Title: The Last Most Beautiful Day in the World.
Gift for: magicicada
Length: 4,300 words.
Rating: PG for some violence, death, mild angst, and slash.
Aithor's Notes: I really hope you enjoy!
Note on reading: The footnotes are html-linked and inserted into the body of the fic, so you can click on them and then hit “Back” to resume your place in the story.
Thanks to: waxbean and vulgarweed for all their support of this challenge and me during the writing of it—and to the lovely, talented Mystery Beta #1 for helping me work through the historics, Mystery Beta #2 for helping me work through the histrionics, and Mystery Beta #3 for helping me work through the hand-holding, figurative and literal.
The most beautiful day in the history of the world 1 occurred on December 23, 2005, just outside of Manchester.
The inhabitants of Heaven were a tad bit jarred by the announcement of the location, and although no one was impolite enough to come right out and say so, Aziraphale knew that most of the other angels were thinking that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords was going slightly dotty in his old age. Aziraphale had registered the general celestial dissatisfaction only in a vague way in the days leading up to the event, but after overhearing Gabriel snap at Michael that Jehovah had been given a clean bill of health by his physician only last week, thank you, and was feeling just fine, he realized things were possibly quite serious, and gave himself free reign to worry about God's approaching senility with the sort of fervor he usually reserved for the purchase of tenth-century plainsong manuscripts, drinking nights with Crowley, and the narrow avoidance of apocalypses.
There was also the matter of breaking the news to Crowley.
To say that Crowley loved Manchester would have been perhaps a bit excessive. Crowley loved things like his Bentley, especially after a long separation; he loved things like new clothes and Aziraphale’s wine collection. Crowley’s affinity for Manchester probably fell somewhere in between his affinity for their favorite table at the Ritz and his affinity for torturing plants. Still, it was impossible to deny that he was fond of the place. In a burst of civic pride he had recently begun to attend Manchester city planning meetings. He had been overjoyed with the city's latest civic project, "Pigs on Pavement," a display of colorful plaster swine specimens all over the city.
Aziraphale had been planning on telling him the day Crowley dragged him to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first pig. But Crowley had practically glowed the whole time, though he remarked to Aziraphale during the grand Pork Parade that he hardly knew whether to be proud or distressed that the inhabitants of Manchester seemed to be doing his people's work far better than he was.
Aziraphale had responded, "Well, my dear, the place was your idea. Perhaps you rubbed off on the inhabitants," and Crowley, if possible, had glowed even more than before. After that Aziraphale had sighed a lot and fretted at his own cowardice, and let Crowley convince him to ride the Wheel with him purely out of guilt.
“Anything wrong, Angel?” Crowley had asked when they’d reached the top.
“Oh,” said Aziraphale, smiling sadly. “Only the usual. Manchester, you know.” And then he had turned and looked away over the city with its flagrantly low-lying buildings and quays sparkling over the landscape, and changed the subject before Crowley registered the worry in his voice.
Aziraphale had pondered how best to break the news to Crowley while autumn reluctantly trudged towards winter, and the leaves began to shake themselves off in preparation for snow. And then one night his phone rang.
“You bastard,” Crowley said to him, bitterly. “You sat at the top of the Wheel with me and didn’t even tell me. Not when I asked. Were you going to?”
“My dear Crowley,” said Aziraphale, throat going dry and stomach knotting up all at once. “I was trying to think of a way.”
Crowley answered by hanging up, and Aziraphale fidgeted and felt terrible for a few moments before breaking out his special bottle of hundred-and-fifty-year-old Riesling 2.
He offered the bottle wordlessly to Crowley when he showed up.
They wound up sitting on the stairs, Aziraphale leaning a bit so that Crowley was supporting most of his weight. Crowley only shifted slightly in response until they were resting against each other's sides, more or less, which Aziraphale figured was as good a sign as any that their plan to get smashingly (and hopefully irrevocably) drunk, upon which they were both devoting admirable amounts of concentration, was working admirably.
“’Something I don’t understand,” Crowley muttered after a time spent passing the bottle back and forth in a focused, tense silence. "Why Manchester? My people like Manchester."
Aziraphale attempted to shrug and fell sideways awkwardly against Crowley’s lapel. “Maybe your people aren’t the ones who—”
He couldn’t bring himself to finish, so instead he sat back and sighed. Crowley passed him the bottle.
"I only meant that, well,” he ventured finally. "Beauty out of ugliness, maybe. Ineffability."
Crowley scowled and took a drink from the fast-dwindling bottle (Aziraphale had another, and he ached to see it go, despite the pleasurable way it fizzed in his head, but he was determined that the second bottle would be opened for a much, much happier occasion than this) without removing it from Aziraphale’s fingers. Aziraphale obliged and tilted it back for him. “There’s nothing they could prove about Manchester in that case,” he said bitterly, and went suddenly rigid. "Part of the Plan," he said. "Of course."
“What do you mean, my dear?” Aziraphale asked.
“The great irony,” said Crowley. “Maybe it’s just Manchester.”
Aziraphale let this digest for a moment. "If Manchester is the compromise," he said at last, slowly. "There'll be no..."
He trailed off and the silence stiffened between them, and he was glad when Crowley relaxed a little against his side. "Who knows," Crowley said at last. “We’ll find out either way.”
The wine in their stomachs felt heavier after that, but they finished the bottle anyway.
1. Version 3.0.
2. He had been saving it for something special, but realized suddenly that that inconsolable loss would do just as well.
The first most beautiful day in the history of the world occurred on a Monday. Privately, Aziraphale had always thought that was God's first mistake. No one had time to stop and smell the pomegranates, or notice the particular sparkle of dew on the edges of the bamboo forests, or the way the clouds gathered in perfect amounts just in time to trap the light and send it cascading over the Tian Shan mountains and the Yangtze and the Great Wall and the rice fields at sunset. Mondays were just too busy.
Crowley and Aziraphale made a special trip east. They spent three days by the Indian Sea, watching innumerable ships and junks depart and arrive from Persia, filling the berths of Quanzhou harbor. They sat and drank millet wine and watched the innumerable dock traffic of ivory, camphor, porcelain, and, above all, silk: bolts upon bolts of it, swathing the backs of the shirtless dock-workers who shouldered it slowly and resignedly, as if they had been born bent forward beneath a steady weight.
Aziraphale had not been in China since the Mongol invasion, when he had been summoned away 3 from a much-deserved period of recuperation from the crusades. By the time of his return, the Mongols were on the way out, and a faint, restless unease hovered in the air around them like the bite of a late winter frost not quite willing to relinquish its hold on the land before spring. Aziraphale had thought at first that it was a part of the changing of seasons, and the approach of plum blossoms and milder weather. But it was more: Crowley’s eyes darted from left to right, edgy and uncertain, and when he trounced Aziraphale at Yi (which was really because Aziraphale was too polite to quibble with Crowley’s very liberal interpretations of what constituted an acceptable dìng shì series) he didn’t look nearly as smug as usual.
“My dear,” Aziraphale finally remarked on Sunday. They were eating in a soup stand by the harbor, next to a rather ragged assortment of Italian sailors who kept glancing at them and making sotto voce remarks about Aziraphale’s penchant for bright clothing which Aziraphale, who understood Italian perfectly, thank you, and had gotten quite used to such comments over the centuries, thought it better to ignore. The Italians sniggered openly at the endearment, and Aziraphale turned up his nose in as pointed a manner as anyone currently sporting a lavender kaftan could manage. “Are you expecting anyone?”
“No, of course not,” said Crowley too quickly, looking very interested in his egg flower soup. “Aren’t many tourists in this part of the world at this time of year.”
“It’s just,” said Aziraphale. “It seems as though you anticipate something.”
Crowley didn’t quite jump, but his chopsticks clattered in the bowl. “Don’t be absurd,” he said. “We’re only here to see the most beautiful day in the history of the universe. What could possibly happen?”
The Italian beside Crowley promptly vomited blood on his shoe.
Aziraphale stared at the mess and the panic at the table next to them. “Really, my dear,” he chided. “Just because their taste in clothes is hardly as fine as ours, there’s no call to—”
He looked up at Crowley’s face, and stopped talking.
Beside them the sailors had attracted the attention of the entire building, and the shop owner was screaming in Chinese for the sick man to leave while his friends gestured frantically at the sailor and each other. “Lui è maladetti, è maladetti!” they cried. Aziraphale stared at the scene for a moment, at the overwrought largeness of it all; but then Crowley was rising, and saying in an undertone to the nearest sailor who would listen, “È lo peste. Lo peste. Get him out of here,” and his voice roused Aziraphale, who stood and moved to the doorway, toward the echoing cries on the docks, as all around, people sensed the presence of something imminent and horrible, and stopped to look over their shoulders.
Crowley came to stand beside him, his shoulders tense as the sailors dragged their crying companion out the door and onto the street. “I thought your people usually handled plagues,” he said. His voice was flat, and the odd resignation of it sent a chill up Aziraphale’s back.
“Well,” Aziraphale murmured. “Ineffability works in mysterious ways.”
Crowley’s lips tightened. Aziraphale cast him a glance, opened his mouth to ask Crowley if he’d known about this beforehand, or only suspected. He closed it again. One of the men departing with the ill sailor back to their ship was rubbing the side of his neck, where a large bulbous lump protruded beneath his collar.
Aziraphale knew plagues. He was surprised, all at once, that he hadn’t seen this one coming as Crowley had—hadn’t smelled it in the air, felt it hovering in corners along the rat-infested streets. Crowley shivered all at once, as if he was feeling it even then.
Aziraphale felt suddenly grateful to be there with Crowley. He knew what he would be doing the next day, and in the days to come. His people would show up and talk about sides and all that, and Aziraphale would think about ineffability and ignore them. He would nurse the sick and read poetry to the dying until Crowley would get fed up and stop playing checkers and shopping for expensive cultures of bamboo and come help him, and it would be awful and ugly and wretched and not at all beautiful. But they would be all right, and he wouldn’t be by himself.
The next day dawn teased the mountain peaks and surged over the plains with an elegant, supernal light, the light of the heavens, the aurora borealis, and an eternity’s worth of fireflies and candle flame snuck into a once-in-a-universe glow. The plum trees shuddered and broke open into a thousand new blossoms in sheer delight. Fish swam upstream and broke the frozen surface of the rivers with their backs in their eagerness to get closer, to feast on so much beauty.
All across the Tian Shan mountains, on the banks of the Yangtze and the Mekong, along the borders of the Great Wall, in the rice fields of the plains and in the ports of Quanzhou, no one noticed.
Aziraphale had never realized the business of death could be so time-consuming. But Mondays, in China in 1338, were burial days. And everyone was busy.
3. in an ill-advised mission to assist his side with winning, which had turned out to be disastrous and confusing, as no one knew which side was their side exactly; and since Aziraphale had already had quite enough of that sort of thing in the Crusades, thank you, he had spent most of the Mongol invasion helping the sick and wounded and the rest of it drinking barley wine with Crowley and looking for discounted copies of Confucius quotes in softcover.
The second most beautiful day in the history of the world occurred in the Scottish Highlands, 4 not without controversy, but at least the clans did know how to party, and had been doing rather a lot of it over the years, which Crowley and Aziraphale agreed was worth some sort of recognition. The previous few days had seen a nasty blizzard fall over the region, and Crowley and Aziraphale were forced to take rooms in the neighborhood of clan Donald. Happily instead of feeling remote, the journey was quite pleasant, and the McIans, a huge family who lived in their own veritable Scottish village, welcomed them with the hospitality of a people who had long been used to entertaining strangers, and who were, in fact, entertaining a group of nice young soldiers up from England that very same week.
“We’re so lucky,” Aziraphale marked on the eve of the Occurrence, “to have had such charming hosts for the weekend. And the guests are all so polite and considerate. I tend to think of soldiers as a rowdy sort but these are almost docile.”
“They are,” said Crowley after a moment, “ideally well-behaved for soldiers. Much less redcoats having to quarter in the Highlands in the coldest part of the year.”
Aziraphale swirled his mead in the glass, noting absently that at certain angles it took on the hue of Crowley’s eyes. “Well, maybe that’s just it,” he said. “They’re too cold to rabble-rouse properly.” He brightened. “I think I’ll have a go-around, tell everyone to get out of doors tomorrow. I doubt any of them will want to miss out.”
Crowley didn’t exactly join him in advertising the scenic wonders about to befall them in the morning, but he did let the commanding officer buy them both a round of drinks, though Aziraphale had to glare him out of turning the wine of one officer into a very messy and unappetizing alternative after he snorted a little too loudly at Aziraphale’s assertion that the two of them were used to being up all night because “We’re always far too busy to sleep.”
Crowley kicked Aziraphale under the table. Aziraphale blinked at him where he had gone a bit blurry around the edges. “Well, my dear,” he said. “When you do fall asleep you sleep for eons.”
This time the officer coughed, and Aziraphale was too late to prevent Crowley from making sure that his choking spell turned into a fit that quickly required him to excuse himself from the table.
“So,” said Aziraphale cheerfully after he had gone. “My friend and I have heard tomorrow’s going to be quite a day.”
The commander of the troops, a Colonel Campbell, paused in the act of raising his glass to his lips. “Have you, then?” he said, eyes narrowing sharply.
Crowley kicked Aziraphale under the table again.
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, beaming, because really, the mead was quite good. “With the weather and all. Supposedly going to be quite, er, lovely. I suspect you’ll want to be up bright and early.”
The Colonel looked at him for a long moment, and abruptly burst into laughter. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We will be.”
Aziraphale beamed some more. Crowley shifted uneasily in his chair.
When they finally stumbled back to their room, Aziraphale was too hazy and giggly to ask Crowley what he meant by all the sulking; though really, if he were honest with himself, he didn’t need to. A good half-dozen millennia had given him a sort of intimacy with Crowley, an awareness of him that snuck into his consciousness even when he was drunk and giddy, and just a bit edgy from the night air and the way Crowley clutched his elbow as they clambered upstairs.
It would be dawn soon. Torn between the desire to rest and the desire to see God splay first light over the hilltops, Aziraphale sat down awkwardly on the bed. It was a modest, comfortable arrangement, wide enough for two unencumbered travelers to sleep in.
The blizzard had let up during the night, and the earth outside their window held all the stillness of a hymnal’s worth of carols. Crowley sat down beside him and stretched, then fell silent. Aziraphale sat without moving, until the quietude outside had turned deafening and intruded upon them, no longer something lurking peaceably in the background but something that had to be dealt with, either by speaking or by falling even further into the noiseless moment stretching out around them.
Aziraphale turned and looked at Crowley. His face in the dark was all linear, all masked, but Aziraphale knew it almost by instinct anyway. Crowley looked back at him, and Aziraphale started to murmur, “My dear,” and something about hundreds of years, and beauty, and ‘do you remember,’ before realizing just as his mouth fell open that he didn’t need to say, well, any of it; because Crowley was Crowley, and Crowley knew him well enough to make saying anything unnecessary. Whatever inarticulate thing it was, Aziraphale could rest assured Crowley already knew.
Aziraphale let himself relax against the wall, lying back and sinking into the mattress, into the silence—into the awareness of something sure and steady inside of him, a buffer against the uneasiness he sensed in Crowley. After a moment Crowley relaxed against the wall too.
“I should feel better about all this,” he said softly. Aziraphale placed his fingers over Crowley’s arm, and Crowley cast him a faint, grateful look. “It’s tiring, sometimes.”
“What is, dear,” said Aziraphale, his voice softer than it had been in several centuries.
Crowley hesitated. “Doubt,” he said at last, and this time when he leaned back he somehow managed to wind up with his head resting against Aziraphale’s shoulder.
Aziraphale pulled the bedcovers up over Crowley’s waist, tucked it between them and the wall, and murmured, “Sometimes, so is faith.”
Februarys in Scotland are not typically known for their moments of beauty. This particular morning in February would certainly have been atypical, and probably dawned with grace, splendor, grandiosity, et cetera.
Aziraphale and Crowley were awake in time to see it—along with all of clan Donald’s other guests.
All ten dozen of them.
“We only told one or two of them about it,” Aziraphale murmured as they peered through the window, watching the soldiers quietly assembling on the lawns. “Maybe they passed the word around?”
Crowley shook his head. “No one else awake when we went up but us,” he said, and then his eyes widened and he gripped Aziraphale’s arm roughly and pulled him away from the window. “Angel,” he said. “Think maybe we’d better warn them.” His face looked a bit chalky, as if he were suddenly sick or afraid or both.
“My dear,” said Aziraphale unsteadily, placing his hand on Crowley’s forehead. “What—”
At that moment the shooting began.
The only thing Aziraphale ever registered clearly about the rest of that day, apart from the screams and the chaos, the musket smoke and the blood drying on the snow, the families running for safety, for shelter, for a sanctuary not to be found within any real distance of Glen Coe, and the dam-burst of horror and disgust and betrayal uprooting him and transporting somewhere farther and farther left of belief in the divine and ineffability and himself, and probably drowning him a little as well, was that in the early grey light, the red coats of the English soldiers looked faintly blue-purple, the glimmering hue of the hills around them.
The second most beautiful day in the history of the world might have been worth the wait.
Had anyone noticed.
4. on a cold day in mid-February, in The Year of Our Lord 1692, Our Lord not wanting to wait another five thousand years for the world’s next most beautiful day, having apparently gotten a taste for it.
The night of December 22nd, Crowley and Aziraphale checked into a suitably posh hotel overlooking Exchange Square. The porter tilted his head when Crowley directed him to put both their bags in the one room, but that sort of thing had ceased to faze either of them long ago.5
“Manchester looks almost charming tonight,” Crowley said affectionately, looking out at the window towards the Urbis.
Aziraphale looked at him looking. The Cathedral Gardens and the buildings across the street were lit up like Christmas trees. Crowley still had on his sunglasses but in profile his eyes were lit, too, and his mouth was curved into a faint, upturned line that faded away at the edges just before it could be called anything like a smile. He was, in a word, himself—so truly and unmistakably himself that Aziraphale felt a tiny thrilled shock, as if he were glimpsing a creature so rare he could only see it when he was trying not to look.
“Crowley,” he said carefully, because happiness, especially Crowley’s, was a spell he feared breaking. “Is anything wrong?”
Crowley turned, saw what must have been Aziraphale’s narrow expression, and shrugged. “I like this city,” he said gloomily. “Who knows what it will be tomorrow.”
“Maybe Adam will—”
Crowley cut him off. “Oh, don’t, Angel,” he said. “It’ll be what it is.”
“How philosophical and evasive of you,” Aziraphale said dryly.
“I’m tired,” Crowley said, and he was silent until Aziraphale finally gave up and dressed for bed. The lights of Manchester glowed behind the curtains when he drew them, and the last thing he saw before he closed his eyes was Crowley sitting on the edge of his bed, wide awake.
5. Aziraphale had eventually figured out what everyone was implying (back in the 60’s), said, “Oh,” and blushed so deeply he suspected Crowley had turned red too purely out of sympathy for his embarrassment.
He awoke with Crowley’s hand on his shoulder. “Angel. Angel,” he said excitedly, tugging and pulling and a variety of things that registered in Aziraphale’s sleep-fuzzed brain as vaguely improper.
“Mmm?” he mumbled.
Aziraphale allowed himself to be dragged out of bed.
Crowley had slid the windows open, and snow was blowing into the room from all directions—huge round flakes of snow, flurrying and whirling and melting away where they touched. The sun was cresting over the quays and backlighting the sky behind the Wheel in impossibly perfect clouds of golden purples and azure reds, colors bouncing off the reflected surface of the Urbis and metallic rooftops, so that everywhere Aziraphale looked he saw color and light, color and more light, and snow flying over the streets and strings of lights and holly as if it were two days before Christmas, which of course it was..
He looked over at Crowley.
“Nothing’s happened,” said Crowley, glowing. “Nothing’s happened.”
“Well, no,” said Aziraphale. “Not yet.”
Crowley threw him an upbraiding glance, and Aziraphale added, “Manchester’s never looked lovelier, my dear.”
Crowley grinned. “Come on, Angel,” he said.
Fifteen minutes later they stood on the street looking around at the residents of Manchester.
“Well, I must say,” said Aziraphale. “Doesn’t anybody notice anything anymore?”
He glared at the pedestrian who walked beneath a sunbeam full of snow refracting rainbows at odd angles in all defiance of practical science, without even glancing up once.
Crowley’s expression had slowly progressed from glee to vague consternation. A man with two young children had crossed the street in front of them, just as a gorgeous snow drift positioned itself perfectly in their line of vision in a way which very clearly demanded the creation of snow angels. The family kept right on walking.
“It’s like they don’t care,” he muttered.
“Well,” Aziraphale sniffed. “We can’t blame them. It’s not an exclusively human quality, indifference.”
Crowley looked at him calculatingly. “Most things aren’t.” His eyes flickered behind his glasses.
Aziraphale held his gaze, and felt something stir in his chest. “No,” he said. “Funny enough.”
Crowley swallowed back whatever he was going to say in response and looked around them, wearing an increasingly resigned look. Last-minute Christmas shoppers began to hover around the entrances of various department stores opening at nine. The snow had begun to blanket the ground even as the clouds parted and unfolded clear, blindingly bright swathes of sky above. Aziraphale slipped his arm through Crowley’s.
They walked on, towards Victoria Centre. All of Manchester lay beyond.
Author’s note: Manchester’s Pigs on Parade idea was inspired by similar, wonderfully creatively tacky ideas I’ve seen in other cities in America; Manchester, however, apparently beat me to the punch: presenting the Manchester Cow Parade. Crowley must be so proud. :D