1. Seeking Heavenly Peace
December, 2019 CE (Soho, London)
Life changed after the Apocalypse That Wasn't. Aziraphale and Crowley both kept miracles to a minimum, hoping to escape attention from their former employers. Aziraphale still performed good deeds here and there; but only small, non-miraculous ones. It was a hobby- or perhaps just a habit. Crowley seemed to take a similar approach to the pranks and annoyances that he called "evil."
With more spare time on their hands, both angel and demon turned their attention to the bookshop. The cutback on miracles meant no more conjuring up funds at will. So, it seemed prudent to try and make A.Z. Fell & Co. a full-time, truly profitable business.
With the help of Marie Kondo- a delightful woman whom Crowley had found on the "Net Flicks"- Aziraphale sorted his inventory into three broad categories. Books "for casual shoppers" were kept up front. "Highly valuable" were cloistered in the back, while the "not for sale" were painstakingly whittled down until they fit into their living quarters upstairs.
Which brings us to the biggest change since the world didn't end: Crowley had sold his Mayfair flat, and moved in with Aziraphale.
There were plenty of good reasons for this. It saved money; after all, they say two can live as cheaply as one. It allowed Crowley and Aziraphale to keep better tabs on each other: no more telephone calls with coded rendezvous points. And it was a safety measure, now that they were truly "on their own side," unsure when either heaven or hell might regroup to attack them both.
But the best reasons for living together went deeper. Crowley's flat had always felt cold and lonely. Even in the cozy bookshop, Aziraphale had sometimes been lonely, too. They would have moved in together centuries ago, had they not been afraid of the consequences from their "sides." But now that they knew retaliation was coming eventually, it would be foolish to waste whatever time they had left. They had nothing left to lose but each other.
(The good reasons for living together were oft-quoted, while the best reasons for living together went largely unsaid. Because whenever they did come up, Aziraphale blushed and avoided eye contact, and Crowley began stammering non-sequiturs between "ngk" noises.)
Crowley had gradually started making changes to Aziraphale's space. For the most part, the changes were small- and not unwelcome. There were now hanging ferns and potted herbs in the windows, and vines curling around the banister. The bookshop had a new computer for the first time in thirty years. Crowley had introduced Aziraphale to the contemporary human ingenuities of wine fridges, weighted blankets, and Spotify.
Then December came.
Apparently, Crowley loved to celebrate Christmas. Aziraphale was nonplussed by this at first. Christmas was, after all, a holy day. But there was nothing 'holy' in Crowley's revelry. Christmas was merely a vehicle for him to glory in all things tacky.
He lined the shop's front windows with oversized, multicolor, blinking string lights. He snuck motion-sensing toy elves into the book displays, where they jittered and cackled every time someone walked by. He staffed the bookshop till whilst wearing felt reindeer antlers.
On colder days, Crowley donned garish jumpers with big, clashing holiday patterns. Some even had blinking lights attached. When customers called them "ugly jumpers," the demon grinned and thanked them. Aziraphale felt as if he was missing out on some sort of joke. But it was worse on warmer days. That's when Crowley broke out the screen-printed long-sleeve t-shirts, blaring phrases such as, "SON OF A NUTCRACKER," "YOU'LL SHOOT YOUR EYE OUT," or "OFFICIAL MEMBER OF THE JELLY OF THE MONTH CLUB."
But nothing irritated Aziraphale more than that dratted playlist.
Crowley had used Spotify to curate a collection of the least tasteful Christmas songs in the English-speaking world. "Santa Baby." "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." "Chiron Beta Prime." "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." And even- this one surprised Aziraphale a bit- "Percy the Puny Poinsettia."
Aziraphale knew that if he only asked, Crowley would switch the music off. But he held back. He did love seeing Crowley express himself in what was now 'their' space. And to be fair, Crowley confined his crimes against music to the bookshop, during business hours. Customers loved it; they were leaving glowing reviews on a website called "Yelp."
Nevertheless, when "Dominick the Donkey" came on the speakers behind the till for the umpteenth time, Aziraphale suddenly, desperately needed to take the air.
It was just before afternoon tea- and the early winter sunset. The sky above was a flat, dark slate. But at ground level in Soho, it was bright as a midsummer's day. Icicle lights crisscrossed the narrow streets about twenty feet overhead. Every shop and restaurant- regardless of class, creed, or clientele- had festive lights decking its façade.
Commuters and shoppers mingled in a tight shuffle, kicking dirty slush from last week's snowfall underfoot. They made more eye contact than usual. Some even smiled as they sidled past each other, saying "cheers, mate," or "happy holidays" to complete strangers.
It warmed an angel's heart. But it didn't bring Aziraphale the peace and calm that he craved.
He made his way to St. Anne's Churchyard, where the view overhead cleared, and one could find a little breathing room. A gaggle of carolers were singing "O Holy Night."
Fall on your knees!
O hear the angel voices!...
In years past, Aziraphale would have joined them in a heartbeat. Today he paused, only for the smallest moment, before journeying on.
He'd been skipping certain songs in his own Christmas collection recently. "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "Angels from the Realms of Glory." They brought up difficult questions. Painful memories. Things that Aziraphale couldn't make sense of just yet. Crowley kept telling him that he didn't have to try and make sense of it. Not until he was good and ready.
"They're not here, angel. They won't come anymore. I won't let them."
He'd sit with Aziraphale, gently rubbing his back, for as long as it took to calm him down. When the angel's musings turned morbid over a fourth glass of wine. When a stranger's passing scoff sparked a memory of unsmiling purple eyes, and he suddenly found himself wringing his hands and staring at the floor. Or when he woke up in a cold sweat, clawing down into the blankets- down and away from an unseen, blue-white light.
"They don't matter anymore," Crowley told him. "You don't even have to think about them."
While Aziraphale's mind wandered, his feet carried him steadily westward. Past their favorite Mexican place; the posh trattoria; that delightful new Thai place they discovered last month. Before he knew it, he found himself at the edge of Golden Square.
A solitary busker played "Silent Night." He also sang, in Welsh:
Tawel nos, dros y byd
Sanctaidd nos, gylch y crud…
Aziraphale dropped a five-pound note in the guitar case. He was fairly certain the busker smiled and nodded at him. (Although he wasn't quite ready to look another being in the face, after the thoughts that had crept up on him at St. Anne's.) He stood and listened, while looking off across the street. There was a holiday light display in Golden Square. Oversized. Multicolor. Blinking. Like Crowley's window lights.
The busker finished the first verse in Welsh, then switched to French:
Douce nuit, sainte nuit,
Dans les cieux, l'astre luit…
And next, the original German:
Stille nacht, heilige nacht
Alles schläft, einsam wacht…
"Oh bravo," Aziraphale breathed.
This was what he had been looking for. A song so universal, so soothing, that it could bring a temporary ceasefire to one of humanity's worst wars. Heaven wished they could take credit for a song like this. But the tune, the original poem, and the translations into over a hundred languages were all humanity's doing.
Although, Aziraphale did help popularize the English version back in the 1860s. He'd always been a fan of "Silent Night." He didn't even care that the song was wildly inaccurate to the events it claimed to describe.
It had happened at night; the poets got that right, at least. But Aziraphale remembered the night, two thousand and twenty-three years ago. (And some-odd months, as Jesus of Nazareth wasn't born anywhere near December.) It certainly wasn't calm, or bright. There was a dust storm. The adjacent tavern was bursting with disgruntled patrons. And the infant Jesus had quite a lusty little cry. If he'd 'slept in heavenly peace', it must have been sometime after Aziraphale and Crowley's hasty departure.
He wondered what the poets and preachers would have thought, if they could have seen the real scene in that cramped stable. A flustered angel. A steady-handed demon. A birth with enough complications to make a modern-day hospital midwife go a bit pale before paging a doctor. It was a miracle both mother and baby survived. Well- it was several miracles, actually.
It was also the very first time that Aziraphale and Crowley had worked together.
Like all the best stories, it started in a bar.