“S’very you, angel,” he commented as they seated themselves, ordering a platter of hors d’ouevres before deciding on a main. He was glad the little starters still existed, at least; he had very much enjoyed feeding them to the angel in certain select establishments. Not today, however; not with the way Aziraphale had been acting. He didn’t want to rock the boat, especially when he didn’t even know what boat he was on.
The food itself was delicious, and even here there was ample opportunity for people-watching – the remarks of waiters amongst themselves, the haughty patrons, one memorable gentleman who soundly berated the young man who brought his roast beef too hot, of all things. Crowley tied his shoelaces together with a thought.
In no time at all, it seemed, they had finished dessert (a rather delightful pink blancmange apiece; Crowley could get used to unnaturally-coloured food) and were taking their time over the dregs of the champagne (which had refilled itself, gratis, three times now. It wasn’t theft if they created it, after all).
“I don’t think I could take a night at the theatre, angel,” Crowley was saying apologetically, head on one side. “It’ssss been... overwhelming. Could we... maybe another night?”
“Of course, my dear,” Aziraphale murmured, his voice barely carrying, but his eyes- oh, his eyes were overflowing with love. Crowley didn’t think he’d ever seen anything more beautiful in his entire life, and could have wept that he had to see it all through darkened lenses.
Aziraphale’s hand was resting temptingly around the base of his almost-empty champagne flute, ripe for the taking. As Crowley had never been one to resist temptation when it called, he did so, in an attempt to demonstrate through actions that which he knew his glasses concealed.
It was short-lived, however. He had barely made contact when Aziraphale gasped, snatching his had back as though it had been burnt, toppling the champagne and spilling its remnants across the table. A smooth waiter approached seemingly from nowhere, enquiring calmly after their continued health; Aziraphale waved a hand airily, but his gaze was darting every which way about the restaurant.
Crowley had gone very still, sitting up poker-straight with both hands folded in his lap.
“P-perhaps we- the bill, please?” Aziraphale managed to ask of the waiter, who bowed his head graciously and departed.
Aziraphale didn’t seem able to look at Crowley, continuing to take in the rest of the restaurant in jerky little blinks.
The demon watched him swallow a few times, before almost whispering, “I’m sorry, Aziraphale.” He was thoroughly confused, thoroughly afraid, and thoroughly expected Heaven’s influence. Typical, he thought, almost gratuitously melancholic. The one good thing in my life, and they can’t even let me have that.
“Y- what?” The angel’s head snapped round so fast it was a wonder it didn’t spin off his shoulders and onto the floor. “N- no, Crowley, no, I- I’ll explain when we get back.”
Crowley nodded minutely. “All right,” he said again. Something in his stomach twisted uncomfortably.
It was a little after nine when they finally left the restaurant. Crowley shivered a little without the warmth of the sun and manifested himself a neat black scarf for the short walk to the bookshop, taking in the ever-changing sights of the city as night drew in.
These new street lamps were quite the thing – ornate, but functional. He smiled to himself as he thought how much Aziraphale must have loved them, and felt a wistful pang at having missed so much. He barely recalled now the event which had sent him to sleep for a century; the nap had served its purpose, but at what cost? He peered over at Aziraphale walking sedately beside him, grateful in the extreme that the angel had deigned to welcome him back. He was lucky, he knew, to be so readily accepted after so long. Everything was utterly perfect. A little overwhelmed with the bustle of the new world, with the day, and with the sea of his own emotions, he reached for the angel’s arm, to tuck it under his own as they had in the past.
Aziraphale startled away as he had in St James’, putting an extra foot between them which felt like a mile, and smiling over at Crowley awkwardly.
So perfect, apart from this.
Crowley felt something in his stomach twist again, an occurrence he considered far too frequent. Three times in one day was... well, it wasn’t pleasant, and made him wonder if he had somehow forgotten part of his body when he awoke. It wasn’t right.
The walk to the bookshop took less than ten minutes – Aziraphale had certainly chosen a central residence. Ineffable, thought Crowley to himself, huffing out a small laugh, before recalling his angel’s strange behaviour since they had left. Maybe an explanation would be forthcoming once they were alone.
Aziraphale smiled warmly as he opened the door for Crowley, his strange behaviour seemingly forgotten. Crowley, for his part, was finding himself more perplexed by the second, but made his way in nonetheless, shrugging off his long coat as he went and draping it over the desk at the back of the shop.
“Wine, my dear?” Aziraphale asked, brushing a soft hand across his back as he headed past to the back room.
Crowley jumped in surprise – what was his angel playing at? First actively avoiding contact, then seeking it... He pulled himself together enough to stammer out an affirmative and followed close behind, resolving to bring up Aziraphale’s behaviour as soon as they were seated.
He pulled the little table over to the sofa for use when Aziraphale returned with alcohol, and tucked his knees up under him, content to wait for the blessè- well, eagerly awaited moment when the angel would tell all.
Less than a minute later (not that Crowley was counting, of course), Aziraphale reappeared with glasses in tow, setting them on the table and smiling beatifically down at the curled-up demon. He paused a second, then leaned over a little further, placing a gentle kiss on unresisting lips, parted in mild shock.
He smiled apologetically at Crowley’s rather stunned face when he pulled away. “I couldn’t resist, my dear. I may have had you in my sight all day, but it feels like aeons nonetheless. I should explain,” he continued, his voice becoming more businesslike as he plonked himself down on the sofa, not quite at the far end, “my behaviour today. I- It’s a rather long-winded story, I’m afraid, but I hope you can understand.”
Crowley nodded, then blurted out, “Is it Heaven? I mean...” He snatched up a glass for something to do with his hands other than gnaw at them, swilling it with all the concentrated focus of the connoisseur he wasn’t.
“No- no, my dear, not Heaven, rather more earthly, sad to say... I shouldn’t think it the work of either side. As you have seen, humanity is so delightfully... wayward.”
Crowley snorted into his glass; of course Aziraphale would find a way to bemoan the state of human will. That said, he was the one who had lived it; perhaps he, Crowley, had missed something fundamental while he was unconscious.
“Once I realised that... that you weren’t waking up any time soon, I found I had to... occupy myself. I... fell in with a crowd who might tentatively be called my- our- people; partially rejected by their society, those perhaps not quite wholly fallen from grace. Bohemian types, lovers of the arts, and poetry, and... and love.” His mouth twitched infinitesimally; Crowley knew from the vague glaze over his eyes that his mind had drifted back in time. “I followed them in their endeavours, helped them where I could; they were not brilliant, not necessarily of money, but precious. Not like jewels, but like... flowers. Like nature.”
“Ephemeral,” murmured Crowley, understanding the sentiment immediately.
Aziraphale smiled sadly and nodded. “Yes. Like the golden sun rising over a spring morning. In time, as their number came and went, I noted one who was- is- exceptional. Where the others were like sunlight, pure and beautiful and warm in their community, their comradeship, he- he was like- is like- an- artist’s impression of sunlight. The same qualities, but more vibrant, more beautiful, sharper and longer-lasting.”
Crowley could see him in his mind’s eye. The image was all wrong of course; his mind’s eye had conjured up a being not unlike his own ethereal one, completely unbidden.
“And he was the toast of London. Of Irish descent, you know, but I think this- this was where he belonged.”
Crowley felt a burning sensation begin somewhere in his chest; was it recognition of a kindred spirit in this stranger, or something else?
“But certain... individuals disapproved of him. Of his life, of his wit, of his love.” Aziraphale smiled again, and Crowley longed more than anything to extract the sadness from those bright blue eyes which should never, never look so haunted, so lost. “I... I loved him, I suppose,” the angel continued, huffing out a weak laugh – and Crowley’s newly-resurrected world came crashing down around his ears.
Heaven, he could countenance, yes; earthly horrors he had seen enough of to last even his long lifetime – but he had never for a second thought that Aziraphale might have- moved on. He realised his eyes were burning behind the glasses he hadn’t yet removed. He had to leave. He had to go- away, and leave them in peace. If only he had never left the bookshop this afternoon, never come here, never woken up, never fallen in l-
He inhaled brokenly, and spoke through the ringing in his ears.
“You should have said,” Crowley choked out, a non-sequitur.
The angel looked up, puzzled; the last thing he’d said had been some minor detail of the case brought against Oscar – the book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he, Aziraphale, cherished so dearly. He opened his mouth to ask what his demon meant, but Crowley hadn’t finished.
“Something. Anything. Hell, Aziraphale, I- I have to go.” And suddenly there was an empty space where the demon had been, and the little bell was tinkling rudely above the shop door.
Aziraphale’s mouth was still open, awaiting words which wouldn’t fill it. His brain belatedly informed him that Crowley had left, in rather panicked tones, if a brain could be said to possess such.
He lurched from the sofa, miracling himself sober when he stubbed a toe on the skirting board, and dashed out the front door into-
Rain. Of course. Of course the weather had a sense of narrative immediacy.
“Crowley!” he howled into the dark, immediately drenched, his voice cracking on the vowel. “Crowley, come back! Where... where are you...” He began dashing rather unsteadily towards Mayfair, where his demon had last had lodgings, before recalling that he was an angel, and could find another supernatural being with far easier methods.
And so he stood in the rain, in the dark, and concentrated. Concentrated every inch of his being onto extending tendrils of his angelic power, seeking another of his kind, seeking a familiar demonic presence.
He found nothing. Not a whisper of a trace. It was as though Crowley had disappeared from London altogether.
He paused, breathed, tried again. Nothing.
A horrible thought crept into Aziraphale’s mind and took root. Had he ever been here?
“Crowley... please...” he whispered into the dark. Had he, Aziraphale, stricken at the loss of both his lover and his next dearest friend within a century, simply conjured one of the two up?
Was he truly alone?
His knees were cold, he noticed with some detachment. He looked down, noting too the proximity of the ground. He realised he was collapsed on the pavement.
He took a shuddering breath in, his eyes streaming (but it was raining, his brain pointed out unhelpfully, of course they were) and sobbed once. Aziraphale never cried if he could help it. He couldn’t help it now. He staggered back to the bookshop, collapsing against the door as he shut out the rain and the dark.
But he couldn’t shut out the thoughts.
He dragged himself back to the back room, with its sofa and its wine, and began to drink.
The next day dawned, as days are wont to do. Aziraphale didn’t notice. He had stopped counting the bottles after the first six. And still he hadn’t forgotten- hadn’t forgotten what? There was something he hadn’t forgotten, what was it-
Ah. Crowley. His face changed from confusion to despair in a heartbeat, then again into realisation.
He sobered up immediately, and tried to seek out Crowley’s presence anywhere in London – then England – then (with some difficulty, and well over a quarter of an hour of concentration) the world. Nothing. He collapsed back against the sofa, exhausted, and fixed the latest wine bottle with a baleful stare.
All that effort to forget, wasted. He began to drink.
This process repeated for the next week (although Aziraphale couldn’t have told anyone that, so deeply mired in despair was he): regaining panicked sobriety, checking for Crowley’s presence. The endeavour was fruitless every time, and he regretted having to go to the effort of getting drunk all over again.
It was late night, or perhaps more accurately early morning, on the seventh day. Aziraphale couldn’t have told anyone the day, let alone the time – not the heavenly Host, not even Gabriel, should he come to ask. His brief periods of lucidity were so grief-stricken that they barely registered at all.
And all the time repeated the mantra: Had he been alone? Would he always be alone? Would his eternity end in such bitter defeat?
The shop door jangled and slammed. Aziraphale ignored it, barely registering it as the indication that someone had entered. Noises were the realm of those who weren’t heartsick, who weren’t alone, and who weren’t – most importantly – so drunk as to be near-insensate.
“... Angel?” came the muted, broken voice from the doorway.
He heard that, a primal instinct kicking in to propel him out of the back room, giddy on relief and love (and most importantly alcohol), crying out, “My darling! My love, my...” He blinked heavily, shivered once, sober once more, although he hadn’t removed the dark shadows under his eyes or the ingrained tear tracks on his cheeks.
And there was Crowley, wet and shivering and bent double inside the doorway, looking like some kind of cornered animal.
“I thought you were... I thought I had lost you.” The silence stretched up and out, flowing through cracks in the windowpanes and blemishes in the brickwork, suffusing the bookshop and the little pocket of space in which it sat. And then.
“Again.” Aziraphale almost whispered, if such a broken sound could truly be called a whisper.
“I couldn’t find you, I- where did you-” The angel’s voice was ragged, raw, worse even than those first few decades of the century when he had barely spoken to a soul. “You came back.” He reached out, still barely believing, to hold the treasured face in his hands. “You came back,” he repeated thickly, shuddering out a broken breath.
“Why... why did you come back, my dear?” He brushed aside the shoulder-length hair, tribute to the previous century, trying to peer into Crowley’s eyes through the dark glasses, before gently edging his hands up and slipping them off the demon’s face.
What he saw there was not hopeful. The golden eyes were dim, as though someone had banked the fires which burnt perpetually within them – and worse, there seemed no flicker of recognition in them. They were somewhere else entirely, seeing nothing.
“I- I’m scared, angel,” he whispered, the sound deafening in the dead silence of the very early morning. If anything he sounded worse than Aziraphale; if he had been just a little more afraid, a little more drunk, or a little more mad, the angel would probably have resorted to hysterics at the thought. As it was, he slowly, carefully pulled the demon into a close embrace, allowing him the time to move away if he needed.
It seemed that the exact opposite was true. Crowley – there was no other word for it – clung with all the wiry tenacity of the serpent, all but wrapping himself around Aziraphale as well as his human form would allow.
The angel held him, as still and patient as only an assigned Guardian knew how. Waited until the stuttering breathing of his demon had abated somewhat, returning to calmer pastures, and then a little longer to be quite sure he was sufficiently recovered (and also, he was unafraid to admit, simply because he enjoyed having him so close, always and especially after so long apart). He pulled away only a little, clasping one frozen hand in his own, the other remaining loosely tangled in dark locks, and was gratified to see that the frightening distance in Crowley’s eyes had vanished, although the dullness had not.
“Oh my dear, would that I could efface your fear...” He searched in vain for any inkling of what exactly had frightened the demon so. “Will you... talk with me?”
Crowley hadn’t let go, hadn’t loosened his grip at all in fact, but made a valiant effort to apply one of his trademark grins, still belied by the dark, unknowable thoughts visibly drifting behind his eyes.
Aziraphale took this as an affirmative, and gently coaxed him towards the back room, and the sofa where everything had gone- so wrong. Perhaps not, then; he changed course for the kitchen, with its mismatched well-used chairs, and the constant aroma of tea.
As they passed through the back, past the sofa and the damning quantity of wine bottles strewn across the floor (and eventually Aziraphale had realised he could just miracle the wine into the bottles, so the count was nowhere near the number consumed), Crowley’s nose twitched.
“Hell, angel, how much did you... drink...” His eyes had spotted the vast sea of empty bottles and Aziraphale cursed inwardly. It wasn’t important, he had Crowley now, the bottles weren’t important... he bit his lip and banished them all, and the reek of alcohol, with a nervous twitch of his hand.
He couldn’t look at Crowley, though he could feel the demon’s eyes burning into his face. He made two, three aborted attempts to explain, his mouth opening in silent preparation, but all fell short.
The numb silence multiplied, smothered, the thoughts in each being’s head too loud for mere speech to convey.
In the end, Aziraphale decided that a distraction was in order, and miracled up a cup of tea at the exact moment that its intended recipient’s knees buckled, forcing him to banish the cup in an instant as he darted forwards to catch him before his knees hit the floor.
Crowley gasped, clinging to the angel’s arms, solid as the proverbial oak, but oh, if he could help it they would be, for his demon, so much more enduring.
“Sofa. Come on now, dear,” Aziraphale tried to steer him the scant feet to worn leather cushions, ruthlessly quashing the rising panic which threatened to creep up, up and out, by whatever means it had at its disposal.
Crowley thus deposited, he took a seat next to him, facing him, still holding on to one hand as though it were a lifeline.
“What happened, my dear?” he asked again, trying to maintain some semblance of vocal control.
Crowley swallowed, his dull gaze fixed on the skirting board opposite them. His face twisted, but he remained silent. Aziraphale waited.
“It’s... it’s all changed, angel,” he all but choked out, so quietly that the other could barely hear him from less than a foot away. “They’re... what happened? How did this happen? In so short a time...”
Aziraphale longed to gather him up in his arms, to tell him that although humans could sink to such awful depths, there was goodness in them yet, but the demon’s fears rang too true. He had thought such thoughts himself enough times in the last year, alone in his bookshop, for any reassurance to ring hollow.
Crowley continued brokenly, forcing words out as though they were shards of glass – painful in the extreme while embedded, and so much more dangerous to remove.
“I was... wandering. About.” His free hand flopped limply, in what might in another time have been an airy wave. “I was... lost. Metaphysically,” he clarified. “I didn’t know... where to go, who to go to, I...” He broke off, chewed on his lip; Aziraphale sensed he wasn’t telling the whole truth, but didn’t want to push the point. He would find out, in time, whether that be hours or centuries. He wasn’t letting go ever again, though Heaven and Hell might both seek their return.
“It was... late. Maybe two- two in the morning? Dark, almost sleeping. I saw- I- two of them, arms linked in the dead of night, angel, I was curious! I could see they- they loved. I can still sense that,” his mouth twisted wryly at Aziraphale’s sharp glance. “And I thought- I- I might understand. More. Of why you- you lo- of humanity,” he finished weakly, clearly unable to put voice to the words he was seeking so desperately. Aziraphale noted this, too, as a point which needed clarification – had he been about to say ‘loved’? Loved whom? For surely Crowley loved humanity just as well as Aziraphale himself did, perhaps even more – there was no need for him to understand love. As though he, Aziraphale, weren’t fully aware of just how deeply the demon felt. Deeper by far, he knew, than he himself.
Crowley had stopped speaking, the hunted look returning to his eyes as he stared, unseeing, at the skirting.
“My dear?” Aziraphale prompted gently, a minute frown creasing his forehead.
Crowley huffed out a mildly hysterical laugh with no mirth in it, inhaled again raggedly. “I couldn’t stop- they were- attacked. They were-” his voice broke again, and Aziraphale’s heart sank as he realised what Crowley – gentle creature that he was – had unwittingly seen. “I couldn’t stop them, Aziraphale, I tried to wile the- the attackers away but nothing- nothing worked. It was as though I was trying to- to flood the world by dropping a pebble in the ocean- angel. They were so full of sin and hatred, and- evil- that I- I couldn’t do anything. Except... wait.” He hiccoughed with the effort of holding back tears.
Aziraphale felt his throat constrict in horror at the tale. Could any just God inflict such pain willingly? he found himself thinking, barely shocked at the blasphemy of it. Has He lost control after all? Or does he just... not care? He wasn’t sure which of the two thoughts was more monstrous.
“They... when they left, I went- to see if-”
No, thought Aziraphale desperately, Not that, please don’t tell me you went to heal them, please-
“If I could- help. You know, all evil and good balancessss out in the end sssso-” He bit his lip again, his face wretched. “But they were- there wasssn’t a bone left unbroken, angel, there was nothing I could do. Angel, what-” He looked up suddenly, golden eyes blazing with divine light so bright Aziraphale started back, overwhelmed. “What issss the point, angel, if we... if we can’t... why are we here?” he finished in a tiny voice, barely louder than a cornsnake.
And at last Aziraphale knew the answer, though it pained him to say it. “I don’t know, my dear. I don’t think- we will ever know. I don’t even know if there is a reason, though I suppose I ought to assume one must exist. But I- truly have no intimation of it.”
“To think that... it was all sssso- so beautiful. Ssssso green and lovely and perfect. And now this.” Crowley’s lip curled. “Cruelty and sin and death and oh, angel... my cup runneth over indeed,” he remarked bitterly. “But I have had my fill.”
And as the demon sat buffeted by torrents of acrid self-loathing and deprecation, the angel, gazing helplessly at him from a mere foot or so away, thought he had never seen anything more pure, more beautiful, more demonstrative of true ethereal grace, in his life.
“Crowley,” he said, opening his arms. “Come here.”
The demon looked up, blankly puzzled. Aziraphale smiled encouragingly, not moving. Eventually, the words seemed to register and he obliged. The angel shifted back against the armrest, stretching out and drawing Crowley with him, so they were lying tangled together on the sofa, Crowley’s head resting on Aziraphale’s chest.
“You never were like them, my dear,” he commented, his voice reverberating comfortably through Crowley’s skull. A moment passed in silence, then- “I believe I still owe you an explanation for my behaviour when we promenaded, however.”
Crowley started up in shock, beginning to shake his head, to protest – he didn’t need one, he didn’t want to hear more, he would settle for his new place in the angel’s heart as was his just treatment for abandoning him. Aziraphale hushed his protestations before they had even begun, threading a hand into his lover’s hair.
“You have seen it, my love. The reason. We cannot- I may not go near you while we are out, or you see what-” he clasped his demon’s face firmly, tenderly in both hands, entreating Crowley to look in his eyes as he threatened to sink back into the darkness of the earlier hours of the night, “- the outcome... is. I regret I didn’t tell you before we left, but I was so- overjoyed that it slipped my mind, and I- I daren’t risk speaking of it in public.”
Crowley’s brow hadn’t cleared however, bewilderment etched clear on his face. “But your- you said you loved- who?”
Aziraphale could have laughed with delight. Was that all! Was that truly all; was that the sole reason his love had left him- oh! He didn’t laugh, but he didn’t prevent the beatific grin from spreading across his face either.
“The man, the poet, the writer by whose arrest all of those horrors came to be reified, my dear. They call it ‘gross indecency’ now, though I can’t fathom what should be so indecent about love- no. He was my dearest friend while you were gone, but nobody- nothing, Crowley, on God’s earth, above or below it, could ever replace you in my esteem. In my heart. I love you, you silly snake. I always will.” And as he spoke it, he knew it to be completely true. There could never be another he could love so well.
Crowley’s face had been growing steadily redder as the angel continued his monologue. He buried his face in Aziraphale’s chest, muttering something unintelligible.
“What was that, my dear?” Aziraphale asked, still giddy with the realisation that they need never be parted again.
Crowley looked up awkwardly, his uncanny eyes wide and earnest, and sighed. “Angel, I... I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you- in this century of all of them, when time moved so fast and so frighteningly... I left you alone. I’m sorry. I don’t think I shall ever be sorry enough.”
Aziraphale was regarding him with the same look in his eyes he had worn in the restaurant, ardent and warm. “No matter, my love,” he murmured, again running gentle fingers through long, dark hair. “You’re here now, and that- that is all I ever want from this life. To spend it by your side. Come,” he continued, drawing his hand down and across Crowley’s sharp cheekbone, smiling as Crowley turned his head into the touch. “Let us return to each other, for the time being.”
Crowley smiled up at him, melancholic, adoring, and in the next heartbeat the pair were once again sequestered in the too-small room upstairs, feathers settling around them from the appearance of two identical sets of white wings.
And there they stayed for a time, cocooned in feathers, and love, and books, and forgot about the world around them – about the pain, and the suffering, and the cruelty. It would all come flooding back soon enough, they knew, and they had all the millennia in the world to try and right it.