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it's the light (it's the obstacle that casts it)

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It's gone midnight, and the radio stopped broadcasting hours ago. There's the remnants of a meal on Aziraphale's fine china plates with the silver filigree, and an empty paper bag sits in the centre of the table, still slightly sticky and now emptied by the two of them; Aziraphale had persuaded Crowley to pool their coupons and splash out on sweets. Crowley's been working through the sherbets slowly, with Aziraphale having demolished the fruit gums with a happy relish. Now the night's ticked down to something a bit slower, the conversation shifting on the evening tide like driftwood. They talk about the bombed out ruins of St Dunstan that they passed on their walk earlier, the Blitz and all its horrors already regressing into a rusted, slightly surreal memory, before Crowley, on his fourth glass and feeling rather chuffed with himself, starts enthusing about his recently purchased allotment, the vegetables he's been growing there with only a hint of cheating. Aziraphale had complimented him on the vegetables that they'd just finished eating, and a mild disagreement had harmlessly scuffled up about whether Crowley's occult nudging counted as cheating or good sense.

Aziraphale is sinking lower against the table like an unrisen cake, resting his face against his palm as a shaky fortification against his encroaching drunkenness. Crowley is humming some Vera Lynn because he's not sober enough to remember the words, and it makes him think about opening another bottle. He might have voiced this out loud because Aziraphale gives an agreeing groan and a hand-wavy gesture like a conductor who has had too many wine spritzers, trying to direct the drink into his glass. Crowley hunts around for the bottle opener, finding it on the floor, leaning down and scrabbling before he grabs it, only to whack his head on the underside of the table on the way back up. He curses and Aziraphale burbles a giggle, and Crowley responds by cursing again.

There's a loud banging on the shop door. Crowley jumps and drops the bottle opener, before leaning back casually as though it was his intention all along. Aziraphale looks up blearily, his eyes like half-closed blinds, squinting and murmuring a dazed whosat, m'dear. His capacity for well-formed speech had retired with a night cap a few hours before, and he's started to slump again, resting his head against the crook of his elbow.

Slam slam slam.

“Pro'lly some bloody kids,” Crowley hisses.

Aziraphale is too stubborn to move from his bookshop to somewhere more upmarket. If the cholera wasn't enough to get him to move, the noise isn't going to do it. In the face of tenement rises and knocking shops, the bookshop is a local monument in that most people take it for granted that it's there, sometimes use it as a landmark when they're giving directions, and never really think twice about it. Aziraphale takes to this level of local anonymity like a bookishly minded duck, and makes his opening hours even more incomprehensible, allows his windows to become overgrown with smoggy residue that never quite wipes off. This however, doesn't mean that Crowley, thinking bitterly that they could be getting juiced up in his Mayfair residence, particularly enjoys having to listen to the racket outside whenever he stays late.

He shoots an affronted look at the door, and wonders if using his demonically granted powers of shape-changing to get some drunken louts to bugger off would count towards his side or Aziraphale's.

Slam slam slam.

“Open up!” the shouting outside the door doesn't sound like drunk kids, or some lush too many gins down who dropped her keys in the guttering and staggered back to the wrong house. “Zira! Zira! Open up! It's the lillies, for fuck's sake, open the door!”

Crowley is too drunk to follow the lines of exactly what happens then. He knows that Aziraphale's suddenly standing with all the fervour and grace of a sozzled jack-in-a-box, almost dislodging the table with his knees in his rush. He's straightening his three-piece suit that's a few decades out of fashion, looking like he's half prepared to grab his hat to greet visitors. Crowley watches bemused, too soporific with food to adopt bewilderment,as the angel shakes off his drunkenness like shedding water from a downpour, and his face ossifying into something bitten down and anxious.

“Woss...” Crowley hisses, staggering to standing, regretting it terribly the moment he does.

“Sober up, my dear,” Aziraphale says sharply, and he's already marching out of the back room towards the front door of the shop. “There might be trouble.”

Crowley groans and feels the alcohol leave his blood-stream with an unceremonious shiver, like someone's done the Charleston over his grave.

“Inside!” he hears Aziraphale say strictly as he tugs open the door, the shop bell giving a little cut-off ring. Two men stumble in from out of the cold and smog, one of them almost pitching forward before the other one catches them by the arm and drags them upright. Aziraphale's slamming the door shut, locking it with a twist, rounding on them with a stern expression. “You're battery carseying loud enough to warn any of them on the prowl. Come on, get inside, the both of you.” He's already started ushering them away from the front door, making towards the warmer space of the back room.

“Zira, the lillies,” the older one pants insistently, his voice a ribbed croak.

Aziraphale's face has wrapped itself into a serious cast.

“Goodness me, gentleman, really...” he starts, holding his hands out in a placating manner, but then there's another banging on the door. Louder, harsher. Thud thud thud.

Aziraphale freezes. The younger one, an up-shock of ruffled hair and probably not even old enough to be drinking, squeaks with fright, and the older one blanches the colour of Aziraphale's china, stiffening.

“I can't go to the queer ken, Zira,” he says wildly, fiercely whispered. “I can't, I've got priors, they'll bang me up for sure, I can't...”

Aziraphale interrupts firmly.

“You aren't going anywhere, Francis,” he says. “Hide. I- I'll handle this.”

“But...”

“But nanti,” Aziraphale bites out sharply. There's a uncommonly grave look he's picked up, and it doesn't carry right on his face. “Nanti palavar, understand? I'll sort this.”

The tone of voice and expression he's wearing aren't unfamiliar to Crowley. He realises, with a leaden twinge like an old bruise, that it's exactly what Aziraphale looks like when he's about to do something well meaning, dashingly brave if it was anyone else, but ultimately, probably quite stupid and self-sacrificing.
Crowley thinks dully of an old church a decade ago, and his feet ache with a sympathetic nostalgia.

Aziraphale looks over at Crowley who is still standing back at the entrance to the back room, his body strung tense and not quite sure how the evening tipped into this. He's still struggling to stay afloat as he listens to Aziraphale dropping in and out of dialect like he's submerging and resurfacing under linguistic waters, feeling dizzy with the shift of it.

“You need to hide them,” Aziraphale says to him.

“Azir... what?”

“In the back room. They mustn't be found, there isn't time.” To the newcomers, he looks beseechingly. “Francis, drage this one back there. Nanti a word. You hide, keep your eek shut. If you have to dash, scarper out one of the windows while they're caught up with me. Understand?”

Thud thud thud.

“Police! Open up!”

“Coming! Oh deary me, just a minute!”

Aziraphale's shout sounds uncannily like he's just been roused from a deep slumber, sluggish and sleepy. It's such a sudden pretence, so at odds with the wide-eyed reality of Aziraphale's stress rolling off him in waves like cold air over warm waters that it jars Crowley's brain into action.

He's half-dragging the two strangers into the back room. There's not much space to hide two grown men; under the table's a no-go, there's no space in the cupboards under the sink, not with the fat, groaning pipes, but there's a bent-backed bookcase that's meant to serve as Aziraphale's overflow shelf.

“Behind here,” he instructs, and the two look at him dubiously, but they do as bid. They're right to be doubtful; it's only Crowley's firm understanding that the gap behind the bookshelf is wide enough that makes it so in a thought. Crowley's rather hoping it won't come to it, but he knows that if any policeman comes in here, they won't be spotted. He'll make sure of it. “Keep quiet.”

“My, good evening officers!” he hears Aziraphale exclaim, sounding for all the world like he's drowsily surprised by their visit. “I'm sorry, couldn't find the keys, lose my own head next, goodness, and well, I'm afraid you've caught me at a bad time, I was just about to retire...”

Aziraphale, Crowley realises, is panicking in his own way. Gabbling nervously even as he holds the door half-closed against the police. Aziraphale, when threatened with confrontation, can affect an unflappable charm in the same way an octopus can easily tie its shoelaces.

The officers don't notice Crowley wandering out of the back room, closing the door and sidling forward, watching with an expression that's pulled its hood up. It's one of Crowley's many talents, taking advantage of good old-fashioned humans being unobservant. He's out of practise in lurking, but it comes back like riding a slow and malevolent bicycle.

“It's Mr Fell, isn't it?” says one of the officers, moustache curling over his top lip like bristles on a comb. His brass buttons gleam in the light from the bookshop, and he adjusts the strap of his hat under his chin. “I recognise you from around these parts.”

“Having a quiet evening, are you?” the clean-shaven one asks carefully. He has a meaty hand, a worn watch choking the skin of his wrist, and his fingers rest leisurely against the top of his baton, a deliberate gesture.

“As I said...” Aziraphale says, his eyes darting between the two of them. “I was just about to retire. Can I help you with anything...?”

“”You haven't seen anyone come this way, have you, Mr Fell?” the moustachioed one asks precisely. He's got a hawkish glee in his gaze, pinning his focus down.

“A-a-anyone?” Aziraphale asks faintly, his voice beginning to scale up in pitch. He's playing timid very well, but Crowley has known him long enough to be able to recognise when he's unwillingly gearing himself up for a fight. The orangish cast of the light-bulbs strike off-colour shadows across his anxious face, crinkled with nerves, dye his nearly white hair a bruising yellow.

“You wouldn't know anything about the two poofs that ran down here, not five minutes ago?” the clean-shaven one says genially. “What with your house being the only one with the lights on. What with us hearing the lock on your door clicking just now. That wouldn't happen to ring any bells, would it?”

“N-no, not at all, good gracious...”

“Only,” the one with the moustache shifts forward slightly, and Aziraphale's whole body tenses like the snap of a bear trap. “Only you have a reputation, Mr Fell. The company you keep, the sort you hang around with. A man could get into trouble with a reputation like that.”

Crowley doesn't like the way they're looking at Aziraphale. Everyone in the room knows exactly the conclusions they've come to. Aziraphale dressed dandyish, like a misplaced Oxford don, Aziraphale with his precise, effete manner and his effected speech, the careful way he holds himself, the well-bred, silver-spoon voice that doesn't sit naturally amongst the rough voices of Soho. Only a particular type of person talks like Aziraphale around here. Even Aziraphale knows all this. And he's never been ashamed of what people might think, knows precisely how it looks to everyone but bullishly refuses to back down. But people can be narrow-minded. People can make assumptions. And a suspicion is all they need these days.

Crowley's eyes thin into slits behind his glasses.

“If you wouldn't mind letting us have a look around, there's a good chap,” the policeman continues. “Then we can let you get on with your evening.”

“I would rather you didn't,” Aziraphale says. He's attempted to aim for sincere but firm, but he's bulls-eyed haughty instead. “I was under the impression, you needed a warrant of some such, er... suspicions, that sort of thing.... look, you can't just go barging into people's houses in the middle of the night.”

“That's a common mistake,” the moustachioed one says, and they're playing, they're playing with him, and all three of them know it. He puts his hand on his truncheon, not so subtle any more. “I'd say this whole set-up is probably very suspicious. Grounds for obstruction, harbouring fugitives, that sort of thing. So are you going to let us in, or not?”

Aziraphale tenses and doesn't move.

Crowley realises too late that, unlike Crowley, Aziraphale probably can't do anything against the officers. They're nominally on his side after all, and there'd be uncomfortable questions as to why Aziraphale saw fit to vanish officers of the law in the enactment of their duty.

Crowley looks at the shuttered up expression on the angel's face, sees how this night could all pan out, and thinks bugger this.

“Fell,” he says firmly and loudly enough to draw attention, striding forward with a confident swagger in his steps, appearing for all the world like he's just come out from the back room. “What the devil's going on here? There's not been some sort of trouble outside, has there?”

“And who would you be?” the clean-shaven policeman asks gruffly, and Crowley's happy to see he looks like he's been put on the back foot with the presence of a witness. He looks over Crowley, standing in his loose-collared shirt and bolo tie, looking distastefully at his greased-up quiff, the style that makes him look deliberately younger than he is. There's not so many young men around as there used to be; the war saw to that. Crowley sees the clockwork dully ticking behind his eyes. There's two of them in here, and it's late. Soho has a reputation after all, and the buttons of Aziraphale's waistcoat are undone, Crowley's shirt untucked. To the wrong people, that's grounds for accusation.

Crowley isn't going to let this get that far.

“I was just heading off, old boy,” he drawls lazily. “Early start tomorrow, you know how it is.” He slips into an upper class arrogance and gives the officers a dismissive look. He allows a hint of Suggestion to drip into his voice. “You gentlemen should be getting along too, hmm? There's nothing that will interest you here.”

The policemen look at him with hard eyes and he looks back. His eyes unblinking, staring for a bit too long to be natural. He pushes the hint into the territory of an implication, hoping it'll take. Aziraphale isn't breathing beside him.

“Have a good evening, Mr Fell,” the moustachioed one says finally, blinking as though out of a daze, with an unwilling jerky motion backwards. “Stay sharp.”

They turn and they leave, walking back out onto the thick smog and the unquiet night.

Aziraphale lets out a relieved sigh, his body loosening like an ill-wound grandfather clock. He locks the door with more force than he maybe intended, and puts a hand on Crowley's arm.

“Thank you,” he says, his voice heavy with gratitude, and Crowley nods.

“Obstructing the police is probably a point for my lot anyway,” he says flippantly, instead of all the things he's thinking.

Opening the door to the back room, Crowley watches the two strangers unfold themselves awkwardly out from behind the bookshelf. The older one, Francis, stands up wobbly and adjusts the strap of his sequinned top, a outstretched hand on the bottle-littered table to steady himself. He looks at Aziraphale with apologies scrawled all over his paled face.

“Sorry, auntie,” he says. “There weren't nowhere else. Clocked us on Old Compton Street and we had to leg it.”

Now the excitement has passed, Crowley takes a moment to look at their guests. The younger one is conservatively dressed in what's probably his most fashionable polo-neck and corduroys, rough hands like a dockworker, looking not a day over seventeen and trembling like ripples on a wind-rustled lake. The older one, maybe in his early twenties is a bit more the sort Crowley expects to see on a Friday in Soho; face made up with eyeshadow and mascara, some gaudy clip-on earrings. The younger one has ripped holes in the knees of his poorly-pressed trousers, a rash of skinned knees half visible. The older one's got a split lip and a real shiner beginning to darken the skin around his left eye. The pieces of the puzzle slot into place with a sad clarity.

“Can't be helped,” Aziraphale replies reassuringly, looking tired all of a sudden, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. He gestures to Crowley at his side. “Anthony,” he says, deliberately using his human name. “This is Francis. Francis, my friend Anthony.” His face assumes a concerned pall, his mouth downturned. “The sharpies get their orbs on you? Vada what you look like?”

“Don't be a drear, dorcas,” Francis says, waving his hand dismissively. The effect is mildly disturbed by the way he sways like a table with an uneven leg, and Aziraphale flusters at him and directs him quickly to a chair. “Nanti charpering omi goin' to nab me any time soon.”

“You're all talk and no trousers,” Aziraphale says with a raised eyebrow, before he studies his face carefully, looking at the black eye, split lip, a glancing cut on his forehead. “There was a barney though, wasn't there?” He asks. Francis scowls. “Who got you?”

“Some naff hettie. Wasn't anything.”

“Baloney!” the younger one finally sees his cue, pushing through the fear that locked his throat to interject angrily with a broader accent than any of them have. He tightens his jaw. “Swishing around, fluttering his lashes at the wrong ome. Took offence, called one of the lillies from the next street.”

“Nanti! That ain't right!” Francis snaps back. “Look, Zira,” he tries to defend himself, and seems to be getting himself worked up. “None of it was meant, honest. We were all joshed up, some of the blokes dragged up and ready for a go around the cottages, then someone clocked us and took a right issue. Bit of a barney, someone called the lillies, we scarpered.”

“I'm not blaming you, my dear boy,” Aziraphale says kindly, patting his arm distantly. A little of the tension leaves the older one like a radiator being bled and Crowley wonders if Aziraphale's doing some suggesting of his own. “You're both here, and you're safe.”

“I din't mean to bring the sharpies to your door, honest, Zira,” Francis mumbles.

“Nanti that,” Aziraphale says with a careless dismissal. “No one's fault.” He sniffs and straightens his lapels, and it's like the last ten minutes didn't happen. Aziraphale's very good at that, ignoring the things he doesn't want to think about.

“Now, Francis,” he scolds gently. “Who's your young man? You haven't introduced us.”

“Lewis,” the younger one interjects before Francis can speak, and shakes Aziraphale's hand in an earnest manner.

“A pleasure to meet you, Lewis,” Aziraphale says, “Although, a shame you've shacked up with this screaming bean cove.”

“Ooh, you catty bitch, queeny,” Francis grins. There's blood on his teeth, and he winces as he moves, hissing through his lips. “Bloody hell.”

“Anthony, the first aid kid, my dear, please.”

It's like Aziraphale has only just remembered he's there. Crowley doesn't mind that much, he's been staring silently, making a concerted effect to keep his mouth closed and his blinking regular. It's like having a curtain pulled back on something he wasn't expecting to see. A surprise punch-and-judy at an up-scale restaurant, a lobster thermidor when he's ordered an ale. Aziraphale knows this man. Knows him well enough that Crowley would suspect this sort of thing has happened before.

Crowley's been around. He's seen a lot in his six thousand odd years, and before his side or the other lot decide to wipe the board for another round, he'll probably see a lot more. It's his job, and it's the parts he approaches with genuine relish, the heady experiencing of it all, delving into humanity so much he almost forgets himself. He knows the thieves cant of the East End, the topsy-turvy switch of rhyming slang and patter yelled from overspilling street markets, he can communicate passably in the chatter of Romani slang and borrowed lingo that gets thrown around the docks and taverns. But this is, that is to say – Aziraphale's speaking polari. Not a couple of words, not awkwardly spoken like he's trying them out on his tongue. Speaking polari.

It's a surprise, is all. Not unwelcome, but a surprise.

The angel is always doing that. Surprising him. It's one of his favourite things about him.

Crowley realises he's been standing without being helpful, and figures he should probably do something useful now he's awake and sober and Aziraphale's probably going to be playing nanny for the evening. He waves a long-fingered hand with an 'I'll get it' gesture, and shuffles to the corner of the back room – in as much as the room rounded by clutter and books has corners – to grab the first aid kit from one of the cupboards. He is expecting to have to brush the dust off with his hand, because really, it's not like either of them would ever have cause to use the thing, (Crowley's seen Aziraphale miracle away a splinter before, and he'd have called him out if Aziraphale hadn't once watched him gesture away a ragged hangnail), but it's relatively clean, looks fat and recently re-stocked. Crowley wonders whether these sort of people come to Aziraphale's a lot.

“Vardar this one! Alamo!” Crowley feels the eyes on him as he leans down to get the bag, hears the low whistle and the murmured appreciation. Some proud part of him preens at the attention he's getting. He knows he looks good. It's intentional.

“Stop ogling,” he hears Aziraphale hiss. and grins, knowing no one is looking at his face.

“He nanti Polari, Zira?”

“Not that I'm aware of,” Aziraphale says idly, as though they're not talking about Crowley right behind his back. Contrary to Aziraphale's ambivalence, Crowley understands every word, but he's enjoying the anonymity, gleefully hoping he can catch some ammunition on the angel, so wisely keeps his mouth shut.

Crowley comes back with the first aid kit and Aziraphale opens it up and tsks as he looks over Francis's face. The younger one, Lewis, shifts his weight from one leg to another, clearly uncomfortable and still shaking with the unbled adrenaline.

“Bevvie?” Aziraphale asks him, gesturing absent-mindedly at the table, the bottles of wine some still half full that Crowley hasn't cleared away.

Lewis flushes.

“I'm not...” he starts, fiddling with his nails, “I mean, I'm seventeen so....”

“I won't tell if you don't,” Aziraphale replies, a seasoning of indulgence in his voice like a kindly uncle. “Pour yourself one. I'll sort this bimbo out.”

“What am I, a piece of meat?” says Francis, arching a well-painted eyebrow.

“Shush your eek, my dear, while I get this slap off your face.”

Aziraphale has found a wet wipe to get rid of the bold make-up, revealing a freckled face that looks older than it should. A bit too worldly for the years it's clocked, a flintiness behind the eyes. Aziraphale brushes his hair back from his face clinically, and begins to dab the cotton bud soaked with TCP on the cut over his eyebrow, shushing the hissing noise Francis makes. Crowley lingers uncomfortably, before he comes to a decision and sits down, pours himself a drink. He gets out two glasses and pours two glasses of white wine for the other two, handing them to Lewis. He's enjoying watching this, and figures Aziraphale won't notice if he sits quietly.

Lewis thanks him nervously, meeting his sunglasses-covered eyes only fleetingly, clearly not quite sure to make of him, and hands one of the glasses to Francis. The man drains it in a thirsty gulp, and Aziraphale frowns.

“Some bevvy-ome you are,” he chides, and Francis pushes his arm with a toothy grin.

“Takes one to know one.”

Francis is looking a bit less like he's about to collapse, a colour coming out from hiding to brush across his cheeks, and he casts an appreciative eye on Crowley, trying not to appear too obvious and failing.

“Some gildy clobber he's got on,” he comments, and then swears as Aziraphale dabs with the TCP a bit too hard. “He in the life, ducky or what?”

“I couldn't say,” Aziraphale says, rummaging around the first aid box for the arnica cream. Francis stares at Crowley for a second, and Crowley looks back behind his glasses mildly.

“He's so,” he says finally with a boisterous certainty. “Bloody waste otherwise. Cor, you mean he's your regular bencove, walking round here looking like that, and you ain't had a real bona charvering out of him all this time?”

“Francis!” Aziraphale exclaims, slapping his arm, and he reddens like a sunset. Crowley struggles not to burst into laughter at the mortified expression Aziraphale throws to him, as though checking he hasn't understood. He orders his features to assume a nonchalantly 'who me?' face and it seems to do the trick. “Mind your language!”

Francis beams, clearly enjoying riling Aziraphale up a little. He winks at the younger one, and Lewis must get the drift, because he sighs theatrically.

“I'd let him put his lappers anywhere he wanted and no mistake.” he says, giving a little made-up dreamy sigh, and Francis snorts a laugh.

“With those lyles, definitely.”

“You hush your mouth,” Aziraphale scolds, the pink in his cheeks not abating. “Cackling away like fishwives.”

“You ain't such an antique, Zira,” Francis says cheekily. “And to have that bona cove right in front of you and to have never seen the colour of his eyes.”

“Sharda,” Lewis agrees. He looks over at Crowley. Crowley winks and puts a finger to his lips, makes a show of giving Aziraphale a salacious look-over. Francis and Lewis see it, but Aziraphale doesn't. Lewis beams like a lightbulb.

Aziraphale's done applying the bruise cream to Francis' face, and ushers Lewis to sit down like a fussy housewife, rolling up his trouser legs to tut disapprovingly at the state of his knees. Francis drags his body up and then back down again to take another chair, and he natters away to Aziraphale while the angel cleans the scratches and the gravel with antiseptic.

“And how is Kitty these days?” Aziraphale asks.

“That flowery you found for her suits her nice,” Francis says, drinking another wine too fast. “Not too far from Blackfriars. Ain't gonna get kicked out of this one neither. She says she's getting back on her feet. Think she's seeing some rough trade from Battersea... Oh, and then there's Linda. She's left the life, sharda, think her folks found out somehow, you know how it is. Gone back up to get married to a nice girl.”

“I haven't heard from Martha in a while,” Aziraphale muses as he carefully cuts strips from the bandages he's unravelling around his hand. “Everything's well, I trust?”

“There were... letters. From some trade months ago.” Francis says quietly after an unsettled pause. “She got caught cottaging a few months back, and the pissy chicken she was with left her on her tod and scarpered. And then, well, the charpering omi goes to her house, and ... well, bob's your uncle. ”

“Anything to be done?” Aziraphale asks.

“She got two years,” Francis says, picking at his nails. “Ain't nothing can be.”

There's a taut silence that hangs like a noose.

“I trust the both of you will be staying?” Aziraphale says finally with a thick sigh once he's finished bandaging Lewis's knees.

“I mean, if it ain't a....” Lewis starts, going an embarrassed red.

“Nanti that, I really must insist,” Aziraphale says firmly. “It's late, and you both look done in. Stay. There's a bed upstairs big enough for the both of you. I shan't be sleeping at this hour. You need anyone on the pipe, let them know?”

Aziraphale is probably the only business on the street with a phone. He had been reticent, thinking it an awful expense for something that most people barely owned, but knowing it was an easy way to contact Crowley had swung him round to the whole idea. He gestures to the shiny black Bakelite set sat squat on a wooden table covered in a badly knitted doily, a thick cord snaking to the wall.

“I think Dotty's still mincing around, wondering where we got to. You mind?”

“Not at all,” Aziraphale says graciously. “As long as you need.”

Crowley listens to Francis talk into the phone while pretending to be invested in his drink and perusing the evening paper he's already read. Aziraphale's leading the nervous Lewis upstairs, grandly and unsubtly claiming he'll need help with the sheets, but Crowley knows it's to give the lad some space, maybe to take him to one side and check he's alright. Aziraphale's good like that. Must be an angelic urge in him.

“Dot? It's me... We're at Zira's. You know her, the old queen with the bookshop... Nanti, we're safe as houses. She's a real dorcas, totally kosher. Bailed old Pauline out months back... Yeah, that's her. We're gonna stay the night, in case the sharpies catch on and come back....” There's a shuddering intake of breath, and Francis sniffs. “Yeah, yeah, nanti, nanti...” Another sniffle, and then all of Francis' bravado crumbles like a shoddily built wall and he's pressing his hands against his eyes. “God, Dot, they nearly got us, if it hadn't been... and Lou's only a chick, the queer ken'd kill him... Dot, it was too close, too close...”

The raw dampness in his voice sets Crowley on edge. It's not his place to listen, feels like another cruelty added on top of too many tonight, so he moves away soundlessly, leaving the young man to his words and his fears.

He goes upstairs to check on Aziraphale and Lewis. He hears them talking as he gets closer.

“And it gets easier?” he hears Lewis ask. His voice cracks faintly, a remanent of childhood from a young man who is having to grow up too fast. “Easier than this?”

“Would you prefer me to tell you that?”

“I don't... yes... I mean, no, I don't...”

“It will never be easy, my dear,” Aziraphale says, and his voice is so feathery and hushed Crowley has to strain to hear. “But things change faster than we think. So ignore this old queen, hmm. Maybe you young things will see something new out of all this.”

“I wish I could have your confidence,” Lewis says, and his voice is broad with misery.

“Oh I wouldn't wish that,” Aziraphale says. “Between you and me, I am the most dreadful coward in all the ways that matter.”

“You mean you and... you and Anthony?”

“With him too,” Aziraphale replies with a delicate wistfulness. There's a lull of sound that lasts too long, spindling out like a spider's web. Crowley can't bring himself to go up the stairs, so stands in the darkened stairwell.

“Right,”Aziraphale breaks the silence with a forced, brittle decisiveness. “It's time for you two to head to bed. I shall see you both in the morning. You need anything, just give a shout. We'll be up.”

“Bona nochy,” Lewis replies, heavy with a gratitude he shouldn't have to owe to anyone, and Crowley is moving back downstairs, caught in his own thoughts.

“How do you know Francis?” Crowley asks idly once the two have gone upstairs to bed, and Aziraphale is tidying away the first aid kit and bottles. He keeps casting glances at the locked door, eyes casting to the windows at the slightest noise, and Crowley magnanimously deigns not to mention it.

“He used to work around here, in the less... salubrious parts,” Aziraphale says in the most genteel way he knows how. “I helped where I could.”

“You help a lot of them, don't you?” Crowley chooses his words carefully.

Aziraphale stiffens as though he's been slighted, but wilts into a tired resignation when he sees Crowley means no harm by it.

“Someone has to,” he says, and there's something that's ground down at the centre of him, polished into a diamond hardness. “They need someone on their side.”

“Some bene cove, you are, aunty,” Crowley smiles, and Aziraphale fixes him with a surprise that wars with the frown on his forehead.

“I knew you understood!” he bristles, “You sly serpent, you!”

Crowley laughs, breaking a tension he didn't know was lingering.

“You still fancy getting your lappers on me, angel?” he smirks. “Those coves thought I was bona vardering, so clearly I've still got it. You've never said nish about my lyles after all these years...”

He makes an over-acted oof when Aziraphale hits his arm and calls him a beastly tease, a smile stolen onto his face without him noticing. They stand close together, but they always have. And Crowley's never really thought about it, the way they might look, the trouble that might cause. That other people aren't so lucky as them.

Aziraphale's always found them out, he thinks. The decadents, the aesthetes, the uranians, the inverts. There's enough suffering in London, enough suffering in life, the misery humans make for each other, the storms they send to shipwreck their fellows, but Aziraphale's always favoured these particular wretched, and Crowley wonders if there's a reason for that. If Aziraphale feels a kinship somehow.

Crowley puts a hand on Aziraphale's waist, and there's a flash, barely visible, of the same hunted look that Francis had, even as Aziraphale leans into the touch, permitting it so rarely. The doubt that never quite leaves his face. The terror that someone will find them out. He thinks about forces bigger than them, fossilised into institutions and dogma that could drag them apart, the fragility of what they make here, their Arrangement almost almost tipping over into an abyss of something more.

Aziraphale looks down, and swallows and pulls away like he always does. Crowley lets him, because they've both got their weaknesses and cowardices, haven't they.

Crowley hopes that one day it'll be different.