Despite how things had seemed destined a few weeks previously, life somehow goes on.
Life has a habit of that, Crowley muses, staring out the restaurant window at the people walking past while Aziraphale lingers over his dessert. They move like salmon swimming upstream, [the people, not Aziraphale, who is currently sighing over a mouthful of panna cotta. Why most London restaurants have abandoned the near infinite varieties of pastry and sugar in favour of pale creamy lumps with a drizzle of something red is beyond him, and he quietly apologises to Scotland for coming up with raspberry coulis] or a susurration of starlings. Crowley frowns to himself. A susurration of starling, he can never say that out loud, he may as well go belly-down on the ground and start hissing while he’s at it.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale says, an edge of impatience in his voice which suggests Crowley has been caught woolgathering when he should have been listening.
“Sorry, what?” he mumbles, resting his elbow on the linen tablecloth and perching his chin on the palm of his hand.
Whatever Aziraphale had said is lost to the ages, his interest diverted to Crowley’s distraction. “Is something the matter?”
Crowley shakes his head, as much as he can while supported by his hand. “No.” Yes. “Nothing’s wrong.” It’s a secret.
The Angel looks unconvinced, so Crowley gestures to the window in a vague, sinuous manner. “Just. People, y’know? All trundling along the same as before.”
“Hm.” Aziraphale looks unconvinced, but is willing to let the matter drop, along with his spoon onto an empty plate. “How about a nice walk?”
St James Park had always been the favoured place for clandestine meetings, but now that there was no need to be clandestine anymore it felt a little odd to go there. Not that they didn’t, Aziraphale was too fond of feeding the ducks, though it was peas and grains of wheat that he threw for them these days while Crowley skulked at his side, shoving away any little bastard that took an interest in the Angel’s shoes. Hyde park was always lousy with tourists, and Crowley was still a little bitter about the Serpentine [who the bloody hell looked at that and thought ‘serpent’? Not ‘breeze block’ or if you were feeling generous ‘eel that met an unfortunate end under the wheel of a truck’. Thank you for nothing Queen bloody Caroline], and after the last meeting there Crowley has no intention of ever setting foot in Battersea Park again, not even to burn down that blasted Bandstand. But Green Park is just around the corner from the Ritz, and has very little in the way of foot traffic because its main features are bloody big trees and Not Much Else. No statues for tourists to photograph or sites of historical interest, just a swathe of green from St James palace to Wellington Arch with the A4 to keep it from getting any ideas above its station.
Aziraphale brightens up at the suggestion, and once the bill is paid [at least as far as the Ritz is concerned] they head out onto the street, and Crowley gently shepherds Aziraphale left before he can spot Fortnum and Mason down the street and start going on about picking up a few things.
The walk is pleasant enough, though Aziraphale persists on keeping to the tarmac paths while Crowley meanders around on the grass, orbiting him like a dark, if well-fed, star.
“It’s a shame we’re too late for the narcissus,” Aziraphale remarks, pausing to admire a London Plane tree that looks no different from all the other ones. A squirrel runs across the path in front of them, pausing to give them the evil eye before scampering off again. Aziraphale probably thinks it quite delightful, but of course he does.
Central London might be a stone’s throw away [well, more of a lobbed half-brick away], but the park is peaceful, and aside from the occasional figure in a pinstripe suit on the way from one thing to another, or jogger in brightly coloured lycra, they are alone.
Salmon in the stream, Crowley thinks again. All bright colours and short lives.
“Crowley.” Aziraphale goes as far as stepping onto the grass after him, trying to get his attention.
“Huh?” Crowley glances up, and finally realises how far his wandering feet have taken him, far across the scruffy grass. “Sorry.”
He skulks back to where Aziraphale is waiting, no doubt midway through a treatise on that whole business with the tulips back in 1637. Honestly, Crowley wasn’t even in Amsterdam at the time and it really wasn’t his fault, he’d just been trying to get hold a few Semper Augustus bulbs for Aziraphale’s garden at the time.
“If there’s somewhere else you’d rather be…” Aziraphale begins, and Crowley grimaces, his sunglasses threatening to slide down his nose.
“Nowhere else I’d rather be, Angel.”
That’s the problem really.
As a Demon, Crowley has somewhat prided himself on his skill at temptation. Sure, anyone could make a priest look twice at a pretty girl, or nudge politicians into taking a bribe, Crowley could do those things in his sleep [mainly because they would happen with or without his input, humans being distressingly keen on self-corruption. Crowley got a commendation for that whole business with the former Prime Minister and the - well - he gladly took the credit but that? That was all human stupidity]. But the secret to a good temptation is empathy, knowing their desires before they did, and then presenting it to them in such a way that free will kind of did the rest of the work for him, like gravity does when applying a sledgehammer to a watermelon. Temptation he can handle with aplomb, whatever an aplomb is, but this is something else. Every time he watches the Angel sigh over a delicately sliced piece of sashimi, or a nice little bottle of burgundy, or the first sip of hot, sweet tea when he’s closed the bookshop early for the day. A thousand little things and every time they happen a warmth suffuses through Crowley’s breast. A quiet calm fills his veins where before there was static.
The first time that wave of, of bliss hit him, no more than a day after the world didn’t end, Crowley thought it was heartburn, and rubbed at his breastbone irritably while Aziraphale fussed over the biscuit tin in search of one of those pink iced numbers. The second time, a moment later, when Aziraphale made a happy little sound at finding one hidden under a piece of shortbread, Crowley realised he was in trouble.
Underneath it all, all these sweet, tender sensations that whisper of cherry blossoms and madeleines dipped in coffee and sunlight filtering through a London Plane, is a great, sucking void.
Where had the damn thing even come from? How do you miss something like that? A gaping maw open wide beneath his feet, like the event horizon of a collapsing star, and Crowley hadn’t even noticed it was there. He walked right into it, into the fire and the ash and the burning pages. But then the world was going to end and all that was good and worthwhile was already gone from it, what did Crowley care for his own fate? But now that the world is safe here he is, on the verge of unspooling into a single agonised thread of consciousness.
So he keeps his distance. He washes away the taste of ash with red wine and whiskey. He circles the chasm warily, caught in its orbit, and all he can do is maintain equilibrium, and not fall any further. He has fallen once before, and has no intention of doing so again.
If he looks, he can see the open mouth of it, so he doesn’t. He studiously ignores it like a cat, he gets easily distracted, feigning an interest in passing whims because it’s easier than acknowledging the ground crumbling under his feet.
After all they'd gone through to get here, not agents of Heaven or Hell but of themselves, on their own side, and he is paralysed between what he was and what he could never be.
Crowley kicks at the grass a little, and blames the park for his odd mood. He remembers when it was a graveyard for the lepers of St James hospital, back when Charles II was still kicking his heels, and that kind of thing is bound to make a place feel gloomy. London is an old city, she was old when the Romans parked up in their chariots and took a shine to the place, and having both an Angel and a Demon walking her streets for a few hundred years is bound to have an effect.
[He’s wrong, though not about London. In retrospect it will seem obvious, but then hindsight is a smug bastard like that.]
“Crowley?” Aziraphale edges towards him, not close enough to touch because that is something they don’t do. Even facing down the Morningstar, certain of their own ends, it was easier to take the hand of a child than of his Angel.
“Mmm?” Crowley feigns airiness. He’s not gone wandering off, or walked into a dustbin, so what has he done now?
“What ever is the matter?” Aziraphale looks concerned, the lines around his eyes creasing. “You’ve been a bit out of sorts since the… well… the whole Apocalypse-that-wasn’t.”
You would think a Demon would be entirely at ease with fire, infernos and perdition going hand in hand and all. But the memory of flames licking up those dusty shelves, of smoke billowing across the unusually high ceiling, makes Crowley miss a step and wobble precariously on one foot. “Apocalypse-that-wasn’t?” he sneers, because mockery is preferable to hurting.
“Well, whatever you want to call it,” Aziraphale says patiently. “You’ve seemed, well, distracted ever since.”
Shit. So much for keeping a lid on things. “Have I?” Crowley asks, for lack of any better ideas.
“Yes.”Aziraphale fidgets, his gaze flitting from tree to ground to tree again. “I’ve been. Worried.”
“If this is your idea of an intervention, and you’re going to tell me about a nice little support group that meets every wednesday at the local library.” Crowley enunciates each word carefully. “Then I suggest you shut it.”
“Oh, of course not,” Aziraphale flusters slightly, in a way that suggests that is exactly what he had been thinking. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Last thing to cross my mind.”
If left to it, the Angel will continue with a stream of nervous chatter until the sun goes down, so it’s best to nip these things in the bud.
“I’m fine, Angel,” Crowley says, not entirely unkindly. “Just got things on my mind is all. Rumour is there’s some sort of discord among the Demons, a few of them think I got off a little too lightly.”
“Oh dear.” Aziraphale turns his worried gaze back on Crowley, eyes wide and far too blue for comfort. “Do we need to be… well are they likely to…”
“Nah.” Crowley dismisses his concerns. “That’s just Demons in general, always whining about something or other.”
“I’d never noticed,” Aziraphale says with the slightest smile. Cheeky little sod.
The air clears a little between them, and for that alone Crowley lets the Angel have his joke. A comfortable silence falls as they pass the Canada gate, the tall pillars of Portland stone and the gilded wrought iron always looking a little ridiculous to Crowley’s eye. Oh, the gate itself is impressive enough, all five portals of it, it’s just that… well that’s all there is. There’s no wall on either side of the gate, just the usual black painted London bollards, and what’s the point of sticking a gate that big somewhere when you can just go around it?
Crowley throws a glance or two the Angel’s way when he isn’t looking, not really listening to what Aziraphale is saying, only watching the shape of his lips as they form sounds.
“Well.” Aziraphale says as they finish their circuit of the park, ending right back where they started [oh, the irony]. “I ought to be getting back to the shop.”
Crowley hums, not really paying attention, but not so much that he doesn’t notice the Angel deflate a little.
“So, I’ll see you Friday, if not before?” Aziraphale adds, taking a moment to get his bearings. He’s probably already planning his route back to Soho, less than half an hour’s walk at a gentle stroll, not including time spent in Fortnum and Mason for a nice red and a little box of florentines. It gives Crowley plenty of time to catch on.
“Friday?” Crowley frowns, nose wrinkling. “What’s happening Friday?”
“Chichester, remember?” Aziraphale gives him an odd look, exasperated and fond. “We’re going to see King Lear. That is if you don’t discorporate us both on the drive down.”
“Oh bloody hell,” Crowley whines. “Not another gloomy one. Can’t we see Midsummer Night’s Dream, I liked that one.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Aziraphale murmurs. Git. A hundred years ago he wouldn’t say boo to a goose [and rightly so, say boo to a goose and it will snap your arm off for being such a witless imbecile] and now here he is making affectionate little digs at Crowley’s expense. It’s fantastic. “And besides, A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t being performed anywhere, and doubtless won’t be until next summer. This play, however, is.”
“It’s depressing,” Crowley retorts, shoulders rounded like a sulking child.
“Yes, but it’s also a masterpiece,” Aziraphale points out. “And it has that fellow who played the wizard in that cinematograph you like.”
“In that film you like,” Aziraphale corrects smoothly. He gives Crowley a look that might pass for sympathy. “But when somewhere does perform it we should definitely go, I rather liked the one we saw at the Globe a couple of years ago.” Crowley remembers the play. Puck and Oberon had kissed, and Aziraphale had marvelled at how after 300 years humans were still able to find such clever new ways of interpreting the original text. He was supposed to be shocked at two men kissing on stage, not find it all rather lovely. Crowley had been in serious danger of having hope, so he crushed the sensation mericessly and consoled himself by coming up with the selfie.
“How does that sound?” Aziraphale regains Crowley’s attention by reaching out for his arm, a light brush of fingers against his sleeve. The sensation is akin to a toaster in a bathtub, and it takes all Crowley’s resolve not to jump out of his skin altogether.
“Fine.” Crowley mumbles, his skin prickling. They stand in silence a minute, waiting as another jogger goes huffing past, clearly regarding the maintaining of their heart rate as more important than basic courtesy to others. Crowley watches Aziraphale duck out of their path, and with a twitch of his fingers unravels their shoelaces. Watching them go arse over tit does something to improve his mood at least.
“Much Ado About Nothing,” he says, shepherding Aziraphale back to the street before he can notice the sprawling jogger and do something tedious like help. “That’s a pretty good one too.”
“I’ll check the listings,” Aziraphale promises, giving him one of those fleeting, shy smiles that makes his lungs fill with sunlight, warm and light and unspeakably awful.
Crowley mumbles something along the line of “Later,” and stalks off without a backwards glance. He can feel the Angel watching him, the soft, ethereal glow of concern and affection trailing after him like mist.
The play is, as it turns out, very good. Crowley still winces at Lear’s treatment of Cordelia, raging at her honesty. Maybe it hits a little too close to home, casting out your child for their perfectly reasonable opinions.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. So maybe there’s more to Crowley’s discomfort than bad parenting, not that it matters.
Aziraphale enjoys the play immensely, and chatters away while Crowley leads them both out to the Bentley, parked on a double yellow line next to a slightly confused looking Traffic Warden. Their handheld device is emitting a merry little cloud of smoke, and vanishes entirely at the snap of Crowley’s fingers.
He doesn’t feel like returning to London just yet, and there’s still a little daylight left so Crowley drives south, nodding along as Aziraphale remarks on the theatre staging, and how marvellously talented that wizard-playing fellow was. The Angel stops mid-sentence when he realises they are going in entirely the wrong direction.
“Just a little detour,” Crowley reassures him. “It’s a nice evening, might as well make the most of it.”
They drive until they reach a small town, the quiet streets lined with dull little semi-detatched houses, the front lawns neat squares mown to within an inch of their lives.
“This should do us,” Crowley announces, parking the Bentley across someone’s drive. He sees a curtain twitch as he climbs out, and leans on the bonnet, sending a wide, toothy grin the curtain’s way until the twitching abruptly stops.
Aziraphale fusses a little, but joins him on the narrow strip of pavement, brushing down some imaginary creases on his jacket. The air is fresh and cool, sharply scented with salt and gritty with sand.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale murmurs, looking around at the quiet little housing estate.
“Come on, Angel,” Crowley says with more cheer than he’s felt in weeks, and starts walking down the street to a narrow, fence-lined footpath between the houses. Sand gathers along the ground where fence meets tarmac, and a faint rushing sound, like the pounding of blood in Crowley’s ears, grows steadily louder.
“Oh!” Aziraphale gasps when the path comes to an end. “We’re at the seaside!”
Before them is a long stretch of white sand, untouched but for the angular footprints of wading birds seeking out morsels. The sea is close enough to afford them the sight of waves crashing onto sand, but not so close as to intrude if they were to stop for a while.
Crowley steps down from the path onto the beach, snakeskin boots churning up the soft dry sand. After a few ungainly steps he lurches forward, spared from an embarrassing fall by Aziraphake grasping his sleeve.
“Mind how you go, dear,” Aziraphale chides gently, tucking his hand into the crook of Crowley’s elbow.
Every ounce of skin and flesh and sinew that makes up Crowley’s corporeal form tries to scatter like a panicked flock of chickens, with a similar rate of success. Aziraphale, seemingly oblivious to Crowley’s internal clucking and flapping, gives his elbow a gentle tug, and guides him down to where the sand is damp and a little firmer underfoot.
Once Crowley is stabilised to his satisfaction, Aziraphale leads them on a gentle stroll along the beach, making something of a show of breathing in the sea air. His hand stays on Crowley, linking them together like two pieces of a chain, one moon silver and the other black as night.
After a while they turn around, following their footprints back the way they had come, and when the sun touches the horizon Aziraphale miracles up a blanket (tartan, of course) and lays it out on the sand. He sits on one side, knees drawn up to his chest, and pats the empty side of the blanket invitingly. Crowley, standing with his hands in his pockets and desperately trying to radiate an air of one who would never be caught dead on a picnic blanket, finds it hard to refuse and plonks himself down.
“This is quite lovely,” Aziraphale sighs. “We should have brought a picnic.”
“Next time, Angel,” Crowley says absently, and Aziraphale seems to glow a little in the dusk.
“It was a very good theatre,” Aziraphale adds, warming to the idea of coming back. “They’re performing Present Laughter in the spring.”
Crowley has little interest in watching one of Noël Coward's plays, but if they ever tired of London it might be nice to move somewhere like this. Not here specifically, not this mean little town with its twitching curtains and serried ranks of bungalows. Somewhere… not quiet, that would be boring, but peaceful. A place with a decent theatre and a nice restaurant or two, a place where someone could open a little bookshop. A cottage overlooking the sea with a garden, maybe a conservatory for all his plants.
Crowley stretches his legs, letting his heels dig into the sand, and tries not to see the open chasm before him.
The sun sets in a riot of red and gold, the sea turning to flame. Beside him Aziraphale lets out a breathy little sigh, as if some burden has finally slipped from his shoulders and he can at last find peace.
It must be nice, being at peace. Crowley wonders what it must feel like.
When the bright colours fade from the world, and the night is painted in shades of blue and silver, Crowley tips back his head and looks up at the stars. He searches, more habit than anything, until he finds Barnard’s Star. He helped make so many of the lights glittering overhead, long before the fall, but most of them are only visible in the Southern hemisphere. Maybe that’s why he gravitated so far north. He certainly didn’t fetch up on this damp little rock chasing the heels of a certain principality. Of course not.
He is proud of the things he created, but then pride is his business, or at least it used to be.
Beside him Aziraphale looks content, eyes closed as if sleeping.
“Come on, Angel.” Crowley pats the blanket just to the left of Aziraphale’s thigh, a scant inch that might as well be six thousand light years. “Let’s get you home.”
Aziraphale takes his elbow again, but this time it’s Crowley leading the way up the beach, surefooted in the dying light. They walk up the path to the street and back to the Bentley, Aziraphale only letting go of his arm to climb into the passenger seat.
With the world so calm and still, Crowley is reluctant to turn on the stereo and break the silence, and clicks the dial to off before starting the engine, turning the car around in the curtain-twitcher’s driveway and spinning the wheels on his lawn before heading back the way they had come.
Six thousand years of half-hearted bickering and an ocean’s worth of wine have made them comfortable in each other’s company, enough so that the silence that falls over them is like a favoured old blanket, threadbare in places and rough with snagged fibres. Familiar enough that the tension eases in Crowley’s shoulders. Unfortunate enough that it loosens Aziraphale’s tongue.
“What you said before,” Aziraphale says softly. “About Demons…”
“Nothing to worry about,” Crowley is quick to reassure him. “They won’t do anything, they don’t have the imagination.”
Aziraphale doesn’t look reassured. “If you say so,” he murmurs, brushing at the grains of sand clinging to his trousers. “But how did you hear of it? Are you… Are you still in touch with. Them?”
Crowley ignores the road, and the sodium glare of streetlights soaking the tarmac with blurred circles of light, to face Aziraphale. “What? Hell? No, of course not! I’m out of that place for good, I don’t plan on going back.”
He doesn’t mention the torments that wait for him should he ever return. The deepest pit set aside just for the traitor, and an eternity of every horror and agony the Morningstar can conjure up for the one bastard that made a grasp for free will. Because one Demon got away with it, and eventually someone else will figure it out, that there is a choice. That kind of thinking needs to be nipped right in the fucking bud. With rusted shears. As the bud in question, Crowley has no intention of ever stepping foot in Hell, he’d sooner belly flop into a font of Holy Water.
“Oh.” Aziraphale’s mouth is a flat, thin line. “Good.” He frowns, and Crowley can practically see the cogs and gears of his mind turning click click click. “How do you know?”
“I keep a tab on things.” Crowley shrugs. “Not hard when you know the system, the grapevine and all that.” He gives the Angel a concerned look. “Why, don’t you? You’ve got your fingers in a few pies, right?”
Aziraphale looks briefly distracted, no doubt at the mention of pies. “I keep a few minor channels open, a subscription to a periodical or two.”
“But that’s all.” It’s not a question, but for some deep, unsettled reason Crowley needs to be reassured.
“Our side, remember?” Aziraphale says softly, his hand brushing the edge of Crowley’s seat. “Eyes on the road, my dear.”
Crowley grips the wheel a little tighter, facing forward. “Good,” he says, sounding far too loud and blunt to his ears. “That’s okay then.”
Something lodges in Crowley’s throat, and try as he might, he can’t swallow it down. It works its way up, constricting his airway like a repressed sob, and for a terrible moment he thinks that this is it, this is when it happens. After everything, he’s just going to throw out his arms and plunge straight off the edge of the cliff like some stupid fucking lemming.
“If.” Don’t say it don’t say it. “If I.” Shut your stupid fucking mouth. “If I just up and vanish one day.”
The furious voice in the back of his head screaming at Crowley to bite off his own tongue rather than utter another fucking word falls silent.
“Don’t come looking for me.”
“What?” Aziraphale blusters, wriggling around in his seat to get a good look at Crowley’s profile.
He keeps his eyes fixed on the blurred curve of street lights through the Bentley’s windscreen. Why is everything so out of focus?
“You survived Hell once, and that was in disguise.” He must have breathed in too much sea air, inhaled a bit of sand, that must be why his throat feels raw. “Don’t go back. Not for anything. Not for me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Aziraphale’s voice pitches dangerously close to hysteria. “Of course I’ll come looking for you!” Aziraphale twists around again until he is facing forward, and Crowley can almost see his feathers ruffling in indignation. “After all the times you’ve been there to… to…”
“Pull your arse out of the fire?” Crowley finishes, and despite everything he smiles. The ache in his throat lessens, and he blinks until his vision clears.
“Well.” Aziraphale settles, shifting in his seat as if he could preen his feathers against antique leather. “Yes.”
Crowley lets out a soft breath, mostly laugh and very little scoff.
“Don’t worry, Angel.” Crowley sees their junction ahead and pulls at the wheel, ignoring the indicator which hasn’t been flicked since 1978 and only then when he knocked it with his elbow. “Nothing will come of it.”
They reach Soho, Crowley parking on the double yellow lines outside the shop, and Aziraphale turns to him, hesitant, almost hopeful.
“Would you like to come in for a nightcap?” He raises his eyebrows a little, giving Crowley a quietly beseeching look, one he has been unable to refuse since 1601. “I have a case of Chateau Margaux that I picked up in 1972 in need of drinking.”
“Well.” Crowley turns off the engine. “Can’t let it go to waste, can we?”
It is a few short steps to the door, but walking it seems to take far too long. Crowley steels himself while Aziraphale fusses with the keys, getting the door open and leading the way inside. The shop smells of glue and paper and dust, but no matter how deeply he breathes, no matter how much he reminds himself that the Angel is alive and safe (and currently struggling with a corkscrew), Crowley’s mouth fills with the taste of ash, bitter enough to choke on.
“Here we are.” Aziraphale hands him a glass, and Crowley downs the contents in one single, desperate swallow. “Oh, do have some decorum!”
Crowley holds out his glass for a refill and the Angel indulges him with a reproachful little tsk, setting the bottle on a little side table and making himself comfortable in his favourite armchair. Crowley folds himself up like a concertina on the sofa, cradling the wine glass in both hands, and looks at the Angel.
It is something he used to indulge in often, before the end of the world, taking pleasure in watching Aziraphale. Crowley catalogued every line and crease and movement of the Angel’s weathered features, marvelling in just how expressive he allows himself to be. Every emotion, however fleeting, showed itself in the creases around his mouth and the arch of his eyebrows. Every sigh of pleasure over a bite of pastry or passage of text was memorised and replayed in the nights when sleep could not find the Demon. There was a secret language in the pitch of the Angel’s voice and the slope of his shoulders that Crowley had learned, in some six thousand years of intensive study, a language none other in all creation could utter.
Aziraphale catches him staring, amber eyes shielded by black glass, and smiles. It is like drowning in sunlight, warmth soaking into him, down to his bones, and there it is again. That susurration under his skin, like the play of a breeze over a field of ripe barley, prickly grasses honey-bright and ceaseless in their motion.
He sits back, bringing his wine glass to his lips, and finds his footing. An Angel can dance on the head of a pin, and a Demon can navigate the crest of a chasm, and though his thoughts are scattered his body remembers, moving to a rhythm tap-tapped out by his heart.