KINGDON OF WESSEX 537
It was ridiculous, thought Aziraphale, clanking and squelching his way through the damp forest. Utterly ridiculous. That Crowley would even suggest it was… well it did make a bit of sense, in terms of end results, but it was the principle of the thing. They were Enemies. Capital E.
He ducked under a tree, moving awkwardly in the restrictive armour, and floundered when a scraggly branch caught on his cloak.
“Oh… oh… drat!” he snapped, biting back a more scathing expletive. He tore himself free.
His last encounter with Crowley had been an outlier, amongst the handful of other times they’d run into one another over the last few thousand years. He hadn’t quite intended to invite the demon to lunch, except that he’d been ever so excited to try Petronius’ oysters, and had gotten caught up with the idea of sharing the experience with somebody capable of appreciating it.
Still, the look on Crowley’s face when he’d asked, speculative and a little pleased, made Aziraphale glad that he’d made the offer. He’d even been considering asking Crowley again, the next time they met.
Except the demon had gone and suggested an alliance of all things. Lying to their superiors, abandoning the tasks they’d been given; it was preposterous, and foolish, and just… just too much.
He flicked up his visor, rubbing at this face. He had to remember that Crowley was a demon. No matter how congenial his company had been, by his very nature his intentions ran counter to Aziraphale’s.
The righteous thing to do was to ignore the temptation, and continue with his good work. It wasn’t disappointment he felt over the missed opportunity to share a meal with Crowley again. Really.
Above him, the sky made an ominous rumbling noise, and it started to rain.
Aziraphale trudged his way through the winding streets, skirting past the dark alleyways. It was a clear night, the moon shining near full, but the city was subdued.
He hated plagues. This one was relatively new to this part of the world, a nasty malady the humans called smallpox. It didn’t belong to either Side, which was almost worse, in a way. So much suffering for no reason.
The angel was ostensibly in the city to help inspire an architect, but he was taking a detour through one of the poorer districts to in search of a bookshop. He’d heard they had a particular rare tome he’d been curious about.
He’d walked a few steps past the entrance to a narrow lane when a familiar voice brought him up short.
“Is this her?”
Aziraphale backed up, poking his head around the corner. It was Crowley. He was standing with his back to the laneway entrance, a dark silhouette in the moonlight. As his side, a scrawny boy clutched at the demon’s hand.
Aziraphale opened his mouth to speak, frowned, and stayed silent instead.
“Show me,” said Crowley, crouching down next to a pile of rags. His voice was gentle, with none of the sarcastic bite that Aziraphale had grown to know over the centuries.
The angel smothered a gasp as the pile of rags moved, and a little girl no more than four sat up. Her skin was marred with distinctive pockmarks and her movements were feeble.
“Your parents couldn’t help her?” Crowley asked the boy. The child was still holding the demon’s hand, eyes wide and desperate. He shook his head, and mumbled something too low for Aziraphale to hear.
Crowley sighed, and glanced around. Aziraphale flung himself back around the corner, heart hammering.
“Alright,” Crowley continued, “alright, can you keep a secret?”
Aziraphale risked another peek. The boy nodded, and Crowley gently disentangled his hand. He reached forward, and Aziraphale realised belatedly that he should probably be thwarting whatever it was that Crowley was doing. His feet didn’t move though, and he remained quiet.
“Hold still a moment, sweetie,” Crowley murmured, and Aziraphale’s jaw dropped. Sweetie?! The demon passed his hand over the girl’s brow, frowning in concentration.
The marks on her skin shifted, and then smoothed out in a rippling wave, leaving healthy olive skin behind. She blinked, and straightened up, raising a hand to poke at her cheek. The boy cried out, and flung himself on her. Crowley stood up as they hugged, dusting off his hands.
“Go on then,” he told them, obviously aiming for stern but missing the mark by a wide margin. “Get going.” He made a shooing motion. The children scrambled to their feet, and rushed to throw their arms around the demon’s waist. He stiffened, holding his arms up out of the way. “Yes, yes.” He cleared his throat. “That’s enough of that.”
They let go, and turned to race away down the alleyway, bare feet slapping on the ground.
Aziraphale stared, mouth hanging open.
“Crowley…?” he asked, incredulous.
The demon jumped like he’d been doused in a bucket of water. He spun to face Aziraphale, yellow eyes wide with shock over the rims of his tinted glasses.
“You!” he exclaimed, taking a step backwards. He shot a quick look up the laneway away from Aziraphale, where the children were ducking around the corner and out of sight.
Aziraphale put up his hands, palms out. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“What are you doing here?” Crowley hissed, stalking forwards. Aziraphale backed up, still holding up his hands.
“Oh, I was just—”
Crowley poked a jabbing finger at his chest, scowling. “You need to mind your own business, angel.”
Aziraphale’s shoulders hit a wall, and he stopped, holding his breath. Crowley glared at him, finger still on the angel’s chest as he crowded him against the stone.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale started, “that was—”
“Nope!” Crowley snapped, spinning away.
“Not a word, angel, understand?”
Aziraphale paused, then pushed himself off the wall. “Yes… yes I think I do understand.”
Crowley squinted at him suspiciously. “…right.”
The moon dipped behind a feathery cloud, deepening the shadows and painting the city in dappled light.
“Listen,” said Aziraphale, holding up a hand when Crowley opened his mouth to speak. “Listen, I was wondering if you could help me out.” Crowley shut his mouth, eyes widening. Lord, Aziraphale hoped he was doing the right thing. “I’ve got a blessing that I’m supposed to do here, up near the harbour. Helping an architect with inspiration for designing a church.”
Crowley went still as stone, reptilian eyes unblinking.
“I was, uh, well I was hoping that… you might… take care of it for me?”
The demon stared, for long enough that Aziraphale started to regret his request, but before he could rescind it Crowley unfroze and blurted “What?!”
Aziraphale ducked his head. “I’d owe you one, of course, it’s just that I’m not here for long, and there’s a book I’ve been searching for for quite some time, you see. I haven’t the time to do both, and since you’re here already, I thought that, well, I thought you might be available to, uh…”
“Lend a hand?” Crowley finished for him. Some intense emotion was flickering across the demon’s face, but Aziraphale couldn’t place it.
“Well… yes,” he replied. “I imagine you’re quite busy too, though, so it’s—”
Aziraphale stared. “Oh.”
The seconds ticked by, neither moving. Aziraphale felt like he was standing on the precipice of… of something, heart beating too fast. It was a very human feeling.
“Well!” he said, at the same time that Crowley said “Right!”
The demon cleared his throat. “I’ll uh, get onto it, then, shall I?”
“Yes!” said Aziraphale, a bit too enthusiastically. “I’ll, err, I’ll start looking for my book.”
“Okay,” Crowley said, still not moving.
“Okay,” Aziraphale agreed.
The watched each other for another handful of thudding heartbeats, then turned on their heels, and left.
“You owe me one, angel,” Crowley reminded him, teeth glinting in a dangerous grin.
“I am aware,” Aziraphale replied, ignoring the demon in favour of running his hands over the bolt of cloth in front of him. “This is quite lovely,” he told the merchant. The deep blue linen had an inscription woven from golden yellow silk, and the contrast was striking.
Crowley hopped up to sit perched on the edge of the market stall’s table, on top of several rolls of fabric. Over his shoulder, the merchant glared at Aziraphale, like the demon’s behaviour was his fault somehow.
“I promise it’s nothing especially Evil.” Crowley raised his fingers in quotation marks over the last word. “In fact, I think you’ll quite like it.”
Aziraphale glared at him pointedly, pressing his lips together. Crowley rolled his eyes and slid off the display. The angel gave the merchant an apologetic smile, and tugged Crowley away by his elbow.
“It’s a temptation, Crowley, I’m quite sure I won’t like it,” he said as they joined the flow of foot traffic weaving through the marketplace. He’d been waiting to run into the demon again since their last encounter and was feeling no small amount of trepidation at the prospect of paying back his favour.
Crowley let out an exaggerated sigh. “Well, if you feel that strongly about it, I suppose I can make the trip all the way across the city to the House of Wisdom myself…”
Aziraphale screeched to a halt. The two craftsmen walking behind him nearly ran into him, scowling as they stepped around. “Did—Did you say the House of Wisdom?” he asked, grabbing Crowley by the arm.
The demon’s lips curled around a smug smile. “I know, I know, it’s a long way to go for a stuffy old library.”
“Stuffy old—” Aziraphale began, outraged, then stopped when he saw the laughter in Crowley’s eyes. He let go, adjusting the cuffs of his tunic. “Well. What precisely needs to be done?”
Crowley started walking again. “I need you to tempt a scholar to take up a position as head of the library.”
“Whatever for?” Aziraphale asked, hurrying to catch up.
“So that he has the platform to distribute his new book.”
Aziraphale was hopelessly confused. “His book?”
“The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing,” Crowley said, putting on a falsely posh accent. He dropped back to his regular tones. “It’s going to revolutionise mathematics.”
Aziraphale blinked. “And you want that to happen because…?”
Crowley grinned. “Because it’s going to be simultaneously be frightfully difficult to learn, and irreplaceably important. The humans will be forced to deal with it for millennia and it’ll be beautiful.” He turned back to look at Aziraphale, yellow eyes flashing with delight over his glasses.
It struck Aziraphale that he’d never seen the demon so happy. Something had changed, since Constantinople, some barrier crumbled away. He looked radiant, honestly, a swagger in his step and golden sunlight glinting on the tufts of dark red hair poking out from under his shawl.
“Well?” Crowley asked, raising his brows.
“Err,” hedged Aziraphale, bringing his attention back to the conversation.
“Come on,” Crowley coaxed, “I’ll even buy you lunch.”
“Oh!” Aziraphale said, a swooping feeling in his chest, “Okay then.”
Crowley’s answering smile made the feeling redouble, and Aziraphale swallowed.
Aziraphale nearly didn’t hear the snippet of conversation over the noise of the festival. He would have tuned it out entirely, except for the familiar name that caught his ear. He turned away from the street performer he’d been watching, and located the man who’d spoken.
“Excuse me,” he said with a polite bow of his head to the man and his companion, “did you say the name Crowley? Tall fellow, dark red hair, and uh…” He’d forgotten the word for eyeglasses in the local language. He made circles with his fingers and held them over his eyes hopefully.
One of the men looked at him blankly, but the other nodded with recognition. “Yes! You know him? Who is he?”
“I do! We’re… uh… well, we’re… acquainted,” Aziraphale hedged. “Is he in town?”
“He visited my master’s household earlier today,” the man replied, seemingly happy to gossip. “I don’t know what he said, but he left my master in quite a state. They rode for the eastern gate before the sun set.”
“Oh,” said Aziraphale, surprised by the intensity of his own disappointment.
One of the performing acrobats flung themselves into a particularly impressive leap, and the men drew away from Aziraphale to join the rest of the gawking crowd. Aziraphale glanced upwards; it was well past sunset, Crowley was likely some distance away by now.
Still, he had been meaning to travel east in the morning. Surely there was no harm in leaving a little earlier than he’d planned.
He found the demon just beyond sight of the city walls, the lamplight a dull glow in the distance. Crowley was sprawled on a hilltop, looking up towards the sky. Below him a group of well-dressed humans were fiddling excitedly with a spherical, mechanical contraption, pointing at the stars and scribbling things on parchment.
Crowley turned to look as Aziraphale approached, and raised his eyebrows.
“Angel?” he asked, surprise in his voice. “What are you doing here?”
“Crowley,” he replied, coming to a halt beside him. “I heard you were in town. I was… I wanted…” Aziraphale coughed, adjusting his headdress, and gestured at the humans. “What’s, err, what’s happening here?”
Crowley hesitated, narrowing his eyes in consideration, then relaxed and patted the grass next to him. “Why don’t you wait and find out.” There was a glint of challenge in his eyes.
“Oh,” said Aziraphale, glancing around, “I really shouldn’t…”
“Nobody here but us and the humans, angel.” Crowley’s voice was very soft. He was still looking at Aziraphale.
Aziraphale took a shaky breath, and sat. Crowley turned back to the sky, lips twisting upwards in a smirk. The wind picked up. It rustled through the grass and snatched at their clothes, and sent the humans scurrying after their scattered paper.
“Been in China long?” Aziraphale whispered.
“A while, yes,” Crowley murmured in reply. “You?”
They let silence fall.
Aziraphale tried to relax, plucking idly at the grass in front of him. His heart was misbehaving again, thudding along too fast. Crowley seemed content, long legs stretched out in front of him. He’d changed his hair again; it was long and bound up in a topknot, held in place by pins carved to resemble snakes.
“Here we go,” said Crowley, sitting up and tugging his glasses off his nose.
Aziraphale jumped, and looked back at the humans guiltily. He’d been staring. The sky above the eastern horizon was brightening, black easing to deep blue.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale began, “What are we—”
He cut himself off with a startled inhale. A sparkling star crested the horizon, bright as the moon but smaller, made of intense white light that branched out into glimmering yellow. The humans cried out, pointing and laughing, and adjusting their mechanical contraption.
Aziraphale’s jaw hung open. It was beautiful.
At his side, Crowley let out a satisfied humming noise. Aziraphale turned to look at him; there was a tiny smile tilting up the corner of his mouth, and his yellow eyes were bright with reflected starlight. The angel snapped his gaze back to the sky, swallowing.
“What is it?” he asked, fighting to keep the emotion out of his voice.
“The humans call it a guest star,” Crowley replied, voice soft. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the light.
“A… guest star?”
The demon hummed confirmation. “Mmhmm. Really it’s a supernova.” He brought his hands together into a ball then gestured outwards with fingers outstretched, mimicking an explosion. “Not as impressive from here as it is up close of course, but pretty enough.”
Aziraphale stared again. The demon’s posture was artfully loose with affected disinterest, but there was an intensity underneath, barely perceptible.
Crowley’s eyes flicked up to meet Aziraphale’s, and the angel felt pinned in place, unable to look away.
“It was one of mine,” Crowley whispered.
Aziraphale blinked rapidly. “One of…” he trailed off in realisation. “You—You made…? Before you…?”
The demon turned away. “Yup.” He popped the ‘p’ sound, shrugging. The light in his eyes shuttered a little, flickering behind something deep and aching. Aziraphale started to move his hand before he realised what he was doing, then pulled it back and let it fall into his lap.
“What will happen to it?” he asked.
“It’ll burn for a while,” Crowley said, “and the humans will fuss over it and make predictions with it, and then it’ll fade.”
Aziraphale looked down at his hands. “That’s a little sad, that something so beautiful is so fleeting.”
Crowley looked back at him sharply, startled. “It won’t really be gone,” he said after a moment. “Just different. In a thousand years it’ll be a nebula.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale considered that. “A shame the humans won’t see it.”
Crowley took a breath, let it out, and shifted position, reaching up to fidget with the pins in his hair. His eyes flicked between Aziraphale and the star several times before he sat up straight and braced his shoulders.
“I could show you, if you like.” His tone was flippant, but the tension in his posture was unmistakable.
“Show me…?” asked Aziraphale.
Crowley held up a hand, flexing his fingers in a jerky wave. “The nebula. If you wanted.”
Aziraphale’s eyes widened. “Oh. Oh.”
Crowley waited, hand help up in offer. Aziraphale’s heart hammered in his chest. He felt altogether too human, some unknown chasm gaping at his feet.
The word was a ghost of a whisper when it passed his lips, but Crowley heard. The demon shifted closer. He reached forward and Aziraphale held his breath, frozen in place. Crowley’s fingers stilled, hovering above the back of the angel’s hand where it rested on his knee. The moment stretched; for two breaths, then three, long enough that doubt started clamouring in Aziraphale’s mind.
Then Crowley pressed two fingers to the back of the angel’s hand.
It was instantaneous. A mental image as clear as if it were right in front of him. Shining brightness. Tendrils of fine golden light, woven through with green, and blue, and other colours the humans didn’t have names for. The shimmering filaments twisted and arced around one another, pulsing with light, and beyond them stars glittered like diamonds amongst the inky black.
Aziraphale smothered a ragged breath. Beneath the image he could feel Crowley; awe and satisfaction and pride, and something else, something more, deep and vast as the star-studded void.
Aziraphale tore his hand away, and staggered to his feet. Crowley recoiled like he’d been burned, snatching his hand backwards. They stared at one another, the angel’s breaths coming in panting gasps.
“Angel—” Crowley started to say.
“I have to go!” Aziraphale said over the top of him. “I need to… got something very important I need to…” He rubbed at the back of his hand, fighting to regain his composure. “It was very nice to see you.”
Crowley didn’t say anything, still sitting on the grass. He picked up his glasses and put them back on.
Aziraphale opened his mouth, then shut it again. Then, with one last look at the dying star shining overhead, he turned and walked away.
Aziraphale strongly suspected that Crowley had been avoiding him. Not that he’d been trying to find the demon, mind, but he’d come to expect to run into him every few decades. It’d been a thousand years since the last time they went this long without seeing one another. With steadily increasing intensity, Aziraphale had found himself starting to worry.
What if Crowley had been discorporated? Recalled back to Hell? What if, and his stomach turned at the thought, the demon’s superiors had discovered the handful of times they’d agreed to stay out of one another’s way, or taken care of a job?
He’d struggled with the morality of their little… arrangement, and thought about the ramifications if Upstairs discovered what he was doing, but he’d never really considered what would happen to Crowley if things came to light.
The result of nearly three hundred years of fretting was that he made a bit of a fool of himself when he finally did see Crowley.
He didn’t take the time to look around the inn when he first staggered inside, caught up in wrestling the door closed. The wind from the storm raging outside pushed at it, and he had to lean his entire body weight to get the blasted thing latched. He slumped against it, water dripping off his coat to pool on the floorboards.
When he turned around, Crowley’s unmistakable silhouette was slumped over the polished wood of the inn’s bar.
“Oh, thank God!” he blurted, far too loud. Every human in the place looked up. He winced, ducking his head to avoid eye contact. Crowley twisted around to look at him, yellow eyes glinting in the firelight over his glasses. Aziraphale took an eager step forward, standing squarely in the puddle of water. His foot slipped out from under him and he staggered, arms windmilling, before clutching at the wall and regaining his balance.
He pushed off and hurried across the room, heat burning in his cheeks. Crowley watched him approach, face inscrutable.
“Crowley—” Aziraphale exclaimed, but Crowley held up a hand, one finger raised. The movement was jerky, and the demon was swaying on his stool a little. Aziraphale frowned, and tried again. “Crowley—”
“Wait.” He made a face, brows scrunched together and eyes shut. “I’m too drunk to speak to you right now.”
“Give me a second to sober up, Aziraphale.”
Aziraphale pulled out a stool, scooting it closer to Crowley before he sat. The demon concentrated for a few seconds, then straightened, lips pulling to the side in a grimace. He opened his eyes, gaze flicking over the angel’s saturated clothes and the hair plastered to his forehead. He didn’t look very happy. Aziraphale ran a hand through his hair, pushing the sodden strands back self-consciously.
“Umm…” he started, suddenly unsure of what to say. “Hello?”
Crowley kept up his stern expression for a moment, then sighed, face softening. “Hello, angel.”
Aziraphale beamed at him, then realised what he was doing and turned away, clearing his throat. Crowley picked up his tankard and took a long drink.
“I thought you wanted to be sober?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley grunted, and thunked the tankard back down again. “There’s only so long I can stand this century’s charming décor sober.” He gestured vaguely at the room. “I thought the five hundreds were bad, but this is bloody… bloody…” He shook his head, and took another drink.
At the other end of the bar, a man in a grimy cloak coughed harshly, and spat a glob of saliva onto the wood.
Aziraphale wrinkled his nose. “I see your point.”
Crowley tilted his cup to the side, eyeing the liquid inside. “Did your lot have anything to do with all the…” He tipped his head towards the dirt spattered windows, where the rain was still pounding relentlessly down. His eyes looked a little haunted.
All the death. All the sickness, and suffering.
Aziraphale looked down at his hands. “Yes,” he admitted.
Crowley snorted, and drained the last of his drink. “Figured.”
The listened to the rain for a few minutes.
“Mine did too,” Crowley said. He spun the tankard around on the countertop for a moment, then raised a hand to signal the innkeeper.
Aziraphale watched the man refill Crowley’s mug with something that smelled more suitable for removing paint than for consumption. He thought about carts piled with bodies, and Gabriel’s gleaming smile as he bragged about humans ‘turning to the church in record numbers.’
He blew out a shaky breath. “One for me too, sir.”
Time marched onwards. Aziraphale didn’t see much of Crowley, but he didn’t exactly see little of him either. A conversation here, a drink there, the occasional request to make oneself scarce in a certain area for a while, or lend a hand when convenient. Aziraphale told himself it was just a business arrangement, for the greater good. He was better able to serve the Great Plan without forever having to look over his shoulder in fear of demonic intervention.
He continued to feel trepidation over the ramifications of being discovered, but every time he convinced himself that this was the last time, Crowley managed to convince him back again.
Against his own better judgement, Aziraphale was currently in France, tracking down a demon and really hoping (not praying, he was very careful not to pray) that nobody from Upstairs was watching too closely. Two months ago Crowley had found him in one of his favourite restaurants in London, begged Aziraphale to cover a temptation for him in Germany, and practically sprinted for the door as soon as the angel had reluctantly voiced his agreement.
Aziraphale hadn’t heard from him since, and something about the demon’s urgency had unsettled him.
He had his excuses ready, if head office questioned him. I suspected the demon was up to something nefarious, Gabriel. I am ever vigilant about thwarting the Enemy’s evil wiles. The truth was, he was worried.
The years had robbed him of the comforting assumption that Crowley was evil to his core. Every decade spent amongst the humans shifted his worldview further from absolutes and closer to nuances. Every encounter with Crowley crushed his black and white sentiments and used the shattered remnants to sketch in details of subtle greys.
He could admit to himself, if not out loud, that Crowley was… a friend. The only face that’d been consistently there for the last five millennia.
He found the demon on the riverbank.
Crowley was standing near the water’s edge, thumbs hooked into his belt. He didn’t look around as Aziraphale approached, staring out over the water impassively.
Aziraphale came to a stop beside him, and waited for Crowley to acknowledge his presence. He didn’t.
He tried to steal a glance at the demon without being obvious about it. Crowley was… rumpled. His shoes were a little dusty, and his clothes were a little wrinkled. His hair was dishevelled and pulled back, like he’d been running his fingers through it over and over.
Aziraphale fidgeted, straightening his collar. “Crowley.”
He didn’t reply. Aziraphale floundered, casting about for something else to say. A dragonfly buzzed its way past them, flitting about the swaying reeds.
“Do you ever… get to know them?” Crowley asked, finally speaking.
Aziraphale blew out a relieved sigh, and considered the question. “The humans?”
Crowley nodded. He was holding something, Aziraphale noticed, a rolled-up parchment.
“I like to think I know them pretty well,” Aziraphale said slowly. He had a feeling that wasn’t what Crowley was asking. Sure enough, the demon shook his head.
“No, I mean—” he looked down at the ground, and Aziraphale noticed with shock that the skin around his eyes was blotchy and red. “—d’you ever… stick around. Long enough to know them.”
Aziraphale hesitated. He didn’t, really, beyond some passing acquaintances that he kept up for convenience’s sake. Crowley seemed to read the answer on his face.
The demon attempted a chuckle, but it fell horribly flat. “Pr’bly smart,” he murmured.
Aziraphale dithered, taking a breath to speak and then letting it out several times as he changed his mind on what he wanted to say. Crowley looked up and met his eyes, and the angel didn’t have time to school the naked concern on his face into something less telling.
Crowley frowned, and some of his usual poise returned as he narrowed his eyes in warning. Don’t, his expression said, don’t you dare say anything.
Aziraphale cleared his throat, focusing back on the river again. “Heading back to London soon?”
The demon twisted the parchment in his hands, tightening the scroll’s curl. “I guess I am.”
They watched the river. There was a heron on the opposite bank, picking its way delicately through the reeds.
“Is it… worth it?” Aziraphale asked, keeping his eyes forward. “Knowing them?”
Crowley was silent. Aziraphale resisted the urge to look at him.
“No,” he said eventually. “Yes.”
There was a rustling noise, and when Aziraphale risked a glance Crowley had unfurled the parchment. It was a drawing, beautifully done; a portrait of a woman with dark hair. There was an inscription at the bottom, but the angel couldn’t make out what it said. He turned back to the water again before Crowley could catch him looking.
Aziraphale wanted, with sudden intensity, to invite Crowley to travel with him on the road back to London. He swallowed thickly, surprised by the magnitude of the desire. Too dangerous, he told himself firmly. Both because of the risk to Crowley, if his superiors discovered them, and to the careful distance he was struggling to maintain between them.
You’re an angel, he told himself firmly, and he is Fallen. Angels and demons do not travel in one another’s company. They don’t want to travel in one another’s company.
The walls he put up to enforce the separation between them seemed so secure right up until he was in the demon’s presence again. Then it was abruptly difficult to remember why he needed them in the first place.
“Right,” barked Crowley, rolling the parchment up again, and flexing his shoulders. He waved a hand at himself, miracling away the dust and wrinkles and returning his hair to its smooth waves. “I’m off, then.”
Aziraphale blinked, taken aback by the speed of the change in the demon’s demeanour. “Err…”
“I’ll see you around, angel,” Crowley said, giving him a jaunty wave and sauntering away.
“Oh, uh, goodbye,” Aziraphale said, a beat too late.
He watched the demon go, and thought about black, and white, and grey.
THE CHANNEL 1793
The weather was frightful, a fine drizzling rain falling down over the choppy water. Aziraphale shrunk a little further under his cloak, and miracled himself dry.
“I thought you just got in trouble for too many frivolous miracles?” Crowley drawled, smirking at him from where he was slouched against the ship’s railing.
Aziraphale made a sceptical tutting noise. “I’d like to see Gabriel put up with this—” he gestured at the grey sky, scowling when the motion allowed more cold water to drip inside his cloak, “—for even a minute without miricaling himself right back home again.”
The captain bellowed an order, and the ship wheeled to the south, sails swinging around. The wind was the opposite of favourable, and they were tacking back and forth at an agonisingly slow pace.
“I hope the crepes were worth it, then,” Crowley said, holding the bannister for support as the deck rolled beneath them.
A wave caught the vessel amidships, throwing up a splash of sea spray. Crowley snapped his fingers, and a gust of wind pushed the wave back before it could drench them.
Aziraphale thought about sitting down with Crowley across the table, about the way he’d felt when he first heard Crowley’s voice in the jail cell.
“You know,” he murmured, “I really think they were.”
Crowley’s brow furrowed, and he eyed Aziraphale suspiciously for a moment. “Right.” He turned back to the ocean.
“I suppose it’d draw too much attention from, err, Downstairs, for you to, uh…” Aziraphale wiggled his fingers towards the western horizon.
The demon coughed, and muttered something too low for Aziraphale to hear over the crashing waves.
“Sorry?” he asked, leaning forward.
Crowley cleared his throat again, picking at the wooden railing and looking decidedly shifty. “I said, it’d draw too much attention to do it twice.”
“Twice?” Aziraphale asked, pulling back in surprise.
Crowley looked up at the sky, forcibly nonchalant. “On my trip over. No wind to speak of, so I…” he shrugged a shoulder.
“Whatever for?” Aziraphale questioned. He’d assumed the demon had already been in France.
Crowley scowled, huffing out an annoyed breath. “Would you have preferred if I waited?”
Aziraphale blinked. “You… oh!” There was a swooping feeling in his chest to match the shifting pitch of the deck. “You came for…”
The demon glared at him sternly. “Don’t—It’s not a thing, angel.”
Aziraphale pursed his lips, fighting to keep a pleased smile off his face. “Ah. Of course not.” He shuffled a half-step closer, leaning onto the bannister at Crowley’s side.
The demon shot him a sidelong glance, then twitched when Aziraphale met his eyes, focusing outward again.
He didn’t move away.
Aziraphale marched into his bookshop, and slammed the door behind himself. His heart was thrumming along in his chest, too fast, too loud.
He was angry, he was furious, he was livid, he was… terrified.
He collapsed into one of his comfortable chairs, hat tumbling to the floor, and slumped forward to rest his head in his hands. He’d tried so hard. Maintain your distance. Don’t forget he’s a demon. Don’t let him tempt you. You are on opposite sides.
It’d all come crashing down the moment he’d read two words scrawled in Crowley’s handwriting, and considered a world without Crowley in it.
God, not just a world without Crowley in it, a world in which the demon had chosen to leave. He barely remembered what he’d said, frantically shoring up his shattered defences in a vain attempt to cover the gaping emptiness in his chest. To regain the distance that little slip of paper had rendered meaningless.
He sat up, looking blearily around the shop. He loved this space; his books and his chairs and his cocoa and his wine. Was he becoming too comfortable here? Too comfortable with Crowley?
He was, he realised, rubbing at his throat. He’d let himself slip, lost track of the Great Plan. Above all else, Aziraphale had faith. Just because the Almighty’s plans didn’t make sense to him didn’t mean they didn’t make sense to the Almighty.
No matter. He was aware now, more than ever, of the temptation.
“I just have to… to remain steadfast,” he told himself, trying to imbue his voice with confidence he didn’t feel.
He thought of Crowley’s offended scorn as he spat the word fraternising, and swallowed against a lump in his throat.
“St-steadfast,” he reiterated.
He could do it.
He couldn’t do it. He absolutely, unquestionably, emphatically could not do it.
“Lift home?” asked Crowley, releasing the bag and picking his way through the rubble.
Aziraphale stared at him, stunned. He’d saved the books. All the books. He looked down at the bag. Not a singe, perfectly intact.
Oh, he thought, watching the demon’s retreating back, I love him.
The reality of that thought crashed down on him a second later. He sucked in a shocked breath, inhaled a mouthful of dust, and started coughing uncontrollably.
“You alright?” Crowley asked, turning to raise an eyebrow at him.
“Yes!” Aziraphale tried to say, cheeks burning and head spinning. What came out was a squeaking noise, followed by more coughing.
Crowley waited, hand braced on one hip, brows arched.
“Sorr—” Aziraphale tried, doubled over, eyes watering.
The demon sighed with impatience, and waved a hand. The tickle in Aziraphale’s throat abruptly eased, and he took a grateful breath. He stayed bent over. He couldn’t seem to get his brain to form a coherent thought beyond focusing on breathing.
“Are you done?” Crowley asked, concern hidden by a veneer of irritability. When Aziraphale looked up he had a hand on his glasses, pulling them down to glare at the angel over the tops of the rims. The yellow of his eyes reflected the flickering fires around them.
Oh no, Aziraphale thought with dawning horror. No, no, no, no.
“Angel?” Crowley prompted again.
“It’s fine!” Aziraphale blurted. “Jolly good!” How had this happened?
Crowley’s eyebrows rose even further. He glanced over his shoulder, then back at Aziraphale. The angel didn’t move.
“…are we leaving?” Crowley asked, enunciating each syllable slowly and spreading his hands in question.
“Right!” Aziraphale darted forward, slipped on a pile of rubble, and righted himself.
Crowley eyed him for another long moment, then shrugged and turned away.
The drive back to the bookshop passed in a blur. By the time they arrived Crowley was shooting him suspicious glances, and the tumultuous thoughts cascading through Aziraphale’s mind had reached a feverish intensity.
He mumbled something to Crowley (he wasn’t sure what), opened the car door, and stumbled inside. He closed the door to the shop and leant back against it, eyes shut as he listened. The Bentley’s engine idled outside for several long moments, then peeled away.
Aziraphale let out a shaky breath, and slid down the door to sit on the floor.
This was… fine. Angels were supposed to love things. Part of the job description.
He laughed, but it came out as a strangled sob.
He wasn’t ready for this. There wasn’t ever supposed to be a ‘this’. It was so far beyond impossible that it didn’t even bear thinking of. In fact, he couldn’t think of anything less likely to be part of God’s ineffable plan.
Did Crowley know, he wondered suddenly, eyes flying open. Did Crowley feel—he pushed himself to his feet, thoughts skittering away desperately.
Ignore it, he decided, pacing through the shelves. It doesn’t change anything.
Even in his own head, it felt like a lie.
TADFIELD – Saturday, the night before the very first day of the rest of their lives
“You can stay at my place, if you like.”
Aziraphale’s heart leapt into his throat, eyes darting up to Crowley’s face. The demon’s expression was soft and sincere.
“I don’t—I don’t think my side would like that,” he stammered, habitually pushing down the feeling swelling in his chest.
He could feel Crowley’s gaze through the glasses, pinning him in place. “You don’t have a side,” the demon reminded him softly. “Neither of us do.”
They were silent as the bus rumbled through the Oxfordshire countryside by unspoken agreement, sitting side by side. Aziraphale was lost in his thoughts, caught up by the tide of conflicting emotions.
There was relief, of course, but also grief. He’d never been without a side before, and the absence left a hollow sort of ache. He was trying not to think about what he was going to do now, beyond the present moment.
Crowley shifted position, looking out the dark window at the scenery speeding past. The side of his leg rested gently against Aziraphale’s, warm through the layers of fabric, and he had an elbow propped up on the back of his seat. Every so often his dangling hand would brush Aziraphale’s shoulder when the bus bounced over a pothole or turned a corner.
Aziraphale studied him. Weariness touched all the lines of his body, fatigue slumping his shoulders and bowing his spine. From this angle he could see all the tiny imperfections around Crowley’s lips, all the individual scales on the serpentine mark above his jawline.
The demon tipped his head to the side, and Aziraphale realised with a jolt that he was watching him in the reflection in the window. The angel flicked his gaze away, heart thudding.
Crowley turned to look at him, taking a breath then letting it out, slow and controlled. Aziraphale looked back, stomach swooping. It felt like falling. It felt like flying.
Crowley jerked his head away, sitting up straighter and shifting his leg back from Aziraphale’s. “Not… not yet,” he whispered, the faintest flush on his cheeks. “Not… here.”
Aziraphale stared, mouth parting in surprise. “Not yet?” he repeated, whispered voice a little strangled.
The demon actually squirmed, shifting in his seat. “Aziraphale,” he hissed through clenched teeth, a warning.
Aziraphale cleared his throat, facing the front of the bus again. “Right. Yes.” He looked down at his hands in his lap, flexing his fingers then balling his hands into loose fists. “Not yet.”
LONDON - The very first day of the rest of their lives
Aziraphale was… God, he was happy.
He clinked his glass against Crowley’s, contentment thrumming through him in gently cresting waves. He watched the demon as they sipped their champagne. The demon was more relaxed than Aziraphale could ever remember, all gentle half-smiles and quiet words. Crowley had shed some of his sharpness, some of his swagger, letting the angel see the softness underneath, and Aziraphale loved him for it.
He chattered; about the bookshop, about the food, about Anathema and Newton, and Adam and his friends, and Madame Tracy and Sargent Shadwell. Crowley contributed every so often, but mostly he seemed content to let Aziraphale talk.
The sun was setting when he stopped himself mid-sentence. The restaurant staff were lighting candles, and Crowley had his chin propped up on his hand, elbow braced on the tabletop.
“What?” the demon asked, tilting his head a little.
The low angled sun shone into the room, turning Crowley’s glasses translucent and painting the edges of his hair with strokes of fire. His eyes were half-lidded, lazy and content as a sunbaking snake, and the corners of his lips were pulled up in an affectionate smile.
“Come home with me,” Aziraphale said, before he’d thought it through.
Crowley’s elbow slipped off the edge of the table, and he had to clutch at the tablecloth to keep his balance.
“Err,” said Aziraphale, ears burning, “I mean, back to the bookshop. With me. To, uh, t-to talk. At the bookshop.”
Crowley stared at him, colour smudging his cheeks. The demon opened his mouth, shut it, licked his lips and tried again. “Alright.”
They settled their bill, and caught a taxi back to Soho. Aziraphale studiously avoiding looking across at Crowley, trying valiantly to keep his focus out the window as they drove. His heart was hammering along loud enough that he worried the demon might actually hear it.
They didn’t speak as they walked up to the bookshop’s door, nor as Aziraphale opened it and gestured Crowley inside. He shut the door and locked it, making sure the sign was flipped to “CLOSED”. Bracing himself, he turned around.
Crowley was standing in the middle of the room, hands in his pockets, looking a little lost. Aziraphale eyed the distance between them. Five steps. Five steps, and six thousand years, and a battlefield spanning an eternity.
The demon cleared his throat. “So,” he said, the nonchalance of his tone at odds with the tension in his shoulders. “In the mood for some scotch?”
Aziraphale didn’t answer, still staring.
Crowley swallowed. He looked a little wild around the edges, like he might be close to bolting. “Aziraphale?”
The angel took a step forward, then another, closing the gap between them. Crowley tensed, holding his breath.
Aziraphale dithered. He was so close, but he didn’t… he wasn’t sure how…
“Crowley,” he said, trying to imbue the word with everything he couldn’t figure out how to say. Crowley took a half step backwards, eyebrows pinched together. Aziraphale flinched, and started backing up.
“No!” Crowley blurted, reaching out. They both froze, Crowley’s hand hovering in the space between them.
“My dear fellow—” Aziraphale tried. No. “I had a thought—” Not right either. “I mean, I wondered—” He couldn’t see Crowley’s eyes behind his glasses in the dim light.
He huffed out a breath, frustrated. “Do you mind if I…” He raised a hand to gesture at Crowley’s glasses, and immediately regretted the question. The demon rarely ever took them off, and he usually had to be drunk first.
To his surprise Crowley nodded. “S’aight,” he croaked.
Aziraphale took a moment to shore up his courage, and stepped forward. Crowley’s outstretched fingers brushed against the fabric of his jacket.
“Okay,” he whispered. “I’ll just…” He reached up, and gently tugged Crowley’s glasses off.
“Angel…” Crowley murmured, and the force of it with his eyes uncovered took Aziraphale’s breath away.
“Oh.” He thought back to Eden, to Constantinople, to the guest star outside Bianjing, to Crowley’s voice in the Bastille. To shared indulgences, and shared grief, and a demon handing him a bag of books in the ruins of a church.
Crowley’s eyes, that had dropped to half closed, blew open in shock.
Aziraphale dropped the glasses, seized the demon by the lapels, and kissed him right on his startled mouth.
Crowley let out a muffled whine, then pressed into Aziraphale, wrapping his arms around the angel’s neck. There was a flicker of energy, just like when Crowley had showed him the nebula, and then he could feel him again. The demon’s emotions swirled around him; surprise, exhilaration, joy… and love.
Aziraphale made an effort of will, opening his own emotions to Crowley as well. Crowley gasped against his lips, and when the angel pulled back the demon looked like he’d been clocked over the head, eyes dazed.
“I love you,” Aziraphale said, because some things were worth putting into words, too.
“Yeah,” Crowley mumbled, still stunned, “Yeah, I… me too.”
Aziraphale ran his hands over Crowley’s chest, smoothing down his jacket where he’d rumpled it. “Well then,” he said, grinning, “shall we get that scotch?”
Crowley scowled at him. “No,” he said emphatically, and pulled the angel in for another kiss.