Crowley looked at Aziraphale. Aziraphale looked back.
“Are you quite sure,” Aziraphale began. The scepticism dripped from every word, landing with a squelch between them.
“Yes,” Crowley said quickly. He was, in fact, not sure at all, but now was not the time to lose face in front of the Adversary, even if the Adversary was less about the whole hereditary enemies thing these days and more about having a spot of lunch with an old chum. There were just certain things you didn’t let go of, even if you did save the world together.
Aziraphale gave Crowley another look. Crowley ignored it.
“It’s really very simple,” Crowley went on, hoping that once they got started, it would actually be. “It’s just a lot of insert tab a into slot b over and over again, looks like.”
“What if the wrong tab a goes into the wrong slot b?” Aziraphale wanted to know.
“That’s what the diagram is for, so you know which goes where.” Crowley looked at the diagram again to double-check it. “That seems about right.”
There was a pause as they both studied the diagram together. After a moment or two, Aziraphale reached out and adjusted it so that it was right-side up.
“Why are we doing this again?” he asked. It was not the first time he had asked.
Actually, for having agreed to the whole thing in the first place, he was being a bit of a tit about it. Crowley suspected that Aziraphale knew he was being a bit of a tit about it, and that he was just using whatever space he still had from Heaven over the whole end-of-the-world business to get away with it. It only made Crowley double-down on his determination.
“Because,” Crowley said shortly. “We decided—together, I might add—that if we were going to vouch for humanity, we ought to know a thing or two about how they really live. I suggested it, you thought it was a good idea, and we’re sticking with it.”
“I thought it was a good idea because I was six sheets to the wind,” Aziraphale grumbled under his breath, and then he sighed. “Fine. I’ll read off this, you go ahead and do the tab and slot bits.”
“It’s a two man job,” Crowley pointed out.
“We’re not men. Not really.”
“No, but we’re doing this as men, so come on. Cheer up, angel. You might even enjoy it.”
And Crowley gave him his winningest, temptingest grin. Aziraphale hated that grin, Crowley knew—he’d told Crowley once that it gave him the heebie-jeebies, which had been a mistake, because then Crowley knew he could use it to get Aziraphale to do whatever it was that would make him stop using it.
One of the perks of being a demon, of course, was that Crowley felt no obligation to use the tools available to him in any way approaching sparingly. He grinned a little bit harder.
Sure enough, Aziraphale folded. “Fine,” he snapped. He wrestled himself up out of his armchair and stood next to Crowley, picking up a little plastic baggie full of screws and washers and wooden dowels and glaring down at a collection of pressed particleboard masquerading as a potential bookshelf. “Looks like we start by sticking the dowels—that’ll be tab a—into the holes on the sides of the individual shelves. Slot b.”
“Right,” Crowley said, folding himself into a complicated knot of legs on the floor and pulling the shelves closer to him. “We’ll have this bookcase built in no time, and then we can get on with the rest of the List.”
The List was exactly what it purported itself to be, which was a list.
Crowley’d gotten the idea from some film he’d seen ten or so years ago, which he’d really only taken note of because people had started talking about it with the sort of great annoyance that only excessively schmaltzy displays of unrelatable sentiment could inspire in people that had to live in reality, with things like bills and Tescos and friends that said oh yeah let’s get together sometime but didn’t actually mean it. The film itself had been perfectly horrible and only seemed to get more horrible with age—Crowley had actually taken credit for it in a report three years after it had been released, when the horribleness seemed to reach some zenith—but the premise itself had actually not been bad, which was probably why the film seemed so terrible by comparison.
The premise was simple: you were supposed to write a list of all the things you wanted to do before you died, which was supposed to be called a bucket list, and then you crossed them off using someone else’s money. Crowley couldn’t remember what buckets had to do with it, but that wasn’t the point anyway.
“But we’re not going to die,” Aziraphale had said, when Crowley had first proposed starting a list of their own over drinks the week after Armageddon. There had been a lot of drinks after Armageddon—it had just seemed like the thing to do. “We have always just sort of done whatever we wanted.”
“No,” Crowley had disagreed, “we’ve done what they expected us to do. Heaven, Hell, whomever. Tempting and thwarting and all that. Always working toward the ineffable plan, which if you think about it was pretty stupid, considering nobody ever knew what the plan actually was.”
“That’s ineffability for you,” Aziraphale had said.
Crowley had been getting quite worked up by then. “Well, it’s bollocks. I mean, how many times have you had to stop doing whatever you were doing in order to go do what you thought they wanted you to be doing? And then what did they get? Hm? Half-hearted tempting and thwarting, that’s what. Craftsmanship went out of the game a long time ago, which isn’t to say that we were bad at our jobs.” He paused. “Though, actually, we were. But that was because neither of us really wanted to be doing it, now did we?”
He had looked expectantly at Aziraphale, who seemed to have lost track of what Crowley was saying halfway through and had instead been making the whisky in his glass do a swirl. “I just want to read my books,” he had said forlornly. “Is that so much to ask? To read a book?”
That had not been at all the point Crowley was trying to get at, so he had said, very loudly, “Anyway,” and pressed on. “We should make a list of things they like doing. We already know what we like, right? I like sleep, and good wine, and—and—”
“Vintage cars,” Aziraphale had supplied.
“My vintage car,” Crowley had corrected. “And you like books.”
“And little antique shops. And good restaurants. And tartan. Oh, and—”
“And snuffboxes, yes, I know. Point is, angel, the point is, we know what we like. We know what we think is worthwhile down here. But who’s to say that we won’t have to explain it to someone else again, see? Who’s to say that the Antichrist won’t grow up and decide he’d rather burn the world down than to, you know, pay the tax on the car or what have you? Gets sick of queuing at the bank? No, we’ve got to be prepared.”
There was a certain look that Aziraphale wore occasionally—a pinched sort of moue that looked like he’d just taken a very large mouthful of cinnamon—which meant he thought Crowley was being ridiculous. He had put it on.
“Hang on,” he had said. “You want us to do human things?”
“Not just doing human things, we already do a lot of that,” Crowley had said, gesturing wildly. He had felt that Aziraphale was just on the cusp of getting it, or at least of giving in, mostly because Aziraphale pretty commonly wore the You’re-Ridiculous look immediately before sighing and agreeing to an ill-advised lunch at the Ritz. “Doing human things the human way. Trying to really understand what about the way humans do things makes them the way that they are, with all that contradiction and so on. What about the human experience makes humans so…well, human.”
Aziraphale had made the whisky in his glass swirl in the other direction, frowning at it. Then he had sighed, and groaned, and said, “What sort of human things?”
Crowley had grinned.
They did not have the bookcase built in no time.
They had it mostly assembled in about three hours, which felt surprisingly like forever to a couple of immortals, and then Aziraphale went to stand it upright. It promptly wobbled, then wibbled, then slammed itself back down to the ground with an ominous crack.
Crowley sat down next to it like a puppet with cut strings.
“You know,” he mused, “I always thought that Hell was working overtime unnecessarily, and this is a prime example. Perfectly good bookshelves are built everyday, but no. Humans have to invent IKEA, and IKEA has to invent flat-packed furniture, and we end up with this. Satan should just call it a day, really. He can just sit back, relax, and wait for the BILLY bookcases of the world to fill the underworld right bloody up.”
Aziraphale frowned. “You’re not giving up, are you?”
“Aren’t you?” Crowley asked glumly.
Aziraphale thought about it. They could give up, but then they’d have failed to do something that millions of humans had managed to do over the years, and that was a bit embarrassing. And Crowley had been so pleased when he’d brought the thing into the bookshop, and now he wasn’t at all pleased, not even a little, and, well. What was the point of saving the world if you didn’t even get to be pleased with yourself afterwards?
He sighed, and stuck out his hand. “Come on,” he said. “We can get this, and then I’ll treat you to sushi.”
Crowley looked at the offered hand for a moment. “Can I make an octopus piece wiggle at someone?”
Aziraphale made a much bigger show of thinking about this than he had about thinking over Crowley being pleased, just because it wouldn’t do to let the Adversary think he was going soft. “I’ll let you do one,” he finally offered.
It was worth it to see the grin split Crowley’s face. “Deal,” he said, taking Aziraphale’s hand and letting himself be pulled to his feet. “Let’s do it.”
So maybe it had taken a few minor miracles, but Crowley had to admit that it was worth it to see Aziraphale’s face light up once the bookshelf was standing on its own accord. He had insisted Crowley remove it from his bookshop immediately before any of his other bookshelves got ideas about pressed particle-board, but still, it had been a nice moment.
It had also been worth it to make the octopus bit wiggle and watch the chaos spread, even if Crowley did have to take the Yelp app down for several days afterward just to be sure the story didn’t spread—it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault, after all, and it was the best sushi this side of London.
Aziraphale was a bit pink, and he’d left his bow tie—which he’d taken off sometime around realising that they’d put one side of the bookcase on upside-down—at the shop. Crowley had lost his sunglasses somewhere and had to keep swiping the waiter’s memory whenever he came by with another tray. They’d both had quite a lot of sake, and then they’d both had quite a lot of champagne.
“So,” Crowley said, spreading the List out onto the table in between their glasses. “First one done. What do you think?”
“I think,” Aziraphale said sagely, waving his chopsticks and absolutely failing to pick up a piece of sashimi, “if you have done the first one, it only makes sense that, after that, you’ve got to do the second.”
Crowley took Aziraphale’s chopsticks and used it to stab the elusive bit of salmon, then handed it back to Aziraphale, who was just drunk enough not to be aghast by it. “You want to keep going with it then?”
“Of course,” Aziraphale said, as if to say, obviously. “It would be bad form to stop after just one.”
“Good,” Crowley grinned. He couldn’t stop grinning. He didn’t even really want to.
Aziraphale grinned too, and then he took a long sip of champagne and toasted Crowley with the sashimi. “To conquering IKEA,” he said, giggling through his mock-solemnity. “If ever humans got close to recreating the sense of divine bliss, triumph over IKEA furniture is definitely it.”
“Blasphemous,” Crowley said, laughing, and then he tapped Aziraphale’s sashimi with his bit of tuna roll and leaned back in his chair a little, trying to look blasé instead of drunk on bubbly and shared victory. “To humanity,” he toasted, as coolly as he could.
Azirphale’s eyes softened, and he set his champagne glass down in favour of slipping his hand over Crowley’s, which made Crowley suspect that as coolly as he could meant not very cool at all.
He didn’t mind, really. Aziraphale’s hand was warm.
“To humanity,” Aziraphale agreed.
He looked at Crowley. Crowley looked back.
Then the waiter slipped by and dropped off another pitcher of sake, and Aziraphale took his hand back. Crowley cleared his throat and busied himself looking at the List. “Perfect,” he said, rubbing his hands together. He could still feel Aziraphale’s warmth on his skin. “Now: what’s next?”
It had admittedly taken them a while to think up the first couple of things to put on the List, mostly because they were neither of them very well versed in how humans actually went about doing the things they all seemed to be very busy going about doing.
In the end, Crowley, sodden with conviction and very good whisky, had simply miracled half a page of text off the nearest copy of the Daily Telegraph and started writing down whatever came to mind. Put together IKEA furniture had been first on the List merely because an IKEA advert had fallen out of the sheaf of Telegraph pages, but that was advertising for you.
Crowley had also written, in no particular order: re-decorate, also due to the IKEA advert; get a pet, to which Aziraphale had immediately and horrifiedly said no; see all the tourist things in London, mostly because he’d always thought Hell should’ve got credit for the London Eye and it hadn’t, so he had never been to see it out of sheer spite; go somewhere we’ve never been before, which he’d written traveling the human way very small next to, as if they’d both need the reminder when the time came; eat something we’ve never eaten before, at Aziraphale’s suggestion, though Crowley thought that would be a rather ambitious goal for the two of them, considering; take up a new hobby, after which Aziraphale had asked if he still had that old guitar he’d obnoxiously gone about with in the 1970s, which Crowley did; and finally, at the bottom, do something magnificently reckless.
“You don’t think stopping Armageddon was magnificently reckless?” Aziraphale had asked, scowling at Crowley’s crabbed handwriting on the page.
“No, it absolutely was,” Crowley had said. “Most exhilarating thing I’d done in six thousand years, though.”
“As long as it’s not the same magnificently reckless thing, then,” Aziraphale had said, going stern. “Once is quite enough, thank you very much.”
“I’ll be sure to drop the Antichrist a note about it, if it pleases you,” Crowley offered. He put on a very serious tone that sounded a bit like Death, if Death were wearing a three-piece suit on a Sunday evening and writing a complaint to the Tadfield Advertiser. “Dear Sir: I must inform you that I am about to do something magnificently reckless, and I want to make absolutely clear that I and the general public do not need your help in arranging it.”
And then they’d both laughed until their sides hurt. It hadn’t been that funny, actually, but it was a bit like pulling the stopper out of a plug: once it started, it all had to go.
When they’d finally gotten themselves under control and Aziraphale had gone to find out about another bottle of whisky, Crowley had leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, still giggling, thinking about how it had felt to walk away from Armageddon, himself and Earth and Aziraphale all unscathed. Almost like Falling, he thought, but as if he’d been flying instead.
They decided on the tourist traps for their next.
“The London Eye,” Crowley declared, raising his arms triumphantly in front of it. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Aziraphale struggled to come up with a suitable compliment. “It’s, erm, big. And—” he was unable to help himself, frowning at the swirls and eddies of people coming and going— “Crowded.”
Crowley laughed somewhat embarrassedly. “Yes, well. It’s possible that the whole tourist idea has gone a bit beyond what I’d originally envisioned—put a food cart and a pop-up shop outside an amphitheatre to help draw in the crowds, that sort of thing, but then marketing was invented and the rest was downhill from there. Anyway,” he cleared his throat loudly. “Best get used to it, angel. Here be the public.”
Aziraphale muttered something about plans backfiring spectacularly and joined Crowley in the queue, which, as far as he was concerned, lasted about as long as the nineteenth century had. He considered doing a little miracling on the sly to get the group in front of them to suddenly remember that they had—all twelve of them—left their respective stoves on, but Crowley caught him by the wrist just as his fingers began to twitch.
“Isn’t patience a virtue?” Crowley asked out of the side of his grin.
“I’m an angel, the virtue is built-in,” Aziraphale threw back, which they both knew wasn’t precisely true. He let the miracle go unfinished though; he had given his word, after all.
They’d agreed there’d be no miracling at all for the day—no unexpected gestures of goodwill for cuts in the queues, no surprisingly vacant spaces in front of the best views, no opportune breakdowns of tourist tour busses all over the greater London area. Crowley was almost delighted at the thought of it, as much as any demon could be delighted (which, in Crowley’s case anyway, meant very delighted but pretending not to be) and he had gone online and got some sort of complicated fast-track combination ticket with reservations for certain things at certain times instead.
If he’d been pleasantly surprised that all the best times were still available when he checked, well, the no-miracling rule hadn’t taken effect yet, had it?
The glass-walled pod they eventually filed into was much bigger than the various postcards of London’s stylised skyline made it look, and through some stroke of luck—“Honestly, I didn’t do anything,” Aziraphale whispered defensively, at Crowley’s glare—they were only joined by about four other people, all of whom seem quite content to leave them alone.
“It’s a half hour for the full rotation,” Crowley told him as they took a spot looking out over the Houses of Parliament. “On a clear day you can see about forty kilometres. Well, they can see about forty kilometres; I suspect we can see a bit further than that.”
It was a strangely familiar sensation, watching the streets fall away as they rose into the sky. Aziraphale’s wings, tucked away out of reality, felt oddly cramped against his back, as if they knew they should have manifested and taken to beating. It made him feel unsteady, as though he had sunk both his feet into quicksand; he put a hand on a railing to steady himself.
“Aside from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben,” Crowley said loudly, putting his hand right next to Aziraphale’s on the rail and sounding a bit like he’d swallowed a tourist pamphlet, making Aziraphale wonder if he’d been responsible for those too, “you can also see Embankment station and the Golden Jubilee pedestrian bridge, all the good weird buildings like the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater, and then St Paul’s, a bit to the east. On a clear day, to the west, some people claim you can see as far as Windsor.” He studied Aziraphale for a moment, and then added, much quieter, “It’s been a while since you’ve flown, hasn’t it?”
“It’s not the height,” Aziraphale answered shortly. “It’s the sensation that I should have manifested in order to be up here. Feel like I’m trying to fly with both my wings behind my back and two bottles of very expensive wine in me.”
Crowley flashed a very quick smile. “Focus on your feet instead. Actually these pods are surprisingly steady—I might’ve got the commendation after all if they’d been just a little more shaky.”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t help the huff of laughter.
“All right, dear boy,” he finally managed, once he had found his breath and his balance again. “Show me where I can see St Paul’s.”
“Would you look at that,” Aziraphale said softly, forgetting his white-knuckled grip on the railing for a moment as the dome of St Paul’s soared out of the surrounding city. “I haven’t seen it so clearly since Wren was puttering about with it, after the fires.”
Crowley wasn’t much for churches, perhaps predictably, but he watched Aziraphale taking it all in, and knew better than to say.
I suppose this is really why I didn’t get the commendation, he thought instead, when Aziraphale turned to him with a blinding grin, already pointing out this or that detail that may have had a little divine inspiration behind them whenever Wren himself was being too much of an egotistical git to listen to anybody else. Risk-benefit analyses being what they are.
He tucked his hands into his pockets and decided he didn’t actually mind.
“Bit surprising that we both settled on London, isn’t it? Of all the cities in the world we could’ve ended up.”
Crowley looked over. Aziraphale’s face had gone back to a much healthier colour since they disembarked from their Eye-pod. (“Puns,” Aziraphale had said, in that exasperatedly amused tone he got sometimes, “are below even you.”) They’d gone into the SeaLife aquarium, per their fast-track combination tickets, and the muted noise and cool air seemed to suit him much better.
“I dunno,” Crowley said easily. “Where would we be if not here?”
Aziraphale shrugged, studying the tank in front of them. Dazzlingly bright little fish swam through coral formations, darting in and out of the false rock foundations of the exhibits. “We weren’t here for about five and three-quarters millenia. Where were we before?”
“Nowhere any good, that’s for certain. Look, that giant starfish, there in the corner.”
Aziraphale leaned in to see it better. “I’d have thought somewhere like Las Vegas would’ve been more your speed,” he said, then he straightened and moved on to the next tank, which had a bunch of anemones and tiny clown fishes in it. “Though I guess you never really have been about the flash in your temptations.”
“Excuse me,” Crowley said, affronted, “I’m plenty flash.”
He was wearing sunglasses indoors, for pity’s sake. He had flash.
Aziraphale just looked smug. “They’ve got sea turtles round this way,” he said, ignoring Crowley’s protests. “There’s apparently some kind of tunnel through the tank.”
The tunnel was full to the brim with schoolchildren when they got to it, a dozen or more tiny little white polo shirts clamouring and gasping as shoals of fish shivered and danced alongside them and enormous green turtles soared calmly over their heads. Aziraphale and Crowley hung around the entrance for a while, watching the fish and the kids in equal measure, and if a miracle or two happened while they were standing there—a green turtle lifting a flipper to high-five one little boy through the glass; a shoal of fish darting into complicated, recognisable formations for a collection of wide-eyed little girls—there was no one there to call them out on it.
“You’re a soft touch for kids,” Crowley said, once their chaperones had successfully moved them all along. He took his sunglasses off and stepped closer to the glass. “Typical angel, eh?”
Aziraphale hummed. “I wasn’t the one doing the letter formations,” he pointed out. He put on the tone he used when he was allowing a waiter to think he’d been talked into a dessert he wasn’t really sure on when he’d been planning to order it all along, and granted, quite magnanimously, “I suppose you are a bit flash. Just sometimes.”
Crowley grinned. In the cool blue light of the water, he looked like someone had wet down all his edges, leaving them smooth and a little intangible. His gaze tracked a sea turtle as it swam over his head; his eyes shone.
It wasn’t until they were leaving that Aziraphale even remembered that they could have miracled away some of the crowds, if they’d wanted to. He was glad they hadn’t.
An angel and a demon walked into Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.
Twenty minutes later, an angel and a demon walked back out.
“I guess not everything humans enjoy is really translatable across experiences, is it?” Aziraphale said, feeling disturbed.
“It’s really not,” Crowley agreed. “Come on, I’ve got a better idea.”
Aziraphale looked up at the white columns and grinned. “Not exactly what I’d call a tourist trap,” he called up to Crowley, who was already climbing the steps.
“Trafalgar counts on its own. Besides, I needed a palate cleanser,” Crowley called back. He stopped at the top step and waited for Aziraphale to join him before leading on to the doors of the National Gallery. “Have you been before?”
“Mm. Once or twice. Not in the last fifty-odd years, I don’t think.”
He followed Crowley in, and then nearly ran into him when he stopped just inside the door, inhaling deeply, the sort of intimate, habitual gesture you do when you’ve been to a place so many times you have pinpointed exactly what you like about it. It had the same smell all old museums have—climate-controlled air and cleaning supplies and very old, very faded varnish.
“You’ve been a few times, I take it,” Aziraphale said.
It was odd, all of a sudden, to realise that Crowley did things without him. Of course, he had always known on some level that Crowley did loads of things without him—they’d spent the vast majority of the last six thousand years just barely brushing past enough other every odd century or two, especially in the beginning—but he supposed most of it had been nefarious demon-related things, not pursuing high-brow interest things.
In retrospect, he should’ve known better. Crowley had never been one to spend an awful lot of time on the demon-related business of existence; he’d been positively shoddy about it once the Arrangement had begun. And Aziraphale had known about the plants, after all, and the Bentley, and the wine. He thought about Crowley trying to come up with a list of things he liked and struggling to say anything beyond those few things; it occurred to Aziraphale now that it was less that there weren’t other things and more that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to share them.
He considered, very briefly, being offended—what was the National Gallery compared to Armageddon, especially when they spent half their evenings ensconced among Aziraphale’s books!—but in the end that felt counter to what Aziraphale really wanted, which was to know what else there was pinging about in Crowley’s interests.
“We won’t count it for the List,” Crowley shrugged, deliberately misinterpreting Aziraphale’s unspoken question. “Since it’s a repeat.”
Aziraphale let him.
Crowley led Aziraphale through the galleries, wandering from portrait to portrait, seascape to seascape, history to history. He knew most of the works fairly well by now, and he’d known a fair number of the artists besides, and before he knew it he found himself quietly recounting the stories to Aziraphale, noting the techniques, the provenances, the movements, the connections. Aziraphale, he knew, had never been as interested in the physical arts as he was—he preferred books and music to paintings and sculptures—but he’d listened to Crowley so intently that it wasn’t until they were slipping into his favourite room on the second floor that Crowley realised he’d been talking through nearly the entire building.
He shut his mouth with a decided click, and something in him tried to blush. He beat it back with a pointy-ended stick of sheer determination.
Aziraphale looked over, but Crowley had forged ahead before he could voice the question. Together they made their way through the room, the soft light of the afternoon sun filtering through the muted glass of the skylight.
“Which one is your favourite?” Aziraphale finally asked quietly. He wasn’t looking at Crowley—studying a Gainsborough instead, as if Gainsborough were even all that interesting—but his eyes had gone nearly cobalt in the pale light, against the dusty blue damask of the walls.
A studied casualness came over Crowley before he could stop himself: a defence mechanism. Aziraphale isn’t dangerous, he scolded himself, but he couldn’t shake it off; he felt like his snake-self had been slipped over onto his back and pinned, the soft red scales of his belly exposed for tooth or claw. “What makes you think my favourite is in here?”
Aziraphale didn’t answer right away; Crowley began to feel somewhat irate at the stupid Gainsborough he was studying so thoroughly.
“The way you come into this room,” he said eventually. “Like you’re stepping into a presence.” He finally turned and looked at Crowley, abandoning the Gainsborough as though he hadn’t really been looking at it at all. “You come into this room holding your breath.”
Is this how humans feel, Crowley thought suddenly, when we know how to reach them? What will tempt them, what blessing they need—do they all feel like this? Exposed down to their marrow?
Crowley took a breath and held it, and held it, and held it. Aziraphale waited.
“The Turners,” Crowley admitted softly, all in a rush. “Group of three on the end—the one in the middle.” They were there, right behind him—Aziraphale peered quietly over his shoulder, his gaze drifting over Ulysses deriding Polyphemus and settling instead on Rain, Steam, and Speed.
“What do you like about it?” Aziraphale asked. His voice was still gentle, as though he’d taken Crowley’s hand to ask it.
Crowley meant to say something careless about early impressionism, about the way Turner’s style had developed from traditional landscapes into something almost violently elusive. He meant to say something about how Turner had created furiously, about how he’d been a solitary, rude, morose man at the end of his life and how he’d bequeathed his works—his hundreds of works—to the British nation anyway, desperate to be remembered; he could even have said something about how most of the Bequest was at the Tate, separated from these, set apart from these, even though Turner had wanted them to remain together, always together.
Crowley didn’t say any of that. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth, and without having to turn to look, he said, “It doesn’t feel like it’s running away. That’s London, there in the background, but it’s gone ephemeral in the rain, as though it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s going somewhere else. It feels like it’s running toward.”
Aziraphale studied at the painting for a long time over Crowley’s shoulder.
“I hope it found whatever it was hoping to find,” he said, and something in Crowley’s belly unfurled like a new leaf, shiny and verdant and reaching.
Aziraphale looked at Crowley. Crowley looked back at Aziraphale.
He said, “I think it did.”
“Where in the world,” Crowley drawled, “could we eat something we’ve never eaten before?”
He was sitting haphazardly on the sofa in Aziraphale’s back room, making a nuisance of himself. Outside, September have given way to October, and it was a bit of cold, blustery day; Crowley had banged in complaining about it, wrapped himself immediately in the knit blanket Aziraphale kept over the back of his armchair, and started fussing. “We’ve eaten everything.”
Aziraphale nodded absently, his nose still stuck in his book—more to teach Crowley a lesson about interrupting than actual disinterest. “I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
“Thinking,” Crowley sneered, in the same voice that three-year-olds use to say vegetables. “Bah.”
Turning a page of his book, Aziraphale considered it. There had to be a little restaurant somewhere around London doing something, surely—food styles changed often enough, and London was as good a place as any for it to do so, with so many different cultures and traditions melting into one another. They just had to find what sort of thing they were in the mood for, and find someone who was making it in a different sort of way.
His gaze drifted to the window as he thought. The skies had gone dark an hour ago, but the rain was just starting.
On the sofa, Crowley curled deeper into himself at the sound, making a huffing little noise as he pulled the blanket tighter around himself. He looked a little miserable there, actually, clutching the crumpled newspaper of the List and trying to coil up a body that didn’t coil so much as it got in the way of itself.
Aziraphale was suddenly in the mood for something warm.
And then he knew.
“I have an idea,” he heard himself saying, and on the sofa, Crowley’s head perked up.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in every collection of books, there comes to be a cookbook.
Not because anyone ever bought the damn thing, not because it was ever given as a gift. They just simply tended to appear: maintain a bookshelf for long enough, and you’d have one. Aziraphale, who’d owned the shop for more than two hundred years, owned ten.
“No,” he muttered to himself, flipping through one. “No, no, no.” He tossed the book aside and picked up another. “Aspic? Definitely no.” He joined the first, landing carelessly on its spine.
“Aspic?” Crowley had straightened up on the sofa a little, watching. “What are you on about?”
“Ah-ha!” Aziraphale tapped a page inside yet another book and snapped it closed. “Just the ticket.”
“What’s the ticket?”
“Never you mind,” Aziraphale said breezily, tucking the little book into his jacket. “You wait here, warm up, and when I come back,” here he grinned, almost maniacally, “We’ll eat.”
Crowley, though he’d never admit it, liked being alone in Aziraphale’s bookshop. That is to say, he liked it best with Aziraphale, but being alone in it felt cosy and quiet, and a bit proud: Aziraphale wouldn’t let just anyone float about on their own.
Alone in it now, he hunkered further down into his blanket and unfolded the List.
All right, so newspaper hadn’t been the best medium for it—it was already crumpled, smudged where the print hadn’t been miracled away. There were tiny rips and tears forming on the edges. He supposed he could copy it out somewhere, but he knew he wouldn’t. Sloth, he justified to himself, but he was grinning.
Maybe a bit of deception too, he thought, looking down at it, but he suspected this wasn’t the sort of deception his side had really gone in for.
The original List had been written neatly down the left side of the newspaper, or as neatly as Crowley could have made it when he was soused, which wasn’t very. But next to that List, Crowley thought there was just enough room for a second list.
A secret list.
He rummaged about Aziraphale’s desk for a moment, looking for a pen, and then he wrote, in much neater handwriting: take Aziraphale proper flying.
There had to be someplace out in the country they could go where they wouldn’t be seen—perhaps up in Scotland somewhere, where the views would be worth it. Crisp mornings, sunrise climbing over the hills and heather: he could miracle them up a bit of cocoa, shot of whisky for warmth, let some tourists get some unusually good shots of a lake monster. . .it was too bad they’d both been to the highlands or he would’ve had a good excuse. As it was he’d have to think of a really good reason if he wanted it to be a surprise.
Crowley looked at the list for a moment longer, then he grinned and added, with a flourish: Burn down Tussaud’s.
It was, after all, a secret list—though he rather suspected Aziraphale wouldn’t mind anyway.
He was still curled up on the sofa when Aziraphale got back, the List tucked safely back away into his jacket. Aziraphale looked incredibly pleased with himself; Crowley suddenly had a premonition of dread, and understood, for the first time in his life, why people said, “I don’t like this, it feels spooky.”
If Aziraphale felt it, he didn’t say. “Refreshed?” he asked instead, quite brightly.
“Ngk,” Crowley said.
“Good,” Aziraphale said. “You’re going to need your wits about you. We’re going to eat something we’ve never eaten before.” He raised the plastic bags in his hands. “We’re going to eat something we made ourselves.”
Crowley blinked. “You mean like, putting together a charcuterie platter?” he asked, with the sort of resigned hopefulness of someone who already knows the answer is no.
“No,” Aziraphale answered. He smiled, huge and wide. “We’re making a lasagne.”
Funny, this: having Crowley upstairs. In the flat.
“I wasn’t sure you actually had a flat up here,” Crowley said, looking about, taking in the stacks of old newspapers, the collection of loose-leaf teas, the floor-standing radio. He had the blanket from downstairs still wrapped around his shoulders like an elaborate toga, and every so often he tucked his neck down into it a little, as if the sound of the rain on the roof overhead reminded him he was cold. “It’s nice.”
Aziraphale didn’t know if he agreed, actually—it was no Mayfair high rise—but it was comfortable. For the last two hundred years, it had been something of a home.
And now Crowley was in it.
It was ridiculous to be flustered about it. The bookshop was by far the more important space in Aziraphale’s life, the space where Aziraphale felt far more of his time, and Crowley was as familiar with that as the back of his own hand. And Aziraphale had been to Crowley’s flat. They’d bloody well saved the world together—it wasn’t like there wasn’t anything Crowley didn’t already know about him.
Aziraphale busied himself with unloading the shop onto the little rickety table in his kitchen, trying not to watch Crowley as he craned his head to look down the hall toward the bath, and beyond, the bedroom. “Now this is a bit of an older recipe,” he said, lining up tinned tomato, beef mince, a head of garlic. “But it looked simple enough. If they can do it, we ought to be able to, right?”
“They’ve done loads of things we’re pants at,” Crowley pointed out. “Do you even own a pan?”
Aziraphale frowned, and there was a suspicious cacophony of metal suddenly coming into existence in great quantities in the small spaces of his cupboards. “Yes,” he said, very primly, and then, at Crowley’s raised eyebrow, “Oh, hush—it’s not like they don’t just find everything in their cupboards when they’re ready to cook!”
Crowley laughed. “All right, all right,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. He slung himself into one of the kitchen chairs and snuck one hand out of his blanket to reach for the bottle of red wine. “What’s first? Wine opener?”
“That’s for the ragu,” Aziraphale said, taking it back.
“You’re no fun,” Crowley said, but he was grinning; under the bright flash of it, Aziraphale forgot all about the rain.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll chop; you can sauté.”
The radio played crackly and rough, and Crowley suspected it was tuned to a station that no longer actually aired, but he couldn’t help humming along. It had been a good song, back in its day, and the flat was starting to warm up now that Crowley was installed in front of the cooktop.
“Smells good,” Aziraphale said, peeking around Crowley’s shoulder at the garlic and onion in the pan. “That’s got to be a good sign.”
“I don’t think we’ve messed it up yet,” Crowley agreed. “What’s next, chef?”
Aziraphale went and retrieved the book from the table, drifting back to the spot by Crowley’s side as he read. “Browning the mince, adding the tomatoey things. You think that all looks soft enough?”
Crowley poked at the onion; it had gone translucent, a little brown on the edges. It was strangely calming, actually, to watch it, to listen to it. It did smell good. “I think so. Hand me the mince?”
The mince browned easily enough, Crowley thought. He added in the tomato paste, which looked like it had absolutely nothing at all to do with tomatoes. Apparently that had to cook together for two minutes.
“Here,” Aziraphale said, handing Crowley a cup of wine.
“I thought you said it was for the ragu,” Crowley said, but he took it. The cup had a handle on it, and little red lines up along the side. It wasn’t a very good wine, but he sniffed it again, raising his expectations, and it got considerably better.
“That is for the ragu,” Aziraphale laughed. “I’ve got yours over here.”
Crowley looked over, and sure enough, Aziraphale had two regular wine glasses half-full with dark red wine. His cheeks were pink in the warmth of the kitchen; he’d taken off his jacket.
“Oh,” Crowley said.
“No no no,” Aziraphale fussed, “we’re suppose to put the ragu down first, and then the bechamel—”
“I thought it was ragu, noodle, bechamel—”
“Ragu, bechamel, noodle, parmesan, hang on, let me grab the parmesan—”
“Wait, how many layers is this supposed to make, two? Three?”
“I think three, let me check quick—”
“Well, hurry up, I’m losing bechamel all over the place here—”
“Well, hold the spoon over the pan, you numpty—”
“Numpty, I’ll show you who’s a numpty—”
“We don’t have to clean this mess up the human way, do we?” Crowley asked, ten minutes later. The lasagne had finally made its way into the oven, all three and a half layers that had fit in the baking tin; he and Aziraphale had collapsed, surprisingly exhausted, into the kitchen chairs, and opened another bottle of much better wine.
“Absolutely not,” Aziraphale said, taking a long drink.
Crowley chuckled, but half a second later, Aziraphale’s tiny crowded kitchen was clean again—lucky thing, too, because he hadn’t really thought they were going to the get the ragu stain off the wall with nothing but elbow grease.
It was nothing like the kitchen at Crowley’s place, which had always been more about aesthetic than function. He made tea there occasionally, but that was it; everything else was better made by people who knew what they were doing, and Crowley had always thought that humans had the upper hand in this arena, seeing as how they were the ones with the incentive.
But this was nice, he thought. In his flat, there were no tea towels, no stacks of old books, no mismatched chairs or blankets that smelled familiar, like dust and leather, the dry desert smell of old pages.
You couldn’t hear the rain, in Crowley’s flat.
The radio slipped into another song, Bing Crosby’s voice crooning through the airwaves. “I remember this one,” Crowley said, watching the wine in the bottom of his glass.
“Do you?” Aziraphale listened a moment. “I don’t think I do.”
“Only forever,” Crowley sang along softly. “That’s puttin’ it mild. You don’t remember this one? 1940s, angel, think back another decade.”
“1940s, 1940s. There was the war, and that time with the—oh!” He looked up at Crowley, with those eyes, with that smile: unbearably gentle, impossibly soft. “You know, I think I do remember, actually.”
“Terrible decade,” Crowley said.
“Oh, one of the worst,” Aziraphale agreed. “But you know, it’s in those moments—the worst ones, the one where you have no hope left—that you really understand what’s important. And everything else just seems, I don’t know. Little, by comparison. Even if just for that moment.”
Crowley looked at him, really looked at him. Aziraphale in his shirt sleeves, Aziraphale smelling faintly like garlic, Aziraphale at the kitchen table in a flat he’d lived in and yet hadn’t, really, for the last two hundred years. Aziraphale, who’d made him soften vegetables, and brown mince, and layer noodles; Aziraphale, who’d made him want to.
“I know what you mean,” he said.
The timer on the oven went off.
The lasagne was a mess, if Aziraphale were being quite honest, which he always was: scrupulously so. Noodles every which way—cognisable layers were a dream of the past. Still, looks weren’t everything, and it was hot and it was smooth and it was comforting, and Crowley had given a delighted little noise when he’d taken his first bite, and wrapped himself back up inside the blanket from downstairs quite happily to finish the rest of his serving.
“Something we’ve never eaten before,” Crowley said, reciting from memory. “A big ol’ check mark for that one, wouldn’t you say?”
“Resounding success,” Aziraphale agreed. “Who knows? Maybe we ought to do this again sometime. It wasn’t as bad as all that.”
“Never as bad if you don’t have to do the washing up,” Crowley laughed. “Next time you could even get the shop in via miracle, save yourself the trip.”
“Next time you could come to the shop with me,” Aziraphale said, and he laughed at that, too: the idea of Crowley in a Sainsbury’s, squeezing through the crowds and picking out yoghurts from the dairy case.
Crowley pulled a face. “Why in heaven would anyone want to go to the shop if they didn’t have to?”
“Some people actually enjoy it,” Aziraphale said, and then, just to tease, he added, “Perhaps we ought to put that on the List. You can see what the fuss is about.”
“Oh, don’t say you’re one of them? Really, Aziraphale. And besides, it wouldn’t count because you’ve done it—doubles, you know.”
“We did your National Gallery thing, and that was one we’d both done.”
Crowley poured them both another glass of wine. “Tell you what,” he said, grinning. “You do the shop, and next time I’ll cook the whole thing myself.”
Aziraphale grinned back. “Deal,” he said. “I’ll hold you to that, you know.”
“And probably pick the most complicated thing you can find in your little recipe books, I’m sure,” Crowley sighed, rolling his eyes. “Just remember—” he pointed his fork at Aziraphale, warningly— “You have to eat whatever I turn out.”
“I’ll take the risk,” Aziraphale said, and he put his hand out. Crowley shook it, and then got up to miraculously find a lovely little tiramisu in Aziraphale’s fridge, just big enough for two; by the time he found two clean forks and made it back to the table, there were cups of coffee to go with.
Aziraphale didn’t think his little flat had ever felt like so much of a home before.
In Crowley’s jacket pocket, the List rustled against itself, and squeezed itself in, and momentarily went warm, like a hot water bottle tucked fresh between the sheets. The second, secret list now had a new addition: Take Aziraphale to do the shop.
Crowley didn’t like predicaments. Oh, sure, he liked creating them, but that was an apple of a different colour. That was just business. This predicament was his, and it was personal.
His predicament was this: Aziraphale had absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, and Crowley was in love with him.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Aziraphale muttered to himself, rearranging his fingers on the neck of Crowley’s old guitar. He leaned forward and tapped at Crowley’s mobile, trying to rewind the YouTube video that was ostensibly teaching him how to strum. It would’ve been easier to miracle the screen larger, or to get a laptop at the very least, but Aziraphale had committed to doing it the human way, and once Aziraphale committed himself to something, he was stubborn to a fault, and usually beyond even that.
And Crowley was in love with him.
This was not, unfortunately, a surprise to Crowley: he’d known it for a very long time actually. He’d known it for so long, in fact, that he was usually quite good at compartmentalising it away into a large black box with six big padlocks on it, and aside from a few relatively minor slip-ups throughout the years, it hadn’t made much of a difference.
(Except 1967: Crowley rather felt that slip-up was less of a slip and more of a fancy headlong dive into a pool of boiling holy water, and Crowley had fucked off to America for a few years to recover, tartan thermos in tow. You go too fast for me, Crowley: the stuff of nightmares. When he’d gotten back, Aziraphale had either decided to ignore it or he’d forgotten it entirely. Crowley never did decide which was worse.)
So that was that. Crowley was in love with him, and they both in their own way pretended he wasn’t. It had been fine, for the most part.
And then Armageddon had happened, or had almost happened. And the thing about black boxes is that, even though the big black box always survives the plane crash, someone still has to open it up occasionally and make sure none of the contents had shifted during flight.
The contents of this particular big black box had shifted, all right.
They’d bloody well exploded, and after years and years and years of letting Aziraphale set the pace, of letting Aziraphale decide when and how and whether, all the things Crowley kept locked up had burst from their centuries-old restraints and out of the cage of Crowley’s ribs, leaving the wet, bloody centre of him exposed and vulnerable, and he hadn’t been able to stop it, hadn’t even wanted to stop it, hadn’t wanted to back down from what was almost certainly the most important now-or-never of their eternal lives. He’d popped off the padlocks and opened himself wide, again and again, and again, and again, and—
—and Aziraphale had not reached for him.
It was what it was. Once the dust had settled, Aziraphale had gone back to his bookshop, Crowley had gone into the nearest off-license, and now here they were, with Aziraphale attempting strumming on Crowley’s old guitar and Crowley attempting to not be horribly in love with him.
They were both failing rather badly.
“We should go somewhere,” Aziraphale said suddenly, looking up from the guitar and interrupting Crowley’s train of thought—thank Whomever. “For the List. We should decide where we want to go, if we’re going to do it all the human way. I just remembered about reservations, so we ought to start planning something.”
Crowley pulled out the List to look like he’d been doing something other than watching Aziraphale with the guitar, folding it carefully to make sure the second, secret list couldn’t be seen. Aziraphale was right: go somewhere we’ve never been before was next.
“All right,” he said. “Where haven’t you been?”
There was something a bit wrong with Crowley, Aziraphale thought. He’d brought his old guitar over the bookshop for Aziraphale, for take up a new hobby, but hadn’t offered to teach him, or to help him learn the strings, or even to show him how to hold it. Instead he’d set some videos up on his mobile phone for Aziraphale to watch and then had gone slinking off through the shelves, meandering aimlessly.
Crowley was a mover, by nature—his feet tapped and his hips shifted and he tended to pace—but he wasn’t really a meanderer. He usually stayed within Aziraphale’s orbit, at least. It made Aziraphale surprisingly nervous, which in turn had very quickly given rise to the theory that guitars could sense fear.
“Well,” Aziraphale said, “I suppose the point is to go see something fantastic, isn’t it? Some big sort of destination or another. Something incredible. Like the Taj Mahal.”
“I’ve seen the Taj Mahal,” Crowley said. “What about Machu Picchu?”
“I’ve been,” Aziraphale said. “Joined the campaign for Christ the Redeemer in Rio to be named a new wonder of the world in ‘07 and did a tour, lovely place, crawling with tourists, though. I know we’ve pretty much done all of Europe time and again . . . what about Australia?”
“Been,” Crowley said. “Japan?”
“Been. Kenya? A safari could get us around to some new things, I’m sure.”
Crowley winced. “Oof, sorry. Safaris were one of mine. What about San Francisco?”
Aziraphale gave him a look. “Of course I’ve been to San Francisco,” he said, a little tartly.
“I have too, actually,” Crowley admitted. “I would’ve lied if you hadn’t, though. I like San Francisco.”
“I suppose having six thousand years on the planet does tend to give you the time to see all the good spots, doesn’t it?” Aziraphale drummed his fingers on the body of the guitar. It would be nice if he could take it with them, wherever they went. He’d like to keep at it—he was certain that he could be at least okay at it if he weren’t worrying about other things. Maybe Crowley would get over whatever was bothering him and show Aziraphale a few tips. It would be easiest if they could just drive to wherever; he wondered if there was anywhere in the British Isles they both hadn’t been.
“What about,” Crowley began, his fingers tapping his bottom lip, but then he shook his head. “No, it’s too close. It’s ridiculous that I haven’t been. And it’s not really a big destination anyhow.”
Aziraphale watched him for a moment, and thought again, there’s something wrong with Crowley. Something that was making him hesitate—something that was holding him back, a little, like an invisible hand had planted in the centre of his chest and was keeping him from striding forward. He was suddenly reminded of another time Crowley had asked to go off somewhere, and thought that no matter what Crowley offered next, as far as Crowley was concerned, Aziraphale had never been.
After all, what Crowley didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
“Where?” he asked.
The South Downs.
If Aziraphale had been surprised when Crowley had suggested a little seaside getaway, he’d firmly squashed the urge to squawk and ask if Crowley were actually serious, because it had been quite plain that Crowley was. He wanted to do some walking through the hills and see the chalk cliffs by Eastbourne, apparently, and had never been to Brighton.
Aziraphale wasn’t sure how that could be true, but he had shrugged. “I’ve been to Winchester, but not Eastbourne,” he had said, which wasn’t actually a lie. “Can’t remember about Brighton, though, or the cliffs.” That, of course, was a lie—anybody who’d been anybody since the 1730s had been to Brighton—but Aziraphale didn’t think anyone was counting these days.
Either way, the plans had been made. The cottage Crowley had found was nestled in the hills of the Downs, but Brighton was just a hop and a skip down the road, really, and Seaford and Eastbourne were just a bit past that. They’d be out of season, with November quickly breezing into the English Channel, but both agreed that the lack of crowds would make up for any inconvenience, and besides, it wasn’t like they were terribly interested in the tourist spots.
“I still can’t believe you’ve never been,” Crowley had said as he was looking everything up on the Internet; Aziraphale suspected he had miracled himself a bank card to do all the bookings, but opted not to say. “It’s always been such a popular day-trip.”
“You‘ve never been, apparently,” Aziraphale had reminded him, avoiding the question.
“Always had a lot of other things to do, I s’pose,” Crowley had said. “It’ll be nice to just breathe for a few days, don’t you think?”
However long you need, Aziraphale had thought, making a noncommittal noise. A few days seemed like a good enough place to start.
It was only about an hour and half outside of London—no farther than Tadfield, but in a different direction. Crowley drove the Bentley at the posted limits as a compromise after Aziraphale pointed out that no 1926 make or model would have approached anything near Crowley’s preferred speeds without a little miraculous interference, and they were supposed to be doing this as humans. Crowley found he didn’t really mind.
The cottage was an old stone thing with a thatched sort of roof: very picturesque. It had a tiny kitchen and an enormous fireplace in the sitting room with an old leather sofa that looked like it would swallow Crowley right up, and an antique claw-foot bathtub for long soaks after walks out in the chilly air. There was a bench in the back garden where Aziraphale could practice his guitar with a view of the rolling hills, underneath an ancient, gnarled apple tree with its bare branches reaching up to the sky.
It was very quiet, Crowley thought, poking through the house as Aziraphale fussed over their bags in the entryway. It didn’t get quiet like this in London. It felt like an exhale: a weight lifting from his shoulders.
Aziraphale looking up to see him in the doorway, smiling in the late afternoon sun, lifted the weight a little bit more.
“Lovely, isn’t it,” Aziraphale said, when Crowley finally made his way back. “Don’t know how you found it, dear boy, but this is really going to be perfect, I think.”
His smile was soft; for a moment, Crowley expected him to reach out and put a hand to his arm. He didn’t, though, and some of the weight found its way back to Crowley. Figure out how to touch you, Crowley thought without really thinking, looking at Aziraphale’s hand as it twitched by his side. The crumpled newspaper in his jacket pocket went warm against his chest for a moment, and he realised he’d added it to the second list without meaning to.
He erased it in a rush. Some things you just didn’t write down: it made it too real.
Aziraphale was rambling on obliviously about the kitchen, and whether they’d be able to make a decent cheese toastie on an unfamiliar cooktop. Apparently he’d been practicing at home. “But before that,” he said, producing a long, red-and-black knit scarf and handing it to Crowley, “we ought to go for a walk while the light’s still good. Get a feel for the land, don’t you think?”
Crowley did think. The red-and-black scarf was made of something almost silky, like a skein of cloud, and nothing about it was tartan. He suddenly felt like the little cottage was suffocating, the entryway with him and Aziraphale and their bags all shoved up inside it too cramped and small to hold it all.
It was too late in the afternoon to try and find a proper walking path, but they were both content to walk along the road for a little while, up to the top of the next hill anyway, for the view. “Like St James’, but bigger,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “If a toy car is anything like the Bentley.”
“A park is a park,” Aziraphale shrugged. “A garden’s a garden.” He looked sidelong at Crowley then. “Do you ever think about it? The garden?”
Suddenly all of the South Downs seemed too cramped and small to hold them both. Crowley stopped in the road. “Eden?”
Aziraphale shrugged again, a little less certain of himself than he’d been a moment ago, as if he had the same sense of the space shrinking around them—Crowley could see it in the way his hands tightened around themselves. “Do you?”
That was a bit of a loaded question. The short answer, of course, was yes; the slightly longer answer had something to do with a big black box Crowley was currently trying very hard to fit six padlocks around. He settled instead for dodging the question completely. “Do you?”
“I didn’t for a long time,” Aziraphale answered easily, starting to walk again, and oh, if that didn’t lodge somewhere underneath Crowley’s ribs. “But since the whole end of the world business, I have been, a little. Your plants reminded me, actually. Made me think that perhaps I ought to think of it more often.”
“What’s to think about?” Crowley asked. They were nearly to the top of the hill they were aiming for; they’d be right on time for sunset. The sun was already flirting with the line of the trees on the horizon.
“Well, that was the start of it all, wasn’t it? Where we met, where the humans really got started. For so long, I just sort of took for granted that things were working out the way they were meant to. Now I wonder if we didn’t get a little off course along the way.”
Crowley swallowed hard, shoving his hands into his pockets. “You mean, if we weren’t supposed to have met back then.”
“No,” Aziraphale said. “I wonder if maybe you were never actually meant to be the Adversary at all.”
He left Crowley standing in the road as they reached the crest of the hill, crossing to the low stone wall that served as a boundary line and, between one blink and the next, moving to the other side of it so he could sit and watch the sunset over the rolling land. Crowley watched him for a long moment, the line of his silhouette as the sun began to set, the light catching in his hair, the familiar shape of his shoulders in that coat. He’d been right, actually, that afternoon a lifetime ago, in Tadfield—you couldn’t see where the paint stain had been, but Crowley knew it had been there.
After a long moment, he followed, and sat next to Aziraphale. He wanted very much to say, do you wonder if we were always meant to find each other, or maybe to say, do you wonder if we were always meant to be together, but he couldn’t quite figure out how to form the words in his mouth.
“I’m a demon,” he said eventually, haltingly. “You’re an angel. If it wasn’t supposed to be Adversaries, what else could it have been?”
Aziraphale looked up at him, briefly, almost in surprise, before looking back to study the horizon. “Well,” he said. “Whatever we are now, I suppose.”
Crowley studied the horizon as well. It really was picturesque, with the hills and the fields, the lines of forest easing around the landscape, the river cutting a line through to the east. He sank his neck down a little into the scarf Aziraphale had given him; it smelled like lavender. “I’m glad we are whatever we are, then,” he said, forcing himself not to turn and ask Aziraphale to define it for him. “Whatever we might’ve got wrong or right or whatever, I’m glad we’re this.”
The overcast sky cleared a little, painting the view with delicate pinks and violets, watercolour washes of gold. Aziraphale’s hand was curled around the edge of the stone wall, right next to Crowley’s, and Crowley twitched a pinky, aching to take it. Take his hand, Crowley thought at himself, furiously and far away. Just reach out and take it. Just reach out and take it.
Aziraphale folded his hands together in front of him, the way he always did when he was settling in comfortably somewhere. Crowley’s shoulders curved in a little, but he kept his hands to himself.
Out of the corner of his eye, in the golden light of the setting sun, he saw Aziraphale smile. “Yes,” he said. “I’m glad we’re this too.”
Whatever the bloody hell this is, Aziraphale thought, as they walked back to the cottage in the growing twilight. He wasn’t sure quite what he’d been getting at when he’d started the conversation, but he had the undeniable sense that he hadn’t gotten to whatever it was.
There had been a moment, sitting watching the sunset, when he’d thought Crowley was going to reach for his hand. Crowley hadn’t—Aziraphale, halfway into reaching for him, had had to snap his own hand back to where it belonged.
Now, though, watching Crowley amble quietly along the lane, he wondered if maybe he ought to have finished reaching.
Crowley had nice hands, actually. Aziraphale was distracted the whole walk back, thinking about it.
Humans, Aziraphale knew, liked Doing Things. Their limited lifespans meant there was a certain anxiety in them, a certain sense of time running out. They tended to cram as many things as they could into a limited number of days, rushing through this or that, crossing things off lists, as if competing against one another for a title prize in Having Done the Most Things. To Aziraphale, it was exhausting.
To Crowley, it apparently seemed like a Good Idea.
There was a sudden whirlwind of activity that lasted for days: they walked portions of the South Downs Way, slipping into villages and wandering along the banks of the river; they went up to the Chanctonbury Ring, where rumour had it that running the ring counterclockwise would summon a devil—Aziraphale tried, just to see; when he’d made it back, Crowley looked around and said, “Just me, looks like,” and they’d both laughed; they went into Winchester, where Crowley waited in the square while Aziraphale popped into the cathedral for a look around, and into Chichester, where they spent and afternoon going in and out of antiques shops, and into Brighton, where they ate cheap hot dogs and stood for too long on the boardwalk, until Crowley was shivering in his leather jacket.
It was nice, certainly. They explored and they wandered and they found secret little gems of shops and bakeries and bookstores, and Crowley stayed in Aziraphale’s orbit like he usually did, pacing around behind him or sidling up next to him. In the mornings, Aziraphale practiced the guitar under the apple tree in the garden, and Crowley brought fresh pastries and coffee from the village up the road. He wore the scarf Aziraphale had brought for him without fuss; he ate Aziraphale’s cheese toastie without complaint, even though Aziraphale had burnt it.
But there was something still not quite right about Crowley.
He seemed a little absent behind the lenses of his sunglasses, as though he were going through the motions, as though he were following a diagram. He listened to Aziraphale strum ineffectively at the guitar, but still didn’t offer to help him learn to play it. He spent a lot of time in the garden, whether or not Aziraphale was out there, studying the bare bushes, the dead leaves piling up in the flowerbeds, the empty meadow beyond.
Aziraphale watched him from the windows of the cottage, watched him scrunch up his nose at some wayward shrub, watched him kick a few pebbles back into place in the gravel path, his hands in his pockets, his face serious, until Aziraphale, unable to stand it any more, opened the door and called out to him, and then Crowley would look up and grin like he’d always grinned, and off they would go again.
Aziraphale wondered how many times he’d missed that same thing happening, over the years. How many times he’d missed that serious expression as it slid behind a familiar grin. He thought about the Turners in the National Gallery, and Crowley wanting to come here out of anywhere in the entire world, and the lingering way Crowley watched when Aziraphale took out the guitar to fumble through another lesson. He thought about the hurried way Crowley moved through Winchester and Chichester, to this shop and that, into this bakery and that gourmet shop, past this historical site and that museum; he thought about the way the Bentley raced through the two-track lanes and narrow highways of the Downs, as if he were trying to get to something that was always one step ahead.
On the fifth day, they went into Seaford, and saw the Seven Sisters: tall white chalk cliffs, shining out over the sea.
“Huh,” Crowley said, gesturing widely. “Angel, look at that. Do you know they’re named? Haven Brow, Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flagstaff Point, Flat Hill, Baily’s Hill. They’re protected, see, like the cliffs at Dover, but here they’re allowed to erode naturally, they’re just—” he stopped. Aziraphale thought it was the first time he’d stopped moving in days. His voice turned low, almost pensive, almost wistful. “They’re just allowed to erode naturally into the sea. Just breaking down, drifting away.”
“I think,” Aziraphale said, watching him, “that we need to slow down.”
Crowley’s gaze snapped over to him; his eyes were hidden, of course, behind the sunglasses, but Aziraphale knew how to read his expression from his mouth, from his forehead. This expression said, in a very shocked way, what did you just say?
“I mean,” Aziraphale went on quickly, “I mean that we’ve just been very busy, haven’t we? And you’ve done—such a lovely job, planning things for us to do, but when we left London, you had said that you wanted room to breathe for a few days, and we—we haven’t done much just sitting and breathing, really.”
The expression behind Crowley’s sunglasses was shifting, changing from that very open look to something very closed off, and Aziraphale cleared his throat, trying to make a decisive end. “So I think,” he said, giving a hard nod, “that yes. We ought to slow down. We ought to take some time and sit still for a moment before we go home.”
Far below, the sound of sea crashing into the shore seemed impossibly loud. The sunglasses seemed darker than usual; Aziraphale couldn’t even make out the shape of Crowley’s eyes behind them. The shape of Crowley’s mouth said enough, though: it had gone thin, and cold, and turned down at the corners.
“Sitting still,” Crowley said, very slowly.
There is a certain way people sound when they have hit some limit, when their emotional capacity has gone absolutely as far as it could go, and now they were staring down a wall of fire on the M25 with nowhere to go. Figuratively, of course—literally, that had only happened the once, and probably only would. It was a quiet way people sounded, half-warning, half-heartbreak, and Aziraphale knew from experience that whatever he said next would either force Crowley through the blockade of flame that had been making up whatever was wrong with him these last few weeks, or it would allow him the safe retreat into the status quo.
Aziraphale had absolutely no idea what it was about sitting still that had driven Crowley to such a point, but he rather thought it was time for Crowley to break through.
He said, very firmly, “Yes. Sitting still. Sounds much more my pace.”
Crowley pinched his lips together. “Yeah, all right,” he said suddenly, nodding in that certain sarcastic way he had, that way that covered upset with anger and bitterness, and Aziraphale took a step back. It was the same voice Crowley had used before the end of the world, and it made something in Aziraphale’s belly go slick and cold, like oil had been sliding down his throat. “Sitting still! Love a good sit-still myself, you know. Who moves? Who’s into that? No, sitting still, that’s where we’re at these days. Good! Good.”
And he set off back toward the Bentley.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale called after him. “Now, wait—Crowley, wait.”
“I’ve been waiting,” Crowley said, veering back suddenly to look at him, and now the fury was much closer to the surface, the fury and the hurt. “And I thought, you know, I know it’s difficult, I know what that’s like, but I thought we were getting somewhere, and it turns out, angel, it just turns out, that all this time you never thought about the garden because you’re still bloody well sitting in it.”
There was a silence in which Aziraphale was quite sure he was supposed to say something, but for the life of him, he couldn’t think of what. The noise in his head was all jumbled up, crowded with the echo of Crowley’s voice. “I—” he began, and faltered. “I don’t—”
Below the cliffs, the tide was going out. The sound of the waves crashing on the beach drowned out any of a million things Aziraphale could have said, but didn’t.
Finally Crowley nodded, and he sighed, deeply. The pieces of him—shoulders and neck, wrists and knees—slipped into the same resigned tension Crowley had worn for thousands of years: a resigned tension Aziraphale hadn’t even realised had been gone.
“I know you don’t, angel,” Crowley said quietly. “But I—I can’t do it anymore. I can’t sit still any longer.”
Aziraphale watched as he turned back. As he got into the Bentley. As he drove away. Aziraphale let him go, and wondered, if angels were supposed to be the ones always getting it right, what he could’ve said that was so wrong.
You go too fast for me, Crowley. It seemed like a lifetime ago that Aziraphale had said it.
It didn’t matter how long ago it’d been. Crowley pushed the pedal nearer to the floor and heard, I think we need to slow down, still echoing in his ears. Sitting still—much more my pace.
The Bentley roared on.
It was dark when Aziraphale got back to the cottage.
He could have miracled himself there in a blink, of course, but he’d needed the time to think. He’d stayed at the cliffs for hours, watching the tide recede away from the base of the gleaming white faces and leave a sludge behind, thinking about the end of the world, thinking about the arguments they’d had, thinking about the visible distress and desperation Crowley had worn in those last days.
Crowley had always worn a layer of terror underneath his skin. It had been there since the garden, since that first rainfall, and Aziraphale had always just assumed it was a product of being a fallen angel—something that was injected under the subcutaneous tissue like a poison. Aziraphale had needled at it a little throughout the years, looking for ways it might be lanced, the infection purged, the wound healed. If there’d been a way, he’d never found it.
He’d thought, though, after everything that had happened, that perhaps it wouldn’t matter. That after the world didn’t end, after Hell didn’t come back for Crowley, after Heaven left them alone—he’d thought that Crowley would finally be free.
Aziraphale just didn’t know what he was still so afraid of—why Crowley had suddenly seemed like he’d been afraid of him.
Eventually Aziraphale had turned back toward Seaport, walking along the road until a lorry miraculously happened by and, quite without meaning to, offered Aziraphale a lift. The driver had been pleasant enough, and he’d dropped Aziraphale off at the top of the hill by the cottage, wished him luck, and went home to find he’d inherited a tidy sum of money from an uncle he hadn’t known he’d even had.
There was a single candle lit in the kitchen window of the darkened cottage. Aziraphale stood and looked at it for a long time, imagining Crowley’s drive alone in the Bentley with his fear, imagining Crowley alone in the cottage with his rage. Imagining Crowley lighting this single candle for him anyway, as if to guide him home.
He found Crowley in the back garden, sitting under the bare apple tree. He had the guitar tucked under one arm, plucking something slow and melancholy into the night air; he had his wings loose, inky black against the blue velvet dark.
Aziraphale scuffed his feet along the pebble paths as he approached. Crowley lifted his head at the sound, recognising that he was there, but didn’t turn around.
“You know,” Crowley said over the sound of the guitar, “when I booked this cottage, I thought, what a perfect opportunity. Isolated little place, no people around. I thought I’d take you flying. Proper flying, like you can’t do in London.” His wings, folded neatly along his back, twitched and opened a bit, as if in involuntary reaction. “Nice clear night like this one would’ve been perfect for it.”
Something in Aziraphale wanted very much to say, we could still go up, but he knew somehow that that was never going to happen now. “I think we’ve rather had some kind of miscommunication,” Aziraphale said instead.
The tune Crowley was plucking out dropped into a lower chord, but he didn’t stop playing. “I know,” Crowley said eventually. “Look, I’m sorry I left you back there. I didn’t mean for you to make your way back here the human way.”
“I didn’t,” Aziraphale assured him. “Well, I did a little, but it’s not important. Crowley, I think—we’ve had a little confusion, I think.”
“My fault,” Crowley said easily. He finally laid a hand over the guitar strings to silence them and looked up to Aziraphale and smiled: a thin, brittle thing that seemed like it would dissolve if Aziraphale touched it. His eyes were an acrid yellow in the dark. “Don’t worry about it, angel.”
Aziraphale shifted. He wanted to worry about it. He wanted to understand it. He wanted Crowley to trust him, to confide in him, to know that Aziraphale wasn’t ever going to turn his back on him. “What did you mean,” he asked, as Crowley started a new melody on the guitar, “when you said I was still sitting in the garden?”
Crowley huffed a little laugh. “Nothing,” he said. “Just that we are who we are, you know? You’re always going to be yourself. I’m always going to be myself. I just had started expecting something that we weren’t ever going to be able to live up to. It was just unrealistic.”
He looked back to the guitar and started playing again. The tune was a little more complicated now, just as quiet and melancholy as it had been before, but Crowley shifted on the bench to make room for Aziraphale, nodding his head at the empty space in invitation.
“I don’t suppose you’d tell me what it was?” Aziraphale asked as he took the seat, loosing his wings into the dark, but he already knew the answer.
“Nah,” Crowley said. His grin this time was a little more familiar, a little more genuine: reassuring, but when Aziraphale looked a little closer, it still seemed false. “It’s fine, angel. Gave myself a good bonk on the head on the way back here and sorted myself out.”
“You know, we are the way we are,” Aziraphale said slowly, pressing it a little, brushing his wing up against Crowley’s, “but we can also change, Crowley. We have done, over the years. We’ve changed quite a lot, since we first met.”
“I know,” he answered. “And it’s good, isn’t it? And I’ve been thinking. About changing some things up. You know, with Heaven and Hell out of our hair, there’s a lot more freedom, a lot more flexibility. I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time for a bigger change.”
Aziraphale looked at him. Crowley looked back.
Crowley said, “I’m not going back to London.”
Do something magnificently reckless.
When he had put that on the List, he’d been thinking about the end of the world.
He’d been thinking about standing on some American airfield with nothing left to lose, facing down Satan himself with nothing but a tyre iron and an angel and an eleven-year-old boy with something to believe in. He’d been thinking about standing in Aziraphale’s body in front of the roar of hellfire, all that vast, empty space, and the sudden realisation that whatever he missed about Heaven, it was no longer there.
He’d been thinking about how it felt, standing on the other side of those things: breathless and free.
He’d been thinking about fuzzy, half-formed daydreams, images of a hand in his, of a shirt collar coming undone. Of distances that closed and ceased to matter, of familiar comforts shared as easily as secrets. Of potted plants, shiny and lush and verdant green, growing wild among stacks and stacks of books. Of being patient. Of being, after all this time, loved.
That night, writing the List, Aziraphale had seemed so close, leaning in to read Crowley’s handwriting over his shoulder, warm with drink and laughter. He’d made Crowley promise to do something other than trying to save the world, this time around. Once is quite enough.
They’d laughed about it then, deliriously happy and recklessly pleased with themselves.
He hadn’t thought about anything like this, though he supposed it probably counted. At the very least, he was keeping his promise: instead of trying to save the world, he was just—letting go.
Didn’t have quite the same thrill, though.
He said, “I’m not going back to London.”
The guitar felt warm under Crowley’s fingers, alive in the night air. He’d bought it on a lark in America in the early 1970s to go round to parties and overstay his welcome, playing the same three or four songs over and over until the good mood was ruined and everyone was just morose about Vietnam, but he’d actually gotten quite good at it. It was comforting, now, to have something to do with his hands.
There was a stunned sort of pause, and then Aziraphale choked out a disbelieving laugh, too late and too loud. “Well, where else would you go?” he asked, as if Crowley had just told a bad joke he was trying very hard to find amusing. “Going to try Vegas after all?”
He couldn’t keep on like this anymore.
The whole thing of it was like an ache in Crowley’s joints, like he could finally feel the crushing weight of the last six thousand years pressing in on him. Aziraphale sat beside him, all warmth and concern even though Crowley’d been the one to storm away, and Crowley was brushing him off and shutting him out and it hurt, but he couldn’t keep doing this.
He couldn’t keep loving Aziraphale up close like this, sitting next to him as he cared about Crowley so wholly and completely and not at all in the way that Crowley wanted him to.
That was a miracle even God couldn’t have performed.
“Think I’m going to stay right here,” Crowley said, quite seriously, and Aziraphale’s smile faded into the night. “Decent enough place. Garden will make for a good project. Good timing, too—it’s just come on the market.”
Miraculous timing, actually: the owners themselves hadn’t known their very great desire to sell off the old thing until that precise moment.
“Oh,” Aziraphale said faintly, and “Oh,” again, as he floundered for some kind of response. “But—well, what about the List?”
It was in Crowley’s inner jacket pocket, crinkling softly against his chest as he plucked out the song. He’d been carrying it there for days, adding things to the secret side of it almost frantically as the week went on and Aziraphale seemed further and further away, increasingly out of reach. It said ridiculous things, foolish things; things like, Take Aziraphale back to Rome for oysters, and, Finally read Pride & Prejudice so I know what he’s banging on about, and, Learn how to make crêpes.
The page had burned when he’d miracled all that away, the combined heat of everything he had ever wanted scorching a mark right into his shirt. Now the paper in his pocket was stone-cold, and half-empty.
“Well,” he said, trying to sound reasonable, “we’ll have to call each other up whenever we finish something off it, I suppose. There aren’t that many left anyway.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said again, terribly softly, and Crowley knew what he was thinking: I thought we were supposed to be doing it together.
I thought so too, angel, he thought back. I thought so too.
The Downs were bloody quiet.
Well, they weren’t, really, not the way Crowley expected. There was a surprising amount of bustle—nosy neighbours, roaring lorries, lost tourists—not to mention an appallingly incompetent rooster at one of the nearby farms, which cock-a-doodle-dooed not only at dawn but also at five-past-dawn, ten-past-dawn, forty-five-past-dawn, and, if it somehow got wind that Crowley was considering having a lie-down later in the day to make up for the early awakening, at a quarter-past noon.
But otherwise, the Downs were quiet.
Crowley was determined to make the best of it. All right, so, a couple of things hadn’t worked out quite the way he’d wanted to. That was nothing new, in the grand scheme of things; lots of things hadn’t worked out the way he’d wanted them to—take brussels sprouts, for example, or interdepartmental memos—and it hadn’t been the end of the world. And that he’d got through just fine, thank you very much.
He’d get through this just fine too.
He had only spoken to Aziraphale once since he’d left, last Sunday night when he’d got home to London. “Made it just fine,” he had told Crowley, with a shaky little laugh. “Cabbie was a fair shake better at navigating the roads than you, dear boy, but also probably not as quick with the miracles, so I suppose it all evened out.”
He’d actually made it sound like he missed Crowley’s reckless driving, which had lodged a lump like a granite egg in Crowley’s throat. “Good,” he’d croaked out. “The, er, bookshop all right?”
“Still full of books, though I think it doesn’t care much for being left on its own so long. There were three Margaret Thatcher biographies on my desk when I got back, the cheek.” A long pause, in which neither of them laughed. “Your blanket is here,” Aziraphale added softly. “That knit thing that you like, from the sofa. Shall I send it to you?”
The granite egg in Crowley’s throat had gone sharp all at once, as if it were trying to hatch some hellish beast of confession and vulnerability. He’d swallowed it down, and said, “Nah, s’all right, angel. There’s loads of blankets here, I won’t need it.”
“If you’re sure,” Aziraphale had said dubiously. “Stay warm, will you?”
“’Course,” Crowley had promised, “’Course I will,” and then he’d rung off before anything else managed to work its way out.
The Downs were quiet, he thought, but at least he had the room to breathe around all the things he wasn’t saying.
It was a decent job that he had the List to focus on, now that he was without all the distractions of London, or else he might’ve been a bit bored, which never boded well for any local population. He was quite determined not to give up on the project entirely—he really did think it was a good idea, after all, trying to understand the humanity bits of humanity, and also he rather thought that giving up on it now would be a bit of a dead giveaway about the sorts of things he would rather be discorporated than actually give away—though he hadn’t been able to bring himself to look at it.
There weren’t very many things left to do anyway. He didn’t even need to carry it with him anymore. Instead he’d tucked it away into the third drawer of the desk in the second bedroom.
He knew what was on it, and what wasn’t.
Redecorate, with a sloppy little IKEA logo drawn next to it, though Aziraphale had told him later that that was actually the Swedish flag. Get a pet, scribbled through where Aziraphale had tried to drunkenly scratch it out that night, their hands tangled together over the paper, before it had become so impossible to cross that distance. Take up a new hobby—Aziraphale had that one covered with the guitar, and Crowley thought the back garden would suit nicely for his new hobby once the spring thaw rolled around. Outdoor gardening would no doubt be a different enough beast than his collection of houseplants to count.
Do something magnificently reckless.
Crowley supposed this counted—leaving London, leaving the last remnants of his previous life. Leaving Aziraphale.
He just hadn’t had the heart to cross it off yet.
“Well,” Aziraphale said, “fuck.”
He paused, looking around the shop for a moment as if daring it to say anything, but the books and stacks were suddenly all very preoccupied with minding their own business.
He’d never really been one for cursing over the last six thousand years as a general rule, but he figured at this point there was very little that he could do that would make things worse, and anyway he felt rather entitled to make up for lost time.
Besides, it wasn’t like anyone was going to flit by and shake a swear-jar at him anymore.
“Fuck,” Aziraphale said again, a little bit louder, and then he added, “Bugger,” just for the thrill. “Bugger, fuck, and damn.”
It didn’t actually help, more’s the pity. Cursing was fine enough to take the edge off, he supposed, but it didn’t help at all in terms of figuring out what to do next.
Well, in the immediate sense of things, he was going to pour himself a rather large whisky, which he did not think would help with the figuring things out bit either but which he thought might help with the swearing bit, and sit himself down on the sofa to have a good think. That, he thought, he could manage.
He’d known there was something wrong with Crowley. He had known that, and he’d thought that if he could just get him away for a few days, if he could just get Crowley to sit still and have a drink or two and make the appropriate encouraging noises at him, that Crowley would tell him what it was, and then together they’d come up with some ridiculous plan to fix it, and maybe it would work and maybe it wouldn’t be it would be something, at least, until they figured out the right thing to do.
He had not thought that Crowley would, to put it in colloquial terms, freak out.
He had not thought that Crowley would spend their last few days in the cottage together avoiding Aziraphale, always rushing off to make vague plans about this or that. He had not thought that Crowley would call him a cab to take him back to London. He had not thought that Crowley would shove the guitar case into his chest at the last minute and say, with his penny-bright smile, “I’m just a hop and a miracle down the road, angel, it’s not like I’m disappearing on you,” and then to turn away, leaving Aziraphale standing by himself and watching Crowley shut the cottage door behind him as the taxi idled in the drive.
He had not thought that he would go back to London, where he had lived by himself for centuries, let himself into the shop, gone dark and musty and silent, and feel suddenly, startlingly alone.
Aziraphale had not thought that any of that was going to happen, but all of it did.
Well. Lead balloons, and all that.
Still—if Aziraphale thought that Crowley truly wanted to be alone, he would let him be. He would have turned to his books, his shop, his usual haunts at the Ritz and at Sweetings and at Wiltons, his contacts among antiques dealers and British intelligence. He wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but he could survive without Crowley—he had done before.
The only problem was that Aziraphale was quite sure that Crowley didn’t want to be alone.
He could see it was in the fade of that penny-bright smile whenever Crowley thought he wasn’t looking, in the way he looked at Aziraphale but didn’t seem to be listening to him. He could see it in the rushing about, and the rushing away, in the hunch of Crowley’s shoulders and the tremble of his hands: something exhausted, and anguished, and miserable.
“Well, bollocks to that,” Aziraphale told his whisky, which very wisely agreed with him. “Great, damned, buggering bollocks to that.”
They had stood side-by-side at the end of the world. They had fought for the choice to live as they wanted, to live on this beautiful, dichotomous little planet with its beautiful, dichotomous little people together, and they’d won.
We’re on our own side now, Crowley had said, and they weren’t supposed to be miserable about it.
So if he thought that Aziraphale was just going to let him go like that—if he thought Aziraphale was going to forget about him just because he wasn’t there to swagger into the shop at odd hours and demand dinner at the Ritz—if he thought Aziraphale would stand in silence and only call him when there was something to report about a stupid bloody List they’d thought up while they were drunk, as if that were the only thing left tying them together, as if that were the only thing left to care about—if he thought Aziraphale was going to let him shut himself away by himself and not even try to fix whatever was so wrong—then Anthony J. Crowley had another thing coming.
Because that was what you did when you saved the world with someone. When you turned away from everything you’d ever known, or believed, or been, and decided to be on your own side together. You tried, even if it seemed hopeless and even if the only plan you had had only one chance in a million of working out because if it did, if it did, it would be so beautiful and it would be so brilliant and it would be so very, very worth it.
Crowley had taught him that, there at the end of everything. You tried, and you did not give up.
The guitar case was open on the desk next to Aziraphale’s chair where he’d set it, that first night he’d gotten home, and he eyed it over the rim of his glass. He remembered the sound of it in the night, thrumming in Crowley’s hands; he imagined if he touched it that it would still be warm from his playing.
This was Aziraphale, not giving up.
Maybe it was a bloody stupid List, but so what? They’d had plenty of bloody stupid plans that had worked out before. The Arrangement, for all that it had more or less worked out, had been a bloody stupid thing to do. The whole raising the Antichrist child had been a bloody stupid plan, even before they’d known they’d been raising the wrong child entirely. Facing down Gabriel and Beelzebub and Satan himself had all been incredibly bloody stupid, but that had all worked out too, hadn’t it?
We’ll have to call each other up whenever we finish something, Crowley had said, but some of the things on it were a bit more of on-going projects, weren’t they? And how could Crowley know if Aziraphale was sticking by his word about taking up the guitar as a hobby, unless Aziraphale were to periodically update him on the hobbying?
So that’s what he was going to do. He was finish the List.
He was going to finish the List enthusiastically, determinedly even. He was going to finish the List because the List meant something to Crowley and Crowley meant something to him, and he was going to do it so deliberately that there could be no doubt, no question, as to why, so that Crowley would know that when he’d said, sitting on that stone wall watching the sun set over the Downs, that he thought maybe they were always meant to be together, he’d really meant that it had been foolish of him to ever believe otherwise, to ever even think that they were on sides other than their own, and he was going to make sure that Crowley knew it every step of the buggering, bollocksing, blasted way.
He was going to need a guitar tutor.
And perhaps to rinse his mouth out with soap.
It took him a few days, but finally Aziraphale found it.
He had lived and worked in Soho long enough to know that the grubby little shops were the ones that usually held the true treasures, and this shop was the grubbiest, littlest one of them all. It had a dozen or so guitars hanging neatly in the window, with some sort of large speakers lined up beneath them and a lazy orange tabby cat stretched out on top of one, flicking its tail at passersby. It seemed to raise a sceptical eyebrow at Aziraphale, challenging him.
The sign next to the door read: GUITAR LESSONS. INQUIRE WTHIN.
He took a deep breath, pushed open the door, and went in.
Crowley was wrist-deep in a pot of sandy soil when his mobile rang.
He’d brought his things down from London to try to settle in—if by things one meant houseplants, and if by brought down one meant transported instantly through interdimensional time and space, and if by settled one meant shocked into existential crisis and arranged aesthetically around the windows—but it was only going over so well. The plants did not immediately take to the cottage; the whole lot of them were developing spots and dropping leaves at an alarming pace. He had shouted at them and railed at them and rearranged the pots for the third time, but eventually had had to pick an aloe vera with yellowing leaves to be Made An Example Of.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he had sneered at the lot of them, derision dripping from his tone. “It’s not as if any of you even liked the flat, not as if you wanted to be there. What could you possibly miss, the view?” None of them had answered, but a potted begonia had sighed and wilted a little further, right in front of his eyes. “Well, I won’t have it! If you don’t want to join your aloe friend, you’d all best pull yourselves together and grow! better!”
Now the aloe vera was drooping despondently over the kitchen table, resigning itself to a fate of certain death while Crowley readied a new pot for it. He had just finished hollowing out a spot to settle it into when Aziraphale’s name popped onto the screen. Answer? the mobile asked politely. Decline?
Crowley frowned at it. He put out a hand to answer, saw his fingers and palm streaked with dirt, and hesitated.
He supposed he had told Aziraphale he could call, though he hadn’t really expected him to again, and especially not so soon. The last call—only a week ago now, good grief, time really did crawl when one was mostly sitting around licking one’s wounds and threatening potted palms—had been rather wretched, and Crowley wasn’t exactly keen on repeating the experience.
He leaned on one of the kitchen chairs, holding his dirty hands over the table and waiting for the call to run out. It could just go to voicemail tonight, no problem, and Crowley would have a listen when he was ready and ring Aziraphale back. No harm done.
But, a little voice said, in Crowley’s heart, what if there is harm being done? What if he’s calling you because he needs you, and you’re not answering?
Quiet, you, Crowley said, snuffing out the little voice like a candle flame, but he miracled a hand clean and swiped the call open anyway. “Anthony Crowley,” he said formally, in lieu of hello,, as if he hadn’t known who was calling.
“I know it’s you,” Aziraphale said, huffing down the line. “I’m the one that dialed.”
Crowley grinned despite himself, then bullied it back off his face. There was something rather comforting about Aziraphale taking the time to be tetchy. “Evening, Aziraphale,” he said, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I’m calling to report in on the List,” Aziraphale declared, in much the same way the demons of hell used to declare that they were recounting the deeds of the day, and Crowley suspected that he’d practiced this conversation in front of a mirror before phoning up. “And I think you’ll be very pleased to know that I have made very good progress.”
For a moment, Crowley was torn. The bigger part of him wanted to say, oh, have you, do tell, angel, what have you been up to this week? and let the conversation meander on, listening to Aziraphale has he no doubt recounted most of what he’d been up to for the past week, then complaining in turn about the state of the plants, then probably getting lost a bit in trading wine recommendations or sharing affront about current events (not that either of them kept up with current events, but there was always something to be affronted about, so it was a fairly safe bet).
The other part of him—the much smaller, shattered part that Crowley was pretending did not exist—wanted to take Aziraphale’s report like a supervisor, fail to return the formality, and inform him that he needn’t actually call again.
Aziraphale wouldn’t, Crowley knew, if he so much as implied that Aziraphale shouldn’t. He would leave Crowley alone. If Crowley only said so, Aziraphale would leave him be.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale said in his ear, now sounding smaller and less sure of himself. Crowley hadn’t realised, when he’d first answered, that Aziraphale had been smiling, but he could hear the lack of it now in his voice. “Are you there?”
“I’m here,” he said, shuddering a breath in. He closed his eyes and rubbed a hand across them, calling himself an idiot and a fool as he did but saying nonetheless, “Do tell, angel, what have you been up to this week?”
Oh, for Whomever’s sake—Crowley could actually hear it when Aziraphale broke into a grin, the way his breathing changed, the way the cadence of his voice changed. “Well, of course, I thought I ought to get on with the guitaring hobby,” he explained quickly. “So I’ve hired a tutor.”
Crowley inhaled, surprised. “A tutor? You’re learning from a human?”
“Well, I did think learning a thing or two from humans was rather the point,” Aziraphale answered, a bit snippily, before rambling on. “Lovely boy, gives lessons to put himself through university. He says I’m a bit older than the usual first-timers for tutoring; hadn’t the heart, of course, to tell him how very old I actually am, though he probably just would’ve laughed. Anyway, I’ve been practicing quite a lot and I wonder if I might play something for you?”
Aziraphale said this all very fast, stumbling over himself in his rush, so that the end of it came out as though it were all one word, wonderifimightplaysomethingforyou.
There was another terribly awkward pause as Crowley tried to think of something to say and failed entirely to think of anything.
In all the practicing Aziraphale had done—at the shop, first, and then in the early mornings in back garden of the cottage—he’d never asked to play something specifically for Crowley. The thought of it, of something for Crowley, made something hot spark in Crowley’s chest, and he wanted very badly to say no just in case that spark was liable to catch fire.
But Aziraphale was asking, and he was nervous, and Crowley was, well. Helpless, a bit.
“Sure,” he finally managed, “Sure, of course, show me what you’ve got, angel.”
“Oh, oh good,” Aziraphale said, obviously relieved, and Crowley had to shut his eyes and count his breath out for a minute or two because it shouldn’t be so endearing, and he shouldn’t be so in love with him, but fuck if Aziraphale didn’t make it hard not to be. “Just give me a—a second here—”
There was a fumbling noise, a clunk and a schhh sound of Aziraphale’s ancient telephone receiver being arranged on the desk, the distant hollow noise of the guitar being picked up, and then Aziraphale began to play.
Crowley recognised it after a beat or two: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. A very slow, shaky version of it, but Twinkle Twinkle nonetheless.
“It’s a bit simple,” Aziraphale admitted when he finally picked the phone back up, “but not bad for a start, I think.”
“’S good,” Crowley managed.
“It wasn’t,” Aziraphale answered, but he sounded pleased and much more at ease now that it was done. “But thank you anyway. Do you know, the tune was originally Mozart’s? Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” it’s used in loads of nursery rhymes and the like. Do you remember him? Useless prat for anything other than music really—”
Crowley sat down in the chair, listening and making the appropriate hmms and ahhs as Aziraphale slipped easily into a diatribe about Viennese musicians, and swore at himself under his breath.
When he finally made his excuses an hour later and rang off, Crowley repotted the aloe vera in silence and put it into exile in a very sunny, if very quiet, window in the second bedroom.
It had been thriving ever since.
Aziraphale set the phone in its cradle, his cheeks warm from grinning. Oh, sure, it had been awkward at points—he had thought at first that Crowley wasn’t going to answer, and then once he had he’d thought that Crowley was going to hang up on him, and then there had been a long pause when Aziraphale had said that he’d hired a guitar tutor, after which Crowley had inhaled so quickly he’d nearly choked on something and gasped out, “You’re learning from a human?” as though he’d said he’d hired a trained cockroach for the job; Aziraphale had barely restrained himself from blurting out that Crowley himself had declined the opportunity rather emphatically, and had instead retorted that it wasn’t as though he had a computer that would run the YouTube—but overall it had been lovely.
Almost just like old times.
The conversation had come to an end, however, when Aziraphale had made an off-hand comment about the sushi place down the road that they both liked, pondering the beginnings of a craving, and Crowley had gone a bit quiet. “You know,” he had said slowly, “I think it’s time for me to get ready for bed.”
There’s the limit, Aziraphale thought, implied invitations about London. It had only just gone eight o’clock, and Crowley had never been that consistent of a sleeper anyway, but Aziraphale had agreed and very gently let him ring off anyway.
It was all right, though, because right before he’d rung off, Aziraphale had hesitated, and asked, not sure if this was pressing one step too far, “Same time next week?” And Crowley had said, “Talk to you then.”
It was a start.
It seemed a bit backward, after all this time together, after how long and how deeply they’d known one another, to just be starting again, but Aziraphale would take what he could get.
He’d start again six thousand times over for Crowley if he had to. He could handle just this once.
In the study of a cottage on the South Downs, a mobile phone began to ring.
Crowley looked up from his book—some old Regency thing he’d picked at random from the shelf the previous owners had kept—and gave the mobile a mildly curious look. “Seven o’clock already?” he asked out loud, as if he were surprised.
He was not surprised. He might have liked to look as if he were surprised, as if he hadn’t been sitting in an armchair with a book he hadn’t actually read a word of for the last three hours, getting himself a bit worked up—what will I do if he calls, what will I do if he doesn’t—but that was, in fact, exactly what he had been doing, and privately, neither the book nor the mobile had any idea who he thought he was fooling.
The mobile rang a second time, a third, and Crowley stood up, reaching for it—and then stopped, his hand hovering only an inch away.
After five rings, the call would automatically be sent to voicemail.
If the call went to voicemail, there would never be another one. Crowley knew that instinctively. A message would no doubt be left, and it would no doubt not be listened to, and the mobile would never ring again. It would be the definitive answer to the question that was asked with every ring: are we still on our own side?
The mobile rang a fourth time.
It should have been an easy answer, but instead it left him feeling like a train engine roaring down the tracks, approaching the curve, gaining speed, wondering if he was going to make the turn or if he was going to fly off and fly apart and scatter into a million pieces: Do I still want to be?
The fifth ring began.
He had the phone in his hand before the sound had even fully formed in the air, swiping into the call and slamming it to his ear. He had to wait a second before he could say anything—yes, yes, it’s still yes—he suddenly felt like he needed to catch his breath.
“Crowley?” the voice on the other end asked. “Are you there?”
Crowley looked out toward the horizon where the sun was just beginning to set over the Downs, clearing his throat. “Yeah,” he managed finally. “I’m here, angel. How are you?”
Aziraphale called the week after that, and the week after that, and the week after that.
At first they were just quick little things, awkward hellos and how do you dos, already more than Crowley could bear by the time he managed to pick up the phone. The conversations moved quickly from I’m calling to report on the List to actually, I have to go, and Crowley hung up feeling relieved and guilty and somehow like he couldn’t quite breathe.
But Aziraphale kept calling, and as the chill turned to frost and the frost to the first snows, the conversations began to linger. Aziraphale would say something and Crowley would find himself responding, and responding again, jumping from Aziraphale’s guitar lessons—he was getting calluses on his fingers finally, which was apparently something to be proud of even if his manicurist did despair of him—to Crowley’s ongoing plant issues—of course they were getting enough light, though perhaps putting in a conservatory wouldn’t be amiss—to whether Crowley’s neighbours would notice if their rooster mysteriously disappeared—almost certainly—to whether the latest set of serious men in dark suits who’d offered Aziraphale both cash and threats to move shop would come back again—almost certainly not—as they poured their own respective wines and laughed down the line.
“Same time next week?” Aziraphale asked at the end of every call, no matter how short, no matter how awkward.
Crowley always said yes.
There was so much familiarity in it, so much ordinariness. These were the same old conversations they’d had a thousand times in a thousand variations, the same hundred debates they already knew the compromises to, the same jokes that one of them could start and the other could finish.
But it also wasn’t familiar, not really, because it wasn’t the same at all. It wasn’t ordinary and it wasn’t London and it wasn’t anything like it had been before.
Before, there had been all this space between them. There had been overbearing waiters and interrupting customers, distracted pedestrians in the streets and groups of ducks in the ponds and concerts to fill up the silences and shops full of antiques to fill up the spaces. There had been forgetfulness, a little bit, and a little bit of ambivalence, maybe, a little bit of I’ll-see-you-when-I-see-you, and it had never really been a big deal because it had been true: they would see each other whenever they saw each other.
Now, with a scheduled appointment that it would be too telling to miss and all the miles between them condensed down into the speaker of a mobile phone, there was only Aziraphale, and the sound of his smile in his voice, and the breathy echo of his laugh in Crowley’s ear.
Is this what I want, Crowley asked himself every Sunday night at seven o’clock, but he still picked up the phone.
“Happy Christmas!” Aziraphale sing-songed the next week, as soon as Crowley picked up. “And a happy new year!”
“Happy—eurgh,” Crowley returned, grimacing. “That time of year already, is it?”
He knew perfectly well that it was, actually—the village up the road was doing some sort of nativity panto, and an overly-enthusiastic gentleman playing the role of Very Serious Director while wrangling six-year-olds dressed in their fathers’ bathrobes had not been at all keen on Crowley’s historical pointers—but it didn’t do for a demon to really acknowledge it, what with all the good cheer and spreading of tidings and whatever. Crowley never had before, as a matter of principle, or at least hadn’t out loud, and old habits died hard.
He’d been in the cottage a little over a month now, and his heart still lodged in his throat every time his mobile rang. Yes, old habits died hard.
“Right in the middle,” Aziraphale was saying. “New Years’ is on Wednesday, coming up. It’s been a bit strange, you know, normally I’m so rushed off my feet—Christmas miracles, you know how it is—but this year it’s been so different, of course. I may have done Heaven a few freebies, but it can’t hurt, can it? Anyway,” he went on hurriedly, as if he didn’t want to discuss it, “I’m calling to report in on the List.”
Crowley frowned. “The List? You can’t have had your lesson this last week, with the holiday.”
“No, but Sanjay gave me a song to practice, and it’s a bit of a holiday tune—would you like to hear it?”
Aziraphale liked Christmas, Crowley remembered. He liked the modernity of it these days, the commercialism, even: the shops decked out in fairy lights and the laughing Santa Clauses, the gift-giving and the holiday parties. He liked the cheesy made-for-television movies and the glittering trees in their decorations and Christmas puddings, and, more than anything, he liked the miracles of it. It’s different, at Christmas, he had told Crowley once. People are looking for something magical to happen; they’re open to it. Feels more like a conversation, really, than just a performance.
Now Crowley was struck with the image of him tucked away in the bookshop by himself, watching humanity all go on without him.
“As long as it’s not O Come All Ye Faithful,” he said, just to make Aziraphale laugh a little, which Aziraphale did; it soothed some of the tightness in Crowley’s chest. “Go on then, let’s hear it.”
It was always a bit nerve-wracking to play for Crowley. He didn’t do it every call, maybe every other, or every third, and even though Aziraphale would never admit how nervous it made him, he thought Crowley probably knew. It was the casual hand-wave in his voice that gave him away; he only did that when he was trying to look like he wasn’t paying close attention even though he really was.
Aziraphale picked up the guitar anyway and tried to let the gentle teasing ease some of his anxiety. It was easier to keep going once he’d started, fortunately, and if Aziraphale’s version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas was a little simple and little juvenile and little stilted, Crowley didn’t say so.
“Happy Christmas,” was what he said instead, when Aziraphale picked the line back up. His voice had gone soft, as if he regretted not saying it properly earlier, and Aziraphale wondered if Crowley was thinking about the same things he was: all the years they’d spent together, on nights like these, and how it was that this year, of all years, they were apart.
Aziraphale cleared his throat against the little pocket of I-miss-you that was forming in the back of his mouth, prickling and sour, and thumbed instead across the guitar strings where he’d set it back down on the desk. “Happy Christmas,” he managed to say back.
Crowley hmm’d, as if he could hear something in Aziraphale’s voice he didn’t like, and changed the subject. “You’re going to knock old Sanjay’s socks clean off next time you go round, I bet. He won’t know what to do with you.”
A smile tugged at Aziraphale’s lips, and he let it. “I don’t know about that,” he said modestly. “He does say I’m getting better, though.”
“You are. By the end of next year, you’ll be a regular Jimi Hendrix.”
Aziraphale laughed this time, and he could hear the smile forming in Crowley’s voice too. “You’re being ridiculous.”
“Seriously, angel. It’ll be our first year with nothing to do but what we want. You could be anything a year from now.”
“A lot can change, can’t it?” Aziraphale hummed. “Just a year ago we were still on opposite sides.”
There was a pause, and then Crowley said, terribly softly, “No, we weren’t.”
Aziraphale breathed in the sound of him, wishing now more than ever that he were there in the shop, wrapped in his blanket and sipping hot cocoa and not avoiding Aziraphale’s gaze. He wished he could see Crowley’s expression as he said that, and know, finally, what he was really thinking.
“No,” he agreed. “I suppose we weren’t.”
Crowley took a deep breath, and Aziraphale could just about envision him nodding his head. “Still, this’ll be a different sort of year, won’t it? The first one on our own.”
“Seems that after six thousand years, you can, actually, teach these old dogs new tricks.”
“Old,” Crowley sneered, but he was laughing. “We’re not old.”
“We are literally the oldest beings on the planet, dear boy.”
“Relative to humans, maybe. I’m still a spring chicken by Hell’s standards.”
Aziraphale laughed again. “You’re a monster by Hell’s standards,” he pointed out.
“Your doing, not mine,” Crowley argued. “Though I suppose Hell’s Worst Nightmare is hardly the worst job I’ve ever had.”
“One of the best, I should think,” Aziraphale agreed. “Really, though, Crowley. Happy Christmas, happy New Year. I wish you—” were here to toast, he almost finished, and he swallowed back the words so quickly he nearly choked on them.
“I wish you all good fortune in your cottage,” Aziraphale recovered, not entirely gracefully. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
He’d said something like that once before to Crowley, not so long ago, looking at a painting of a train as it roared away from London as Crowley revealed just a little bit more of himself. Crowley had told him that he had, back then, and Aziraphale wondered what had changed.
Crowley coughed uncomfortably, as if he were remembering it too. “Well, right now I’m looking for plants that won’t bloody wilt as soon as I turn my back,” he said, in an obvious attempt to move past the tension. “They don’t even like the conservatory I’ve put in, the ungrateful little lumps.”
Aziraphale chuckled despite himself. “You ought to be nicer to them.”
“Absolutely not,” he declared, and then softened again. “What about you, angel? What are you looking for in the New Year?”
You, Aziraphale wanted to say. Just you, and a way out of this.
“To become Jimi Hendrix, obviously,” he said instead, and Crowley laughed.
The thing was this: guitar lessons from a professional guitar tutor were absolutely nothing at all like what Aziraphale had thought guitar lessons from Crowley might be.
He supposed he ought to have seen that coming.
Oh, certainly, the tutor himself was fine. He was a bright young thing called Sanjay who was apprenticing to take over the music shop from a grumpy old fellow who liked to say he’d been in Soho since the dawn of time, which even Aziraphale—who had actually been present at the dawn of time—was inclined to believe. Sanjay wore his passion for music on his sleeve, called Aziraphale Mr Fell, which was a much more ironic alias these days than it had been when Aziraphale first started using it several hundred years ago, and told Aziraphale at the end of every lesson that he was getting better.
Aziraphale was not sure that was really true, but that was not the point.
One of the things that humans were especially good at, Aziraphale had learned over the years, was denial. Humans could deny anything. Perform a miracle right in front of them in broad daylight, and nine out of ten would say that it was the result of a weather balloon. Tell any number of them that he was a Principality, Guardian of the Eastern Gate and angel of the Lord, and two-thirds would inevitably ask whether it had hurt when he’d fallen from Heaven, neverminding the fact that he was an angel precluded any idea that he’d fallen anywhere. Tell anyone at all that eleven-year-old Adam Young of Lower Tadfield, Oxfordshire, had once been the Antichrist, the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Prince of This World, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness, and every single one—minus about eight, give or take the current status of a few altered memories—would laugh, and a fair number would joke that he probably still was.
Humans were stunningly good at it, and Aziraphale had, quite possibly, picked up the habit. In his defence, though, it was really quite good for one’s ability to cope, no matter what Psychology Today had to say on the topic.
So Aziraphale was in a little bit of denial, and what Aziraphale had been denying was this: what he had really wanted from Crowley was something a bit more intimate than just a guitar lesson.
Perhaps a bit more than a bit.
Perhaps, one might say, rather a lot more.
So it was probably a very good thing that Aziraphale was not getting what he’d wanted from Crowley from Sanjay the shop tutor instead, all things considered.
(The most intimate thing happening in his guitar lessons was that Sanjay’s orange tabby cat was a little holy-happy on Aziraphale’s aura, which meant she spent most of the lesson twining around his ankles and mewing along to the songs. “Sorry,” Sanjay had told him, laughing and nudging the cat out of the door, “She’s been a little fussy, I think she might be pregnant. You should feel lucky, though, Sasha doesn’t usually like people.”
Crowley was like that too, actually; he didn’t usually like people, but he did like Aziraphale.)
When Aziraphale had thought about guitar lessons with Crowley, what he had wanted had been for Crowley to lean in, for Crowley to close the distances between them. For Crowley to sneak an arm around his waist, standing right up behind him, helping to adjust the hold of the guitar in his hands; to cover his fingers on the neck, guiding them into the proper chord formations. He’d wanted Crowley to laugh as he tried to conquer a guitar that could only be so wily after having spent half-a-century in a demon’s hall cupboard, and for Crowley to hum along as he found the songs that Crowley liked best to hear, and for Crowley’s face to light up in the triumph of it when Aziraphale finally got the music exactly right.
Aziraphale had wanted all of that and more, and he hadn’t had the courage to ask for it.
Instead he’d taken the guitar from Crowley’s hands and looked up expectantly, the same way he’d always done—in the dungeons of the Bastille, in the audiences of the Globe, in the restaurants of Rome—and waited for Crowley to smile and step in, the same way he’d always done.
But Crowley hadn’t.
Now, with a telephone receiver pressed to his ear and the faraway rings of Crowley’s mobile sounding down the line, Aziraphale was beginning to understand what it must have been like for Crowley, to always be the one taking the last step in, to always be the one gathering up the courage to find out if he were welcome. It must have been something like this: counting every second as it passed with the line unanswered and wondering if Crowley really wanted him to call, or if he were simply too polite to say otherwise.
Aziraphale snorted to himself at the thought—too polite. Crowley would be appalled at the very accusation.
Still, though. For six thousand years, Crowley had waited for Aziraphale to step back toward him. In the end, Aziraphale hadn’t been fast enough.
Don’t let me be too late, Aziraphale thought fiercely, every time he picked up the phone, every time he asked if he could call again next week, waiting anxiously as Crowley hesitated. I’m finding the courage. I will find it for you. Please don’t let me be too late.
“Speaking of the List,” Aziraphale said, sometime round the end of January, already mid-conversation and down a bottle and a half of really good Malbec, which had actually been Crowley’s favourite, not his, but somebody had to drink it, “you didn’t really expect me to redecorate the shop, did you?”
Crowley blew a laugh through his nose—he was a little drunk too. “You gotta,” he said, in that falsely eager tone that meant he was teasing. “Books sorted according to the Dewey decimal system—cafe tables, even, angel, you could put in a coffee counter—get WiFi in—”
“WiFi,” Aziraphale repeated, scandalised. “Don’t be horrible. Though suppose I could, you know, put up some new art or something, at least.”
“You could get yourself a Banksy,” Crowley said brightly. “Just have it spray-painted right there onto the walls.”
“I thought that was you. Banksy, I mean.”
“Nah, ‘s some bloke from Shoreditch. You could paint the walls normal-like, how about that? A nice black. Or a red.”
“S’pose I thought when you said redecorate we’d be doing your flat,” Aziraphale rambled on, ignoring Crowley altogether. The poured concrete monstrosity that Crowley had called a flat had been begging for a good warm hand; Aziraphale had been looking forward to it. Blankets, he’d thought. Lots and lots of blankets. Maybe even a rug.
“Well, I don’t live there now,” Crowley pointed out.
“No—are you doing the cottage then? I’m sure it’s terribly ostentatious.”
“Osten—I have good taste, angel!”
“You have Louis XIV’s taste, dear boy.”
“Maybe if he’d ever heard of minimalism, which he hadn’t.”
“So it’s not all marble floors and gold fixtures out there these days?”
“Well,” Crowley started, and then he laughed, which Aziraphale decided to take as some sort of admission that he’d at least considered the marble floors. “Not changed anything yet. S’pose a good Versailles look wouldn’t be half bad for this, would it? Country estate and all.”
Aziraphale snorted. “What about getting a pet, that’s still on the List too. You going to have one of those for your country estate? Are foxing dogs still popular? Have you got a great big tiger on a gold chain, that sort of thing?”
“You know, I hadn’t thought about it. I always imagined getting a cat for the shop.”
“A cat? In my stacks? I thought we were getting you something. Like a—a—I don’t know. A gerbil, maybe.”
“Me? Great big old snake with a gerbil in the flat? My, my, Aziraphale, I knew you were a bastard I didn’t realise you could be so cruel as all that.”
“Well, I was the one that didn’t want a pet at all, so I don’t know why you thought I would be taking it—”
“I dunno, I dunno,” Crowley said, laughing again. “I just didn’t think anything would take much to me is all. You know how most animals are with me—horses, how many horses’ve I fallen off? A dozen if it was once, angel, at least.”
That was true, all right, and Aziraphale was still laughing at the memory when he managed to say, “Then why put it on the List at all?” and promptly wished he hadn’t, because he already knew the answer: we were supposed to be doing it together.
Crowley apparently wished he hadn’t too, because he didn’t answer. The line went very quiet, echoing from the sudden void of laughter, resounding from the near confession rippling back and forth between them: they were supposed to be doing it together, and neither of them were very sure they could do it without each other.
Aziraphale didn’t want to do it without Crowley.
But Crowley was trying very hard, for whatever reason, to do it without him.
All the alcohol in Aziraphale’s system suddenly had somewhere else it urgently needed to be, leaving an aching black pit in its wake, thick and heavy underneath Aziraphale’s breastbone. He straightened himself up in his chair, putting his wine glass aside.
“Crowley,” he said, wondering where he ought to even begin. I need you, he wanted to say, embarrassingly, but I need more for you not to need me, if that’s what you want. His voice trembled a little; he coughed into his elbow, trying to steady himself. “Of course you could take care of a pet, if you wanted one. Of course you could. You took care of Warlock after all, for all those years, and that was probably about as difficult as it gets, really. And you’ve always had your plants. You’ve always been good at taking care of things.”
Even me, he thought, but didn’t dare say.
The silence echoed between them again. The pit under Aziraphale’s chest grew and grew, wrapping onto his ribs and pulling them apart.
“I’ve been looking up plant food,” Crowley blurted out. “They’re just—I’ve always just made them do what they’re supposed to, but they’re not doing it anymore. Been trying to figure out, you know. Which needs more sun, which needs less, what kind of soil they need. I don’t think I’m very good at it.”
The black pit in Aziraphale’s chest had a stranglehold on his throat, too, and it was prickling behind Aziraphale’s eyes. “But you’re not giving up on them, are you?”
“I dunno,” he sighed. “I think I might be too late.”
“I don’t think so,” Aziraphale said. “I think you ought to keep trying.”
Crowley hummed thoughtfully, and then there was a deliberate sort of silence, like he was remembering himself. “Listen, angel,” he said, sounding much more sober, and Aziraphale knew what he was going to say before he even said it, “I’ve got to go.”
“Of course,” Aziraphale said, because that’s what Aziraphale always said when Crowley decided the conversation had gone on long enough, because Aziraphale had thought that was him giving Crowley the space he needed, that that was enough, and he knew what he was going to say instead this time too, before he said it, but that didn’t make it hurt any less to say. “And Crowley? If this whole calling thing, you know. I don’t have to, if it’s not what you—”
But he didn’t get to finish, because Crowley said, interrupting, in a fiercely casual tone, “Same time next week?”
Aziraphale blinked, and the pit in his chest constricted in on itself. “Oh,” he managed. “Well, if that’s—if that’s really what you want, dear boy.”
“Seven o’clock, Sunday night,” Crowley instructed, as if Aziraphale might have forgotten what time he’d been calling all these weeks, and then the line went dead.
Aziraphale sat with the receiver in his hand for a very long time afterward, then he finally put it back in its cradle, feeling very warm. Seven o’clock, Sunday night, he thought, wishing Crowley could still hear him. I won’t be late.
Aziraphale did call the next Sunday night, right at seven o’clock.
Crowley answered on the second ring.
“You’re getting better,” Sanjay said at the end of their lesson sometime in mid-February, and for the first time in months, Aziraphale actually thought he might believe him.
“Thank you,” he answered a little primly, rather than protesting, and grinned a little cockily as he went to put his guitar back into its case, where there was a noticeable lack of orange tabby sleeping in the case lining or winding around Aziraphale’s feet. “Where’s Sasha tonight? I missed her yowling along.”
Sanjay’s smile grew into a huge, delighted thing. “She’s had her kittens. Want to see them?”
Aziraphale did, and the six achingly small bits of fluff tucked into a blanket with Sasha in the back of the shop were much like every other infant he’d ever seen: new and trusting, full of so much possibility, full of so much hope.
Crowley found the first green shoots early, just peeking through the rough layer of dead leaves that had covered the flower beds last autumn. The ground wasn’t quite frozen anymore, but the overnight frosts hadn’t quite stopped yet, and he hadn’t been expecting to find anything yet. Galanthus nivalis: the common snowdrop.
They were so unlikely, these delicate little things. That they should live in this sleeping soil, that they should grow into this cold sunlight, that they should bud and bloom and thrive even though spring had not yet opened her welcoming hands: they were so implausible.
They were exhilarating.
Miracles could grow a plant like this, Crowley thought. Miracles could make them start, make them invincible, make them last, but they wouldn’t really be real, then. They wouldn’t be what they are: improbable, and incredible, and unafraid.
He had lived in a garden raised on fear, once. On walls, and limits, and never really knowing where they were until he was being pushed over them, and Crowley was so tired of wondering when they had been built around him, waiting for him to tip over their edges. He was tired of reliving his own terrors, sowing the land with sorrow and speculation and hoping that someday he’d be able to understand what had happened.
He had fallen. That’s what had happened.
Maybe there was a reason and maybe there wasn’t, but for the first time in six thousand years, Crowley didn’t need to know—why him, why those questions, why those angels, why this plan. It didn’t matter anymore.
There was life here, life that was desperate to be lived, and his garden did not have walls.
Crowley couldn’t raise this garden on fear and punishment, and he couldn’t raise it on praise and blind belief, either. He could only raise it the way the garden needed to be raised—not the way he demanded that it be.
He needed to do the work.
It was cold out still, cold enough to make Crowley shiver in the wind. He went back into the cottage, wrapped Aziraphale’s red and black scarf around his neck to ward off the chill, and got to work.
“Tell me about the garden,” Aziraphale said one night in early April, interrupting a musing about whether the local Indian place would deliver out to Crowley’s cottage if he offered a big enough tip (they would—he did, after all, tip very, very well).
“I tell you loads about the garden,” he pointed out.
“You don’t, really,” Aziraphale said, mildly enough, but the comment was pointed enough to land where Aziraphale wanted it to: somewhere between are you all right? and do you still trust me?
Because Crowley didn’t talk much about the garden, and they both knew it. There was something terribly intimate about it, something terribly personal about it, this garden he was trying to build with his own hands. It was more a part of him than any temptation or blessing or creation he’d ever performed; it was more a part of his soul than any claim Heaven or Hell might ever have had over him.
It was, Crowley thought, something like a wish, or maybe a prayer: please, let it grow. Let me create this. Let me be able to nurture something into blooming.
It hadn’t been all that long since Crowley had prayed—not as long as one might think, anyway, for a demon—but the garden felt different than She ever had.
It felt more like Aziraphale, dialing Crowley’s number every Sunday night at seven o’clock for the last six months, waiting to see if he’d still answer.
“What do you want to know?” he asked cautiously, sliding down in his seat on the sofa so he could stare up at the ceiling. He snapped a glass of whisky into his hand and then snapped Aziraphale’s cocoa back to warmth while he was at it, because Aziraphale had said it was a cocoa night and because he tended to forget those sorts of things.
Aziraphale made a surprised little noise in his throat; he must have been holding his mug idly in his hand. “What are you going to plant? What will it look like?”
Crowley thought about it for a while. “Roses,” he began slowly. “Obviously—it wouldn’t be a proper English garden without roses. And lilies, I think.”
“The flowers of rebirth,” Aziraphale said softly.
“I was thinking more along the lines of funerals,” Crowley lied, and Aziraphale gave a soft laugh through his nose.
“Go on, what else?”
Crowley sighed, rolling over to face the back of the sofa. He wished Aziraphale were here while he was telling him this; the quiet of his voice pressed against Crowley’s ear almost made it feel like he was, like he was right there, just behind Crowley, just a hands-breadth away.
“Mandevilla, for the arbor,” he started, closing his eyes against the worn leather of the sofa, drawing it up in his mind. “Primrose and phlox. Peonies. Dahlias and hydrangeas, maybe some lilac bushes. Ferns and hostas, for fillers, of course, and boxwood, lamb’s ear, artemisia. Couple of fruit trees too, if I can manage it. Lemons, maybe. Pears.”
It was quiet for a while, and Crowley laid there on his sofa, imagining the breeze on his face, imagining the sun on the back of his neck.
He always imagined the garden with Aziraphale in it.
“I can just picture it, Crowley,” Aziraphale said eventually. “It’ll be gorgeous.”
Crowley smiled, and let himself laugh, just a little. “No you can’t,” he protested. “You don’t know the first thing about plants. You’ve no idea what any of that will look like.”
“But it will be gorgeous, won’t it?”
Crowley looked again at the image in his mind again, at the image of Aziraphale surrounded by things Crowley had grown, surrounded by white and red and lush, thick greens, navigating the gravel paths, stopping to exclaim over a particularly heady rose.
“Yeah,” he said. “It will be.”
There was silence down the line as he lost himself in the thought again, and then Aziraphale said, “Crowley?”
“Do you remember, when we were at the cottage together, and you said that I was still stuck in the garden?” His voice was cautious, sort of withheld somehow, as if he was just as afraid of getting an answer as he was of not getting one. “Will you tell me what you meant?”
Crowley took a deep breath, and thought about it. Truly thought about it: telling Aziraphale about wanting, about waiting. Telling him about going too fast, and leaving one another behind. About how expectation was a ruin, and how he never wanted to ruin this. How he never wanted to lose this.
“No,” he finally said. “No, but—ask me again sometime, all right?”
Aziraphale nodded. Crowley couldn’t see him, but he knew anyway. “All right.”
He thought about calling Aziraphale sometimes. When he bought his first packet of seeds; when he discovered the bulbs of dormant irises buried deep underneath the sitting room window. When he burnt his first attempt at making his own toast, or when he finally got around to hanging his sketch of La Gioconda, or when he heard a song Aziraphale might like to learn to play on the radio. Tell me what books to fill my library with, he heard himself asking, too earnest, too eager. It’s the spectre of this house; it always reminds me of you.
He didn’t, but he thought about it sometimes.
Once spring got started out on the Downs, it came in a rush, and Aziraphale’s song was perfect the next time he played.
The conversation had been going on for hours, Aziraphale’s voice turning worn and husky as he started getting tired. Crowley had been wandering about the cottage, gossiping with him over the state of the village church—crumbling—and the new vegan sushi restaurant that had moved in catty-corner to the bookshop—earnest, was Aziraphale’s word for it, which made Crowley laugh and Aziraphale sputter defensively.
“Do you mind if I play?” he asked, when their giggles died down, “I have something a little special, actually.”
“’Course,” Crowley said easily, and he’d listened to the muffled sounds of Aziraphale fiddling his phone into position as he crawled into bed. It had gone half-eleven somehow, and Crowley had gone through his usual evening rituals without even realising it. He fluffed his pillows and sank back under the covers as Aziraphale did a bit of spot tuning, and then, after a pause, Aziraphale began to play.
The guitar sounded good in his hands, even over the crackling reception of Aziraphale’s ancient phone; it sounded full and rich and warm, and although Aziraphale didn’t sing the lines alongside the music, Crowley imagined he could hear him mouthing the words. Only forever, the song went, that’s puttin’ it mild.
The same song that had played, aeons ago, on a staticky standing radio in Aziraphale’s flat. The same song that had played as they’d eaten homemade lasagne and laughed into their cups, with Crowley wrapped in a blanket that smelled like the bookshop downstairs and Aziraphale gone pink above his collar.
It’s in those moments, Aziraphale had said that night, in the worst one where you have no hope left—that you really understand what’s important.
Aziraphale played every note perfectly, not just accurately and at tempo but with that feeling, that traitorous, horrible feeling like he was just as lonely as Crowley was in that moment, and Crowley felt each one of them all the way down past his breastbone and into his spine, settling like stones.
When the song ended, there was nothing but silence for a long, long moment. All the space in the cottage seemed to crowd into the room with him, pressing in on him, weighing him down.
Then there was a shuffle on the line as Aziraphale set down the guitar, and picked the receiver back up. “What did you think?” he asked quietly.
It was sincere and it was bare and it was fragile, and it hit Crowley hard somewhere beneath his ribs and stayed there, pulling at the bloody, vulnerable places in him like a fish hook. He wished he were in London. He wished he were in the shop, that he were there to pop open a bottle of champagne to celebrate, to pull Aziraphale into a hug. To feel the calluses on Aziraphale’s fingertips for himself; to see the line of concentration Aziraphale must wear when he played even out into relief and excitement when he realized that he’d done it.
Instead he was here, curled into a great big bed by himself, and Aziraphale was in London, sitting alone at the desk in the empty bookshop as the city went on without him.
He heard Aziraphale swallow over the line and realised that he’d been silent for too long. There was a quick attempt at pulling himself together, clearing his throat and wetting his lips, but his voice was hushed when he answered, croaky with all the possible confessions so eager suddenly to be heard.
“That was perfect, angel,” he said softly. “That was really perfect.”
There was another pause.
“Maybe I could play it for you in person some time,” Aziraphale finally said, and Crowley could hear his forced smile in it, his forced casualness, the way Aziraphale spoke when he was trying to make the best of things even though he didn’t really believe himself. The way he sounded when he was trying not to say something else.
“Yeah,” Crowley answered, wishing he could say something more definitive, wishing he could just say what he meant: come here, come find me, come tell me why your voice sounds the way I feel. “Maybe some time.”
Aziraphale sat looking at the phone for a long time when he hung up that night. He thought about Crowley’s silences, about the soft rustling sounds of Crowley wrapped in his bedsheets, shifting slowly, listening intently as Aziraphale played the song that Crowley had once sung snippets of in Aziraphale’s flat.
He thought about the tone of Crowley’s voice as he said, that was perfect, angel.
There was something caught in Aziraphale’s throat, thick and desperate; he suspected that if he opened his mouth again and let it come out, it would sound an awful lot like I love you.
“You know,” Sanjay said as they packed up after their next lesson, with a sort of studied casualness, “the kittens are ready to go off to new homes this week.”
Aziraphale looked up, surprised at how sad that sounded: tiny little things, sent out into the world, their small futures suddenly uncertain. “Oh,” he managed, trying to smile, “I hadn’t realised they were getting that big already.”
“You can see for yourself,” Sanjay offered, and he led Aziraphale back into the little office he’d seen them in before, when they were new. Sasha was still keeping a close eye, but she’d hopped up to lay out on the desk next to the computer, giving them a little space; the kittens wandered the floor, little tottering bumbles of white and ginger and the occasional black splotch, playing and investigating, falling over one another as they went, meowing up a racket in those soft kitten voices.
“Well, aren’t you a proud mum,” Aziraphale said to Sasha, rubbing her ears and looking over the group. He looked back over his shoulder at Sanjay, who was leaning in the doorway. “Where will they go?”
“Well, I was wondering if you might want one.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” he shook his head. “No, no, I really couldn’t,” but he also couldn’t tear his eyes away. The kittens were wobbly, fearless things, curious things; he watched them closely, watched them stumble, their eyes turning away from their mother as they readied themselves to strike out into the world.
A little ginger thing, all ears and legs, stumbled over to Aziraphale to bat at his trousers, getting a claw caught in the fabric. Aziraphale watched it try to sort itself for a moment, then, helpless to do anything else, bent to untangle it and picked it up.
“Hello,” he said to it. “Not very good at introductions yet, are you?”
The kitten looked back with wide, amber eyes, and showed Aziraphale all its teeth even as it settled into his arms.
“You’ve been chosen,” Sanjay said, tilting his head at the two of them, grinning a little conspiratorially, as if he and the kitten had had some kind of deal. “Are you really going to leave him behind?”
The kitten hooked its tiny claws into Aziraphale’s waistcoat and looked up at him, meowing loudly as if to protest, and Aziraphale thought about the first time he’d seen Crowley, so many years ago: stumbling on two new, uncertain feet, left to find a home in a strange world all on his own, unable to stop himself from reaching out even though by rights Aziraphale should have warred against him.
Aziraphale had not warred against him though, had he? He’d lifted his wing in shelter instead.
Chosen, Aziraphale thought to himself, and then he thought about Crowley alone in the cottage on the South Downs with nothing but his garden to keep him company, the way Crowley’s voice had sounded on their last call. Am I really going to leave him behind?
Crowley needed something to love, Aziraphale thought, and something to love him back. It was in his nature, even if he’d never admit it, even if he were afraid of it. Crowley deserved to love, and to be loved in return.
Even if it weren’t by Aziraphale.
“No,” he sighed, using one finger to unhook the kitten from his waistcoat. “I suppose I’m not.”
A series of storms rolled over the Downs in late April, and Crowley’s garden burst into life.
Leaves unfurled. Stems and shoots rose up. Delicate, fragile blooms began to unfold from their tightly curled buds, spreading brilliant whites and reds so dark as to almost be black across the landscape. Everything smelled fresh and full of life, like rich, dark earth and early morning dew, and the garden thrived.
Well, most of the garden thrived, anyway.
The apple tree did not.
It was almost invisible from the house now, with everything else in full bloom, but the presence of it haunted Crowley: dormant and barren, its twisted branches reaching into the sky. He knew it wasn’t dead—shearing off a bit of bark revealed the inside still green and damp, still teaming with potential growth—but the damn thing wouldn’t blossom or leaf or give any signs of life at all. He tried everything he could think of, from fertilizing the soil around it to pruning back branches and shoveling out the drip line, but it seemed determined to ignore his efforts.
The rest of the garden grew on.
It was harder than Crowley had expected, to not use miracles and curses. He had calluses from his shovels and rakes; there was dirt permanently ground into his pair of work denims. He worked hard, his body struggling to keep up with the onslaught, and still the leaves were a little sparse in some places; the colours not as vibrant as Crowley had hoped. Flowers grew in slightly uneven rows and no matter what he did to the little gravel path, there always seemed to be some bit of stone here or there that had hopped out of place.
But Crowley found the aches and pains in his muscles strangely satisfying, and the imperfections in the plants and paths even more so. They were his aches, his pains, by no one else’s design, and he could work through them and work past them and work with them, and the garden was beautiful with all of his imperfections still in place.
Nature versus nurture, Crowley reminded himself as he tackled the hedges with a pair of shears, glaring at the apple tree from the corner of his eye but careful to keep the miracle out of it. He was not going to give up on it, not as long as there was still some life in it. I just need to figure out what it needs. What it’s waiting for.
When the hedges had been straightened back into their neat, trim lines and the debris of clipped branches cleared away, he wiped the sweat from his brow and sat, exhausted, on the bench beneath the tree’s bare branches, letting the sun beat down on the back of his neck and wondering if the tree would die before he ever saw it flower.
He was still sitting there when the sun started to set, and from somewhere in the house, he heard his mobile start to ring.
The kitten was a monster. Aziraphale, who was himself considered a monster by Heaven and who had gone to trial in Hell only to walk free, felt very well qualified to say so. A small, fluffy, enthusiastic monster, and also, unbearably cute.
Crowley would love him.
It was easy for Crowley to love things, after all. He had the Bentley, and now he had the cottage, and Aziraphale thought he just needed the last piece of the puzzle: something he could love that would love him back.
He’d probably teach him all sorts of evil tricks, too.
Aziraphale tsk’d to himself, then scooped the kitten into his lap, waited patiently for the clock to strike seven, and phoned Crowley.
“I don’t suppose you’re interested in a cat?” Aziraphale said, after the usual beginnings had been exchanged—pleasantries, he’d call them with anybody else, but Crowley would’ve been aghast had Aziraphale even thought such a thing in reference to him. “Well, kitten, I suppose. Probably would be a good mouser, really, if he were raised anywhere there were mice. Whomever knows there’s none here in the shop.”
Crowley laughed. “What makes you think I allow mice in my house?”
He did not, Aziraphale noted, say no.
“Not in the house. In the fields. Aren’t there little mice in your meadows? You could probably stand to let a few into your shed now and then, just for sport. I could bring him down to you on Thursday, stay the weekend, what do you think?”
Please, he thought fiercely, hoping he’d said it casually enough to not make it seem like a big deal. To not make it seem like he was desperate for it. He held his breath, waiting, twisting the cord of his ancient telephone into his fingers. Please say yes. Show me the flowers in your back garden that you’re so proud of. Show me that you’ve made a home for yourself out there.
There was only silence on the other end of the line, and Aziraphale’s chest ached as it went on, and on, and on.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale asked again, and now his voice had gone audibly uncertain over the line. He tried to work up a smile, so that Crowley could hear that instead. “What do you think?”