Aziraphale awoke from anxious dreams to discover that someone was moving in to the shop next door.
He sprang from the couch in the backroom where he had fallen asleep (again) to to the harsh sounds of carpentry through the left wall of his bookshop. The shelves swayed back and forth with the vibrations from the buzzing and the banging, sending fine motes of dust residing there spiraling into the sunlight that streamed in through the topmost windows. The tea he hadn’t finished the night before sat in its flowered teacup, tepid and accusatory from the small desk across the room.
Was that a buzz saw?
For a single wild minute, during which Aziraphale tried his best at scrambling to his feet and only succeeded in twisting to the ground in an undignified heap, he thought it might be those men in suits again, the ones who were always trying to get him to sell his store, who sent him politely worded threats through the mail and had even shown up in person on one or two occasions. Might they not decide to take matters into their own hands once and for all? After lying there on the floor for a bit to calm his heart and settle his nerves, he realized he was not going to have to emulate a ridiculous English protagonist and go have a lie-down in front of a bulldozer. The sound was coming from next door.
Aziraphale groaned and passed a hand over his eyes. The owner of the shop next door had, on a chilly October morning not four months prior, suddenly decided he’d had enough of the whole London ‘thing’ and emigrated to an island in the Mediterranean where his wife, along with the six million dollars it was discovered she had embezzled by a very prolific London bank, had joined him soon after. The place had remained vacant throughout the long winter months, resulting in a considerable decrease in the area foot traffic and giving Aziraphale no shortage of time on his hands for his research and reordering his collections.
Now, it seemed, that time was coming to an end.
But maybe he was getting ahead of himself. It might not be as bad as all that. Perhaps an art gallery was moving in next door, or a high end handbag boutique. He had never seen anyone in the former and those who went to the latter wouldn’t brave the the inches of dust coating the bookshop. As long as it didn’t end up a…. No. Best not to think of it.
He blearily got to his feet, his joints complaining with their usual creaks and pops, his mouth debating on a yawn and certainly taking its time about it.
It wasn’t that Aziraphale disliked others. Far from it! He loved people, loved the owners of the bakery around the corner and the counter girl who always prepared his tea with a smile (though the tea was never quite at the proper temperature), loved the proprietors and employees he waved hello to on his walks around the city, loved the actors and actresses and singers and players at the operas and concerts and plays he adored, even loved the ridiculous tourists who would stop smack in the middle of the street to take a picture of some monument or another. It was just that he also loved coming back to his quiet shop with the flat above it and being alone with his books, loved listening to the scrape of a turned page against the background hum of the bustling city outside, loved knowing he was safe within and all manner of strange things were without. When strangers wandered into the bookstore, traipsing away through the stacks and thumbing through his volumes and chattering to their companions… something was just odd about it, that's all. Not wrong, not so much as that. Just weird. Eerie, even. Actually having to sell one of his books was far worse, not that he had to sell very many of the kind of books he collected to keep the lights on and the water running.
Bit much on the carpentry noises for an art gallery, a small, waspish voice whispered in the back of his head. Aziraphale did his best to ignore it and stumbled his way to the small bathroom adjoining the backroom, where he dealt with his morning necessities and took the rare occasion to examine his person in the dingy mirror. Clothes at an acceptable level of frumpy wrinkle, glasses slightly bent from sleeping on them again. No worse than usual, he supposed. But then he might be meeting his new neighbors, and conceded that some special attention was called for. He pulled the frames off his face to gently bend the metal back into place. The completed effect was marginally better.
The front of the shop was as dusty and ill kempt as the back, and shelves loomed high into the uncertain darkness near the ceiling. Beyond the smudged windows, vague shapes lurked, moving back and forth against a large red rectangle that might be a moving van. Somewhere, music blared from a poorly tuned speaker.
The distance between himself and the front door seemed to stretch for a moment, and the prospect of having to go outside and interact with strangers so soon after being so roughly awoken sent a bolt of anxiety through him. Too early indeed.
With his next step he made a complete about face into the backroom.
Some cocoa would be the proper thing before meeting his new neighbors after all, he reasoned. Wouldn’t want to make a poor impression on a new gallery owner. Or should he? But no. Nothing could persuade Aziraphale into cultivating an impolite reputation. Not even the prospect that such a thing would discourage people from walking through the door.
Rather more time than he intended later - he has been distracted by a particularly interesting few chapters while waiting for his cocoa to cool - Aziraphale smoothed out the front of his jumper and nudged open the front door with trepidation. He closed his eyes and tried to picture his ideal neighbor. A no nonsense business suit. Over fifty. Sensible shoes. An expression that both welcomed and suggested that if the speaker made their business as brief and uncomplicated as possible, it would be better for all parties concerned. Yes. He held the image in his mind. That would make it real, wouldn’t it?
He squinted his eyes against the shock of the nine A.M. sun, hand raised in a peremptory greeting, only to find that there was no longer anyone out on the pavement. The moving van was still there, idling by its dreary lonesome, alongside a long, black, antique car that was, incongruous enough, practically filled to the brim with tools and building materials. The front door of the new shop was opened, however, and my god, were saws really that loud in real life? How could anyone endure it? Aziraphale approached the open door with small, halting steps, not at all encouraged by the loud music howling over the sounds of machinery.
Aziraphale peered into the depths of the new store.
He saw the shock of dark hair first. It gleamed despite the dim surroundings, and that wasn’t a good start, but still didn’t put gallery owner out of the question, so he continued. A dark pair of glasses that didn’t quite qualify as safety goggles but were making a go of it anyway were set against a pale face that managed to convey mild disdain despite the fact that the eyes were hidden. The black t-shirt and tight fitting jeans he sported weren’t of the sort a reasonable person would have chosen for hard labour and - and - were those snakeskin shoes? Oh. Horror of horrors. This was about to become a-a music store, or a bar! Or worst of all, but it couldn’t possibly be -
The man took no notice of Aziraphale’s fretting, or of Aziraphale’s steps at all as he slunk deeper into the space, awkwardly waving for attention. Instead he was wholly concerned with the slicing of an average looking block of wood, and the saw between them shrieked in delight at the carnage of sawdust.
A piece of wood fell to the floor with a thunk.
The sharp sound reverberated through the empty space for a moment. Aziraphale fiddled with a fuzz on his sleeve as he waited for the stranger to look up, to say something. But the moment stretched on and on and finally -
“Ahem,” Aziraphale pretended to cough. The man looked up sharply, not removing his glasses.
“Who’re you then?” he asked, wasting no time with salutations. Aziraphale may have barged in without an invitation, but that was hardly call for that sort of tone. The man straightened up. He was probably younger than Aziraphale, somewhere in the ethereal age between twenty five and thirty eight, an age that Aziraphale had never quite been able to pin down.
“Neighborhood committee or whoever send you?” the stranger muttered, picking up the chunk of wood and throwing it into a pile of similar ilk. A line of pale skin peeked out between the jeans and t-shirt at the motion. Aziraphale, who'd realized he had been what another man might have called ‘checking out’ his new neighbor but he deftly referred to as ‘observing,’ was aghast.
“I beg your pardon?” he choked out.
“Look I understand, you’ve got to check up on the new occupants, make sure I’m a proper ‘fit’ for the neighborhood or whatever euphemism you’re going to use this time, 'the greater good,' I saw the film, I get it.2 But I peeked in at the place next door the agent mentioned and if you aren’t bothering him I really don't think you should be-”
“I’m your neighbor,” Aziraphale interrupted. “I own that place next door?”
All cities have tension. It likes to hang out in shops frequented by frantic parents and their children, in pubs when Liverpool and Manchester are at it again, and in the flat right above your bedroom at three in the morning when there’s a big presentation due at work in four hours. Now, all of the tension drifting in its usual haunts about south London at that very instant felt an irresistible urge to take a brisk stroll towards a certain street in Soho, where two gentlemen stood facing each other in the prickly shards of their first interaction.
“Well!” huffed the stranger, and the tension between them held a collective breath.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Aziraphale said quickly, thrusting his hand out between them, lest the conversation devolve further into the barbaric. And sure, the man might have taken his hand as if he didn’t quite trust it not to sprout fangs, but the tension, bitter with disappointment, skittered away all the same.
“Crowley,” said Crowley.
“Aziraphale,” said Aziraphale.
They stared at each other another few moments. Freddie Mercury wailed in the background, and the small cactus plant next to the stereo huddled closer to the speaker.
“So, you own the bookshop next door then,” said Crowley, evenly.
This was it. The moment of truth.
“And what do you plan on putting up here?” Aziraphale asked, innocently. Gallery, music store, bar, pool hall, brothel, please not a -
“Coffee shop,” said Crowley.
It was a testament to both Aziraphale’s adherence to social decorum and the prowess of his facial muscles that the agony of his hopes and dreams crashing down did not show on his face.
Aziraphale could not have said how he fled from the situation, only that it had happened and he had most likely been extraordinarily polite about it. Now he was hunkered down in the back room of the bookstore, pacing back and forth.
A coffee shop!
Coffee shops meant self proclaimed auteurs who never stopped writing scripts on battered laptops no matter what hour of the day, with their ‘oh let me just pop by that old place next door with the books for inspiration.’ It meant teenagers who liked browsing - just browsing! - old bookshops with fancy coffees in their hands, taking a great deal of pictures of perfectly mundane covers they found amusing and posting them to their snapgrams or instatchats all while chattering and giggling and asking a thousand questions about everything and nothing. There’d be buskers outside and two piece bands with bad acoustic covers of “Love Me Do” inside and the dissonant notes would burn through the connected wall like drops of acid. The shared basement between the two shops would fill up with sacks of coffee and broken chairs and glass bottles of flavored syrups and they would break and roll over into Aziraphale’s half of the space, heedless of the clearly demarcated borders (made with decades old electrical tape). Aziraphale's crates, full of of novels he would get to one of these days and clothes a touch too tight round the middle and childhood memories he had never quite been able to get rid of, would be covered in a sugary dragon fruit goop. And then he would file a complaint about it which would sit around very proper on someone’s desk for a few months before going out with the trash.
He rubbed his temple. My god, the slam poetry nights alone! To say nothing of trivia nights and coffee crawls and-
Aziraphale stopped and took a breath that valiantly tried to get a handle on his thoughts, but it failed utterly and soon found itself a unwilling passenger on the Overwrought Express.
And then there was that owner! For indeed he of the black jeans and inappropriate-for-the-task-at-hand footwear was not some tradesman doing the grunt work for someone more sensible. Heaven forbid. No, Mr. Crowley - or was that a first name? - was literally constructing his business from the ground up with no one but Freddie Mercury wailing out of bad speakers for company. And why? Crowley certainly didn't strike him as a man accustomed to hard labor, not with the ridiculous and offensively expensive looking car parked out front. And there was the dig about his bookstore! Without even the decency to own up to the remark!
Aziraphale sank down into an armchair and readied himself for a right good sulk about it.
After he had sulked for precisely one hour, twenty eight minutes and fifty six seconds, Aziraphale resolved to simply not reflect on Crowley nor the oncoming stampede he would bring at all for the remainder of his life, and get on as best he could despite their existence. This, like the new year's resolutions he made each year, was doomed to failure from the moment of its conception.
That was Monday. The table saw kept up with its awful banshee wail on and off until Wednesday. On Thursday the hammering began. On Friday there was a terrific crash and groan of pain which almost sent Aziraphale ringing for the ambulance before he heard Crowley moving around and cursing under his breath, right as rain. Two days later, the questions began, and he was badgered from one end of his walks to the other by people hungry for information about the new neighbor and affronted by Aziraphale’s repeated claims to know nothing about him. On a particularly dreary Saturday he caught Crowley in the back alley when he went to take out the rubbish, crouching before a platoon of verdant plants he must have placed there for the explicit purpose of scowling at them, muttering something that sounded strangely like “swear to anything if you embarrass me in front of the customers and start to wilt there WILL be hell to pay.”
In short, Aziraphale could not avoid running into, speaking of, and looking at, Crowley.
Regardless of Crowley, the curiosity that accompanies any ongoing construction was already bringing more traffic to the street and thus, into the sphere of Aziraphale's store. Onlookers were drawn towards the large windows which proclaimed the identity of the new space as the “Second Circle Coffee Company - Coming Soon,” and when they found nothing else to do they would wander into the bookshop next door and upset a wonderfully quiet afternoon.
The Second Circle Coffee Company. Aziraphale went pink at the ears every time thought about it, because surely the owner couldn’t mean that second circle, not the one Dante wrote about. Shouldn't a coffee shop be something for the gluttonous? The morose? Aziraphale once contemplated the sign for almost a full minute before he realized he was standing right in front of the door and Crowley, with two moving boxes in his arms, was asking him to move in a voice that had started out polite but was rapidly descending into the frustrated.
Aziraphale, who would have been described as ‘massively stubborn’ if there were anyone who knew him well enough to call him so, might have lingered in his vein of lightly restrained contempt for the next few years were it not for another visit from the men in cheap suits.
Aziraphale had hoped whoever the men represented would give him some kind of reprieve, at least for a few months. The coffee shop was promising to be exactly the type of establishment those same shadowy interests felt should be occupying the neighborhood, and its presence would more than make up for the bookstore, surely. But alas, whoever had their eyes on his property felt differently.
It was about a week and a half since the embarrassing incident with the sign, when dusk was settling over the city. Not their usual tactic. Aziraphale was almost startled when a short man with a smile that showed too many teeth sprang out from between Crowley’s car (The Bentley, he had looked it up) and someone’s old Jaguar.
“Mr. Fell!” he called with fake cheer, and Aziraphale tamped down on the imminent eye roll. It wasn’t actually Aziraphale’s last name, but he’d been writing ‘Azira Fell’ on whatever forms people handed since primary school so he didn’t become mired in a lengthy and awkward conversation about pronunciation. They never pronounced the name right anyway. Mr. Fell it was.
“I’m not interested in selling, thank you,” Aziraphale grumbled, looking him straight in the eyes with what he hoped was cold and calculated fury. “I don’t care how many times they send you to ask.”
“You should at least think about it.” A second man, taller than the first, suddenly loomed behind him. The hair on the back of his neck begged to stand up but Aziraphale would not hear of it, and it cowered back down.
“The seller has decided to increase the price,” the short man said, trying his hand at an enticing tone for perhaps the first time in his life. “Two times what that old shop is worth. And you won’t even do a drop of the moving yourself. Our people will handle it.” Yes, Aziraphale could easily imagine how the moving of his large and valuable collection of books would go if the movers were of a similar ilk to the creature before him.
“You heard my answer,” Aziraphale snapped. “Now if you don’t clear off I have a mind to-” but before he could tell the men in cheap suits just what, exactly, he had a mind to do, several things happened in quick succession. The man behind Aziraphale crept up closer and clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder, while the shorter man stepped uncomfortably close to him. Aziraphale gripped the umbrella he held and made ready to attack (he had been East Midlands Junior Èpèe Fencing Champion three years running, thank you very much), and the splintering cries of shattered glass to the right made all three of them jump.  Crowley stood in his own doorway, over the fragments of what had once been a discount ceramic lamp he was in the process of moving. His expression was impossible to read behind the glasses.
Aziraphale tightened his hold on the umbrella.
“Everything alright out here, then?” asked Crowley, in a voice which made plain that everything was not, in fact, alright, and that all parties present were well aware of the fact.
“Sure,” said the shorter man, face flowing into a slick grin, brushing Aziraphale’s shoulders as if smoothing down lapels. “He’s stumbled, is all.”
“Decent of you to help him along then,” said Crowley, conversationally, but Aziraphale could not mistake the nervous jittering of his left leg nor the flatness of his voice.
“Of course, we’re the picture of propriety, always happy to help,” said the shorter man, backing away from Aziraphale as it became increasingly apparent that Crowley was not about to clear out and leave the men to their business. The tall man waved cheerily at the pair of shop owners and both of the men in cheap suits started down the street. One of them began to whistle. Aziraphale watched them until they vanished around a corner and thought he saw Crowley doing the same out of the corner of his eye. But when he turned to thank Crowley for his timely intervention, (unwitting as it may have started) he too, was gone.
After that evening, Aziraphale started to at least verbally acknowledge Crowley on the odd times they passed: Aziraphale headed to the park or Crowley to the ostentatious car at the kerb.
“Nice night for it,” he said the next time he caught Crowley bullying an entirely different troupe of plants in the alley. Crowley pressed his mouth into a thin line, whether out of embarrassment or to stifle a smile Aziraphale couldn't tell.
“Got to make sure they understand the the consequences,” Crowley called back. “And they are quite clear of the consequences, aren't they?” This statement was directed at the plants themselves, and Aziraphale could have sworn he saw them tremble, just for an instant.
Aziraphale also noticed Crowley had traded the snakeskin shoes for a responsible pair of sturdy work boots, and this single act of rationality softened Aziraphale's heart towards his (handsome) neighbor in leaps and bounds. (The good looking part helped a bit, too.)
Throughout the month he caught glimpses of the space's evolution from its infancy as “saw dust coated health hazard” to its all-too-brief adolescence of “unfinished interior that smelled quite pleasantly like wood polish and maple” all the way through to its terrible adulthood, which could only be described as “insufferable den of iniquity that the young people of SoHo would absolutely adore.” There was a sleek, black, L shaped counter in the front corner, mismatched chairs and tables that all still seemed tie the room together in a way you couldn’t quite put your finger on, squashy armchairs eagerly proclaiming ‘estate sale’ but so good naturedly that it made you feel guilty for judging them, and an espresso machine which Aziraphale, if he had known anything about espresso machines, would have called the Ferrari of barista technology, the crown jewel of humanity’s achievement in cappuccino.
The plants he had seen Crowley having words with out back were strewn about in a manner they desperately wanted you to believe was completely haphazard, but whose positions were, undoubtedly, worked out with pencil and paper well in advance. Maths had been involved. The small cactus, which had loyally stood by Crowley and his, let's say, consistent taste in music throughout the long building process, was given a place of honor beside the register.
But these were only glimpses, mind. Through the windows. The notion Aziraphale would poking his head in when the door happened to be open to do a drop of, not snooping, just - er - reconnaissance , now that was, frankly, absurd. Well, maybe he had, once. Or twice. And maybe Crowley had seen him that second time. And then maybe Aziraphale had to pretend he just happened to be headed down to the corner shop and was super casually wondering if Crowley would like anything, and to which Crowley replied that actually now that you mention it he’d kill for a honeycomb bar, and would Aziraphale mind? And when Aziraphale had come back with aforementioned candy Crowley had thanked him and they ended up in a perfectly lovely conversation about putting in flower pots at the front of the store while Crowley showed him around and Aziraphale nodded and made strained replies. Crowley might have asked Aziraphale if anyone ever bought anything from the bookstore, and Aziraphale admitted “not if he could help it,” in a way that came terribly close to eliciting a laugh
The planters full of flowers showed up either way, adding woefully appealing pops of color which complemented the dark walnut exterior of the coffee shop, and made Aziraphale’s own place of business even more drab and outdated in comparison.
Having made such a resounding commitment to respectable exterior furnishings, Crowley was personally visited by the small cadre of local proprietors and landlords who saw themselves as the guardians of the neighborhood not long after. Aziraphale gazed darkly from the windows of his own store as they smiled and shook Crowley’s hand and thanked him for such a “lovely addition to the area,” while shooting nasty looks at the bookstore. Crowley was polite, but Aziraphale took it as a small victory that he neither smiled at them nor allowed them into his shop when they began asking for the ‘grand tour.’
“It’s not done yet,” he said when they pushed him on the issue.
“Oh that’s alright,” said one woman, Gabby, who owned a store up the road filled with very fancy and very expensive clothing. “We’ve seen it all before, we don’t mind.”
“Sorry,” said Crowley, but that sort of way which says ‘I’m not truly sorry at all, but the laws of society dictate I can’t simply tell you to just fuck right off.’ “But I’d prefer that no one see the space until it was all done.”
Ha. Aziraphale had seen the inside of the shop. Crowley had even deigned to show him the unfinished kitchen.
There was some more back and forth between them, (the owner of an exclusive bistro around the corner, Raf-something-or-other, was more adamant than perhaps the situation called for) but in the end Crowley succeeded in getting them to shove off without offending their delicate sensibilities, something that Aziraphale had failed utterly when they had come along to his shop almost a decade prior. There was a healthy coating of dust on the shelves by then, though, and he hadn’t the opportunity for even an adequate first impression.
On a blessedly sunny Friday he ran into Crowley out on the pavement. He was painting on the window again, this time the date of the grand opening. Aziraphale stopped mid stride, his blood running cold as he watched the numbers gradually coalesce into a date not two weeks hence. Unfortunately, it was now clear to anyone paying attention he was staring and it had been a touch too long and he didn’t want Crowley to turn around and thing he was staring at him so what should he-
“Only two more weeks, eh?” Aziraphale practically shouted by way of conversation. Crowley jumped and smudged the number.
“Yeah,” he winced, trying to rub away the paint with his thumb and only smearing it all over the window into a hideous black blob that he began to rub even more frantically.
“Getting all ready?” Seeing that there was no avoiding having to get the glass cleaner now Crowley abandoned the effort entirely and stepped slightly to the left to hide the offending smudge from view.
“As best I can, you know how it is,” said Crowley, listlessly. Aziraphale did not ‘know how it was,’ or even what ‘it’ was in this situation, but he nodded as it seemed to be the thing to do. “You been getting any visits from that neighborhood busybody committee?”
“No, not as such,” replied Aziraphale. The pamphlet he had found in his mailbox that morning which featured articles about ‘the uniformity of community’ and how one had to ‘weed the metaphorical communal garden’ was currently at the bottom of his rubbish bin, and not worth mentioning.
“They sent me a gift basket,” said Crowley, pronouncing gift basket like a particularly virulent strain of bacteria. “With candied fruit and a bad bottle of wine and everything.” He made a face. “I think they want to make me one of them .” The particular disdain peppered onto the word ‘them’ secretly delighted Aziraphale.
“Your shop does look very… trendy.” Aziraphale was careful about his choice of words. Crowley shrugged.
“I just wanted to make it look decent. I’d like people to come inside, maybe even spend their money. It’s not everyone can run a store that doesn’t actually sell anything.” Aziraphale’s first instinct was to be tremendously offended at this clear slight towards him, but the almost imperceptible upturn of Crowley’s lips indicated that it might be a joke.
“Oh, no, that sounds rather terrible,” Aziraphale played along instead. “The noise. The bad musicians. You’ll never get a spot of reading done. No, take a page from my book” - here he was appalled at his own pun - “and keep customers as far away as possible. More coffee for you.”
“Do you really think it’ll be bad as all that?”
“Worse, I can guarantee it.”
“I might decide I’m tired of the customers after the first decade or so. Have to make back the investment first. Then we can talk about being the most ludicrous pair of business owners in the neighborhood. A coffee shop that doesn't cater to coffee drinkers and a bookstore that won’t sell books.” Crowley still wasn’t smiling, but Aziraphale thought he could see a sparkle in his eyes beyond the dark lenses and, despite himself, he chuckled.
“Perhaps when they’re all gone I might even stop by.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t hold you to that,” said Crowley.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then.”
Aziraphale waved as he strolled away in the direction of St. James’ Park. But he hadn’t gotten halfway there when an unpleasant thought began to sidle up on him, the kind of ticklish thought that starts out as a faint whisper and before you’ve gone a few feet it’s yammering away in your ear and won’t shut up. The thought was this: Crowley was handsome, charming in his own sort of way, and seemed to have a strong distaste for the band of community conformists always after Aziraphale for something or other.
Aziraphale sighed, and his inflated sense of displeasure towards the Second Circle Coffee Company wavered.
This was not ideal.
Someone had seen them talking once or twice, and Aziraphale had to resign himself to answering a barrage of questions from everyone he was on even mediocre terms with about his next door neighbor. The girl at the bakery who prepared his tea almost spilled his drink in excitement when he told her Crowley's name and described him as a ‘nice looking young fellow.’
There were no more letters or appearances from the men in the cheap suits, - there was one phone call that might have been a veiled threat but also could have been an especially aggressive insurance salesman - but two young people whose ages were toying with the idea of trading their teenage years in for something a little more mature had started lurking around Crowley’s shop, and sometimes their laughter seeped in through the wall. New baristas, no doubt. The noises made Aziraphale want to huddle deeper into his books. But, resolutely, he went out, he stayed on the alert for the flash of drab grey and rayon fabric on his strolls, and he was more surly with his sparse customers than ever as the opening day of the Second Circle Coffee Company approached.
And then it was here.
Aziraphale had originally intended to avoid the place (and its crowds) on the very first day, but when the morning dawned he couldn’t bring himself not to do the neighborly thing and wish Crowley good luck on his new venture. A nasty sort of thought whispered that if he went over there he would be contributing to his own problems, but it didn't hold much sway. Crowley himself wasn’t a bad sort, even if he was about to open up a bit of Aziraphale's personal hell on Earth.
Ten in the morning found Aziraphale standing in front of the mirror, debating between two jumpers that, to anyone looking on, would deem identically hideous, (and privately, the items themselves would have agreed). By ten thirty he was downstairs in front of the Second Circle Coffee Company, astounded that the line of authoritative women in high heels, men in business suits , lovely young mothers, and excitable teenagers he had expected to be wrapped around the block was nowhere to be found. With all the anticipation around the neighborhood he had assumed...
“I told you to advertise!” a woman’s voice accused as he entered the shop. It was one of the new baristas. Crowley stood behind the counter with his back to the door, scrubbing a surface that had quite enough of a shine already. A few customers were inside, wisely seated far away from the combat zone.
“They’ll come.” Crowley’s reply was blunted and clipped, with just a pinch of apprehension thrown in for good measure.
“Not if they don’t know we’re open they won’t!”
“Anathema, there's a sign right out front, people have been popping by all week to say they won’t miss it for the world, what more do you want from me?” The employee rolled her eyes.
“You know no one means that sort of thing. I don’t know if you know of this one thing, it’s been around for a little bit, just like fifteen or so years, it’s called the internet? I mean Christ we don't even have a website.” Anathema’s voice was threaded with the weary sarcasm that often weaves its way into the tone of women who are used to the whole world being several steps behind them.  “I told you Newt could have helped-”
“Like he helped with the menu boards this morning?” replied Crowley, aghast. “He wouldn't have written two lines of code before the whole bloody internet would have gone down from here to Glasgow!”
“That’s ridiculous, he's not-”
“Should I - er - would another time be better?” Aziraphale ventured.
“No!” Anathema whirled around and her face melted into a placid customer service smile. But Crowley turned around in that languid way Aziraphale remembered from their first meeting (uncoiling) and glanced at him without a change of expression.
“What can I get for you?” Anathema asked, her fingers curled over the tablet register like a pianist before the initial notes of Rachmaninov's Prelude. “We had a little mishap this morning, so the menu boards are still being chalked up in the back, but we can make you any sort of thing you’d expect to find here! Plus whatever is in the display case over there, obviously. Oh, and we have a special going on for our grand opening today, one free biscotti with every beverage purchase! You don’t seem much like a biscotti kind of person though, perhaps a croissant? I’ll see if we can offer that, and it’s certainly not going to be some fun and creative coffee for you, just a reasonably strong tea, that about right?” All of this was said without Anathema taking a breath or, if it was to believed, even blinking. Aziraphale stared stupidly back at her for a moment, his brain slowly processing what had been told to him in a whirl, when the employee was brushed aside.
“Anathema, we talked about this,” said Crowley. “Go see how Newt’s doing with those boards in the back or something. Keep him away from the electric mixer.” Anathema stuck her tongue out at him and ducked under the counter, headed for the swinging double doors at the back.
“Sorry about that,” muttered Crowley, and Aziraphale could almost believe he meant it, this time.
“No, it’s all right.” After a beat, “She was actually... right though. About, ah, all of it.”
“Yeah, she usually is. S'why I hired her.” Without another word Crowley picked out a croissant from the display case and stuck it in a small toaster oven behind the counter. There were no less than five electric pitchers of water beside it, all displaying various temperatures, and the darjeeling from one of the glossy canisters lining the shelves above was put into a sachet, plunked into a cup and seeped in water at a precise 95 degrees, if the little digital readout was correct. With perfect timing, the oven dinged, and his croissant was placed in a paper bag and presented alongside his expertly brewed cup of tea.
“All set then?” Crowley asked.
“Yes, how much?” Aziraphale had been so enthralled by the process of the tea preparation he had forgotten the part where he was expected to pay for the privilege. He started digging through his pockets, becoming increasingly distressed when there was nothing to be found in them but lint and the nub of a pencil eraser. But there’s no way he could have forgotten his wallet he wasn’t that absent minded -
“Don’t worry about it,” said Crowley, and he shrugged when Aziraphale quirked an eyebrow at him. “I’m just so stunned by your presence here I’ve forgotten how to read. Wouldn’t know which buttons to press.” He was still wearing those ridiculous sunglasses, even inside, but Aziraphale could not mistake the mischievous notes in his voice. “What happened to ‘see you in a decade or so?’”
“Well,” Aziraphale, who felt himself pretty out of his depth at this point and was scrambling for something blithe and witty to say back. “Don’t expect me to make a habit of it.” It was a sort of spectacular failure, but Crowley was kind enough to let it pass.
“I wouldn’t dream of it. Besides -” here Crowley bitterly indicated the almost empty shop, “ if things continue like this you’ll get your peace and quiet back before too long.”
“It’s only the first day,” Aziraphale said gently, because he felt it was the sort of thing you said when someone’s had a bad beginning, no matter how you feel about the beginning itself. “Word will get ‘round the neighborhood.” Crowley gave a non committal sort of hand gesture and drummed his fingers on the counter top. Nervously.
One of the only remaining customers in the shop, a MI6 agent with a terrible wig and an appointment to meet a banker with ties to enemy intelligence in the nearby St. James Park in ten minutes, watched as the tall man in tartan trouserss and pale jumper thanked the owner and left the shop. It was a habit of hers, watching people, and she had gotten fairly good at it over the years in her distinctive line of work.
When the tall man made it through the door he started to turn left, towards the bookshop (the nearby park was such a bulwark of undercover dealings every agent was expected to have a mental map of the area and its possible escape routes) but then he faltered. He fretted for a moment, torn, shifting his weight from foot to foot and looking left and right. Finally, eyes turned heavenward, shoulders drooped in a terrible defeat, and his face assumed a resigned, purposeful expression. He headed right, towards the denser region of the block.
The agent sipped her coffee for a while longer and forgot about the tall man(it really was quite delicious, and it wouldn’t do to be altogether on time for that meeting anyway). But as she sat, the flow of customers into the cafe gradually began to increase, from something akin to the slow drip of a leaky faucet clear through to a veritable deluge.
The now noisy interior would not do, not for what she was preparing for, and she beconked over an elderly couple she had seen eyeing her table for the last two minutes, indicating that she was done if they’d like to claim it.
“Would you mind, dear?” asked the smaller woman, already setting her handbag on the smooth wooden surface.
“Knock yourselves out,” she answered, distracted. The wig was very bad and of very poor quality, and she had to resist scratching.
“This place is so darling!” one of the women squealed as they took their seats. The other agreed, saying it was so fortunate that nice Mr. Fell had been by to remind them.
The agent picked up a briefcase full of all manner of unmentionable items - literally, you could not mention them without a stack of security clearance forms filled out in triplicate - and left the shop for a rendezvous with an extremely unlucky banker. She walked on into a completely different tale, one filled with far more gunshots and explosions and and high stakes poker games than this one. 
But before she strolled into that story, two unpleasant men in cheap suits on the corner whistled at her, and she duly responded with a two finger salute.
1 Aziraphale was not a frequent customer of this line, but it ran alongside the 'Midnight Train to Anxiety' which often stopped at a place called 'Imagining Worst Case Scenarios in Minute Detail.' [return to text]
2 He could have taken the title the for a fourth year as well, but the girl he was up against in the final bout, well, she had only second hand equipment and he had all nice new things that had been purchased especially for him, and there had been older male judges and parents all chuckling together about people knowing their place on the sidelines and Aziraphale wouldn't stand for that sort of thing. He didn't throw the match of course, but he might have presented a small opening at at a few key intervals that a truly superior opponent could use to her advantage. Not that he had ever fooled her for a second, but she had been grateful and taken the cash prize and thumbed her nose at the naysayers. She even sent him a Christmas card every year, signed, 'With Love, Eve." [ return to text; ]
3 Anathema had learned this tone from her great grandmother, Agnes, a suffragette who understood that sometimes the only way a man would listen to you was if you caused a few explosions. [return to text]
4That adventure would also feature a passionate love triangle that would resolve into a triad instead of some other such nonsense, and her superiors would believe not a word of her very nicely typed report. [return to text]
The carpeted staircase that led up to Aziraphale’s flat above the bookstore was long, narrow, and would glare at him reproachfully around eleven thirty each night. This particular evening proved to be different, and though he was sitting awfully comfortably with his feet propped up on the ottoman, munching on the forgotten half of a pastry from the cafe next door, and only quiet sounded through the connected wall, the steps still judged him and found him wanting. Aziraphale got up, turned the chair around so it no longer faced the stairs and sighed with content. Much better. Now he could enjoy the silence.
This was not always the case. In the month and a half that the shop had been open, Aziraphale had been subject to all manner of terrible degradations. There had been passionate readings of bad poetry on writer’s circle night, shrieks of victory and groans of defeat on trivia night and something called an ‘open mic night’ which easily claimed the top prize as the worst of them all. The caterwauling that had come along with that particular evening had been enough to send Aziraphale to the corner store to purchase a bottle of foam ear plugs which boasted that they would muffle 75% of frequencies except, it seemed, those particular waves that were created by amateur singers in next door coffee shops. (They weren’t all that bad if he wanted to be honest with himself, but were a terrible thing to be subject to in the midst of agonizing over a particularly abstruse passage of Plutarch.)
The writers stormed the shelves to look for books on Donne and Woolfe, three of the trivia teams had started meeting at his shop before the main event to “wander around for a bit,” and the musicians - Well the musicians never came by.  So there was that. But their fans would come into the bookstore reeking of cigarette smoke, and when they came to browse Aziraphale wound himself up into a state of near constant anxiety until they left and took their odors with them.
And yet, Aziraphale still went next door practically every morning. He told himself little lies such as, “No one else makes tea at quite the proper temperature,” or “the baked goods really are a mite better than the bakery and it is much closer,” to hide from the fact of why he truly fancied dropping by the coffee shop.
Unfortunately, for all that Aziraphale had been by over the ensuing weeks, Crowley spent most of his mornings in the kitchen, and had hardly served him more than a handful of times. Instead, Aziraphale was typically served by either Anathema or the other barista, Newt, who always looked like he expected there to be a violent detonation at any moment, and had no doubt as to exactly who would be taking the blame.
Today Anathema had coaxed Aziraphale into expanding his horizons beyond the flaky and buttery of French origin, and talked him into something called a sfogliatella, which was flaky and buttery of the Italian variety, and delicious besides. But the pastry was rapidly shrinking in his hands, and the stairs, with all their disapproving looks, would still be there when it had all gone. So would the letter, this time signed, ‘A Concerned Group of Friends,’ asking him to please consider remodeling the front of his store to ‘bring its appearance up to par with that of the neighbors,’ which was currently poking out from beneath a pile of papers on the desk. So many little unpleasantries.
He liked his flat, he supposed, as he tore his eyes away from the missive and glanced over his shoulder towards the staircase. Even though the furniture hadn’t budged since he’d moved in ten years ago, and the walls were devoid of art or pictures or even a single handmade cross stitch with some pithy inspirational quote, and there was a faint layer of dust on everything except the bathroom, since he used it with average frequency. The space was fine. Only that… well, it was like someone else owned the place. He was a distant acquaintance who dropped by to shower, or to grab a pen, or to sit on the sofa and watch reruns on Netflix and he’d be done in a tic. The shop felt like a home: cozy and filled with books and comfortable nooks to sit in and little surfaces to set your tea down to cool and then forget about completely.
He was well aware that falling asleep in a chair or the scruffy loveseat in the back room was not a tenable situation for a man nearing forty. He felt it every time he stood up in the morning and his back pulled and complained, knew it in the midst of his bleary afternoons, when he couldn’t concentrate on the words on the pages of his books. He had to stop, he had to take some kind of responsibility in some part of his life.
So, tonight would be the night. He would head right up those stairs and go to sleep in his actual bed. Yes. Any moment now.
But the armchair was exceedingly comfortable.
Maybe he could close his eyes - for a moment, that’s all - rest for the long journey up the stairs. That was it. He should absolutely go to go to sleep in his own bed, but he would do that after a short nap down here. Or maybe he could finish the research he had been doing before his sit. Of course. No sense in not being productive if he wasn’t going to be sleeping. A a quick wink before he collected his notes, then. Aziraphale closed his eyes.
A thick blanket of silence wrapped the bookstore gently in its soft folds.
And then it was ripped to shreds by a frantic knocking.
Aziraphale jumped up off the chair, instantly awake, eyes darting around the room for something he could use as a weapon. So this was it. Those men in cheap suits had finally decided to accost him late at night when they knew he was alone. Where was his umbrella? Would they threaten bodily harm? Shove a form under his nose and force him to sign at knife point? Would he lay on the floor, injured or dead, until the smell finally prompted someone to call the authorities? He hefted a good sized paperweight from the desk in his right hand. If they thought he was going down without a fight then they would be quite surprised when -
He stopped. The knocking continued, louder now, but it wasn’t coming from the front door, or the back door, or any of the windows. The noise was coming from -
“Hey!” a strangled cry came from the other side of the cellar door. Was that… Crowley? “Hey, I know you’re there,” Crowley’s voice creeped up the register, finding a home somewhere between panic and desperation. “Please just open up!”
What on Earth?
“I’m here!” Aziraphale shouted back, doing his best to sound reassuring and not flustered. He wasn’t sure if Crowley heard him, as the knocking began again, more pronounced this time. Aziraphale reached the door, fumbled with the lock, tore it open.
Then Crowley, who must have been pressing against the door with his whole body, collapsed on top of him.
Aziraphale’s brain stuttered out as they went down together in a snarl of limbs, and when awareness returned he was on his back staring up at a pale face inches from his own. Crowley wasn’t wearing his glasses, and his eyes were wide, panicked. And rather lovely, Aziraphale thought, absurdly. A light, golden brown. Almost amber.
Crowley quickly backed away on his hands and knees, muttering apologies as he struggled to his feet, and offered a trembling hand back down to Aziraphale to help him off the ground. Aziraphale took it, squeezing reassuringly, and hauled himself up.
“Are you alright?” he asked as he directed Crowley to sit down in the armchair he had been so recently occupying himself. Crowley’s knee restlessly bounced up and down.
“Yeah, I just - I just need a minute,” he groaned, not looking at Aziraphale.
“Are you sure? Can I get you anything?
Crowley closed his eyes and shook his head. Something had to have happened beyond just being stuck in the basement, that much was plain, but Aziraphale didn’t think it wise to keep questioning. Instead he occupied himself with putting some water into a mug, heating it up in the little microwave and hunting down a tin of biscuits he felt certain was back here somewhere. Sometimes people meant it when they said they didn’t need anything, but sometimes people were afraid to ask for things. Either way, no harm ever came from offering a warm drink and something sweet and crunchy to another in distress. 2
The microwave beeped and Aziraphale put a steaming cup of chamomile and plate of only mildly stale iced biscuits on the small table next to the chair. Crowley, who had been staring off into nothing, waited only as long as was polite before tentatively picking up the cup and taking a sip. At first he made a face (it was only rubbish from the corner store after all, not whatever hand picked herbal teas Crowley sourced) but his leg stopped its jittering, and he settled deeper into the plush cushions of the chair. Aziraphale sat in the chair next to him, and waited.
“Thanks,” Crowley muttered, and chewed his lip for a moment. “The door - well, my door - I ran down for one second to grab something and the door - I didn’t know it locked automatically, couldn’t find the light switch.” He took another sip of the chamomile. “The light from here was the only thing I could see so that’s what I headed for. Didn’t much fancy being down there all night. The dark, you know?” He sighed, and cringed, as if appalled by himself. “I’m… sorry, you know, for all of it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” replied Aziraphale. “I don’t much care for dark and cramped spaces either, especially when I don’t expect them.” Crowley almost smiled then, a grateful, crooked thing that tugged at the corners of his mouth. His shoulders relaxed from their taut line, and they sat in almost companionable silence.
“How come the basements are connected, anyway?” Crowley asked after a bit, as he fiddled with the rim of the mug. “I noticed when I first looked at the place but didn’t think to ask.”
“Our shops used to be one single space with a flat above,” Aziraphale said, paraphrasing what the estate agent had told him ten years ago as best he could. “They split up around the 80s. Don’t know why. The flat’s still intact though.” After a beat. “I live there.” Crowley nodded, like Aziraphale was only confirming what he had long suspected to be the case, and cast his eyes about the room. No one else had ever been in the back of the shop before, not in the ten years he had lived and worked there, Aziraphale realized, with the kind of uncomfortable prickle in the back of your neck you get when you’ve just said something incredibly stupid at a crowded party full of beautiful and intelligent people who will laugh about something the moment your back is turned and you know the thing they’re laughing about is you.3
A wave of self consciousness crashed over him with this revelation. For the first time ever, Aziraphale was obligated to see the room as someone else did, as Crowley did, and he was, frankly, ashamed.
The sofa and chairs were not cozy and familiar, they were pieces of rubbish twelve years out of date, the throw rug threadbare. The quarter inch or so of dust was a testament not to Aziraphale’s focus on his research, but to how little he cared for his things, his environment. The papers and cold mugs of tea strewn about were merely the icing on this layer cake of utter mortification. The shop next door was appealing in every way to all the senses, from the fine wooden finish on the floor straight down to the last screen printed teacup. But here was a cacophonous riot of mismatch and disorder too recent to be classified as antique. Just worn and sad and old. Even their persons could not be more contrasted. He toddled around at midnight on a Friday in bunny slippers and a tie with little cartoon clouds and Crowley was, Crowley was…
A blush began to creep up his cheeks. Crowley merely munched away on a biscuit and stared sideways at a row of books on a shelf, oblivious to the distress he had roused within Aziraphale.
“I thought you might have been my visitors from a few months ago,” Aziraphale said, as a way to distract from his unkempt room. “Those men in the terrible suits. I never got to thank you for interrupting them.”
“You didn’t need my help,” Crowley replied with a laugh. “I saw the look in your eyes - that’s why I dropped the lamp in the first place - and if I was saving anyone I was saving them from being beaten to death with an umbrella.” Crowley’s face softened. “I wondered though,” he said, with caution. “Thought they might after you about loans or legal trouble or something,” he stopped and looked Aziraphale up and down. “Definitely not drugs. I didn’t think it’d be right to ask. But if you’re telling…” he drifted off, presenting an opening for an explanation, if Aziraphale cared to provide it. After a brief internal debate, he couldn’t see the harm in telling Crowley the truth.
“Some developer or another wants the shop,” he admitted. “They started with letters and now they’re resorting to ruffians . Keep offering me more and more for it, won’t take the hint that it is not for sale.”
“And why should you sell?” Crowley agreed. “Place is all yours, isn’t it?”
“That’s certainly my opinion. Others seem to feel that it doesn’t fit the ‘appropriate neighborhood aesthetic.’” Crowley snorted at his use of air quotes.
“Bloody capitalists,” he growled. “That neighborhood committee after you as well?”
“Oh, here and there. They say they’re trying to do what’s best for the area but if you ask me the committee and those developers are just two faces of the same coin and I wish they’d both just leave me alone. Here, take a look at this.” He fished the letter from the pile of junk mail and handed it over to Crowley, who read quickly, a frown spreading down his face.
“Aziraphale, did you read this?”
“Eh, they send one over every month or so and they always say the same sort of thing, why?”
“I mean, well, this is kind of a threat, isn't it?”
“Look here,” Crowley indicated the passage, which stated that Aziraphale had a mere two weeks to improve the appearance of the his store, or “drastic measures would have to be taken.”
“Oh that’s nothing,” Aziraphale scoffed. “They’ll try and complain to the city and whoever they complain to will promptly forget everything they said and that’ll be the end of it.” Crowley looked uneasy.
“They don’t seem like the type that’ll stop complaining,” he said. “Until they get what they want. And what've they really got to complain about?” his voice took on a defiant edge. “You’re business strategy is a little… unorthodox sure, but it’s not like the place is falling apart.”
“Of course, and I can admit that it’s not as nice as some other places around, but-”
“Nah,” said Crowley, holding up his hand. “It’s perfect.” Aziraphale froze.
“Perfect?” he said, quietly. Aziraphale drew out the word, felt the taste of it on his tongue. It was strange, intimidating, but with a mellow kind of burn, like a wine you weren’t quite sure about, but your friend kept insisting you would like. Perfect? That was not the impression he had expected Crowley to gleam from his brief survey of the room.
“Yeah. And I’m not just saying that 'cause you rescued me from the cellar. I’ve seen the front too. And it’s perfect. For you. It suits you. It’s like… It’s nice,” Crowley finished, somewhat lamely, his eyes falling back to his drink.
A warm, fuzzy sort of feeling that had been lingering for years, cold and stunted within Aziraphale’s heart and only recently roused out of it’s stupor, suddenly found a break in the bars of its cage and made a mad dash for freedom, flooding him, roaring in his ears, demanding to be acknowledged. His brain made a feeble attempt to contain the damage, but was too preoccupied with examining the lines of Crowley’s face, the slight flush in his cheeks, was wondering what it would be like to lean forward just a little more and…
“Would you care for a drink?” Aziraphale said, standing up so rapidly the chair was thrown off balance and almost toppled over. He spent an embarrassing few seconds steadying it. “A proper drink, that is. I mean I don’t even know if you do drink but there’s a nice Côtes du Rhône around here somewhere…” His arms fell helplessly at his sides.
“No, no, that’s alright,” Crowley said. “I should finish up next door. Going to have to do something about that basement lock before heading home.”
“Oh, of course-” Yes, this was more what Aziraphale was used to, this was comfortable, this -
“But maybe we can have that drink when things settle down a bit?”
Crowley is just being polite, a nasty, weasley little voice within Aziraphale whispered. He's not so bad once you two start talking but he doesn’t really intend on taking you up on the offer, so don’t get any ideas, he’s just trying to - But the warmth in Aziraphale’s chest, screeching in joy at its recent liberation, dismissed such an insinuation and commandeered control of his vocal cords.
“Yes, that would - er- that would be lovely.”
“Great! So, I guess I’ll see you around then. Thank you. For the tea. And -” Crowley waved his hand in a vague direction.
“Of course. I’m glad I happened to be down.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Crowley left (through the front this time, Aziraphale pretended not to notice the nervous look he gave the cellar) and Aziraphale locked the door behind him. But before he went up to try for a few fitful hours of sleep in a bed that that he could never quite lie comfortably on (even though he had bought the best mattress his inheritance could afford), he made sure to prop open the basement door with a volume of Johnson. Aziraphale had never quite cared for Johnson.
The light in the back room burned long into the early morning hours.
“Good morning!” Anathema greeted him when he stopped by the next morning. “How is our fearless leader’s very own knight in shining armour doing today?” Aziraphale felt the color rise in his cheeks and would have opened his mouth to reply if Anathema hadn’t already started up again.
“Oh don’t worry, I’m only playing with him,” she continued. “The basement door was missing this morning and Newt almost cracked his head over it in the alley so we made him tell us the whole thing. Do you really wear those slippers with the bunny ears and faces on them?” Aziraphale would have sputtered at that had he been given the chance. “I mean I don’t mind if you do, I honestly don’t care what you wear and you certainly don’t either, I’d just imagined penny loafers and I’m not usually wrong.” She looked meaningfully at a tray of truly delectable looking raspberry scones in the display case and plucked the choicest one from the bunch. “I knew he didn’t like the dark, can’t believe he was so stupid to run down there by himself. Anyway, it must have like, actually freaked him out a ton because he’s been furiously baking all morning and he only does that when he’s really bothered by something or other. Oh! And you have no idea how much better these scones are when he isn’t measuring everything down to the last tenth of a gram.” Anathema had been moving behind the counter throughout her speech, and now the new tea that Aziraphale had been meaning to try and the raspberry scone were presented to him, though he couldn’t remember asking for either.
“Anyway, since its on account of you that I didn’t have to come in to an inconsolable wreck of a boss stuck in the cellar at four thirty this morning, and because he told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t allowed to charge you, here you go!” She smiled brightly at him and Aziraphale, bewildered, blinked a few times before picking up the plate and saucer from the counter and turning to find a empty place to sit down.
Strange. Anathema knew he took his order to go, but it was too late now. He only wished he had thought to bring a book along.
That’s when Crowley burst through the kitchen door, his apron and hair splattered with bits of flour, the most disheveled Aziraphale had ever seen him. The glasses were back, which Aziraphale noted with a small pang of disappointment.
“Don’t mind Anathema,” he said by way of greeting. “I don’t know what she’s said precisely but I wouldn’t listen to a word of it all the same.” Aziraphale chuckled.
“She’s all right. She told me you’ve ripped the basement door right off its hinges?”
“Yeah. It’s probably a violation of something but I can’t figure out the lock, so until I have some time to go buy a new door it stays gone.”
“Ah, there’s a little lever on the side, underneath the jamb. If you flick it up it should stop the door from locking on its own. I could show you if you’d like?” He was appalled a the lilt of hope in his voice.
“Yes, actually, but only if you’re certain that the crowds next door won’t miss you in your absence.”
Aziraphale shook his head at Crowley’s joke and followed him into the kitchen, which had suffered the brunt of whatever catastrophe had covered him in flour. Two convection ovens (on the other side of the kitchen from the mess of flour yet still somehow coated in it) merrily hummed away, and the whole place smelled like -
“Apples?” Aziraphale ventured at the same time that Crowley muttered something about the mess.
“Yeah,” Crowley blushed and became consumed by wiping down his workstation. “I uh, couldn’t sleep last night after I got home and I stayed up on the sofa all night watching baking reruns. I tried to make those fancy little flower tart things but it took a few tries to get them right.”
Aziraphale peered into one of the ovens to see twelve identical tarts just starting to brown, apple slices spiraled into perfect roses.
“Nah, they’re alright,” Crowley said, but he straightened up, smiling that slight and curling smile that Aziraphale remembered from the night before. “Come on, I’ll show you the door.”
After assisting Crowley with the only drop of technical knowledge he possessed, Aziraphale finished his scone and tea in the dining room, listening to Anathema prattle on about this or that with the customers she served. There was a short burst of customers around ten-thirty, and when Newt emerged from the kitchen to help her run the register he succeeded in freezing the cashier tablet and knocking over a pitcher of scalding hot water all within the span of a mere twenty six seconds. Anathema, ever a pillar of stability in crisis, calmly mopped up the mess and sent him back into the kitchen without once interrupting her conversation with a customer about a documentary on aliens they had both seen a few nights ago.
Crowley came out to help fix drinks instead, and sometimes, when Aziraphale’s eyes defied him and darted over to the counter, he thought he caught Crowley casting glances at him, too.
1 This wasn't due to a lack of interest on the musicians part to investigate the bookshop, but rather to the sheer volume of items one had to transport in order to be able to play at a coffee shop and constant paranoia that if one removed their eyes from their precious guitar for even a moment to get their nose stuck in a book, some terrible and permanent calamity would befall the instrument. [return to text]
2 A kind word and a friendly face never hurts, either. [ return to text ]
3 This was exactly why Aziraphale never attended parties anymore. Though sometimes he missed being invited to a nice party only to make friends with the resident cat or dog and mostly ignore the humans around them.[return to text]
4 It is of utmost importance that one never watch a baking show without a fully stocked kitchen, as the impulse to recreate the cakes and confections therein is irresistible on a level not able to be cataloged by mortals.[return to text]
The first time Crowley asked Aziraphale to mind the coffee shop - crouched together in the narrow alley behind the Second Circle Coffee Company, burns on their fingers, stains on their clothes, Newt hiding behind Aziraphale with guilt in the slump of his shoulders and wearing the kind of face you arrange when your supervisor just asked you to clean out your desk - it was an emergency.
“Tell you what,” Crowley ran a distracted hand though his dark hair after Aziraphale’s fifth refusal. “Can you just make sure Newt doesn’t burn the place to the ground? I know the very thought of speaking to a customer who actually needs you to sell them something might be paralyzing for you but I'll be back in five minutes, I promise.” His voice made hollow echoes against the bare brick faces of the surrounding buildings, while a basket of red and green strawberry plants hanging near the door twirled and scraped in a heady gust of wind.
“Fine!” Aziraphale exclaimed, wanting to put an end to their short quarrel (but only after sufficient time to express his reluctance at the prospect of being responsible for anything having to do with Crowley's store had gone by). “What do you need me to do?”
“Literally just sit inside and tell whoever comes in that I’ll be back in five minutes.” Crowley was already teetering towards the street, dead leaves scuttling in the wake of his long legs. “And don't let Newt touch anything!”
“Yes, got it, go on then,” Aziraphale grumbled to no one but himself, glaring at the treacherous spot between the Indian restaurant and the flower shop where Crowley had vanished.
There was a polite cough over his right shoulder.
“Er, does this mean you’re my boss now, or….”
Aziraphale turned, and he and Newt stared at each other for a moment over the shattered wreck of the fridge, which lay open in the middle of the alley between them, sparking and smoking. Newt expressed this sentiment with the attitude of someone who is used to sudden, drastic, and incomprensible changes to a ruling corporate power structure and possesses firsthand knowledge of how little those at the bottom of the pyramid matter to those at the top.
“I’m sorry,” Newt went on in a weary mumble. “I don’t know what I did, I was only trying to fix the -” The dying machine interrupted him to wheeze its last. It shuddered with death throes and was still, and the alley mourned for a moment, the wind dropping down to a respectful breeze.
“Let’s get up front, then, shall we?” Aziraphale hurried back inside without waiting for a reply.
To his infinite dismay and momentary alarm, seemingly every single person in all of Soho began craving a latte at the instant Crowley stepped off the premises, and when Aziraphale emerged from the kitchen to find a line several bodies deep standing at the counter he had to swallow the urge creeping up his throat to blurt out that the shop was closed and everyone should just return to their homes and places of business empty-handed.
Then, strangely, as he took the time to settle in to the knowledge that none of them were there to take books away, Aziraphale found himself inclined to try his hand at being almost charming (this was Crowley's business after all) as he informed them there was a slight mishap with the milk refrigerator and all would be sorted out in a few minutes. (The slight mishap, of course, was that the equipment at last had enough of Newt’s tinkering with its electrical parts and ended its own misery with a complicated suicide maneuver in which it threw itself to the ground and somehow caught fire, breaking all the milk containers inside and sending Newt, Crowley, and Aziraphale - who, honestly, had dropped in on a whim - into a frenzy of activity.)
Though Crowley had insisted Newt not be permitted to touch anything, Aziraphale felt such a draconian policy to be most inefficient to the management of the queue, and allowed him to prepare tea and black coffee, a feat he performed as admirably as anyone who expected the quality of how they poured various liquids into takeaway cups to be the deciding factor in whether or not they had a job in ten minutes. When Crowley burst through the door, laden with his purchases from the corner shop, the relieved, grateful smile that spread across his face when he saw Aziraphale sitting in the midst of a peacefully humming cafe was worth a hundred customer interactions, even ones involving the negotiation of the purchase of a book or two.
The second time it happened, three and a half weeks later while two employees, an exhausted proprietor (in an outfit that was at once flawlessly fashion forward and wholly inappropriate for working in a kitchen) and one exasperated neighbor stood in the kitchen over the debris of a cooking mishap, Aziraphale offered.
“You’re being absurd, I can watch the shop, if you’re that worried,” he said in response to Crowley’s preposterous and non sequitur declaration about self-determination in the face of opposition. Newt brightened at this, because Crowley wasn’t making much sense and it was nice to, for once, not be the only one who thought so. Even Anathema looked pleased someone else besides her was thinking clearly.
“No, I won’t make you do that again,” Crowley protested, swaying on his feet like a reed. “It’s alright, I can manage.” He did not, in fact, appear as though he could stand upright, much less commit to a full running of a business, and the evidence was as plain as the shards of burned biscuits still zipping across the kitchen floor.
“Boss,” Anathema declared, in practical tone that brooked no argument, “You just tried to take a pan out of the oven with your bare hands, you’re falling asleep into the butter, and you’re going to slice your hand off next if you don’t get some sleep. I’m driving you back to Mayfair right now and that’s the end of it.” Crowley pressed his lips into a line and the dark circles under his eyes stood out on his pale face like bruises.
“Why can't Aziraphale drive me home and you stay here?” it was not quite a whine, but it was close enough to one that Aziraphale felt a twist in his heart and Anathema rolled her eyes.
“Because Aziraphale doesn't know how to drive,” Anathema shot back, and Aziraphale’s hands itched with the sudden urge to learn the proper goings on behind a steering column. “So unless you'd like to see that fancy car of yours wrecked on the side of the road it's me or it's Newt, and you and I both know you don't want it to be Newt.” Newt nodded sagely at this proclamation. Crowley grumbled and opened his mouth to retort but Aziraphale interrupted before he could let the next readied barb fly.
“You could stay next door, if you wanted?” he said gingerly, quickly, voice lurching in his throat. “The backroom has a sofa,” he explained to Anathema. Crowley (who had spent a decent chunk of the previous evening getting positively sloshed on Bordeaux on that very same sofa as he and Aziraphale argued about the significance of Joyce’s Ulysses [and that hit Aziraphale with a small pang of guilt as it gradually dawned on him that this was perhaps the root of Crowley's exhausted distress])2 was quite keen on this idea, and Anathema spared hardly a word asking if it would really be alright before she was willing to steer Crowley out the back door to the bookshop.
“Let’s go,” said Anathema, throwing Crowley’s coat over her shoulder as he stumbled over the back step. “I’ll come right back, don’t try and fix anything.” This was directed at Newt, who, due to reasons apparent to even the most infrequent patron of the cafe, had not yet earned back the privilege of being allowed in the store without Crowley or Anathema present.
Newt quietly made him a cup of cocoa while they waited for her return, and as he sipped Aziraphale made a silent vow to prevent Newt’s termination by any and all means necessary: the drink was better than anything Anathema or even Crowley ever made for him.
Anathema returned before long, her expression both thoughtful and knowing as she eyed Aziraphale from behind the counter.
“I think he dropped off the moment his head hit the cushion,” she said when she had finished serving a customer in a business suit and sequined pink stilettos. “Seemed pretty comfortable.”
“Oh yes, he sits there when we get together on the odd evening.” Aziraphale wasn't really paying attention, idly gazing at the little cactus plant by the register while trying to work out a bit of poppy seed stuck in between his teeth. So occupied was he that he failed to notice the insinuating nature of her question, and it was best for both of them, else he might have gone red in the face and stammered absurdly.
Crowley slept on.
The third time, it was Aziraphale who needed a favor from Crowley.
“Normally I wouldn’t bother you about it, but with the way things have been around here lately I’m afraid I’d come home to a smouldering husk where the shop had been.” The night before he was to head north on the rare occasion he made an offensively prosperous sale (the ones he sold he already had copies of, anyway, and how else was he to be able to afford more?), Aziraphale had received a threatening phone call that could not be mistaken for a zealous attempt to sell him insurance, implying that perhaps something tragic would occur if he didn't move or sell his shop. Aziraphale was not one to cow to threats, but he did take a last look around his store, as Crowley held out his hand for the keys expectantly, trying to commit it to memory should the worst happen. He allowed himself a single moment of pride in its signature sense of artful clutter.
“On second thought, maybe I won’t go.” He put his valise on the counter. “I don’t have to make the sale in person, I could perhaps-”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Crowley, and he snatched the keys from Aziraphale’s hand. “Go sell your little book,” Aziraphale puffed up to say that a first edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince should never be described as a 'little book’ but Crowley didn't give him the in. “I'll break every lamp I own if that's what it takes to scare off any miscreants with lighter fluid and big ideas.” Aziraphale shifted from foot to foot.
“Alright. But you'll call me the second anything happens?”
“You sure that thing can take calls?” Crowley pointed to the large rectangular box shaped thing in Aziraphale's hand. “I thought I’d have to page you.”
“Yes it can take calls, it’s a mobile phone- ” Crowley chuckled, amber eyes scrunching into laugh lines. Aziraphale did so prefer when he didn't wear those dreadful glasses.
“You’re ridiculous,” Crowley said, with a lilt that a hopeful thread within Aziraphale wanted very much to describe as 'fond.' “Yes, I will call if anything happens. Now get out of here or you’ll miss your train.”
Aziraphale went, with a stupid, silly smile plastered all over his face.
On the two and a half hours it took for the train to carry him from comfortable London to brittle Manchester, he checked his phone no less than one hundred twenty six times. He panicked upon reaching his hotel and realizing he’d forgotten to tell Crowley where he was staying in case his original form of communication proved unreliable -what if he lost his phone what if there was no service what if it broke - before remembering that he could just ring the coffee shop. (Anathema took the call, giggling the whole time like she was enjoying a particularly good secret all to herself and wondered aloud how Aziraphale was enjoying his and Crowley’s tidy shop-watching Arrangement.)
For two and a half days, as the buyer attempted to negotiate and Aziraphale ate the lunches and drank the drinks offered with a placid smile on his face (he was no fool), his hands would drift to the pocket containing his prehistoric Nokia, certain that at any moment it would go off and Crowley would be on the other end of the line, telling him the shop had been broken into, or knocked to the ground by a wrecking ball, or immolated by a passing meteorite.
Crowley actually did call around ten in the morning the day that Aziraphale was to return home, and he answered in a frenzy of frantic words.
“Yes, what's happened, can anything be recovered?” The spaces between the words were dissolved in the acid of his anxiety.
“What?” Crowley asked.
“The bookstore! What’s gone wrong?”
“Oh! Nothing's gone wrong! Well, okay, it’s standing and it’s not on fire but not totally nothing, that’s why I called.” Aziraphale was in agony, unable to tell if Crowley was in earnest or merely teasing.
“Spit it out!”
“Relax,” Crowley’s voice was warm and gold. “It’s only that Gabby and Raf, you know, from the committee, they dropped in to the cafe yesterday and Newt overheard them talking about you. Apparently if you don’t make some changes, they’re going to take what they've referred to as ‘drastic action.’” Aziraphale was encouraged by the distinct lack of gravitas in Crowley's voice.
“Oh they’re just hot air.”
“I don’t know, it sounds like they’re maybe thinking of excluding you from the weekly budget meeting.”
“Not the budget meeting!” Aziraphale filled his tone with a mockery of pained remorse. “What’s next, another strongly worded letter? However shall I go on?”
“Exactly what I was thinking. But, you know, I kind of hate it when people talk like that about-” Crowley trailed off. Aziraphale wondered if he was drumming his fingers nervously on the kitchen counter. “Anyway, in the interest of having them kindly fuck off, I er - made a few changes to the front of your store. Now I didn’t -” Terror seized Aziraphale immediately.
“Crowley if you've put a drop of paint on those walls -”
“No, no, nothing like that,” he said, quickly. “You could’ve let me finish. I'd never change the inside. I told you, it doesn’t need anything. I just, I've added some things to the exterior. You'll like it. I think?” The flurry of rash words building in his throat were quashed by the fluttering of Aziraphale's heart at Crowley's hopeful uncertainty.
“I mean, I kind of wanted it to be a surprise, but Anathema said that might not be the best of ideas. She says you don't seem like the sort who likes surprises. And, look, I mean, see what you think when you get back and if you don't like any of it then I'll just-”
“No, no, I'm sure it'll be fine.” The horror within Aziraphale at whatever Crowley had done, the possessiveness that seized him wherever the shop was threatened by forces beyond his control, was aghast at this total coup of it's authority. Aziraphale could feel this part of himself furiously agape, while the other was giddy as a child on Christmas.
“And you're sure you haven't changed the interior at all?”
“I wouldn't dream of it. Although I did add a little greenery to your backroom, but that's more a favor you're doing for me. The aster was looking a little wilted so I've put her over by you, maybe give the rest of them time to sweat it out and think about what might've happened to her.”
“I suppose that's alright,” said Aziraphale, who had never quite understood Crowley's peculiar method of cultivation(though could admit the results were outstanding). He did not, indeed, know what he was agreeing to, but it was similar the sort of thing you say when you're at dinner with someone you fancy and they're talking about their day and you're getting lost in their eyes or the way their hands move when they get excited and suddenly you realize they just asked you a question and you've got to scramble for a reply both encouraging and non-committal.
“I'll see you tomorrow, then,” Crowley went on. “I picked up this weird looking bottle of Malbec yesterday, maybe we can dig into that? Celebrate your return?”
“That would be lovely.”
“Well, good. I'll see you soon. Take care of yourself, angel.” The line went dead a moment after this little endearment, giving Aziraphale no time at all to become apoplectic and stuttering or even demand the other man repeat himself. There was no way, he must have heard wrong, must have been a bad connection - He yanked the phone away from his ear and stared at it peevishly.
The buyer gave in to Aziraphale's original price an hour later as he always knew she would, the transaction enough to keep him living in his same comfortable vein for another year or so. Aziraphale allowed the book to pass from his hands to hers with only a modicum of the weight that usually came with such an solemn moment, and then got back on the train, warm, confused, and spiraling into somewhat of a state.
And upon finally arriving on the pavement in front of his store, he gazed with wonder and something else too close to love to sit comfortably in Aziraphale's hitherto lonely soul.
Blues and yellows, pinks and purples, greens, all blooming, all lush and beautiful and perfect and now swimming together in Aziraphale’s vision.
Crowley had put in flowers.
“I mean of course Viola is playing with gender expression, but how can you conclude Olivia is a lesbian?”
“There’s absolutely no way Olivia is straight. She repeatedly tells Viola she cannot love Orsino, not ‘doesn’t’ love him, cannot love him, despite all his admirable qualities. She doesn’t even say anything after Sebastian makes his little ‘you are betrothed to both maid and man’ bit. She doesn’t say anything to him, the man she’s just married, for the rest of the play.”
“Then the play isn’t quite a comedy, is it?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, if Olivia loves Viola and Antonio so obviously loves Sebastian, it’s a tragedy, for them, at least.”
“And for Malvolio as well.”
“Did you see the Godwin production a few years ago? With that woman who played Malvolia?”
“Only the once, always meant to get back, but then it was too late, but she was wonderful,” Crowley lifted his glass, saw it was empty, and reached for the bottle. “Her final scene, where she removes the wig?”
“Sublime,” Aziraphale agreed, rising from the table to fetch another bottle of wine from upstairs.
Crowley had come by a few hours after Aziraphale returned home, brandishing the promised bottle of Malbec and a few leftover linzer tarts, asking how his trip had been, scrupulously avoiding any and all mention of the changes he had made. Aziraphale - who had been repressing his urge to go next door since he saw the flowers because the mantra of ‘he gave you flowers and called you ‘angel’ how do you think he feels about you’ was constantly juxtaposed by that waspish little voice asking ‘are you sure you’re not misreading this?” and he was afraid of doing or saying something stupid and obvious - was surprised at how little he had managed to make a fool of himself.
“It was alright,” Aziraphale had said. “The flowers are nicer.”
Crowley had colored, and then made a fuss about opening the wine. Aziraphale had gone upstairs to fetch some stemware and get his exuberance under some kind of control.
That was their first of the night. Then there was a Chambertin… Had there been a third bottle? Aziraphale couldn’t remember. Around the time the Chambertin had run dry Crowley started admiring Aziraphale’s Shakespeare collection and before he knew it they started yammering on about Hamlet, which devolved into Lear and then careened headfirst into Twelfth Night.
“Where’re you off to?” Crowley asked, following Aziraphale’s unsteady amble towards the stairs. “Tired of me already?”
“Certainly not,” Aziraphale replied, with the feeling like he had been caught out, somehow. He still hadn’t asked Crowley what he meant with his little ‘angel’ bit and didn’t feel such a conversation was at all in the realm of his current emotional capabilities. “It’s-” he picked up one of the empty bottles and shook it. Crowley blinked, like someone who wasn't aware of just how drunk he was until the evidence was made plain before him.
“Mm, what time is it?”
“About half past eleven.” Crowley laid his head on the table and groaned.
“I’m supposed to be pulling croissants out of the oven in five hours,” he faintly wailed. Aziraphale winced in sympathy, and halted his progress towards his flat.
“I suppose another glass can wait then?”
“Now hang on, I didn’t say that!” Crowley pushed himself off the table. His eyes were gleaming when he grinned at Aziraphale, and he gently poked him in the chest.
“The Fool in Lear is the same Fool as in Twelfth Night, and I can prove it.”
They finished the Madeira right around the time Crowley pounded the table, shocked that Aziraphale had never seen The Sound of Music.
“No, you don’t understand,” he lamented. “It’s completely - well, you’d like it, the second act gets a bit samey but the songs will be stuck in your head forever - how have you not seen it?” Aziraphale shrugged.
“It didn’t seem like… I mean there’s opera, there's Gilbert and Sullivan, American musical theater is just derivative-” Crowley sighed loudly and slumped down in his seat.
“You’ll be saying that about Cabaret next,” he muttered.
“Should I know what that means?” But Crowley was suddenly up and halfway across the room, not listening. “Where are you going?”
“ I’m not going anywhere. We are going upstairs and I am going to show you a film about a plucky nun that warms the frigid heart of a sad military man and then the two of them and their whole singing family hike over the Alps to escape the Nazis." Crowley's voice grew faint as he climbed the stairs. "I've been avoiding it for fifteen years so I hope you understand the sacrifice I'm making for you. And you do have some kind of streaming service? We won't be reduced to the barbarism of having to watch a bad torrent from a laptop?”
“Never mind, I'll figure it out, let's go.”
Aziraphale blinked into a blue glow in the darkness ahead of him. Where was he? The surface wasn’t his bed, it wasn’t the couch downstairs, it was -
The flicker of light filling his vision slowly coalesced into the television screen and it at last clicked: the sitting room. He lifted his head to try and figure out just where on Earth that strange sound was coming from only to see Crowley curled into the wing-back chair beside him, long legs draped over the ottoman and softly snoring.
The clock above the door read 3:15. Was that clock the slow one or was that the one above the stove? He was having trouble remembering, operating in a sort of warm pleasant fog, and as he rose from the small loveseat his foot knocked something over onto the carpet. Ah, well, that explained it. When had they gotten into the Riesling?
Aziraphale peeled the tongue off the roof of his mouth. Some water was definitely in order. Maybe an aspirin, a preemptive strike against the hangover that was surely building just behind his eyes.
Carefully, so as not to wake Crowley, Aziraphale slipped into the dark kitchen and managed to find a glass and fill it with water with only the hazy orange glow of the streetlamp filtering in through the large window. The half parted curtains floated gently with the thin draught from the cracks in the sill. He was feeling fairly proud of his stealth until there was a clattering from the other room and Crowley appeared in the kitchen doorway, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
“I’m sorry,” said Aziraphale, his face falling. “I didn't mean to wake you.”
“No, no,” Crowley waved the apologies away. “My phone alarm was still on. Guess who’s supposed to be next door in thirty minutes.” Aziraphale nodded, and found him a second glass of water and two aspirin.
Together, in silence, they stood at the window and watched the street below. A sparse few were about at this late hour, just the odd individual headed to work or stumbling home from a night out. One couple came from the direction of the park, holding hands, walking close and slow with the kind of intimacy that comes when it's early in the morning or late at night and everyone else is asleep and you can believe that the whole world's gone away, and it's just the two of you. Aziraphale found a small smile on his face in light of their quiet joy. But when he turned his head to show Crowley, he saw the other man already looking at him. When had they gotten so close?
“Aziraphale?” Crowley said, barely above a whisper. Aziraphale couldn’t stop staring at Crowley’s lips as they shaped his name.
“Do you ever…” Crowley bit his bottom lip. Aziraphale waited for the rest of it, not daring to breathe. Crowley leaned forward in excruciatingly slow increments, and Aziraphale could sense that warm glow within him eager to spring forward, to bridge the gap between them, to - Aziraphale reached out a hand to push the hair from Crowley’s face.
That was moment the brick crashed through the shop window below them.
Crowley stuck around for the calm but drunken phone call to the police, for the frantic making of some strong coffee while waiting for the police to arrive, for the interview with the police during which the officer drank most of the coffee that he had intended to be for Aziraphale, and stood by his side straight through to the officer’s departure.
“You and your partner call us right away if anything else happens,” she had said with an encouraging smile and a wave before getting into her car, leaving Aziraphale agitated and Crowley suddenly finding the signage across the street of particular interest.
“I’m sorry she said it like that,” Aziraphale said to Crowley, when she had gone.
Aziraphale struggled for a reason that didn’t amount to something that sounded pitiful and desperate. He shrugged instead.
Crowley looked as if he was about to say something else, but he shook his head, sadly, and whatever he had been about to say got itself gone.
Back inside, Aziraphale washed the wine glasses in the kitchen sink while Crowley hunted around the flat for his patent leather boots. Aziraphale felt the distance between them and it ached with regrets, longed to turn back the clock to that moment by the window, but it was long past, shattered to bits just like the glass downstairs that Crowley had taped a bit of cardboard to.
The brick had a note tied to it that Crowley drew out with a pair of tongs before the police arrived (not to interfere with fingerprint evidence, he said) and read it out loud, even though his hands were shaking. Aziraphale’s were steady. It was the same nonsense that the men in cheap suits had been spouting the last time they had accosted him, but the destruction of the front window lent a certain weight to their threats.
“What are you going to do?” Crowley calling from the other room pulled him out of his melancholic reverie. Aziraphale wandered in to see that Crowley had given up the hunt for his footwear and artistically draped himself into the armchair in defeat. “We both know that the police won’t do anything, even when they pull the footage from across the street, they'll just see a shadowy someone or other lobbing a stone through the window.” Aziraphale chewed the inside of his lip.
“I don’t know,” he said, at last. “I had sort of hoped that they might just give up, once they realized I wasn’t budging. But now…”
“Will you sell?” Crowley toyed with a loose string on the seam of his shirt, not looking at him.
“Of course not,” Aziraphale scoffed. “This is my home, all my books are here. I won’t be chased out by some shadowy estate agency with too much time and hired muscle on their hands.”
“What if the next brick doesn’t hit your window?” Crowley's voice wasn't light or amused. It was dark, and threaded with uneasiness.
“Afraid they’ll miss me and hit you?” Aziraphale tried to salvage the situation with a joke but missed entirely, and Crowley's face remained stormy.
“That’s not what I mean.”
Aziraphale sighed. “I know. I know what you meant. I don’t... “ Aziraphale was not used to this particular brand of uncertainty.
Crowley sighed and stood up.
“It’s alright,” he said. ‘We’ll think of something.” Aziraphale smiled thinly, grateful for the support but dubious. What could Crowley do? But he just clapped Aziraphale on the shoulder and headed downstairs to open his cafe, leaving Aziraphale standing alone in the fractured rubble of what had almost been a very agreeable evening.
1 The proper length of time for such is, of course, 2.8 seconds. [return to text]
2 Aziraphale felt it was one of the most important books of the twentieth or any century, Crowley felt it was a load of complicated phrases strung together by a man who very much wanted people to think his writing was clever. It was quite a late evening, indeed. [ return to text ]
3 Crowley had opened the bottle during what he described as the 'hypnotic earworm' of Do-Re-Me, and Aziraphale had finished it fifteen minutes later, meticulously not looking at Crowley while Captain von Trapp and Maria danced the Ländler [return to text]
Aziraphale slept well into the next afternoon, and that night he stared up at the ceiling of his bedroom for three hours while a thousand fleeting thoughts and worries swirled together in a vortex so complex he had to stay up for a whole thirty hours to reset his schedule, and left his bed. From two to five in the morning he reorganized the backroom (organized the haphazard piles of paper into stacks of various themes), caught up with his bookkeeping (and that took all of five minutes because there had not been a book sold out of his shop proper in weeks ), spent the lunchtime hours puttering around the bookshop (took a few laps through the maze of shelves, where he became distracted by his favorite titles at a rate less than his usual), and studiously avoided the cafe next door for the entirety of the day. 
Crowley didn’t stop by, as Aziraphale suspected he might, although several times he thought he caught the top of his head walking back and forth outside. That couldn’t be right, of course, because Crowley rarely left the cafe, and even if it was, Aziraphale was still stuck on the problem of how to approach him after what had happened - almost happened? - the night before. What if he still had it all wrong, somehow, and it wasn’t what Crowley had meant at all?
All the same, by the next day he knew he couldn’t avoid him any longer, not without committing a serious breach of what he was determinedly referring to as ‘good neighborliness’ and nothing more. He fretted over which would be the appropriate time, after the morning rush, certainly, but he didn’t want to seem too eager, but then again there might be an early lunch crowd if he waited too long, and he agonized over the decision until the clock read 10:45 on the dot, at which point he gathered himself together and hurried over before his brain, with all its fresh anxieties, could get the chance to catch up.
“Oh!” Anathema, standing behind the counter, brightened the moment Aziraphale stepped inside. “Thank Christ you’re here, he was getting so broody and intolerable I thought I’d have to drag you over myself. I’m supposed to grab him the moment you got here but I have to know, because he won’t say anything about it, when he spent the night over at yours a few days ago was it just sleeping or did you two...” Anathema wiggled her eyebrows. Aziraphale blinked numbly at her. He didn’t anticipate running into Anathema first, or he might have waited for his mind to get ready after all.
“Anathema!” The two of them tensed at the harshness of it. Crowley had emerged from the kitchen at some point in the middle of her speech, and it was evident he was seething. “Go into the kitchen. Clean something.” Anathema, who had an excellent sense of self-preservation, did not to be told twice, and fled.
“Don’t,” Aziraphale said, holding up a hand as Crowley opened his mouth to apologize on her behalf. “I know. It’s not your fault.” Crowley smiled a bit, and set about preparing Aziraphale's usual morning order: a cup of Darjeeling and whatever pastry looked most appealing.
“Is everything alright over there?” He was conversational, perhaps calculatedly so. “No more letters or bricks or strange men showing up at your doorstep?’
“No, nothing as yet.” This was fine. No discussion about what had happened, a return to how things had been. This was fine . “How are things over here?”
“Oh, you know. Same-old. Someone’s given us a neat little write-up, always good for a bit of attention and new customers.”
Aziraphale noticed Crowley’s hands were shaking as he prepared a cup of tea.
“Everything alright, my dear?” The words escaped before Aziraphale could cull them, and he was mortified. Crowley, sensing the game was up, set the cup down and ran a hand through his hair while he slowly went red in the face became generally un-Crowley-like. (Public Crowley, at least. Aziraphale had seen him in worse shape as he decried the evils of James Joyce, but that was in the privacy of the backroom of the bookshop, and didn't quite count.)
“I mean yes?” Crowley was wearing his glasses, but Aziraphale could sense his eyes shifting back and forth behind them. “I’ve been thinking about it for like two days, and I think I found the remedy to your probable imminent hospitalization at the hands of some capitalist goons.” Welll, this wasn't exactly what Aziraphale had been expecting (hoping) to hear, but welcome nonetheless.
“Alright, so Gabby and Raf were in here yesterday, and in the interest of getting some of their stupid gossip I played nice and -” He looked away for a moment, trying to find the words. “It seems they’re the ones working with that developer trying to get you out.”
Aziraphale wanted to be surprised, if only to gratify Crowley’s sense of theatrics, but the truth was that it slotted together quite nicely with what he long suspected. There had never been two sides, just one with different faces.
“So I’ve got everyone against me, then?” he said, in fashion one could almost describe as ‘defeated.’ Crowley tilted his head.
“I take offense to that, I let those people eat the last of my blueberry drop scones for free so I could pump them for information and you know how popular they are.”
“Fine, everyone is against me except you,” said Aziraphale, stolidly ignoring the implications. “A nation of two.” He hoped Crowley had never read Vonnegut, and didn't know to what he was referring. 2 Crowley looked away, something he usually did when he was picking his words carefully.
“Either way, their whole problem is you don’t fit the neighborhood, right? So what if you did?”
Aziraphale felt he was supposed to derive some sort of conclusion from this, but what it could be missed him completely and he didn’t even catch the smoke of it.
“Like, if there was a way for you to be more, I don’t know, like, hip, or trendy, or whatever word you’d use for it, if there was a way to - er- expand? You still wouldn’t have to sell anything if you didn’t want to, but just to fit in a bit more, like camouflage almost, make sure you don’t - that nothing bad happens?” When Aziraphale still didn’t respond, Crowley began babbling, words stumbling over each other in a mad dash to be comprehended. “I mean we already share the basement, we could take down the connecting wall, put some of your bookshelves in here, put some tables in there, clean up your shop a bit - and yeah, I know that it's a lot to think about, but we can have someone look over the accounting, write up a contract, whatever you want to do. But then you don't have to go anywhere and you won't have to worry about...” Crowley trailed off, hoping for encouragement, and finding none in Aziraphale’s clouded features.
That was because, for Aziraphale, everything was slowly freezing into place, the outlines of common objects hardening like vicious diamonds. The careful, clearly marked pitchers of tea behind Crowley, the little green cactus with its jaunty pink blossom that rigorously monitored each transaction, even the pastries Crowley had baked that morning, gleaming with sugar glaze, all of them seemed to mock him, tormenting him with their unconcerned perfection while all the little hopes and maybes he had been nurturing for the past few months were strangled in their cradle.
So this was it. All the lovely evenings spent smiling at each other over glasses of wine in the back of his shop arguing about Shakespeare and Wilde and Woolf and Dickens, trusting him to watch the store while he was gone, the furtive glances, angel , and the - the flowers. This was what it was all leading to.
Crowley was just someone else who wanted to make a bid for his store.
He was just like the committee, just like those men in cheap suits. Crowley was presenting another offer, but instead of being accompanied by threats and letters and unkind insinuations it was with shy smiles and conversation and what Aziraphale thought might be -
“No,” said Aziraphale, with all the flatness of a man who's had his guts kicked out and is try to pretend the viscera pouring out of him is a mere trifle. “I don’t need that kind of help. I don’t need a bunch of teenagers tearing through my shop and my books becoming coasters for complicated coffees.” A bitter thought hit him then, a monstrous what if that burst from him without censure. “And I’m not that absent-minded, you know. I’d notice when you tried to force me out and you can bet that it’s not happening.”
He was dimly aware of that warm glow within him, waving its hands back and forth desperately, begging him to stop, to reconsider, but that proprietorial, defensive streak held dominion now, and it could not be quashed. A tower made of a million and one self inflicted wounds came crashing down on top of Crowley, crushing him in the wreckage of thirty some odd years of Aziraphale's doubts and fears. You are alone, the jagged rubble proclaimed. You aren’t fit for company, for romance, for love. You have you and you have your bookshop, and it has to be enough.
Crowley was trying to say something, holding out his hand, but all Aziraphale could see was the red haze of his breaking heart and the man who had almost tempted him into- into-
“And I don’t appreciate you telling your employees about our every interaction,” Aziraphale went on. “I’m well aware this, this flirtation is a source of amusement for all of you but I don’t need it to be thrown into my face every time I walk through the door. No more of your pity. I don’t need it. I don’t need anyone.”
Aziraphale turned on his heel and stalked out of the store, ignoring the fractured syllables Crowley stuttered at his back. Outside, the sight of the flower pots and planters, which had so recently nigh overwhelmed him with gratitude now only served to enrage him more, and he would have kicked them if he expected anything other than a broken toe for his trouble.
Had Crowley been planning this the whole time, since the first day Aziraphale had wandered in and interrupted Crowley’s construction? Get close to the ridiculous, abstracted shop owner with a stupid, lonely, longing look on his face only to take his business? Did the committee well and truly talk to him the day before? Or was that more smoke and mirrors, bait that he was supposed to swallow hook line and sinker?
It took five minutes it took to switch the “back soon” sign to “closed,” stomp into the backroom, stomp out of the backroom because he didn’t have any tea, stomp back into the backroom when he remembered he never got tea from Second Circle and why, and to throw himself into his chair in a final act of petulance.
He spang out of it at once and paced the shop up and down for three quarters of an hour, brooding over the whole interaction, each word he had spoken blazing in his mind again and again set against every one of Crowley’s actions from the last several months - laughing at jokes, smiling at him over the rim of a glass, a warm chuckle on the other end of a phone line - while a creeping sensation he dare not name slinking up his spine like ice.
Should he have stayed, he wondered in the moments when his reason was able to assert itself. Explained his outburst? But Crowley wouldn’t understand what it was like at all! He was - he was Crowley, he was good looking and charismatic and couldn’t possibly imagine what it was to have no one and nothing but the fragments of hurried greetings with strangers for company, to enjoy fountains of acquaintances that one adored but no one that one actually loved, to go years and years with the majority of conversation being a sad, one-sided thing scribbled into the margins of books written by long-dead authors. Then, once you’d finally settled into it, finally accepted yourself for who you were and what your life would be like until the day you died, someone comes along to crash straight through the roof with no apology at all, upsetting all your careful planning and leaving a mess all over the tile! Crowley didn’t, he couldn’t -
A fist pounded on the back door, and Aziraphale’s breath caught in his throat. He flung it open, expecting to see Crowley, but instead it was Anathema, nudging a speck of dirt on the step with her toe.
“What do you want?” Aziraphale asked, more combative than he meant to. Anathema held up her hands, like a surrender.
“He doesn’t know I’m here,” she began. “I just want to talk. To - to - apologize.” The word drew out of her, unfamiliar. Aziraphale crossed his arms and nodded for her to continue.
“Look,” she said. “I’m sorry about before. I didn’t mean to - to - I didn’t think you’d get so upset about it. It’s just - ” she sighed. “I didn’t mean for it to fuck up everything before he’d even had a chance to tell you what he wanted to. He thought he was trying to help, you know. I mean you have to understand that? He didn’t think - well, maybe he should have realized but he didn’t - maybe he could’ve found a better way to ask you. I mean it’s a good idea, right? It’s a lot to ask sure, but it’ll make sure you’ll be able to stay here without getting your head cracked open, and that’s what he cares about.” She looked away, as if the dustbins against the alley wall were all of a sudden quite compelling. “D’you know, yesterday, he acted like he started smoking again just to have an excuse to keep coming up front and walking past your shop? To make sure you were in the window and not, y’know, that someone hadn't done something terrible?”
Aziraphale uncrossed his arms.
“Whatever, do your not talking thing. If you want to be angry at me for what I said, fine. If you want to be angry at him for not being able to read the room - I told him he couldn’t just blurt it out like that but do you think he listens - then go right ahead. But all the other stuff you yelled at him -” Anathema shook her head back and forth, and a hysterical little laugh slipped past her lips. “You ever see people around you acting like they’re in a bad movie?” She realized who she was speaking too, and course corrected. “A bad book, whatever.”
“I don’t know what you-”
“Do you remember the day he was so tired he could barely stand up?” He scoffed. Of course he remembered.
“Well, when I got him over here he curled up on the sofa first thing and smiled - actually smiled! and fell right to sleep. Do you know how many times I’ve seen him smile like that in the six months I’ve worked for him?” Aziraphale shrugged.
“Never! Not unless - not unless you’re around. All that stuff you were suggesting, like you don’t matter, that he doesn’t care. That was...”
The memory of their first meeting swam in Aziraphale’s vision. Crowley alone, surrounded by tools it looked like he had purchased that day, in absurd snakeskin shoes. Crowley, building that shop all by himself, every cut, every nail, never asking for help, no one coming by to bring him a bite to eat, no one stopping by for a chat - well no one except -
Aziraphale, stopping by to say hello in the alley as Crowley crouched over his plants.
Aziraphale, bringing him a honeycomb bar and earning himself full tour of the nascent cafe.
Aziraphale, asking about the opening day, the gossamer specter of a smile on Crowley's face as he talked about their future as the worst pair of shop owners in the neighborhood.
And that slinking, icy sensation he was finally able to label as shame settled firmly into the back of his brain as he realized that he had gone too far. He had bordered on the cruel.
“Is he angry with me?” It was a small, low, pathetic voice, and it disgusted him.
“No, no he’s just, sad. I think. And…” Anathema went up on her tiptoes, to make sure she could stare him in the eye on the same level. “And the way you look at each other, it's, well, disgusting is what it is, and I just don’t understand what’s taking so long, why you both keep throwing up these stupid hurdles for yourselves to jump over. Stop living like you're trapped in a movie or something. You’re both lonely weirdos. Just, you know, go be alone together, already.” She dropped down to her usual height. Aziraphale was speechless as she scrutinized him, searching for something. She beamed, and it was like the sun broke from behind her clouded visage “Well, that’s that! I’ll see you tomorrow!” Anathema patted him on the cheek and practically skipped through the alley back to the cafe.
Aziraphale shut the door after her, and settled into a chair to have himself a decent think.
The streetlights were burning by the time was awakened by the gentle notes of a piano slinking in through the connected wall. At first Aziraphale thought it was some performer or another at Second Circle (was it open mic night again so soon?) but a quick glance at the clock told him that it was far too late for that. Still, someone was playing music. Who would still be -
Somehow, he knew the back door to the cafe would be open, either due to Anathema's foresight or Newt’s incompetence. The music drifted through the empty kitchen, banging against the sleek metal ovens and tables and turning eerie, echoes compounding and folding in on each other.
The sound was more familiar when he tentatively opened the kitchen door and entered onto the floor proper. Crowley was there, as Aziraphale knew he would be, crouched over the piano, picking out the melody line to a song Aziraphale remembered somewhere from his childhood, but he couldn’t place. He watching him for a minute or so, until the last notes dissolved into the empty air around them, and left the pair in silence and stillness.
Aziraphale broke first.
“I thought you were more of a Queen fan.”
“Not me,” Crowley said, without turning around. “Don’t know what gave you that idea.” Aziraphale wanted to sit down next to him, but he contented himself with taking a few hesitant steps forward.
“I’m sorry I got so angry,” he said, quietly. “For those things I said. I know you were only trying to help.” He knew he had more to say, but how could he pick apart the threads of why he had reacted the way he did without laying out everything he’d been unable to articulate over the past few months, over the last few decades ?
Crowley sullenly picked out a smattering of keys on the piano, discordant notes bunching together without meter. Aziraphale suspected the cup of coffee on the piano next to him might have a drop or two of something stronger. Perhaps this had been a mistake, he should have waited longer, given Crowley time to process his own emotions. Perhaps he should go.
Crowley mumbled something, and Aziraphale didn’t quite catch it.
“I said I’m sorry.” He slammed his hands onto the piano, a jarring chord. “I’m not saying it’s not a good idea, it’s a great idea, and it’ll keep you out of the hospital, or worse, or whatever. I could have, I don’t know. Figured out the logistics or something before running to you.” The line of his shoulders was drawn and tight, and Aziraphale came to sit down on the piano bench next to him. His hand was still perched over the keys, and when Aziraphale softly brushed his fingers over Crowley’s, Crowley’s whole body shuddered.
“You were just-”
“Excited.” A pause, during which neither of them breathed. Then at the same time -
“I wanted to say-”
“I’ve been alone so long that I don’t-”
“The last few months it’s been-”
“You criticize yourself enough and first you tell yourself you don’t mean it, it’s all in fun but eventually-”
“Don’t really get on with anyone like I do with you-”
“Can’t even believe the evidence in front of your face that someone might-”
“Your face when you realize you’ve forgotten something, those hideous jumpers, the tartan-”
“So it was easier to think that you didn’t really care at all, that it was all about-”
“And I tried to pretend it wasn’t, that you didn’t-”
“Now with all this going on I’ve had to consider-”
“But that’s stupid because obviously you’re in this up to your neck too and-”
“Of course I’d be sad to leave the neighborhood but its really you that I don’t-”
Crowley leaned forward and kissed him.
Though Crowley’s lips met his with infinite tenderness, Aziraphale’s heart still faltered in his chest, sending quivers through his body from the top of his head down to the tips of his fingers. He raised a hand to cup Crowley’s cheek, to steady himself, to affirm the reality of the moment, but when Crowley made a small, desperate noise at the back of his throat at the contact it caused a different sort of tremor altogether. Then he was carding his fingers through Crowley’s hair while Crowley had a fistful of his jumper, pulling him close, running his tongue over Aziraphale’s bottom lip, one arm snaking around his waist, mouths opening to each other, the hiss of hurried breath, the rustle of fabric sliding under palms, the -
“Well, friends, I hate to interrupt this party, but we’ve some business to attend to.”
Everyone has a breaking point. Sometimes they happen on the regular, a clockwork breakdown right around tea time, or the urge you feel every morning during the last half of your commute when you start entertaining fancies about driving right past work and straight on out of your own life forever.
For Aziraphale (who had prided himself on a seemingly infinite capacity for patience in the face of adversity), it was the moment that Crowley, startled by the strange voice, broke their kiss and drew back from him, twisting to face the doorway from whence the words had come. Aziraphale, who easily recognized the voice of he who had spoiled their night again , made a half-hearted effort to contain himself by biting the inside of his cheek, but it was only a moment later he stood up so quickly and with such terrible purpose that Crowley’s coffee mug was shocked into toppling off of the piano and cracked on the floor.
“Now look here,” he said, rounding on the men in the cheap suits. The tall man was locking the door behind him, while the shorter was trying to shuffle so the hazy lights from outside framed him in silhouette, both of them trying to appear ominous and threatening and only succeeding in looking like lousy extras in a Coppola film.
Aziraphale put himself between them and Crowley anyway.
“You’ve harassed me by mail and in person, you’ve thrown a brick through my window, and you’ve interrupted what was promising to be a very nice evening twice this week and I’m through with the whole business. Get out.” The tall man looked stupidly between Aziraphale and Crowley, wholly ignoring his demand, and one could almost see the four piece puzzle locking together in his brain.
“Oh, congratulations!” said the large man in the cheap suit, without a hint of sarcasm. “I was hoping you two would make a go of it.” That threw Aziraphale, who had been hunting around for something he might throw at them and was wondering if Crowley would forgive him a ceramic pot from one of his plants, quite off balance.
“Hey hey,” said the short man in the cheap suit, spoiling his (partially achieved) mob aesthetic entirely by stepping further into the shop to hit his companion on the shoulder. “We’re supposed to be criminals. It’s bad form to congratulate the victims.” Such an ominous statement sent Aziraphale longing for his umbrella, and he started eyeing the tall lamp in the corner. If he could somehow edge over to it…
“But Ligur, it’s good to see something positive for once, especially in our line of work. Unless… do you have a problem with their relationship?” the tall man asked, defensively.
“Of course I don’t have a problem with it, Hastur! I’m a criminal, not a monster! But let’s not get all chummy with these people before we do what we came here to do!”
The lamp was too far away. There was only one thing to do, and he hated, hated that all the plans he had been devising to tell Crowley about in private were about to be sacrificed to these imbeciles.
“Now see here,” said Aziraphale. “You don’t have to do anything to anyone. The bookshop won’t be around the way it is for much longer.”
“It won’t?” said the shorter man, Ligur.
“It won’t?” said Crowley.
“No. It’s-” Aziraphale took one last rifle through his memories of shooing customers out the door, getting lost in a volume for six uninterrupted hours of silence, feeling safe in solitude of his fortress of shelves and books.
“It’s merging with the coffee shop.”
“It’s what?” asked the taller one, Hastur.
“It’s what ?” asked Crowley.
“You heard me. It’s-it’s going to be,” he scrambled for the word Crowley had used earlier that day, “… hip.”
Crowley, despite the high tensions lying thick about the room, made a noise which might have been a choked laugh. Aziraphale chanced a glance at him over his shoulder and he threw Aziraphale an encouraging smile. But when he turned back round, Hastur and Ligur were middling, unsure.
“I mean, I know what the boss said to do, but-”
“It’s downright rude, I think. I mean all the committee wanted from the boss was to get the bookshop out of the neighborhood, and if they’re doing that on their own I don’t see how it’s appropriate. ‘Specially now that they’ve just got everything figured out between the two of ‘em.”
“But, I mean, I was kind of looking forward to this? And remember what the boss said about not following orders, what happened to-”
“Ah, yes. That’s true. Wouldn’t want that to happen to us.”
“And you know, if they’re planning on remodeling anyway, they could use some of the insurance money.”
“Well no, they still definitely lose. But it’s just the books, we’ll be careful.”
“I could live with that.”
“What is going on?” demanded Aziraphale, alarmed by the sudden direction the conversation had taken. Ligur met him with an expression he almost wanted to call sorrowful.
“We’re very happy for you two,” he began.
“That much is obvious, but what-”
“Hey, you’ve got a basement door that locks, right?” interrupted Hastur. “Somewhere you can keep things safe?”
“Yes…?” said Crowley, wary. “But why-”
“Great.” Ligur clapped his hands together and rubbed them eagerly. “So here’s the plan, boys, just so everyone’s on the same page. We came here with orders to rough him up a bit, you know,” here he indicated Aziraphale, “make it clear what the stakes are if you don’t comply, and to really drive the point home there was going to be some major damage to the bookshop. Instead, we’re going to lock the two of you down there, and then the two of us are going to go next door and set up a small fire that will-”
“No!” cried Aziraphale, aghast. Behind him he heard the piano bench slam against the floor as Crowley leapt to his feet, but the shorter man flicked open a knife and meanaced them back.
“Gentlemen, this is just business. I promise we won’t let it burn down. We have experience in this sort of work, I can assure you.”
“But you can’t!” Visions of flames tearing through the bookstore, curling the pages of hundreds - thousands - of books, twisting them black, eating through the shelves, runners of fire streaking across the carpet, the heaping, choking smoke as a million and one words vanished into so much ash and dust. He shuddered, small and alone as his mind bore witness to the deaths of thousands.
But then Crowley came to stand beside him, and took his hand. When Aziraphale turned to him he saw fear in those honeyed amber eyes, but there was spite and salt and brazenness too.
“I assure you, we can,” said Hastur. “Now let’s go, don’t want to botch this up anymore than it is.” He used his imposing bulk to herd Aziraphale and Crowley out through the kitchen and towards the back, near the basement door.
“Aziraphale…” Crowley whispered, pained, and Aziraphale remembered him, pale, wide-eyed, bursting through the basement door to land on top of him. He laced their fingers together and squeezed with reassurance.
“Go on now,” said Ligur, flicking towards the yawning darkness of the concrete steps. “Down you go.”
Aziraphale went for the lightswitch on the outside of the door, but Hastur stopped him with a heavy hand.
“Plenty of tools in a basement,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to be interrupted in our work.” Not for the first time that evening, Aziraphale wished the phase “shot daggers with his eyes” was a bit more than metaphorical, and the feeling was magnified exponentially by the panic radiating from Crowley beside him.
“Hey now, I think we’re being more than fair, but there’s no reason we can’t become a little less judicious if given enough reason,” said Ligur. Would he even use his knife? Could Aziraphale -
With a deep breath, Aziraphale crept down the first few steps into the darkness, pulling Crowley along with him.
“Your employees will find you in the morning,” Hastur called down.
“The girl maybe,” said Liger. “Bad luck if it’s the other!” They both had a good laugh as Aziraphale and Crowley reached the basement floor.
“I’m sure you two can find something to occupy your time,” said Hastur.
Then he slammed the door shut, and there was only the sound of their breathing and the inky dark pressing in.
Aziraphale closed his eyes to try and give them a moment to adjust, but when he opened them it was hardly any different. Beside him, Crowley was doing his best not to tremble.
“Hey,” said Aziraphale, reaching and pulling Crowley into an embrace. He clawed at Aziraphale’s back and pressed his face into his jumper. “It’s alright.” Aziraphale’s brain was rumbling through nightmare scenarios and throwing out solutions as fast as they came up. He seized on one that looked decent. “You ever put a flashlight down here?”
“No,” grunted Crowley into his shoulder. “Never wanted to come down here again. Made Anathema do it. She’s not scared of anything.” He took a deep breath that Aziraphale supposed was meant to steady him but instead sounded like the beginnings of hyperventilating. “But we don’t have time for this.”
“What do you mean?”
“They don’t know our shops are connected. We can ambush them - still save your books, but we need to - I need to just stop being so ...” Aziraphale felt very silly indeed, for not having connected the dots himself.
“Crowley, you’re brilliant.” Crowley made a high pitched noise that might have been an overwrought chuckle.
“I know I am, glad we can both agree.” He shook again. “Now please, get me out of here.”
“Of course, my dear. Come on.”
He led them on a blundering serpentine through broken chairs, unused tables, and sacks of coffee beans until, at last, a thin sliver of golden light glittered high above them to the left, marking the way to Aziraphale’s shop like a lighthouse above a stormy sea. Crowley, a belaboured sailor in unfamiliar waters, sighed in relief at the sigh of it, and despite two barked shins and a stubbed toe, they made it through the labyrinth of Aziraphale’s crates of old things and files and books to arrive at the foot of the stairs to the bookshop, where he paused and listened.
“I don’t hear them. They could be in the front?”
“Or upstairs in your flat.” Crowley’s eyes were fixed on the bright streak of light a few steps up. “Do you have anything down here we could use? Weapon-wise?” Aziraphale shrugged before realizing how useless the gesture was in the dim light.
“No unless you think their weakness is particularly troublesome volumes of Proust.”
“What about that umbrella of yours?”
“Upstairs in the coat rack.”
“Damn. Alright. Well, hunt around, so much junk down here there’s got to be something.”
Aziraphale floundered through the nearby boxes, hoping for a forgotten hammer, a pry bar, anything with some reach that he could use to give them an advantage but before anything appeared at hand there was a small crash and a grunt of pain a few feet away, and the soft whistle of victory.
“Hey, what about this?” asked Crowley, standing over a pile of things that Aziraphale hadn’t touched since they’d been put down there ten years ago. He held up something thin and metallic, but Aziraphale couldn’t tell what it was.
“What is it?” By way of reply Crowley pressed it into his hand, and the muscles in his fingers remembered the feel of the cool metal, molded themselves around the visconti grip.
“It’s a sword,” said Crowley, the way you tend to make simple observations to those around when you’re somewhat pleased, extremely anxious, and slightly delirious. “Well, a fencing sort of sword.”
“Epee,” corrected Aziraphale, hefting the weight in his hand, old and familiar, the pointed sting of sweat inside the mesh masks, the white suits, blood pounding in his ears, arm jolting as steel met steel, were parried, the thrill of touche. Instinctively he twisted his wrist, automatically running through the motions drilled into his head by his instructors week after week. When had he put this down here? He thought he threw it out years ago, after...
He felt the blunted tip.
“Well, it won’t do much damage, but -”
“It’ll do. What’s it doing down here?”
“It’s a long story.” He thought about his very last match, with the girl, with Eve.3 “Are you ready?”
Leading with his sword, they crept up the stairs, where, cautiously, Aziraphale nudged the door open. The men were not in the backroom, but there were some mutterings and crashings from the front of the shop, and a sharp, ethanoic miasma hung thick in the air. Crowley picked up the umbrella from the coat rack and a heavy paperweight from the desk. Aziraphale, struck by the thought to phone the police, was dismayed when he lifted the landline there was no tone.
“Do you have your mobile?” Crowley asked.
“Somewhere around here,” Aziraphale muttered, gesturing around vaguely. “But you smell that, right? What if they’ve already dumped a whole container-”
“They haven’t,” said Crowley. “But let’s do something about it before they do.”
Aziraphale knew his shop in much the same manner as a bee might know his hive, all the strange compartments and dead ends and pathways that never would have made sense to anyone else were mapped out in his mind in their entirety, complete with a directory of squeaky boards, and a fully referenced index of unusual shadow patterns. They moved through the bookstore without a single sound, twisting around the high, distant stacks, following the sounds of clumsy feet and dripping petrol.
It was Ligur they came too first, bent over a row of various editions of Herodotus’ Histories, dousing them with fuel out of a black container. Aziraphale wanted very much to run him through in spite of the blunted blade, but instead he nodded to Crowley, who disappeared between two bookshelves in what he suspected might be some kind of flanking maneuver. It might have been a good idea to draft up something of a plan beforehand, but hindsight is 20/20, after all, and there was a bookstore to save. Aziraphale crept up behind Ligur, and pressed the point of the blade into the square of his back.
Instead of having time to say something cool or interesting, like ‘don’t move’ or ‘don’t try anything funny,’ Aziraphale jumped as Ligur sprang up from where he had been crouching like Aziraphale had actually stabbed him, screaming -
“Hastur!” The remote fumbling amongst the shelves suddenly began closing in on them at an alarming rate; Aziraphale prayed first that Crowley was somewhere safe and out of the way and second that he would please live through this terrible night because if all he got to do before he died was kiss Crowley once he was going to come back as an extraordinarily annoying ghost and haunt these awful men into an early grave. Hamlet’s dad would have nothing on him.
The tall man, Hastur, burst into view and immediately stumbled forward as Crowley brought the paperweight cracking down on his head. He swayed back and forth, a tree just before someone yells timbre.
“Ow!” he exclaimed, holding his hands to his head and straightening his footing. “That really hurt.”
“Funny,” said Crowley, rather sheepishly. “I thought that was supposed to, you know, knock you out?”
“Nah,” said Ligur. “That’s only in the movies. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to knock a guy out proper.” He turned to face Aziraphale and sneered at the steel blade trained on his face. “What the hell is this thing?” In response, Aziraphale made an almost imperceptible movement and suddenly Ligur was reeling on the floor with a stinging red welt across his cheek. Hastur went to render him aid, but Crowley menaced him back with the business end of an umbrella.
“What are we going to do here, gentleman?” asked Crowley, with all the weight of a man trying valiantly to distract from his many disadvantages. And yet, from the floor, Ligur took a long look at Aziraphale who had holy fury in his eyes and an twitchy wrist, at Hastur rubbing the swiftly swelling lump on his head, at Crowley armed with a paperweight and an umbrella. He let out the long, exasperated breath favored everywhere by service employees when a customer is causing a scene that is far beyond what one's compensation should allow.
“Okay,” he pronounced, after some deliberation. “Alright. Okay. You win. Let’s talk.”
When the police arrived, the very small fire that had only mildly scorched a shelf full of books on the history of law had been extinguished almost as soon as it had flared up, but the shattered plate glass window that, according to Crowley, one of the perpetrators had escaped through, was a perfect match for the one destroyed by a brick not two nights before.
The same officer from that incident reported to this scene, and was baffled by the most unhelpful, disheveled, sober couple she ever had the misfortune to take a report from, with every answer dragged out of them only after they’d shared a meaningful glance at each other. No, the shop owners did not know who the men had been, only that they had worn cheap blue suits and one was tall and one was short. Yes they had fought them off with nothing but an umbrella, an old fencing sword, and a glass paperweight. No, they did not know if there would be any further issues. Yes they would like updates on the case. No, they would not like a patrolman to stand guard. Yes they would be fine. Yes, thank you officer.
It was more than enough to make her suspicious, and she vowed to take a careful look through the through the security tape from across the street later. But this exercise would reveal nothing that the men hadn’t claimed as the truth. There on the grainy film, two men came out of the cafe and broke in through the front of the bookshop. The dust and the cardboard that covered the window blocked most of what happened inside, but ten minutes later a small fire sprang up near the door, and thirty seconds after that a short man in a cheap suit came crashing through that very window out into the street. A tall man in a cheap suit burst backwards through the front door, facing the business end of an old epee wielded by a furious looking man in a light jumper. The two suspects sprinted away (exit stage right, the officer mused) and the fire was quickly put out. She went over it three times before shaking her head and filing the report as it had been given. She had a sick daughter at home, a shopping list to figure out, a wedding to plan, and now had to pull even more footage from the cameras down the street to try and trace the suspects path through Soho. The video was left open on her computer, frozen on the image of the proprietors standing together near the front of the shop, watching the left side of the screen where the perpetrators had disappeared. She hadn’t needed to see what happened next, and the footage was furious at this, because it had been tracing the movements of the two idiots across the street for months and now had no one to share in it’s joy.
Because what happened next was this.
Aziraphale turned to Crowley, who was covered in dust from the extinguisher and smelled like smoke, a dark streak standing out on his left cheekbone. He tossed his sword aside and crossed the space between them in two long strides, where he cradled Crowley’s face in his hands, gently brushed away the offending line of ash with his thumb, and kissed him like they had just stood together against all the forces of heaven and hell.
Crowley - still reeling from the rush of adrenaline that had been keeping him upright for the better part of twenty minutes - melted into his arms, allowing himself to be held. His right hand wrapped itself around the back of Aziraphale’s neck, deepening their kiss, and his left hand fumbled behind him, searching for the handle of the door.
“Are you sure?” Crowley asked against his lips as he gave up on the handle entirely, without even a shred of earnestness . “We're business partners now and all.” His eyes widened with surprise and desire when Aziraphale drove his back against the door and planted his hands on either side of Crowley’s head.
“Crowley, dear,” he spoke with their shared breath.
“Please stop talking.” Aziraphale demonstrated the gravity of his request with another kiss, and everywhere their bodies touched buzzed like static electricity between them. The door, which had just about reached its limit as far as participation in this whole thing was concerned, finally sprang open behind them, and there was a confused, entangling instant where they almost tripped over each other in their desperation to get inside.
“How much time do we have until the police show up?”
“Maybe five minutes?” A disgruntled groan.
“...but then we have the whole rest of the night after?”
“Oh. Right. That’s fine then.”
They were framed in the rich light of the doorway, foreheads pressed together, grinning like they had just discovered the secret keys of the universe.
Then they vanished into the depths of the bookshop, and the footage knew no more.
A few months later, Aziraphale awoke from pleasant dreams to an extremely vexatious buzzing in his ear. This terrible noise was a harbinger, a warning that soon the very comfortable and warm body curled beside his would try to leave, and he clutched at it, willing the moment to go on for just a little bit longer. When it started to unwind from him, as he knew it would, he made a distressed sort of noise, and Crowley shook with silent laughter as the wretched phone alarm was finally switched off.
“Do we have to go through this every morning?” Crowley whispered, amused.
“But you’re so lovely,” Aziraphale mumbled in sleepy protest, opening his eyes just in time to see Crowley’s cheeks go red at his words. To arrest his departure further, Aziraphale kissed the delicate shell of his ear, and Crowley hummed in a sort of languid bliss and pressed back against him.
“I’m supposed to be downstairs in five minutes,” he said after a moment.
“Anathema can handle it,” Aziraphale answered with a yawn. But Crowley shook his head against the pillow.
“She’s not in until eleven. Newt’s our morning help today.”
“Oh well then you better get down there before he does,” Aziraphale replied, feigning concern, and he nudged him towards the edge of the bed with the tips of his toes. “Don’t want a repeat of the last time.” The “last time” that he referred to were the circumstances from three weeks prior, when Crowley had indulged himself an extra few hours rest and allowed Newt to open the store alone, where, predictably, Newt promptly started a fire in the oven and set off all the alarms.
Despite this fact, Aziraphale did not loosen his hold on Crowley's waist. Crowley leaned his head on Aziraphale’s, and made no more attempts to remove himself from the bed. He traced quiet, lazy patterns down his partner's arm, and, outside, above the alley, a bird began to sing. The perfection made his heart ache.
“I love you, angel” Crowley said softly into the darkness, and even though he had said it before (and would say it again before the day was out), it still made Aziraphale flustered and giddy, the woozy lightheadedness after a fourth glass of wine.
“I love you too, my dear.”
The alarm would go off again in fifteen minutes, and though Crowley was known to sleep straight through four in the afternoon on his days off, no amount of wheedling or cajoling could encourage him to stay when there was baking to be done, plants to mist (and threaten), and beans to be ground.  He would go downstairs, and within a half hour or so all manner of wonderful pastry smells would rise up through the floorboards, and when Aziraphale awoke properly a few hours later it would be with ravenous hunger for a chocolate croissant. After breakfast he would go and tend to his half of the shop (now sprinkled with plants that were given heaps of kind encouragement and flourishing with it, much to the chagrin of he who had put them there), where he would reluctantly direct patrons to the newly installed ‘popular fiction’ section while he thumbed through his research and he and Crowley made eyes at each other across the shop until Anathema rolled her eyes in disgust and made them go out to lunch together so they didn’t spoil their patron’s appetites.
But that would be later. Now they were entwined together in bed, in love, while the spindly light of dawn inched in through the windows.
Aziraphale would have called it Paradise.
1As is so often when you want something so badly that you make a resolve to not look at it all together (an extra slice of cake, a long awaited text, that new book or pair of shoes that just isn't in the budget right now). This type of vow usually fails completely within the first five minutes. [return to text]
2 Crowley had actually read Vonnegut, only because there had been a very nice box set he saw in a store he thought would look smart on the shelves back at his Mayfair apartment and in a fit of ennui he picked up Cat's Cradle and found he couldn't put it down. [ return to text ]
3 See chapter 2, footnote 2, for details[return to text]
4Unless it was particularly excellent wheedling and cajoling, or Crowley was particularly tired, or didn't particularly feel like prying himself out of bed and out of reach of a very comfortable and warm Aziraphale. (Crowley was late to work more often than not.)[return to text]
Well, this is the end, folks! Let me know what you thought, this was an incredible amount of fun to write and I really hope you all enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing. Feel free to check out some of my other Good Omens fics, and I'm also on tumblr as @soft-october-night if you'd like to come by and say hello!