The room was not overpopulated yet managed to be quite improbably full, the string quartet in the corner trying in vain to project their attempt at one of the more fashionable composers – possibly that Beethoven fellow – over the rustle of the women’s impossible skirts. This did not, of course, prevent the attempt at dancing, nimble stockinged legs twinkling as the men folk attempted to avoid being swept aside by the great panniers that women had taken to wearing under their gowns in the French fashion. Aziraphale contemplated – as he made his careful way around the edge of the dance floor – that he had certainly seen far sillier fashions; it was taxing him, though, to remember quite when.
It was with some relief that he finally spotted Crowley, lounging insouciantly as he was by one of the long windows. He was not the only one who had leaned heavily towards black in his wardrobe, although there was a certain measure of the peacock in many of the men’s clothes, laid against the predominance of white among the women. He stood out however, being the only one who, while following the fashion of wearing his hair elegantly clubbed at the back of his neck with a black ribbon, had chosen to forego the powder; his dark hair looked quite unnatural in this company. Aziraphale had himself chosen a wig, and he tugged it off for a moment that he might mop himself with a handkerchief and appreciate the gentle breeze across hair curled by sweat.
“That wiglet makes you look quite ridiculous,” Crowley said in a low voice, which was just about at standard for the level of politeness in their greetings. “And that coat of yours has to be twenty years old at least.”
“Some of us have far higher things to occupy us than the latest in fashions,” Aziraphale said primly. Blue-tinted spectacles turned his way, and though they rendered Crowley’s expression largely unreadable there was just something about him that always managed to convey his point.
“Like how the latest cut would emphasise that unfortunate paunch?” Crowley asked solicitously.
“Precise- no!” Aziraphale scowled. “Quite how you manage to pass yourself off among the members of polite society I will never fathom.”
“When I find any,” Crowley answered, “I shall tell you.”
Spending time with Crowley, Aziraphale thought as he turned to face the general assembly, always seemed to make a great deal of sense – given the history that they shared, and how it was always nice to see a familiar face that lasted more than a few years; that was, it always seemed to make sense until Aziraphale had spent more than a few moments in his company. Time did nothing at all to soften memories of his sharp tongue, his infuriating habit of insisting that he was right; his even more annoying habit of often being so. Yet their being at the same Dublin ball was nothing approaching a coincidence. It was almost, Aziraphale thought with a faint sense of horror, as though they were friends.
“I suppose you are posing as some lordling or other?” Aziraphale said, a touch of censure quite clear in his voice. Crowley, taking a glass from a tray that was passing, took not a whit of notice.
“An earl,” he said easily. “I’ve always liked ‘earl’, it sounds as though there is far more mischief available.”
“It’s not like you to wait for mischief to come to you.”
“And you are?” Crowley asked, instead of responding.
“I choose not to change identities like waistcoats,” Aziraphale told him. “They invited me knowing precisely who I am.”
“Precisely?” Crowley affected surprise. “Then oughtn’t there to be rather less dancing and more in the way of god fearing?”
“Not like that.”
“No. Not one of them knows you as I do. Mr Fell, then; book dealer by appointment. Still in the same premises?”
“After a brief sojourn in Southampton, yes. I found my old shop was up for rent again.”
Aziraphale hated how Crowley did that, saying everything while saying precisely nothing at all.
“Look –“ he started, but Crowley cut across him before he could get lost deciding on what defence, precisely, to mount.
“Speaking of the unchanging and the terribly familiar,” he said, and nodded to a couple speaking together to their right. “I believe that’s a mutual acquaintance of ours.”
Aziraphale squinted, but he couldn’t make out any familiarity in the gentleman’s countenance.
“The lieutenant?” He asked uncertainly. “New minted, too, by the way he wears his uniform. I can’t say that he’s familiar; I’m sure I’d recollect his face, the way it’s all pulled back from that nose of his.”
“Not the lieutenant,” Crowley said dryly. One look at his companion and Aziraphale stumbled back, nearly landing himself in the lap of an elderly gentleman taking refuge from the crush.
“What is she doing here?”
“Of more interest, I think, is what she is doing with him.”
Crowley was forging through the crowd before Aziraphale could formulate a reply and he followed helplessly, reaching out to catch hold of the tails of Crowley’s flawless black coat before they could be separated (and not at all for the paltry comfort it offered, not a bit of it.)
“M’lady,” Crowley greeted her, with a quite impeccable bow; Aziraphale managed to not entirely disgrace himself in echoing it although there was a possibility that it lacked a measure of Crowley’s elegant flair. It wouldn’t have made a difference in her reception, he was certain; it had been a long time since a single look had made him feel so very much like an insect - not since the last time he’d reported to his superiors, in fact.
Unlike the majority of the crowd she wore scarlet, and though her hair was swept up and carefully powdered white there was something in the lighting that allowed a hint of the red underneath to show through, like the shadowy glimpse of a tiger in the grass that you only caught sight of just – too – late. It was an awkward analogy, though, one that didn’t entirely fit, for if anything she was entirely too visible, those men (and not a few women) that weren’t too occupied with dance floor acrobatics jostling for a glimpse.
The man with her was, in contrast, in admirable control of himself. He barely even flinched as she extended her hand to Crowley and allowed him to brush his lips across the back of it. Being of angelic stock they were, of course, immune to the effect she had but it was an almost visible presence, like the shimmer of heat over the barrel of a cannon; that this young man could manage so convincing a façade of indifference was not to be sniffed at.
“Here on business?” Crowley was asking when Aziraphale had satisfied his curiosity about the young lieutenant’s demeanour, and drawn his attention away from the increasingly restless crowd.
“Not yet,” she answered.
“Pleasure, then,” Aziraphale said with some measure of relief.
“I so rarely find the two need to be separated.” She bit her lip, her mouth curling into a beautifully serrated smile, then looked around absently as though she had misplaced a glass; without pause even for thought, or indrawn breath, each tray-laden servant in the room bent their steps towards her. Not to be outdone, several of the gentlemen nearby lunged forward that they might be the one to press the desired glass into her bone-white hand.
It started small: a shove here, a buckled shoe deliberately tripping a competitor there; but within moments the crowd had degenerated into a hopeless melee. Drinks, trays, even other partygoers were made free with as ammunition, and it was only a matter of time before someone –
“Stand aside you blackguards!”
It was the elderly gentleman who had so narrowly escaped Aziraphale’s full weight upon his person, brandishing a weapon that looked to be far older than he was. There was no hope of it being accurate, in fact there was a distinct possibility the thing wouldn’t fire at all, but that made no difference to the reaction of the crowd. As the panic started in earnest Aziraphale sighed and prepared to ply his trade, as it were – not the one that involved books, of course – when the young lieutenant acted.
“My lady,” he said, with a crisp bow, and took quite ungracious hold of her, pushing her towards the full length window with a meaningful look at Crowley who, risking far more than the young man had any idea of, propelled her through it with application of more than normal strength. As Aziraphale followed them out, he caught sight of the lieutenant making a play for the gentleman’s gun and – apparently, against all odds – succeeding.
The lady was long gone by the time the lieutenant joined them outside; that she had not shown her displeasure more aggressively was worrying Aziraphale – he didn’t like to think what she might be saving her strength for.
“No maiming?” Crowley asked, in entirely too cheerful a tone, and the young man shook his head.
“A Dr Maturin is tending to those wounded in the excitement, but nothing worse than a bloodied nose I’d wager.”
“And you managed to settle them by yourself?” Aziraphale asked, somewhat incredulous. It was always far better to allow humans to do such things for themselves, he’d found, but he’d been keeping an ear out quite prepared for some measure of mayhem.
“There is little that cannot be solved when someone is willing to take charge,” he answered lightly.
“Goodness,” Aziraphale said. “I – well, I shall certainly be following your career with interest, Mr - ?”
“Wellesley,” he said.