Chapter 1: Exposure
St. Dunstan in the East had been a wonderful church, once. Aziraphale knew that from the stories of his grandparents and their parents; the old family legends his mother had always told him.
Now, it had become a garden.
Aziraphale was a bookseller; and indeed, parchment and ink was his first love; but he also moonlighted as a photographer. And — if he dared to say, without blowing his own trumpet — he was rather good at it. He’d exhibited at a small local gallery a handful of times, and the money he’d made had gone towards a rather nice Wilde first-edition.
But just because he knew his way around a camera didn’t mean he wasn’t allowed to practice.
Aziraphale set up his camera, focusing in on a section of ruined church wall. The shutter clicked. Again- the edge of a bench this time, a sneaker-clad foot. Colour and line, perspective, even the angle of the camera; it all came together to form a unique shot.
His camera had been his father’s, a dual-lens Yashica from 1960, and every month he’d take the film to be developed. He’d hand-tint the photos himself, from memory, making each one a perfect artwork.
Aziraphale grinned and snapped a photo of a pigeon. Yes, his kit might’ve been outdated, but it got him out of the house and helped him discover amazing places hidden deep in the heart of the city.
The blond man focused on a section of sun-bleached wall, and took another picture.
It had all been going rather nicely- until his camera had been stolen. He’d been on the Underground, and the next thing he’d known, there was a jagged hole slashed into the fabric of his backpack, and the camera was gone.
He’d reported it to the police, but the officer he’d left his statement with had told him that, honestly, she doubted anything would come of it; and that they would phone him if anything turned up.
Although Aziraphale considered himself an optimist, even he didn’t dare get his hopes up. So, after binning the mangled remains of his rucksack, he went online and ordered a new camera. They’d stopped making the Yashica years ago, so he had to settle for a little secondhand Polaroid.
At least he wouldn’t have to take the film to be developed, since it printed the photos for him. But it meant that all his knowledge of colouring images was functionally useless.
Aziraphale sighed. He’d got next-day delivery, but it was a week before the weather was good enough to go back to that ruined church and re-take the photos he’d lost. He snapped a few rain-drizzled pictures from the structurally-unsound balcony of his modest one-bed flat, but it wasn’t quite the same.
Aziraphale pulled on an obnoxiously cheerful yellow raincoat and got off the bus, his new camera clutched tightly, the narrow nylon safety-strap wound twice about his wrist.
He wasn’t about to be fooled again.
It had just finished raining and the park inside the church ruins was deserted and eerily quiet. He snapped photos of various small birds and rain-wet shards of glass and stone, watching the light glance off the shattered remains of a marble font. Cars’ tyres outside, beetles in the grass — nothing escaped his eye, and he was quite happy snapping photo after photo.
Eventually, Aziraphale had to leave as the light conditions worsened, and that was when it happened.
A bicycle collided with him on the pavement, the young woman riding it apologising profusely, but it was too late, and he was knocked flying into a puddle, knocking his head against the railing; his knees smarting at the abrupt contact with the ground.
“Ooh.” He groaned. “Ouch. That rather hurt.”
He picked himself up, and, after reassuring the poor cyclist that he was, indeed, alright, realised that his camera had gone off in the confusion and tucked the resultant photo into his coat pocket.
It was only later, with an ice pack on his aching head and another cold compress on his bruised knees, that Aziraphale saw what he’d accidentally photographed, and gasped in shock.
The image was a picture of the puddle he’d fallen into, taken mid-fall, and his own startled face was reflected in the murky water. But, hovering slightly behind his reflection, distorted by ripples, was a man.
A man, dapper and polished, dressed in the style of the forties. His facial features were blurred, but the photographer could make out red hair slicked back, and a hat tipped at a jaunty angle, and dark black sunglasses. He appeared deathly pale, almost like a mirage, and he definitely hadn’t been there at the time of the incident.
But what had caused Aziraphale to recoil in surprise was none of the above.
It was the two dark shapes appearing behind the man; they were huge and black and looked exactly like a pair of mantled wings, hovering protectively over his own reflected visage.
Chapter 2: Contrast
“Anathema?” Aziraphale called, strolling into the local camera shop with a deep-set frown on his face. The shop’s owner, a tall woman with a pair of round glasses balanced on her nose, hurried towards him.
“Aziraphale. What can I do for you? Need some pics developed?”
He sighed, running a tired hand through his hair and shifting nervously on his feet. “If only it were that simple, dear girl.”
Her face resolutely didn’t fall, but something softened behind her eyes. “What’s the problem?”
He held out a hand, doing his best to keep it steady before he crumbled completely, and clutched in his curled fingers was a crumpled Polaroid.
“In this photo. I’m not sure whether the camera glitched, or I’m imagining it, but I fear I’m going quite mad.”
“Let me see?”
He handed over the picture. It was a reflection in a murky, oil-streaked puddle; an image of Aziraphale’s startled face, as if he was falling forward. In the background, a shocked cyclist looked on.
Anathema closed her eyes and looked again. She was a practical occultist in her free time; which nobody seemed to realise was just a fancy term for a witch, and above the steel-clad certainty she held that she would always be the scariest thing in the woods and as such had nothing to fear, she knew deep in her soul that nothing she saw could be taken at face value.
Anathema looked again, and looked Deeper still. An odd aura clung to the paper- the deepest and darkest blue for constancy and seriousness, flecked with a hundred other hues- greens and pinks and golden yellow, all blending together to form a black as deep as space, surrounded with a blinding corona of what could only be starlight.
“There’s definitely something odd here,” She admitted, “but I’ve no clue what it is.”
“Do you see him? Please tell me you see him!” His eyes were wide, panicked, darting and wild like a man possessed.
“The only person I see in this photo is you, ‘Zira.”
The blond man gave a cry of distress and stumbled, shoulders shaking. “I’m not mad!” He told himself, earning odd looks from the shop’s other patrons. “I’m not! Oh god- “ he trailed off, chest heaving in his panic, hiccups threatening to turn to sobs as a lump rose in his throat and stuck there.
“Come to the back room and sit down, Aziraphale.” Anathema said gently. “And we can puzzle it out. You need a cup of tea.”
“What the heavens do you suppose this is, then?” Aziraphale said softly, using a steaming mug to steady his hands. His voice cracked, and he winced.
“Tell me what you see, Aziraphale.”
He sniffed, studying his hands.
“I see a man. Behind me, by my shoulder, in my blind-spot. Just standing there. A bit blurry, because of the water.”
“And? I don’t think that’s the whole story.”
“He’s tall. A redhead, hair the colour of blood, slicked back. Very pale, eyes hidden by sunglasses. Wears a sharp black suit and a fedora, as if he’d just stepped out of a forties noir flick. It looks quite dapper, I suppose.”
Aziraphale let out a trembling breath, meeting her gaze at last.
“And he has wings. Wings of shining, shapeless darkness, and in the image, they are mantled, protecting me.” He chuckled, wryly. “I’m losing it.”
“I don’t think so.” Anathema said, folding her hands in her lap. “My gran, Agnes, used to tell me stories. About- well, they were more like ghosts, to be honest. But she called them Guardians.”
“I- I’m not sure what exactly this has to do with anything, dear girl. Surely these tales are simply that; tales?” Aziraphale said, picking at his meticulously-done nail-polish, which was, at that moment, a pale blue.
“You should never assume anything. Guardians; they’re supposed to be soulmates. People whose atoms were near each other at the start of creation, people whose souls fit like puzzle pieces, grandma used to say.”
Aziraphale sighed. “That sounds awfully romantic. I guess you just have to pick the truth to believe in.”
“Don’t dismiss it just yet. There’s definitely something odd here.”