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courage is the passport when your old world disappears

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“Have a wonderful flight, love.”

“Mmm,” he says, and grins at Aziraphale, dry as white wine, before reaching for a kiss. “I will. And you- be careful. There’ve been some- ah- robberies going around. Apparently.”

“Oh?” asks Aziraphale. “You’d think they’d have realized minimalism’s in now.”

“Not with you it isn’t,” he says, before stepping away and shoving his suitcase in the trunk. “Which is why they’ll come for our flat first, what with a snowstorm on its way and all.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not. Just careful.”

“As always.” 

But Aziraphale smiles to take the sting out of the words, and kisses him goodbye one last time, and waves as the taxi disappears into the early morning fog, carrying his boyfriend with it. It’s only afterwards, after he’s sitting at his table, that he lets himself think it: always so careful, aren’t you, Gabriel?

It’d been a nice counterpoint from some of Aziraphale’s previous boyfriends, who wouldn’t have accepted responsibility if it killed them. For the first three years, Aziraphale had appreciated Gabriel’s brusqueness, his aura of control, his firm knowledge of right and wrong, the way he doesn’t act until he has all the needed information. It’s what makes him such a good PR consultant- he acts swiftly only once he’s got everything he needs.

Until now.

Four years of living together, and no further commitment from Gabriel’s end. It leaves Aziraphale a little worried: when has Gabriel ever not been decisive? And if he decides he doesn’t want Aziraphale anymore, what does Aziraphale have? A shop? His books?

No. It isn’t enough.

And Aziraphale doesn’t want him to leave. He wants a life with Gabriel, tucked in this part of London, warm and cozy and comfortable.

So here he is, sitting at his little kitchen-table, planning.

No.

Here he is: plotting.

...

A few hours later, Aziraphale packs himself off into a small taxi and takes off to the airport. It’s not a great day: the February morning is cloudy and cold, the promise of snow and rain heavy in the air, but Aziraphale has a very soft scarf that keeps his neck warm despite it. He gets a ticket quickly, though he has to suppress a shudder when the ticketing agent chucks his luggage- a proper antique!- into the check-in queue without any care about denting it.

It’s a good plan, what he’s come up with.

Gabriel is a staunch Christian. He knows all the saints. He knows all the tales. He knows the Bible back to front and front to back, and lives his life as staunchly by it as he can. And Aziraphale has always liked Saint Brigid, patron of scholars and printing presses. If he’s proposed to on the 29th of February, he’ll know the tradition Aziraphale’s invoking.

That, at least, Aziraphale is certain of.

What he isn’t certain of is Gabriel’s answer.

But still, four years is so long. Short in the larger scheme of things, yes, but long enough to know whether the relationship can last or not. And, Aziraphale thinks, if it ends here, if it ends like this, because Gabriel does not love him enough to wed him- then Aziraphale will walk away at least knowing that. At least this terrible uncertainty won’t dog his footsteps wherever he goes.

...

The flight is a small one; it always is for such short distances. Aziraphale doesn’t think much of it.

Not until the oxygen masks fall, at least.

...

“How is it,” asks Aziraphale, trying desperately to hold onto his temper, “that a plane from London gets blown further south?”

The lady behind the desk sighs. “I’m very sorry, sir. But the warnings about the snowstorm have caused emergency closures of all airports within the storm’s radius, and there is no-”

“Is there another flight to Dublin that I can take?”

“Sir,” says the lady. She looks very pale in the fluorescent lighting, and very tired, and about as incredulous as she can while holding onto her customer-service-mask. “There is a snowstorm that has grounded all flights in and out of Dublin for at least two weeks. If you’d like, I can put you on a flight to Spain.”

“No,” says Aziraphale. “That won’t be necessary.” He pauses. Tries to soften his voice, because it isn’t the poor woman’s fault, at the end of the day. “But do you have a ferry anywhere near here?”

“Nothing official,” says the lady. Then she takes in his face- the scarf drooping, the damp patches of sweat on his jacket, the visible dents in his- antique!- luggage- and sympathy visibly softens it. “But I think I can get a cousin on the line for you, if you don’t mind paying a bit extra.”

“Thank you,” says Aziraphale, fervently, and watches her face pink up a little in pleasure.

...

The boy the lady hires for the job is a young man, with a ruddy face and acne turning it ruddier, a shock of dark hair and limbs so long he looks more cricket than human. “Heard you need a ride,” he says, and his voice cracks cleanly through the middle, like a porcelain plate snapped in half.

“Yes,” says Aziraphale, hauling his suitcase through the pier and onto the boat. “To Cork.”

“Dunno if we’ll get that far.”

The boy looks dubiously at the sky. It’s a strange yellowish tinge; Aziraphale isn’t certain if that’s from the sunset reflecting off of the clouds or if it’s a prelude to a storm, like in the accounts of hurricanes he’s read about from the Bahamas. But the wind is sharp and cold in his face, and it’s been so long since he ever felt something this wild, this uncontrollable. He has to stifle the strange urge to laugh into the teeth of the wind, giddiness turning his limbs light.

“Sooner begun, sooner ended,” says Aziraphale calmly, settling into the boat. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Right,” says the boy, even more dubiously. “Hold on, then, I guess.”

...

Eventually, when the waves are almost completely swamping the boat, the boy seems to be aiming less for Cork and more for land, any land. They finally wash up on a rocky beach, the landing rough enough to jar Aziraphale’s back and cause it to ache.

“It isn’t Cork,” says the boy, but his sidelong look at Aziraphale tells him that it doesn’t matter even if Aziraphale tries to avoid payment, or promise more money. There’s no way he’s going to go out into the water again.

“It isn’t,” he agrees, and hides the disappointment as best he can before fishing out his wallet. “But a deal’s a deal. Do you know this town?”

“Not... well.” The boy hesitates, then pockets the cash. “But there’s an inn on top of that bluff, I think. If you want a place to stay the night.”

Aziraphale takes stock: the outer layer of his luggage is soaked through, and so is he, and the night is falling fast, the wind picking up with it. He thinks there’s an oiled cover in the boat’s supplies, but then the boy will probably use that himself. Which means that Aziraphale has no choice.

“Thank you,” he says, because for all his misfortune the lad doesn’t deserve to be on the wrong end of his temper, and Aziraphale can be courteous even if all he wants is fall into a soft, warm bed and sleep for a couple days.

He remembers: Gabriel, the ring tucked in his breastpocket. It’s going to be worth it. And perhaps, decades later, it will make for a good story when he’s telling people in a pub. The adventure he had, in going from London to Dublin.

The optimism lasts him right up to taking the suitcase up the bluff. Aziraphale doesn’t like exercise; Gabriel’s tried all sorts of methods to get him to go to the gym with him, from losing weight to sleeping better at night, but Aziraphale doesn’t mind either his figure or his insomnia, not really. He does regret not being in shape now, when there’s sweat making his shirt sticky and then immediately drying off under the freezing wind, and the hard edge of his suitcase keeps banging against his legs. There are going to be bruises in too many places to count.

By the time he gets to the actual inn, he is red-faced, cheeks chapped from the cold and flushed with the exertion, hair tamped to his skull and feeling wild-eyed with sheer desperation for rest. There’s a little bell that jangles when he enters- just another infuriating stimulus scraping away at his self-control- and he drops the suitcase with a huff in front of what he assumes has to be the reservation desk.

“Is there anyone here?”

“Yes,” says a cool voice behind him. “But please refrain from attempting to damage the floorboards. They’re new.”

Aziraphale turns on his heel and forces himself not to look too disbelieving of the man who’d just spoken. There’s absolutely no way these floorboards- which have more scars and dents than Aziraphale’s luggage- are newer than two decades. Probably between thirty-five and forty years, actually, if his experience in antiques is anything to go by.

But.

He needs a room, doesn’t he?

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he says. “Are you the innkeeper?”

“Do I look like the innkeeper?”

“I don’t see anyone else here.”

“Which is because I am the innkeeper,” says the man, and smiles at Aziraphale like he’s in on a joke. “Crowley, at your service.”

“Er. Right.” Aziraphale blinks, then nods once, sharply. “I don’t suppose you have any rooms I can let for the night?”

“I usually don’t take such late customers.”

“It’s not even eight!”

“Most of ‘em are online, nowadays,” says Crowley. “The reservations, I mean.”

“Are they,” says Aziraphale, flatly. “Do you even have any customers?”

Something closes off in Crowley’s face, and he leans back. “It’s off-season,” he says, and his voice has cooled off.

“Looks like it.” Aziraphale bites his tongue before he can say anything worse and get himself kicked out of the only place that can house him for- probably- kilometers on end. “Look. Can I have a room? I’ll pay upfront, in cash- I just need somewhere for the night.”

“Sure,” says Crowley, voice still flat. He taps at a screen in front of him- Aziraphale hadn’t known screens that large could be touchscreen, and certainly not when everything around them is so ramshackle and collapsing. “How many nights?”

“Er. One. I’ll be out of your hair tomorrow morning.”

“So soon!” he says, and the sardonic uptick of his voice almost makes Aziraphale twitch with what’s rapidly becoming Pavlovian reflex. Then Crowley looks up, and there’s a brightness to his gaze that makes Aziraphale relax against his will. He holds out an envelope. “Your room key. There should be ice down the hall, but if the machine doesn’t work don’t worry. Just give it a couple of solid thumps and it’ll set it to sorts. Complementary breakfast in the morning, make sure you’re down by eight!”

Aziraphale pays and heads over to the stairs that Crowley had gestured to, pausing only to flip the envelope over and look at the room number.

204 shines back at him, stamped dark and heavy.

The bastard’s probably given him the highest room in the entire inn.

Oh my god, thinks Aziraphale, before taking his luggage with both hands and striding up it. Think of Gabriel. This is all for...

...

...

Crowley watches through the carefully-arranged mirror as the man exhales sharply and sends a dark look back to the reception desk before taking the stairs. He grins; there’s something amusing in pushing polite people to the edge of rudeness and pulling away right before they tip over it.

Then he turns away to do his work for the night.

The inn is not doing well. Crowley’s acknowledged that in his mind, even if he hasn’t admitted it to anyone else. The man- Aziraphale- was right. The floorboards are mildewed in some areas and there are so many other problems- the bougainvillea he’d planted years ago is threatening to rip apart the wooden stakes of the roof, and the kitchen has such an inefficient stove that he’ll probably have a carbon monoxide poisoning sooner rather than later, and there’s a stone wall running behind the inn that’s grown so weak it’ll give way to a goat’s headbutt as soon as the farmers start taking them out to pasture. But to solve all of those, Crowley’s going to need money, and that’s the real problem underlying everything: he doesn’t have enough cash.

He’s scraped by these past few years by the skin of his teeth.

And to be fair, it is lean season; February to April are the worst months, with college students busy with studies and the constant threat of storms like this one currently banging his window shutters so wildly. But Crowley doesn’t have the padding of a good Christmas season because he hadn’t been in town then, and he’s paying the price for that risk now.

There’s nobody who’ll loan him the cash. Absolutely nobody. Not with Crowley’s history, which he hadn’t bothered to hide when he moved here because he’s so tired of hiding it; they’ll all shake their heads and look at him with glassy eyes, pity and scorn lighting them in equal measure.

Screw them. He’s got enough pride not to let on exactly how bad things have gotten. You’ll figure this out, Crowley.

Like he always has.

Even if he gets a headache from squinting at the numbers and trying to balance them- even if the only time he gets to do this is past midnight- Crowley will, because this is the one home he’s chosen for himself and the one home he wants, and that matters, and Crowley’s never let go of things that mattered in his entire life.

...

The next morning, Crowley lets Aziraphale into the outer dining hall. It’s a good morning; the sun is shining through the clouds, and the rain has washed all the dust off of the leaves and petals to turn the entire garden into a shining, brilliant vision. He offers a plate of a proper English breakfast- eggs, bacon, toast; coffee that comes from freshly roasted beans. And Aziraphale seems to appreciate it more than the average customer, too, because he hums deep in his throat when he tastes the coffee, and refrains from gulping it down like a thirsty vagabond, for all that he’d appeared a drowned one just a few hours previous.

“Is there anything else I can get you?” Crowley asks silkily, keeping his tone even and pleasant. 

“No,” says Aziraphale. He looks up at Crowley, then, and his eyes are not a very deep blue; they are lighter than that by far, like floes of ice, and colorless when the sunlight shafts across them at a particular angle. Something clenches in Crowley’s abdomen, and eases only when Aziraphale continues to speak. “But- do you know where the nearest train station is? I’m headed to Dublin, you see.”

“There’s no train station near here,” Crowley tells him. Aziraphale pales, a little, and Crowley finds himself elaborating: “They were building one down to here, but it got diverted more inland so they didn’t have to worry about the cliffs. They’re quite unstable, so they’d need to build that too, and you know how the government is.”

“Cheap?”

“Penny-pinching bastards, the lot of them,” agrees Crowley.

Amusement leavens Aziraphale’s face a little. He leans forward, and studies Crowley. “I’ll need to go inland, then. Catch that train.”

“Wouldn’t make sense. They cancel them half the time, any which way you want to measure time. And anyhow, nearest train station’s twenty kilometers away."

“Ah.” He slumps back. “I don’t suppose you know of another method of travel out of here? I’m on a deadline- I need to be in Dublin by tomorrow.”

“Something important happening?”

“Leap day,” says Aziraphale. “I’m sure you know the tradition- I plan to propose. To my- ah- boyfriend.”

That fist clenches in Crowley’s belly again, and he coughs to hide it. “Leap day,” he says, and knows his voice is too flat, the pleasant edge of it suddenly turning cold and sharp. “Doesn’t that mean a man who’s proposed to on leap day can’t say no?”

“Not without paying the person who proposed a fee. In the old times, it would have been the fur of twelve animals. Now... I suppose twelve books would be enough.”

“I didn’t take you for a gold digger,” says Crowley, staring at him.

Aziraphale flushes. “Excuse me?”

“What, just because he won’t marry he has to pay you to leave him alone? That sounds terrible. And cruel.”

“You don’t know him! Or me!”

“No, I don’t.” Crowley smiles, a flash of his teeth, and watches Aziraphale flush a little darker. “But I do know that there’s no way out of this town unless you drive. And there’s nobody who’s going to offer a taxi service.”

“They’ll do it,” says Aziraphale grimly, chin upturned and eyes flashing as he glares at Crowley. “For the money if nothing else.”

Money.

Rows of dark numbers flashes through Crowley’s mind, the dizziness of seeing them for so long that they lost almost all meaning. He’s not a greedy man, Crowley, but he’s a man who knows survival when he it dangles in front of him and stinks of bait.

“How much money?” he asks casually.

“I- don’t know.” Aziraphale shakes his head. “How much do you think it’ll cost?”

Crowley makes a rapid decision. “Five hundred pounds,” he says, and steps closer to the table, so he can better see Aziraphale. “Five hundred, if you want to go to Dublin. I’ll drive you there myself.”

“Oh!” For a moment, Aziraphale doesn’t answer. He’s looking for a way to decline, Crowley knows it. “I don’t think-”

“Take it or leave it,” says Crowley, folding his arms over his chest. He smiles, again, this time slow and wide. Debates on vocalizing the threat, but... he’s not a good man, and never has been, and he doesn’t think he’ll start just because he has a paragon of virtue or whatever in front of him. “And believe me, I know how to cut transmission wires on cars far better than I can drive them. So if you really want to get out-”

“How dare you!”

“Just the truth, angel.” 

Aziraphale doesn’t react badly to the nickname; he only pulls his eyebrows down and says, more petulantly than angry: “I don’t like you.”

“You don’t have to.” Crowley lifts his eyebrows. “Just pay me.”

Aziraphale taps his fingers on the table and studies the remnants of his breakfast. He looks deep in thought; like he’s trying to tease out some old, unknown truth instead of debating on whether he should take the expensive lifeline Crowley’s just offered him. Finally, he brushes a hand to his brow and looks up at Crowley.

“Oh, fine,” he says, and for all that it’s sullen and unhappy, it’s also an agreement. 

Crowley will take what he gets.

...

...

The car Crowley comes up with is such an anomaly to his surroundings- well, it’s an antique, or so Aziraphale thinks, so not that much of an anomaly, but it’s shiny and black and long, the metal rivets gleaming and headlights almost larger than Aziraphale’s skull- and he can’t fathom where Crowley must have hidden it, because there’s nowhere around that should be capable of hiding it out of a storm or fell weather.

“Ready, angel?”

Aziraphale firmly- firmly!- ignores the twist in his chest at the name. The man’s only being sarcastic, and he’s only in this for the money, and Aziraphale has to remember that.

“You know my name,” he mutters instead, and drags his luggage the last few feet to the boot of the car. “Could you open it up? I’ll just-”

“-what is that?” asks Crowley, stepping out of the car and looking horrified. 

“My suitcase.”

“It’s covered in shit!”

“Mud. From the rain.”

“Oh, so you can tell the difference between them, can you?” Crowley glares at him for a long moment, then shakes his head. “Fine. Whatever. Stay here. I’ll be back.”

He returns a moment later with a waterproof cloth, brightly decorated like the kind that Aziraphale’s seen adorning picnic tables for children’s birthday parties. Crowley spreads it over the backseat and insists on arranging the suitcase on top of it himself, so no part of it can touch his precious car, even by accident.

“You’ve gone mad,” says Aziraphale, before he seats himself.

Crowley slides into the other door. “I like my car,” he says primly; the dissonance almost makes Aziraphale laugh, though he takes care not to when he still doesn’t know how Crowley will drive.

Better not to antagonize him right before a relatively lengthy drive.

...

Only it seems that Crowley’s an insane driver, no matter what precautions Aziraphale might take.

...

“That is enough,” shouts Aziraphale, and reaches out, and yanks at the wheel Crowley’s currently spinning with far too much glee. 

The car skids for a moment- Aziraphale’s stomach bottoms out in sudden, abrupt realization that he’s probably thrown them off the mountain they’re currently climbing- before it comes to a halt in the ditch on the other side, wheels caught in mud.

Crowley tries something that makes mud splatter all over the back windows of the car but doesn’t move anything, and then he swears loudly before turning to scowl at Aziraphale.

“Now look what you’ve done!” he exclaims.

“It’s at least half your fault, too,” says Aziraphale. “The way that you were driving- you were lucky you didn’t take us off the mountainside.”

“If you’ve ruined my Bentley,” he says, and it sounds like a threat, but there’s no actual threat following it up, so Aziraphale remains relaxed in his seat.

Crowley makes an inarticulate sound, high and furious, before slamming out of the car. The opening of the door brings a gust of cold wind and colder rain, and Aziraphale shivers as he hunches further into his coat, glad for the scarf around his neck. Crowley doesn’t seem deterred though; he stomps around, red hair clearly visible through even the pouring rain, and peers at the Bentley’s trunk and position for long minutes before entering the car once more.

“We’re stuck,” he says grumpily, ignoring the rain plastering his hair- once teased high as a fox’s tail with some product- to his head and dripping all over his precious seats.

He pulls out a phone, sleek and elegant, and taps something into it, bringing it to his ear before grimacing at the water still making its way down his face. Crowley looks at the rest of his clothes. None of them are any better off, and he’ll likely only make himself wetter by trying to touch any part of his face with his clothes. Wordlessly, Aziraphale hands him his scarf. Crowley jumps; he looks at Aziraphale with some strange look on his face before taking it and mopping his face.

“Yeah, Dagon?” Crowley closes his eyes and leans back, presses the cuff of his sleeve to his brow and drops it as soon as he feels its dampness. “It’s me. Crowley.”

There’s an explosion of sound from the other end.

“Yeah,” says Crowley, and he sounds tired. “I know, mate. I know. It’s been a while. No, I haven’t. Things’ve been... good.”

That inn, with half its doors hanging off hinges, with mold in the majority of corners, looking like it’s going to collapse on itself under a strong wind- that’s good? Aziraphale holds back his incredulous snort and tucks himself further into his jacket; Crowley’s cold jacket is making him cold, from the sheer difference in temperature.

“You still working in Kilkenny?” Another bit of sound, where Dagon is apparently either shrieking bloody murder or talking very loudly. Crowley coughs into his fist, rolling his eyes a little, and says, deliberately, “Kilkenny, Dagon. Yeah. Needed a bit of help. I- er- got stuck in a ditch. Long story, but I’m near the city, I think.” He pauses. Then, very loudly, “I cannot- d’you even remember that-”

The phone clicks off, and Crowley puts it down, and very slowly bends over his steering wheel to press his head against the knotted metal edge of the wheel. His hair flops down, longer than Aziraphale had imagined it without the product keeping it up, and the way his eyes close- Aziraphale feels warmth swell from his gut, all the way up to his throat, like he’s swallowed the first rays of spring sunlight.

“It’ll be a couple hours,” Crowley says hoarsely. He gets up and looks normal, for all that he’d looked completely exhausted just a few moments before. “For Dagon to tow, I mean. And we don’t have any connectivity. For calling a taxi.”

“Even in your fancy phone?”

“No. Not even in my fancy phone.”

Aziraphale nods and lets the conversation drift into silence. He looks out of the window; tries not to pay too much attention to the man beside him who looks like he’s half a minute from either punching something or crying. Mostly because there’s nobody else to punch in the vicinity apart from Aziraphale, and he doesn’t know how to handle anyone’s tears, much less Crowley, who’s bristly enough to put a porcupine to shame.

Then he sees Crowley’s face.

“Crowley,” says Aziraphale, trying to keep his voice pitched low so the alarm doesn’t worry Crowley, “are you okay?”

“Hmm?” Crowley turns slowly, like he’s one of those bobblehead machines that can move up and down but not side to side. “Yes. I’m fine.”

“Your skin is- it looks- blue.”

“I... ah- well. I don’t. It’s quite... normal, I think that’s-”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” snaps Aziraphale, leaning forward to touch his neck. He can’t quite help recoiling at the freezing temperature. “You aren’t alright. Not if you’re in shock already!” Crowley starts to furrow his brows, but unfortunately for him, Aziraphale’s patience has shattered under his worry about fifteen seconds previously. “Take off your clothes.”

Some emotion returns to Crowley’s face. “No,” he says, and sounds insulted. “Do I really look that easy to you?”

“You look half-frozen,” says Aziraphale, steely-eyed. “And like you’ll catch your death of the cold if you don’t handle yourself. Now, I think the jacket’s the worst off- and your shirt, too, but your jeans should be fine.” Mostly because he can’t imagine that Crowley has the dexterity to get the jeans off, and Aziraphale does not want to attempt to undo things plastered that close to the skin. “If you can get that off, I’ll give you my jacket, yes? And you should be better off. Warmer, at the least.”

They manage it after some shuffling around. In the end, Crowley stretches out in the backseat, stripped to the waist and shivering spasmodically- the shivers make Aziraphale feel a little better, because he remembers reading that shivering’s the body’s way of making itself warmer; the real danger is when that reflex stops- but it doesn’t seem to matter what configuration Aziraphale tries to shove him into. Crowley keeps shivering.

Where is that blasted friend when he needs to show up?

“Fine,” whispers Aziraphale. “Oh, fine. I suppose...”

It takes more maneuvering, with more dexterity than Aziraphale’s had to use in quite a few years. But by the end of it, he’s got himself pressed up against Crowley, his chest to Crowley’s jacketed back, one arm curled up at an unpleasant angle over the window and the other hanging over Crowley’s ribs.

This close, Aziraphale can smell Crowley from underneath Aziraphale’s jacket: it’s a strange scent, damped by the rain and vaguely reminiscent of a deep forest, full of moss and growing things. But that would make sense; Aziraphale remembers how lovely Crowley’s garden had been, rich and lush and verdant, full of bright plants and thick vines. They’d all looked under control, too, not the wild sorts of gardens that some places had, where they just let nature take its course. He can imagine it now: Crowley gardening, a cheek streaked with dirt and eyes shining with joy.

Slowly, trying to flex his now-numb arm, he lets it drop to Crowley’s head. Crowley doesn’t do much more than snort and shimmy, a peculiar movement that begins in his neck and carries all the way down to his calves. His hair is softer than Aziraphale had thought it might be, though that might because the product has mostly been washed out of it.

And it’s been a very long day. A long few days. If Aziraphale had known how much trouble he’d get into for just trying to go meet Gabriel, he wouldn’t have ever left Soho. But he didn’t and he has, and the car is- while not warm- strangely comfortable, and so he closes his eyes, and before he knows it, he’s fallen asleep.

...

...

Crowley jerks awake out of a dream. He usually does; he tends to thrash in sleep anyways, and moreso when he’s sleeping in unfamiliar places. There’s a thud and someone’s yelp, and he feels his heartrate pick up, the old panic rising up and threatening to drown him. One arm reaches out on reflex, a rabbit-fast punch that slaps against...

Leather?

His vision clears, and Crowley sees the shiny black leather of his Bentley. The rain-crusted window. A flash of cream on his chest, and another on the floor, and he chooses to roll slightly to see-

“What the fuck,” he says.

Aziraphale, who’d apparently been spooning him- which, again, what the fuck- looks up at him, and has the gall to look a little wounded. “You were cold,” he says. And sounds accusing, the bastard. “And kept shivering. I thought you needed some way to keep warm.”

“And you didn’t think of turning up the heat?” asks Crowley, flabbergasted.

“I'd break that thing as soon as get the heat up,” says Aziraphale. He lifts his eyebrows, and looks far too put-together for lying on the floor of a Bentley, hair and clothes all askew. “I didn’t think you’d like that very much.”

“Right.”

Crowley decides that he cannot deal with the implications of that statement just yet, and sits up, swinging his legs carefully to avoid hitting Aziraphale. He has to figure out what’s going on: the rain has pretty much stopped, but he can’t know when it’ll pick up again, not in the middle of a storm cell like they’re currently in. He grimaces at the feel of his damp jeans still on his legs. It’s going to take him ages to get those off now. Then he reaches for the handle.

“Where’re you going?” asks Aziraphale, sounding alarmed.

“Outside,” says Crowley. He lifts an eyebrow back to him, some of his humor restored. “Don’t worry, angel. I won’t just abandon you here.”

Aziraphale rolls his eyes, some of the apprehension fading. “I just meant that you don’t seem to handle the rain all that well. You did almost go into shock.”

And I’m liable to do the same again if I don’t have time to regroup. So. Picking the best of two evils, really, between the cold and sitting here with you.

“It’s stopped raining,” he says instead, and doesn’t wait to hear Aziraphale’s protest before stepping out.

Outside, the cold air is bracing and freezing on his open chest, but the rain has stopped. Crowley takes a few deep breaths of it, lets it settle in his lungs, lets it settle his brain. Runs a hand through his hair, and grimaces at the floppy feel of it.

It’s been a very long time since he slept with his back to someone.

Not since... No. I am not going to think about that. Not now, of all times.

Four years he’s gone without remembering that night, and now he’s just going to give it all up? Because he got cold?

No. Aziraphale doesn’t know anything, really. He still thinks it’s the cold and the rain that turned Crowley into that half-catatonic mess. Best to keep him thinking that way. And also for Crowley not to think about how warm his hand had been, how soft; how it had felt, to have that kind of kindness, unthinkingly given. Aziraphale’s going to go back to his fiance and his London life in less than a day, and Crowley cannot forget that. Cannot afford to forget that.

Another breath. Two.

Then he reaches for his phone and pulls up Dagon. The idiot could’ve at least provided him with an update if he wasn’t going to show up.

“Hello?” 

“Dagon,” says Crowley, and lets his voice drop into the lower register he rarely uses anymore. He might not like threatening people, but he’s half-certain that Dagon’s scared of him anyways, and if it’ll get him out of these goddamn jeans, Crowley’s not going to hesitate. “Where’s the truck?”

...

“He isn’t coming,” Crowley says, returning to the car.

Aziraphale blinks. “But you-”

“Not tonight, at least.” Crowley closes his eyes briefly, but then he opens them. God. Today’s been one disaster after another, hasn’t it? “He says he’ll try tomorrow, because it’ll be Thursday and he should have the day off. But he can’t make it tonight.”

The idiot isn’t in Kilkenny. He’s driving around Kilkenny, but he won’t be able to make it until tomorrow. Which, if he’d just said-

But Crowley’s not in the habit of crying over spilled milk. He looks at Aziraphale, and smiles, and reaches for as much calm as he can manage.

“So what’re we going to do?”

“You found my inn yesterday,” Crowley tells him. “If we make our way down the mountain, we should find another. A bed and breakfast, or a pub at the least.”

They get Aziraphale’s luggage out, and Crowley takes the moment while he’s occupied to pull on his wet shirt and jacket and hand Aziraphale’s back to him.

“Oh, you don’t have to-”

“It’s cold,” Crowley tells him, and ignores the violent shudders snaking down his spine. It’s just rain, not sprinklers. And it’s only damp, not soaking. He isn’t going to have a panic attack, not now. “You’re going to need it. Really. I’ll be fine.”

“Right,” says Aziraphale dubiously, but he takes the thing anyways, so Crowley is going to chalk it as a win.

They make their way downhill, Crowley’s backpack pressing uncomfortably wet cloth against his shoulderblades. It’s probably... just before sundown, which is why they have some light to see by, even if it isn’t a lot.

“Is Dagon your friend?” Aziraphale asks.

Crowley cuts him a look sharply, but there’s no mockery in Aziraphale’s face; he’s concentrating on not tripping over the sharp stones in the path. And it would make sense: how could he know of Crowley’s past? Nobody does. It isn’t that nobody can, only that Crowley’d got a taste of how it felt to not have a past years ago, and he ran with it like nobody could have imagined.

“It’s... complicated,” he says aloud. Looks up to the sky, which is still scudded with clouds but clearing a little, just enough that the sliver of the moon is visible. “We were friends, for a long time. Colleagues, I think, would be a better name for it.”

“Oh.”

“Surprised?”

“He sounded like he was surprised that you were calling him.”

“He was.” Crowley kicks at a stone; feels the sweet ache of it in his toe. “I haven’t spoken to him in- Christ- five years.”

“What happened?” asks Aziraphale, voice soft, inviting. Without any hint of the maliciously curious edge that Crowley’s spent years searching for, dismissing people for. 

“I left,” he says. “The company we worked for, I mean.”

“And that was- bad?”

“Worse than that.” Crowley laughs, once, shortly, humorlessly. “I was working in a construction company, see, and it had ties- all over the world. Global construction company. And I got the job by a fluke- it was a recommendation by someone who shouldn’t have ever given it, who wouldn’t have given it if they knew I’d get the job- but I was good at it. Really fucking good at it.”

Not for very long, maybe, but long enough. It’s definitely left its mark on him.

“Only...”

“Only the higher I got, the weirder people were acting. So I did some digging. And I found out that they were stealing sand.”

Aziraphale comes to a complete halt. “Stealing sand?”

“Doesn’t sound like much, does it?” Crowley shakes his head. “Only it was. They can ruin rivers with it. Beaches. Entire ecosystems. I didn’t know a lot about it, though, not until there was news a few days later- literal days- about entire towns being washed away in India.”

“Oh my god.”

“Seven people died.” 

“Oh my god.”

“Yeah.”

“So you... did what?”

“Went to the police,” says Crowley dully. “I showed them what I had. They put me in the protected person service while they were working on it, and it turned out that it was a bigger deal than I’d even known.” He snorts. “Proper sand mafia.”

“You’re not still in that service, are you?” asks Aziraphale, a little nervously.

Crowley rolls his eyes. “I can hold my secrets for one day,” he says. Usually takes me the third date to spill all my secrets, but you’re a special one, aren’t you? He can still feel that hand, large and soft, pressed against the space between his ribs. “But it isn’t one, so it doesn’t matter. I got put in the protection, and then they got the worst of the people, and I got out. But I couldn’t go back to London after all of that. Didn’t want to.”

“Ah. I wondered, you know, why you don’t have an accent.”

“Because I’m not Irish.” Something similar to amusement bubbles in Crowley’s belly. “You could’ve just asked, you know that? I don’t mind questions.”

He might choose not to answer, but he’s never not liked questions. And he certainly won’t be offended by someone asking them. It’s the underlying currents that he’s never liked: the cruelty of it, the careless tribalism. The breathless desire for gossip, not for information.

“Gabriel never liked too many questions.”

“That,” says Crowley, very neutrally, “is the first time you’ve told me his name.”

Not neutrally enough. Aziraphale turns around to look at Crowley, wide eyes shining. Again, there’s that twist in his gut.

“We’ve known each other for a long time,” says Aziraphale. “So many years. I just... want him to be mine. You know?”

“Yeah,” says Crowley. “I do.”

“You had someone?”

“No.” Crowley swallows. “Not like... that.”

But he can understand, better than Aziraphale can probably hope for. The possessive, jealous edge to his thoughts. Crowley does not like sharing things. Or people. If he ever fell in love, he’d probably scare the person off with how much he loved them; it’s a design flaw he’s accepted that can’t be changed.

Still. Better not to tell Aziraphale that, he thinks.

“But you said-”

“-yeah. Never had time for it, really- I didn’t have the best childhood.” He looks up to the sky. He’s always liked the stars; how they keep spinning, on and on and on, even when his life feels like it’s stuck in bog peat. “Streets, violence, the whole lot. Never had time before I got the job at the company. Never really wanted to, after. But I can get wanting a family.”

Aziraphale is looking at him. Crowley can feel the regard of that gaze, the sympathy, and it twists him up like a piece of paper braided together, too thick to tear but too flimsy to remain unfrayed.

“Gabriel and I,” he says, finally, when Crowley remains silent. “I always admired his ability to be careful. To wait for the right time. To do the right thing. There’s so much I wasn’t sure of when I met him. He gives me that certainty.”

“And that’s what you want?”

“What more could I want?”

“I don’t know. Love?” 

Aziraphale inhales sharply, like Crowley’s just punched him, and Crowley sighs. Another fuckup. I really need to warm up. He usually has better control on his tongue, or at least he does when he’s warm. 

“Yeah, no, that’s on me. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to,” says Aziraphale, but he sounds a little weaker on the protest.

Crowley waves a hand. “Look, just because I don’t understand...” He trails off and stares at the sky. His throat hurts, a little, like the beginning of a cold just sneaking up on him. “I don’t get romance. Not really. So. That’s on me, not you.” Crowley sends him a smile, small and thin. “I think we’ve established that I don’t know anything about relationships.”

“I don’t think you don’t get romance,” says Aziraphale cautiously. “You did mention love, you know, and not, like, money.”

“Yeah.” Crowley turns, slightly, and sees a flash of light. “Is that- I think-”

Relief brightens Aziraphale’s face. “Yes,” he says. “It looks like an inn. Can we please-”

“Yes,” says Crowley, and they quicken their paces to get into the inn as quickly as possible.

...

...

The owners of the inn are rather older, but they look nice; Aziraphale feels himself relax, at the warmth of the little cottage, at the softness of their gaze.

“I’m really sorry,” he says, shoving a little in front of Crowley. “Our car broke down up the mountain, and we got caught in the rain, and-”

“-and we need a room for the night,” finishes Crowley.

“Oh, you poor dears!” The woman bustles forwards, takes in their damp clothes; her face creases in sympathy. “Yes, yes, we have a room. Right lucky you are, the both of you. Someone came in just an hour ago! Wanting a room!” She lowers her voice. “They weren’t even married. Admitted it straight out!”

Aziraphale is aware of Crowley opening his mouth, so he speaks quickly. “Well, it’s wonderful to meet you, then!”

Crowley freezes in his peripheral vision, shoulders almost seizing up to his ears. Aziraphale forces himself to keep going. 

“We aren’t married, actually,” he says, smiling with as little nervousness as he can manage. “But- ah- I just proposed. To Crowley.”

Crowley’s muscles, somehow, tighten further. Then he seems to make a decision, and flows forwards, one arm coming up to rest on Aziraphale’s shoulders heavily. “I,” he says, “am so happy.”

Aziraphale makes a point of turning, just enough that he can shove his elbow into Crowley’s gut. 

“Call me Crowley,” he says, and barely sounds winded. But he’s smiling now, and it doesn’t look forced at all. “He’s Aziraphale.”

The woman’s eyebrows rise, a little. 

“A mouthful, I know,” murmurs Aziraphale. 

“You shouldn’t blame a son for his parents’ bad choices,” says Crowley virtuously. 

A pale flush of anger blooms in Aziraphale’s throat- Crowley doesn’t know who he is; doesn’t know Aziraphale’s parents; doesn’t know anything- but he doesn’t say anything. He’ll get this bed and hot bath today if it kills him.

“No, indeed,” says the innkeeper, hand clapping over his wife. He smiles at Aziraphale, wide and honest. “Why, Mary, we had that couple down from Glasgow- those two lads-”

“-true,” says Mary. Her eyes measure them closely, and then she’s smiling too. “Come on, then. You’ll need to get out of those terrible clothes soon enough.”

...

The room, however, has only one bed.

“I am not sleeping with you again.”

“Believe me,” says Aziraphale, “I don’t want to get punched either.”

“So who gets the bed?”

“Flip of a coin?”

“Fine by me.” Crowley holds up a coin from somewhere, glittering between his fingers. “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

“Sure.”

He flips it, and holds it out to Aziraphale. “Heads. I win.”

Aziraphale rolls his eyes. “Fine. I’ll be in the shower.”

...

The shower is not much- not really separate from the room, just curtained off by something that’s sheer enough to be translucent. But the water is hot, and Aziraphale isn’t going to complain when he hasn’t had a proper shower since getting soaked in that ill-fated boat ride. 

When he steps out of the shower, Crowley’s laying on the bed. He’s stripped off his jeans. He’s wearing a towel over his hips, but his legs poke out from under it, long, ankles hanging off the bed like little chicken claws, something graceful and awkward all at once in the slender bones.

“Crowley,” asks Aziraphale, though he keeps his voice pitched low. He doesn’t want to wake him, not when he looks so peaceful. “Crowley, are you-”

He jerks awake. Crowley’s eyes meet Aziraphale’s, and he wonders at the blind panic in them, shielded quickly before Aziraphale can do much more than identify it. 

“Mm,” he says. “Didn’t think I was so tired.” Rubs at his jaw, then nods to Aziraphale. “Mary said that dinner’d be ready in a half-hour.”

“You’ll need to change into something for that.”

“Yeah. You’ll head down now?”

“Was thinking about it.”

“Be careful,” Crowley tells him wryly. “Best not let them trip you up with all the stories you’re telling.”

“I’m a good storyteller!”

“Ah, but are you a good liar?”

Yes.

“That is none of your business,” Aziraphale tells him, and Crowley laughs aloud, loud and uninhibited.

Still smiling, Aziraphale leaves the room. 

...

The dinner smells wonderful. There are quite a few people downstairs already- a couple from Italy; another few on a visit from America; and, of course, the innkeeper and his wife. He makes smalltalk with a hiker who’s also from London, a woman with hair chopped short enough that it keeps falling into her eyes and she keeps shoving it out of them. 

Then Crowley comes down.

He’s wearing sweatpants and slippers, and a shirt that could only be called acceptable for a party by the biggest stretch of the word acceptable. But his hair’s also been slicked back again, teased up and high, and his face looks a lot livelier than it had been in the dim light of their room.

“Hello, angel,” he says, and quirks a smile at the hiker. “Making new friends, I see.”

“She’s a very accomplished hiker,” Aziraphale tells him.

She laughs. “Not very accomplished, I’m afraid, or else I wouldn’t have gotten caught out by this storm.”

Aziraphale goes to respond, but the dinner bell rings and everyone goes to their seats- assigned seats. Crowley mutters in his ear, “Feels like grade school, innit,” and it takes all that Aziraphale has not to snicker in Mary’s face.

And the food is-

Good.

Aziraphale would’ve been happy even if it wasn’t this good- the hot shower’s done wonders for his mood- but the stew and homemade bread’s making his day even better. The wine that the innkeeper has set out is sweet, pairing wonderfully with the heavy food. 

“So what did you say you did, Aziraphale?”

“I’m a book-owner,” he says pleasantly. “I own a shop in London. Mostly antiques.”

“‘s that why you stared at my floorboards like that?” Crowley whispers in his ear.

“I stared at your floorboards because I was afraid I’d puncture something,” Aziraphale whispers back, and bites his lip not to smirk at Crowley’s disgruntled face.

“And you, Crowley?”

“Innkeeper, like you.” He leans back in his chair, wineglass spinning in his hand. The candlelight from behind him catches on the blocky tips of his hair, and it shines red as a sunset. “A little bit further south. Near the coast.”

“And you’re heading to Dublin?”

“Yeah. Bit of a work thing, for him.” He tilts his head. The gleam of his eyes- the humor in them, the laughter that Aziraphale hasn’t had in so long, because Gabriel doesn’t like ridiculous things, and Aziraphale has decided it’s easier to accept his quirks instead of constantly fighting him- leaves Aziraphale’s tongue dry. “Setting stuff up for when he moves in with me.”

The wine swilling in his mouth goes down the wrong pipe. Aziraphale coughs, hard, and stares at him.

“That is not true,” he says sharply. Crowley lifts an eyebrow at him, the epitome of innocence. “We still haven’t decided that!”

“I’ve got my inn, though,” he says, and there is a smirk there, hiding in the very corners of his lips. “Nobody uses inns in London, do they, angel? People read books everywhere, though.”

You fucking bastard, thinks Aziraphale, even as he feels the outrage drip away like a leaking sink. 

“That doesn’t mean I’m planning to leave,” he says, arching his eyebrows back at Crowley. Then he turns to their hosts, who look a little startled, though altogether more convinced about their relationship now. “As you can see, we still aren’t completely in accord.”

“Ah, a lover’s spat!” Mary claps her hands together, warmth leaking out of her every pore. “Well, you’ll need to heal it the old way then, won’t you?”

Crowley’s fingers tighten, immediately, on his wineglass. “What do you mean?” he asks, in a voice that Aziraphale supposes ought to be neutral, though it leaps far, far past that into something that sounds frightfully threatening. 

What had he said? Bad childhood. Yes, Crowley’s good at appearing sophisticated and shallow, like every bit of him is visible at the beginning, like he’s nothing more than a sarcastic, selfish person who doesn’t care about anything other than himself. But such a man would not have given up his job because it hurt people thousands of miles away, and would not have apologized to Aziraphale on his opinions of romance either, hours and hours after the fact. Crowley’s got some unplumbed depths. Aziraphale’s... relatively certain of that.

“A kiss!” exclaims Mary, and Aziraphale’s entire body snaps to attention when she says it. 

Crowley’s a rigid line beside him, wineglass almost dangerously close to shattering in his hand.

“Ah, um, no,” says Aziraphale, weakly. “That isn’t really necessary, is it? We’re-”

“-nonsense, you’re newly engaged! You must!”

“Yes,” says the hiker, and she’s smiling, and Aziraphale makes a note to kill her slowly. Or at least scold her for not having his back. “You simply must.”

“I don’t think-”

A gentle touch on his elbow. Aziraphale turns, ready to roll his eyes, and Crowley swoops close, presses his mouth to Aziraphale’s.

It tingles up his spine, that touch. Especially when Crowley keeps doing it, even when Aziraphale’s still too frozen to respond, his lips soft and hot and strangely hot, in more than just temperature. It pools in Aziraphale’s belly, like skeins of gold. 

Slowly, Aziraphale reaches for Crowley. Touches the very tips of his fingers against Crowley’s jaw, that lovely, too-sharp jaw, leaning in. Skims it back to his hair, the cowlick that apparently can’t quite be smoothed down, and that richly colored hair.

It bubbles through him, warm, warm, and it’s been so long, because-

Gabriel.

Aziraphale pulls away, breathing just a little too hard. Crowley does, too, and his cheeks look pinched red, though that could just be the candlelight reflecting off his hair. Aziraphale looks away and throws back all of his wine, mouth drier than a desert. His fingers itch, ache; he can’t quite get the memory of Crowley’s skin out of his mind, that skin that was soft and dry, and gave so fetchingly, pressing back against his bone when Aziraphale pushed.

Gabriel, Aziraphale reminds himself firmly. I will not forget why I’m here. For anything.

“Well, that’s that,” says Crowley, voice sounding a little strange. “Happy?”

“Yes,” says the hiker, still smiling. “Of course. We were just worried about you, you know.”

“Never thought otherwise,” drawls Crowley.

Aziraphale can feel the pressure of his gaze. But he refuses to look back at him. Refuses to make things worse. He’s in this to get to Gabriel and surprise him, and Crowley is in this for the money, no matter how soft his lips or kind his words are, and Aziraphale cannot- and will not- forget that.

...

...

“You utter demon,” hisses a voice out of the dark.

Crowley turns blindly, limbs twisted up in the bedding. “Um. What?” Some old fear flickers through him, but it’s far and distant, lost in the comfortable weight of sleep. 

“Wake up, wake up, wake up.”

Something hits him. Then it hits him again, and again, and again.

“Okay,” he says, struggling awake. “Okay, okay. What d’you want?”

“Heads I win, tails you lose,” Aziraphale bites out. 

Oh. 

“Wondered when you’d get it,” snorts Crowley. 

“Out! I’m taking the bed!”

“I,” he says, with as much dignity as he can inject into the words, “am not moving.”

“I’ll drag you off,” threatens Aziraphale. 

“I’d like to see you try.”

“You utter cheating-”

“Just come in,” Crowley tells him, rolling to the other side of the bed. 

He hesitates, but the bed is warm, and the air outside is unforgivably cold. Crowley can just imagine the temptation of it. 

“You aren’t going to punch me,” says Aziraphale.

Crowley makes a mush-mouthed sound, waving an arm. “Get in or don’t,” he mumbles.”But do it quickly, yeah?”

A moment later, the bed creaks, and Crowley feels the warmth of Aziraphale’s body against his back. He closes his eyes, burrows further into the blankets, and lets sleep wash him away.

...

The sun is shining the next morning. Crowley wakes up to it, to the warmth of it making him sticky with sweat, and something even warmer pressed against him, from nape to ankle. He turns, slightly, just enough to confirm: it is Aziraphale. Star-haired Aziraphale, with a tongue like a knife and a gaze like ice and a heart warm as a blazing bonfire.

With lips, soft as a flower.

Crowley’s got nowhere to go: his back is to Aziraphale, and in front of him is the wall. Just a few days ago- just one day ago- he’d have told anyone that he’d never accept this kind of restraint on his movements. Panic attacks would’ve been the least of his worries. 

But now he’s comfortable, relaxed, soft with sleep and lazy for it. He closes his eyes and lets his breath even out again.

...

Crowley wakes up again, and this time Aziraphale is gone from the bed- he’s brushing his teeth- so he takes the time to stretch his arms and roll his spine. Aziraphale turns at the movement; smiles at him. 

“Sleep well?”

“Better than I expected,” says Aziraphale, gimlet-eyed. “It would’ve been better if not for your wiles.”

“Oh, it was funny. Don’t try and tell me it wasn’t.”

“To you, maybe.” 

“That’s who I was talking about, yeah.” 

Aziraphale rolls his eyes, and steps out of the bathroom, fully dressed, taking his jacket from the seat back he’d carefully arranged it on the night before. 

“Mary told me that there’s a train that leaves at five,” he says. “You’ll want to get ready at noon, though, because that’s when we’re getting a ride there. Or else you’re walking to the station.”

“What’s the time now?” asks Crowley, yawning.

Something glints in Aziraphale’s eye. “Half past eleven.”

...

Aziraphale gets the tickets for them both at the train station, but the train’s been delayed to six. And he’s not going to just sit around and stare at a wall grow moss for six bloody hours.

“I’m going to the church,” he tells Aziraphale. “It’s nearby, I checked, and I’m not going to sit here contemplating the meaning of life for you. Honestly, I’d rather die.” Aziraphale opens his mouth, but Crowley holds out a hand and stops him. “If you make me stay, I’ll make you want to die, too.”

Aziraphale ducks his head, then just nods and lugs his suitcase higher so he isn’t blocking Crowley’s path. “Lead on, then,” he says, in a suspiciously mild voice.

Crowley rolls his eyes. “Right. Out with it. Why’re you smiling like that?”

“You don’t seem like the kind of person who’d like churches.”

“I’m not.” Crowley shrugs. “But apparently this has been abandoned for centuries, so it’s more just a small castle than anything else.”

...

It’s overgrown with moss and peat, and at a steep incline, so they need to go up quite a few stairs. Crowley doesn’t mind much, but Aziraphale does. He starts complaining about halfway there, and doesn’t stop, not even when Crowley tells him that he can go back to the station if it’s that difficult for him. 

“I’ve already done half the hard work,” he says, pushing some hair out of his eyes and glaring up at it when it doesn’t stay put. “So. Upward and onwards.”

“Your funeral,” mutters Crowley.

...

It’s a lovely church, even if it’s been abandoned. The cloisters are all ruined, of course, the wood rotted from the rain, and the roof’s long since fallen to pieces. But there is a flight of stairs that leads up to a room with stained glass shattered over the entire floor, and the wind that comes in is tinged with the faintest hint of salt. And at the nave, where once a pulpit must have stood, there is a cairn, stacked high with white, water-smoothed stones.

“It’s beautiful,” murmurs Crowley.

“Things like this are always beautiful,” says Aziraphale. Crowley turns to look at him, startled; Aziraphale sounds almost bitter. “It’s the possibilities that we love. We look at ruined things and think that they could be so much better- but when we try to fix it, it’s never good enough. Reality’s never quite as good as our imagination.”

“No,” says Crowley. “But it’s real, isn’t it?”

Aziraphale shakes his head. He looks at the cairn, the stones stacked so neatly, so lovingly, and there’s something pained in his beautiful eyes.

“I- whenever I see them, I think of Gilgamesh. You’ve heard of him?”

“Some ancient tale, right?”

“Yes. From Sumeria. The oldest literature we have to date.” He inhales, and slowly levers himself down to sit next to Crowley, legs splayed out in front of him on the dirty stone without a care. “In the story: Gilgamesh is the king of a city in Sumeria, but he’s cruel to his people- he’s more god than human, so he is stronger than them, and because of his strength, he does not understand sympathy, or empathy, or kindness. So his people ask the gods to save them, and they send down Enkidu, who is Gilgamesh’s equal and his counter.”

Crowley lifts his eyebrows when Aziraphale suddenly smiles at him. “Enkidu’s a wild man. Nature, taken to its heights. And so because he is so strong, he can push Gilgamesh to be kinder; he pushes him to civilization; he says no to him. They fight. But they are twinned, and equal, and so they are necessary for the world.

“They have many adventures. They become so close- and then, Gilgamesh angers Ishtar, the goddess of love, by refusing her, and she demands that one of them die. And the gods choose to kill Enkidu.”

“Oh,” says Crowley, very quietly. 

Aziraphale doesn’t even look like he’s telling the story to Crowley anymore; he’s lost in his memory. In the story he’s weaving for Crowley, with his fluttering hands and bright, shining eyes.

“Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu’s death. He denies the death, for more than a fortnight, and it’s only when the corpse starts to rot that he accepts it.” Aziraphale’s eyes close, briefly, then open again, and they trace over the cairn with such longing that it thrums an ache in Crowley’s on chest. “Before he does anything else, he kneels on the beach where Enkidu lay, and he builds a cairn for him of sand.”

“That sounds- slow.”

“But he didn’t stop, not until it was over.” Aziraphale turns to Crowley, and his eyes blaze fiercely, and it takes everything inside of Crowley not to recoil. “The first cairn in the world, built by a man who could not bear the love he bore another man, his equal, sent to him by the gods. That’s what I always wanted, you know. That kind of love from someone. And whenever I see them- these cairns- I just think, all I can think, is who’d build a cairn for me?”

“Aziraphale,” says Crowley, stepping forwards, alarm flitting through him. “You can’t-”

“I don’t have a family,” says Aziraphale quietly, clearly, calmly. “My parents are long gone. No siblings. I don’t know if I like Gabriel very much, but- something is better than nothing, is it not? I’d rather not be lonely than lonely. Have someone to build the cairn for me. Even if... even if I don’t think they’d ever mourn me like that.”

Crowley understands that desire. The need for skin, more than anything else, and the terror of abandoning it. He knows it intimately. How lonely has he been since leaving London? It’d been the thing that almost stayed his hand, time and time again, when he knew things and loathed the way they were but still had a good home, a good job, a good life; why should he be the one to lose all of that, all for defeating the barest drop in the ocean of humanity’s wastrels and sins?

But he’d chosen the higher road, the lonelier road, when he walked away from London, and he doesn’t regret it. He doesn’t dare let himself regret that.

“Yeah, but you can be lonely and married,” says Crowley slowly. “Just because you marry him, it doesn’t mean you’ll be perfect for each other. Doesn’t mean you’ll understand each other.”

“So that’s your choice then? To be lonely?”

“To wait,” says Crowley firmly. “Until someone comes along who I’d like to spend my life with. Because I’m a casino’s dream, you know? I’d rather take the whole pot than just break even. And what would I do if I found someone better after I settled for somebody else? I’d always be thinking about that other person. I’d always be unhappy.”

“That’s dangerous.”

“I’m happy by myself, angel,” says Crowley, reaching a hand out to him. “Don’t need people constantly around to make me feel better. And I think we should head back.”

“It isn’t six yet.”

“No, but it feels like it’s going to rain.” Aziraphale keeps frowning at him, and Crowley huffs a sigh. “I’ve got a sixth sense about these things. Can we please make a move on?”

He’s right. He’s also wrong, because his sense clearly isn’t much of one; they’ve made it just a few feet out of the church by the time it starts pelting them with heavy rain, the kind that’ll make it difficult to see anything two meters in front of them.

“Twice in two days,” mutters Crowley. “Someone up there really fucking hates me.”

Then he grabs Aziraphale’s hand, and runs.

...

...

They leg it all the way back to the train station, but not quite quickly enough. Aziraphale’s head and chest are completely sodden, the water soaking straight through his coat, vest and shirt. But at least he has a change of clothes in his luggage. While it may not be the clothes he’d want Gabriel to find him in- Aziraphale can just imagine the snide commentary- he also doesn’t think they’re too egregious either. 

And he’s thankful to the rain, really, because he’d felt like he’d just peeled away some awful part of his skin, bared some terrible, maggoty secret when he told Crowley about the cairns. Who wants someone to mourn their death like that, with hair-rending and screams? He knows what Gabriel would say: the best people don’t want their loved ones to suffer. They want to pass quietly, serenely, peacefully into the night, and the world will keep turning around them. To think otherwise is to be prideful beyond measure.

But Aziraphale still wants that. He wants to know he has become inextricable from at least one person’s life. And he knows, just as well, that Gabriel will never give him such depth of love or control. It is not in Gabriel to give that to some living thing; he’s already sunk it into his job. His first love, he’d told Aziraphale, when they first met. His first love and his largest love, but if Aziraphale could accept that...

And he could, for four years.

So what’s changed now?

At the station, Aziraphale excuses himself to the toilets so he can change. He takes the privacy to try to get his balance back. When he returns, it’s almost time for the train to return.

And Crowley looks strange again, face white and lips pressed so tight together they’ve almost disappeared. He’s motionless on the bench, knucklebones clenched tight on the strap of his backpack, sticking out from his palms like the church ruins from the rest of the grass. 

“Crowley?” asks Aziraphale. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” he hisses. Really, properly hisses. 

Aziraphale takes a precautionary step backwards. “Um. Right. D’you want-”

“No,” he says flatly. Aziraphale blinks, and Crowley elaborates, through clenched teeth. “I don’t.”

“Okay.”

He sits down gingerly, settles against the bench, and focuses on listening for the train whistle. If Crowley doesn’t want to talk- and Aziraphale's fairly certain that it’s not because of Aziraphale’s comments, mostly because he can remember how soft Crowley’s voice had gotten, and the hand he’d held out to Aziraphale as soon as he realized what Aziraphale was saying, unthinkingly kind- then Aziraphale won’t force him.

But.

Just because he’ll bite his tongue doesn’t mean he’ll forget. And when Crowley’s ready, he’ll confront him, and get the answers he deserves.

...

Even when the train comes, Aziraphale has to chivvy Crowley up into the carriage, and Crowley looks like he’s about one short word from snapping someone in half. Aziraphale takes a chance on dropping his scarf into Crowley’s lap as the conductor arrives- he might use it to dry off if he had some wits about him, and Aziraphale certainly hasn’t missed how much Crowley’d liked the softness of the cashmere before- and also ensures he answers for both of them, shielding Crowley as best he can from the man’s gruff questions as he punches their tickets in.

Then he turns back to their compartment, and Crowley has looped the scarf over his shoulders, peeling off his sweater and depositing it on the seat next to him with a moue of distaste. The conductor makes a breathless sound of protest, but Aziraphale doesn’t bother to look back or address him again as he closes the compartment door behind him.

“Are you alright?” he asks instead, approaching Crowley carefully.

“Yeah,” says Crowley, voice low. He leans back, eyes closed, face white and still taut with some tension. 

Aziraphale debates with himself on his next action. He doesn’t know how Crowley will react, and he’s afraid that he’ll pull away further, especially when he’s in this snappy mood. 

Slowly, very hesitantly, Aziraphale lays a hand on Crowley’s wrist, right below the cuff of his long sleeves. Where the veins lie under his pale skin, blue, returning to the lungs to pump more oxygen to his body. The skin is soft and cold, and Aziraphale can feel the faintest thread of a pulse if he presses down. 

Or maybe it’s his own heart, beating harder at this single point of contact.

Crowley twitches a little, eyes slitting open. Aziraphale makes sure his voice is comforting, not confronting.

“Are you sure?”

“I will be,” says Crowley. But some further tension leaches out of his body. “It’s a- thing. Not the cold. The. Er. Rain.”

“Oh,” says Aziraphale. 

Crowley turns, wrist nudging further into Aziraphale’s grasp almost by accident. “I didn’t tell you that bit,” he says quietly. “When we were walking down the mountain.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Mmm.” He sighs. “Was a long time ago. After I contacted the police. They sent me to this small village in Ireland once they realized my life was in danger- gave me a new name, new history, told me not to keep in touch with anyone from my old life.”

“Your life was in danger?”

“Sand mafia, angel,” says Crowley wryly. “They didn’t like me going about spilling their secrets. They really didn’t like me being responsible for putting a good portion of them in jail.”

“But you aren’t in that protected persons program anymore, that’s what you said.”

“No. After their bosses got locked up, there was really only one leader that came up- and his only agenda was to get me to pay. And after I got rid of him, the whole mafia imploded on itself, apparently.”

“You got rid of him?” demands Aziraphale, sharply.

Crowley smiles, thin as a blade of grass. “Sent the fucker to jail, yeah.”

“Crowley-”

“Not on purpose. But. Er. When the police’d told me not to keep anyway contacts from my old life, I didn’t listen. Never have been good at that.”

Hair stands up on Aziraphale’s neck. “What did you do?”

“Kept a phone. And I went to check a PO box every couple months.”

“And they figured it out.” Aziraphale closes his eyes. “Of course.”

“They figured out it was in my name,” corrects Crowley. “They started sending letters. Threatening ones. And I was good at ignoring them! But then they told me that they’d blow up my building. Gave full details on their plan, and the date, too, and promised they’d do it if I didn’t go there on the day of the bombing.”

“Tell me you went to the police.”

“I did,” says Crowley wearily. “They told me to ignore it. Said they were investigating. Only, I had a friend on the force, and he said they were all tied up with a murder investigation.”

Yes, Aziraphale vaguely remembers that. The police force had nearly doubled, and they’d warned everyone in Soho not to walk around past midnight, because of...

“The serial killers? From Scotland?” asks Aziraphale.

Crowley inclines his head. “Cop killers, too. So they were caught up in that issue. But I had to do something. So I went back to London, and...” He lifts his hand and rubs at the top of his skull very lightly. “I had a plan. A good plan. Then I realized they fuckers had booby-trapped my flat to blow, not remotely, and it’d probably take out my neighbors as well, if they weren’t careful- and like hell was I gonna think the people blowing up my flat would be careful enough for that.”

“Fuck.”

“Believe me, that’s what I said the entire ride back to London.” 

“So what did you do?”

“Got there. And then, I pulled the fire alarm,” he says softly. “Evacuated the entire building. Only thing was that when I tried to take the stairs, those bastards were waiting for me. I couldn’t take the lift, because it stopped working when the fire alarm went, and I was stuck on the thirteenth floor. Sprinklers everywhere, that goddamn alarm- I had to find someplace to hide, and hide, and it was so fucking wet. And loud. And wet.”

Aziraphale can imagine it. The wail of the sirens, the cold water of the sprinklers. How Crowley must have tried to fold himself into the smallest possible space, and prayed that he wouldn’t be found. The terror of it. 

The bravery of it.

Really. Underneath all of Aziraphale’s latent fear- for Crowley, of course, and not of him- runs a ribbon of admiration. No. An ocean of admiration. For so long Aziraphale has accepted that Gabriel knows what is right and wrong; he’s bitten his tongue, he’s looked away. He’s avoided fights, when he thought that Gabriel might not understand why Aziraphale felt certain things, and he’s avoided those fights for a thousand tiny, petty reasons. But here is Crowley, tired, exhausted, frightened five years after the incident and still refusing to suggest anything close to regret.

Aziraphale has a choice now. He can taste it. To speak of that admiration, or to stay silent and speak on it later. To make Crowley more comfortable, or less.

He knows well which he’s going to choose.

“Ah.” He leans a little closer, nudges his shoulder into Crowley’s, and smiles. “Well, that makes sense.”

Crowley rolls his head so he’s peering at Aziraphale through one eye, brows arched. “What makes sense?”

“Why you looked so terrible. I was wondering if a bit of Ireland rain could actually be colder than the Arctic, you know, because it takes half an hour for people to actually start acting like you did in the car. Either the rain was unique to Ireland, or you were cold-blooded.”

“Like a snake,” snorts Crowley.

“Is that the only cold-blooded animal you know?”

“No,” he says. 

“I think it is,” says Aziraphale, nudging Crowley again.

He laughs, once, a high-pitched thing that more breath than sound, and warmth sluices over Aziraphale like a hot sunbeam on his face, heating that part of his body even as the rest of him remains cool. Then Crowley turns and faces Aziraphale, and there’s affection in his gaze, not all-consuming but unconsciously offered up, sweet as honey for it.

“Shut up,” he says.

Aziraphale’s fairly certain that that’s not what what Crowley meant to say, but he doesn’t bother disagreeing with him. Just pats Crowley’s arm, then settles against the plastic seat, shoulders pressing together, a line of warmth even through the layers of clothes. He can’t quite quell the smile or the giddiness bubbling under his skin. He’s not sure if he wants to.

...

...

“Right,” says Aziraphale.

They’ve finally arrived at the lobby of Gabriel’s hotel, and Aziraphale has everything arranged at his feet: his suitcase, his jacket, folded neatly over the handle, a book he’d extracted from his luggage and read while Crowley dozed on the train.

He holds out an envelope. “Your fee. For a true adventure over these past two days.”

Crowley folds his arms over his chest and rocks back on his heels. He thinks about everything that he’s told this man, this stranger; things he’s never said aloud before, things he’s never even considered saying aloud before. He thinks about Aziraphale’s face when he looked at the cairns. He thinks about courage, and laughter, and how the truth of his past doesn’t feel quite so heavy when he’s told it to somebody.

“Nah,” he says. “Keep it.”

“What- but I couldn’t possibly-”

“Tell you what.” Crowley nods to his pocket. “D’you remember that coin? The one that we flipped for the bed?”

Aziraphale frowns. “Yes. But-”

“Hand it over, and I’ll call us even.”

Slowly, Aziraphale’s head drops into a nod. He brings it out- a shining two pounder- and drops it into Crowley’s palm. Then he unwinds the scarf from his neck.

“For you,” says Aziraphale steadily, eyes gleaming like the heart of a flame in a blowtorch, cool and blue and hotter than the casual eye could expect. “To keep warm on the journey back.”

Crowley takes it wordlessly, finger rubbing over the softness of it. The warmth. The way the weave dips between his fingers, like something just a little heavier than air but twice as smooth. 

“I’ll try not to get soaked,” he says, quirking a smile.

Aziraphale pats his hand. “I’ll miss you, dear boy.”

“And I’ll miss your complaints, angel.” Crowley hesitates for a moment, then decides: fuck it. He’s always been very good at being flamboyant, and making grand gestures. He bows, doffing an imaginary hat with a wide, sweeping wave of his arm, and looks up at Aziraphale through his lashes. “I hope he’ll be your Gilgamesh. You deserve that.”

There’s a pleased flush to Aziraphale’s face, at least until someone calls from the vicinity of the lift: “Aziraphale?”

Aziraphale turns slowly, and Crowley sees a man approaching them- tall, maybe even taller than Crowley, definitely broader than Crowley, with horse-brown hair and the jovial kind of face that looks good on soap ads for fathers facing midlife crises.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, reaching for Aziraphale. 

There’s a pleased but slightly confused look on his face, and resentment hits Crowley like a piledriver. This man does not deserve Aziraphale’s kindnesses, or his love. Aziraphale all but admitted it to him in that church, but Crowley wouldn’t have needed that to know it now- Gabriel is very different from Aziraphale. Irreconcilably different. 

“Oh,” says Aziraphale. He sends Crowley a little glance, then turns back to Gabriel. “I, ah, missed you, love. I couldn’t bear the idea of a week without you. And I had some book-tradings in Dublin anyways, so I thought... well. Surprise!”

“Aziraphale,” says Gabriel. He sounds startled, and a little displeased for it; Aziraphale flinches at the tone, muscles in his face pulling taut that Crowley wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been paying such close attention. But then that dark look crumples too, and he reaches out, reels Aziraphale into an easy hug. “I’ve missed you, too. Of course I have.”

Crowley swallows, hard; makes an involuntary motion- some flail of his arms. Gabriel glances at him. 

“Hello,” he says. “Do I know you?”

“This is Crowley!” Aziraphale jumps in. “He, ah, took care of me. Brought me up to Dublin when my flight blew me off course.”

“Well. Nice to meet you.”

Crowley nods, and backs away; it’s clear that Gabriel doesn’t want him there- or thinks he’s intrusive, which is definitely more likely- and Crowley doesn’t want to be there for Aziraphale’s proposal. He’s not entirely certain why his heart is pounding like it is, or the way his muscles are trembling like he’s going to leap into a sprint very soon, or the way his head feels wrapped in white wool. But he does have the feeling that it’ll get better if he walks away.

Or it’ll get worse, but in the long run he’ll be better. Has to be better. He’s been alone for long enough, hasn’t-

Two steps back, then three, almost past the lounge area- and he hears Gabriel say, loudly, “Would you marry me?”

Crowley turns, and sees Aziraphale’s face for one last time. The sweet, round curves of it. The hands, large and warm. Those blasted eyes. He swallows hard, again, and turns on his heel. The door to the hotel lobby hits him, and the wind rushing outside drowns out Aziraphale’s answer before he can hear it. 

...

It takes more than a day to fall in love with someone.

Doesn’t it?

...

On the train ride back to his inn, Crowley can’t help but keep looking at the coin that Aziraphale gave to him. The train’s lights flash off the metal, turn it shining one minute and then normal grey the next. Crowley remembers the calm twist of Aziraphale’s face when he handed it over, and then the lingering warmth of the scarf- the scarf he’s wrapped around his shoulders like a blanket. 

The truth is, he has money.

He’d made a good amount with his job, and invested soundly enough that it had only grown in the past few years, even if he hadn’t overseen it closely- or at all. The protection service had told him to move out all his assets- he’d had a few days of warning- but Crowley hadn’t obeyed that either. Instead, he’d maintained an automatic payment transfer of funds for his monthly rent, and taken the opportunity at the bank to set up further accounts. He’s fairly certain that’s how the mafia had traced his flat. 

But then that night had happened. 

The long ride to London, hands white-knuckled over the steering wheel. The damp stick of clothes to his spine as he hunched in the deepest part of his closet, praying the string of locked doors would be enough to discourage them from entering. To this day, Crowley doesn’t know how long he stayed like that- all he remembers is the panic, and the fear, and the certainty he’d die like that: either by the mafia’s guns or by drowning via the sprinklers.

He fled London as soon as he could. Went back to the town the protection service had set up for him, and chased away everyone who came to tell him he could go back to his life. Changed his name back to Crowley, ignored the town’s gossips about who and what he was, and maintained the inn as best he could.

It’s why he wasn’t in town during December: the protection service wanted more information, wanted to know what had happened. It took him a good few days to convince them that he hadn’t wasn’t in league with the mafia, and another few days to calm himself down, and by then New Year’s had come and gone, and with it, the chance to pad his coffers.

But.

Aziraphale’s gaze. His scarf. He hadn’t known how he’d be treated by his shitty boyfriend, but he’d come this far, hadn’t he? He was used to creature comforts, but he hadn’t wept over the cold water in Crowley’s inn or the saltwater on his luggage, and he’d done what he wanted to do. He got what he wanted, even if he wasn’t certain he wanted it.

That means something. Crowley isn’t sure what, exactly, but he was certain that he admired it.

He rubs his thumb over the coin one last time, then draws the scarf up so it rests on his neck instead of looping down his shoulders, and tips his head back so he can sleep. Crowley’s got work to do when he reaches home; he’ll need his energy for it.

...

It takes a couple weeks. He needs to get his car back, and ensure he can leave the inn for a few days, and book a hotel as well. 

But then he returns to his flat in Mayfair, and it doesn’t stink of water like he’d feared- well, anymore than a flat in London can avoid the rain pouring outside- and his breath eases out of him in a rush, and Crowley doesn’t need the hotel after all. 

This is his home, too. He’d just... forgotten that, for a while.

...

As he’s fixing up the plant wall- it’d fallen into disrepair, though surprisingly not dead; new plants had come to roost; the natural sunlight of the room and the drip irrigation he’d installed illegally from the roof to channel the rainfall had helped an astounding amount to survive even in his absence- there’s a ringing at the doorbell.

Crowley takes his time to answer.

He pays enough for the reception desk downstairs to deal with salesmen. But the salesman doesn’t seem to understand that Crowley’s going to ignore him; he keeps ringing away, and the annoying hum of it grates over Crowley’s ears until he finally snarls under his breath and goes to fling the door open.

“I am not interested,” he bites out, only to falter when he realizes who’s at the door.

“Hello Crowley,” says Anathema, hair chopped short and swinging about her shining, large eyes. “I’ve missed you.”

...

...

Aziraphale floats on a cloud of happiness right up until they arrive in London, and he sees his bookstore. 

The glass window’s been shattered. Clearly shattered. It’s taped over now- one of the neighbors must have taken it upon themselves to do that- but the view still leaves his heart pounding, and when he enters, it gets worse: thieves have managed to take off with some of the books he’d promised to an auctioneer from Aberdeen. 

They haven’t managed to steal the most prized possessions; the oldest manuscripts and original, signed editions are still hidden in the backroom, with its heavy number of locks that took even Aziraphale, with his years of practice, more than a half-hour to unlock. But it’s going to be a tough year, because those books- and the auction- would’ve brought good money, money Aziraphale can recoup, but only with more aggressive merchandising. 

And he hates merchandising. 

Sales strategy has never been his forte.

“Aziraphale?”

“Hmm?” he turns, to see Gabriel running a single finger over one of Shakespeare’s leather-bound plays, with a peculiar look on his face. But then, Gabriel has always found Aziraphale’s job odd, and more than a little undesirable. “Yes?”

“Oh. I checked- your neighbor must have swept up the glass, so you don’t have to worry about cutting yourself. The window’s also airtight.”

“It’ll last, I hope,” mutters Aziraphale. “I’ll call the plumber. See if he can’t help out.”

“The plumber?” asks Gabriel, the look on his face deepening. “You don’t have a handyman?”

“He’s taken off for a week while his missus gives birth,” Aziraphale tells him patiently. “But the plumber should have the seals, I think, and-”

“-if you’d just move out of here, you wouldn’t have these problems, you know that-”

“-do you really want to have that conversation now?” Aziraphale asks levelly.

Gabriel pauses, looking taken aback. It’s an ongoing disagreement between them, and Aziraphale usually lets him rant about it for at least a few minutes before cutting him off. But he isn’t in the mood right now. At all.

“I have a meeting in Trafalgar,” says Gabriel stiffly. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Aziraphale rolls his eyes at Gabriel’s back as he walks away. Only Gabriel could find something to be offended by when it’s Aziraphale’s shop that’s been robbed. Only Gabriel could simply... not offer any comforting words, just the barest practicalities of the situation, and turn it all back into an old argument.

You chose him, Aziraphale reminds himself.

He lets himself have a long minute of weakness, though, one hand pressing against the book spines, the scratchy texture strangely comforting, and the other balled up in the fabric of his coat, his mind remembering Crowley’s grand, chivalric gesture in the hotel lobby, arm sweeping up and out, dipping into a princely bow, and the shivering sensation in his belly as he saw it.

Then Aziraphale shakes his head, and goes back to cataloging everything that’s been taken.

...

It’s a quicker job than Aziraphale had expected; he finishes almost an hour before he’d thought he would, so he decides to go to Gabriel’s flat a little earlier than he’d hinted he would and surprise him. He even buys a bottle of wine as an apology, though Gabriel isn’t likely to be too impressed; Gabriel doesn’t like alcohol, doesn’t like anything with extra- or unhealthy- calories in it. Still. Aziraphale isn’t going to buy him an energy drink for an apology. Now that, he muses, would be ridiculous.

Still lost in his thoughts, he nods to the doorman. Aziraphale’s come by often enough that they all know him and don’t bother ringing up any longer, either. He lets himself in- Gabriel gave him a key years ago- and can hear Gabriel talking in his study, most likely on a conference call. He heads to the kitchen to store the wine.

Only to pause when he hears his name.

Frowning, Aziraphale cuts back across the living room, to the balcony that neighbors Gabriel’s study. Gabriel always leaves the window open, no matter how cold it gets, and always stands beside it to talk, because he thinks that’s the only position he’ll get a clear signal.

And, of course, he’s always had a loud voice.

“-think so,” he hears Gabriel saying. “I mean, I’ve tried.” A pause, where the other person must be talking, and then he continues: “I’ve explained it to you already! He just won’t listen. Doesn’t matter how nicely I tell him, he’s so careless!”

Me? Aziraphale swallows through a dry mouth. What is he talking about?

“I warned him before I left. I told him. I keep telling Aziraphale, over and over and over again, Soho isn’t safe, there’s robbers around, he needs to be careful- and he’ll nod and pretend he’ll listen, and then he’ll do shit like this!”

Like what? Like coming to Dublin to see you?

The first part of the sentence filters through then, and Aziraphale feels anger burst into life in his belly, like wind stoking over hot embers. He cannot be blaming me for getting robbed. Gabriel isn’t that insensitive. Surely not.

Somebody says something- Aziraphale can hear the tinny hum of the phone’s microphone- and then Gabriel says, quietly, “I had to, Michael. I don’t know why. Four years is a long time, isn’t it? And Aziraphale’s a good man. Maybe it’ll get better when-”

Aziraphale doesn’t need to hear anything else. 

Doesn’t wait to hear anything else.

He puts the wine down gently, on the coffee table, and his key besides it, so there’s no noise when the metal hits the glass. There’s a small part of him that’s very cold, but another part of him feels strangely light, like he’s a bear that’s shed its winter coat a few days too early, and doesn’t know how to handle the chill of spring apart from bearing through it.

“Goodbye, Gabriel,” he whispers at the door, hand resting on the doorknob. 

He remembers Crowley’s gaze, golden and shimmering, as he said, You deserve that. A Gilgamesh. Someone who loved him, and would mourn his loss to the world, and care.

Aziraphale turns the doorknob, and doesn’t look behind him as he walks away.

...

It hurts.

It’s hard work.

Aziraphale has to fix up his shop those first few months, and work to make up for the loss of those books. Which means more aggressive discussions with people to sell his books and get others at cheaper prices, and better merchandising, and not leaving London for a little Irish village, no matter how much he’d like to. And then, of course, it’s summer, which is the busiest time of year for him- and for Crowley, too, certainly- so Aziraphale lets himself get sucked into chasing sticky-fingered children away from his books and welcoming potential clients with a smile and ignoring the heat.

But September does, eventually, roll around. 

It’s raining again, when Aziraphale charters the boat from Aberporth, but not the wild storms of February. Just gentle sheets, catching on his lapels and sliding down his oiled raincoat and tamping his hair to his skull. His luggage is the same luggage, dented and mud-stained as it is, but it holds memory now. And he has a new scarf, of the lightest blue, keeping him warm.

He makes his way up the main road, luggage bumping behind him. Screeches to a halt when the inn comes into view.

It’s new. 

There’s fresh paint gleaming on the face, and what looks like an awning stretched out over low tables, perfect for a cafe; the vines threading through the roof and the flowers that had both lent it a cottage air and posed a threat to its Health and Safety certifications have been ripped out; when Aziraphale finally steps inside, he sees that the wooden floorboards have been ripped up and replaced with new ones, a shining chestnut. But what’s most startling is how much he has to fight to get inside, because there’s a crowd around the cafe, inside and out, bustling about, more people than Aziraphale had ever thought lived inside the town.

“Can I help you?” asks a woman. 

She’s got dark hair, mostly straight but with the faintest hint of a wave to it, and eyes like burnished copper. She’s very beautiful. 

“Is- is Crowley around?” Aziraphale asks, just managing to keep his voice even.

“Yes.” Her face shifts, looking grumpy, before she calls out, loudly: “Crowley, darling, there’s someone here who wants to meet you!”

Darling. 

The word feels like a slap to the face. He’s too late. Had this been how Crowley felt, when Gabriel proposed to Aziraphale? Of course Crowley would fall in love, would find someone. Of course Aziraphale would be cowardly enough to wait, and wait just a little too long.

He turns, dazed, chest airless, and stumbles outside.  

Aziraphale isn’t certain where he ends up, or how he gets there; he finds himself grinding his palms against a low stone wall, waist-high, and trying, desperately, not to gasp under the weight of disappointment.

And shame, and anger. Name what you feel, Aziraphale. Don’t let that take you by surprise.

So fine then. Disappointment that this future was taken from him. Shame at his procrastination. And anger, at his weakness. He’d known this was a possibility from the start, and he’d discounted it because... 

Because he’d thought that he could rely on Crowley.

Then: “Aziraphale!”

No. But as if in a dream, Aziraphale turns, and he sees Crowley running up to him. No, no, no.

“When’d you come?” asks Crowley, looking delighted. “You could’ve sent me an email! I had no idea you were planning a vacation!”

“I,” says Aziraphale, helpless.

“How long are you here for?”

“Not... long. But I wanted to see you.”

A shadow crosses over Crowley’s face. “To invite me to your wedding?”

“No,” says Aziraphale. “Er. That isn’t going to happen. I broke it off. Months ago.”

“Oh. But-”

“I wanted to see you,” Aziraphale tells him quietly. “You’re doing so well! The inn looks like you rebuilt it from the foundations.”

“Does it?” Crowley asks. He sounds pleased. “I was planning on it for a while, but then Anathema came last week to help, and she’s been so good at it- bringing people in, and being a good hostess- I’m dreading when she goes back to London.”

“She’s going back to London?”

“She’s my neighbor,” explains Crowley. “I, ah, decided to go back to see my flat in London after I left Dublin. I mean. Five years is a long time. And Anathema met me there.” He rolls hie eyes. “I’ll tell you, her husband’s been a blessing with the murals inside- but the funny part’s when I had him doing the bulbs, but he broke four of them in ten minutes. I have no idea how he did it.”

Her husband.

“Four bulbs?” asks Aziraphale, amusement replacing the despair like sunlight following clouds. “Surely he understood he should stop at the second one.”

“Ah, but not everyone can be as quick on the take as you, angel.”

Aziraphale darts him a look and sees the smile; quick, there-and-gone, like moonlight flashing off raindrops. The rainstorm has stopped, he sees, entirely, and the clouds have lifted to reveal the sunset, and the splendid red of the light throws Crowley’s face into sharp relief.

Slowly, he reaches up, and presses a palm to Crowley’s face. Slots his fingers against Crowley’s temple, and the base of his palm against his jawbone. Crowley closes his eyes, canting into the touch the faintest bit.

“I missed you,” whispers Aziraphale. “All these months. I missed you, Crowley.”

Crowley’s eyes open, and he steps closer, presses his forehead against Aziraphale’s, one arm coming up to rest on his shoulders. Aziraphale lets his own eyes slit with the pleasure of it, of Crowley’s warmth, of Crowley’s goodness. 

“So did I,” he says, so quietly it’s a puff of breath against Aziraphale’s lips. “More than you’ll ever know.”

He leans down, then, and kisses Aziraphale. 

And for all of Aziraphale’s plotting, for all of Aziraphale’s plans and debates and discussions- he doesn’t think any longer. He just leans up, like a sunflower to the sun, and lets himself drown in the sweet, singing joy.