They came in March, around the time of the first thaw. She was fairly sure about that detail, later, because she thought she had been out looking at her crocuses, the first little green nubs only just beginning to push through the frozen soil. Yes, surely that was what she had been doing. She had bent down to touch the tiny shoots, struggling in the cold, striving towards any glimpse of light, and when she stood back up, she had noticed the car.
She didn’t know what kind of car it was; she didn’t care much about cars, to be perfectly honest. In her mind, though, it was one of those flash-bang kind of cars, the kind that someone with money to burn might buy. Lily Winthrop, at the age of sixty-six, did not have money to burn, and therefore she did not care. (She did know that Kate Winslet had been kissed properly in the back seat of one of those cars, once, for a period film. She had the tape, somewhere, gathering dust.)
More to the point, it did not look like the kind of car that belonged in the South Downs, and yet here it was, moving past the fences at a crawl. The people inside it were quite obviously lost; the person in the passenger seat had a tattered paper map, while the driver was craning his head out of the window, and the two of them were gesticulating at each other, apparently bickering. At first, they actually went past the turnoff for the cottage at the foot of the hill, and then the car stopped, and reversed, and pulled into the drive.
Crocuses utterly forgotten, she leaned against the fence to watch them.
They made a bizarre couple, these newcomers. At least, they did to her eye. One of them looked spindly, and sulky, and dressed in a way that said that he did, in fact, know the names of expensive cars, and might think less of anyone who did not. The other was much more buoyant, and boyish, and dressed in a way that said the opposite, but that he was willing to listen if the right person wanted to talk about it, and also if there were snacks involved.
From a distance, she thought, they did not quite make sense together. They looked a bit like a salt-and-pepper set that had been wrongly pieced together from separate pairs, as they got out of the car and stood looking at the cottage, the tree, the mud, and then at each other.
Then the sulky one said something, and gestured, and the other one went brightly up to the door and opened it (without appearing to fumble with a key – but when on earth had an estate agent come by to unlock it?), and went inside. The first one leaned against the car, waiting. After a minute, he stuck his hands in his pockets, and then he immediately took them out again, and then he crossed his arms in a very strange way, as if he’d prefer to be in a shape that didn’t have arms at all, and also to be far away from here.
She had an inkling, then, that they were a set after all.
The other reappeared in the doorway. Lily was too far away to hear the words, but she could hear the jubilant pitch of his voice as he sketched with his hands, mimicking shelves, or possibly windows, as he talked. Slowly, under her watchful eye, the spine of the one by the car eased from ramrod-straight into something slinky and pleased.
By then, however, she was chilled through, and so she left her vantage point and went to see about making a cup of tea just as the two of them began to take boxes out of the car.
As she filled her kettle at the sink, however, she couldn’t stop thinking about them – or, well, trying to think about them. Some aspect of what she had seen was wrong, although now that she was inside again she could no longer tell quite what it was. Something about a door, or the car, or boxes where she could not remember seeing boxes. Her mind kept sliding away from it, like oil and water, refusing to let her pin it down. Even so, she definitely had the impression that some small detail had piqued her interest.
Twenty minutes later, this impression became even stronger when, having nearly finished her chamomile, she passed by the front window. Somehow, her two new neighbors were still taking things out of the car, and those things were now much larger than mere boxes. She paused, shocked, watching one of them vanish into the cottage with a tall, ungainly houseplant, that was roughly the height of a lamp. Even more bewildering was the one following, just behind, carrying an armchair.
She stared at the car. It was a nice car, as she had noticed, but it was not large. One might have been able to fit the pieces of a disassembled armchair into the backseat, but only that.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Lily Winthrop, and she smiled a little, and went back into the kitchen, and wrote a quick note to herself.
(Later, she could not remember why she had written “doors, plants & chairs?” on a notepad, or why it made her think of Kate Winslet. She must have thought of something amusing, around the time that her new neighbors had moved in, whenever that had been. Sometime in early March? Oh, yes, of course, the crocuses had been budding.
Of this detail, she was very nearly certain.)
They had not yet been drunk, when they had decided to get a cottage. They conveniently pretended to forget that fact later, but Aziraphale remembered it, very clearly. Crowley had snapped his fingers and said Retirement! We deserve a proper retirement, and Aziraphale had said that seems maudlin, isn’t that something that humans do just before they die, and Crowley had said no, you’re thinking of bungee jumping, and Aziraphale, in the paroxysms of mirth, had knocked over the rest of the first bottle of wine. They had each only been about a glass in.
There had been a second bottle, though, and Crowley had not let the topic go once it had been opened. He had said we could try out some hobbies and it would be something different and we should lay low for a while anyway, and Aziraphale had only realized how serious he was when he pulled out an ad for a cottage, partially furnished, in the Downs, near Hambledon.
Are you asking me to move in with you? Aziraphale said, setting his hand on the slender white wrist, half-teasing, half tipsy, but only that, and Crowley had looked at him quite soberly and said Yes.
So Aziraphale had said yes too. He had agreed to it, with nearly all of his faculties intact, with full awareness of the weight of having been asked, and now they were here. These were their buttercup-yellow walls, their gable roof, their ivy-clad Tudor beams. This was their remodeled kitchen, their massive soaking tub, their gnarled, overgrown apple tree that Crowley openly despised (apparently you could not prune an apple tree in March, even with infernal powers of persuasion, because they could not tolerate it). The cheat through the hedge to the village footpath, the mailbox at the bottom of the hill – all of it was theirs.
They had bought a cottage together.
It didn’t seem quite real, at first, especially in the bustle of arranging everything to their liking. In Aziraphale’s case, this meant installing more bookshelves, purchasing more rugs and throw blankets, and stringing up fine white poplin curtains. Crowley’s changes were more minor, focused on things that the angel had never even heard of, such as upping the thread count of their sheets, or adding something called a dimmer switch to the lighting in the den. Mostly, he came to investigate whatever Aziraphale was doing, and when the angel turned to ask for his opinion, he would lift a languid shoulder from where he was slouched in the doorway and say that he didn’t much care.
The only thing that Crowley really cared about, it turned out, was the garden.
The cottage’s former owners, whoever they were, had let the weeds run riot over their half-acre of land, a level of sloth sufficient to impress even a demon. Said demon therefore had to spend a weekend uprooting the largest villains, and a full six days following that turning over the soil by hand, with a shovel that came to look more and more like a rototiller. Rocks were shuffled into a sort of retaining wall – more aesthetic than functional, or so he told the angel – and a rotten section of the fence had to be mended. The unruly apple tree he left alone, as well as the snarl of raspberry bushes by the southern fence line (they were summer-producing, he said, and should be cut back in the fall), but the rest of the property was unrecognizable by the middle of March. Their yard had become nothing but one unending swath of clean black earth.
And then he began to plant.
Privately, Aziraphale thought it was splendid to watch. Though he had known that a city-dwelling Crowley liked to keep houseplants, this was a level of expertise and care that he had never guessed at. He would stumble on an enormous collection of starter seedlings in the mud room, or watch the demon laboring over his rows of infant cole crops, and think: I really had no idea.
It was – well, it was fascinating. He nudged aside the curtain aside, sometimes, to check on him, remembering how viciously Crowley had treated his old collection, thinking he might be required to intervene. His worries, however, appeared to be unfounded. Something about this garden kept the demon in check, and if he shouted, it was merely at the aphids. Aziraphale had no idea what he said to the plants themselves, though he was desperately curious. Whatever it was, it was too quiet to hear from the house, a secret murmuring that went on and on as his fingers untangled the root balls and settled each life into the earth.
It was a side of the demon he had not seen before, and he did not know how to feel about it. There was admiration, yes, but also a good deal of embarrassment, as he recalled Brother Francis’s sheer ineptitude in the garden in years past, and as he began to see the contrast between Crowley’s zeal and his own lack of it. Retirement, to him, had meant bonbons and books, not sweating in the dirt, and as Crowley worked to establish some sort of order in the yard, bonbons and books were what he tried to enjoy, until, at last, he admitted to himself that the juxtaposition was depressing.
It was worse than that, actually. If he was being honest with himself, he was rapidly becoming bored. He was no longer a bookseller, and though he was an angel in fact, he was not in practice. In short, he needed something to occupy himself, and sweets and novels were clearly not going to cut it.
“We could try out some hobbies,” Crowley had said, and so, by the time May came around, that was what he had resolved to do.
He found a woman in Hambledon who taught knitting lessons. He bought a Walkman, which made Crowley hysterical for reasons that Aziraphale could not divine, and a set of discs to brush up on his French. He practiced painting watercolor roses on cardstock, several of which he caught the demon discreetly squirreling away, so they couldn’t have been too wretched. Everything he attempted, he was objectively mediocre at, but he persevered. It didn’t matter. It was fun to pretend to be retired.
It was especially to have someone to pretend with. Crowley, when he was not in the garden, was actually – a delightful roommate. He knew how to set up their electronics, and how to locate food delivery services, and when to heat up a pan of milk, as if he could somehow tell when Aziraphale was idly thinking about cocoa.
Most wonderful of all, he seemed to relish being their designated chauffeur, more than he had ever previously revealed. On the first lovely Saturday of the year, for example, he gallantly suggested a long drive down the coast and then a trip to the nearest village. This resulted in a truly extravagant shopping spree, yielding everything from chocolates, to malt whiskey, to a used cookbook that promised to teach the reader how to cook everything, after the angel made noises of interest over it.
On the way home, as he held their purchases in his lap and listened to the demon ramble about Hell’s ongoing work at Eton, Aziraphale decided that retirement was, on the whole, very lovely.
At least, it was lovely until the day he opened the book.
Later, he blamed the raspberries.
Crowley didn’t even acknowledge them, but Aziraphale could see them from the kitchen window, as pink as little kisses tucked among the thorns. At first there had only been a cluster, but now the whole line of bushes were lit with color. He thought, any day now, Crowley will notice, and then he thought, well, that’s silly, isn’t it? Why does he have to be the one to collect them?
And so, on a fine clear morning, when the demon was out, he fetched a big wooden mixing bowl and, for the first time in his life, went raspberry picking.
He felt foolish immediately, of course. He had no gloves, and, without knowing where Crowley’s were, was reduced to gingerly reaching through the brambles for their treasure, like a child. Oh, true, he could have persuaded the thorns that they weren’t as sharp as they had been at dawn – and that with nothing more than a thought – but it seemed strangely important to do this part the human way, even if he bled a little. Crowley, planting his seedlings by hand, had the right of it: sometimes you had to honor the required exchange.
Sure enough, fat lines of red welled between his knuckles by the time he had finished his work – but a full harvest of berries gleamed against the cherry wood, and he was content. He ate a handful standing in his own kitchen, filthy, pin-pricked, stained pink in mysterious places. It was the happiest he could remember being in a long time.
He was also, he found, very nearly daydreaming. Tasting the fruit had left him lost in a memory of his virginal raspberry mousse, a satiny affair he had ordered for the first time at the Savoy in the twentieth century. He had savored every perfect bite, or nearly every bite; eventually, Crowley, covetous and curious as always, had reached across to mar the flawless cloud of it with his fork. Even he, Aziraphale recalled, had grudgingly acknowledged the artistry of it.
He could replicate that, surely…?
Only then did he remember the cookbook he had purchased, promising mastery of any recipe, and he set the bowl down to go looking for it. It took him a while to locate; someone had tucked it away under the oven instead of shelving it with the nonfiction, which made no sense at all, but after a spirited search he had it in his hand.
There was an entry for raspberry mousse.
He traced his finger down the list of ingredients. There were only about half a dozen: eggs, and cream, and a cup or so of sugar. It looked tantalizingly simple. Perhaps it was simple. After all, cooking couldn’t be too terribly difficult, if so many humans could do it.
Aziraphale hesitated, and then, with sudden determination, he opened the utensil drawer. Under his shrewd blue eye, a whisk was startled to discover that it was in fact twins, and that they were both plugged into the sockets of an electric mixer. Above the refrigerator, a cracked and mottled blender from the 1980s revealed itself to be clean and new, after all, in the morning light. The cream, which had been thinking of going off, over the course of the next day or so, leapt up suddenly into clean white foam as Aziraphale poured it, already tufting a little even without being beaten.
At some point after this, Crowley arrived. The angel missed the exact moment, distracted as he was with the egg whites, but when he turned away from the mixer to wipe at his face with a hand towel, he jumped badly at the sight of the demon, a splash of vibrant magenta and black against the wall, looking intrigued.
“What are you doing?”
“Goodness,” Aziraphale breathed, pressing the towel against his chest. “Say hello, next time.”
“Hello,” said Crowley. “What are you doing?”
Surely, the pink-and-white Pollack he had made of the counter was enough of an answer? “The raspberries were ready,” he said, waving at the mess. “I thought I might try to make us a -”
“The raspberries.” Crowley looked shocked, and altogether less than pleased. “My raspberries?”
This was so surprising that, for a minute, Aziraphale could only stare at him.
“Our raspberries,” he said, slowly.
The demon seized his wrist and turned it over to show the already healing scratches. “Bit rash of you,” he commented at last.
“Er… not really?” said Aziraphale, who was even more bewildered now. “It’s a plant, Crowley, it’s not like I was mauled by an ax-murderer.” The inspection of his arm continued unabated. “My dear, they don’t even hurt any more. It’s hardly the end of the world.”
Crowley made a cranky little moue at the turn of phrase and let go of him. Aziraphale rubbed his arm, increasingly baffled, increasingly disliking that the pronoun my had slipped into the conversation and back out again without an acknowledgment. And then it immediately got worse.
“It’s a work in progress, you know,” the demon informed him, as if this explained everything. “The garden. It’s all right if you leave it to me.”
This was as polite a way as saying stay out as Aziraphale had ever heard of. It was also, in his opinion, pretty rich, to attempt delivering that kind of a line to him, a being that could spot one of the demon’s infernal tricks at fifty paces, even when it was nothing but a crowded sidewalk and a small coin.
“That’s good to know,” he said stiffly. “Thank you.”
A work in progress, he repeated to himself, astonished, as Crowley passed out of the kitchen without even trying the mousse. And what was that about, exactly?
The words were still running through his mind that evening, after they had settled on the sofa together. Crowley had borrowed his Walkman, and was wearing a fondly reminiscent look on his face as he tilted it back and forth, causing the muttering audio to skip. Trying to master his irritation, Aziraphale finally reached over and stilled his arm.
“May I ask you a question, my dear?”
“Depends on the question,” said Crowley, but when Aziraphale glared he sighed and took the headphones off.
“Hell wasn't really... appreciative of you, were they?” the angel said carefully. He kept a finger marking his place in his book, a sleek first edition of Moby Dick; if Crowley noticed the choice of novel, he did not comment on it. “I mean, the occasional commendation, yes, but there was never really any acknowledgment of your, um, workmanship.”
“S’pose not,” was the cautious reply.
“I thought I’d ask,” he continued, and then he hesitated, not sure if he was being too obvious. “Because, well. I realized that I haven’t told you what a wonderful job you’re doing with the garden.”
Crowley snorted. Aziraphale felt that this was not a particularly helpful response.
“It – you do know that it doesn’t have to be perfect, though, yes?” he inquired, after a moment. “I mean – it’s only your first go of it.”
He had the distinct impression that he was feeling his way in a dark room, trying not to catch himself on the furniture, and the demon was not making it easier. His yellow eyes held Aziraphale’s, and then he folded up like a collapsible stepstool and wedged himself bizarrely into the armrest of the sofa, all elbows and knees as he went back to the CD player.
“It's not about getting it perfect, angel,” he said. “Just leave it alone.”
Aziraphale did not leave it alone.
The following evening, he took the cookbook into the soaking tub with him and left tabs for himself throughout the entire entree section, reading the recipes for vegetarian dinners and simple egg pastas with the kind of single-mindedness that had once earned him guardianship of the Eastern Gate. Only after Crowley brought him a glass of wine did Aziraphale realize that the bubbles had dispersed, leaving him chilled and pruny and peckish. This last, to his pleasure, turned out not to be a problem; once he had climbed out and wandered into the kitchen, tying a plush navy robe around himself, he discovered that Crowley, with his usual anticipatory kindness, had also put together a sensational cheese board.
“You darling,” he said to the demon, around a mouthful of brie.
“Ugh,” said Crowley, nabbing a slice of gouda and escaping the room with it, a telltale blush mottling his ears and neck.
The strange thing, Aziraphale mused, watching him go, was that they plainly did both enjoy food, despite not needing it. But as far as he knew, outside of the mousse, neither of them had really cooked, which seemed at odds with their passion for it. They had eaten oysters together on the shores of Athens, and mincemeat pies in Dover, and brioche in Versailles; on other occasions, Crowley had brought him truffles, and macaroons, and, yes, cheese. But he had never tried his hand at making something himself, and neither had the angel, and now that he was thinking about it he wasn’t entirely sure why.
Hobbies, he thought. Well, then.
He went shopping in the morning, taking the walking path through the chalk hills into Hambledon, and then, in the afternoon, as Crowley bargained with a telemarketer, he went out into the garden again, this time armed with a list and a basket. Brow furrowed with concentration, he selected a couple of sun-warm aubergines, and great bunches of parsley and basil, and half a dozen fragrant red tomatoes, each already as broad as his palm.
These jewel-bright treasures he set out deliberately on the counter, where they sat, brilliant in the sunlight, as he separated the yolks of his eggs, dropping one perfect orb at a time into a waiting nest of flour. The rest of the dough took so long that Crowley, finally finished on the phone, came in just as he was finally getting to the fun part, which entailed cutting the noodles and hanging them from the suspended pot rack. Out of the corner of his eye, Aziraphale saw him notice the spoils of the garden, still shining in their place of honor. Sure enough, he stiffened at the sight of them.
“I’m trying my hand at a pasta,” the angel said. It wasn’t a question. He’d be damned if he was going to ask permission to work in their own kitchen, with ingredients from their own garden. “Pomodoro.”
Crowley swayed, hands stuffed into his pockets, clearly on the verge of a cutting remark. He didn’t make one, in the end, but neither did he offer to help, and he lingered long enough that the chef, with a touch of exasperation, gestured him out of the kitchen with the butcher knife.
Predictably, by the end of the process, he had made a mess again. Bits of garlic, capers, and splashes of red wine vinegar were scattered all over the hob, as though there had been a detonation of a small bomb. Out of this wreckage, however, Aziraphale emerged with two pungent plates of handmade pasta, feeling inordinately pleased with himself.
“Here we are,” he said, passing one to Crowley, who was slouched against the table, refusing to sit.
“You made this?” said the demon, incredulous, a minute later.
Aziraphale finished his bite, dabbed at his lips with a napkin. He might have resented the surprise in the other’s voice, except that he felt the same astonishment. “I did,” he said.
“It’s – good.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
They looked at each other.
“I feel a bit silly,” Aziraphale said, and he laughed, a little shyly. “Just think, if we had been a bit more daring, we could have been doing this all along.”
Complex emotions played over Crowley’s face, at that: a wry expression that verged suddenly into an awful sadness, as if he was thinking about something else that they could have been doing, over the course of six thousand years. Living together, perhaps, Aziraphale thought; and then, with a flush, he wondered if it was really something else, something they had not yet experimented with at all.
He reached out, tugged the fork out of Crowley’s grasp, and took his hand. The demon’s countenance melted into perfect, unreadable blankness as Aziraphale said, quietly, “I’m so glad we tried this.”
He meant: this, this cottage life, this choosing of each other and a space that was theirs. But Crowley flinched away.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it, angel,” he said flatly, disentangling himself and going back to his dinner. “I’m no chef. If you want to go out and raid the garden, that’s going to be up to you.”
True to his word, in the weeks that followed, Crowley did not ever try to interfere in the kitchen, but neither did he protest when the angel went out into his yard (their yard, their yard. Damn it). It should have felt like a victory, Aziraphale thought, but of course it didn’t. Not when his ambivalence made it ring hollow.
He did appear to be enjoying the fruits of their awkwardly combined labors, however, which was merited, because it was turning into a summer of truly outstanding food.
In the days after the pasta, Aziraphale tried his hand at a silky, rich ratatouille, dotted with snow white goat cheese, and it was so good that they ate nearly the entire batch in one sitting. Three days later, an Andalusian gazpacho actually had Crowley moaning, although he stopped when he caught Aziraphale smiling down into his bowl. Personally, he preferred the red pepper shakshuka the following night, although they both agreed that the subsequent chive risotto could give either a run for their money. The best attempt, however, was one gloomy evening that featured a simple vegetable bisque, accompanied by pieces of a craggy Irish soda bread that they tore barehanded in their haste to eat it.
Afterwards, Crowley had massaged his stomach and said, “Angel, you’re going to discorporate me with all of this,” a hyperbole that Aziraphale, pleased, let slide for the sake of the compliment, as he went back into the kitchen to get their dessert.
He had finally found something that he was good at.
He learned the proper way to cut garlic. He learned when butter burned, and when to season, and how to chop an onion. He braised cauliflower; he julienned peppers; he even tried his hand at a batch of pickles. He was, in point of fact, enjoying himself enormously – even with an audience of one, and that one remaining mysteriously distant from the entire endeavor.
He failed, of course, sometimes spectacularly, and when this happened he made sure that Crowley saw. Particularly mortifying was a ruin of a sweet onion pissaladière, an attempted replica of one that they had had in Paris – which meant, of course, that he called the demon into the kitchen, purportedly for consolation (duplicitous, of course, but he felt it was a fair exchange for the secrets that his roommate already seemed to be keeping).
“It’s not that bad,” Crowley observed, chin on Aziraphale’s shoulder.
“I thought we agreed,” said the angel, prodding the intestinal snarl of stinking onion, “not to lie to each other.”
“Fine, it's rubbish,” said Crowley. “I fancied ordering in tonight anyway.”
“You’ll get it right next time.”
Delicate, precise. Like threading a needle. “You could help me,” said Aziraphale. “Next time.”
Immediately, he knew that he had missed his mark. He was familiar with that stiffening, that tension suddenly stark in the set of the jaw as Crowley peeled away from him, the serpentine swagger becoming strangely pronounced as he moved away.
“Mmm, no, don't think so. I'd only get in your way.”
Frowning a little, Aziraphale watched him go. It had not taken him long to figure out that their current arrangement, lower case, seemed to hold a weird significance for Crowley. For whatever reason, the demon refused to involve himself with the process of making food. An occasional stroll through the kitchen, a sniff of a simmering pot, a guarded remark – these were all the contributions that he would allow himself, leaving a puzzled angel to try to work out the mystery of why Crowley would not cook.
Eventually, his curiosity mounted to the point of ordering a case of Bordeaux, an aged Château Lafite Rothschild that he knew the demon was partial to, thinking that it might be a way to get some answers. Only after they had opened the fourth bottle did he finally dare to ask about it (although, in retrospect, this was probably a little too late to be helpful).
“It’sss you,” said Crowley, from the floor. “You fix all of it.” He wiggled his fingers in a pantomime of something that looked like typing, or piano playing, and certainly not like anything Aziraphale had ever done in the kitchen. “Trasss, trans, transssigent. Form. It.” He frowned, concentrating. “Make it better.”
“That’s not true,” said Aziraphale, groping for support. He was reading quite a lot of Michael Pollan by this point, although he was blessed if he could remember much, at the moment. “ ‘S a farm-to-table thing. Raw materials, quality of the harvest thing. My dear boy, that’s all you.”
“Nonononono. ’Sssspices,” Crowley insisted, gesticulating with his glass.
Rolling his eyes heavenward, the angel was about to say that the spices were actually the fresh herbs that also came from the garden, so, checkmate, but in the midst of stumbling through this they discovered that the demon’s extravagant gesture had accidentally bathed a nearby succulent in wine. The subsequent rescue mission meant that he never actually got to his point, and once they were sober again, Crowley flatly refused to talk about it.
This continued deflection was, to say the least, a bit frustrating. Aziraphale stewed and plotted and finally came up with a plan to corner him. The clean white plate he set down a few days later bore nothing but a caprese salad: a stack of basil, mozzarella, and thick, gorgeous slices of tomato, with a zing of balsamic drizzle across the top. Suspecting nothing, Crowley took his time over the first mouthful, and was unguarded with his praise.
“It’s the tomatoes,” said Aziraphale, watching him closely. “They’re a testament to your skill, Crowley, really. I have never had tomatoes like these. They’re perfect.”
Crowley swallowed. “It’s the cheese,” he said, almost reflexively. “It’s fior de latte, I got it at that little shop off of Winslow Street -”
Aziraphale, who was getting rather vexed by all of this nonsense, plucked a sticky slice of tomato from the dish with his actual bare fingers and held it against Crowley’s lips. The yellow eyes widened; the wet mouth opened in surprise; and the angel, triumphant, set it on his tongue.
“It’s the tomatoes,” he said firmly.
The demon didn’t argue with him, after that.
Summer farmers' markets were a longstanding and noble tradition in the area, so perhaps it was unsurprising that, one sunny weekend, the two newest residents decided to see what all the fuss was about. The answer, Aziraphale felt, was rather underwhelming. Admittedly, it was nice to be among a crush of people again – the event was packed with families, groups of friends, and couples meandering arm in arm – but his initial impression was that there wasn't much to make a fuss about at all. As they strolled past the stands, he could see clearly that their own garden yielded produce surpassing anything on display. It seemed like the kind of uncharitable comparison that an angel would do best to keep to himself, though, and so he did.
He did wish that he knew whether Crowley could perceive the difference. It didn't seem like it, not really, not when he finally chanced a glance across. Beside him, the demon was inscrutable, his expression obscured by the sunglasses that Aziraphale was no longer used to.
Watching him, the angel wondered if he was – well, all right. In very recent memory, they had patrolled the lengths of art galleries and gilded concert halls together, and now he appeared to be transfixed by nothing more than a display of cheekily cut beeswax. The contrast between settings was bizarre – nearly as bizarre as Crowley himself looked, here, at the market, his lithe and stylish figure made odder than usual by the sleepy rural backdrop.
Could he be content with this kind of a life? In his most secret heart, Aziraphale thought it unlikely. Their unspoken household conflict was making him start to wonder if domestic retirement was beginning to feel like a second fall from grace (yes, all right, fine, it was a terrible metaphor, but he couldn't think of a better one). At any point, he half expected the demon to throw up his hands and say I can’t stand this after all, or worse, I can’t stand this much of you, and then their little experiment would end in fire.
As if seeking reassurance, he found himself reaching for Crowley's arm, tucking his hand into the crook of the elbow as if they were merely one of the wandering couples. The demon jumped at the touch, just a little, and looked at him with a slightly different expression, although it was still one that the angel could not read. Then, subtly, he adjusted a tiny bit, leaving a little more room for the imposition.
Thus tethered, they drifted for a while, until they arrived at a distracting display of teak cutting boards and Crowley went on alone, unwilling to discuss their merits in the kitchen. Feeling strangely bereft, the angel watched him go, and then he looked down at the item in his hands, and turned it over to examine the price tag.
It was a pity that the demon had not lingered; the written number was a tiny sin on its own. Amused, he set it down again, and was on the point of turning away, when –
“Someday,” said a voice by his elbow, “I'll be filthy rich, and then I'll buy out the entire stock of little markets like this one.”
Aziraphale looked down. A diminutive elderly woman, with flyaway wisps of gray hair escaping a kerchief and a pair of particularly round glasses, was grinning toothily at him.
“Hello,” she said. “I think you might be one of my new neighbors. You bought Innisfree Cottage, didn’t you?” When she saw his perplexity, she clarified: “Apple tree, massive garden, ten minutes south of here?”
“Oh, goodness, yes, that must be us,” said the angel, startled. “I feel rather foolish. I’m afraid I didn’t even know it had a name.”
“Oh, well, what’s in a name,” she shrugged, and she did a silly little stage pose as she said it. “Wherefore art thou, Innisfree?”
“Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?” Aziraphale said, and he was thrilled when it made her giggle.
“I’m so glad I happened to run into you,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to pay you a visit since you moved in, back in – what was it, March?” She looked confused, as if she was trying to get something straight in her own mind. “I remember seeing you and your – husband? Or not yet?” and her eyes darted down to his hand.
“We tend to take things slow,” said the angel, who was secretly pleased by the lack of a third option.
“Anyway, I love what you’ve done with the place,” she said, shaking off whatever fog had passed over her. “That garden is spectacular.”
Oh, he did like her, very much. “I agree with you entirely.”
They stood smiling at each other for a minute, a bit bashfully, and then, just as Aziraphale was opening his mouth again, she stuck out a nail-bitten hand. “Introductions,” she said. “I’m Lily.”
He took it. “Lovely to meet you,” he said. “Mr. Fell.”
“A surname?” she said, quirking an eyebrow, and her voice was not quite as warm as it had been; it was clear that she was trying not to be offended. “More fool me, I suppose. I thought we were getting along rather well.”
“Ah, well, I have an ungainly name,” said Aziraphale, smiling at her. “Old-fashioned, familial roots, you know.”
Something in her face softened. “Let me guess,” she said, looking across the crowds, to where Crowley was inspecting a selection of homemade preserves at a different table. “Things are a bit complicated with that ‘old-fashioned family’ now that you've fucked off into the countryside with your young man.”
Aziraphale's peal of laughter, full-throated and genuine, made Crowley lift his head. The sunglasses glinted in the light as they turned towards him, and for a moment the gravitational pull of that yellow gaze, shielded though it was, took the angel’s breath away, as it always had. For a moment there might have been no one else at the market at all.
“Well-spotted,” he said, when the lanky black figure finally looked away again. “Yes. You are absolutely correct.”
Lily was still watching the redhead, frowning a little. “Are you two – doing okay?” she said, eventually.
She was asking in a particularly hesitant way, the way one might ask about a rift in a marriage. To honor this, Aziraphale gave her the truth.
“I hope so,” he said. He glanced back at Crowley, but the demon’s attention had returned to the preserves. “We’ve been through rather a lot recently, and I think we’re still sorting through it in our own ways. But I do hope that we'll be all right, in the end.”
She stayed in his mind as the days went on, and so, eventually, inevitably, he paid her a visit. As they chatted, she brought out tea and a plate of biscuits, which, of course, cemented their friendship. Aziraphale toyed with the idea of asking her over for dinner, but to do so without consulting his roommate seemed a bit dangerous. She and Crowley still had never even spoken.
At home, he was careful to mention her on several occasions, hinting perhaps that they should go up the hill for a social call together, but the demon was too distracted with maintaining a garden in high summer to be very attentive to this idea. Weeds were sprouting like – well, like weeds. In addition, the rabbits were getting bolder, and Crowley thought they might even have a badger dropping by. To make things worse, one fine clear morning, they actually discovered that some group of critters had dug up the entire rest of their crop of root vegetables.
“It’s like they’re possessed,” Aziraphale marveled, surveying the damage.
“Excuse me,” said Crowley, affronted.
“I beg your pardon.”
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter,” Aziraphale said, waving a hand to encompass the yard. “We were never going to get through all of this. Which reminds me,” he went on, “I’ve been meaning to tell you that I think we should donate some of the surplus –”
“No,” Crowley said.
As simple as that: no.
The angel had been about to voice his idea of also taking some produce to their neighbors – Lily had commented on the garden again, the last time he had seen her, and he had very nearly told her to just let herself in and take what she liked – but the finality of this answer left him silent and irritated. Instead of responding, he turned and went back to the cottage, leaving Crowley to repair the torn earth alone.
He had to be missing something important, he told himself. He had to be.
He just had no idea what it was.
A thunderstorm rolled in that afternoon, rain lashing the windows, water welling nearly as far as the porch step. Crowley stood at the window, anxiously watching the sodden yard. Behind him, cozy under a knitted afghan, Aziraphale thumbed through his book.
“You know, you really did a splendid job with the corn syrup industry,” he said, keeping his tone deliberately light. “Some of your best work, I think. The American subsidies are quite clever.”
“Thanks,” said Crowley, not turning. “It’s really coming down out there, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think our side ever really got involved in food production.”
“We dabbled.” A crash of thunder. “Here and there.”
“Oh, yes?” said Aziraphale, too casually. “Was food waste one of yours, too?”
That got the demon to turn, and return his gaze. A number of unspoken things passed between them, communicated in the unhappy set of Crowley’s mouth and the lift of Aziraphale’s eyebrows. The demon knew exactly what he was driving at, and didn’t much like it, and the angel didn’t much care.
“It’s a massive societal problem, apparently,” he said, tapping the page. “Roughly a third of food produced goes uneaten.”
“Oh yes?” said Crowley. “Do tell.”
“Well, it says here that –”
“This really can’t be good for the herbs,” said Crowley, interrupting him, as he looked out of the window again. “I should go out and put up a tarp.”
It was a second rebuff, plain and simple, and much more cutting than the one that morning. It hurt Aziraphale in a way that he had not been expecting, and it actually left him a little winded. Setting aside his book, he reached for one of the sofa pillows, and it was this that he held against himself, in the same way one might stanch a wound in the belly, as he watched the demon put on his galoshes.
“Crowley,” he began.
It had to be asked. “Are – are you happy here? With me?”
The demon actually dropped a shoe, which might have been gratifying, under different circumstances. “What?”
“We were drunk, when we decided –” and oh, it was a lie, it was a lie, and it hurt to adopt it, but, well. It was also an easy out. “I would understand, if – ” He cut himself off a second time. To frame the possibility as a statement felt like trying to swallow those wretched raspberry brambles. “Is it something that you still – ?”
Crowley stared at him agape for a moment, and then he said, “I’m not even going to answer that,” and he opened the back door and went out into the rain.
Aziraphale did not put down his book for either the crash or the distant shouting, but by the time the doorbell rang he thought he had better get up. He opened the door to find Lily, very red in the face, holding a grubby little boy in front of her, with a second urchin scuffing the ground behind them, shamefaced. Their guilt was palpable, and probably would have been even to someone who was not a technically retired angel.
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” his neighbor began. She was struggling to catch her breath. “I think we have a bit of a situation.”
“It’s no bother at all,” Aziraphale said, smiling at the boys, who weren’t yet willing to meet his eyes. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“Peter, show him what you have in your hand,” Lily instructed.
The dirty fist extended, sulkily, and the fingers opened to show an apple core.
“Oh, yes,” the angel said, taking it and holding it up to the light. “A discerning gentleman, I see. They are just about ready, aren’t they?”
A quick, furtive, incredulous glance from the culprit reminded him strongly of Crowley in that moment.
“I am so sorry,” said Lily, distraught, and she swiped angrily at her eyes. “My great-nephews are aspiring to be little thieves, apparently.”
“Oh, come now, that’s a harsh word,” Aziraphale demurred. “And possibly unwarranted. They certainly can’t be thieves if the apples were a gift, now could they?”
Two sets of disbelieving eyes now raised to his. He beamed at them.
“I think we should go get a box,” he said, flicking the core away. “There are quite a bit more where that came from. You can’t possibly have gotten them all.”
It was, he discovered, much more fun than going out into the garden alone. The four of them spent a happy half an hour fetching a ladder into the boughs of the tree, directing each other to the thickest clusters, and raining down a veritable blizzard of fruit. Afterwards, feeling extraordinarily at peace with the world, the angel waved them off and settled back down into his armchair, only to find that he had, in his distraction, set his book down on a butter dish.
Crowley, returning home from an excursion to find them some prosciutto, did not find the little anecdote as amusing as Aziraphale had hoped.
“You did what?”
“Well, I had been finishing off the focaccia,” said Aziraphale, and then, defensively, “It is very difficult to read about cooking without getting a little peckish, you know –”
“I don’t give a – twig about your butter,” Crowley bit out. “Did you say you gave away an entire box?”
“Oh, that. Yes, I thought you'd appreciate the irony,” said the angel, smiling a little. “That they were tempted by the fruit of the Serpent of Eden when he wasn't even home.”
One might have said that Crowley was verging on apoplexy, except that demons could not be apoplectic. Red, from mortification or rage, was staining his throat and blooming up into his cheeks. “You can't give people those apples, angel,” he hissed.
The vehemence of this reaction was even more surprising than the raspberry mousse incident. “Why ever not?”
A visible tic, a flight of meaningless hand gestures. “What if they had been wormy?”
The angel raised his eyebrows. “Are they wormy?”
Crowley looked insulted. “No,” he said.
Aziraphale shut his book and gave Crowley his full consideration. Somewhere, in the complicated machinery of their struggle, there was an exposed wire just beginning to smoke and spark, and he was very close to grasping what it was.
“They’re my apples too, Crowley,” he said, slowly. “Because we live together.”
The demon stalked towards him. There was a glint of fire in his pupils, a shine to his bared eyeteeth, that Aziraphale did not often see; they were signs that the serpent inside him was coiled very tightly, ready to strike, and they might have been a bit frightening, except that the angel had not been frightened of him for over six thousand years. He folded his hands over In Defense of Food and waited as the figure loomed over him, looking up calmly into the blazing eyes.
“We are not,” Crowley snarled, “giving anybody any apples.”
And Aziraphale thought:
He had been going about it all wrong. He had been too literal. Aziraphale put away Michael Pollan and walked to the Hambledon library branch, which was surprised to discover that it did have William Blake after all, and Alfred Loisy, and a fiction trilogy by Philip Pullman that he remembered reading furtively when it had first been released.
He found what he was looking for, eventually, in Robert Green Ingersoll. Once he had found it he left the book open to the page and sat back, looking out at the garden.
It was not an Eden. Crowley had made sure of that. Eden had been lush, untamed, brilliant with bleeding heart and creeping vine and birds of paradise. Their little patch of earth was homely by comparison, and tangibly domestic, with wide muddy avenues to tread between the dusky rhubarb, curling squash vines, fat cabbages dark with veins of purple and green. Where the first garden had been extravagant and flashy, theirs was humble, utilitarian, a polished stone instead of a jewel, made not one whit more glamorous by the mellow backdrop of a rural English setting.
But it had been attended to with equal amounts of care. The earth had been turned over by hand, the seedlings sown one by one. Devotion was evident in these inexpert rows, the product of hot days spent weeding and watering. It was no less a work of art for all that it was simple.
Literally speaking, Aziraphale had not planted a single seed. But there were other kinds of seeds that could be planted, in other kinds of soil.
He sat, patiently, thinking about what he needed to do, turning the possible outcomes over in his mind, as the light grew pinker and the shadows lengthened in the garden. And then, inevitably –
“What are you reading now?” said Crowley, leaning over him.
Aziraphale did not answer him. Silently, he watched a breeze move through the herbs, ruffling the thyme, the marjoram, the frankly denuded basil, as the demon picked up the open book. From here he could see a speckled butterfly, hunting for sustenance, moving through fruitlessly through the sprigs of green. It was joined by a second, and the two of them looped around the rosemary together and then fluttered away.
If the account given in Genesis is really true, ought we not, after all, to thank this serpent? He was the first schoolmaster, the first advocate of learning, the first enemy of ignorance, the first to whisper in human ears the sacred word liberty, the creator of ambition, the author of modesty, of inquiry, of doubt, of investigation, of progress and of civilization.
Gently, Crowley set the book back down on the table, and the angel closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in the familiar smell of him. It was vaguely mineral, and had always previously reminded the angel of a strong tannic wine. Over the last few months, though, it had softened into something quieter, more muted, like the scent of good clean earth.
“Do you have any idea,” Crowley said, “how much more trouble I’d get into down there if anybody read this?”
Aziraphale pursed his lips. “I don’t think anyone in your part of the world reads Robert Green Ingersoll in this day and age. And besides…”
“The author of modesty. That’s me, that is. What were you going to say, angel?”
“Nothing,” said Aziraphale, looking out at the garden again. “Nothing at all.”
Although he had been aware, before, that Crowley slept, the angel had learned since moving in with him that he actually slept quite frequently, and increasingly on something resembling a human sleep schedule. He himself had tried it a few times, and didn’t see what all the fuss was about; he preferred the time to read at night. Now that they were roommates, however, these differing tastes complemented each other rather well. He would go to bed first, and then Crowley would slink into the room at around two, climb onto the other side of the bed, and immediately pass out. Aziraphale never addressed it, afraid that calling attention to it would cause a withdrawal to the second bedroom, but sometimes he set a hand on the tousled head as he read, and Crowley would sigh into a suddenly dreamless sleep.
These were the only kinds of miracles that he did any more: small, and simple. Somehow, they also felt like the most important ones of his life.
Tonight, however, the demon appeared to be getting a head start on his nightly nap without company. It was only nine, but he was splayed on the sofa under a mess of blankets, face planted in one of their throw pillows. Aziraphale, wandering through with a mug of tea, stopped and looked at the prostrate figure, feeling the familiar pang of emotion under his breastbone. Then he crossed the room, and nudged at the exposed feet until the other woke up enough to make room for him.
“Thank you, my dear.”
“No trouble,” Crowley yawned. “What time is it?”
“Just after nine,” said Aziraphale, taking his novel from the shelf under the side table. The demon twisted a little, to look at it, and let his face drop back down into the cushion.
“If you had your way, angel, this whole cottage would be wall-to-wall with stacks of books,” he said, slightly muffled, in a tone that walked the careful line between resignation and affection.
“Fear not, my dear,” Aziraphale said, looking at him with equal affection. “This is from the library. I did promise you that I would downsize.”
“The humans do say that the first step is admitting that you have a problem,” Crowley said. “Congratulations on starting down the path to recovery.”
Admitting that you have a problem, Aziraphale thought. Ha. “Well,” he said. “I won’t say there won’t ever be additions. For example,” he added, deliberately, “I have been thinking about buying some introductory books on gardening.”
He could tell that it was the wrong thing to say; under his blankets, Crowley went stiff and tense. But he had expected that, and so he went on, falsely cheerful. “Next year, I was thinking that I could help you with it. If I’m involved, maybe then you’d be comfortable with giving some to our neighbors, and perhaps the soup kitchen down in –”
“Will you give it a rest with the fucking garden,” Crowley hissed, almost inaudibly.
This was too much. Really, he had put up with enough.
“I shall do nothing of the kind,” Aziraphale snapped. He was, abruptly, so angry that he could feel his hands clenching, as if hungry for the hilt of a flaming sword. “This thing of yours, whatever you wish to call it, this possessiveness, this refusal to allow a connection between your food and other people – frankly, Crowley, it’s getting out of hand. First I thought it was about perfectionism, and then I thought it was professional, and now I’m fairly certain it’s theological -”
At that, Crowley’s fury flamed up to match his own. “Why can’t I just have a preference without having to defend it from you?”
“You can.” The angel did not think it was possible for a sentient being to suffer more exasperation than he currently felt. “Of course you can. But this isn’t just a preference, Crowley. There is very obviously something else going on here that we should be talking about.”
Crowley groaned, loud and long, into the pillow. “Then say whatever it is you think needs to be said, Aziraphale, because you are driving me stark raving mad.”
Aziraphale took a deep breath, and then blew it out again, slowly, until he was calmer, and sure that he had his voice under control.
“Very well,” he said, picking up his novel again. “I love you.”
Crowley was still.
“Let me be more precise than that,” Aziraphale said. “I love you. You, exactly as you are.”
There was another long stretch of silence before the reply, which was a bit strangled. “Anything else you need to get off your chest?”
“Well, yes, actually,” said the angel, frowning down at his book. He was still seething a little, but he was trying to tamp it down, trying to be softer to a being that had not ever been granted much softness. “Because I really think we had better – ” He stopped, and cleared his throat. Surely there was a more tactful way to say it.
“I know we’ve both been part of a – a rather complicated story, thus far,” he said at last. “We’ve had – prescribed roles, and that hasn’t – that hasn’t always been fair. But I think that you – that we could write our own story here. If that was something that you wanted.”
He paused again, and then added, softly, “That’s why I said yes, to this whole thing, you know. The cottage. I wasn’t drunk at all.”
After a minute, it became clear that there wasn’t going to be an answer, not that he had really expected one. Under his pile of blankets, Crowley remained immobile. Aziraphale wondered if he was even remembering to breathe. These human corporations did tend to need it, after a while.
He left it alone. Locating his bookmark, he lost himself in a battle of armored bears. Crowley would talk to him about it, when he was ready. If he was ever ready.
He had nearly made it to the end of the chapter before the demon finally stirred.
Moving very gingerly, as if the act was twinging an old wound, he set his feet in Aziraphale’s lap. The angel, in turn, held himself as still as he could, until he was sure that Crowley had settled again. Then he set his hand on the arch of a foot, letting his thumb drift across the nub of an ankle, and read on.
He couldn’t quite keep himself from smiling, just a tiny bit, but Crowley still had his face buried in the pillow and couldn’t see it, so that was all right.
The buzzer going off on a Sunday morning was unprecedented, to Lily’s memory. She could not imagine who on earth would be calling on her at this hour of the morning – it wasn’t even nine o’clock – but the noise was insistent, and so she found her slippers and went to the door.
To her great astonishment, it was the spindly fellow from Innisfree Cottage, the quiet sneering one who never removed his sunglasses, although she saw in an instant that he wasn’t sneering now. If anything, he looked horribly nervous.
She looked down. He had a basket in his hand, a big one, large enough to fit a human infant, which was an awfully strange first thought to have about a basket.
He held it out to her.
“Thought you could use it,” he said curtly.
Bewildered, she took it, and lifted the lid with a cautious finger. Luminous yellow bell peppers shone up at her, and half a dozen other colors too: the velvet black of aubergines, tiny blushing tomatoes, stalks of rainbow chard, the tawny striped cheek of an apple. Lily felt her mouth open in surprise.
“Uh. Great. There you are,” said the young man, stumbling over his words a little. “Throw it away if you want, we don’t care, it would have just gone to rot. Though, you know, food waste is really an epidemic these days, a third of the food produced doesn’t even get eaten. Bit of a shame.”
He was already turning away as he was speaking, but even Lily knew this could not be the end of the conversation. She came after him, and, determined, caught at his arm.
“My dear boy, you can’t just spring something like this on me and then dash off. We haven’t even been introduced.”
“Oh, sorry. Yeah. I live just down the hill, there -”
“I know who you are,” she said, smiling up at him. Goodness, she could not believe she had ever thought him snide. Pinned under her fingertips like this, the facade had cracked open in an instant, and she saw with blinding clarity that he was only young, and tired, and struggling with something that might have been either anger or grief. “I’m so glad to finally meet you. I’m Lily.”
“S’nice name,” said the man awkwardly, lisping a little, trying to disentangle himself from her grasp. “Um. Floral.”
“Sort of,” she said. “It’s short for Lilith.”
He went completely still, at that, and then said, enigmatically, “Of course it is.”
“And you,” she went on, choosing to ignore this, “you’re Mr. Fell’s young man.”
That shattered his reverie, provoked a smile. “I am, yeah,” he said, and extended a hand. “I’m Anthony.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, Anthony,” said Lily, beaming up at him, and oh, how wonderful: now the tips of his ears were turning pink.
“Well,” he said. “I don’t want to keep you,” and then he turned, and she watched his funny gait as he strode away. She couldn’t remember whether she had noticed that about him before; it was if he wasn’t quite used to having functional hips or knees. Inexplicably, she thought suddenly of doorknobs and armchairs, and a houseplant as tall as a lamp.
All of this was terribly distracting, so much so that it actually took her a full minute to realize her omission.
From her fence line, just past her rows of dormant crocuses, he looked back at her.
“Thank you very much,” she called. “For the gift.”
He stared at her for a long moment. Then he actually laughed, and waved a hand at her, and she picked up her basket again and went inside as he went sauntering on down the hill.