“So,” Crowley said suddenly, “it looks as though I’m going to be away for a bit.”
Aziraphale paused in savoring his tart. “Pardon?” he said, and then processed the whole sentence and said, “away where?”
Crowley fidgeted, in the way that he fidgeted when there was something bothering him but he didn’t want to tell Aziraphale about it. “Shouldn’t be more’n eight to ten years.”
A horrid thought occurred to Aziraphale, and he went so far as to set down his fork. “You aren’t being reassigned! Are they sending you somewhere awful, like-” He cast about for possibilities. “Boston?”
“I’m not being reassigned,” Crowley said. Another little fidget and he sunk further down in his chair, settling into a slumped sort of sprawl and looking over at a philodendron in the corner of the shop. “Look at that,” he said. “No discipline. That’s what comes of coddling them.”
Aziraphale glanced at the plant, which looked fine to him, but quickly turned his attention back to Crowley. “You’re changing the subject,” he accused. Crowley shrugged.
“It’s true, though,” he said. “Look at those leaves. Positively shameful.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale said, beginning to feel agitated by his evasion.
“Mmh,” Crowley said. Curling his fingers around the stem of a wine glass that had definitely been empty a moment before and now had something that definitely wasn’t wine, he proceeded to down it in two swallows.
Then he said, “I’m being recalled.”
Aziraphale went very still. He was glad he’d set down his fork, because he felt as though he might have dropped it if he hadn’t. He took a deep breath. “Recalled,” he said. “To...Hell?”
“Yes, angel,” Crowley said a little snappishly. “Where else would I get ‘recalled’ to? Certainly not-” He gestured upwards.
“I know that,” Aziraphale said, stiffening. “That isn’t the point.” He wasn’t sure how to say what was the point, because he wasn’t sure what the point was, other than the vaguely panicky feeling he was having.
“Anyway,” Crowley said, a bit too loudly, “I’m supposed to leave tomorrow. Don’t expect I’ll be too long. Like I said, eight to ten years, probably.”
Aziraphale’s heart sank. “Oh,” he said. “That’s not too long.” It really wasn’t. There’d been significantly longer times they’d gone without seeing each other at all. He forced a laugh. “I’ll probably barely even notice.”
“Right,” said Crowley. “I figure it’s just a sort of - performance review, thing. You know. Maybe some training sessions or what-have-you. Boring stuff.”
Crowley wasn’t just nervous, Aziraphale realized. He was scared. Trying very hard not to show it, but there it was.
Crowley did not like Hell. It might be a demon’s natural habitat, but every time Crowley went down even just to make brief reports he got all - wiggly about it. Wiggly-er; Crowley always had a bit of that about him.
Aziraphale had asked what Hell was like, once, out of morbid curiosity, and Crowley had gone quiet and then not talked to him for four centuries. Of course that just made Aziraphale all the more morbidly curious. He imagined it must be bad - of course it must be, it was Hell - but that didn’t tell him much.
“I’m sure that’s it,” Aziraphale said, too heartily. “Exactly that sort of thing. Nothing to be concerned about at all.”
Crowley did not look reassured. He looked pale, and anxious, and like he was trying very hard to not look either. “Nothing at all,” he said hollowly. “Anyway. Figured I’d let you know so you weren’t...wondering.”
“Thank you,” Aziraphale said. “That’s very considerate of you.”
Crowley made a face. “Considerate,” he said, like it was a dirty word. “You keep that word out of your mouth. I’m not considerate, angel. Constitutionally incapable.”
Aziraphale just looked at him, and Crowley twitched. “Yes,” he said. “Well. I’ll see you later, then.”
“I suppose so,” Aziraphale said after a pause. He wanted to say something else, but wasn’t sure what it was. He did manage to find, eventually, “good luck.”
“Thanks,” Crowley said with a wan smile. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“I’m going to do a lot of things you wouldn’t do,” Aziraphale said. Crowley smirked, but it looked like an imitation of his usual expression, and strolled out. Aziraphale caught himself frowning after him. So what if it had been a couple millennia since either of them had been properly recalled, beyond brief trips to make reports in person? It didn’t mean anything.
Aziraphale finished off the last of his tart, but he noticed that it didn’t taste quite as good as it had before.
It was fine for the first year. Hardly even noticeable, in fact. He and Crowley were hardly constant companions; they had their own work, their own lives, and Crowley occasionally simply disappeared for decades on end to reappear later without explanation.
So all in all he scarcely noticed Crowley’s absence, other than perhaps that London seemed a little quieter.
It was in the second year that he began to feel decidedly odd. Not that he was missing Crowley, exactly, just that it was a bit strange to be in the city without him. Since the 1880s they had shared these streets, and the absence of demonic presence was...well, he noticed the lack.
It did not seem as though Heaven had noticed the same. Or at least, no one sent him any message commenting on it.
By midway through the third year, Aziraphale found himself outside the building where Crowley’s flat was located - yes, he did know, Crowley hadn’t told him, he’d just followed him home one day - contemplating how bad an idea it would be to intrude upon a demon’s inner sanctum without that demon’s permission. And, too, what sort of horrid den he might find.
Crowley was a very peculiar demon, but he was still a demon, and Aziraphale had no idea at all what sort of living space a demon might like. He hemmed and hawed a bit more, shifting from foot to foot, and finally walked into the building, climbed the stairs, and let himself through the door.
The first thing he was struck by was that it was very...clean. Immaculate, really, and quite spare in terms of furnishings and decor. He had, Aziraphale realized, expected some sort of...well, lair, but this was just...modern. In a sort of bleak way, to Aziraphale’s eye; a bit cold and empty. He supposed that suited Crowley. He’d always been very streamlined.
There was a statue that caught Aziraphale’s eye and he drifted over toward it. It was two angels wrestling, one pinning the other down with their arm twisted behind their back. One of the angels had darker wings than the other, and it occurred to Aziraphale that perhaps they were not both angels at all. Feeling a bit peculiar, he quickly turned away from his inspection, which was when he caught a glimpse of green.
He started down the hall and almost immediately a loud and anxious rustling began. Aziraphale paused, frowning; he couldn’t recall the last time he’d heard a plant rustle anxiously. In fact, he did not think he had ever heard a plant rustle anxiously.
“Hello?” Aziraphale said cautiously, moving down the hallway toward the green, and the rustling stopped. He frowned, but continued onward into a room that was practically a greenhouse. If the rest of the flat was spare and minimal, this was a flourishing of greenery, stretching up toward the ceiling, hanging from it, creeping across the tops of the windows.
Aziraphale had the strangest feeling that he was being watched, and warily, by a room full of plants. He paused, pursing his lips.
Whatever he had expected from Crowley’s demonic domicile, this was not part of it. This was positively...Edenic.
Aziraphale felt very abruptly like he was intruding, even though of course he had been intruding all along. It was different seeing this room, like - peeping, or something of the like. He cleared his throat and backed out into the hallway, retreating out of the flat and then out of the building, and didn’t stop until he was back comfortably in his own bookshop. There he made himself a pot of tea and sat down, only to stare into the distance as it got cold.
It wasn’t as though, Aziraphale told himself, Crowley had ever asked about coming into Aziraphale’s home. He’d simply done it, waltzed into the bookshop without a second’s pause or a by-your-leave. (Never mind that, at least supposedly, Ezra Fell & Co. was a public shop and not the same as Aziraphale’s upstairs flat.) Aziraphale’d just gone over to check in on his...coworker. (No, that wasn’t quite the right word.)
That wasn’t true. He’d gone over out of morbid curiosity more than anything. He wasn’t curious anymore, at least, though Aziraphale couldn’t have quite said what he was instead.
He tried to put it out of his mind. So Crowley kept plants. What did it matter, except perhaps inasmuch as he now knew one more small thing about his - about the demon. It was interesting, but it wasn’t as though it was particularly useful (though what Aziraphale would have done if it were, he had no actual idea).
Still, he added it to his mental file, along with Crowley’s favorite varietals of wine and favorite spots for dinner, which were two other pieces of information that weren’t precisely useful and yet he kept anyway.
Another six months went by with no sign of Crowley. Aziraphale wondered what he was doing down there, and then quickly decided it was probably better not to wonder, and then started imagining all kinds of awful things anyway and wished he’d never had the thought in the first place.
It occurred to Aziraphale that no one was watering Crowley’s plants.
He paused, lowering his fork mid-quiche. No one was watering Crowley’s plants. How in heaven were they supposed to survive for years without care? They’d wither and die on the vine.
No living creature of God’s design deserved to suffer such an ignoble fate from neglect.
And it seemed to Aziraphale that Crowley would be quite upset to return and find his greenery all gone brown. No doubt he would take out his mood on the rest of London. So really - really it was an act of altruism on behalf of humanity.
He told himself this standing outside the door to Crowley’s flat in Mayfair. Not only was it properly heavenly to set himself to saving the lives of God’s creations (Aziraphale thought), but it was also properly heavenly to set himself to avert something that might cause undue demonic influence upon the human souls of this city.
“It’s for the greater good,” Aziraphale said loudly as he filled up a watering can and lugged it back to the room full of plants. “That’s what it is.” There was still that nervous rustling that ceased immediately when he walked in, but rather to his surprise, other than a few brown leaves they all looked remarkably healthy.
He was fairly certain that really, plants left alone without care indoors for more than a year, let alone three and a half should not be quite so well off. Aziraphale frowned at a dracaena, eyeing it with some suspicion. He could have sworn it quailed.
“Be not afraid,” he said, and then felt a bit silly.
Shaking himself, he went through and watered every plant in the room. He noticed a couple that were looking a bit wilty and gave them a bit of gentle encouragement - not a miracle, exactly, as he suspected Crowley wouldn’t appreciate that, just a sort of ‘chin up and carry on’ nudge. When he left, he was feeling quite pleased with himself and rather deliciously sneaky.
When he returned to the bookshop, Gabriel was there.
“Ah,” Aziraphale said, and stopped, quite at a loss for what he ought to say. He knows, was his first wild thought, not even entirely certain what he was afraid Gabriel might know. That he’d been visiting a demon’s dwelling, albeit while that demon was absent?
That he’d been - associating with the same demon rather more freely than that?
“Hello, fellow citizen!” Gabriel said loudly. “I am here for my reading materials.” A few passersby glanced at him with slightly wary expressions and kept moving. Aziraphale cleared his throat.
“Yes, of course,” he said. Gabriel was on his own, and he didn’t seem angry. “Happy to be of assistance, just a moment.” He hastily opened the door, ushered Gabriel in, and closed it behind them both, hoping no one had noticed him letting someone inside. Just in case, he made sure the sign on the door still showed CLOSED.
Gabriel wrinkled his nose. “Something smells funny. Does something smell funny to you?”
“That’s just London,” Aziraphale said, wondering if any sort of demonic residue might be clinging to his clothes. “How can I help?”
“Just stopping by for an update,” Gabriel said, wandering around and peering at the shelves like he was looking for something. “How’re things with that demon, the one you’re always nattering about…”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale said, and the odd look Gabriel gave him made him wonder if he’d said it too fast, or perhaps shouldn’t have volunteered that he knew his name at all. “Yes. He’s actually-” He almost said not on Earth but wondered, abruptly, if Gabriel might ask how he knew that. “-keeping me very busy these days,” he said instead. “Always...you know. Causing a ruckus.”
Gabriel narrowed his eyes. “Not too much of one, I’d hope,” he said. “That is - he isn’t too much for you, is he, Aziraphale?”
“Oh, no,” Aziraphale said quickly. “No, not at all, I - keep a very close eye on him. You know.”
Gabriel scrutinized him, still frowning, for a few moments more, then broke into a beaming smile. “Of course! Of course you do. Good old Aziraphale.” He laughed, though it didn’t seem, to Aziraphale’s ear, particularly nice. More like he was patting a dog on the head. “Wouldn’t doubt it for a minute. Well, if everything’s in order down here, must be going before that nasty odor rubs off on yours truly.” He clapped Aziraphale on the shoulder, rather too hard. “Keep up the good fight,” he said brightly, and departed. Aziraphale held his breath for a few more seconds, then slumped and went to make himself some tea.
His first instinct was to ring Crowley and tell him - not even as a warning, just in the spirit of...collegial commiseration. Crowley did a very entertaining Gabriel imitation. Only he remembered just before picking up the receiver that Crowley wasn’t here to tell.
The thought left him feeling a bit bereft.
Somehow, Aziraphale found that he’d begun visiting Crowley’s flat weekly to tend to his plants.
They still seemed very anxious about having him about, despite his best efforts. When Crowley got back, Aziraphale was going to ask him to explain how he had managed to so thoroughly traumatize a room full of plants.
When Crowley got back. He’d been away for five years, which wasn’t long at all, really - he’d disappeared for much longer, notably for that entire century he’d spent sleeping, for one - but it had been a while, and those times Aziraphale hadn’t known he was in Hell.
“Of course Hell is home, to him,” Aziraphale said to the rose-painted calathea. “So it’s not as though it’s the same as it would be for someone else.” Except that Crowley didn’t like Hell, and had seemed rather concerned about going.
What if he was in some sort of trouble?
“And what would I do about it?” Aziraphale asked the hoya he was disentangling from the African candelabra. “It isn’t as though I can go knocking on the door. Really, it’s none of my business.”
Surveying the entire room, Aziraphale said very firmly, “I’m quite sure I am worrying over nothing. And shouldn’t be worrying at all. They haven’t sent a replacement, which means they’re going to send him back eventually.”
It wasn’t until he said it aloud that Aziraphale realized he’d been considering the possibility that they wouldn’t. That this recall might be permanent. It was a chilling thing to consider, the possibility that there might be some other demon, with whom there would be no Arrangement and most certainly no dinners out or evenings at the bookshop or…
“Surely,” Aziraphale said faintly, “they won’t do that.”
Oh, but this was Hell. The Infernal Pit. What if they’d cottoned on to Crowley Collaborating with an angel? What would be the penalty for that? He had a fairly good idea.
Aziraphale wandered out to the kitchen, and then back to the plants, and sat down. It occurred to him that he was rather lonely. It occurred to him that if Crowley didn’t come back, he would probably remain lonely for a very long time. Humans were all very nice, but there was nothing quite like having someone who Got It to talk to.
It had, he reminded himself, only been three months. It seemed he’d gotten far too attached to Crowley’s regular presence. Which was all wrong, anyway; clearly he’d been spending far too much time around demonic influence.
Perhaps he just ought to be focusing more on work.
Work was dull. Boring, really, without anyone to bounce off of. He performed some desultory miracles, a blessing or two a week, and retreated back to his books.
Six and a half years in and at least Crowley’s plants seemed less afraid of him. He fancied that they even seemed to perk up when he came in.
Eight to ten years, Crowley had said, and they weren’t even to the low end of that, but it was just - very strange, even if it oughtn’t be. And he kept worrying, and wondering, and imagining, and all he could do was water the plants, and check that their soil wasn’t molding, and repot one or two that had grown too large for their previous homes.
On a whim he went to a garden store and bought a plant at random, sticking it in a corner that he thought looked a little thin. It occurred to him belatedly that Crowley might not want another plant, but he felt odd about taking it back. Maybe he wouldn’t notice.
Why plants? Aziraphale wondered. In such an otherwise spare space, why the explosion of greenery, much of it finicky and high-maintenance? It just didn’t seem to fit, not Crowley, not impatient and restless and irritable Crowley.
Yet, despite their anxiety, they were clearly very well cared for plants.
It was an oddity in what Aziraphale knew of Crowley. He’d certainly never mentioned it. Crowley knew about Aziraphale’s bookshop, but Aziraphale hadn’t known about this.
For some reason that bothered him. It seemed like the sort of thing he should have known.
It wasn’t, Aziraphale reminded himself, like they were bosom friends. More like colleagues. If that.
He caught himself frowning at a ficus, which was now quivering in abject terror, and made himself stop. “Oh, calm down,” he snapped at the plant, and left the flat in a bit of a huff.
Almost nine years on the dot, Crowley returned. Aziraphale knew this because he received a note brought by a baffled looking pigeon in Crowley’s scrawling handwriting. Back topside, it read. Hope you had fun without me.
Aziraphale fussed over the idea of going to Crowley’s flat, and pushed the notion away as ridiculous. They met at the bookshop, or at St. James. Those were the rules.
He wondered how long it would take Crowley to notice the added plant, and what he’d make of it. He certainly ought to mention his gardening activities, but now that it came to it, he felt more than a bit peculiar about the idea. Perhaps he needn’t say anything at all.
Crowley didn’t come around for three days, and when he did turn up Aziraphale started a bit. He looked exhausted, and twitchy, and somehow thinner than usual.
“Heavens!” Aziraphale exclaimed. “What happened to you?” The words came out before he really thought about them. Crowley just looked at him and he blushed a bit. “Ah - welcome back?”
“Thanks,” Crowley said. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a bottle of wine you’re not fond of.” He didn’t sound especially good, either. Aziraphale pressed his lips together.
“I suppose I might have.”
“Good,” Crowley said. “‘Preciate it.” Aziraphale opened his mouth to ask if he was all right, or possibly what they’d wanted with him Downstairs, but decided that a) it would probably be rude and b) he wasn’t certain he wanted to know.
“Would you like some biscuits as well?” he asked instead.
“Wine’ll do,” Crowley said. Aziraphale did not quite understand why someone would turn down food unless things were very amiss, but he was aware that Crowley did not feel the same way about eating as he did.
“Very well.” He cleared his throat. “Well...sit down, then. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
“Don’t say ‘jiffy,’” Crowley said. “You sound ridiculous.” Aziraphale frowned at him, but he was a bit relieved to hear Crowley sounding more like himself.
He broke out a bottle from 1764 with only a slight pang, but it seemed like a worthwhile use of the vintage. At least he knew that Crowley would appreciate it, and he didn’t know quite what he’d been saving it for anyway. He brought it out along with two glasses and set them down in front of Crowley, who was sprawled in one of the chairs, though “in” was an approximate description.
“It’s been very quiet,” Aziraphale said as he poured.
“Hm,” Crowley said.
“I was wondering if they would send someone to temporarily stand in. They didn’t, but I was wondering. Or at least if they did I didn’t notice.”
“Probably didn’t,” Crowley said. Aziraphale fidgeted a bit, picking up his glass of wine and setting it back down.
“Good,” he said. “That’s good.” He paused. “Gabriel came round.”
“Neh,” Crowley said eloquently. He was staring at one of the walls rather than Aziraphale, and with his dark glasses on it was impossible to really get a sense for what he was thinking. After a few very long seconds of silence, he picked up the bottle and drank roughly half of it straight down. Aziraphale did not quite gape at him.
“You seem a bit out of sorts,” he said tentatively. Crowley shrugged.
“Performance review,” he said.
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, as though he understood what that meant, which he didn’t. Crowley tapped his fingers on his leg.
“Management’s not the happiest,” he said. “It’s fine. Not a big deal.”
Aziraphale thought it seems like it might be a big deal but he was not rude enough to say so. “Well,” he said, “I think your performance has been perfectly satisfactory.”
For some reason that made Crowley choke on his wine. He coughed a few times and said, “angel, your endorsement probably wouldn’t help.”
“No,” Aziraphale said. “I suppose not.” He paused, pursing his lips, and finally said, “I watered your plants while you were away.”
Crowley’s head jerked round fast. “You what?”
“Your plants,” Aziraphale said delicately. “I - well - I didn’t think you’d be happy if you came back and they were all dead.”
“They wouldn’t dare,” Crowley said absently, and then, “you were in my flat.”
Aziraphale realized abruptly that he’d managed to stop thinking about the fact that Crowley had not, exactly, given him permission to be there. “Ah,” he said after a moment. “Once or twice.” Crowley took off his sunglasses and stared at him. “It was very nice,” Aziraphale said.
“Nice,” Crowley said .
“Very lovely plants,” Aziraphale said hopefully.
Crowley stared at him for several more long moments, and finally lowered his face into his hands and said, “you were probably kind to them, weren’t you.” More than anything, he sounded resigned, and Aziraphale cleared his throat.
“Ah. Should I not have been?”
“No,” Crowley said. “You’ll spoil them like that.”
Aziraphale thought he might have the answer as to why Crowley’s plants were so nervous. “They seemed to be doing fine to me,” he said a bit defensively. Somehow in spite of the sunglasses Crowley managed to convey a withering look.
“I suppose that explains the begonia,” he said.
“What begonia,” Aziraphale said, attempting innocence. Crowley’s eyebrows rose just a fraction.
“Not very angelic of you,” he said. “Breaking into someone’s house.”
Aziraphale pressed his lips together. “I didn’t break in. The door was open.”
“Not before you decided it was,” Crowley said. “Well. We’ll see how the begonia does. If it gets to stay.”
That sounded a bit ominous. Aziraphale had the feeling he was on rather thin ice when it came to telling Crowley how to manage his things, though. “I didn’t know you were a gardener,” he said instead. Crowley set down the bottle of wine, to Aziraphale’s relief, and took up the glass instead.
“I’m not,” he said. “I just keep plants.”
“I didn’t know that, either.”
“Must not’ve mentioned it,” Crowley said casually, but there was something ever so slightly tense about him that hadn’t been there before, a stiffness like Aziraphale was prodding at a bruise. He frowned.
“No,” he said slowly. “You didn’t.”
“This is all right,” Crowley said, holding up his glass. “What’s the vintage?”
It was a transparent change of subject, but Aziraphale decided to let it go. Crowley hadn’t actually said it’s none of your business, but he hadn’t not said it either.
Besides, Aziraphale was thinking about gardens, and gardeners, and snakes, and it was rather obvious, wasn’t it? Really, when you came down to it, not subtle at all.
He was rather glad he hadn’t blessed the begonia. That, he thought, would have ruined everything.
“It’s 1764. So,” he said, clearing his throat. “Are you going to be...sticking around for a bit, then?”
Crowley put the sunglasses back on and swirled the wine around before taking a sip. He shrugged. “Seems like,” he said. “No one’s told me anything else, anyway.”
“Well,” Aziraphale said. “That must be a relief.”
He thought Crowley was eyeing him, but with the dark glasses it was hard to say for sure. “Yeah,” he said after a long moment. “Bit of one.”
I’m glad you’re not going to be reassigned, Aziraphale might have said. Or, it’s good to have you back. He couldn’t, though. Or didn’t, anyway. Just raised his glass in a vague sort of toast and said, “try to be gentle with your plants. They held up very well.”
“I will be no such thing,” Crowley said. “They don’t get rewards for doing what they’re supposed to.”
No, Aziraphale thought again, a bit sadly, not subtle at all.