There seemed to be something stuck in Aziraphale’s throat. As he tried to swallow - hard - a single bead of sweat dripped down his forehead. The sun was hot on his face, and the noise around him, shouts of excitement, faded to a dull roar. His ears were burning bright red. Don’t turn around don’t turn around, please, oh please don’t turn around, were the words racing through Aziraphale’s mind. His eyes were locked onto the back of a stranger’s head several yards in front of him. Standing in a small, grassy field was a line of incoming students, Aziraphale included, waiting to pick up their first semester schedules. Aziraphale silently, fiercely prayed to go unnoticed, that he could just pick up his schedule and go back to his small, private dorm room in peace. And yet, achingly slow, a young man with flaming red hair pushed back by a pair of sunglasses turned around. His odd, golden-yellow eyes widened as they found Aziraphale’s flushed face.
Crowley’s feet froze where he stood, new schedule in hand. Another student behind him pushed past, but Crowley barely noticed. Huh, he thought to himself a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He reached up, and slid his sunglasses back over his eyes. Fancy seeing him here...
Around them, students passed by, oblivious to whatever event was transpiring between these two acquaintances, meeting each other again in the last place they expected to be together. Though they hardly knew each other, the shock of seeing the other’s face was enough to halt their tracks. And despite how infrequently they’d actually spoken, their story began many, many years ago.
It was in Miss Nutter’s first grade class they met. Aziraphale, a shy, wide-eyed, blond babe, and Crowley, a gangly, red-headed mess. They sat relatively close together in the reading circle, but they never spoke. Not until the day a pair of baby birds fell from a playground tree during recess.
It was Crowley who first saw them fall. He ran away, squealing with excitement, looking for worms to feed the small birds. Aziraphale, watching from afar and trying to hide his curiosity, tip-toed over to the birds. They were much too young to be out of the nest, that much he knew. They’re gonna die… he thought, his tummy twisting at the thought. His hands clenched into fists, then opened again, repeating in a pattern of anxiety. He reached up and took off the white baseball cap his parents had given him for his birthday, and gently scooped the baby birds up into it, careful not to touch them with his bare hands.
At this point, one teacher had noticed Aziraphale’s slightly suspicious behavior, and came to intervene, gently taking the cap from him and walking away. Aziraphale did not ask for the hat back.
At the end of the day, as Miss Nutter’s class waited outside for the school bus, Crowley approached Aziraphale for the first time.
“Did you see them?” Crowley asked, his S’s hissing out of the gap where he was missing his two front teeth. “Did you see the baby birds?”
“...yes,” Aziraphale responded, clenching and unclenching his fists. He was very nervous talking to people, especially to someone as loud as Crowley. “I hope they’re okay…”
Crowley shrugged. “I guess they’re fine. I didn’t have a chance to give them my worms though.” Crowley put his hands in his jacket pockets and pulled out two small handfuls of both worms and dirt. “I was gonna give them some lunch! You saw how small they were!” Crowley gestured at Aziraphale, worms and dirt spattering the ground.
“I don’t think they were old enough to eat them anyway,” Aziraphale said, brushing dirt off his white jacket. A raindrop fell, hitting his nose, and making him sneeze.
“Bless you,” Crowley said quickly. “Hey,” he continued, eyes narrowing, “didn’t you wear a hat to school today?”
Aziraphale nodded solemnly, “I put the birds in my cap to keep them safe. I thought I could keep them away from the rowdy kids.”
“Kids like me?”
Aziraphale looked down.
“It’s fine,” Crowley said, looking up at the sky. A large, dark grey cloud had blown over the class, and it was softly raining. A sudden shuffling of nylon fabric startled Crowley. Aziraphale had opened his white umbrella and was looking at Crowley expectantly. Crowley stared back blankly. Aziraphale, the shorter of the two, scooted closer to Crowley, and clumsily lifted the umbrella to cover them both as the rain began to pick up. Crowley sighed.
This is how their relationship continued for many years to come. A shared look, and very, very few words. It wasn’t that they disliked each other, but their differences heartily outweighed their similarities. The next time they spoke directly was on a farm field trip in the fifth grade. Their small, Ohio school district was drastically underfunded, yet the many nearby farms gladly accepted the students for no charge. Aziraphale was quietly admiring a pair of black and white splotched cows who were occupied with a rather enticing patch of clovers when Crowley approached.
“They don’t have very many animals, do they?” he asked, hands in his pockets. He was wearing a pair of round, dark sunglasses, and he wore his red hair long. Aziraphale had noticed it has been a while since it had been cut.
“They have enough, it seems,” Aziraphale pointed out. “They’re getting by just fine.”
Crowley crouched down to watch the cows nibble clovers through the dark wood fence and shrugged. “I just feel like a farm is supposed to have...more.”
Aziraphale nibbled his bottom lip and tucked his hands into his white jacket pockets. He didn't really consider the two of them friends, and the thought of talking to relatively loud people still made him anxious. He turned his head to watch three horses gallop through a nearby paddock. The two larger horses were pretty, dark gold and brown with white spots. But the smaller horse, a shining white foal, was what caught Aziraphale’s eyes. Crowley stood up, dusting off the knees of his dark jeans and turned to follow Aziraphale’s gaze. Two farm hands entered the paddock, and began leading the two larger horses through a gate and towards a faded red barn. The foal didn’t seem to notice, and kept trotting around the field, through a large gap in the fence, and wandered farther and farther away.
“Hey!” Crowley shouted, making Aziraphale jump. “Hey, that one is getting away!” Crowley began trying to climb the wooden fence, jumping up and down. Aziraphale balked.
“Stop!” Aziraphale cried. “You’re gonna get us in trouble!” Aziraphale reached to grab the hem of Crowley’s dark jacket, but stopped before he got close enough to latch on. “Crowley, stop! I’m sure they know what they’re doing!”
Crowley jerked his head around to glare at Aziraphale. Aziraphale froze.
“‘Know what they’re doing,’ are you serious?” Crowley hissed. “As if…” He hopped down from the fence and clenched his fists. “Yeah, whatever. I tried… “
Crowley stomped away, leaving Aziraphale by the cows who had ignored the whole ordeal. Aziraphale looked down at the clovers and sighed.
They didn’t speak again until two years later, in the seventh grade, when a fight broke out between two other students. The crowd around the fight was strangely quiet, very different from the other fights Crowley had seen before. He danced around the outskirts of the crowd, trying to sneak a peek. It wasn’t that he was interested in fighting, just interested in whatever captured everyone else’s attention. His foot slipped, and he nearly crashed into one of his classmates; specifically, a certain blond classmate. Crowley swallowed.
“Hey, Aziraphale,” he croaked.
Aziraphale’s head whipped around. “Oh. Well, hello," he said, looking away.
“What’s this all about?” Crowley’s palms burned. He wiped them on his dark jeans and continued, “A fight?”
Aziraphale nodded solemnly. “Yes,” he said quietly, “unfortunately so.”
Crowley peaked around Aziraphale’s head and through a gap in the crowd. He looked away almost instantly.
“Why isn’t anyone, I dunno, stopping this?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale looked back at him, worry shining in his clear blue eyes. He shook his head.
"Well, what started it then?" Crowley asked, leaning closer to Aziraphale.
Aziraphale scooted closer and Crowley's heart beat a little bit faster, "It's hard to say," Aziraphale whispered. "Mostly," he gulped, "people are upset about the kinds of things he's been saying..."
"Wha's that?" Crowley asked.
"Be kind to each other."
It had been almost exactly two years since Aziraphale had spoken to Crowley. It was their Freshman year when their school decided to have a "dance." Or, at the very least, a night where the gymnasium would be decorated with streamers and balloons, and a DJ they hired off the internet would play "cool" songs for the students to dance to. Aziraphale, who rather enjoyed dancing in the privacy of his bedroom, was not exactly looking forward to dancing here. But, he thought, it might be nice to see some people from school in a less formal setting! So he bought his ticket, and that night, arrived at the school right on time.
Aziraphale entered the dark gym and was greeted with flashing lights and thumping, bass-heavy music. Around him, students milled about, chatting in small groups of three or four people. Some brave kids danced in the empty space in the center. The music was much too loud for his personal taste, and the songs that played were not songs he had heard before. He realized quickly that other students had come specifically to socialize with each other. Aziraphale had come simply because he thought it would be a neat thing to do.
"Oh!" Aziraphale couldn't stop the noise from escaping his mouth, eyes on the other side of the gym. He made his way quickly off to one side, towards a table topped with a cheap plastic cover. Aziraphale dodged around a few swaying couples who certainly weren't leaving room for Jesus, and arrived, only a little out of breath, at the table. Aziraphale smiled a big, warm smile.
"Well hello there, Crowley!" Aziraphale beamed, looking down at Crowley who was reclining in a folding chair with his feet propped up on the table. Crowley looked up in surprise, the corners of his mouth turning up. "Do you mind if I take a seat here?" Aziraphale asked, already pulling a chair up next to Crowley and sitting down.
"What're you doin' here?" Crowley asked, pulling his feet off the table and letting his heavy boots clunk to the floor.
Aziraphale smoothed the front of his white button-up shirt and loosened his tartan tie just a little bit. "I'm here," he said, "because I...thought it might be nice."
Crowley nodded at this and rolled an empty soda can across the table. He leaned forward and rested his chin on the table. Aziraphale cleared his throat.
"Might I...tempt you with another soda?" Aziraphale asked as an involuntary blush spread across his cheeks. Crowley laughed.
Aziraphale smiled, grabbed Crowley's empty soda can, and trotted away. Crowley sat up and watched Aziraphale walk away. He shook his head and crossed his arms. What is wrong with him? Crowley asked himself, a smile spreading wider and wider on his face. Aziraphale returned as quickly as he left with two unopened cans of the same soda Crowley had been drinking before. He handed one to Crowley and sat down again.
"Cheers," said Aziraphale, tipping his can gently towards Crowley.
"Cheers," Crowley replied, tapping his can against Aziraphale's.
And they drank their sodas in silence, simply enjoying the company of another person who felt equally out of place in the world.
And now, there Aziraphale stood, red-faced and on the verge of hyperventilation. Oh jeez, he thought, what in heaven's name is wrong with me!? He wiped his palms on the thighs of his pants and retrieved a water bottle from his leather messenger bag. He took a hearty swig and stuffed it back in his bag. Just one boy, he reassured himself. Just one person I talked to once or twice. Doesn't make a difference now. Aziraphale took a semi-confident step forward.