There's a lorry across the street. It's been there for some time, and it doesn't seem to have any intention of moving in the near future. The side of it reads "Charles and Son’s Moving" in bold, chipped blue letters, with a small illustration of some obscenely radiant mover grinning along side, and all the shameful apostrophe usage one might expect. The traffic on the thin cobbled street outside the shop continues to weave around it awkwardly, clogging up the already limited passage.
Crowley glares at the intrusive vehicle, eyeing it over the proud heads of his paphlopedilums, spritzing bottle waiting between his fingers. Seems strange, it's been there for over an hour without any sign of action or life to it. It's unusual that it's there at all, come to think of it. He hadn't known anyone was moving in. The shop it's waiting in front of has since he set up in the neighborhood, and that was almost a year ago now. Anathema had told him the last tenant had been some disowned Brazilian heiress who designed custom cat sweaters and had run off with the mail carrier to for a new life in Seattle. But he's never exactly sure how much embellishment she sprinkles over those stories.
He should ignore the lorry. It's useless to focus on it. If it looms at him for another hour he might, might call the police, but only if the beaming little man on the side continued to stare at him in that patronizing way.
Crowley turns back to the shop. It always looks it's best at this time of day, when the light is slanting in from the eastern end of the street. It had taken him three months to get the place in shape when he first came, but now, it was finally settling into itself.
It's small, but not cramped, clean, simple, just right for his needs. He'd lined the north wall with a tiered display of his succulents, arranged in driftwood and recycled containers. The south wall holds the orchids and mosses on geometric shelving of restored wood. The floor he'd replaced first off when he arrived, crinkled linoleum torn out for smooth poured concrete which didn't slip after waterings like wood or tile would. His cutting table, solid wood with steel legs, takes up one side of the floor, shears and wrappings neatly arranged. The fridges glow in the back behind the counter for storage. There's always plenty of space by the front garage-door windows and around the register for arrangements. At first he hadn't been sure if he could do it, sit in a shop all day and actually work like a proper human being, after the law firms and fish-bowl offices and all the rest of it. But it had settled over him in a shockingly comfortable way, and he didn't know now how he'd ever done anything else.
It's been a slow morning so far, which maybe is at least somewhat of an excuse for obsessing over the lorry. Summer has finally set in good and proper over the city, slipping down London's streets with all it's sultry, lazy confidence. It's warm enough that he's opened the garage-doors on the front of the shop, letting the day make it's way inside in gentle pushes and soft breathes. One of the things he loves about their street is the lack of that particular oozing, pungent summer Thames scent that seeps out with greater vigor in warmer weather. Today the breeze easing through the open windows is wonderfully pleasant, the heat slinks around the young foliage of the trees that line the sidewalk, pressing itself through the open door of the bakery five doors down, circling around the musty cobbles of the road, and finally settling in around him and the usual watery, floral scent of his shop, which today is fairly dominated by the fresh order of lilacs waiting to be arranged on the cutting table.
The lilacs are next on his list of morning tasks. He'd watered the orchids first thing, then circled round to the succulents and mosses. He'd changed the water in the arrangements waiting for pickup in the fridges, and popped a few in the windows before flipping the sign. There had been the register opening, and a few emails with an espresso, and now he's just has the second pass on the orchids to finish off. The lilac arrangements will be enjoyable, he's received excellent palette variety for the season. The purples were starting to fade in the park, but these are still strong, and the whites and pinks are lush and full. There's ten arrangements due for the new bistro over on Dover Street, and he'll have another five or six for in-shop display. They'll be good for three days at least and he'll easily sell them off by then. That is if anyone can actually manage to find their way in through the clotted vein of traffic surrounding that blood lorry.
The bell above the door gives a light ring. Crowley glances over and tries not to smile too quickly.
"Hullo," Crowley calls idly, finishing a few spritzes on the dendrobiums.
"Same to you," Lucius smiles cleanly. He's wearing a precisely cut Armani navy today, color just light enough to be seasonal, with a pale pink pocket-square peering from the left breast. His hair's brushed back neat and tidy, sides close and fashionably undercut, top long enough to have just the right height. His Gucci sunglasses cut a sharp line under his strong brows, the tortoise shell frames matching his oxford's laces.
"How are you?" Lucius asks.
"Alright," Crowley says, placing his spritzer neatly down on the cutting table, wiping his hands on his pristine and snugly tied apron. "Not a terrible day thus far."
Lucius moves a few steps deeper into the shop. Even a meter or so away from him Crowley can smell the sandalwood edge of his cologne.
"Lovely lilacs," Lucius observes.
"Oh," Crowley glances towards them. "Yes, they'll do nicely. Came in this morning. It's a strong selection."
"Any extras?" Lucius smiles. His teeth shine, brilliant and straight, tidy as his tightly cropped beard.
Crowley can't help smiling right back. "There might be. If you're lucky."
"Good," Lucius returns. "I'm feeling lucky."
Cheeky. Crowley narrows his eyes with a smirk. "Is that right?"
"Oh yes," Lucius answers, he leans back against the counter, running a finger along the smooth wooden top. "I've finally leased that bloody antique across the street."
And there it was. "That's why that damned lorry has been there all day?" Crowley almost shouts, suddenly crossing the floor quickly to glower at it again.
"That's right, someone's finally moving into the relic. They'll give the dust bunnies some company."
Crowley stares at the shop across the street. The whole building has always looked slightly askew to him, as it someone wrapped two massive hands around it and twisted ever so slightly. The black paint on the door and the shop-front has chipped to reveal an ugly abrasive green underneath, windows misted with dust and age. The truth is he's always rather liked the old thing. It's quiet, and yes, there is a creeping Dickensian strangeness to the place that wasn't exactly fashionable, but there was just something so very London about it. It looked as if it hadn't changed in four hundred years, as ageless as the cobbles on the street before it, and he rather enjoyed that edged romance.
"It's a shame that the owner wouldn't cough up for a full renovation," Lucius says behind him. "The street's come so far, and it would fetch twice the rent with some remodeling. But suppose it's beside the point now."
"Do you know what they plan to do with it?" Crowley asks.
"Books," Lucius answers. "Used."
"Interesting," Crowley hums.
"If you say so," Lucius shrugs. "Ah look, seems the lorry will be out of your way after all. Here they come." Lucius nods down the street. Crowley can see pedestrians but not exactly who he's indicating.
"Oh," Crowley peers, "do you know the name? Of the tenant I mean."
He hears Lucius step closer. "Forget it actually. It's something absurd. Can ask him yourself in just a tick, see."
He does see; there are three of them, heading their way. They're all smiling, seemingly talking pleasantly. Two of them seem to be the movers, jeans, work-shirts, and the other...
—The bathroom was close, and cramped. The door didn't lock, but in his hazy drunken state it seemed good enough to simply push a foot against it and hope for the best. There was sloppy laughter, soft and clumsy, but he wasn't sure if it was his or not. A hand slipped through his, infuriatingly innocent. Crowley turned, shifting his body into the space between with heat and presence. There was a catch of breath, and before he even knew what he was thinking, he was kissing him—
"Oh, fuck me." Crowley mumbles.
"Something wrong?" Lucius's voice asks, miles away.
Crowley doesn't hear hear him. He's too busy trying to convince himself that he doesn't recognize the frumpy pleasant-faced man stopping in front of the shop.
—His breath caught beautifully, mouth falling open easier than Crowley would have guessed was possible.—
The man across the street covered in knit and tweed smiles kindly at his companions, fumbling with the keys in his unworked hands. He focuses on the lock, nudging his glasses further up his nose with a single knuckle.
—The glasses caught between them, but he didn't care, he was too busy slipping hands up into the vexing, gorgeous wave of his hair.—
The man pushes a stray curl back in place and shoulders open the door, disappearing inside. The men follow him, and suddenly Crowley realizes Lucius has been speaking to him.
"Sorry?" he just manages. His attention is still hazy, memories buzzing frantically around his mind. He tries to swat them away as quickly as they arrive.
"I know he's not exactly our kind of people, but he's not that bad is he?" Lucius asks, eyeing Crowley's expression with concern.
"What? Oh! God no, no it's fine. I just thought... it's nothing. I'm sure he's fine."
Lucius still seems wary.
Crowley swallows, loosening his posture to his usual attitude as well as he can manage. "I'm just surprised—I thought it was just a myth that used bookstore owners wore that much tweed."
Lucius laughs, light and clear. The tension eases away and he turns, stepping back towards the door. "Still on for dinner? Tartaine?"
"What?" Crowley looks up sharply.
Lucius raises an eyebrow. "Dinner? Tonight?"
"Oh, yeah right. Yes, of course. Dinner. Still on, still good."
"Are you sure you're all right, Anthony." Lucius frowns.
Christ, not the concerned first name usage... "Yes, it's just I was up late," he pinches the bridge of his nose with mock focus, "too many orders to complete for the weekend. Wedding season and all that."
"Well, we'll just have to make up for it tonight then," Lucius smiles. And lord, he really is bloody good looking, isn't he?
"We'll see." Crowley answers, smirking back, thin and charming.
"See you at eight," Lucius waves, and then he's gone.
The second he's out of sight Crowley's back at the window. He peers out through the flowers, trying to get a decent look. He could still be wrong, there's still a chance it isn't him. There are plenty of pudgy, be-speckled mildew enthusiasts who smile at the air like it's some kind of bloody gift. It could be someone else entirely. It's been ten years after all.
He squints, leaning out the open garage doors as far as he dares, but it's useless. The windows are filthily, all obscured with dust and grim, and the building's on the shadier side of the street. The movers come out again, once, twice, carrying boxes from their lorry back into the dusty interior, but there's no sign of the new proprietor.
"Did you see him?" a voice asks suddenly.
Crowley looks over. Anathema's standing just outside the window, arms crossed lightly in front of her chest, leaning on his wall.
"What?" Crowley starts. "Oh, no. Not yet."
"What do you mean?" She frowns. "I just saw him walking away. He didn't stop in?"
"What? Who?" Crowley blinks back at her.
Anathema gives him a pitying look. "Luscious Lucius, dear."
"Dear God, please please don't call him that," Crowley grimaces, falling back from the window. "And just come inside, it's unsettling when you lurk out there. I feel like I'm working at a book-keeper’s."
"Fine, fine," she turns around the corner, pushing open the shop door with a light jingle.
Crowley turns away, heading for the lilacs with determination.
"What's got your knickers in a twist?" Anathema asks, plopping down on the stool behind the counter with her usual vagrant familiarity.
"No knickers, no twisting," Crowley replies, picking up his shears and a few branches of pink flowers.
"He didn't come in, did he?"
"He did, actually."
"Another date on the horizon?" Anathema asks, pretty thick eyebrows lifting quizzically.
"Tonight. Dinner." He neatly clips the stems diagonally, trimming the lower branches so there's enough room in the vessels.
"What's that make, three now?"
"Four." The flowers hang pendulous and languid in their containers, all weight and heady scent.
"Lucky number four?" Anathema asks with a sharp smile.
"We'll see about that," Crowley answers. He props a few pink branches in the first vase, he's been using antique glass bottles lately, which the customers are enamored with. The flowers hang with just a touch too much sag. He plucks them out again and trims the stems shorter.
Anathema's quiet for a moment. He can practically feel her narrow gaze evaluating him from behind the counter. He does his best to focus on his work.
"What's wrong with you?" she asks finally.
"Plenty, if you don't stop asking," he snipes back.
She ignores him easily. "Is it Lucius? Did he say something?"
Crowley sighs. She won't stop. If he's learnt anything about her by now, it's that. He sets the shears down on the table. "No."
He hesitates, but the truth is she might just be the closest thing he has to an actual friend. He'd been skeptical of her at first to say the least. He'd moved in and within three hours the leggy young woman who owned the shop next door had sauntered through the door, settling in as if she owned the place before even asking his name, attitude complete with earrings that looked as though they were designed to reflect star alignments, and hair that smelled of alternative medicine. But he'd realized very quickly that she was exceptionally clever, and cynically optimistic in just the right ways. She had a unapologetic perceptiveness to her character that was hard not to take a shine to. And for some reason, she seemed to like him back.
"Someone's leased the shop across the street," Crowley says.
"Oh, yes I know," her eyes widen, "that bloody lorry's been there half the day. Mrs. Gustav bent my ear for thirty minutes over the damn thing. Have you met them? Are they wretched?"
"I haven't met them," Crowley says warily. "But I know them. Or rather, I know him."
She eyes him carefully. "You still haven't answered the second question."
"He's not wretched. Rather the opposite actually," Crowley says. "Or at least he wasn’t when I knew him."
"When was this?"
Crowley sighs, running a hand through his thick hair. "Ten years ago? More? It was at school, Oxford."
"Friend? Foe?" She asks, leaning her sharp chin on her palm.
"Neither, really." His hands strip twigs from the lilacs idly. "Just one of those people you saw around, you know? We were in different departments, shared a few friends, that sort of thing."
"Mmm, I can see why such a haunting presence would cause you distress," she teased.
He looks at her firmly. "There may have been... an incident."
She looks back. "... 'An incident'?"
"Did you speak over him just loud enough in some Commonly Propagated Historical Fictions lectures? Beat him into Social Entitled Elitist Dinner Club?"
Crowley narrows his eyes at her. "Do you want to know or not?"
"I do know," she smiles back, "you wouldn't be blushing like that unless you'd shagged the poor bastard."
His face heats up even more viciously. "We didn't 'shag'. Well... not really I mean."
"You kissed him?"
"Bit more than that," he admits.
"Snogged?" she grins.
Crowley's cheeks really do seem to be determined to be utter bastards. "That's apt enough."
"Oh, well, what's the big deal?" Anathema rolls her head to one side, long hair shifting over her back. "I'm sure you did your fair share of snogging in college."
"Thanks," Crowley returns dryly.
"You're welcome, dear," she continues seamlessly. "So, what's the big deal? It was ten years ago, right? What? Were you in love with him or something?"
"No!" Crowley says instantly. "God, no. I just... I think it could be uncomfortable, that's all. Seeing him again. Working close quarters."
Anathema smiles, raising one eyebrow. "Oh so, you think he was in love with you?"
"I didn't say that," Crowley says sharply. "It can just be awkward that's all, running into people from your past. I tend to leave an impression."
"My God," Anathema grins, "look at the bloody ego on you."
"It's not ego," Crowley says cleanly, "it's just how things trend with me. It's not something I enjoy. I was almost assaulted in the produce aisle once when someone I ended up spending New Year’s with in law-school reached for the same cantaloupe."
"What's he look like anyways? Besides misty-eyed with trysts of the past?"
Crowley shrugs, grabbing a few lilacs and easing them into an arrangement. "Medium height, sturdy-build, terrible clothing."
"Curly hair almost that's a little too perfect?"
Crowley looks up. "How'd you—"
"He's coming over here."
"What?" Crowley scrambles around the table, peering out the windows. And indeed he's already crossing the street, with a polite half-hearted jog and a wave to the inconvenienced traffic.
"Should I prepare a bucket of ice water?" Anathema grins.
"Fucking hell--" Crowley looks frantically down at himself. He's wearing the bloody apron still but it's too late to take it off now. His tie's tucked neatly underneath, sleeves rolled up just past his elbows. He runs a hand through his hair hoping it isn't too disastrous, trying to ignore the way Anathema's grinning at him all the while.
The bell on the door jingles.
"Ah, hello," the voice calls, and god if he'd had any doubts before that's settled them. It's definitely him. No one else can sound that enamored with the universe and intelligently concerned over it at the same time.
"I do hope you'll excuse my intrusion, but I wanted to introduce myself." He gazes around the shop as he enters, a small smile easing onto his face as he takes in the flowers surrounding them on all sides.
"Of course," Anathema says, standing instantly. She holds out a hand. "Pleasure to meet you, I'm Anathema."
"Aziraphale," he takes her offered hand warmly.
"That's quite the name," Anathema observes.
"I might say the same to you, dear. But I promise, I'm undeserving of mine's romanticism," he smiles. "Is this your shop?"
"Uh, no," Crowley clears his throat, keeping half behind the cutting table, making an uncomfortable attempt to lean on it casually. "She's a squatter. It's my shop."
The man looks at him. Crowley swallows. His eyes shine exactly the same way they always have: kind and ferociously intelligent. Something shifts behind those eyes in confusion. He blinks once behind his round clear glasses.
"I see," Aziraphale says. "And you are...?"
Anathema just manages to disguise her snort of laughter as an ugly cough.
Crowley stares. "... It's Crowley."
"Ah," Aziraphale's brows furrow slightly, "last name or first name?"
He's not sure wether to laugh or not. "...Crowley. Anthony Crowley."
"Well, it's a pleasure," Aziraphale says extending a hand with a hesitant expression.
Crowley ignores it. "We've met before. Several times. Dozens even."
Aziraphale frowns. "Oh goodness, I'm terribly sorry, but I don't think so."
Crowley does laugh now, one short breath of disbelief. "Well I do think so. Oxford -- class of 2001? You were theology; I was pre-law."
The man's brow wrinkles sadly. "Well, now I'm sure I've been unforgivably forgetful. I hope do you'll excuse me."
Crowley's still gaping. "You honestly don't remember?"
Aziraphale shrugs. "As I said I'm terribly sorry. Unforgivable. Really."
"I was mates with Sasha Miller, Raji Patel," he gestures vaguely at his face, "sunglasses all the time, drove that Bentley around campus."
"Something is ringing a bell," Aziraphale squints. "The sunglasses sound familiar... not sure about the car. But look, I really am very sorry. The truth is if things aren't in text I'm like a sieve. It's terrible of me, truly."
"Oh no, it's not," Anathema smiles leaning against the counter. "Books have far more colors for being so black and white. And he's very forgettable."
"I'm sure not," Aziraphale smiles kindly.
Apparently so, Crowley thinks, picking up the clippers from the cutting table a tad aggressively.
"It's a beautiful shop," Aziraphale tries to recover.
"Thank you," Crowley says without looking over. The darker purple lilacs make their way into three bottles in neat, quick succession.
"Mine's just next door," Anathema says. "The Nine of Cups."
"Oh the, um, 'occult' shop just there?" Aziraphale asks. Crowley can't help smiling. He does a wonderful job of trying to keep his voice kind but there's no hiding the skepticism.
"That's right," Anathema says, "herbals and holistic healing. A few household spells as well, that sort of thing."
"That's very," the struggle's clear, "...interesting."
"Isn't it just," Crowley returns, giving Anathema a look. She smirks back, utterly lacking any of the deserved self-consciousness for what in his opinion amounts to little better than snake-oil trading.
"Well, I should really make sure that those boxes are getting where they need to be. Some of the volumes are quite old I want to ensure they're being treated with due respect." Aziraphale says, "but it's been a pleasure."
"It certainly has," Anathema says.
"See you," Aziraphale gives a small wave and turns, exiting the way he'd come.
"Not one word," Crowley grumbles as soon as he's gone.
"That's all right, I have several," Anathema says cheekily, "including: pathetic, deluded, egotistical--"
"All right, all right, that's enough of that."
"Seriously though, are you positive that's the same guy?"
"Yes, I'm bloody positive." He glowers.
"He is cute, I have to admit."
"He looks like a potato in somebody’s nan's jumper."
Anathema grins. "A cute potato."
"Potatoes have no sexual appeal," Crowley says sternly, brandishing the shears. "Not even to each other. They self-fertilize."
"Of course they do," Anathema smiles, standing from behind the counter with a stretch and heading towards the door. "You let me know if you end up self-fertilizing tonight won't you?"
"Excuse me?" Crowley starts.
She gives him a pitying expression. "Tonight? Date? Luscious Lucius?"
Crowley huffs. "Right of course, and why would I be telling you anything of the kind?"
"Because, unfortunately for you, you've no one else to tell it to." She catches the door frame and turns back with a smile. "I'll bring the booze."
Crowley can't help smiling back. "Sold."
Lucius meets Crowley in front of the shop at eight. They take his dark green Porsche GT911 across town, leaving the roof down. The day cooled off exactly the right amount to be pleasant at dusk. The brightness of the day has burnt off into a luminescent cool evening, all indigos and pinks with the sun low on the horizon, hesitant to sink away completely.
Lucius compliments his Etro linen, a pale blue button-up with sharp lines and diagonally darted hems. Crowley returns the favor, noting his watch: Diesel, Black Gold.
Their dinner arrives on flat slates in dim lighting and soft music: hamachi folded with tuna, green apple wasabi, celery, and Maui-Meyer lemon spritzed across the top.
Lucius asks him about the lilacs, and he tells him they've been very happy with them. Crowley asks him about the flat closing in Hammersmith, and he tells him it continues to be troublesome.
When dessert comes he feels a leg push against his under the table. He pushes back.
Lucius kisses as neatly as he shaves, urging Crowley back against the door of the apartment, opening him easily one press at a time. He's quick with the clothes, hands nimbly sliding under Crowley's belt, smoothly plucking the buttons open on his shirt, easing his coat off his shoulders.
He bounces onto an obscenely high thread count, all silk and easy under his bare skin. The hands find him again quick enough, clever and slow, easing out one groan at a time. Crowley comes with his face half sunk into the thick down of pillows and the sound of Lucius' gasps behind him. He bites down a curse against it, grinding his cock against the give of the mattress, dragging his climax out one pull at a time before finally falling still.
Lucius falls asleep quickly.
He lays on his back, staring up at the skylight above them, one arm slung over his head. He waits for sleep to find him, but apparently he's hard to locate tonight. Up above the orange of the city glows against the dark of the sky. He tries to pick stars out of it. He knows it's impossible. He tries all the same, stretching his toes impatiently under the blankets.
"And you are?" The clear eyes blink once behind round glasses.
With a sigh he rolls to his side. There are lilacs on the bedside table, the scent of them filling the room.
It only made sense, didn't it? He hadn't told him his name on that night. Why would he have? They hadn't known each other, not really, just familiar bodies that passed each other from time to time, and accidentally collided once when whiskey and youth pushed a little too hard.
He should be glad, if anything. From what he remembers he's a decent sort of fellow. In all likelihood he'll make a perfectly pleasant neighbor.
"--Unforgivable, really." He still smiles exactly the same way; as if he's more than intelligent enough to understand the world for exactly what it is and miraculously loves it all the same.
He doesn't remember. It's better that way. Best.
Crowley rolls over, easing his body against Lucius' back and burying his nose in the short scratch of his hair. He smells of cotton and lily, and still just a bit like sex. Crowley shut his eyes.
All things considered, his current lot could be much worse.
Crowley finds himself squinting in the sunlight, even through his sunglasses. He slips his hand into his pocket, fumbling for keys. It's not that he's hung-over, certainly not, he'd only had two glasses of Pimm's after all, and a gin and tonic to finish. Maybe it was just that liquor always seemed to hit him more precisely than wine or anything else that didn't jam twice as much gusto into half the volume. This morning was especially groggy, he felt as if there were little builders inside his head putting up layer upon layer of ugly wallpaper.
He gets the key into the lock with only a slight slip. The lock is rotated in the opposite direction of where it should be. He stares at it for a moment and then hesitantly tries the handle. It's open. Visions of shattered vases and ravaged orchids flood across his mind as he hurriedly shoves open the door.
"Morning!" Anathema smiles pleasantly from behind the counter.
"Christ!" Crowley swears. Everything is perfectly as it should be inside, except for the intruder in a long purple cotton dress that fits just right on her hips with a chain necklace of crystals and feathers swinging against her sternum. Her dark hair's tucked neatly behind one ear, the other side cascading over her shoulder.
"How was your evening?" she asks.
Crowley scowls, shutting the door behind him. "I should call the police."
"Even when I come bearing caffeine?" she asks, sliding a very tempting latte towards him over the counter. He takes it with a scolding look.
"Hot milk and breaking-and-entering are not strictly equatable."
"It's your fault anyways," she says. "I've told you the lock needs replacing. It hardly took me a minute. Then again, you could always just give me your spare key, then I could come and go as I please. Wouldn't that be lovely?"
"Right. Lovely. Exactly the word I'd use," Crowley says dryly.
"You should give someone your spare," she counters, "even if it's not me for some enigmatic reason. What if you lost your key?"
"I won't lose my key," Crowley says firmly.
Anathema tilts her head, evaluating him as he takes a good long sip of the still-steaming latte in his long fingers.
"Have an interesting evening?" she asks, a grin tempting at the corners of her pretty unpainted lips.
"Not especially," he returns.
"Liar," the grin invades her cheeks brazenly, "you're twenty minutes later than usual. Not to mention the state of your hair."
One of his hands moves to it instantly. "What's wrong with my hair?"
She can't help laughing. "Nothing."
"Don't lie to me, Anathema," Crowley says sternly.
"Nothing!" she affirms, meeting his eyes firmly. "I think it looks better a little less fawned over anyways, it's more natural."
Crowley sighs, running a concerned hand through it all the same and adjusting his sunglasses. "I was in a bit of a rush this morning, didn't get home until late."
"How late?" she asks.
"Early," he answers, taking another deep sip.
"I knew it." The grin gains full territory.
"It's creepy when you smile like that you know," Crowley notes. "You look like some haunted ventriloquist's dummy."
"So?" she asks, ignoring him.
"So what?" he feigns.
"You know exactly what, cheeky," she insists. "How was it?"
Crowley slides onto the wooden stool behind the cutting table, crossing his legs neatly. He takes one more slow sip of his latte, letting the milky strength of it swirl around his tongue pleasantly.
"Good," he answers.
"Vivid," Anathema counters.
"I'm not here to sate your need for erotic narrative," Crowley says.
"Narrative isn't necessary," Anathema says. "I'll settle for slightly more creative adjective selection."
Crowley's quiet for a moment. The sunlight is just starting to slant through the glass of the garage-doors that front the shop. It's catching on the circular hanging vases for the succulents towards the front, the shine of Anathema's jewelry, his own brightly polished shoes as he taps his toe lightly up and down.
"Athletic," he starts, tone considering, "precise, tidy..."
Anathema lets out a snort. "Tidy! Seriously? Bloody hell..."
"I like tidy," Crowley says, raising the paper mug to his lips again. "In case you hadn't noticed."
"You're a liar," Anathema smiles, eyes shining sharp and devious.
"What makes you say that?" Crowley asks. "I'm very tidy."
"That's exactly what makes me say that," Anathema says. "Trust me, I understand these things. Anyone who keeps their clothes as pressed and neat as yours is secretly hoping that someone will show up to muss them around."
Crowley smiles at her thinly. "That's an interesting theory."
"Of course it is," she teases, "I'm very interesting."
He can't help letting out a light laugh. He stands up at the stool, arching his back into a stretch. Anathema watches his long, lithe body twist appreciatively. She often does. He doesn't mind. He can't really blame her can he? And after all, there's no question it's a strictly aesthetic appreciation.
"I should probably open up next-door," she sighs, standing herself, "get these biddies their packaged placebos."
Crowley waves to her as she moves to the door. "Enjoy."
She steps out onto the street and then stops, turning back around the still open door with fingers curled against the frame. "Hey."
He looks up. "What?"
"I know it irritated you, but you were a bit rude yesterday," she says.
Crowley frowns. "What? When?"
"With the potato," Anathema says, "you know," she gestures with her head across the street behind her.
Crowley follows the gesture. The shop's windows are dark, although little less dusty than yesterday. "Oh."
"Just thought I'd let you know," she says, "you miss those things sometimes."
Crowley glances back at her. "Was I too rude?"
"Yeah, a bit, rather," she answers.
"It's not my fault," he tries. "Who doesn't remember college acquaintances?"
Anathema levels a look at him. "Me. You. Everyone."
Crowley sighs. "I was just surprised, that's all."
"Look," Anathema continues, leaning heavier against the door-frame, "you said it was a drunk snog. How drunk? He probably didn't remember it the next day, let alone ten years later."
"Right," Crowley admits hesitantly. "You're probably right."
"Could you repeat that?" Anathema asks. "I need a new text-alert for you."
He scowls at her. "You've made your point."
"Yes, I have," she smiles easily, turning back out the door. "Let's all be neighborly, shall we?" The door swings shut behind her, bell jingling lightly.
Silence presses close as soon as she's gone. Crowley leans against the cutting table for a moment, sipping his latte. Finally, he pushes off it, walking across the floor to look out the glass of the door. The shop is darkened across the street, but then he's not sure how light it would look even with lights on. It's a shadowy, forgotten place. It looks like something that you might emerge from after walking through some mysterious door in a country hillside. He evaluates it, trying to notice any differences. The windows are clean of dust now he can see, and the front has been swept and tidied. Up above the shop there are three windows, one of which is slightly ajar. He realizes he's never seen them open before. Is it an apartment? Did the shop come with it, all one package: living space and a store-front? It wouldn't be unheard of by any means.
He had been rude hadn't he? It wasn't his fault he didn't remember. Did he even want him to remember? He wonders what the shop looks like behind the comfortable worn visage he sees each day, especially after a bit of care from a respectful tenant. Maybe a gift? Some welcome-to-this-strip-of-pavement-we-share thing? That's the thing neighbors do, isn't it? Worth a shot at least.
It's just past lunch by the time he makes it across the street. The day ended up clouding over after all, or at least in bits and pieces. Heavy white billows that look as though they've dragged themselves right out of a Vermeer pull across the sky overhead, rolling against the warm blue between them.
Crowley pauses just outside the shop, the unfamiliar sidewalk under his shined shoes. Strange. He's been across the street for almost a year now but he's never actually walked over here. His own apartment was just around the corner on his side, half a block at the most, and, funnily enough, there has just never been cause to step to this side.
He peers at the gloomy visage of the shop, adjusting the plant he has in one hand. One of the advantages of his new job: shopping for gifts had become impossibly simple.
There wasn't an OPEN sign on the door, or a closed sign for that matter. One or two of the windows were cracked to let in some air, but not ajar.
Maybe this wasn't the most brilliant idea. He's just moved after all, that's always a stressful experience. In all likelihood the place is still only boxes and mess. Any visitors would likely just cause embarrassment. He looks down at the orchid under his arm. The open face stares back at him accusingly.
"Fine, fine," he mutters, stepping up to the door neatly. He runs his hand through his hair and adjusts his tie, pressing it back into place under his blazer.
Crowley gives the door a firm knock. The door swings open silently under the pressure of his knuckles. He gazes after it in surprise, peering at what he can see of the interior. Hesitantly, he takes a step inside.
"Hullo?" His voice doesn't travel very far.
The store is filled with books. Literally.
Of course every bookstore, by the laws of the stern mistress of definition, should be filled with books. But that wasn't really the case was it? At least not always. Bookstores, the better attended ones at least, were arranged with books more than anything else. They were taken by their handlers and placed neatly into zones for optimal browsing as one might with any other good, stories caged up and displayed prettily, like finches in some well-paid art-director's spanning flat, or some tidy garden that belonged to a very precise elderly woman who took her tea with only the thinnest slice of lemon.
This place is not a tidy garden, or a neat set of caged finches. It's a jungle, grown from black and white and leather bindings. Books tower, they weave, they fill the space around him. Of course Crowley has been in used bookstores before. He enjoys books. They have an audacity he adores: snatching the world, twisting it about, and trapping it between pages. But this, it looks like every used bookshop he's ever been lost in had gotten together some sweltering sticky summer night and rolled around together until this mutation emerged.
He's almost afraid to move any further inside, lest a stray biography snaps at his ankles or an anthology sweeps down from the rafters to snatch at his hair. If he were to wander down into the surrounding turns and curves of the towering shelves maybe he would end up ambling for days, years, turning corners of a labyrinth laced with the smell of words. He might not even notice the time slip by at all.
"Hullo?" he repeats. The books muffle him, eating up his words hungrily, likely recycling them as some means of reproduction.
Maybe their tender's not here after all. Shouldn't leave his door unlocked if he's out... Was anyone really that trusting? He wonders.
Crowley glances down at the nearest stack looming at him. It's snuggled up with it's litter on the table beside the door, rising to just below his chest. He lets his hand drift out, lightly stroking the cover of the nearest. It looks like a nineteen-thirties edition, bound not with leather, but that woven material that most older hardcovers have.
A Room With a View by E.M. Forester traces out in thin, worn gold type under the line of his finger. Crowley smiles.
"Hullo?" a voice calls. Steps sound suddenly towards the back of the shop. Crowley's hand falls back to his side. Stairs. He can hear someone hurrying down them at a jolly pace.
"Hullo," Crowley answers, hopefully helpfully.
The stairs end, he can hear that much, there's a few more shuffling steps, and Aziraphale's face appears from behind one of the groves of shelves.
"Ah! Good morning," he smiles pleasantly, emerging from the chaos of it all with the look of some chipper explorer from colonist-propaganda children's stories. Crowley can almost see the pith helmet.
Aziraphale has four books under one arm. He sets them down gingerly on a table Crowley is starting to suspect is supposed to be the main counter thanks to the presence of a hulking ancient cash register.
"How are you?" Aziraphale asks, turning to face him properly.
Crowley stares back at him through the expensive tint of his sunglasses. God, he really hasn't changed. Maybe a touch heavier, but it's hardly noticeable.
"Not bad," Crowley answers, taking a bit longer with his answer than he probably should have. He steps deeper into the shop a few paces, feeling the books peer at him curiously all the while. "I wanted to apologize for yesterday."
"Oh dear, please don't. It's my fault completely. You have every right to be irritated by someone so disgracefully forgetful," Aziraphale protests.
"I believe I was rude," Crowley continues. “There's few excuses for rudeness, and even fewer where people you haven't known long enough to find irritating are concerned."
"Ah, but we have known each other long enough for that, haven't we?" Aziraphale asks. He's wearing a white button-up under a maroon sweater. The sleeves are pushed half-way up his forearms, likely from the moving he's still completing.
Aziraphale smiles at him. "Here—" he turns, rummaging for something that seems to be hiding between the books behind him. He bends over to forge deeper and Crowley looks away instantly, cheeks flushing slightly as he stares firmly at a stack of very interesting looking volumes and not anywhere else.
"There—" Aziraphale says, righting himself again. Crowley lets himself look back. He's holding something between thick fingers, it looks like a photograph.
"I thought about it yesterday, after popping over. I think I do remember, bits and pieces at least," Aziraphale says, gazing at the photo. "I think you had class in the same building right after I had Qur'an Theology second levels, senior year. I would sit out on the lawn with Katie Miller on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and she would always stare at you dreamily when you went past us and say something rather lewd about your sunglasses."
Crowley can't help laughing. "I don't recall."
"Roger Braun and Stephanie Jardin sat with us sometimes, and you'd stop for a moment and speak to them. I'd see you at Roger's sometimes? I think I stopped over for one of two holiday parties when he gave me enough trouble over attending."
"That sounds about right," Crowley answers, hoping it's not too obvious that it sounds exactly right, because he remembers it with all the glaring clarity of someone shouting the memories into his ear with a megaphone.
"There, see, I'm not utterly hopeless," Aziraphale smiles at him. Radiance is filtering in through the crowded books in the window, bouncing light up around his face and off the rounded glasses. With the sincere kindness of his expression and the bloody perfection of that hair, he almost seems to glow. Strange. The sun must have come out after all.
"Here, see," Aziraphale turns the photo towards him. Crowley leans forward enough to peer into it, letting his sunglasses slip down his nose enough to see above them.
It's a black and white photo, which is vexingly pretentious since it was only taken eleven years ago. But it's well shot, despite that. He can see Katie Miller's clever smile sitting beside Roger's broad shoulders on the lawn in front of Radcliffe. Aziraphale's to their right, just looking over his shoulder towards the camera as if he wasn't expecting the photograph. He's wearing an outfit almost identical to the one he's currently sporting except for the colors. Stephanie Jardin's standing behind the rest, off to the left. She seems to be telling a story with a low voice and mischievous eyes to a dark figure. He's taller than her by five inches easily, dark clothing, slim fitting, a cigarette neatly between his lips. Sunglasses. Maybe he hasn't changed all that much either.
"Huh," Crowley notes.
"I'm glad I found it," Aziraphale smiles, turning the picture back to himself. "I don't have many from school."
"Mobile-phone technology really put a dent in that sort of thing," Crowley says.
"Shameful," Aziraphale says. His thumb traces lightly over the photograph before placing it carefully back on the desk behind him. "What's that?" he looks at the orchid.
"Oh!" Crowley remembers the thing all at once. He glances at the desk but there isn't an obvious free space to place it, so he simply holds it out stupidly. "For you."
"Oh my," Aziraphale murmurs, hesitating to take it but eyeing it appreciatively all the same, "there's really no need."
"I insist," Crowley says, "welcome, and all that."
Aziraphale smiles, taking it carefully with an indulgent smile. "Well, if you insist."
He turns it over in his hand, giving it a good look.
"I just brought it from across the street of course," Crowley starts, "it's—”
"A Beallara," Aziraphale says for him, eyes still on it. "It's a hybrid cross between Odontoglossum and Cochlioda, isn't it?
Crowley can't help being surprised. "Exactly. Do you keep orchids?"
"Not regularly, but I have done. I've read about them on occasion," Aziraphale says. He nudges a stack of volumes carefully to one side, setting the orchid down. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," Crowley says instantly.
"I'll have to keep her upstairs though, there really isn't the proper light down here."
"Oh," Crowley begins innocently, "is there more space above?"
"Just an apartment," Aziraphale answers. "More than enough room for me."
"Handy," Crowley notes.
"Mm, very," he agrees.
One of Aziraphale's fingers lightly traces the curl of a petal as he gazes down at it. Crowley looks away.
"So," Aziraphale says, pulling his attention from the flower and slipping his hands into his pockets, "you were in law, is that right? At school? But now you run a flower shop? Interesting."
"You were going to be a priest, if I remember correctly," Crowley returns with a sharp smile, "but I don't see a collar."
Aziraphale laughs. "Ah, no, it didn't quite take. What about you?"
Crowley shrugs. "Didn't quite take."
"Right," Aziraphale's smile tilts clever on the edges. "Funny how that happens."
"Yes," Crowley agrees, "certainly is."
"Well, what do you think?" Aziraphale asks, gesturing around them.
"What do you mean?" Crowley asks.
"Of the shop?"
Crowley stares. "You're moved in? I mean... this, is moved in?"
"Oh dear," Aziraphale frowns. "Is it not apparent?"
"No!" Crowley tries to recover. "No, no, I like it. It's very... sincere."
Aziraphale looks up at him with intrigued smiling eyes. "Do you really think so?"
"Yes," Crowley says, and he actually means it. He's not sure anyone else will enjoy it in the same manner, but that's not what he's been asked.
"Ah, good, thank you," Aziraphale says. He turns, stepping behind the desk and arranging a few volumes. Something catches Crowley's eye, a tall pale shape peering out between books.
"Is that Chateau d'Yquem? White Bordeaux? 2011?" he asks instantly, unable to stop himself.
"What?" Aziraphale says looking up. "Oh!" he looks back down, "yes, it is. Do you know it?"
Crowley can't help laughing. "I've been trying to find a bottle for two months. Any vintage."
"Ah well, have this one," Aziraphale says. He lifts it up, holding it out.
Crowley stares. "Oh no, I couldn't..." But he wants to. Badly.
"Of course you can, dear boy," Aziraphale smiles, nudging the thing into his hands.
"Don't you want it?" Crowley asks, fingers betraying his words to close around it greedily.
"I have a case upstairs," Aziraphale says with a shrug. "It’s not a rarity, and 2011 isn’t an extravagance. It's really no trouble. And it's lovely for summer."
Crowley cradles it under his arm. "Well, in that case I'm more than happy to relieve you of it."
"And I'm happy to be relieved," Aziraphale smiles back.
"I'll let you get back to...this," Crowley says gesturing to the inky jungle around them.
"Oh," Aziraphale sounds slightly disappointed, "well, feel free to stop back anytime."
"Thanks," Crowley says, turning back for the door. He steps out, turning back, "enjoy the Beallara."
Aziraphale waves, clever eyes already inside an unfolded volume on the desk. "Enjoy the Bordeaux."
Crowley smiles and steps back out onto the street. He jogs across, back to his side, unlocking quickly and leaving the door open behind him. He sets the wine down on the counter carefully, taking a moment to eye it appreciatively.
He slips a hand into his pocket and pulls out his phone. It only takes a moment to dial.
"Hullo?" the voice on the other side answers.
"What are you doing tonight?" Crowley asks.
Lucius voice smiles. "Nothing interesting."
"Of course," Lucius answers. "Do you want to go out?"
"I'd rather stay in," Crowley says. "I can cook something."
"Lovely," Lucius says. "Should I bring anything?"
"No need, I've got a bottle of white Bordeaux here I'd love to pair."
Lucius' voice teases through the phone. "Lord, Anthony, haven't you heard? No one's drinking white this summer."
What in God's green and snail-infested earth had ever possessed him to agree to a wedding?
He'd sworn when he started the store that he would never do nuptials. They were terrifying business. The clients were either brimming with acidic anxiety or searching for any flaw on which to vent fury from all lingering regrets and fears. And then there was the whole greatest day of your life business, which ridiculously wheedled him into the habit of wasting far too much time nitpicking the arrangements.
He's turned away two dozen wedding requests in the past month, especially after the feature he received in April's House & Garden. But then, some mad woman who wouldn't take no for an answer had barged in demanding that he do her arrangements; unfortunately he'd always found Anathema particularly difficult to refuse. Anathema's wedding to a most absurdly common-place IT fellow wasn't for another three weeks, but he didn't want to go into it completely unprepared.
So, when a woman in her early twenties with a soft expression and a gentle last-minute request had come in two weeks ago, he'd agreed. Idiot that he is.
And of course, it had to be baby's breath.
The girl, Clarice, said that it was her favorite, that her mother had always put bunches in her room when she was a little girl. There was no avoiding it, and now mountains of the stuff is piled up on the cutting table. Few people realize that once you get enough baby's breath in a condensed space the scent of cat urine pours out of the damn stuff. He's assembled a makeshift breathing mask from his linen pocket-square, but it makes little difference. What's most terrifying is that he'll likely adjust to the smell soon enough, adopting it himself and bringing it with him everywhere he goes for the next three days.
Bloody Anathema. What right did she have to suddenly become a normal human being who wants beautifully arranged flowers at her wedding? Since when do women who sell celtic fertility pendants even get married, anyways? He imagines it’ll probably be held in some field where no one will be wearing shoes, and he'll have to drive the Bentley down a hellish dirt track to get there, then wade through half a marsh in his Armani to reach the ceremony. She'll likely end up looking so beautiful, and so happy that he'll forgive her all of it, which really just makes the entire thing worse.
"Bloody bastards," he mutters down to the flowers. They stare dumbly back at him as if they don't know exactly what they're doing. Anathema is not getting baby's breath when her time comes, not unless she sits in here with him and endures their putrid presence while he cuts and assembles every single damn arrangement. She certainly wasn't there now; she’d been off on some wedding errand for a few days, probably inspecting the Scottish bog they'll all have to clamber through, or making sure it's substantially obstructed by boulders and sheep shit.
Crowley sighs. He has twenty arrangements left. Then the bridesmaids’ hand bouquets. He's already been at it since 8AM, stopping for just an hour to open the shop. It's almost noon already. There's a gentle ring at the door
"Am I interrupting?" Lucius asks, peering inside.
"Yes," Crowley answers, "and if you stop it, I won't forgive you."
Lucius grins, easing the rest of the way into the shop. He's looking especially sharp due to that face that he's been showing that four-million flat off of the river today. He's sporting a grey suit, rolled once about the ankles, slim fitting. There's a broadly painted floral pattern shirt underneath, Crowley recognizes from Dolce and Gabbana's most recent spring line. He chosen a navy tie to lie against it, and a pocket-square to match. Shit. Crowley snatches his own pocket-square off his face and tucks it quickly back in his jacket.
"I thought I'd bring lunch," Lucius says, setting a neat paper-bag down on the counter. "I know you've been busy."
"I don't know about very. Moderately, maybe."
Crowley steps away from the table, shaking out his hands and eyeing the paper bag hungrily.
"My Lord, that stuff is putrid!" Lucius glares at the baby's breath. "Why on earth do you have it in here?"
"It's that bloody wedding I agreed to," Crowley says.
"Well, that's nothing to regret, you should do more weddings. It's such a profit margin," Lucius notes. "But you shouldn't agree to these things, terrible working conditions and all that."
Crowley's fairly sure he's in no way justified in describing his medium-to-high-income shop job as terrible working conditions. "It's not that bad." He can practically feel the flowers grinning snidely at him from the table.
"It is that bad!" Lucius insists. "Honestly, you should have told her no. It's likely driving off some customers, losing you business."
"They were her mother's favorite," Crowley hears himself saying.
"God," Lucius sighs. “Sometimes I think society is utterly infected with sentimentality."
Crowley pulls the paper bag into his hands, intent on ending the conversation before that remark sinks in too deeply. It sounds like something he might have said four years ago, across the bargaining table from opposing counsel, with a corporate eight-figure client at his side. Something he would have said, and felt fiercely in that treacherous spot behind his ribs, that he didn't believe it for one instant.
"What do we have?" he asks, trying to distract himself by opening the bag and peering inside.
"There's a new sandwich shop two blocks up," Lucius says as Crowley pulls out the smooth white rectangles wrapped in paper, all and neatly taped shut. "They're doing Moroccan today, so yours is lamb curry."
"Sounds bloody perfect," Crowley sighs, sliding onto the stool behind the counter. He puts his hands to the paper, eager to unfold.
A noise bursts out on the street. No, several. Loud ones.
There's a screech, vicious enough to turn both of their heads. It lasts a second, maybe two. It's followed instantly by another sound. This one far more organic, and far more wretched. Crowley's standing before he can think, hurrying around the counter towards the door. He tugs it open with one tight pull and rushes out onto the street. There's a red car trying its best to rush down and out of their street. Trying, and only half succeeding given the tightness of their road.
There's a woman standing near his front door, one hand pressed over her chest. "Awful, just awful—"
There's a cat in the road. It's twisted in a way it shouldn't be. It's grey, round. One white ear. Half its fur has gone dark and wet.
Crowley’s across the street in less than a second. But even so, someone beats him to it.
"Oh goodness," Aziraphale mutters, kneeling down.
Crowley comes to a stop, panting. "Is it...?"
Aziraphale squints down at the twisted creature. "It's breathing."
It is. He can see that now. It's mouth is partly open, body rising and falling with fast panic. One of its legs looks mangled. There's blood, but it's face, its body, all seems intact at least.
"What's happened?" Lucius's voice asks behind him.
Crowley turns instantly. "Give me your coat."
Lucius frowns. "What for?"
"To wrap it up," Crowley hurries, "we can take it somewhere."
Lucius frowns at the injured cat. "I'm allergic."
Crowley stares at him for just a moment before hurrying to undo his apron.
"It's all right," Aziraphale says. Crowley notices he's gotten his olive jumper off already and is easing the cat from the cobbles within it.
The poor thing groans and hisses wretchedly, but Aziraphale hushes it gently holding it close to his chest.
"Careful," Crowley can't help muttering.
There's a honking sound half way down the block. The car is still trying to get away.
Crowley's eyes narrow.
"Do you have it?" he asks Aziraphale hurriedly.
"Yes," Aziraphale answers, "I'll run her to the vet up the block. See what can be done." He's holding the cat firmly, the olive of his jumper already darkening with blood. Aziraphale presses tighter, frowning down with concern. "I'm going now."
"Good." Crowley turns, rushing back across the street. He knocks his sunglasses out of his hair and down onto his nose with a quick tap. His Bentley's parked out front, just where it always is, where he can keep a firm and close eye on it at all times.
He slides into the leather and instantly has the engine roaring to life. The Bentley tears off of the curb, rushing after the car just as the sleek red shape it makes it onto the main road.
The traffic is tight on their street, a few people have even stopped their cars to peer out and see what's caused the fuss, only making matters worse. Best not to bother. The red car went right, so Crowley swings the wheel early, sweeping the Bentley around a corner and urging it along the winding back street. The main street reveals itself around the next corner and his quarry shoots past just as he reaches it. Crowley nimbly spins the wheel, kicking out the back a foot of two as he skids after it. He has a brief flashing image of his mechanic lunging at him with a spanner in his hand and murder in his eyes, but he pushes that thought aside.
He's hardly two cars behind in now. He can see the enemy zigging and zagging through the groaning London traffic up ahead. It's an expensive car, and practically screaming the fact. BMW M5, red. He's always had a particular hatred for red cars.
The BMW takes a sharp corner, so sharp Crowley almost misses it, but he just manages the turn, only now they've gained three cars on him. He closes the distances as quickly and sharply as he can only to watch the red blur snap around another corner, and another all too quickly after.
The chase lasts half an hour before finally it's one corner too many. He's halfway across the city on the other side of the river, in some posh neighborhood he's not familiar with, when he turns to only see an empty street staring back at him. His pulse is still racing, breathe still quick in his chest. But there's nothing.
He slams his hand on the wheel with a quick swear. It's his fault for not driving like that for so long, and now what's he have to show for it? An injured cat that's in all likelihood lying dead on some veterinarian's table right now, and no one to hold responsible. He bitterly thinks of Vonnegut quotes and turns the Bentley back the way he came.
By the time he rolls back onto their street, the sun's hanging pendulously over the buildings of London’s West End. He'd gone farther than he'd realized, and, despite the straighter course back, it had been almost an hour-long trip back with the thicker traffic at the day's end. And the time he spent circling the three block radius half a dozen times trying to catch sight of the enemy vehicle hadn't helped either.
Lucius's car is gone. It looks like he's locked the shop up for him at least. Crowley's grateful. He hadn't thought about that at all when he ran off on this useless chase.
He parks the Bentley neatly in his obscenely expensive space out in front of the shop, uncurling his legs and stepping out onto the cobblestones. He takes a look around the street. It seems any chaos the event had caused has been dissipated for sometime. The street seems exactly the same as it was just a day before. The same, except for the dark splotch of blood still sunk into the cobbles where the cat had been. Crowley wrinkles his nose. He'll have to get his hose extension and take care of that soon.
He glances at his shop behind him. Through the window he can see the bloody baby's breath waiting exactly where he’d left it. The arrangement still looks lively enough after a handful of hours out. There's so many left to do. He gazes through the window a moment longer and then turns and cross the street.
Aziraphale's door is locked. Crowley cups his hands and presses against a window, peering in through the ancient glass. It seems all gloom inside, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's closed. He gives a polite knock. Nothing. He gives a less polite knock. Still nothing. He takes two steps backwards, turning his head up towards the second-floor windows. They seem dark as well. He can just see the edge of an orchid peering down from one age-fogged pane of glass.
"Hullo!" he calls up. "Aziraphale?"
Crowley sighs, looking about for a moment, considering. He pulls his sliver of a phone free from his pocket, nimbly working the touch screen with elegant fingers. The nearest vet isn't far. Four blocks or so. He remembers it now. That must be where he went with it.
Crowley turns east and heads towards the blinking marker on the screen.
It doesn't take him long to get there. He pushes open the door to get a face full of that distinctive smell all veterinarians' offices seem to have: dog hair, antiseptic, and the perfume of cat ladies. The waiting room isn't crowded. There's a young boy sitting with a turtle held tenderly in his lap, a young couple with a German Shepherd sits opposite, and a middle-aged woman with a carrying case the contents of which remain a mysterious. And then there's Aziraphale, sitting closer to the desk, with what looks like a bloody gossip magazine unfolded neatly in his lap.
Crowley heads towards him. "Diagnosis?"
Aziraphale looks up, startled. "Oh, hullo."
"How's the cat?" Crowley repeats, standing stiffly in front of of him.
"Alive, poor thing," Aziraphale answers with a sigh. He leans back in his seat for a small stretch. "She's in surgery, has been for a little while now. They took her in right away. Said they'd do their best."
Crowley gazes towards the hidden interior of the place. "How much longer till you know."
Aziraphale shrugs. "An hour? Less?"
Crowley nods. He thinks of the baby's breath With a sigh he sits in the glaring indigo seat beside Aziraphale.
"You don't have to wait," Aziraphale tries.
"I want to wait," Crowley answers quickly. He narrows his eyes at some wretched painting of kittens in a basket adorning the wall across from him.
Aziraphale doesn't look over but Crowley thinks he might be smiling. "How was your chase? Successful?"
"He escaped," Crowley grumbles.
"Well," Aziraphale shrugs, "so it goes."
Crowley can't help staring at him for a moment. "That's what I... I mean, yes, I suppose it does."
They're quiet for a few seconds. They boy to their right tries to feed his tortoise some lettuce from his pocket.
"Although," Aziraphale says, "sometimes, I wish it wouldn't go quite so disgracefully."
Crowley's mouth quirks upwards on the left side. "Seconded."
Aziraphale flips a glossy page in his magazine, tutting quietly with his tongue. "Goodness, why can't they leave these poor women alone?"
"What's that?" Crowley asks, glancing over.
Aziraphale's finger taps the page neatly. "Moss finds a simple ponytail enough for her market run. And why shouldn't she? These ‘journalists’ are disgraceful."
Crowley snorts. "I wonder what the fucks who cash in those snapshots look like when they trundle off to the market."
Aziraphale laughs. It's a nice sound. Polite and quiet but honest and easy. Same as it always was.
"Why are you reading it anyways?" Crowley asks, leaning closer to evaluate the brash text plastered over glossy pictures.
"I have absolutely no idea," Aziraphale answers. He nods in the direction of the woman with the carrier. "She nabbed Time. Although, honestly, I'm not sure the contents are superior to this masterpiece."
Aziraphale glances at him before closing the magazine. "Your young man had to leave. He locked the shop up for you."
"I saw," Crowley says. A smile slinks onto his face. "My young man? I think he's a year or two older than you are."
Aziraphale smiles sharper than Crowley would have expected. "Fine. Your old man, then."
Crowley laughs. "That's quite good, maybe I'll start using that."
"I don't think he'd appreciate it," Aziraphale says.
He realizes Aziraphale's still missing some apparel, wearing his simple button-up shirt without an over layer.
"How's your jumper?" Crowley asks.
"Oh, ruined I'm sure."
"Not necessarily," Crowley tries, "I have a magician of a dry-cleaner, I could—"
Aziraphale shrugs. "Don't bother. It's only a jumper."
Crowley gazes back at him. "Yes, I suppose so."
Aziraphale's hand is resting on the armrest now that the magazine is shut. Crowley stares at it. He imagines reaching down, slipping his long fingers easily around it and rubbing a thumb along his.
"How was the wine?" Aziraphale asks.
Crowley looks away quickly. "What? Oh, good.” He clears his throat. “Very good. Thank you again."
"It's my pleasure," Aziraphale says easily. “Any time, dear boy."
He still talks like a seventy-year-old nodding to young people in the park, Crowley notes. Back in school there had always been several keen impersonations of his unique tenor floating around parties.
A young woman in scrubs suddenly emerges from one of the swinging doors behind the desk. Aziraphale looks up to her instantly standing. Crowley follows his lead.
She steps up to them neatly. "She's stable now, and resting. It seems that she's going to make it after all."
Aziraphale lets out a breath Crowley hadn't realized he'd been holding.
"Does she belong to you two?" the young woman asks, eyeing them curiously.
"No," Crowley says rather too quickly. "I mean, she was hit by a car on our street."
"And you brought her in? That was very kind," the woman smiles.
Crowley feels his stomach twist slightly. He's not sure he's too pleased with the idea of living in a world where that's considered exceptional kindness.
"Do you know who she belongs to?" the woman asks. "If she belongs to anyone?"
"No, I'm afraid we don't," Aziraphale's forehead wrinkles in concern. Crowley can practically see him playing scenarios behind those glasses: some young child sitting at their window looking for their kitty, laying out milk and it's favorite toys, waiting for it to come home again.
"Well, not to be indelicate," the woman struggles, "but we will need someone to pay for the procedure."
"Don't worry about that," Crowley says instantly. "It will be taken care of."
"Thank you,” the woman smiles. “The only remaining concern is where she will go if you don't know her owners. She's going to require some care and attention for at least a few weeks in order to make a full recovery. Someone will have to keep an eye on her stitches, she won't be able to move much, so feeding will require some time and care. There are antibiotics that I would like to give you as well, to prevent infection and help her heal."
"She can come with me," Aziraphale says before Crowley gets a chance to answer. "I work from home, or just about. I can easily keep an eye on the poor thing. We can post adverts and try and find the owners while she recovers."
The woman nods. "Most cats in hit and runs aren't so fortunate. She's a very lucky girl; it seems she has guardian angels looking out for her."
Or at least halfway decent human beings, Crowley can't help thinking.
"I'm sure whomever she belongs to will be incredibly grateful, if you manage to find them."
"We'll certainly do our best," Aziraphale smiles gently.
"She'll be ready soon, there will be some care instructions we can go over and schedule some check-up visits," the woman says, turning back to the doors.
"Understood," Crowley answers.
It's past dinner-time when they finally get back to their shops. Crowley had run back and gotten the Bentley in order to bring her to Aziraphale's without jostling her too much by the walking. They'd gotten halfway back only to remember neither of them had anything at all to properly provide for even a healthy cat, so they'd diverted to a pet-shop and purchased a few necessities. Aziraphale had spent almost fifteen minutes learning about the benefits of the organic food selections. Crowley had strolled along the line of bird cages, frowning at the budgies behind his sunglasses as they cheeped and fluffed on their perches. And then, finally, they'd made their way home.
In the evening light of the street, Aziraphale carefully lifts the cat's carrier out of the car. Crowley follows him inside, carrying one bag of medicine from the vet and another from the pet-shop, a kitty bed under one arm. He just manages to lock the car behind him.
They make their way into the paper jungle. Aziraphale switches on the lights, sending the whole place into a low golden glow. He's speaking to the cat all the while, soft absurd things, telling it about the shop and other nonsense that Crowley can't help smiling over. Finally, he follows him up the stairs to the apartment above.
It's a simple flat, just as he'd said it was. There's three windows facing the street in the living space, a tiny kitchen attached with old heavy appliances and a refrigerator that seems to be from the before the advent of color television. The floors are wooden and creak under their feet, welcoming them with worn deep voices. There's a half ajar door to the left which Crowley guesses leads to a bedroom. The place is furnished simply. Tidy. Bookcases line the walls and volumes cover the tables. There's a simple round table by one of the windows. The orchid is in the middle, a few open volumes to keep it company with a mug alongside. Aziraphale sets the carrier down on an empty space by the books and opens the squeaking metal door, muttering his soft comforting voice all the while.
Crowley drops the cat bed down on the floor near his feet and places the bags beside the table. Aziraphale eases the cat out of the carrier. It groans unhappily, and he clicks his tongue, with soft poor dears and goodness graciouses and other ridiculous nothings, before settling it down on the bed.
It's stoned enough on whatever the vet had given it to collapse readily into the circle of stuffing and fabric, letting its head slump down as its yellow eyes slip drunkenly shut.
"There now," Aziraphale says, straightening his back at looking down at it. "Should be all right?"
"I'd think so," Crowley affirms.
"I'm sorry to have put you to so much trouble," Aziraphale says, looking down at the bags. "I could have managed it alone."
"I want to be put to the trouble," Crowley says firmly. "And if you need anything else you'd better not hesitate to ask for it."
Aziraphale smiles. "If you insist."
"I do," Crowley says firmly.
They both watch the cat as she drifts into unconsciousness. The ear that's white on the tip has a few stitches. There's more along her side, about a quarter of her fur shaved to make room for the operation. The vet had told them exactly what had happened, but he hadn't listened that carefully. As long as he knew how to take care of it, that was all that mattered, wasn't it? And listening to the list of damages had only made him think of that red car speeding away without a care in the world.
"I don't remember you being quite so soft-hearted at school," Aziraphale notes.
"I'm not soft-hearted," Crowley frowns. "I'm very hard-hearted. Steel plated ventricles, that's me."
"Of course, so sorry.” Aziraphale's still smiling. "Should we take a picture? For posting signs?"
"Right," Crowley had forgotten. He fishes his phone out of his pocket and kneels down, carefully framing the cat. "There." He stands again. He thinks briefly it’s a rather haunting picture. What if it were his lost cat and he saw its picture, complete with unconsciousness and stitches up the side? Well, all considered, he’d likely still be grateful above all else.
"I really shouldn't keep you any longer, you've lost a whole day of work already for this," Aziraphale says.
Crowley doesn't answer. The cat's breathing is strangely calming to watch, the soft grey fur rising and falling in an easy rhythm.
"You should come visit, sometime," Aziraphale says. "Any time, really."
Crowley looks over to him.
"If you'd like," Aziraphale qualifies. "You can check in on her at any time. I'm glad to offer you some wine. I'd be happy to have you. I don't know if you realize this, but you're rather good company."
Crowley smiles. "Rather good?"
"Well, not bad," Aziraphale smiles back.
Crowley glances down at the cat. "Good. I mean, I'd like that."
"Good," Aziraphale returns.
"Well. See you, then," Crowley heads back for the door with a wave.
Aziraphale stays where he is, watching the cat curled gently into the bed at his feet. "See you."
Crowley steps onto the stairs and wiggles his phone out of his pocket. There's three missed texts.
Lucius - 12:34
Had to run. Locked up the shop. Your neighbor took the cat.
Lucius - 17:13
Lucius - 19:10
I'm sure you're still out. Going with a friend. Catch you tomorrow.
Crowley stares down at the phone, the blue light illuminating his face in the dark of the stairs. He slips it back into his pocket and turns back the way he came. "Any time?" he asks.
Aziraphale looks up. "What? Oh yes, any."
Crowley glances at him over his sunglasses. "How about now?"
The sky still seems to be intent on punishing them for some global sin, sprawled out above the city all grey looming weight, spitting rain in a manner that varies every half an hour or so from a dribble to a downpour. But Crowley doesn’t mind. It’s been so long since it properly rained. And this is one of his favorite ways to spend wet, gloomy-looking mornings.
The halls of the Tate spread out around them, footsteps of all the patrons echoing vast in the wide space. Up above, the sound plays amongst the criss-crossed steel beams and glass that forms the ceiling for the main body of the museum: a sprawling foyer, which leads to almost every exhibit. Crowley glances up at the ceiling, peering above his sunglasses. The sound of the rain on the glass pours into the museum, making everything feel cushioned and somehow closer than it would on another day.
A tour filled with eager faces bustles past them, its guide leading the way towards temporary exhibits.
Lucius slips his hands into the pockets of his Marc Jacobs slacks. "They should ban them."
"Ban what?" Crowley asks.
"Museum tours," Lucius smirks, nodding after the gaggle that's now turning to the left with wavering coordination. "Can you imagine, actually choosing to participate in something like that? Paying to participate in something like that?"
"No, I can't," Crowley says honestly. They do look utterly absurd, the woman at the front with her little plastic flower, all the tourists’ feet shuffling quickly behind.
"Imagine seeing everything in a place like this through someone else's eyes, through someone else's words," Lucius continues. "It's almost perverse. Such things should be left to sink into individuals on their own terms. Imagine if Warhol had known people would be guiding others through his work. He'd have thought it utterly farcical."
"I'm sure he would have." Crowley had never cared for Warhol. But he suspects that in addition to some mock-offense at the absurd nature of museum tours, Warhol’s ego might inflate to ten times its normal size at the idea.
That’s one of the reasons he can never truly enjoy Dada, or at least some Dada of the Duchamp variety. He finds it quite clever, and the part of himself that presents as a cynic who’s sunglass-shrouded vision sees all the shaded parts of the world finds such a playful critique extremely laudable. But another part of himself, the part that stays up late watching ’80s-to-’90s sitcoms about saucy old ladies, the part that chases red BMWs for hours for hitting one cat (when cats die every day in this city by the hundreds), that part of himself can’t help but feel sad looking at such work.
For truth was, at its heart, something composed of spite, something designed to take the piss out of something else, someone else. And while some of its victims maybe deserve to be knocked about a bit, is art as a whole really deserving of such vindictiveness?
Creating art, truly creating art, takes courage. Not creating in the way Warhol did, with society sunk into everything, leaving the impact as valuable as the execution, but creating in the way that a lonely man, who can just afford paints, walks out into a field and tries to understand the world does. Such endeavors do not deserve mockery.
"Let's not follow them," Lucius says. "At least those people with the damn headphones don't let their tainted perspectives infiltrate anyone else's."
"Are your perspectives so easily infiltrated?" Crowley hears himself ask.
"I'd just rather not bother with it," Lucius says. He turns to him. "Why? Do you want to follow the tour?"
"No," Crowley answers, "no, let's not. Let's just look at something. We've been here far too long without looking at something."
They turn into one of the exhibits. Crowley looks over his shoulder as he leaves the main foyer. The tour is still making their way into the opposite hallway. They do look ridiculous, all jammed together, shuffling feet, craning necks. But they look rather happy as well. Quite happy, even.
As soon as they approach the exhibit’s works Crowley slips his sunglasses off and secures them in the pocket of his blazer. His lips twitch into a small smile. It's one of his favorite exhibits. The permanent Turner collection, largest in the world.
"Lunch after this?"
"What's that?" Crowley turns.
"Lunch, after? We'll be what, half an hour more or so here? I have another tour through the four-mil flat on the river. I think this buyer's serious. If we pop out in half and hour I'll have time for some lunch before the showing."
The four-mil-flat-on-the-river had become a regular party in their conversations. He can't say he completely blames him; a ten percent commission on four million is a juicy opportunity. And people have jobs, responsibilities, schedules. There's no faulting anyone for that. But sometimes he wishes it was just the-flat-on-the-river with the four-mil prefix, and that it reared its head a little less often during their time together.
"Sure, lunch is good," Crowley answers.
"Half an hour?" Lucius asks, handsome eyes locking with his.
Crowley shrugs. "All right, half an hour."
"Thanks," Lucius squeezes his hand quickly before letting it go. They turn back to the gallery. "Honestly, I prefer art on a schedule anyways. Galleries, museums. I feel as though I can pace myself better with a schedule."
Crowley hums quietly, focusing on the nearest Turner. He doesn't have much to say back to that. He's not sure whether it would be an admission or not to explain how he loses all track of time in museums, how he once wandered the Musée d'Orsay for five hours without realizing it. But it doesn't matter.
There's all manner of people in the world, some like schedules, and some get lost in places like this, as if wandering some unknown slice of countryside. He can't help it; everything about museums acts like some strange trance-inducing drug on him. The space, the stillness, the quiet, and then the stories have all that much more room to leak in, slipping out the edges of their frames. There's the stories of the works themselves, the worlds and characters they unwind and lay out before the viewer, and then there's the stories of the artists, the ages, the periods, all mingling together into a tiered and faceted tale unique to each and every work. There was a labyrinth of stories inside every painting and he couldn't help wandering around the corners, and sometimes misplacing the ball of yarn he needed to escape once again. They stop in front of one particular work.
"The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of Europa," Lucius reads aloud. "Rather literal.”
Crowley can't help turning to him. "Pardon?"
"Oh, nothing. Just a long name, is all."
"That's what it is. The name is what it is," Crowley says simply.
They both turn back considering it in silence.
"It's rather between worlds, isn't it?" Lucius says after a moment.
Crowley glances at him. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it's neither here, nor there." Lucius tilts his head slightly, considering the work. "It lacks the craft of the classic, and just touches the brazenness of the modern."
Crowley watches him for a moment before turning back to the painting. "I think it's quite brazen."
"Oh, of course, for the time," Lucius continues. "It just makes you realize."
"How much further the world, art as a whole, still had to come to reach true insight, true genius. You can still feel the pressures of conformity tugging at this one's corners."
Crowley focuses on the painting, on the sweeping, fearless strokes. He thinks of Turner, with his easel propped up on those steps, peering through the humidity of the day, watching as the light turned from gold to clear to gold all over again. Trying to see, just to see, and capture something he must have known would forever elude him. But he stood on the steps all the same, with the sun on his face, and the voices of the city around him.
"What do you think?" Lucius asks.
"I like it," Crowley answers, "very much."
The rain's lost some of its gusto by the time he pulls up to the the curb in front of the shop. He considers the umbrella but decides against it, stepping out with it in hand rather than opened. It's still warm outside, which doesn't make the weather as much of a bother as it might be otherwise. Truth be told, he's happy for a true rainy day, rather than just the damp and drizzle and grey that’s been haunting them. Rainy days are wonderful in their own way. There's a real sense of cleansing about them, and it will be good for his gardens out in the countryside.
He glances across the street as he heads for his shop. There's a young man by Aziraphale’s. Quite young. Twenty-two? Twenty-four at the oldest, certainly.
Crowley suspects it's the same young man he's seen two times already this week, even though he's only glimpsed him before. He takes his chance and gets a good look now as the lad considers the shop door, presumably wondering, like anyone else who passes by, whether it's open or not.
He's attractive. Taller. A sort of sun-kissed color to the short brown hair. Even a few freckles. He has that sort of strong jawed, peering-eyed, innocent-meets-masculine air that Crowley's always imagined belonging to young aristocrats in 1910 before the Great War chewed them up and swallowed.
The boy takes his phone from his pocket, tapping on it quickly. He glances over at Crowley, and hell, maybe he's been staring. The lad gives half a wave. Crowley's about to return it when the door opens from the inside. He can't see Aziraphale but he must be welcoming his guest because the lad smiles in a shy but immensely happy way, passing a few unheard words with the figure inside, before slipping into the darkened interior. The door shuts behind them.
Crowley turns away, heading for his keys and the shop door. Absurd, really; he shouldn't be thinking of him as such a boy. What was twenty-four? He wasn't that much older than that, was he? Nine years isn't that much. Christ, he needs to stop that. Did he want to be twenty-four again? Not a chance in hell.
He gets the door open and leans his umbrella beside the door, hanging his coat on its hook by the front as he ties on his apron. The orchids will need the first pass of the day, then he'll check on the window arrangements and replace the ones that need it. The damned baby's breath has finally been purged, although he felt as though the smell was hanging around for days afterwards. The clothes he'd worn those dreadful days are still at the cleaners.
He pauses suddenly. Something doesn't feel quite right. He turns back towards the counter. Something's certainly off, but what? He takes a tentative step closer.
He doesn't scream. Certainly not a scream. It's a very contained, very masculine yelp.
"Bloody hell, Anathema!" he swears.
She's in near hysterics where she’s popped up from behind the counter, leaning on it with a gleeful expression, one foot kicking up in the air behind her.
"How old are you? Seven? Seven and a half?" Crowley shouts.
"How old are you? Eighty-nine? You actually put a hand to your chest like some scandalized Victorian, or a negligée-clad silent movie starlet who's seen a dastardly dandy creeping round her room."
"I don't think dandies can be dastardly. And you should be careful! I might have attacked you." He picks up his shears and holds them in what he hopes is a menacing way to prove his point.
Anathema raised both eyebrows. "Attack me! You still look like you need a fainting couch!"
"Well, it's very shocking! Dangerous."
"Fun," she grins.
"Not that. Opposite of that."
"Not happy to see me?" she asks.
"Horrified to see you is more accurate," he says. He takes a step closer, putting his own hands on the opposite side of the counter. "How was your bloody trip?"
"Hardly a trip," she argues. “Just looking at a location."
"All of this is really disgustingly last-minute, you know."
"It will come together," she says.
"Famous last words."
"It will," she insists calmly, "for me." And the terrible part was she's completely right. Everything seemed to come together for her; it was like the universe, time, fate, any of that, was affected by her gravity, easing into her orbit and turning according to her whims and effortless designs.
"Nervous. He shares your lack of faith in the alignment of things."
"Shares a sense of reality," Crowley corrects.
"Well he needn't, and you needn't, everything will come together," she repeats, commanding the spin of existence to obey her wishes.
"Miss me?" she asks, pretty clever smile filling her face from the eyes first.
"I was enjoying some peace and quiet."
"There wasn't much of that I heard."
"What did you hear?"
She leans back, smile slipping into a frown. "Some dreadful business with a poor cat and disgusting humans."
"Hey there, not everyone was disgusting."
"No," her eyes sparkle, grin returning. "I heard you were like, and I quote, James Bond."
Crowley tries not to smile. "Is that right?"
"I'm sorry I missed it, honestly," she continues. "It all sounds as though it was very exciting. Running out onto the street, traffic stopping, chaos, screams. You rushing after the villain, a thrilling car-chase, all Hollywood, complete with the suit and pretentious sunglasses."
Crowley hardly even hears her snark. "Who told you all of this?"
"Potato," she answers. "It was quite the exciting recounting."
Crowley raises a dark brow. "Pardon?"
"It's your nick-name, not mine," Anathema insists, tossing up her hands.
"Oh, yes, right," Crowley remembers. "Well, I was still feeling a little irritated back then. Did he really say James Bond?"
Anathema smirks. "I assume we're on better terms with the neighbors now?"
"I wish you wouldn't ask questions you know the answers to. You get a very snide expression."
"I know my answers," she insists, "but I don't know yours."
"Then yes, all right. Better terms."
"Maybe even those."
"He said you've been going over there to check on the cat. How often are you doing that?"
Crowley picks up his spritzer, keen on ignoring her tenor. "I don't see how it's any of your business."
"Defensive much?" she laughs.
He turns to the orchids, lightly spraying them. "Nosy much?"
"Just curious," she shrugs.
"Well, what if I do go over most nights? Is it that terrible for me to be friendly?"
"Terrible, no. Bizarre, yes."
Spraying down the orchids almost makes them look as though they are outside, just past the glass behind them, enjoying the bath with the rest of the city. "It's not bizarre. I'm very charming."
"Charming is completely different from friendly. You're charming with everyone; you're friendly with no one. Charming is all surface; friendly's sincere. Hell, I came in here half a dozen times before you warmed up to me."
"I still haven't warmed up to you. You're a pest."
"And this is my point," she returns, gesturing to him.
"What's wrong with me being friendly?" Crowley insists, crossing to the other side of the shop. "You like him. Don't you?"
"Very much," Anathema admits freely.
"So why can't I?"
"Why can't you what?"
"Like him very—” He catches himself just in time. "Why can't I be friendly?"
"You can," she shrugs, "I haven't said you can't. I just said I'm surprised, is all. You were so irritated with him. I wasn't sure your pride could take being friendly.”
The sad truth is, she isn't terribly wrong. He still does feel hurt in ways. He knows it’s dramatic, and absurd, but there’s a part of him that hates not being remembered. He’s prideful. There’s no use denying it. It’s a pretty decent sin to call your own,considering the other options. And thanks to it, there’s a small, but wheedling sense of injury within that he can't quite silence.
Isn't he worth remembering? Isn't it worth remembering? He himself certainly seems to think so…
"He's pleasant and clever," Crowley says, "and you were away. What did you expect?"
"Oh, have I been replaced?" Anathema mocks affront.
"Maybe you have. You just watch it, I have options now.”
He turns back to give the displays in the front window his attention, and suddenly, stops dead as his heart jumps two feet up into his throat. He lets out a small whining noise of discomfort, stepping quickly backwards. He slips behind the cutting table, keeping his eyes firmly on the front displays.
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Anathema asks, staring in surprise at his wide eyes.
"There's one of them in here," he hisses, eyes still locked on the front display.
"One of what? Oh God, Anthony, this really is the stupidest thing!"
"It is not stupid!" he whispers through his teeth. "Do you call people who are afraid of spiders stupid? Snakes?"
"Those are poisonous!" she insists.
"Only a few! And no one calls anyone stupid for being afraid of those that aren't."
"You can't be serious," Anathema steps around the counter looking towards the oh-so-terrifying display with mirth on her lips.
"It's not funny! It's just...get it. Can you get it? Please. Get it out."
"You get it!" she laughs.
"No! I don't want its bloody spindly hooked legs anywhere near me, or the flapping, or that wretched face."
“Crowley! It's just a butterfly!" she exclaims.
"It's an intruder,” he corrects. “And I don't want it here. It must have come in with you. They know better than to get near me. You get it out."
"Maybe you should just swat it."
"I don't want to swat it! It might panic, get in my face, or my..."
"You were going to say hair weren't you?"
"Please," he glares at her, "please, just get it out."
"Maybe I should just kill it," she shrugs.
"Don’t,” he says too quickly.
"You're that disturbed by it, but you don't want me to kill it?" she teases. Bloody girl.
"No, I don't want you to fucking kill it,” he snarls.
"Softie," she grins.
"I just don't want the family seeking vengeance, just please, get it—oh God!" The thing has taken flight. He ducks down instantly, hiding behind the table. "Get it, get it, get it, get it—"
Anathema can't seem to stop laughing. He can hear her scooting around the cement of the floor, hopping up after it. "God, it really likes it in here. Maybe you should keep it."
"Very funny. Do you have it?"
"Almost—" she makes a stretching sound and then stops. "All right. Got it."
"Put it outside."
"I sort of know what you mean," she says, not moving. "The feet do feel a bit creepy, and that's not a very nice face. Still better than spiders though."
"Outside. Now. Please."
She finally steps across the floor. He hears the door open, pause, and then shut again.
"You’re safe," she says, "the villain has been banished.”
"Yes!" she laughs.
"You're not still holding it? You're not going to hurl it at my face when I stand up?"
"No! God, just stand up, you look like a complete idiot!"
He does, carefully. She appears to be honest in her assertions, leaning on the counter again, hands rested there, not cupped around a little winged demon in front of her.
He clears his throat, wiping off the knees of his pants. "Well, fine. Good."
She's staring at him like he's grown a second, far more amusing, head. "You're a wonder. You know that, don't you?"
"Yes, I do, thank you very much."
Anathema sighs, turning towards the door. "Thrilling as this is, I should be opening up. I won't get many business days this month."
"Right, sure," Crowley says, returning to open the register. He stops suddenly, looking up. "Wait, what do you mean?"
"Well," she stops halfway out the open door, tossing her hair over one shoulder, “what with the wedding and all of that. It's ridiculous, really. You want to keep it as simple as possible, but simple takes its own time, and I do want it to be fun for everyone so there's that as well. It's time consuming. Even in its most unadulterated form."
"You're going away again?" Crowley asks.
"There," she smiles, "I knew you missed me."
"When are you leaving?" he continues, ignoring her.
"I'm here for a few more days, two, three? Then I'll be off up North for most of the time until the wedding. I'll be back again for a night sometime right before the Event."
"Getting too drunk and singing too loudly."
Crowley stares. "You're not doing a bloody hen night?"
"Hopefully it won't be a bloody hen night. I wouldn't want any injuries. And you're coming, by the way, so best start warming up to the concept. Don't worry, it won't be a screaming cliché. Just three women who can hold far too much whiskey without vomiting, and you trying to avoid sticky pub seats.”
"Yes, I think so," she waves, stepping outside finally. "See you."
The door swings shut behind her. Perfect. It's not as though a day or so before her wedding he should be arranging the flowers she demanded from him, or anything of the sort. Although he is curious to see what her other friends might be like. Curious or terrified. Maybe a bit of both.
It takes him less than an half an hour to open up. The new bouquets and arrangements slot nicely into the windows, and the orchids glitter in the early light, little orbs of moisture from the sprayer glowing like gems. It's still early by the time he's done with morning chores. Before noon. He rarely gets anyone before noon. After lunch people will pop by for some arrangements, but towards the end of the day is always when he's busiest. Last-minute remembered anniversaries. Dates that need artillery. The craving for a spark of beauty to take home after a long work day.
Crowley leans on the counter, gazing idly out towards the street. He should balance some accounts while he's unoccupied, issue some invoices, adjust the receivables, but he can't quite seem to move towards those ends just yet.
Across the street, a door opens. It's Aziraphale's. Crowley focuses. The young mans steps out.
He isn't carrying anything. There's no books under his arm, no gripped paper bag hiding purchases. Interesting. Maybe he was just browsing. For an hour.
Crowley frowns at him as he moves down the street, apparently not bothered by the rain. Eventually he's out of sight. Crowley turns his attention back to Aziraphale’s door, eyes narrowed. He glances at the register, then the bare cutting table, then the street. Well. Who goes out to buy flowers in the rain at 11AM anyways? He's around the counter quickly, tossing his apron on a hook and grabbing his jacket on the way. The door swings shut behind him, swaying sign turned to CLOSED.
Aziraphale's door pushes open easily. The rain's picked up, and he hasn't taken his umbrella. There's a speckling of raindrops on the shoulders of his jacket and his hair's just a touch damp. He hustles into the bookshop with the same rushed air and bustled concern that most demonstrate when coming indoors out of the rain. The warmth of the place and the smell of books rises up on all sides. The lights are on, sending the whole interior into a warm, dim, golden glow.
"Oh, hullo," Aziraphale's voice calls.
Crowley turns, glancing for him. "Hullo?”
He emerges from behind an over-burdened shelf, glasses low on his nose, one volume still open in his hands. "Still raining?"
"Still raining," Crowley affirms, "but its conviction has been rather erratic."
"Mmm," Aziraphale hums, eyes glancing over the volume before he shuts it. It's a pleasant sound. That hum. Calming. Strangely it reminds him of the sound of others moving about a house when as a child you tried to sleep. You’d hear your mother just next door, continuing her day, the world moving calmly on, lulling you into a peaceful state of unconsciousness. He finds himself imagining lying out on the absurdly plaid sofa just upstairs, slipping into sleep on kitschy throw pillows with the noise of Aziraphale humming and moving about between the rustling of pages just down stairs.
Crowley distracts himself from the lulling mental image, looking about. "Oh," he takes a step closer to the counter. "You brought her downstairs."
"What?" Aziraphale glances back over. "Oh, yes, it felt silly to leave her upstairs. And it's easier to give her attention when she's down here."
Crowley stands beside the cat, looking down. She looks back at him, eyes far less glazed than they had been only a few days ago. He lets his hand drift over, and she nods her head into it as if she's doing him the favor. He smiles. "She seems better."
"Mm, much," Aziraphale agrees, stepping over himself and placing the volume on the counter. "She's eating much easier, and you can see she's more lucid."
"Is she moving around much?"
"A little, but it's not safe just yet. It's good for her to rest."
"Of course." Crowley crooks a finger behind her ear and she she starts to purr. "Busy day?" he asks, focus still on the cat.
"Not at all, only Justin."
Crowley focuses harder on the cat. "Right."
Aziraphale leans on the counter. He reaches his hand out and joins in, gently running a knuckle down her spine. Slowly. Again. And again.
Crowley can't help watching it, even though the rhythmic motion is making him feel dangerously relaxed. With the golden warmth, the closeness of the books, he can feel his eyelids drifting down slightly, settling into a lazy, comfortable weight.
"I posted adverts, for her," Aziraphale says, leaning his chin on his free hand.
"Do you think anything will come of it?"
"I don't know. If she's someone’s, I certainly hope so."
"What if she's not?" Crowley asks.
"Well, she's not such a bother.” Aziraphale smiles.
There's a pause. Even within the forest of literature it's still easy to hear the rain drip-dropping to the sidewalk and the gutters outside.
"I should get back," Crowley says, not moving.
"Ah, right," Aziraphale rights himself, and that brings Crowley back. He drops his hand back to his side.
"Are you coming back? Tonight, I mean...to check in?" Aziraphale asks. "I have a decent Zinfandel I'd like to try."
Crowley eases back. "Can't. Dinner plans."
“Oh, well. Enjoy," Aziraphale smiles, open and kind.
"I will," Crowley steps away. "See you. Make sure she takes those antibiotics. I think she might be spitting them out. She has a suspicious air."
"I make sure," Aziraphale comforts, then, "Oh!" he calls, suddenly remembering. "I didn't know Anathema was getting married, the dear thing.”
"Oh, right, yes. Soon." Crowley turns back.
"Have you met her young man?"
"Yes," Crowley sighs.
Aziraphale frowns. "Is he deserving?"
Crowley laughs. "No one's that deserving."
"What does he do?"
“He’s in IT.”
Aziraphale gazes off. "That doesn't seem right..."
"I think that's part of the appeal," Crowley returns. “Not right. Right off.”
"She invited me," Aziraphale says. “To the wedding, I mean."
"Did she?" He can't help feeling surprised.
"It's rather extraordinary. You've both been so kind. Hardly anyone could expect so much from neighbors."
"Will you go?"
"What?" he looks up.
"To the wedding?"
Aziraphale smiles. "Yes. Yes, I think so."
Crowley smiles back. "Good."
By the time he steps back onto the street, the rain's picked up even more weight. He hurries across, shutting the door behind him, trying not to wonder if only Justin will also be making it to Anathema's hillside ceremony.
Bed, really is an excellent place to be. Come to think of it, why does anyone ever leave bed at all? Especially on mornings like this.
Crowley hasn’t summoned the energy to move just yet, even though Lucius rolled over with a contented grumbly sigh a few minutes ago.
Crowley’s always particularly enjoyed these moments. Post-coital, still awake and aware, just choosing to be less so. There’s a paradoxically comfortable soreness lingering, giving him subtle silent permission to loll against the high-thread count and simply marinate in all those messy post-orgasm chemicals sloshing around his brain.
Although he’d be loathe to admit it, there’s something so deliciously indulgent to these moments that he can’t help but fantasize. He thinks of French mistresses stretched out settees, sighing beneath undone corsets and reaching with finely manicured hands to pluck petit-fours from silver trays. He thinks of Egyptian princesses, loose and all unfolded by pleasure, stretching back on silk covered couches to purr against the smell of their own sun-kissed skin. There’s something he relates to vividly in those images during these moments, more than he’d ever confess to. But sometimes, it just feels so lovely, to lean back with an indulgent sense of lethargy, like some form of sexual royalty.
Lucius rolls back over, kissing him open and soft against the side of his neck, edging his nose just under his ear, before turning back again with more purpose. He sits up, standing to walk across the room to where he left his trousers the night before.
Crowley rolls, leaning on one elbow to watch him. It’s a pleasant picture. Lucius’s fit, but not in that obnoxious way where abs look like they might start a conversation with you. Just right. He’s pretty sure that’s how Men’s Health would describe it. The musculature is there, defined but not boasting, just enough to accentuate all the lines of his body, and maybe a little more so in the arms. A very pleasant picture
He lets himself gaze at his lower-half as Lucius tugs up his Calvin Klein’s and Marc Jacob’s after them, covering one of the more favorable portions of the view. He starts to do up his belt, looking out at the city through Crowley’s expansive windows. The sun is catching in his dirtied-blond hair, the shadow of stubble on his cheeks looking almost casual.
“I’m going to the country today,” Crowley hears himself say.
Lucius turns. “Is that right?"
“Mmm,” Crowley hums, stretching back again into the eager arms of the pillows. He stretches one leg off to the side, letting his foot and the calf behind it slip out into the air. “I’m going to check the gardens. I keep some out there so I can stock from them. It’s pretty. I want to see what’s looking best for Anathema’s.”
“Wedding,” Crowley says, suddenly look back to him. “Don’t you remember? It’s less than two weeks off now, almost a week even.”
“That’s right,” Lucius acknowledges, “I’m sorry I forgot, there’s just been quite a lot to keep in mind this week.”
Crowley nods appreciatively. He watches as Lucius pulls a shirt off the floor, tugging it over his shoulders.
“Well, what?” Lucius answers through the shirt still half over his head.
“What about the country?”
Lucius’ head pops free. “What? Going out there? Today? Together?”
Crowley shrugs. “If you’d like.”
“I would like,” Lucius insists, grabbing his button-up, “I would like very much, but I have to show the four-mil on the river again. And I think these ones are likely to bite.”
“You’re not disappointed?” Lucius asks.
“No,” Crowley lies.
Lucius looks relieved as he buttons up the rest of his shirt. “It’s why I have to rush out honestly, they’re starting soon and I want to get home and change these clothes. I don’t know how anyone can wear the same thing twice in a row.” He shifts his shoulders uncomfortably. “It feels ghastly.”
“Mmm,” Crowley agrees. He’s not really listening, suddenly feeling a bit distracted.
“I’m honestly glad to be showing for so much of the day, it’s a good excuse not to pick up the mobile when my sister calls again.”
Crowley half turns. “Not a fan of your sister?”
“No, no, it’s not that. I love her, truly. I suppose as you do with family. She’s just going away for two weeks on some Thailand escapade and wants me to watch her cat and I keep insisting I won’t, but she keeps insisting I could—”
Crowley sits up a little straighter. “I thought you were allergic.”
Lucius stops buttoning, looking back at him. “Pardon?”
“Allergic. To cats. That’s what you said the other day, when I asked for your jacket.”
“Right, right. Well, yes, that’s exactly why I can’t do it,” he answers, turning back to his dressing. “But she continues to insist. Insufferable.”
Crowley leans back again, a tiny voice in his head muttering that he said he “won’t” take it the first time, not “can’t”.
Lucius steps back towards the bed, dressed again. All tidy. With the condition he keeps his clothes in no one could ever guess that they were a second-day wear. In fact he looks ready for an editorial as it is.
He lifts Crowley’s hand from the sheets, kissing the knuckles. “Enjoy the country.”
“Best of luck with the showing,” Crowley returns.
And he’s gone. It’s thirty seconds before Crowley hears the door shut behind him out in the living room, and then it’s just him, the silence of the sunlight, and the hum of the city outside his half opened windows.
Suddenly, the bed doesn’t seem half as indulgent and exquisite as it had just a moment ago. He feels naked, and sticky, and rather uncomfortable. He stays there for a moment, trying to remember the feeling and force it with firm metal language to come back to him again, but it’s no use. He sits up with sigh, swinging his feel over the side.
He stands, giving a quick stretch. Now he just has to decide: coffee first, or shower?
Coffee wins. It usually does. He’s never been what you’d obnoxiously call ‘a morning person’. And showers always make him sleepy all over again if they come too soon.
He snags his trousers off the floor, pulling them on without consideration for anything else. Pants alone would do just fine, but there’s especially tall windows in his kitchen and there’s only so much exposition he’s comfortable performing for his neighbors.
The coffee’s a fairly quick operation thanks to the shiny silver wonders of the kitchen. He leans on the counter, taking slow sips, and flipping through a newspaper Lucius left on the counter. He lingers on the weather. For now it’s grey, a lingering mist rolling out of the river. But it’s claiming to be an almost sunny day overall. Possibly, hopefully. The country will be pleasant.
It’s a pity to go alone. He’d like to bring Anathema. She always lights up in the country, like something in the air out there reacts chemically with her skin to produce a glowing air of radiance and contentment. It’s as if she falls into some harmony with things that he’ll never understand, nature welcoming her home again.
He enjoys the country well enough, but it’s certainly never welcomed him with especially open arms. He thinks of Lucius in the country and imagines that would be even less the case. It’s probably for the best. They might get stuck out there for some unknown reason, have to walk through a field, ruin their shoes, likely get into some vicious row in front of gossipy sheep. It’s for the best.
Then why does he still feel a lingering sense of disappointment?
He shuts the paper, attempting to shrug it off with a change of pace. It doesn’t take long to get back to the bathroom. He finishes the coffee as he turns on the shower, letting the steam start to ease up around him comfortably. He critically eyes the floral arrangement he left sitting on the sink as he slips off the trousers once again. It’s a very pleasant selection. Foxgloves, honey-suckle. But it needs something more… billowy. He should have added the peonies after all.
The shower feels utterly perfect as he eases in, and he sighs contentedly as the water rushes over him, all comfort and cleansing heat.
It’s useless to be disappointed about the country. It’s nothing. It’s not as if he even enjoys it that much himself anyways, and of course work is important, that sale is important. There’s nothing to worry over. And thinking that should really stop the worrying. It’s quite illogical that it does nothing of the sort.
He twists off the water eventually, reaching for a towel on the other side of the door. He glances over at the mirror as he pushes the towel into his hair. Funny. The mirror’s usually fogged right up, but there’s hardly any condensation. Did he leave the bathroom door open by mistake? He looks.
It’s not a shriek. Certainly not. Just a perfectly normal exclamation of surprise and a decent helping of reasonable fear. Although dropping his towel on the wet floor doesn’t help any.
Crowley glares at the door.
There’s a butterfly. In the bathroom. In his bathroom. And it’s sitting, right on the door handle.
How the hell did it get in?
He needs to get another towel but he’s a little wary of moving outside the sealed in security of the shower. He needs to look around for clues but if he takes his eyes off the bloody thing who’s to say when he looks back it won’t be gone and then he’ll know that it’s still there, just unseen. Waiting. Watching.
After a deep breath he takes two seconds to whip his eyes around the bathroom for clues. It’s not hard to find the critical one. The window is open. It’s a small windows, just a thin rectangle above the toilet. Lucius must have opened it last night, not noticing that there’s no screen. It must have come in, maybe after the flowers on the sink. Bloody hell why did he ever put flowers in here?
Well. Source located. The things is still on the door. It shifts slightly, wings opening and shutting twice with slow but firm flexing movement. Crowley shudders.
He swallows, and very carefully, very slowly, reaches around the door and grabs another towel, tugging his hand back the instant he has it.
The butterfly doesn’t move. It doesn’t seem to mind him being dry.
What the hell is he supposed to do here?
He’s trapped. By a damned butterfly. Is that dramatic? Is he overreacting?
… No. He really is trapped.
It’s on the door. If it were somewhere else, across the bathroom, sitting on the lid of the toilet, maybe then he could summon the courage to bolt for the door, hoping to have enough time to tug it open and escape before it took flight.
Anathema was merciless with her teasing, but it was entirely possible that once it took flight it would land on him. They did that. He’s seen pictures. Children with their hands out in gardens and the bloody things landing right on them with their spindly legs and massive eyes, extending that long, horrible, tentacle of a mouth to feel about against the skin.
He shudders again. No. It’s too awful. He can’t risk it.
Of course one might say he could just bat it out of the air, or slap it with a towel. But, ironic as it might seem, he didn’t want to hurt it. Although he’d never admit it, the idea of killing anything made him physically ill. It took him long enough to get used to cutting flowers for the sake of arrangements, and even now he’ll own cut those on the end of their season. So, disgusting and dreadful as the things were, the wretchedness he’d feel if he needlessly took something else’s life for the sake of his own insecurities was far far worse.
So, what was he supposed to do? Wait for it to fly out the window again? That could be hours, days even. It has everything it needs in here thanks to his tireless efforts in home decoration.
He glances around the bathroom, assessing his resources. Trousers. Trousers are important.
Crowley keeps his eyes firmly on the intruder. He slips an arm out of the shower door, carefully, carefully. He hooks the pants and tugs them back, fumbling in the pocket. He mutters a small prayer of thanks to whomever’s listening when his hands close on his phone.
He suddenly realizes he has a problem. Who the hell is he supposed to call? And worse, what the hell is he supposed to say?
Anathema is the first instinct. She’s teased him about this before, and yes, now it will doubtless be, far, far worse than it ever was, but she’s the best option.
An impossible option. She’s gone. Again. Out of town. He curses her, and Newt, and bloody matrimony as an institution at large.
Who else? Well… isn’t “rescuing” typically something boyfriends are supposed to do?
His finger pauses on Lucius’ name against the glowing screen. He tries to play out the conversation in his head.
“Oh hello, yes, I was hoping you could pass on that vital showing for just an hour or two in order to come shoo a butterfly out the window.”
Well, that nixes that. And since when did he have so few friends? Was he really that miserable of a person? Was Anathema right after all?
…Oh. Oh no.
Crowley glares at his phone. But it’s not it’s fault he’s left with only one option. He dials before he can regret it.
He keeps the conversation as short as possible. When it’s over he tugs on his trousers with slow and steady movements, watching the intruder all the while, and finally, he scrunches up in one corner, waiting for the inevitable ten-ton load of shame to dump right on top of him
It doesn’t take long.
He hears the door to the apartment open about fifteen minutes later. Luckily he forgot to lock it. The door shuts again. Soft steps move through the apartment.
“Hullo?” a muffled voice calls.
“Here,” Crowley just manages.
The steps move closer. Crowley hurriedly tugs a towel over his shoulders to try and cover at least some of his torso.
Outside the door, there’s a gentle knock. “Hullo?”
“Yes, yeah,” Crowley starts.
“Should I come in?” the voice behind the door asks.
“Yes, but, just— it’s on the doorknob. So, try not to… jostle.”
“I will,” the voice says comfortingly.
Slowly, the knob starts to turn. It gets half way round before the thing takes flight.
Crowley squishes even deeper into the corner with a very uncomfortable noise, but the door is open now and Aziraphale hurries in. The butterfly doesn’t go far, landing lightly on the flowers by the mirror.
Aziraphale makes a few soft sounds, moving quickly but carefully to scoop it up.
“Careful,” Crowley mutters miserably.
“I am,” he calls back. And he is. He cups it successfully, standing on his tip-toes to press it up to the open window.
“Go on,” he mutters. It flexes his wings once in his open hand, and then it’s gone. “There.”
“Can you shut the window. Please,” Crowley says.
He does just that, and then turns back to him. He’s not laughing at him, so that’s an unexpected bonus. It’s miraculous really, considering how he must look, crouched on towels on the floor of a shower with wet hair in slacks and nothing else.
“So,” Aziraphale says, leaning back against the counter, “touch of lepidopterophobia?”
Crowley grumbles, standing up properly. “Just a touch.”
Aziraphale’s cheeks suddenly go rather pink. “Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t—“ He’s performing some awkward facial gymnastics as he tries to not look and not not look at Crowley all at once.
“What?” Crowley frowns. “Oh-“ No shirt. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Right, of course,” Aziraphale shrugs. He’s suddenly giving off the impression of someone’s dad trying to act like he understands the appeal of Vines.
Crowley can’t help smiling as he steps out of the safety of the glass shower doors. The situation’s really turning around quite positively. He’s not being teased for unreasonable phobias and he’s even making someone else unreasonably uncomfortable with his torso. It’s like an embarrassment baton pass.
“Thank you,” he says sincerely.
Aziraphale shrugs, still doing his ocular averted-attention dance. “It’s my pleasure.”
Crowley snorts, running the towel through his hair one last time. “Pleasure might be a tad strong.”
“Not a problem then,” Aziraphale concedes.
“Maybe a bit of a problem,” Crowley insists, tossing the towel into his hamper.
“Fine, it’s an utter trial. Devastatingly inconvenient. Unforgivable assault on my good will.”
Aziraphale smiles. “Feel free to assault my good will any time.”
“Well, it’s not nearly as helpful, but there’s coffee in the kitchen if you’d like some.”
“Oh yes, thank you,” Aziraphale says quickly, latching onto any excuse to get out of the bathroom.
“Help yourself. I’ll get dressed. You might have to warm it up again.”
“Right, good,” and with that he hurries out again.
It doesn’t take Crowley long to properly prepare for the day. It’s less than fifteen minutes before he’s stepping out into the kitchen once again.
Aziraphale’s standing by one of the tall windows, a steaming cup between his fingers. He’s looking out at the city with a small pleasant smile.
He glances over his shoulder as he hears Crowley enter the room. “You have a beautiful view.”
Crowley moves back towards the coffee. “It’s not bad. When it’s not so foggy you can see the river just past that steeple.”
“Wonderful,” Aziraphale hums, gazing out. “The fog is supposed to lift anyways, come ten or eleven. At least that’s what they said.”
“Mmm, I heard,” Crowley says tapping the paper by the kettle as he refreshes his own coffee. “Thankfully. It’s always miserable heading out into the country when it’s nothing but wet and slosh.”
Aziraphale turns. “You’re not going into the shop today?”
“No, no,” Crowley says, adding just a splash of cream for this second cup. “I should go and check on some of my gardens. I keep a few out in the country, there’s a lovely little lady who looks in on them and makes sure they’re up to snuff. But I still like to stop by and keep them in line myself once a month or so. And anyways, with Anathema’s wedding coming up so soon I want to evaluate which ones will be ready when the bloody event descends.”
“Let’s hope it’s not too bloody,” Aziraphale returns. “Never a good thing for a wedding.”
“Oh I don’t know, Catholics can’t seem to do without a little bit of ‘blood’.”
“Shameful,” Aziraphale smiles, turning to look back out the window.
Crowley smiles after him, and lets his attention linger. He looks… interesting, in his apartment. Minimalist chic has always been his Crowley’s go-to when it comes to interiors. He’s had this flat for almost five years now, and the open floor plan always worked with that aesthetic. He left the poured cement floor, smoothed to perfection, and the tall ceilings, one side slanted with three large skylights to let in the light.
It’s mostly colorless, but minimal and colorless allows anything else to pop, and that was what furniture and plants and art were for. His selected furnishings could stand like sculptural pieces, and the flora he kept inside sang against the rest of it. He had one favorite orchid that he kept on the kitchen counter and even with it’s subtle shades it was the focal piece of the room.
Overall, the place matched Crowley. Sharp. Sleek. Stylish. It matched Lucius just as well, and when they were standing around in it together Crowley could almost see the World of Interiors feature spread they would make.
It did not match Aziraphale.
He wasn’t stylish. He’d taken his shoes off at the door in his insufferable consideration, so he was standing in a pair of colorful knit socks that matched but also didn’t in a way that spoke to someone’s inexperienced craft rather than a store purchase. His clothing was neat, but far from interesting or notable. Just a sweater, in a rather assaulting plaid, and a pair of corduroys that were nostalgically hanging onto some dreadful cut from 1998. The glasses, while almost fashionable again by now, really just tied the entire thing together. They looked like the exact same pair he’d worn in school, and they probably were. He was just the type of person who would never lose a pair of glasses.
He certainly wasn’t sleek. In fact if there was an opposite of sleek, there would probably be a footnote under it’s dictionary entry to reference Aziraphale for further clarification. If Crowley himself were a Bugatti, Aziraphale was a 1988 Volvo four-door. And he wasn’t sharp, at least not in any aesthetic sense. He was rounded edges, not hard ones, smoothed and simple and utterly unassuming.
But there was something sharp about him underneath all of that, something quick and bright and edged. Maybe it was just his intelligence. Crowley was already suspecting he was the cleverest person he’d ever meet underneath the gentle voice and humble mannerisms. There was certainly something about that. Something about someone so clever, who couldn’t care less if anyone thought him so. But, it was something else as well, something in the way his eyes caught the light sometimes. Crowley felt like if he were ever angry, ever truly, truly angry, he might be capable of incinerating something just with one glare.
Maybe that’s what made him so watchable. And he really was watching him now, there was no point in denying it. He was rather like some exceptionally clever puzzle, all outward simplicity hiding impossibilities within, or some little old woman’s pierogi shop that was actually a front for a hub of international intelligence. But then at the same time, amidst all of that, he was just… Aziraphale. Standing in his living room, smiling at the possibilities of the day, and something as common-place and miraculous as a couple of London roof-tops.
“Would you like to come?”
Aziraphale turns. “Pardon?”
“To the country?” Crowley asks.
“Oh,” Aziraphale’s brow furrows for a moment. “I did have a few things to do.”
“Never mind,” Crowley says instantly, “it’s nothing—“
“I’ll cancel them.”
“Oh,” Crowley’s blushing and he has no idea why. Probably residual trauma from his bathroom intrusion. “You really don’t have to, it’s nothing, really.”
“I want to,” Aziraphale says simply, taking another sip of coffee. “I’d like a day in the country. It sounds lovely.”
Aziraphale smiles at him as if he’s far younger than he is. “Of course I’m sure.”
Crowley tries to peddle back to the safe grounds of ambivalence. “Well, if you’d like. I wouldn’t mind the company.”
“Neither would I.”
Crowley narrows his eyes. He thinks he might be teasing him, but he can’t be sure.
“Oh—“ he suddenly remembers, “what about the cat?”
Crowley stares. “You named it?”
Now it’s Aziraphale’s turn to blush. “It felt disrespectful calling her ‘cat’ all day.”
“Just don’t get attached,” Crowley levels. “We’re looking for her owners remember?”
“If she has them. But yes, yes of course. And she’ll be fine. I checked her stitches and gave her her antibiotics this morning. She’s happy enough to rest upstairs now that she knows where everything is. As long as we don’t get back terribly late so I can give her another dose it will be fine.”
“Right,” Crowley takes a steady sip of his coffee. “Good.”
“Good,” Aziraphale agrees.
It’s quiet for a moment.
“Are you wearing that?” Aziraphale asks, eyeing him.
Crowley glances down. “Yes, why? What’s wrong with it?”
Aziraphale’s smiling again. “You wear suits to the country?”
“Location doesn’t affect the value of a well-tailored jacket,” Crowley sniffs.
“Mmm, of course,” Aziraphale smirks, stepping closer.
He’s finished his coffee and brushes past Crowley to get to the sink he’s leaning beside. Crowley knows he should scoot to one side to make room, but he doesn’t. Aziraphale’s elbow brushes his arm where he’s leaned against the counter as he eases on the faucet.
Crowley focuses on his own coffee, taking slow steady sips, all the while wondering if he’s close enough that he could smell him if he really wanted to try. He wonders if he would smell the same as he did back then. Sharpened pencils, and book pages printed before 1970, and just a hint of something rounder, earthier. Clover. He thinks he remembers it being something like clover.
Aziraphale’s arm just brushes him against as he grabs a dish-towel. He leans back, away, wiping off his mug.
“When would you like to leave?”
“Now,” Crowley says. He drains the last of his coffee in one sip, trying to convince himself that he hasn’t made a massive bloody mistake.
The Bentley dives over another hill and Crowley takes the curve by the scruff of the neck.
Aziraphale barely smothers a terrified noise in the back of his throat. His body presses closer to the median space between them and Crowley can’t help smiling. He takes the next corner ever harder.
“Goodness gracious,” Aziraphale squeaks. “Don’t— don’t you think you should maybe slow down, just slightly?”
“Nonsense,” Crowley grins. “I’ve done this drive hundreds of times. There’s rarely sheep, and only occasionally have I had to slip off road for a moment. Then it’s back on again in no time.”
Aziraphale shudders. Crowley only notices at the feel of it that his arm has pressed against his. Nerves no doubt.
He doesn’t slow down. It feels good out here. Great even. Its been too long since he’s gotten out in the country. Its always made him a little uncomfortable up too close. He’s never enjoyed walking particularly, seeing all the little living humming bits of the natural world right up near enough to nick and dirty and scuff. But tearing past all in a rush of air, nothing but green and glorious, it feels like life’s bursting on all sides and he’s sweeping through it, the vivacity staining and sticking, like driving in rain.
It isn’t a date. He’s reminded himself of that at least a dozen time since they left, and he does so again now.
He’s just invited him out, that doesn’t make it anything more than an outing. Yes, he had intended it as a date originally, but that was when he’d invited Lucius, and now that a friend has filled in, the purpose has shifted accordingly.
The fact that he’s enjoying thrilling him is simply because he thrills so easily. It has everything to do with the way he twitches and frights on every hill, and nothing to do with the fact that each scare makes him shove a little closer, hands fluttering as if they might grab hold of Crowley’s arm, and occasionally forgetting themselves and doing just that.
It’s nothing. It’s just that he hasn’t felt sun that wasn’t bounced off buildings for a long time. There’s wind in his hair, and it’s warm enough that he’s left his jacket in the back seat. The tint to his sunglasses makes the world seem a whole new range of colors, all fantastical and amber edged. The hills roll past in waves, all green, all flashing.
There’s three more curves, a short sprint through a few small stony buildings, and Crowley pulls to a stop.
Aziraphale lets out a breath Crowley hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
“Well,” he mutters. His hair is wind-tousled, askew and blown back in such a way that his bangs fall messy around his glasses and face. “I don’t supposed I might drive back?”
“Do you like driving?” Crowley grins behind his sunglasses.
“No, not particularly.”
“I find it… stressful.”
“Well,” Crowley smiles, “that’s too bad. Probably best if I handle it.”
Aziraphale’s eyes narrow as if he knows exactly what he’s up to, and the worst part is Crowley’s sure he does.
He pulls his eyes away and opens the door, unfolding the length of his lengths and stepping out onto the dirt of the road. It crunches pleasantly under his feet and he stretches, twisting his spine as he wriggles it up to full length, bracing his arms behind his head. The day feels marvelous, especially without a jacket, or a tie, and two buttons undone at the top of his shirt. He feels like the world’s getting a taste of him and it’s a pleasing sensation.
He hears a door shut behind him, and he rights himself again, turning.
Aziraphale’s looking just past him, admiring the day. There’s a soft smile on his face. Strange. He looks correct out here, in the sunlight, and the summer. Like a missing piece of something that’s found its way home.
“I don’t see many flowers,” he notes.
Crowley turns towards the small path that was for cattle less than thirty years back. “Just a short stroll.”
It’s quite close, just far enough down to be off the road really. Crowley leads the way. The path cuts down to a little wooded patch stuck amongst the fields. The trees shade the softness of the forest floor, only broken by a small cattle gate that Crowley easily hops over before realizing that his companion might not be so inclined, but as he turns back to open it for him Aziraphale’s already hoisted over it and landed on the other side.
The wood is hardly ten meters deep and then they’re emerging into the sunlight again. Larks and swallows dart through the meadow before them, chasing each other with bright trills and chirrups. The fields spread, all hay fields, still just barely golden as summer approaches its height.
There’s a feeling of a sigh. Crowley’s not sure if it’s his own, or Aziraphale’s, or something else together. Perhaps the entire season was just letting out a contented breath all at once.
“Just over here,” he says, turning where the path splits. The right path climbs further up the hill, and the other, the one they take, turns and meets a stone wall, broken by another gate. Crowley tips the latch up and pushes the gate back, opening the way. “Here we are.”
Aziraphale slows behind him. “Oh my…”
The garden is in full bloom, overflowing with top heavy peonies, tight budded roses, and the last of heavy lilacs. The fences bust with morning glories that peek between ivy, and the turns of the trail are surrounded with peering cornflowers, eager bright faced marguerite’s, and brilliant delicate flax.
It is impressive. Even Crowley has to admit that. In the soft, warm light of the afternoon it takes on a fairy-tale quality that seems to slow time and give the air a relaxing, summer heavy weight. There’s a hum on the air of insects, the occasional flit of a bird darting across the space between trees and singing out enthusiastically when it lands again on another twig.
There’s a slight breeze that eases the flowers from side to side. They’re not far off from the sea here, and it’s still possible to smell a tinge of salt on the air.
Aziraphale moves towards the flowers as if there’s a magnetic field pulling him forward.
“It’s beautiful,” he exclaims, “absolutely, utterly, beautiful.”
“Yes,” Crowley admits, stepping forward himself. “It is rather.”
Aziraphale turns suddenly with concern. “You’re not worried about… winged insects?”
Crowley shakes his head, blushing despite himself. “It’s not the same when it’s outside. It’s the intrusion I think that’s the real unsettling bit, the fact that they’re in when they should be out. Close quarters. All that. Here there’s plenty of space.”
“Ah, I see.”
“But, um,” Crowley tries, “do just give a call if you happen to see one. I wouldn’t want to be surprised.”
Crowley circles first, carefully, keeping an eye out for the best blooms.
“I was thinking peonies for sure, they’ve really come into their own this season.”
“Yes, lovely. And how about these freesia?”
Crowley eyes them. “They’re quite popular for weddings.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to be commonplace.”
“They’re beautiful though,” Aziraphale says, leaning down to turn peach toned blooms towards him. “Isn’t that what matters?”
Crowley smiles. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“What else?” Aziraphale asks eagerly.
“Oh yes, certainly.”
Crowley turns another corner, investigating the blooms. He loses track of time, or must have, because when Aziraphale speaks again he realized they haven’t for a while.
“It’s really lovely out, isn’t it?”
Crowley looks up again. “What? Oh, yes. Very.”
“It’s this light, I think. The flowers of course, but the light especially. It has this radiance, almost as though the air itself is humming in the season. You know? Everything’s so content with itself and the general state of things.”
He really does look just right out here, lower half obscured by the bobbing heads of white and pink and yellow. His glasses and hair catch the sunlight and everything about him seems to sigh.
“It’s very much like Turner you know, this light.”
Crowley furrows his brow. “Pardon?”
“You know, Turner, when the summer gives things this gold. It’s magical. I greatly enjoy Turner. Do you?”
Crowley’s throat is feeling rather dry so he swallows, looking away, back to the few flowers he’s gathered. “Yes, yes… greatly.”
It doesn’t take them much time in the garden to assess things and determine just what to bring back for Anathema’s. Aziraphale seems loathe to pull himself away when the time goes, but he goes all the same, albeit with a slightly more lingering gait as they make their way back to the car.
It’s later in the afternoon by now, and the fine weather’s holding so they stop for some tea just the next town over. It slows them down more on their return, but it’s a day out after all. There isn’t any need to hurry, is there? And if he takes the long way back to London again it’s only because driving with Aziraphale’s nerves is so uniquely interesting.
All of it comes together to make it well into the evening by the time they finally pull back onto their street. The shops look all settled in after a long day, snuggled together up and down both sides. The sun is still shining but its sunk low enough that there’s nothing direct, only the soft bounce light of it having its last hurrahs elsewhere.
He pulls the Bentley into the usual space, having a stretch as he steps out into the lazy smell of summer evening.
“It’s almost time for supper,” Aziraphale says, stepping out of his own side. He still seems rather rattled from the drive, but he’s already looking around at the twilight and the calm of it appears to be settling him.
“Mm, yes. I guess it is,” Crowley notes.
“Plans?” Aziraphale asks.
Crowley glances over at him. He could have plans. If he was particularly motivated to. It can’t have taken this long to show the four-mil-on-the-river.
“No, no plans,” he answers.
“Indian maybe?” Aziraphale asks, shrugging his ancient tweed jacket back over his shoulders.
“Indian definitely,” Crowley confirms.
“Do you need to go back to yours first at all?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Right, well let’s check in on Seti first. She’ll need her antibiotic and some supper of her own.”
“You really shouldn’t named her you know,” Crowley says, following Aziraphale’s quick pace across the street on the uneven cobbles.
“It felt insensitive to just call her cat.”
“I really don’t think she minded.”
“How would you know?”
Crowley grins, “I suppose I wouldn’t.”
They’ve reached the bookshop and Aziraphale’s fiddling with the lock.
Crowley’s own hand traces his keys in his pocket and suddenly he’s speaking. “I was wondering,”
Aziraphale half glances over his shoulder. “Yes?”
Crowley charges forward before he lets himself think what a terrible decision this likely is. “Would you mind keeping a spare key for me?”
Aziraphale pauses with the door. He turns to face him. “What? Really?”
“Yes, well, I don’t have a spare with anyone, and Anathema’s been bothering me about it. She’s right really, but I’ll be damned if I give her one. She’d likely enact some immersion therapy on me without my permission and flood the place with damned butterflies before I got in one morning. Or worse.” He fishes a key out of his pocket. “Do you mind?”
Aziraphale stares at the key for a moment, and then back up at him with an open smile. “Of course not. Happy to.” He takes the key, brushing his finger for just a moment. “Thank you.”
Crowley laughs. “You’re the one doing me the favor.”
Aziraphale looks back at him. “All the same.”
Crowley swallows. There’s a sarcastic something on the tip of his tongue but it doesn’t quite make it past his lips, and all the same as Aziraphale’s gotten the shop unlocked.
The door gives with a gentle creak and Crowley slips inside after Aziraphale.
It’s quite dark without the lights on and the sunlight retreating out on the street. The books loom all around, especially ominous and wild looking in the dark. He half expects to hear rustlings in the back of piles, maybe a few whispered words escaping from the pages that would give a sense of clustered life they seem to hold. But there’s nothing but a dense quiet, and the occasional muffled noise from the street.
Aziraphale doesn’t switch on a light and heads right for the stairs to the second floor instead. Crowley follows and as soon as their up them it’s brighter. The apartment isn’t nearly as crowded and up off the street level the sunlight has more room to dance inside the outdated decor.
There’s a soft noise off to one side and Aziraphale’s already moving towards it. Down in her bed the cat gives a tentative stretch, turning her face up towards Aziraphale. He smiles down at her, giving her a few long and loving pets from head to rump, followed by a handful of more precise ear scratches.
“She’s looking much better, don’t you think?”
Crowley turns. “What? Oh, yes. I think so. Much.”
He steps closer, looking down at her. She eyes him with a lazy sort of skepticism. He smiles.
“It’s funny. I don’t even really like cats.”
Aziraphale glances at him. “Really?”
“Yes. They’re very cruel things. Though I suppose it’s not their fault if they’re designed that way.”
“Funny,” Aziraphale notes.
“You, not liking cats.”
The corner of Aziraphale’s lip pulls upward. “You’re rather like one.”
Crowley let’s out a huff. “Please.”
“No, you really are,” Aziraphale insists. “You have this sort of refined aura, just like cats do. You seem like you could crawl out of a cardboard box in an alley and still make it look fashionable.”
Crowley can’t help laughing.
“And you’re like cats with people too. I remember that from school. I see it with Anathema. You act as though you don’t need anyone, but you always have one or two whose laps you’ll crawl into and start purring in despite yourself.”
“Oh, is that right?”
“I think so.”
“Right, well, if I wanted a strained metaphor with psychological understatements I’d go find Anathema.”
“Apologies,” Aziraphale said as if he doesn’t intend any.
“And what do you mean you remember from school? Has your memory improved all of a sudden?”
“Things are coming back,” Aziraphale shrugs. “It’s helped being around you. You’re different of course, but the same as well. I suppose that’s how it is with everyone.”
Crowley wants to say that Aziraphale’s not different in the slightest. But he doesn’t. For some reason it sounds like a compliment and he doesn’t want it do.
“You weren’t popular, but in that sort of subtly aggressive unpopular way that’s dark, fashionable way and makes you actually quite popular indeed. Everyone knows of you, few know you sort of thing. People knowing your name, your look, but not anything close to camaraderie. Rather ridiculous really.”
Crowley grins. He likes him when he’s like this. All that polite care momentarily beaten back by the brute strength of his sincerity. “You think so?”
“Mm, and you had a reputation you know?”
“Really?” Crowley says, rather smugly, as if he didn’t know. “Of what kind?”
“The girls used to all have you on speed dial.”
“It’s not my fault women find me attractive.”
“Not like that,” Aziraphale rolls his eyes. “They had a theory about you. They said that if they ever wanted to do something rather wicked, and had some misgivings, all they had to do was call you and you’d have convinced them to wander down any sinful road within eye-shot.”
Crowley laughs. “Well, they were often very pretty roads no matter how sinful. And imagine if they went on forever always wondering what was down them and never knowing?”
“I think there was more than one heart broken for all their knowing,” Aziraphale chides.
“Hearts break. Then they spring back together again. They’re rather marvelous like that. And it’s a rather boring heart if it doesn’t have any stories to tell.”
“Sometimes they don’t spring back so easily.”
“Is this why you never hung around me very often?” Crowley grins. “Afraid of heart-shattering shrapnel?”
“Oh yes, very intimidating.”
“I’m taking my key back,” Crowley threatens.
“Nonsense.” Aziraphale gives Seti a few more strokes. “Let me just get her supper and we can go. She won’t take the medicine without some vittles. Can’t say I blame her. It looks beastly.”
He bustles into the kitchen. Crowley follows with idling steps, leaning against the small door-frame that separates the kitchen from the rest of the apartment.
“How much longer do you think it will be till she’s moving about properly again, anyways?”
“Not sure exactly,” Aziraphale says from inside a cupboard, “but I suppose no one can be. The vet told me that it wouldn’t be too much longer, though. If things go as they should. Less than a week hopefully. Ah!” He emerged from the cabinets again with a can of cat food between two fingers. “Now where’s that vagrant can opener.”
Crowley looks about along with him. “Here,” he snatches it off the counter just beside him. “This it?”
“Yes, yes, lovely.” Aziraphale takes it from him and leans over the counter nearby, trying to get it into the grove correctly.
“You know,” Crowley starts, “there’s a lovely Turner collection at the Tate.”
“Oh, I know. It’s one of my favorite places,” Aziraphale answers. The can opener takes with a satisfying metallic click and he begins turning the handle round, opening the thing’s steely mouth inch by inch and allowing the smell of salty shiny meats into the kitchen. “I haven’t been in a year though. Shameful. Anything new?”
“A few actually.”
“Oh, really?” he’s suddenly looking at him, face lit up with something ecstatic. “What’s — ah, fuck!”
Crowley freezes. The cat food drops to the counter.
Aziraphale hisses through his teeth, pulling his finger up to his mouth. He begins sucking on the edge of it, muttering to himself. Crowley sees a little smear of red and looks to the jagged metal edge of the cat food tin. He cut himself. Must have.
He should ask if he’s alright. Why isn’t he asking if he’s alright? Why does he feel as if he’s suddenly gone rather pale? And why can’t he stop looking at the way he’s sucking at the end of his finger?
Aziraphale pulls his finger back again. “I’m terribly sorry,” he says, cheeks a little pink. He peers down at the finger, eyeing it critically. “I never, ever swear, really, it’s quite rude. Well not for some I suppose, I don’t really mind it, I just don’t like to. Feels wrong. Not that it is—” he was rambling “—I was just surprised. I am sorry.”
Crowley opens his mouth. Then closes it. Then opens it. “ ’S alright.” His voice sounds off. Croaky. Not alright. “Really,” he says, just to confirm.
Aziraphale tuts, still preoccupied with the finger. It doesn’t seem to be too bad. More of a deep paper cut than anything. Then why does he still feel as if there’s no color in his face? He’s never had problems with blood.
“It’s not deep,” Aziraphale notes, pulling a bit of paper towel off the roll and wrapping it around. “I’m sure it will stop bleeding in a moment. Let me just get her fed and put a plaster on it.”
He shuffles past Crowley who’s managed to make some dumb raspy agreeing noise. He doesn’t follow him into the living room. He can hear him scraping out the food and talking to the cat and then bustling in what must be the bathroom.
Crowley stares at the space he left behind in the kitchen.
He he’s never heard him swear. Not in school. Not in the past weeks. He thinks he almost did once. Once in a close bathroom. Close and breathless. With the sound of a party going on just through the door. But he’d bitten it back, through closed teeth and eyes shut tight as he ground back against—
“There we go,” Aziraphale declares, stepping back towards him. “Good as new.” He steps closer, and suddenly his smile weakens. “Are you alright, you look a bit off?”
“No,” Crowley clears his throat with one hard sound. “I’m fine, fine.” He tries to convince himself it helps to say it out loud. “Fine.” He’s not convincing anyone. “Just don’t like blood.”
“Ah, right, sorry,” Aziraphale says sincerely.
“No, no, it’s fine.” Every time he bloody says that it feels less true.
“Well,” Aziraphale tries, smile weakened but still optimistic. “Should we?”
Crowley turns sharply. “What?”
Aziraphale peers back. “Dinner?”
The color rushes back into Crowley’s face as a hard blush. “Right, yes, yes,” he catches himself. “I mean no. No. I just realized I can’t.”
“Oh,” the optimism falters. “That’s too bad.”
“Yes, it really is, I’m sorry,” Crowley says. The rhythm of speech is coming back to him. It’s easier to lie like this, to weave and spin half truths. Feels familiar, comfortable. “I just got a call. I forgot about some plans I made.”
“Right,” Aziraphale doesn’t seem convinced. He should be. It’s almost annoying that he isn’t. Crowley’s an excellent liar. World class. Certainly good enough to lie to a damned bookshop owner.
“Maybe another time,” Aziraphale says.
“Certainly,” Crowley answers. He smiles, as flash as he can manage, but he knows it’s likely a wavering 60% of maximum charm.
He hurries towards the steps, feeling the blush returning. He can hear Seti hungrily swallowing her food as he turns the stairs. He manages to get out through the shop with only knocking one or two books off their stacks and then he’s out onto the street.
The heat of the day suddenly isn’t lovely at all. It’s stifling and muggy. He pushes through it like an angry local in a crowd of tourists and by the time he gets home he’s almost panting. A glass of filtered ice water doesn’t seem to help much.
He finds himself leaning back against the stainless-steel counter top, staring blankly at the kettle on the stove opposite. It stares back. Or rather he stares back out of its reflection. He looks slightly disheveled and wide-eyed, which is the fault of the heat of course, and rather oblong, which is the fault of the kettle.
He takes one deep breathe. It doesn’t help. The moment is playing on repeat in his head like some flashback in a spy movie.
” — Ah, fuck!” Hand rising. Finger to lips. Lips open.
Crowley closes his eyes and takes another breath.
”—Ah, fuck!” Hand. Finger. Lips. Open.
”Ah—“ Crowley’s hand catching the his. Aziraphale catches a breathe. Close. Pulling closer. The smell. Same as before, all that time ago. Sunshine. Clovers. Aziraphale’s finger. Crowley’s lips. Aziraphale’s mouth dropping open. “Fuck—“
Crowley opens his eyes. “Fuck.”
What the bloody hell has he done?
He knows he’s done something, something terrible and wrong and very, very stupid. He must have, or else he wouldn’t be thinking quite loudly about spinning the frumpy fool around in that little kitchen, shoving his mouth against his, and working a hand between—
He pulls the nearest bottle of wine off the counter without bothering to check the label. He doesn’t think he’s ever opened a bottle so quickly in his life. He takes the first drag right off the top and moves for the cabinets while swallowing, thumbing one open and grabbing a glass. He lets himself get one more good gulp before pulling the thing back with a wet popping noise and filling up a massive helping.
And this might not be such a good idea. If he has too much, hell, if he has just a little too much, the overwhelming instinct to simply say “fuck it” and fall back into bed, drunkenly thumbing open his trousers and wanking to the image of Aziraphale huffing out curses into the curve of his shoulder.
And fuck, that sort of thing really isn’t helping at all.
Crowley grabs the wine, and the glass, and walks decidedly into the living room. He flicks on the TV and drops into the leather of the sofa. Such occasions call for proper distractions, and no one’s around to mock his viewing history so why shouldn’t he flip on four straight hours of Golden Girls? He needs something comforting and sexless in a 90’s floral prints sort of way right now.
He drains the first glass and makes it through one whole episode before he realizes the thoughts aren’t going anywhere.
Dropping his head back he closes his eyes and lets himself go. If the thoughts aren’t going away he might as well let them have their say. Maybe once they give him a good trashing they’ll move onto greener pastures.
He’s been trying to distract himself. Distract himself from what? An image? An inclination? Was that really it?
He doesn’t think so. He’s never been shy of his inclinations when they do raise their heads. There’s nothing to be ashamed of after all. He’s always been perfectly comfortable in his sexuality. He isn’t ashamed of the occasional lewd thought or image. All it takes is indulging the image, giving in, letting it wash over, and then it’s a thing of the past.
So what makes this different?
He’s his friend. He doesn’t have a lot of friends. Maybe he doesn’t like to think about friends like that. But if you think about friends like that that’s when they turn into something else other than friends, isn’t it?
Maybe he should just ask him out.
That idea comes out of the mists like a ship too close to rocks and the panic that lights up in his chest almost shocks him.
But why not? Why not ask him out? If he’s a friend who he thinks about in certain ways. Suddenly, almost violently. Then why not?
Because he has a boyfriend. And for all he knows “Only Justin” is hanging around for more than disorganized books.
But is that really a reason? He’s certainly broken it off with people before when something else interesting comes along. He’s never been disloyal. Infidelity always rather turned his stomach. Hell, with other relationships he’d have broken things off well earlier, given the thoughts he’s been having. But these were only recent thoughts weren’t they?
And this feels more complicated. Stickier. When he thinks about breaking it off with Lucius and asking Aziraphale out for a coffee his stomach twists in a wretched uncomfortable way. It never did that in those other cases.
Why? Why is this different?
Because he wasn’t interested before. So why would he be now?
Crowley feels his stomach sink behind his ribs. That’s it, isn’t it? All of this? They had something. A moment. A nice one. No matter how short. But it was gone the next day.
Part of him had expected a call. An acknowledgment. Something. But there had been nothing. And then he sees him again ten years later, politely jogging across a street as if nothing could be further from his mind, and suddenly it really was nothing. It really couldn’t matter less.
That was it. That was all it was. Some wounded pride. He didn’t want to ask him out. He simply wanted to patch something up that had started leaking nastiness all over his well tended self image.
He didn’t want to ask him out. He didn’t fancy him. He had a someone and it wasn’t him. He didn’t want to be. He was altogether the wrong someone. That was obvious to anyone. Him most of all.
It wasn’t that he was an unlikable bloke. Not at all. Just the opposite in fact. Just not for him. So what if there was some forgotten drunken moment squished between ten years of ancient history? There were bound to be a few of those weren’t there?
So what if he had some thoughts? They were just thoughts. Like dreams. Sometimes thinks pop into your subconscious. Things you don’t really want. They’re just fancies. No. Less than fancies. Synapses. Synapses firing wherever they please and occasionally hitting an image that’s especially vivid. But that doesn’t make it anything more than a few microscopic jolts of electricity.
Why would he be interested in someone who couldn’t even be bothered to remember him when he had exactly what he’d always been looking for already?
That settles it. Neat and tidy.
He opens his eyes again. The television cackles back at him in familiar voices.
“You know what they say: you can lead a herring to water, but you have to walk really fast or he'll die.”
He smiles, but not as easily as he knows he should.
One episode passes and the images are still hanging about. Five episodes, and he realizes that settled or no, the mental image isn’t leaving him alone. Ten, and he finishes the bottle in hopes of being unconscious as quickly as possible.
It only half works. By the time he hits his bed he’s half asleep. The words slip. Memories run together. Dreams spill in, and the thoughts are crowded with fresh senses as sleep slinks in all around.
The restaurant is new to him, but that’s nothing noteworthy. It’s London after all. It seems like every half-bearded lost soul lately was scrambling about in a mad craze to spawn milkshake delicatessens, or nuts only patisseries, or mead bars, or american hot dog gourmets. Some of the absurdities manage to hit a decent note, but like any improvisation, many fell flat. Although, Crowley couldn’t deny he rather enjoyed watching such a circus trickle through his town.
Lucius seemed to have a knack for rooting out the particularly amusing ones. The one they’re at now, just as with many of the others, apparently hadn’t been open for more than a week. The places always seemed to be “just in” or “unspoiled” when they arrived, and funnily enough they never went to the same one twice. Novelty seemed the deciding factor, and the places slipped in and out of obscurity with the speed of celebrity diets.
The place today is quite cozy, which is a novelty within the novelties. It’s a ramen nook, tucked into a long, thin space along a set-back street. The area isn’t anything sought after, and the exterior doesn’t turn heads. But the interior is warm, and close, with a homey feeling that lacks pretension. There’s two long wooden tables, one for each wall, ending with a sturdy worn door on one side to enter, and a tiny crawl-space of a kitchen on the other.
Crowley and Lucius sit side-by side on the windowed side of the long space, tight with the other patrons. There are no menus. You had what they were serving. Each day was a particular broth and a particular preparation. With a kitchen that size Crowley can’t really blame them for limiting themselves. It may be a coincidence that what the chef would call simply efficient quality control, the ever-growing ‘foodie’ populace decided to label as a intentionally designed elitism. Either way, what he’d seen thus far looked quite appealing, and the steam of pork-broth, heavy with fresh leek and soy-drenched mushrooms filling the place is prying at his stomach already.
“Supposed to be very good. Excellent pork I heard, and Genevieve would know. She was vegan for three or so years, until meat made a come back and everyone realized just how idiotic they’d been. In any case, she’s mad for the stuff now, and she’s been raving.” Lucius is focusing on the table, nudging his paper napkin in polite yet efficient circles against the heavy lacquered wood. When the surface seems to meet his needs he delicately rests on elbow against it.
He’s wearing a light blue blazer, a linen blend with white silk in the inside, visible under the one rolled cuff around his wrists.
“Smells lovely,” Crowley notes, picking up his sake cup with two fingers and tipping some back.
Lucius picks up his own, studying it. “Pity they serve it warm. You’d think they’d know better.”
Crowley ignores him, pushing back the thought that the Japanese owner of the restaurant likely knows exactly how he wants his sake served.
Their waiter presses into the small space behind them, two large white bowls high in each hand. “Two?”
“Yes, please,” Lucius smiles, leaning back. “Thank you.”
The man slides the bowls down and instantly hurries back to the kitchen. Crowley pulls a napkin and a pair of chopsticks out of the communal holder in front of them, snapping them open and letting himself lower into the heavy aromas of the steaming broth. It tastes exactly as fantastic as it looks, all herb and fat and just a hint of anise on the edges.
Lucius a polite approving sound, consuming the tricky noodles with practiced ease.
“How’s the shop?” Lucius asks between mouthfuls.
Crowley looks up. “Pardon?”
“How’s your shop? You seem to have been spending more time away the past week or so than usual.”
“Oh, it’s all fine. Good. There’s no reason for the time really, I just,” Crowley blinks and regathers. “I know that with the wedding I’ll be going flat-out for several days, so I wanted to take some time before then.”
Lucius shrugs. “I’m not complaining. It’s been nice seeing more of you.” He lets the sentence hang with a sly edge that Crowley reads perfectly well.
There have been quite a few frantic, short-breathed moments: shoved between sheets, pressed against counters, pushed up onto sinks. More than usual perhaps, yes, but that hardly means anything. Weddings mean stress, and stress means a need for relief. And it isn’t that he’s been avoiding the shop. That would be ridiculous. He simply hasn’t seen a pressing need to be present, and it’s a nice to have a little break. A little break clustered so tightly with warm skin and taut limbs that his brain might actually stop working for at least five minutes or more once in a while.
“It’s one of those advantages isn’t it?”
“What’s that?” Crowley asks.
“Having your own business. Taking whatever time you like,” Lucius says. “I mean I know that’s something business owners never like to hear, because of course it’s quite a bit of work and freedom comes with it’s own responsibility. But it’s different than what you did before isn’t it?”
Crowley laughs. “Yes. It is different.”
“Why didn’t you stick with it?” Lucius asks. “Law, I mean? You must have been very good.”
Crowley pauses over his noodles for a moment. It’s not a long moment. The easy answer comes out just as it always has.
“I was bored.”
Lucius laughs. “I don’t blame you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, it just is rather dull, you know. ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a lawyer’. Rather a dull answer. Much more interesting what you’re up to these days.”
Crowley stares out the window. People drift by on the small street. Suits. Shoes. Shirts. Faces. Some bright. Some clouded. He finds himself turning back.
“What if I was just a bloke?”
Lucius is still focus on his bowl. “What? Aren’t you?”
“No, I mean, what if I wasn’t featured, or sought after, or did something ‘much more interesting’? What if I didn’t have a ‘tastefully avante-guard’ flower-shop? What if I was just some bloke? Would you have looked twice?”
Lucius turns, face keen and manicured. “Rather hard not to look twice.”
Crowley almost feels himself start to smile, but he pushes it aside. “Honestly.”
“Honestly?” Lucius asks, eyeing him carefully. “Would you be you if you weren’t interesting?”
Crowley can’t help pausing. “I might be.”
“I don’t think you’re capable of being ‘just a bloke’,” Lucius continues. He starts to smile. “You’re wearing Gucci sunglasses in a bloody ramen shop for christ’s sake.”
Crowley does flush then despite himself. He tugs the damn things off and pushes them into his breast-pocket as Lucius laughs. “There’s nothing wrong with it! Goodness, what’s gotten in to you? Do you want to be just a bloke?”
“No,” Crowley says. But the flush might be crawling against his neck now for being the first one to add ”just” to the beginning of that label.
It doesn’t take long for them to finish lunch, and Lucius, still doing his best to unload that four-mil-by-the-river, settles for a quick kiss against his car before turning it back to the main streets. Crowley watches the Audi leave, all shine and smooth edges against the sharp lines of the city. He decides quickly it’s a nice enough day for a walk.
He’s a ways from the shop and his apartment but he doesn’t mind. It’s pleasant enough winding in and out of the streets for an ambling return. And he does let the amble work it’s way into his limbs, slowing his pace considerably more than usual. It’s the weather he thinks. The day is startlingly pleasant. In the morning there had still been a drizzle sulking in the corners of the sky, but a good breeze midmorning had convinced it to shove off for everyone’s good. Now there’s only a smattering of clouds, basking in the sunlight with as much pleasure as the rest of them.
The warmth of the beams feels glorious against his back as he weaves through alleys and side-streets, doing his best to stay in the light.
About half way back, his pocket gives a rumble. He glances down, pushing a hand inside to make sure. Definitely ringing. With a sigh he begins to fumble. The phone’s being difficult. That’s three rings already. He’ll miss it. He tugs it out with one final pull, just glancing down at the ID. Anathema.
Something jingles to the ground. He looks down just in time to see his keys vanish into a sewer-grate.
“Nice to hear your voice too,” Anathema returns, tone all tin and amusement through the mobile.
“Oh bloody christ!” he continues, circling the grate and glaring down.
“You’ve only made me drop my damn keys.”
“You only have trouble getting things out of your pants because you wear them too damn tight.”
He’s only half listening. With the sun as it is it’s easy enough to peer down into the depths of the sewer. There’s nothing but fast flowing water, likely run-off from that morning’s rain. No sign. Not even a glimmer.
“A tragedy, really. Look, sorry to be unsympathetic but I’m right in the middle of something here and I just wanted to call and remind you about the thing,” she continued quickly.
“Yeah, right, the thing,” Crowley continues, hardly hearing her. He tries circling the other way. Maybe they got stuck on a bit of stick or something half way down.
“So you remember then?”
“Right, of course.” Nothing. Still. There’s even a friendly bit of cable hanging out where they might have caught, but no. Of course he isn’t that lucky.
“Right so tomorrow?”
“Mm, right.” They’re really gone. He can’t see a thing.
“Right, good. Have to dash then. Newt’s family seem to have lived in test tubes most of their lives and are still adjusting to the realities of the natural outside world. See you then!”
It takes him a moment to realize she’s hung up. He pockets the phone.
No keys. Certainly a problem. Which keys exactly. Well, the apartment. That’s alright, the handyman keeps spares for the tenants somewhere or other. The car. He has a spare in the little drawer on his night-stand. The shop …
Suddenly the sun doesn’t feel quite as excellent against his cheek. Why the hell hadn’t he bloody drove?
It doesn’t take more than half an hour to finish the walk back to the shop street. The sun hasn’t let up yet, pouring heavily over his shop on the bright side of the street. Someone’s looking in his window at the closed sign with a perturbed expression. He ignores them.
The bookshop’s in the shadows, as usual. Funny. Just a few weeks ago it was only an old shop that had always been there, rather lopsided, depending on the good will and support of other buildings to keep it upright and correct. Just an old shop he’d always rather taken a shine to, and now it was what, something to avoid?
That’s the truth isn’t it? He has been avoiding it. It just seemed the right thing to do under the circumstances. Things have gotten rather muddled, like taking a stick to a placid stream bed and giving things a good stir about.
Is it worth all that fuss? What had Aziraphale even done? Cut himself on a can and accidentally made Crowley feel like someone nailed him into a sauna the size of a locker? He didn’t mean it. And in any case it didn’t matter, did it? He needs the keys, and discomfort isn’t changing that fact anytime soon.
He crosses the street in a few quick strides, pausing at the door. The inside seems dim and clustered as usual, books piled high in the window, making it hard to peer beyond them inside. Who knows, maybe he won’t even be in.
Crowley reaches for the doorknob. The door pulls open from under him.
“Oh!” he manages.
A boy blinks back at him from inside. A rather tall boy. Early twenties. Brown hair, a sharp, classical line to his features. Justin he remembers. ‘Only Justin.’
“Oh, hullo,” the lad smiles. He has several books in his arms, and it seems to be a challenge to keep them all in place. They appear older, but well bound.
“Shopping?” Crowley can’t help asking.
“Oh no,” Justin says, following his attention down to the volumes, “I’ll bring them back. I’d better, or else he gets in one of his moods. You know,” the lad winks.
“That right?” Crowley tries not to glower.
“Oh yes, take my word for it,” Justin continues, edging past him onto the sidewalk. “All the best.”
Crowley manages a nod after the boy as hurries back into the sunshine, books tight under his arm. He watched him for a moment longer and then turns inside himself.
There’s no one in the shop, which frankly isn’t shocking on a day like this. There’s no sound, only the muffling weight of books against the air, sitting silent and comfortable on all sides, watching him with lulled indifference. No sign of Aziraphale.
It doesn’t feel quite right to call out. Everything seems so still, it seems almost heretical to break it. He glances around instead. Funny. It always seems so close and dingy under the old lights and the ancient walls, but there doesn’t seem to be a spec of dust on any of the books. Not even the tiny volumes slid high in the farthest reaches of the shelves.
There’s a soft sound by his ankles. He looks down. Seti blinks up at him, golden eyes round and brilliant. She presses her side along his shin in one smooth line, opening her little mouth to let out a one mew.
“Hullo lovely,” Crowley smiles. “Look at you now.”
“Seti?” Aziraphale calls. His head pops around one of the back bookcases. “Oh!”
Crowley suddenly isn’t sure what to say. But Aziraphale is too quick for the need to present itself. “Goodness,” he pulls himself around the counter, “we haven’t see you in days! Shameful. Look at how well she is. She’s been moving about everywhere, all on her own.”
Seti stretches up, putting her front paws on Crowley’s knee and looking up at him expectantly.
“Could I… do you think?” Crowley asks.
“Oh yes, of course,” Aziraphale agrees.
Crowley scoops her up in one carefully motion. She feels lighter than she ought to, but then again the last cat he held was one Anathema was sitting for a friend half a year or so ago. He was convinced she’d been feeding it nothing but buttered scones.
“There see,” Aziraphale smiles, adjusting his glasses. “She missed you.”
Crowley looks down at the rounded face, floppy body melted into his elbow, all vanilla ice-cream fur and softness. She sticks out a paw in the way that cats will, pushing it flat against his sunglasses.
“Rude,” Crowley mutters at her.
“Wedding preparations?” Aziraphale asks.
“Pardon?” Crowley looks up.
“Just you haven’t been around the shop. I assume the wedding has been quite demanding.”
“Oh yes,” Crowley manages. “Quite.”
“I’ve uncovered a secret, while you were away.”
Crowley looks up at him, perhaps a little too quickly. “Is that so?”
“Mmm,” Aziraphale nods. It’s that pleasant sound again, a sound like there’s nothing wrong in the world, and even if there are, a few wheedling nasty bits in the darkness, they won’t be any trouble at all at the very end of things. His eyes are curious and sharp, with all that intelligence carefully layered in amongst humility and curiosity. True curiosity. Not the common brand that heads out into unknown worlds just to shoot everything that looks interesting enough to hang on a museum wall and ‘understand’. It’s the kind of curiosity that wants to see badly enough to know exactly how far off it ought to stand and exactly how little it should claim to already know.
“Would you like to see?” Aziraphale presses.
Crowley isn’t sure when he started smiling. “What sort of secret is it?”
“Easy to keep. A joy to uncover. A treasure to hold.”
“Is that a riddle?”
“Just come have a look, would you?”
Seti pushes her warm, pink paw against Crowley’s lips. He can still feel the scar on her side against his palm, just a patch of her fur, shorter than the rest, with a puckered hidden line running clean across the middle.
“Alright,” Crowley agrees.
He follows Aziraphale up the close steps towards his apartment, but they don’t go inside. Crowley sets Seti down on the steps and she skips in with a swish of her upright tail.
“Just here,” Aziraphale mumbles. He swings the door to his apartment shut, revealing a door that leads further up the stairs behind it. Crowley hadn’t realized the steps continued. Of course the building was more than two stories but he’d never seen Aziraphale’s door closed before.
Aziraphale fiddles with the knob and with a complaining creak it opens. The smell is different beyond it, dusty and tired, like the smell behind new walls laid over old bricks.
“Here we go,” Aziraphale says, pushing onward up the stairs. Different stairs, older boards that didn’t seem to have ever received a coat of paint.
“Watch your head,” Aziraphale calls back, tapping a low board. Crowley ducks under it, following him up into the growing dark.
At the top of the stairs it’s almost entirely hushed shadow. Aziraphale tugs at a bulb on a string but the luminance stays close-at-hand, huddled sleepy against the dusty air.
Crowley stares for a moment. “… It’s an attic.”
“Very keen,” Aziraphale moves across the attic floor. It has that cobweb and mothballs smell that most attics do. It’s hard to see just how large it is, but Crowley can see some wooden crates further back that he assumes are against walls, the sort of crates you only see in films that involve ports and steamers and shouting Irish accents. The wooden beams along the roof are ancient, never been treated. Aziraphale’s footsteps leave ghost imprints in the dust as he moves.
Crowley follows him hesitantly, trying not to be too obvious as he checks for cobwebs and arachnids lying in wait under each beam.
He reaches Aziraphale’s back eventually. Aziraphale’s fiddling with another door. This one seems rather out of place with the others, heavy and apparently a newer make.
The latch clicks open. Aziraphale wiggles it but no luck. He gives it a shove. Still nothing. He let out a small sigh, the sort that Crowley imagines a special sort of granny making when her marmalade gets a bit messy during canning. Aziraphale leans back and jams his shoulder against the door for one last push. The thing swings open and sunlight crashes into Crowley’s face. He’s instantly glad he hadn’t taken off his sunglasses, blinking against the brightness, attempting to adjust enough to actually see.
“There,” Aziraphale says with a satisfied tone. Crowley must have followed him the few steps out onto wherever they are because he hears the door swing shut behind them without latching. “What do you think?”
Crowley takes a proper look around, eyes adjusted finally. It’s … quite extraordinary. He didn’t know buildings this low could have such sunlight in the city. It isn’t a large rooftop. He’s realizing now that it’s only half of one. The attic’s behind them, with a slanted roof that comes to a stop at it’s apex and drops into a the brick wall behind them, before flattening out for the rest of the length of the building, giving it a open flat roof. There’s a clothes line ready along one side, and a few empty, long forgotten planters on the other. There’s a bench against the brick wall, wooden and simple, left behind by whomever came before them. And it seems someone had taken a more recent effort with the place. Strung along the half a meter or so high wall that prevented a drop straight down to the street, someone had strung fairy lights. There was even a helpful outlet in the brick. Crowley walks over to it curiously and gingerly plugs them in. To his surprise they flicker into life.
“Lucky,” he notes.
“I may have done those,” Aziraphale admits behind him.
Crowley stands up again, slipping his hands into his pockets. The light is exceptional up here, truly extraordinary. It’s coming from the south-west, where there’s a few low buildings on the other street, as old as Aziraphale’s, and then a little park it seems beyond, if the leaves peering over the rooftops are anything to guess by. It’s a decent view. Better than decent, really.
“What do you think?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley leans back on his heels. He closes his eyes for a moment. There’s a slight breeze that still smells a little of rain. “Good secret.”
Aziraphale seems pleased with that. They stand in silence, letting the sun fill the space between them.
“I thought it might make a nice spot for a garden,” Aziraphale notes.
Crowley turns to him.
“Not to presume,” Aziraphale says hurriedly, “and not that your country garden isn’t lovely, because it is, there’s just space up here, and light, and it being so close—“
“That’s a wonderful idea.”
“Really? You think so?”
The silence folds back in.
“Thank you for taking care of the cat,” Crowley says finally.
“It’s a pleasure. As I’ve said.”
“I should be helping more. I didn’t mean to stay away for so long.”
“It was only a few days.”
Crowley shrugs. It hasn’t felt like only a few days.
“Not to impose,” Aziraphale says, “but I do have a lovely new bottle of merlot, or two, I managed to find last week. We could…”
Crowley’s smirk finds it’s way up his cheek. “What time is it?”
“Oh, no idea really,” Aziraphale says, “I tend to loose track of it.”
Crowley checks his own phone. “Rather early.”
Aziraphale smiles back at him, that hesitant, and yet oddly practiced, mischievous look in his eyes. “What’s that the Americans say?”
“Five-o-clock somewhere?” Crowley tries.
“That’s the one.”
The sun is strong against his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He shuts his eyes again under the sunglasses. The air smells fresher up here somehow. He must be imagining it.
“I should go into the shop,” Crowley says.
“Right, of course.”
He looks at Aziraphale. “For a bit.”
“And I’ll come back. Just a little later.”
Aziraphale smiles back at him. He has his hands in his pockets. The sunlight’s caught in his glasses. “Good.”
“Oh!” He’d forgotten. How had be forgotten? “I need keys! Mine fell down a bloody drain. You have the spare set I gave you?”
Aziraphale reaches into his pocket and tosses something to him. Crowley stares down at the small brass key in his hand, with a simple ring and a small leather label printed in perfect handwriting. Crowley’s Shop.
The day moves by lazily. It’s hardly five by the time he’s back across the street, bearing a few treats from the Italian deli around the corner along with him. There’s an Italian loaf, as thick and decedent as cake, some genoa salami thin enough to see through, and a messy rolled mozzarella, warm from an afternoon sitting in the sunny window. Aziraphale gathers it all up gleefully, muttering to himself as he assembles a small dinner kit in the kitchen while Crowley gives Seti a proper petting down, taking some more time to inspect her scar. It’s almost invisible under the fur, and feels as uniform as can be.
The steps up to the roof seem shorter the second time up, and the attic much smaller when he knows the destination.
The sunlight isn’t nearly as brilliant against the roof this much later the afternoon. It’s slipped low enough to hide behind the buildings further off, but the orange light is still pooling in great warm piles all across the space. He’s surprised to see that Aziraphale’s put a few cushions against the bench. He’s even brought a small wooden end-table up, where the wine’s already waiting. It’s simple, but Crowley suddenly finds himself feeling more relaxed than he has in days at the sight of it, and after the first bottle of wine starts to come to an end he wonders if when the last time he felt so relaxed even was.
“Right down the drain?” Aziraphale asks again. “Well, it hardly sounds like her fault, dear boy.”
“It’s always her fault. She wills these things I swear. She was on me for years about keeping a spare set.”
“Just her luck then, because you listened, didn’t you?”
“I suppose so,” Crowley grumbles. “She probably hexed them, mixed up juniper for peppermint and threw the thing off a few days is all.”
“Oh, very likely,” Aziraphale smiles into his wine. “I’m sure with a wedding approaching she’s most concerned with causing you annoyance.”
“You joke, but it’s all too real.”
“Are you always so dramatic?”
“Not dramatic,” Crowley insists. Maybe he is on his fourth glass. He’s dropping words a little too easily, leaving them behind with hardly a glance in the rear-view. “Dramatic is loud.”
“Ah, then what are you?”
Crowley pauses for a moment, eyeing in consideration the distant leafy treetops catching the last of the light. “Refined.”
Aziraphale actually snorts into his glass before muffling his laughter. Crowley gives him a look, but can’t help smiling himself. The sun must be on the horizon by now, with the light all flushed and brilliant. He reaches over with a slight stretch and plugs in the fairy light.
Aziraphale gives a brief, considerate applause beside him.
Crowley leans back. He follows Aziraphale’s glance out, towards the old rooftops. He gives his glass a few taps with the tip of his finger. Ah well. It’s as good a chance as any. Might as well give it a go. “How’s the shop been?”
Aziraphale gives a shrug that again reminds Crowley of that very particular sort of gran, the sort who names all her chickens and maybe knits them vests for the colder months. “Fine.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone it.”
“I’m not exactly a salesperson,” Aziraphale notes.
“Well, that’s not strictly true I suppose,” Crowley forges on, boldly sticking to his course. “I did see someone on my way out today.”
“Oh yes, Justin.”
“Seemed to have a decent stack of merchandise.”
“He’s only borrowing.”
“Is that a special customer privilege,” Crowley asks, jumping for the last hurdle.
“To an extent,” Aziraphale says. “He has a classics course he’s having trouble with.”
“In the business of tutoring?” Crowley can almost feel his toes catching the edge of the hurdle but it’s too late now to fall back.
Aziraphale’s smile rises. “Fortunately not. He’s just a student. His teacher is a friend, and I have an arrangement with several of the libraries for the local universities. Many of my volumes are sought after, but I refuse to donate them despite being pressed. It would be like abandoning old friends. So select students are allowed to come and review the materials. Some can borrow take them under very particular instruction.”
“Ah I see. Book nanny,” Crowley grins.
Aziraphale wrinkles his nose. “Very flattering.”
“The Guardian of the Tomes.”
“That will be quite enough of that, thank you.”
Crowley grins into his wine, and tries not to focus on that fact that Aziraphale, quite on his own, added “just a student” to the description. It’s an easy thing to ignore. It’s the perfect temperature, warmth just under hot with a breeze almost the same temperature pushing it’s way past. That sort of temperature were the breeze almost feels like swimming through the air. And the wine is very good, all oak and plummy accents chasing each other around his tongue. Added all up with the face that the light is putting on quite a show with the last moments it has. It’s hard to see the horizon from here, with so many buildings between them and it, but it must be spectacular, judging by the hard blush that everything around has taken on. Overhead there’s nothing but that pale blue that always feels conceding when the rest of the sky decides to put on a big finale.
“I don’t remember any of that sort of thing when we were in school,” Crowley says, staring up at the wispy blue above. “Seems there’s less need for books these days.”
“There’s always need for books. Some things don’t change.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Crowley tilts his head to one side. His sunglasses feel a little lower on his nose. He thinks they do that on their own when he’s had more than two drinks, as if they’re trying to make a run for it while he’s distracted. “Somethings change. I’m not a lawyer. And you certainly don’t seem to be a priest.”
“Ah yes, now how did that happen?” Aziraphale muses.
Crowley likes that. Aziraphale does it very well. Avoiding questions that have only been implied and turning them back around on themselves. It was unassuming, and would give anyone the impression of modesty if they didn’t see quite how clever it was.
“I’m afraid your in a better position to answer that than I am,” Crowley says.
“Only half of it,” Aziraphale returns. “What about you? What happened to watching the pulse of justice and turning the country’s wheels from the inside out?”
Crowley snorts. “Please, no one is that naive.”
“Then what were your motivations?”
Crowley lets the rounded girth of the red-wine glass rest on his lip for a moment before taking another swallow.
“I thought I would be good at it.”
Aziraphale leans back against the bricks, watching him. “Were you?”
Crowley smiles, but he can taste the bitterness on it. “Very.”
“It’s a pity that skills we have don’t always amount to happiness, isn’t it?”
Crowley glances over. “Is that what happened to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t see a collar.” And damn that came out sounding massively awkward, but Aziraphale doesn’t seem to notice.
“Oh, well, I suppose… although I don’t know how good I ever was at being a priest.”
“You seem as though you’d be quite good.”
Aziraphale looks at him. “Really? What makes you say that?”
“Well,” Crowley leans back, easily crossing one long leg over another, “you’re rather… a nice sort of person.”
Aziraphale can’t seem to help smirking. “High praise.”
Crowley eyes him. “Isn’t it? I don’t know how many nice people I can name. But it’s not just… you have a way about you.”
“You…” Crowley stares off at the edges of the sky, trying to focus but his mouth seems to be doing all the work for him. “You listen. When people speak. It seems simple. It isn’t. You listen and you seem to genuinely care wether people are miserable or not. And you even seem as though you’d take an effort to try and change their misery into something less, given half a chance. Less than half a chance. Hell. None of a chance.”
Aziraphale’s looking at him. He can sense it without looking back. He takes another drink of wine. The glass should feel heavier. He leans back with a sigh, tipping it in his companion’s direction. “At least that’s my sense. Seem good priesting traits. Listening. Caring. Helping. All that nonsense.”
Aziraphale smiles, tipping the bottle and refilling Crowley’s glass before topping off his own. “Maybe that’s what I thought as well. Back then.”
“So what happened?”
Aziraphale sighs, leaning back and setting the wine down on his side of the bench. “Several things. Life mostly. It moves on, and things reveal themselves. You reveal yourself along with it. I knew that priests weren’t angels. I didn’t want them to be. I certainly didn’t want to be one.”
Crowley can’t help it. “I think you did. A little.”
Aziraphale actually blushes. “Well, alright. Maybe a little. I just—”
“—Wanted to help.” Crowley finishes. He can hear the hollowness in his own voice.
“I thought that if I could help, that’s what I ought to do. There’s something so beautiful in theology. Something so perfect about an empty church, all echo and vastness and with all that you can almost feel something there with a hand on your shoulder. There’s a peace there, a peace that I loved. I still love. I just wanted… to share that feeling.”
Crowley gazes off at the crisp lines of the buildings, empty windows staring back at him. He feels Aziraphale’s shoulders sag next to him.
“I wasn’t a good priest.” Aziraphale’s glasses are catching the light. He takes another long sip of his wine. “In many ways I was actually a very bad priest indeed.”
Crowley’s tempted to say that sounds like a romantic novel he might pick up but manages to keep it down.
“I listened. And I do like to listen. But sometimes when you really listen it just seems quite misplaced, and even rather cruel, to tell the lad who’s so soft-spoken you can barely hear him through the confessional grates, that if he just sits in front of a cross and says a few words for half an hour the feelings will go away. That they’re supposed to go away. Or worse yet that the pain he feels is somehow making something else love him.”
“I think if you described Christ to a therapist she’d tell you to get out of the relationship as quick as you can run,” Crowley let’s slip.
The regret floods in as soon as the words are free. It’s not his place, and he really has no right to address anyone’s religion let alone their personal relationship to it. He’s about to apologize but Aziraphale’s already laughing.
“That was exactly it, really,” he continues. “I didn’t understand how anyone could accept suffering as a form of love. I didn’t understand how people could bring their beautiful, perfect infants to me to ‘purify’ them, when nothing could be more faultless. And I felt shame, when I watched my brothers sacrifice things that gave them happiness, while I dreamed of getting fat on wine and well cooked lamb, sitting on a comfortable chair rather than a stern bench, listening to the world’s stories one at a time, without waiting for my turn to tell them the ’truth’.”
The fairy-lights glow a little brighter against the low wall. A smooth breeze catches, pushing up and over the roof with a lazy stretch. Crowley sits exactly where he has, and tries to remember if he’s ever heard anything quite as perfect as that in his life.
“So, I suppose you can pawn my crucifix, and label me a sinner,” Aziraphale smiles. He raises his glass towards Crowley’s. Crowley manages to come back to himself. At least enough to knock his glass against Aziraphale’s with a crisp ting. “Cheers.”
They drink for longer than usual.
“What’s your excuse then?” Aziraphale asks.
Crowley turns. “What’s that?”
“I was a poor priest. Good enough reason to avoid the habit. But you said you were quite a good lawyer. Why stop?”
Crowley can’t help smiling. “You know, you’re the second person to ask me that today.”
“Aren’t you popular,” Aziraphale teases.
“And? What did you tell them?”
Crowley focuses on the roll of the wine-glass against his hand. He watches the weight of the liquid catch along one side and linger there before slipping back down again. “Some nonsense.”
“You seem to have a knack for that.”
“You seem to have a knack for finding them.”
“Just a hobby.” Aziraphale holds his glance with that same gentle smile. It’s quiet on the street down below. There doesn’t seem to be a car on their road, all the sound of traffic distant, muffled behind layers of warm summer air.
Crowley sighs, leaning back against the bricks. They’re still warm from the sun of the day. He’d hung his jacket on the door and he can feel the heat easing up through his shirt. It feels even better than the breeze pushing against his skin, sleeves rolled up just to the elbows, top button given a break from it’s duties on the Marc Jacobs oxford.
“I wanted to help,” he admits. “I don’t know if I ever really knew that myself. On the surface, in the mind I knew clearly, it seemed an elegant way to spend one’s time. Rich. Intelligent. That all seemed just right. I understand people. They’re quite fun to understand, and it makes law rather easy. But one day, all at once it seemed, I was tired of liar’s smiles and people who knit fate as passively as though they were making bloody mittens. The next day I was exhausted. And the next I knew, that if I kept going, I’d simply fall apart, one piece at a time, day by day, like some breeze on cigarette ash. And there’d be nothing left to see the color of flowers any more.”
It’s quiet for a moment. Somewhere a few streets over a woman laughs loud and clumsy.
“You’re wrong,” Aziraphale says finally.
“About what?” Crowley frowns.
Aziraphale looks at him. “I think you’d always see the color of flowers. No matter what happened to you.”
There’s a strange feeling behind Crowley’s stomach, as though someone’s looped one very thin string around something he never knew was there, and given one quick tug.
He puts his wine to his lip very quickly. Half the glass vanishes.
Aziraphale’s chuckling to himself. “You are different you know?”
“What do you mean?”
“Then when we were in school. Quite different.”
“And you’re not?” Crowley presses.
“Not for me to say,” Aziraphale shrugs. “But you dear boy, have settled right down.”
“Bugger that,” Crowley can’t help muttering, turning back to the view.
Aziraphale laughs. “Oh come now, you certainly don’t seem to be the same menace that you were.”
“I was no such thing.”
“There were quite a few yarns. It was like something Olympian, really.”
“Were hurdles involved?”
Aziraphale gives him a look that might have been scolding if it weren’t quite so lazy. Maybe he’s as drunk as he is. And christ, he really is drunk isn’t he? He’s still sitting down, that always makes it hard to tell. Maybe he should stand up just to test. But no. No that rarely goes well.
“You’re telling me it was all hearsay?” Aziraphale asks. “I have to admit that would almost be disappointing.”
“I’m sure there was exaggeration involved,” Crowley says, perfectly aware of how that was just as good as confirming every story while maintaining a guise of modesty.
Aziraphale smiles back at him as if he sees right through that trick. “Well, now I just don’t know what to believe.”
“Oh, please,” Crowley says, wiggling his glass. Aziraphale fills it right back up, and his own, which Crowley notices has since emptied.
“No, no, you’re a practiced liar, quite the rouge,” Aziraphale says. Crowley pretends he isn’t describing him like a highwayman in a romance novel who sweeps noble women off into highland love-nests for a good deflowering. “And I can see how the image of a shadowy Don Juan could have helped you ascend advantageous social ladders in the dormitories…”
“… ‘A shadowy Don Juan’? How about I run back to my apartment and fetch my cloak and saber, would that satisfy you?”
“I’m only curious,” Aziraphale tuts. “It’s not my fault. I told you already, I enjoy stories.”
“Pervert,” Crowley chuckles.
“Not those sorts of stories!” Aziraphale blushes. “Goodness gracious.”
Crowley could easily say that with that sort of blush he obviously quite does enjoys that sort of story, but even thinking that is somehow making his mouth feel dry and his collarbone a little itchy so he swallows it.
“Alright, alright, what sort of stories?”
Aziraphale settles back and takes another sip. “I was curious, that’s all.”
“I can tell you a story,” Crowley says. His brain catches up half a second later. His tongue is heavy and loose and tastes like plums gone sultry after years cooped up in big mean oak casks.
“I was only teasing you.”
“I know. Don’t care. I’ll tell you a story. I feel doubted. ’S never good.”
“You don’t need to feel doubted,” Aziraphale hurries.
Crowley reaches up a takes off his sunglasses. They’ve slipped almost halfway down his nose and it’s getting absurd. He manages to tuck them neatly in his shirt pocket without too much trouble. He blinks against the light. Everything’s so sharp thrumming with reds and brights and life.
He tilts his head to one side. “Do you want to hear a story?”
Aziraphale can’t seem to help looking back. He smiles that small smile that knows so much more than it lets on. “It better be a jolly good one.”
Crowley let’s his head fall back against the bricks with a dull thunk. “Once upon a time…” His memory slips over moments like a hand drifting against tall grasses in a field, catching now and again on the bright face of a buttercup or the rough graze of wheat. Faces. Mouths. Fingers. Fewer than he’s sure anyone might guess.
The corner of a dark stairwell. Shiny shoes, slipping against flagstone. A breathe caught beneath his fingers.
Orange hair. Short. A greedy grin. A smell he thinks is hay. He’s not exactly sure. He’s never really been all that close to hay.
A bedroom. Small. Close. There’s a warmth all around from the kitchen down below. The older boy’s voice. He kept apologizing. Crowley still wasn’t sure if the boy was talking to him or himself.
A smile. A smile that knows so much more than it lets on, hitting like an arrow shot from meters away. Just a smile. A little messy. Not afraid. Maybe never afraid. Not really. Not deep down in the heart of all things. Faces passed between, shapes and shadows. Music. But the smile hit, and some shard of that smile seemed to dig into his chest, twist, lock, and slowly, it began to drag. He didn’t mind. In that moment, he’d seemed to know, that he’d been waiting for it to strike for sometime, that he’d known all along as soon as it did, there’d be nothing he could do to stop what came next.
“There was a party,” Crowley says.
Aziraphale rolls his eyes. “Ah, of course.”
“I didn’t like parties. Don’t like them,” Crowley continues. The words feel pleasant on his lips, like the warm fingers of summer air easing against his hair. “Especially college parties, noise and crowds and mess. Everyone trying on different personalities to see which ones flash the brightest and loudest.”
“Yes, and you’re very subtle.”
“I thought you said you wanted a story?”
Aziraphale just grins into his wine.
“It was a special party,” he continues. “Some holiday or birthday or other.” Sarah’s Birthday. April 22nd. “And someone or other had convinced me that I really ought to go, don’t remember who.” Renee Martinez from Medieval Philosophies. “So I went.”
He takes another sip of wine before continuing. “It was some dorm in one of those old stacked buildings, where it seems like a labyrinth of old flooring smells and tight stair-cases that circle forever. Music. Loud and everywhere. People talking ten times louder to hear themselves over it. The entire building was filled, must have been after finals or something along those lines, because there was this sense that no one was planning on leaving early and there was not bit of guilt on any face over that.”
It was so easy to slip back into it. The feeling of stairs tight with bodies, so many voices against the music, all writhing and twisting together into nothing but a pressing warm noise. Squeezing up the narrow space, holding a bottle of wine high enough to avoid any trouble. His bottle.
“I may have been a little drunk.” Sarah spotting him as he pushed through the last bodies on the stairs, yelling out. Him grinning back at her like an idiot before remembering himself. And then Renee had been there, pushing a knee into the back of his legs and he just managed not to fall right back down the stairs while both of them tumbled into hysterics. “It may have felt rather nice to be a little drunk.”
Renee and Sarah pushing him from place to place, just about carrying him between them, voices familiar and warm on either side, the wine tangy on his tongue and just right fizzling down his limbs. And then he was alone, the two of them dancing, close and eyes sleepy with drunken interest, Renee’s hand on her hip. There was a wall behind him, so he leaned on it, and lifted the wine bottle for another sip, scanning the room with hazy interest. Laughing faces, heavy eyes, flying hands, open mouths. It was the perfect image of what it should be, exactly what could be expected, so much so that he could shut his eyes and likely play out the rest of the party perfectly well behind his lids. And that’s exactly why it was so surprising. He wondered later if that’s all it was. Someone surprised him. It had been a long time since he was properly surprised.
“Someone was there. Someone I didn’t expect.”
“Did you have a roster?”
Crowley smiles. “At that point I like to think I had a sense of things. I like understanding places, or rather people in them, seeing how they knit together and fall into individual pockets of lives. It’s always been entertaining understanding people. In college I felt I had everything neatly lined up in rows and columns. There were the ones who went to parties no matter how much homework they had, the ones who went only once their desk was clear, the ones who went when they finally short circuited and were compulsively drawn towards anything unacademic, the ones whose friends dragged them by the ankles once out of every ten times, and the ones you never saw at parties no matter whats. One guess which category this one fit into.”
He hadn’t been the only one to notice. Sarah and Renee tumbled towards him, all drunken smiles and hands off the tether of self control, looping around each other freely.
”Did you see who’s here?”
”There’s quite a few people here.”
”He’s being coy.” Smiles. Bright and young.
”He’s not very good at it.”
“Thing was, there was a sort of unspoken bet around this person.”
“Ah, the plot thickens.”
“No one had ever seen them with anyone, despite interest. Stories floated around of invitations extended and offers levied, all to no avail. Which wasn’t too much of a surprise really, but still interesting.”
“Why wasn’t it surprising?”
Because theology students tended to have that dreamy-eyed lost expression that was always looking for something more than earth-bound to solve their problems. But he caught himself.
“Mathematics student,” Crowley continues, taking another deep sip. It was getting darker, the thick colors soaking as blue crept in from the corners. “They usually just circled around their own pond and had too much work to do to focus on anything else, even off season. Like some rare nocturnal mice.”
“Would I have known them?”
Crowley manages a shrug. “Doubtful. But maybe. Name was Richards, Edmund, or Edward Richards or something along those lines. Don’t exactly recall.”
“Mm. And this bet?”
“Yes, you said.”
“Well… everyone rather wanted to see what it would take.”
It’s an easy lie. Easier than the truth that somehow one tentative smile had sliced away the world.
“And what did it take?”
Crowley can’t help but notice that he’s not the only one who’s probably had two glasses too many. Aziraphale doesn’t exactly slur, it’s almost as if rather as if there’s no one watching the gates as closely as they ought, like a window left open in summer for the breeze even though a storm might sweep in any minute. His tone is loose and comfortable and that slight concern he seems to have normally, that tone that might in dramatic circumstances be called clucking, eases, loosens, relaxes.
“Did you ask them to dance?”
Crowley almost laughs. He tries to imagine what Aziraphale’s imagining this post-grad party to be and a 1943 dance hall is probably the closest to.
“No,” Crowley answers. There’s a quarter of a glass left and he’s nursing it as well as he can. If he fills it up again he’s not sure he’ll make it off the bloody roof. Instead he focuses on the horizon of the building, that short raised wall separating them and this close quiet from millions of other huddled lives, slipping into night as the dark settles down around them.
“I normally talked to people,” he continues, voice quiet, “to get what I was after. At least I used to, back then. I suppose I still do. There’s something about that which uncurls people, or rather shows off all their little locks and hinges and makes it easier to snap ease open. You can see how they glance and shift their weight and you can mimic it just enough and contrast it in just the right ways. It’s interesting. Intriguing. And with things as simple as words you can draw someone in. Clicks on a fishing reel. One at a time. But this was…”
He’s not sure if he said it or not. It’s getting so dark. The fairy lights prick through the deepening indigo like ships, bobbing far off out on a darkened sea.
“I don’t think I said a single thing. Not one word. It was as though all the words had been said already somehow. I don’t know how or when, but that’s how it felt. It felt as if there were centuries of words, close and far and lost and found. There was nothing left to say. The reel had finished clicking. And there we were.”
The wine glass is warm under his fingers. He’s been holding it so long.
“I didn’t press. I didn’t need to. I didn’t follow, and they didn’t come. It was as if we both knew that everything would come together, leaves on a pond with the wind blowing the same way.”
He laughs. It’s quiet. It feels so close. Like no one in the world can hear it but them, despite the entire city leaning back into the summer air, just out of reach. “It was new. I spent so much of my time back then looping little strings about people and plans so I could just give them a bit of a tug when I felt I needed to. It was a strange thing to feel as though there had been a little string around me all along. Strange. But wonderful too. Thoughtless and easy. So, very, very easy.”
When did it get so still? The warmth of the air is so pleasant, thick, like the wine in his head, luxurious and silken.
“A hour passed. Maybe a few. I don’t know exactly. There was laughter, and girl’s hands on my arms easing me from one corner to another. Smells. Women’s jasmine perfume and spilled beer and old plaster. A buzz. Just a buzz all of it. And through it all the glance of a smile, a look, silencing everything, painting it for just what it was, time slipping past that didn’t matter, because soon enough… soon enough everything would align.”
He can feel the bricks behind his head. Lower than before. Is he sinking? The fairy lights wink. A few lights in distant windows have clicked on to join them.
“It was late. There weren’t nearly as many voices as there had been. Just a handful of the loudest. There was a hall, towards the back. It was dark. Close. Likely felt closer with that much wine in the veins. I was heading… I don’t know where. Because then he was there. And it felt as if, of course, I had always been heading towards him.” Crowley smiles. It feels lopsided. “I don’t know what ever got in the way.”
He’s certainly sitting lower. There’s no denying it. The brick is warm against his back. A shoulder, just as warm, and somehow more solid, against his. He lets himself lean. He’s feeling rather off balance. He doesn’t want to fall.
“It was…” His throat feels dry. He doesn’t know why. “He took my hand. I… I didn’t remember the last time anyone had done that. He just eased it, so careful, so sure, right into mine. And for a moment I actually didn’t know what to do. The reel had stopped. Time had come together. He was there. Right there. And for a moment it felt as if I’d never actually… seen anyone, no one, before this man, standing in this darkened hall, with his hand in mine.”
It’s all so sharp suddenly. The entire moment, close and deep.
“I think… I think I could have stayed there a long time.”
Safe. Seen. Seen and not afraid.
“But his hand tightened on mine. I heard his breathe catch. Lips opening. Just a touch. Surprised. Staring at his hand in mine as if it was some sort of miracle, and I couldn’t stop myself from kissing him.”
Warm. Shocked and open in a way that was almost terrifying.
“And suddenly the world and time and place and the rest of it snapped back into place, all hands and fumbling limbs. I don’t remember if I pushed or he pulled but there was a wall behind him and our joined hands tight above his head and he just… god, the way he opened. It felt like spring.”
Somewhere miles away a sober version of himself is trying to yell something, but he can’t hear it. He suspects it’s something along the lines of ”shut up now for the love of christ you unprecedented idiot”. It couldn’t matter less. After all he’s not leaning against warm bricks on an splintery bench. He’s holding the past against the wall of a shadowy hall way, hardly believing how hard he’s breathing in such a short amount of time.
His hand had slide down the wall, clumsy, a cool metal handle catching under it.
“There was a bathroom. Something. I wasn’t sure exactly. I just opened the door and we stumbled back. More clumsy than anything else. He didn’t seem to want to let go of me, and in that moment, well, I understood that feeling. I remember the feeling of his hands on my hips, fingers and bones. I remember getting a hand in his hair, easier than I thought. Tilting his head just — he didn’t seem used to kissing. There was something so intoxicating in that.”
There’s a tightness hiding under his stomach. His voice is quieter. Almost a whisper. But he feels so close. He knows it’s not too quiet.
“Selfless. Shameless. It was…”
He’d pressed him back. Up. The counter. Legs tangled. Mouths warm. Open. He’d pushed closer, urgent suddenly, desperate even. He’d felt the heat of him through his jeans, tight between his thighs. He’d gasped, and then, even then, he held his hand.
His can feel hair tickling his cheek. He’s not sure who’s leaning on who. He’s not sure he’s strong enough to turn the half an inch it would take to look.
“I didn’t want to stop.” His voice feels rough in his throat. The thing in his stomach twists meanly. “I never wanted to stop.”
“Why did you?”
The question settles. So close. Warm against his skin.
So close. He can feel his forehead against his now. Warm. Smelling of spring and open fields heavy with promises of life.
Renee pounding against the door. Sarah laughing hard enough to break behind her ribs.
A moment of fear staring back at him. Just a moment. But it sliced all the same.
“I thought you wanted me to.”
He can feel a nose just against his. Breath so close. Close enough it might just be his own.
“How could I… how could I possibly?” he whispers back.
The tightness in his stomach jumps. The warmth of skin eases. He only realizes half a second later he’s the one who pulled back.
Aziraphale seems as if he’s trying to focus. His eyes are heavy, but there’s confusion clustering in already. “I… I didn’t—“
The tightness is getting worse. Crowley tries to make the world fit properly again. “You-“ He’s even further away from him now. It seems to be happening all on it’s own. “You remember that?”
Aziraphale’s cheeks are flushing, his eyes darting down. He seems so lost suddenly. “I didn’t mean to make you think—“
Crowley moves to stand. The wine sweeps up to his head in one motion and he stumbles. Aziraphale catches his arm. He pulls it away.
“You lied to me?”
Aziraphale stares back at him agonized. “I— it wasn’t that. I didn’t mean for it to be that. I couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t isn’t a part of it!” Crowley tries to stand straight. His voice is louder suddenly. He thinks he might be yelling. “You did. You said you didn’t remember me, and you did!”
Aziraphale looks utterly miserable, suddenly unsure of wether to sit or stand, stay back or move towards him. “I didn’t want to be a bother! I saw you before, well before you saw me. Your… Lucius showed me the shop, the space, and afterwards, he crossed the street and you were just arriving. He met you at the door. And I knew you. Instantly. Of course I did. How could I not? But it was obvious that… I didn’t want you to think I wanted anything, needed anything. I didn’t want you to assume I would be any bother. It seemed the easiest thing. The cleanest thing.”
Crowley tries to think. It’s hardly working. He feels sick. The wine is suddenly far too heavy in his stomach, the lightness of his head infuriating.
“It’s not… I — you let me believe that you just forgot me. Even then. After that night. Do you know what the next week was for me? The next month?”
The distant sober voice is yelling at him again but he still can’t seem to listen.
“They slammed on that door and you looked so afraid, so startled, as if you remembered who you were, what you were training for, and I couldn’t help stopping. And you didn’t tell me not to!”
“I didn’t want you to stop.”
“Then why didn’t you say? What? Wait for me to make myself something that doesn’t care? That pulls no matter what pushes against it? That’s what you hoped for?”
“You didn’t keep it. You let it slip past. And when they shoved the door open you simply slipped out. Away. What was I supposed to think?”
“I— it was a confusing moment. I wasn’t— I didn’t understand what to think.”
“I actually waited.” Crowley laughs, but it sounds broken even to him. “I actually waited for you to say something. To be in touch. I went to places where I saw you and pretended I had some other business just to see if I might catch you. But you were gone. Just gone. And then what? You arrive here, and you act as though you don’t remember a single thing?”
“I didn’t want to cause discomfort,” Aziraphale tries, voice pathetic and wrung.
Crowley laughs again, only this time it doesn’t stop nearly as quickly. The fairy lights blur against his eyes. The wine feels like wet cement in his veins.
“Stop it.” Aziraphale’s voice is quiet.
“Don’t.” Aziraphale stands. “Just… I am so very sorry. I didn’t mean to cause anyone pain. I shouldn’t have left without a word. I— I didn’t think it mattered to you.”
The words slice despite everything else. For a moment he can’t bring himself to move.
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale says.
Crowley takes a deep breathe. He hurries past him, tugging open the door. “I’m sorry.”
“What do you have to be sorry for?”
“I’m sorry I ever started any of this.”
The door swings shut behind him, heavy and final.
He doesn’t fall down the stairs, which is a small miracle. He doesn’t hear anyone following him. He’s not sure if that makes him feel better or worse.
It takes four tries to get the keys in the lock of his apartment. Inside it’s dark except for the orange flood of the city. Dark and empty. Utterly empty.
There’s a bottle of wine in the fridge. A note. Lucius’ neat handwriting. Some apology for not being around more often. Some promise of taking him away for the weekend when the four-mil-flat sells.
It takes Crowley under ten seconds to cork it. It takes ten minutes to finish half. Thirty more to vomit. And hardly five to hit the bed.
He falls asleep in his shirt and trousers. The fresh sheets are probably supposed to smell like spring. But there’s nothing of spring there, only a lie knitted out of chemicals, and soon enough there’s only darkness.
He can’t remember the last time he was hung over. At least not like this. Maybe never like this.
It’s past eleven by the time he drags himself out of bed, sunlight beaming in like some agonizing friendly neighbor. He manages to make it a few feet before charging into the bathroom for another vomit. But that’s alright, the aspirin is in there anyways. And the shower. Very important the shower.
Coffee for lunch. Two cups. He drinks them half collapsed on the counter, bony elbows propping him up, hair still a little damp where it hangs loosely getting in the way of his eyes. He sweeps his bangs back and they thankfully cooperate. The coffee steams up his sunglasses but he’s glad he put them on all the same. The sun is still far too persistent.
What’s left of the wine bottle from the night before is sitting in the sink next to him. He gives it a good scowl. The note isn’t where it was stuck. He’s pretty sure he crumpled it up and threw it somewhere. He considers looking for it now so finding it later won’t spur a whole new wave of guilt then thinks better of it. Anyways, it’s easier not to think right now. Thinking seems the worst idea, like pouring a handful of worms onto his brain to dig in and have a good munch.
No. No thinking. Anyways, what is there to think about? He said everything he had to say. Perhaps, lurking somewhere, there’s the thought that this entire situation was his fault after all, that he never should have gone over there at all, that he was asking for it to happen, that he was just about gagging for it, and what else was he expecting, and why didn’t he just check his phone, and when did Lucius come up, and where did he think he was when he wasn’t home, and did he try to call, and where was he now?
Crowley groans out-loud, slipping a little lower on the table. The sunlight is starting to shove off at least, it’s more shaded in the apartment than it was just a few minutes ago. He glances out the window, over the smaller buildings where his view gives him a good look at the sky. There’s a heavy mass of grey stretching it’s fat fingers over half of the city. It was just a matter of time now before the sun was obscured altogether.
“Thank the lord.”
He very carefully peels himself off the counter and shuffles closer to the couch. There’s a white faux fur blanket neatly folded behind the cushions. It’s doesn’t take long to fashion a crude shroud and hunker down into the folds of the sofa.
He’s not sure how many Golden Girls episodes go by, curled into the corner of the couch, his temple pressed into the armrest. He’s just as unsure of what time it is when there’s a sudden, loud knock at the door.
He jolts, instantly bracing for the rush of pain to his head, but it doesn’t come. In fact he realizes he hasn’t felt ill for an hour or more. He blinks as the faces on the screen, bathed in pastel light, roll their eyes and purse their lips.
“Here you are, Sophia. The perfect after-dinner treat, a nice dish of Jell-O.”
“I hate Jell-O. If God wanted peaches suspended in midair, he would have filled them with helium.”
There’s another knock at the door. Louder. With some flair.
Crowley squints, sitting up better with a groan. The sunglasses wound up on the coffee table some time ago and he gives both eyes a good knead before blinking again. It’s darker in the room. When did that happen?
The knocking sounds again. This time it doesn’t stop.
He manages to pull himself up and shuffle to the door. He reaches the handle and suddenly stops. Who’s knocking anyways? It could be anyone. I could be Lucius curious about why he didn’t pick up his phone. Or worse it could be someone else entirely.
“Maybe he’s not home,” a muffled voice comes from behind the door.
“He’s here. Just knock louder.”
He knows the second voice. The knocking becomes a pound and he tugs open the door.
A small frizzy haired woman almost falls in at the sudden lack of door under her tiny, furious knuckles. Crowley steps out of the way instantly, avoiding any possible tumbles, but she catches herself again easily.
Crowley blinks. “What’s happening?”
“I told you yesterday!” Anathema beams, pushing directly into the apartment. There’s three of them total and all flooding in without a word of invitation: Anathema, in a very sharp vegan leather jacket and a deep purple maxi dress that fits her perfectly, the frizz, who’s sharp and wide eyes are darting around his apartment with hardly contained judgement, and the last one, a woman almost as tall as him, with long sharp eyeliner, broad shoulders, and strong-jaw, who steps in as if no one would be stupid enough to ask her to leave.
“What’s going on, why are you here?”
“Are you alright?” the tall girl asks. “You look like you’ve eaten too many eggs.”
“He’s hung-over.” Anathema observes, narrowing her eyes critically. “Why are you hung over?”
“You don’t have any lager?” a voice calls out. The frizzy one is evaluating the contents of his fridge.
“No, I don’t have any— what’s going on?”
“You didn’t sound drunk when we talked yesterday.”
“Even if you are hungover, I still think you’re eating too many eggs.”
“Look,” Crowley levels, “I… yesterday was complicated. So I’m sorry if I don’t remember, but—“
Crowley instantly feels his stomach drop. “Oh god.”
“I told you about it. Every week. And yesterday. And it’s today. We’re going out.”
“So strap one on skinny,” the frizzy girl grins. She smiles like something that roamed plains feasting on smaller reptiles until the sky told it to stop that.
“Oh christ,” Crowley sighs. The realization almost slaps him in the face. “Bloody hell does this mean your wedding is tomorrow?”
“Keen this one,” the tall one notes. The one in the kitchen’s found a bottle of very expensive tequila under one of his counters and is rising out one of his mugs.
“Oh no, no no, I should have been in the shop today. I don’t know what I was thinking. There’s still arrangements to finalize and work to be done, and the van is coming in the morning—“
“Calm down, calm down,” Anathema hurries. He can tell by the way her eyebrow is tilted that she’s evaluating him, worried, but hiding it well. “Don’t worry about the damn flowers. I’m sure they’re perfectly fine.”
“I should go now,” he insists, “I should go and make sure they’re ready for the morning.”
“I don’t care about the flowers,” Anathema says, voice calm and clear. “I want you to come out with us.”
Crowley looks back at her pitifully. “I am hungover.”
“Too many eggs.”
“Enough with the fucking eggs, Radha!”
“Enough yourself Chris, you’re drinking fucking tequila out of a mug.”
“Shut up both of you,” Anathema says. “Now, at the risk of sounding like something off of american television: it’s my wedding tomorrow. You forgot about this, even though I reminded you at least a dozen times, so no, I don’t give a fuck if you’re hung-over. I want to go out with my friends before I get married. So we’re taking you out, even if we have to carry you ourselves. And that’s that.”
“You tell ‘im sarge!” Chris calls from the kitchen.
“Anyways,” Anathema adds half-heartedly, “I’ve known you long enough that I can tell you’ve gotten over the worst of it. At least judging by the netflix and the fuzzy blanket.”
“Is that Golden Girls?” Chris grins.
Crowley takes a deep breathe.
“He’s not a kicker is he?” Redha asks.
“Fine,” Crowley sighs, “that’s fine, of course, just give me a few minutes. And please stop drinking that tequila, or at least get a proper glass.”
Chris carefully lifts her pinky up from her grip, holding dead-pan eye contact all the while.
Crowley stares back. “Is it raining?”
“Like god finally saw Diehard 4.”
“I’ll get my coat.”
The bar isn’t what he was expecting. It takes them squeezing down three flights of noisy metal stairs to get there, and when the steel door at the bottle scraps open across the concrete floor, music oozes out with a gooey warm weight that drags them in and slams the door behind them.
Crowley notices Redha give a short salute to the bouncer as they move inside, and Chris is already bouncing her hips as she walks to the constant, low, driving beat of the music, pressing though the bodies all around. It’s a small place, close and dark, but from what he can see it actually looks clean and the bartender is responsive when they slide onto the corner of the steel counter.
“What’s your poison?”
Redha gives Chris a look.
There’s a moment of silence.
“Damn right! One for every one!”
“Oh god, not me,” Crowley groans.
“Ignore him. Just slide it on in front and let him warm up to the idea,” Chris tells the bartender. She grins toothily at Crowley, “You’re too pretty to not be drinking.”
“That’s might be one of the more disturbing things anyone has ever said to me.”
“He is very pretty,” Redha agrees, giving him a good critical look over.
“Don’t,” Anathema says. ”If you inflate his ego anymore he’ll have to lease a larger flat.” She’s slurring in a way that’s just barely audible. He wonders how many drinks they had before they came to fetch him.
“How do you all know each other any how?” Crowley asks.
“She hit me on her bike,” Chris says. “Ah! The shots! Ready?”
Anathema tips hers down quick and elegant. The other two follow.
“Wait, I’m sorry… she hit you with her bike?” Crowley repeats.
“She was crossing against the light,” Anathema shrugs.
“She wasn’t looking where she was going!” Chris insists.
“We yelled at each other for about fifteen minutes on the street and then went to properly sort it out over drinks.”
“Just been peaches since,” Chris says. “Hey, hey - Damian Lewis, could we get another round, please and thank you?”
“And what about you?” Crowley asks Redha.
Redha nods in Anathema’s direction, “I do her taxes.”
“Ah, right. Okay.”
“So?” Anathema asks.
Crowley looks at her. “So what?”
“So what the hell happened to you?”
“Nothing,” Crowley tries to shrug off, “just had a long night out.”
“Look man,” Chris levels, “all day Netflix burrito blanket is not a ‘just a long night’ sort of activity.”
“It doesn’t matter, really,” Crowley insist, “I already forgot about your damned wedding, you should be having fun not concerning yourself with me.”
“Are you kidding?” Anathema says. “Poking and prodding at you is the highlight of my week.”
“It really wasn’t anything.”
“Dude,” Redha says, “you finished a bottle of wine. Alone.”
Crowley stares. “How the hell would you know that?”
“Empty bottle in the sink. No glasses.”
“Maybe I washed the glasses.”
“No one drunk enough to be that hung-over washes their glasses but leaves the bottle in the sink.”
Crowley narrows his eyes at her. “You’re an accountant?”
“I’m a good accountant.”
“Alright, so fine, maybe it wasn’t a perfect night.”
“Did it have anything to do with the very distressing call I received this morning from our lovely neighbor?” Anathema asks.
His gut clenches. “What?”
“He calls me first thing this morning, sounding almost as terrible as you, and tells me that he’s terribly sorry but he thinks it would be for the best if he didn’t come to the wedding.”
“No, no, it gets better. He says that he’s already ‘caused enough trouble’, and that he’s been thinking things over and it’s likely for the best if he starts looking for someone to lease his space.”
Crowley lets out a groan, dropping his head into both hands.
“Jesus christ, what did you do?” Chris asks.
“That’s a very good question,” Anathema says.
“God, you told him not to be that ridiculous didn’t you?” Crowley presses.
“I certainly did, not that it will make any difference. He sounded quite distressed, and simply insisted it was the best way to continue.”
He wants to put his head right on the bar. It will be cool and solid, but the damn tequila shot is in the way.
“Boyfriend troubles?” Redha asks.
“Hey, how do you know he’s gay?” Chris chimes.
“Yeah, yeah point taken.”
Crowley digs two fingers into his temple and closes his eyes, trying to focus. “You’ll just have to tell him to stop the nonsense.”
“Tell who?” Redha presses.
“Our neighbor,” Anathema says. “And it seems like that would mean a lot more coming from you. What happened?”
“Yeah what happened, A.J.?” Chris grins.
“Oh god, please don’t call me that.”
“Why not? Ana said it was your name.”
“It’s really not.”
“I think it’s a nice name. Sounds like a Fun Time.”
“Azirphale,” Anathema continues, “said he’d managed to upset you.”
“Doesn’t look like it takes much,” Chris snorts. “Aziraphale? Is that a name? For real? That’s not like… a pain killer?”
“The opposite,” Crowley groans. “Christ, I, just— this is completely absurd. He doesn’t need to skip the wedding, he doesn’t need to move, for god’s sake.”
“Well, what might have given him the impression that he has to?”
Crowley furrows his brows, eyes still closed. The conversation slices back across his mind in bits and pieces. God, why the hell had he ever gone up on that roof? And now here he is, surrounded by Anathema’s coven, hung-over, lost, and, god. There really wasn’t much left to loose is there?
“He lied to me.”
“About what?” Anathema asks.
“Remember, I told you about that… thing, that happened. Back at school.”
“Fucking,” Redha deadpans.
“Rim—“ Chris starts.
“No! Christ, no, just, a snog, in school, some party. He acted as though he didn’t remember me. You saw,” Crowley tries, waving a hand in Anathema’s direction.
“I watched you lament the inevitable awkwardness that he would lay at your door. That is before he came in to simply say hello like a perfectly lovely person, and didn’t have a clue who you were.”
“Ah, yes there, see—“ Crowley points firmly. “Lies. He knew. Remembered the whole thing.”
“Oh,” Anathema frowns. “I see.”
“And you’re sure he just didn’t want to start a conversation with, ‘oh hello, remember me? We sucked face once upon a time.’” Chris asks.
Crowley tries to forgot that expression instantly. “No of course not, but he knew he was being deceitful. He said as much himself.”
“What did he say, exactly?” Redha asks.
“He said,” the words are already sounding wrong in his head. He tries to wrangle them into an appealing shape. “He said he didn’t want to make things awkward.” The words aren’t being helpful.
“God, well, heaven save us from such sin!” Anathema decries.
“Jesus dude,” Chris stares, “are you really pissed at this guy for that?”
Crowley stares down at the tequila. It’s made it’s way into his hand somehow. He’s sure he’s not going to drink it, but the glass feels slightly comforting under his fingers.
“He got to me.”
“What’s that now?” Chris pushes.
“I didn’t… I’m not exactly a—“
“Nice person?” Anathema tries.
“No,” he sighs. “No. I wasn’t a nice person. Back then. I’m not sure I was ever a nice person.”
He can feel Anathema’s eyes on him. He doesn’t look up.
“Jeez. Downer.” Chris stares.
“It’s not… that’s not a surprise. At least it shouldn’t be,” he continues. “What was surprising was him. Back then. That night. He surprised me. And I surprised myself in being so surprised. It was… different.”
“My god.” Anathema looks almost pitying. “You liked him. You really liked him.”
“Like I said. Surprising.”
“What’s he look like?” Redha asks.
“‘A potato wearing a nan’s jumper’,” Anathema quotes neatly.
“Mmm. Sexy,” Chris notes.
“If you liked him why was it just a one time thing?” Redha asks. She’s watching him very keenly now, obviously drawn in.
“That’s the really pitiful part. I tried to make it more than a one time thing.”
“Oh jeez,” Chris sighs.
“I looked for him. Tried to get in touch. Nothing. He just… vanished.”
Anathema leans back on her stool, expression considering. “Wasn’t he… training to become a priest?”
“Hey-o!” Chris calls. “This just got ten times more interesting!”
“He was a theology student,” Crowley tries.
“Who wanted to be a priest?”
“So maybe it’s fair to say this ‘experience’ might have rattled him slightly?”
“Yes, maybe, alright, but look, none of this really matters at all.”
“Really?” Redha asks.
“People were upset. Yelling was had. Drinks followed. I was hung over. Now I’m not. The end.”
“Sounds like you still like him,” Redha says.
“I do. He’s a nice person.”
“Sounds like you like like him,” Chris grins.
“I like Lucius,” Crowley says firmly. He repeats it a few times in his head.
“Oh boy, love triangle, gag me now.”
“Shut up, Chris.”
“Make me. Grab that ginger while you’re at it, get us another round.”
“What about Lucius?” Anathema asks carefully.
“What about him? We’re still together. Everything’s going well.”
“And nothing actually… happened last night?”
“What besides me getting drunk and yelling on a roof, no nothing ‘happened’.”
“Lame. Can someone tell a better story?” Chris asks, drumming her fingers on the table, keen eyes trying to pull the bartender in by sheer force of will.
“So what?” Anathema continues.
“So nothing!” Crowley insists firmly. He eases slightly. “Look, it’s just like I said. I liked him. He went away. He hurt my feelings. He didn’t really do anything wrong. And in the end, none of it matters. I’m with someone. I’m happy.” He tries to ignore how forced the word sounds. “I’m fine.” That one sits a little better. “What matters is no one doing anything drastic and ridiculous. So please, just try to convince him not to do anything so absurd as miss your wedding or bloody move.”
“I did. Already. I don’t know if it made much difference,” Anathema admits.
Crowley shakes his head. “God, it doesn’t matter.” He grabs the shot and tosses it back. It burns like hell. Chris let’s out a decent hoot. “It’s your night. I’m being far too depressing. Go ahead, all of you, get as sloshed as you like. I’ll keep an eye on things.”
“Awwww!” Chris exclaims. “Our knight in shiny sunglasses!”
“That’s right. So hurry up. There’s only so many hours in a night.”
And it works. Mostly. Anathema seems hesitant to let things drop, but after Chris coaxes two shots down her throat she seems to forget all about awkward conversations and distressed bookshop keepers.
The night actually turns into a rather spectacular distraction, what with Chris convincing the DJ to turn the music from trance to country for at least twenty minutes before the rest of the place threatens to riot, Anathema getting drunk enough to actually attempt dancing, which is something Crowley really hopes against hope he never had to witness again, and Redha beating the bartender in armwrestling, which means, as per Chris’ insistence, he has to spend the rest of the night topless. He only keeps the shirt off for half an hour because of ‘health violations’, and when Chris starts screaming ’TREASON’ at him, Crowley decides it’s probably time to make a quick exit.
He drops them all off at the same place, Anathema’s apartment. Apparently they’ve all brought their things for the trip north tomorrow. The wedding. He swears at himself again for forgetting, making a mental note to get up as early as possible to ensure the flowers are actually finished before the van gets there. God, he really is going to be exhausted after all of this.
They tumble out of the car all together, laughing at something his hair has done that he hasn’t noticed, but they at least seemed capable of keeping each other upright. They turn to the building when suddenly Redha spins back on him, collapsing against the window.
“Hey, hey hold on—“
He holds on. “What is it?”
“It’s all gonna be fine,” she slurs.
“Oh yes, I know,” he indulges.
“No, no,” she says firmly, reaching in the window to grab his chin. She turns him far too easily, looking him firmly in the face. “You’ll find it in the end. It’s not up to you. He’s got your red string. I can see it. ’S obvious. So don’t worry.”
She let’s go of his jaw. Crowley’s so grateful he doesn’t try to understand what she’s on about.
“Goodnight, pretty,” she smiles.
“Good night yourself.”
The van is on time at nine the next morning. Thankfully. He’s still tired, exhausted if he’s honest, but the thrill of actually watching the men load the flowers in, secure them properly, and give him a wave as they head off, is giving him a second wind. It’s done. Mostly. Now he just has to get there.
He locks up the shop neatly behind him, already dressed after changing inside. He went with the navy suit. He usually hates the color, but this one had such a sharp modern cut that it almost made it look a whole new color altogether. He checks his pockets. Car keys. Good. Phone. Good. He turns to the street, and can’t help seeing the shop across the way.
It’s dark inside, not that that’s anything novel. But there’s a sign hanging on the door that reads CLOSED in neat print. He can’t remember ever seeing that sign before.
His free hand finds his phone in his pocket. He pulls it out, running a thumb tentatively over the screen. He glances at the shop once more before dialing.
“Hullo?” Lucius voice sounds on the end.
“Ready?” Crowley asks, looking away from the shop and unlocking his car.
“Just about. Look, I’m sorry about this, I’m terrible, I know, but that client, the one who’s already looked at the four-mil twice, wanted to come back for one last look. I wouldn’t have indulged them if I didn’t think this was the one to close. We’re just wrapping up now.”
Crowley tries to swallow a Tone. “Well, we should be leaving soon. I don’t want to be late and it’s a long drive.” Oh look at that, the Tone comes out anyways.
“I know, I know, but I am all dressed, ready to go. I promise. It won’t take any more time and we can still leave when we planned. If you could just meet me here instead so we can leave right after I finish this.”
Crowley sighs. “Yes, alright.”
“You remember how to get here?”
“Yes, you showed me that time. I’m leaving now. Is that alright?”
“Oh yes, we’re just wrapping up. Like I said, I think they just wanted one last look before taking the dive.”
“Right, see you soon.”
It doesn’t take long to drive to the flat, despite the weekend traffic in town. There was a drizzle this morning that left the road wet, but it looks to be clearing up. He’s glad. He doesn’t want it to rain on Anathema’s day, that is if she had managed to crawl out of bed after last night. Anyways, it’s not as if she wasn’t asking for rain, having her nuptials in a bloody field.
He does the math idly in his head as he navigates the crowded stop-lights and narrow one-way streets. It will take two hours to get out of the city and to the location, it’s hardly mid-morning now, so a bit of time to kill before the wedding right after noon. Maybe this would be alright after all.
He curls the car off the main road and onto the finely pruned street the fabled four-mil-on-the-river called home. It’s one of those aggressively perfect streets, cobbles obeying the rules set out for them god knows how long ago, trees impossibly all the exact same size. He can never understand how anyone could possibly want to live on a street like this. It seems like someplace far above, an old man with too many hobbies, is turning a gear to make all the perfect people spin out and about on clockwork tracks. He couldn’t stand feeling as though he was rolling down anyone else’s designed path.
He knows it’s right here somewhere. There’s an open space on the right side of the street so he nabs it, trying to remember just what the house number was.
Something catches his eye, and all at once, ever thought of flats and numbers sweeps out of his mind in one gust.
There’s a car parked on the street. It’s on the opposite side. Maybe four car lengths down. It’s a red car. A limited edition BWM. He’s only ever seen one other like it.
Things start to happen quickly. Without thinking his hand goes right to the space under the seat, grabbing what’s there. He opens the car door. He doesn’t walk quickly. He walks steadily. There’s a dull hum behind his ears.
He steps towards the car. It’s still a distance off, but close enough now to see there’s a small scuff and dent in the front fender. And miracle of miracles, the headlights blink alive as someone unlocks the doors.
“HEY!” Crowley yells.
The man walking towards the car glances up. He doesn’t stop walking. He sees Crowley. He ignores him.
“OI! YOU!” Crowley yells again.
He man stops this time, just at the door. “Are you speaking to me?”
“No, I’m talking to the asshole behind you.”
The man looks behind him. Actually looks. When there’s no one there him he turns back to Crowley with a slick smile that turns the noise in Crowley’s ears from a hum to a sudden roar.
“Piss off. Alright?” the man levels smoothly.
“I know you,” Crowley insists. “I know that car. I know that dent. I’m sure it’s hard to get replacement parts for that edition quickly. I saw you. You hit a cat. A few weeks back. In that car. On my street.”
“Pardon?” the man says. It’s not really a question. His expression hasn’t shifted. It’s all the confirmation Crowley needs.
“See that?” Crowley asks, gesturing behind him to his own car.
The man follows his gesture and suddenly his expression darkens to anger. “You’re the bastard— you almost ran me off the bloody road! What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You hit a cat. You hit a cat and you left it on the road to die.”
“And that’s worth causing bloody riot on the roads of London over?” the man yells.
“Excuse me, Mr. Fields, is there a problem—“ Lucius is standing on the stoop of one of the picture perfect houses. He sees him and his expression twists with confusion. “Anthony? What on earth? What’s going on here?”
“You know this lunatic?” the man calls back to him.
“Yes, goodness, Anthony, what’s going on? What’s that in your hand? Is that a… tire-iron?”
Crowley ignores him, gesturing right at the man’s smug expression with the thing. “He hit the cat. Seti. My cat. Our cat. He hit it and left it on the street to die.”
“This bastard chased me half across London! Almost caused half a dozen accidents on the way! It’s a miracle no one died!”
“Then why not stop? Ask what was wrong?”
“Stop for a damned mad-man!?”
“You didn’t stop because you knew what you did, you absolute bastard! You knew and you didn’t want anyone to hold you responsible!”
“My god, I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding,” Lucius pushes, expression almost panicked.
“Take responsibility,” Crowley continues, hardly hearing Lucius at all. “Take responsibility for what you did. Now. It’s the least you can bloody do.”
“I don’t know what you’re on about,” Mr. Fields insists, eyes telling a completely different story.
“You know exactly. Exactly!”
“You’re off your head!”
“Please!” Lucius yells. “Please.”
Crowley falls silent, glaring back at Mr. Fields and silently willing his wretched smug head to spontaneously burst into flames.
“Anthony,” Lucius says tersely, “may I speak to you aside for a moment?”
“Please?” Lucius says, voice gentler this time.
Crowley tugs his eyes from the man’s regrettably-not-on-fire face and nods curtly.
“Thank you, and please Mr. Fields, I am so sorry for this trouble, just give me one moment and I’ll get you those signing papers.”
“I do have things to get to, you know,” Mr. Fields grumbles.
“I realized that, just a moment, thank you,” Lucius is already across the sidewalk, grabbing Crowley’s arm a little too tightly and turning him away. They get about four steps before Lucius hisses through his teeth, “What the bloody hell do you think you’re playing at?”
Crowley spins on him, wrenching his arm from his grip. “What?”
“This man is about to pay me four million dollars for this damn flat. This is why I haven’t been to make half the things we ought to have done together for the past three weeks! He’s ready to sign the papers now, and you come in here looking like something out of a bloody Tarantino film, half mad with rage, dressed for a wedding, wielding a damned tire-iron?”
“He hit that cat,” Crowley says firmly.
“How do you know that? How on earth do you know that with any manner certainty to justify this type of mad response. I mean, do you see yourself? Do you have any idea what you look like?”
“Why does that matter?”
“Why does it matter what the hell I look like? He hit that cat. And he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about it at all because he has his car and he’s about to have his four-mil-on-the-fucking-river, and no one is going to tell him no, and he needs to be held responsible!”
“And who are you? Bloody Batman?”
Crowley’s stunned. So stunned that he can’t seem to speak and Lucius seems to take that silence as some manner of acknowledgment, because with a tired, vexed look he shakes his head. “For christ’s sake darling, it’s only a damned cat.”
Crowley stares back at him. No. Not at him. Past him. Through him. He turns back towards his car and starts to walk away.
Lucius calls out to his back. He ignores it. He’s just about at the Royce when he stops. He turns around again and walks back towards them.
“What the hell else do you want?” he hears Mr. Fields call.
The tire-iron makes an immensely satisfying sound going straight through the BMW’s windshield.
The silence that follows is almost equally satisfying.
Crowley looks to Lucius’ horrified expression. “Don’t call me. Ever.”
The walk back to the Royce feels a hundred pounds lighter.
His heart doesn’t catch up with him until twenty minutes later, as London falls away behind the Rolls. His heart’s thudding harder than he realized, pounding up and down and there’s something tight in his chest, something terrified, and the worst part is he knows that the frankly criminal act sitting in the middle of the city behind him has nothing to do with that feeling.
He shoves his foot on the gas, ripping past every other vehicle on the road, and he doesn’t slow down until the road ka-thuds into dirt under the spinning tires.
He parks right next to the neatly painted sign pointing the way down to “Newt & Anathema”, which just happens to be directly into a field.
Stumbling out of the car he realizes he must look a bit of a mess. He can feel where his hair has fallen into his face. He’s not sure where his sunglasses have gone. Somewhere. Lost maybe. He looks wryly at the marshy ground waiting just past the dry safety of the road, swallows, and heads in.
The signs are a help, and the handful of other nicely dressed individuals wandering through the field in the same general direction are a comfort. The sun has actually made it’s way out, but it isn’t a hot day in the end after all. The breeze makes that certain, blowing it’s way across the rolling hills laces with old crumbling stone walls and the occasional patch of ancient oak trees.
Thankfully a tent rises just above the very next hill. It’s just a small tent, modest even. The crowd is thickening now and he slows his pace enough to glance about at the faces, scanning them as quickly as he can, heart still thudding against his chest. All he has to do is find the right one. It will be there. It has to be. Just like it was before.
A hand snatches his arm and he actually jumps. “Jesus!”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” a thoroughly apologetic voice hurries.
Newt looks almost exhausted as Crowley must. He has a sort of stressed, thrilled, terrified expression that’s just managing to hold itself together with poor packing tape and loose bits of string. “Oh, thank god.”
Crowley frowns. “What’s wrong?”
Newt catches his breath. His hand’s on Crowley’s shoulder. Crowley can’t remember Newt ever touching him before but it seems he needs something, absolutely anything to hold onto at the moment, so Crowley lets him. Even if it is rather painful.
“She’s been looking for you everywhere!”
“God, I’m not that late!”
“No, no, come on, you have to come on,” Newt tugs at his arm firmly.
Crowley follows him because frankly there’s nothing else to do.
Newt manages to get him behind the tent, which is sitting off the the side of a small grove of apple trees. Newt stops just around the corner of the tent, maneuvering Crowley in front of him. “Okay, she’s in there waiting for you.”
“What’s going on?” Crowley asks, turning back to him. “Why do I feel like there’s a stun-gun at the end of this?”
“It’s fine, really, please, just, please, she made me promise to find you, and we have to start soon, and I think the officiator lost a shoe on the walk over - please, just please. Please?”
He sounds so utterly overwhelmed that Crowley actually finds himself attempting a Manly Shoulder Pat. “Yes, of course, it’s fine.”
The pat doesn’t seem to help. He’s not surprised. He hasn’t had much practice.
Newt’s gone as quickly as he arrived, leaving Crowley alone with the distant mulling noise of the guests, and the gentle flapping of the tent in the smooth breeze.
He clears his throat once, and ducks under the closest apple branches.
“He’s here!” a voice yells from within. A voice that’s all too familiar after last night. Chris’ sharp little hand snatches him, tugging him the rest of the way in.
It’s a ridiculous scene. It almost looks like something out of one of those absurd women’s fashion spreads. Anathema is standing in the middle of the apple-trees, wedding dress spread out underneath her. Redha is leaning back in one of the folding chairs from the tent, dress flowing out over the grass with one arm slung behind her holding a can of something, and then there’s Chris, hurrying in her own short bright-red number over to them with a hand full of safety pins and flowers.
“Welcome to our boudoir!” Chris calls, swinging her arms out wide and proud.
“Finally!” Anathema cries.
“I can’t be that late!” Crowley insists.
“No, no,” she says quickly, almost gently, “you’re not, now please, can you two find that veil for me? We will have to get started soon.”
“Yeah, of course, come on,” Chris tugs at Redha’s arm. The tall girl gets up, winking at Crowley as they head past him and back towards the tent.
And then it’s just the two of them, and the wizened apple trees all around.
Anathema smiles at him, relief all too apparent on her face. “You look like hell.”
Crowley stares back at her. “You look beautiful.” Because she does. She really, truly does.
Anathema’s eyes brighten, which just makes it that much more striking. “What kept you?”
“I—,” he tries to get his thoughts organized. It isn’t really working. “There was a red car, and I am fairly certain I did something illegal. I might be sued. And I dumped Lucius.”
“Good,” she nods. She holds out her arm, bare in the summer breeze, fingers lightly extended. “Now come take my arm. You’re going to walk me down the damn aisle.”
Crowley stares. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. Come on, shake a leg.”
“No, no, I don’t think I could have possibly heard you.”
“Don’t be dramatic. It’s just a walk.”
Crowley splutters. “It is not ‘just a walk’! It’s your bloody processional!”
“Right. Mine. And I want you to walk with me.”
“Isn’t there someone better? I mean anyone, really, family?”
Anathema sighs. She really does look perfect, especially out here as the sunlight spreads across the field. Although there’s no way he isn’t going to give her hell later for her little group convening in the grove before securing another male sacrifice.
“Look,” Anathema says, “sit down for a minute, we still have a little time and you look like you haven’t slept in three days.”
“I haven’t, no thanks to you.” But he takes Redha’s abandoned folding chair all the same.
They sit there in silence, together, for a moment, the susurrus of the leaves on all sides, sounding in sequence as the breeze folds around them. There’s a few birds, here and further off still. Somewhere on the other side of the tent music is starting to play, ushering the mingled voices into a lower buzz.
“The shop was closed,” Crowley says gently.
Anathema plops down in a folding chair of her own next to him. “Really?”
“There was a sign on the door. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sign on the door.”
“No. No me neither.”
“I don’t know what I was thinking. All this time. God, I feel as though I’ve been such a bloody fool.”
Anathema almost laughs. “You’re in love with him. What else did you expect?”
Crowley can’t help but stare at her, expression open and lost.
Anathema smiles back and gives him a shrug.
He lets his head fall into his hands. “Oh christ.”
Behind them the music begin to shift on the breeze.
“That’s our cue. Come on now, don’t want to make Newt any more stressed or he might pop a blood vessel.”
“Right, right,” Crowley mutters, managing to get to his feet properly. He brushes off his slacks quickly, not that it’s making much of a difference to his overall appearance.
Anathema smiles. “Come here.”
He turns to her and she steps in close, quick hands adjusting his tie. She smooths it down and then reaches up and sweeps his hair out of his face very carefully. Her hands come to rest on his shoulders, and he before he can do anything about it she props herself up on her toes and kisses his cheek. She smells like his flowers, the ones he realizes now she’s been holding the whole time.
“Ready?” she smiles.
He let’s out half a laugh. “I should be asking you that.”
“If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be standing here,” she says, calm as anything.
“You’re sure,” Crowley smirks, “the car’s just down the field, if we make a dash for it…”
“And miss that cake? Not on your life,” Anathema grins. She wraps her arm under his. “Let’s go.”
It’s just about as perfect a ceremony as he could imagine in the end, and exactly the one she deserves. Anathema’s hair tossed by the breeze that rolls across the fields, the sun brilliant and easy, sending everything into golds and yellows and clear whites, Redha and Chris standing off to one side, making face at him every now and again, the small group of guests enthusiastic and casual, the vows brief and sincere. Newt only gets too choked up to continue once. But Anthema squeezes his arm firmly and he beams back at her and making it through in the end.
Even though he would vehemently deny it later if anyone was the ask, Crowley can’t help being affected himself. Even if he manages to keep it contained to a few hard blinks and a handful of firm swallows. And diverting as the ceremony is, perhaps because of just that, he can’t help his mind wandering.
What is he going to do? Was he gone? Again? Things are different this time surely. He can find him, can’t he? It isn’t 2002 anymore. There’s the damned social media and all manner of supply for people who want to stalk someone without their permission. Which is exactly why Crowley doesn’t have any of those accounts. And perhaps is why Aziraphale doesn’t either. Ah well, there’s still phone’s. He can still call him, manage to say something along the lines of: “I was an idiot. Please don’t disappear.” That is unless he’s changed his phone number. Or more likely, just doesn’t pick up when Crowley calls. Which all comes back to, what on earth is he going to do?
Someone in the back of the crowd behind him blows their nose. Loudly.
Crowley can’t help wincing at the interruption. He tries to focus back on the ceremony again, they seem to be wrapping up and he really shouldn’t be this distracted.
Behind him the someone starts apologizing quietly and quickly to their neighbors for the interruption. “Goodness, I’m so sorry, so sorry, I’m always such a mess at these things.”
Crowley turns instantly.
There’s no mistaking him. Absolutely, utterly, no mistaking him.
He’s dabbing a lace-edged handkerchief under his nose. He’s wearing plaid pants. Actual plaid pants. And not the sort that fit just tight enough to maybe be considered for a 1981 call-back with some modern lines to compensate. He thinks this particular type of plaid pant haven’t seen the light of day since some slightly mad scotsman burst onto a gold-course in 1908, beaming at the horrorstruck faces in front of him. The outfit comes with a khaki blazer that doesn’t fit quite right, with tweed elbow pads, and a bowtie. And honest to goodness bowtie, that just happens to be a plaid that’s miraculously different in every possibly way from the one down below.
Crowley doesn’t stop looking at him until clapping, cheering, pulls his eyes back to the front, where Anathema’s wrapped her arms around Newt, tugging him close and fast.
Crowley’s smiling. He realizes he’s been smiling for a while now.
He doesn’t hurry to him as soon as the ceremony ends. Things seem simpler suddenly, as if the world’s sighed around him and he’s followed it’s example. He doesn’t rush. There’s no need. Things will turn on their own. Just like they did before. He’s sure of it, with a clarity that would be shocking if it wasn’t quite so comfortable.
The ceremony slips out into the fields and the tent as the sun sinks, deepening each and every color in it’s descent. The breeze keeps it up, easing the clouds across the clear sky in rounded, lone puffs.
The music starts as the sun skims the distant hills, comfortable easy music. Django Reinhardt, Crowley recognizes, in some sleepy part of his brain. The sound seems so natural with laughter and cheers around it.
There’s a glass of champagne in his fingers, delicate stem balanced carefully. He can still taste the floral tones of it on his tongue, bright and easy. He turns to glance over the fields, sunlight still tracing all the edges. There’s a figure, standing on the edge of the dancers. Simply there. Off to the side. His own champagne glass in his hand, watching the rest of them, with a small, familiar smile.
And there it was. The moment. Easing around him, them, all of it. Just as he knew it would.
It doesn’t take him long to reach him. Or maybe it’s taken him a lifetime. He’s not sure he’s tipsy enough yet to make that sort of call.
Aziraphale turns quickly, eyes widening in surprise. “Oh, hello.”
Crowley frowns. Aziraphale looks nervous. Even if just sightly.
“Your shop was closed.”
“Yes, well, wedding, you know. The flowers look lovely by the way. Very well done.”
There’s a moment of silence. Crowley takes another sip of his champagne. Somewhere a few meters away Chris shrieks out a laugh.
“I hope it’s just for today,” Crowley notes.
“What’s that?” Aziraphale says. Nervous. Still. Ridiculous.
“Closed. I hope you’re not planning on doing anything so silly as leaving us.”
“Oh, no, well, I couldn’t just leave could I? Not with Seti as she is.”
The cat. The bloody cat was saving his damned love life.
“Right, no of course, at least not without letting me say goodbye.”
“I didn’t—“ Aziraphale falters. He hasn’t looked at him. Not properly. He seems to be having some trouble with it. “I wasn’t sure that was anything you’d worry yourself over.”
“I did bust up the car that hit her today with a tire-iron, so I certainly do care, at least a bit.”
Aziraphale looks at him then, wide eyes stunned under those absurd glasses. “Goodness. You didn’t.”
“You know,” Crowley sips his champagne again, “I’ve never committed a felony and dumped someone in under ten seconds. Rather thrilling.”
Something under Aziraphale’s eyes changes. “Is it?”
“Oh yes. Much more exciting I expect then shoving off for no good reason whatsoever. Especially when you’re not the one who’s acted like an ass.”
There’s a smile teasing at his bright eyes. Exactly as it always has. “I’m not sure I’d go that far.”
“I would,” Crowley says firmly.
Aziraphale shakes his head. “Now, look, it’s not—“
Crowley kisses him.
It’s embarrassingly clumsy. He has to lean in the completely wrong way, and he’s still got his champagne glass which makes this especially interesting. He just manages to actually hit his lips, albeit rather sideways, shoving Aziraphale’s glasses the wrong way at the same time. And none of it, no squished frames or colliding noses, or knocked cheekbones, could possible matter less.
It’s not a long kiss. Almost chaste really. Or might have been if it wasn’t quite so hurried and lacking in poise. In fact, it’s the moment just after the kiss that strikes sharp and bright. Crowley pulls back, just enough, just a breathe, and Aziraphale sighs. So quietly. So… earnestly. It’s close, and still, and no one but him could have possibly heard it. But he did. It slips through him with instant vigor, pouring down his throat and pooling in a suddenly very warm region behind his chest. And all of a sudden, he can’t possibly remember, how he lived for so long without feeling this whole.
He pulls back to himself finally, only this time, he stands a little closer. They don’t speak. There’s no need. There will be time for that. He can feel it even now, all that time, the time yet unspent, but so sure, that it’s as though all the conversations that will ever be, all the touches yet to come, all the moments waiting just past the present, are snuggled right around their shoulders. It’s as if someone snapped away the past and the present, and any nonsense that could be mistaken for time, and just left them. As they were, as they are, as they will be, standing in a field, watching a young couple dance badly, but happily, under the gathering dusk.
It’s two more glasses of champagne before Anathema drags Crowley after her out onto the floor (if you could properly call a trodden circle of slightly damp grass a floor). She only manages to keep her hands on him for three songs, before Chris squeezes her way in, shouldering Crowley off to the side for herself.
When Crowley glances back over Aziraphale’s taken up Anathema himself. He can’t help being surprised. He’s actually a very good dancer. All simple but precise steps, perfectly in time, easing naturally around Anathema’s horrific sense of rhythm.
He’s not exactly sure how many songs go by, or how many glasses of champagne follow each of them, but somewhere along the way he realizes there was a familiar hand in his.
Crowley can’t help huffing. “You’re leading?”
“Is that a problem?” Aziraphale asks. He maneuvers him easily from one step to the next. His hand is warm on the small of his back. Present. Comfortable.
“How are you so good at this?” Crowley asks, narrowing his eyes down at him.
“We all have our little talents,” Aziraphale hums. He’s closer than when they started.
Crowley breathes in deeply. He’s close enough that there’s nothing but the sunlight, spring-like smell of him. Or maybe that’s just the daylight easing out of the land, and the life clinging close to the field under their feet. It’s all so similar. It’s hard to tell which is what.
The music doesn’t stop, but it sounds different now. Further off than it had before. He let’s Aziraphale lead. It’s easy. He’s so good at it. He lets his hand curl around his, adjusting, fingers slipping in between his own. His hands are different than he remembers. Crowley’s own look so thin and delicate in comparison. He shifts, running his thumb against his as he imagines it carefully flicking pages, easing under Seti’s chin or behind her ears. He realizes he’s staring, watching their hands knit together. He looks away, but Aziraphale’s much closer when he turns to him again. The hand against his back has become an arm, holding him firm and close. He can feel his chest against his, just. Crowley’s eyes feel heavier suddenly, everything closer, weighted, each movement seems to overwhelm the rest of the world, and for the life of him, he can’t seem to stop looking at his eyes.
“There’s an inn,” Aziraphale says.
“Mm?” Crowley tries. He’s not sure he heard him. Everything’s gone rather blurry on the edges.
Aziraphale just smiles. “Let’s go.”
Crowley smiles back.
He’s too tipsy to drive. Not drunk. Not quite. Just that lovely floaty place where things move a little slower and it seems the easiest thing in the world to smile and not stop. Although, it’s altogether possibly that’s due to more than just champagne.
The road’s winding, but it’s only a short walk to the inn all the same. There’s a few other guests ambling along, meters ahead and meters behind. The day’s faded just as it settled, easy and pleasant, with a soft breeze rustling the grasses and wildflowers on either side on the dirt road. Indigo has seeped into all things, but it’s a clear night and easy enough to see the way.
The music from the wedding is still playing, rolling gently over the fields behind them, through the thick warm of summer air. All the other sounds of summer mingle amongst it, insects chirping and humming, the breeze ruffling the grass, the muffled voices of those ahead and behind.
They don’t speak, foot-steps crunching the dirt road underneath. It’s comfortable, natural. Every once and again their arms brush as they walk. Crowley has his jacket slung over one shoulder. He forgets when that happened, but it feels right against the night air.
The inn is simple, small and old. It’s a stone building, and it has a settled feeling, as though it’s eased into the land after all this time. The windows glow, yellow and welcoming against the dusk. When they enter it smells faintly of peat and old plaster, but there’s open windows, letting the summer push it’s way though, fresh and lively.
There’s no one at the front desk, but just behind it are a number of keys with labels for the guests laid out in a row. He takes the worn metal key with his name. They don’t wait for the receptionist to return.
Second floor. End of the hall. With each step everything between them, each breath, each brush, seems so much sharper and louder, while the rest of the world is hardly noticeable at all.
Crowley stops in front of the egg-white wooden door. He fits the key into the lock. Aziraphale waits, and gently, he rests his head gently against Crowley’s shoulder. It’s a simply gesture, but suddenly all the fogginess of the night and the champagne and all the rest of it seems to clear at once. Crowley’s fingers turn quickly, and the door falls open. He catches Aziraphale’s arm and pulls him in after him.
Aziraphale’s breath goes out of him and Crowley pushes him back against the door, shutting it again behind them. He kisses him fast. This time Aziraphale’s mouth is half open when he reaches it, and it’s obvious now that things are going to go rather quickly. It feels as though that string wrapped around them both has knitted snug and been given one sharp tug, sending them over some ledge. And it is terrifying, terrifying how easily he opens under him, how each huff, each soft sound leaves Crowley’s own breath tighter in his lungs. It’s terrifying how easily Aziraphale’s hands slip around his waist as Crowley drops his jacket on the floor without thinking. It’s terrifying how it’s the furthest thing from hard. As easy as falling. And he must be falling, because everything feels so close, so rushed, with a heavy, persistent anticipation growing in the tight space beneath his lungs.
He kisses almost like he remembers. Before it was clumsy, but eager. It similar, but there’s something new there as well. It’s open now, thoughtless. Utterly thoughtless, as if Aziraphale isn’t aware of himself at all, as if he doesn’t wonder and analyze and concern himself with him actions, he just, let’s it happen. There’s something terribly intoxicating in such a lack of consciousness. Especially when he seems so aware of causing concern or fault at any other time. But not here. Not like this.
Crowley can’t remember the last time someone lost themselves in him like that. He can’t remember the last time he lost himself.
Aziraphale’s hands tighten on his thin hips, pulling him closer. Crowley steps in, his dress shoes making a soft sound on the carpet underfoot. The music is just audible through the window open a few inches back by the bed. It’s dark in the room, but the fairy lights from the patio outside and below shine enough to give everything in the room shades of blue in the blackness.
Crowley pulls back, resting his forehead against Aziraphale’s. He’s falling faster. He knows it. The world’s slipping away again, leaving nothing but the body against the door, the hands on his hips, the taste in his mouth. Spring. And champagne.
He looks down at him. He’s not that much shorter he realizes now. Aziraphale gazes back at him, well, not at him exactly, on him. His gaze is heavy, easing over his visage with something reverent, curious, and thirsty in a way that has Crowley tensing, the warmth behind his chest, sinking, deepening.
Aziraphale let’s out a little laugh, his hand rising up to slip over Crowley’s cheek.
“What?” Crowley asks. His own voice sounds strange.
“I missed you. Quite a bit,” Aziraphale smiles back at him. “Isn’t that the most absurd thing you’ve heard?”
Something tightens behind Crowley’s throat. He wants to say so many things. It suddenly feels as if years and years of words lost and moments squandered crowd up, struggling to find a way out. But nothing finds it’s way free, nothing seems quite right, and all he can seem to manage is to shake his head.
“No,” he says, turning his face into Aziraphale’s open hand. He kisses his palm, sliding his own fingers around his. He kisses his wrist, lips parted. He kisses his knuckles. He lets the pad of his thumb run along his open lip.
“Damn,” Aziraphale swears. He sounds breathless, and when Crowley looks at him, tilts his head just enough, his fingers still laid against his mouth, the flush charging up Aziraphale’s neck is obvious.
Aziraphale’s staring at his mouth, transfixed. He moves his thumb, slowly, carefully. He pushes, just a little deeper, just until his thumb grazes Crowley’s lower teeth. The hand on Crowley’s hips tightens, a few fingers easing tentatively to the edge of his arse.
Crowley’s cock gives a hard pulse in his trousers and there’s no denying that he’s hard now. He suspects he has been for sometime. But there’s an urgency that’s stealing around his limbs, slipping from the thumb against his lips down his throat like some tonic and setting the rest of him into slow, licking flame. He eases his tongue forward, just enough to press warm and soft against Aziraphale’s thumb.
Aziraphale let’s out a curious noise, so soft he almost missed it, but he doesn’t miss it, and somehow that’s the final shove.
Crowley darts forward, catching his mouth again, open and greedy. Aziraphale meets him with a huff, glasses knocking against Crowley’s nose, hand sliding all the way around his arse and tugging him close. Their hips meet as Crowley urges forward and the sudden feeling of Aziraphale, hard as him, right there, so close — Crowley let’s out a soft, lost moan, pulling his mouth from his and easing it down his neck. Aziraphale lets his head fall backwards, hips rolling forward with a steady rhythm. Crowley’s hands tighten, digging into that damned perfect hair even deeper as he lets his teeth drag just enough against the taut line of Aziraphale’s throat. He can’t get any lower, his collar’s too tight. Crowley glances down. The bowtie. The damned bowtie.
He laughs aloud. He can’t help it. And Aziraphale seems to see what he’s getting at and let’s out a laugh himself.
“God it’s so terrible,” Crowley can’t help snorting, his head against Aziraphale’s shoulder, their hips still rolling all on their own.
“It was a bargain. Two pounds,” Aziraphale grins.
“Oh god, please don’t ruin this,” Crowley can’t help grinning back, locking one thumb easily around the damn thing and tugging it free, chucking it down next to his certainly-not-two-pound jacket, crumpled on the floor.
His fingers make quick work of the top few buttons, but Aziraphale’s pushing off the wall, attempting to shrug out of his coat. Crowley shoves it off, badly. It gets stuck around his wrist, but by then Aziraphale’s got a hand around the back of his neck and is kissing him again so he let’s it go. He must have gotten it off himself because soon he has a hand on Crowley’s hip again, and he’s pushing him back, into the room.
Crowley toes out of his shoes, which can be rather awkward when you really really would rather not stop pressing your tongue into someone else’s mouth. He makes an utter mess of it, falling backwards and letting out a shocked yelp, but there’s a mattress under his back, and he catches himself on it. He props himself up on his elbows, trying to peer through the dark and his own lust-fogged mind to get a sense of things when he feels hands on his thighs. There’s a noise like someone’s knees hitting a carpet and then everything stutters and the world ceases to matter.
Crowley falls back against the quilted bedspread with a thick moan, hands sliding up the sides of Aziraphale’s face into his hair with tight knuckles. Aziraphale opens his mouth against the clothed line of him, pushing firm and warm, hands dragging up his thighs. Crowley’s hands realize they could be getting up to far better things and take their own initiative to scramble down to his belt, tugging it open frantically. Aziraphale catches one wrist gently, and it only takes a moment for him to ease the rest of him free. Crowley just as time to catch a breath.
Aziraphale’s mouth finds him and Crowley let’s out an utterly embarrassing whine, long spine arching, hands grinding into the bedspread beside him. It’s so warm and wet and god he can feel himself blushing. It just feels so shockingly wrong in the most blasted perfect way to know that the mouth, clumsily, eagerly working it’s way down him is the same mouth that just a week ago was elegantly apologizing and smiling so quietly as it’s owner pushed his glasses back on his nose.
And hell, thinking about that doesn’t help. He feels his hips give a kick all on their own, making Aziraphale fumble, only to pull back and ease down again with even more focus.
“God—“ He’s not sure if it’s more of a mumble or a gasp, but either way Aziraphale’s hands tighten on his thighs. Well one hand. The other’s not there any longer, it’s— “gOD!” Aziraphale wraps tight around him and everything gets so much more challenging.
Crowley can feel the tension pouring into him, pooling deep and hot and pushing him far far too easily towards the edge. One of his hands locks onto Aziraphale’s shoulder, trying to tug at him with whatever he has left.
Aziraphale eases off of him, hand still stroking messy but persistent. “What is it?” His voice is soft, but there’s something dark underneath it, something tight and rougher than before.
Crowley swallows hard, trying to reel himself back in. He props himself up on one elbow, his other hand hurrying to open the buttons on his shirt. He shakes his head with a wry smile. “You’re too good at that.”
Aziraphale smiles back at him, flushes. “I doubt it.” He twists his grip, adjusting slightly and Crowley blinks hard, mouth falling open on it’s own. “Just— god just—“
“What?” Azirphale adjusts again. Grip tighter.
Crowley groans loudly, head falling back. He can almost hear Aziraphale’s soft smile. He’s teasing him.
Crowley can’t help grinning. “Bastard.”
Aziraphale does it again, twice, hand sliding firmly down with a slightly curl. “It’s alright.”
Crowley falls back again. Helpless. His hips grind up into his hand. “It’s not, God—!“ His words feel rambling on his tongue, caught with swallowed moans and stuttered breathes. “Not enough— I want, christ! I want— I want you, I want to feel you, to know, just, I’ve wanted— it’s not, it’s more. I need- I need you. You. God, please—“
Aziraphale’s hand is off of him instantly. The same hand is behind Crowley’s neck, Aziraphale’s voice swearing something he doesn’t hear. He pulls him up, and then he’s kissing him again.
Crowley’s breathless, so breathless he’s feeling a little light-headed, but he ignores that, kissing him even deeper, biting his lip without thinking. His hands scramble at Aziraphale’s shirt, shucking buttons, snatching at his belt, shoving off those bloody plaid pants.
Aziraphale snatches him suddenly, and to Crowley’s surprise he actually picks him up, dropping him again properly on the bed, his head against the pillows. Crowley tries to make proper sense of things, but all he seems able to process is the fact that he’s somehow ended up in only his open shirt and one damn sock. He leans forward quickly to tug the stupid thing off but suddenly Aziraphale’s in his lap, all skin and warmth and there’s an open mouth on his collar bone and hands spreading his thighs and the blasted sock couldn’t possibly matter any less.
Crowley let’s himself fall back again, the pillows under his back giving him a slightly better angle than before. Aziraphale’s captivated, dedicated with sudden ferocity to his torso, easing his mouth down his collarbone, along his chest, against where his ribs press against his sides.
Crowley swears, struggling for reason, one hand snatching towards the floor and managing to tug his pants into his grasp. He blinks hard, trying to focus as Aziraphale’s hands slip under his back, easing into the muscles there.
Crowley manages it finally, tugging the two small foil packets out of his wallet. “Hey- hey,” he says gently.
Aziraphale looks up, and god, if he hadn’t been half out of his mind over him before…
His hair’s gone to chaos, all curls and mess. He still has his damned glasses on but they’re askew on his nose. He’s flushed, eyes heavy, mouth red from kissing and half open on heavy breath. Crowley can’t wait any longer. He shoves one of the packets at Aziraphale and starts fumbling with the other himself.
“What’s—“ Aziraphale manages, he rips the side open, lubricant oozing out onto his fingers. His face goes impossibly more red. “—Oh.”
Crowley can feel his own cheeks heating up but he doesn’t have time to talk through things. He snatches Aziraphale’s wet hand and slides it between is own legs.
Aziraphale’s cock jumps against his thigh and he takes the hint, easing two fingers hesitantly into him with a huffed breath. Crowley swears. Louder than he should.
Azirphale slides tentatively. “I don’t—“ he starts, words rough and worn in his throat.
Crowley arches his hips slightly. “Just, there, ah!— just do that again, and, and, bend you’re fingers a little—” the groan drags out of him suddenly, long and heavy. Aziraphale’s brow folds with absurd focus, and he does it again, exactly the same way. Crowley swears thickly, hips rolling against his hand, feeling the slick warmth, the increasingly confident strokes andgod he really, really isn’t going to last long like this. He has to focus. Just for a moment. It won’t take long.
He fumbles back for his own packet, tearing it open in his teeth and working the condom out easily. Aziraphale’s watching him, but with a lazy distracted interest, attention flitting between the look on his face and the sight on his hand working him open with persistent strokes.
Crowley gets a hand around him easily and Aziraphale let’s out a soft surprised noise, hips stuttering against him. He eases the condom down, grabbing the other packet off the bedspread and emptying what’s left into his palm, sliding it down Aziraphale instantly with a practiced grip.
Aziraphale can’t seem to help staggering then. He lets out a muffled groan, attention shifting from his hand to his hips that eagerly ease into Crowley’s hand. Crowley swallows. Focusing. He works him, once, twice. Aziraphale’s breath hurries out of him, rushed and eager, one hand sliding onto Crowley’s hip for something to hold to.
Crowley swallows, easing him back. He catches the back of his neck and meets his eye. Aziraphale looks right back at him, eyes that might have seemed nerve-wracked if they weren’t too heavy with lust to care. His cock slides against him.
“Alright?” Aziraphale asks. Because of course he does. Of course he bloody does.
Crowley swears, locking his knees around his thighs and tugging him closer. Aziraphale takes the hint. He eases into him.
Crowley falls back, one gasp fluttering free, hand tight on Aziraphale’s hip, encouraging. Aziraphale pushes deeper. And deeper. A breath punches out of him, hot against Crowley’s throat.
They stay like that for a moment. He’s not sure if their catching their breath or loosing it. Outside there’s still the sound of the wedding, distant, and barely there.
Crowley swallows and with one small motion he arches his hips just right. Aziraphale let’s out a shocked noise. His hips do the rest on their own, easing out and back in. They can’t seem to help doing it again. And again. Crowley let’s the feeling wash over him, overwhelm him. He falls. Hard. And fast. His own hips working, the muscles of his stomach flexing as he brings himself up to meet him.
Aziraphale’s hand catches his over his head, working him as hard as he seems to dare. He tilts slightly, adjusting his angle as he shoves back into him and Crowley’s eyes flutter open, hand snatching painfully tight on Aziraphale’s. “—God!”
Aziraphale huffs, speed increasing, pace going frantic and thoughtless. Crowley grits his teeth. The tension is pooling tight and low, and growing, pressing. He drives his hips up one more time, knocking Aziraphale against just the right spot and suddenly everything’s tightening.
“Fuck—!” Aziraphale swears. Loudly.
That does it. The tight heat drives through him, and Crowley can feel his hips start to stagger as Aziraphale swears again against the suddenly pressure, his own orgasm starting to tug free. Crowley’s lost in it already. His hips jerk and stagger, Aziraphale’s hand white-tight in his. He let’s out one low groan and feels the warmth against his stomach as Aziraphale crashes into him, once, twice, his name falling clumsy out of his lips as he crashes right behind him.
It takes more than a moment to come back to the world. The lights blink just the same outside. The music drifts easily though the window.
Aziraphale kisses his head, hands still shaking as he stands. He must have found the bathroom because when he comes back his hands are warm and still a little wet. Crowley finds it just as easily. When he returns the sheets are pulled back. He slides under them, falling back against the pillows, sex and champagne making his head hold onto a haze.
Aziraphale’s hand finds his, pulling it up as he knits his fingers in between him. He holds it curiously, tilting it back and forth, watching the movement with lazy eyes.
“What?” Crowley asks. His voice sounds a little raw but mostly silky as sleep sneaks in on it.
“Funny,” Aziraphale murmurs.
“Just seems strange. It looks right like this. Funny it went so long without it.”
Crowley smiles. Watching the hands himself. “It’s alright now.”
“Yes. I suppose it is, isn’t it?”
“Red strings,” Crowley says, half into the pillows.
Aziraphale glances over. “What’s that.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Something Redha said. Red strings. Don’t really know what she’s on about.”
Aziraphale smiles that modest and all too clever smile. “It’s a story.”
“What sort of story?”
Aziraphale watches their fingers lazily. “Chinese traditional. A legend, two destined souls connected by a red string that cannot be seen. The string’s always between them, regardless of time or circumstance. Wether it’s your first life or your hundredth. The thread can tangle, but it can never be cut. And it will always bring them together.”
Crowley gazes at their hands with a smile. “Silly.”
“Oh yes,” Aziraphale teases back. He kisses his hand once. “Quite.”
It’s ten in the morning by the time they slide into Crowley’s car and shut the doors behind them. They’ve been up for hours, but the morning stretched with warm sheets and bright sunlight giving everything from the night before a whole new taste. Aziraphale leans against the car door, so relaxed he hardly seems to tense at all as Crowley grips the country corners, wheeling the Rolls back towards the weekend traffic of London.
He’s happy. Stupidly happy. Aziraphale’s hand finds his on the gear shift and he turns his palm, letting Aziraphale drag his fingers between his. Rather absurd, how quickly, how easily it seemed that their lives just fit together. They had hardly spoken about what would come next but it didn’t seem necessary. Everything seemed as though it would just fold around them. Exactly as it was meant to.
By the time they pulled up the the shops Aziraphale’s hand has found his thigh.
“I should check in on the shop,” Aziraphale says, lazily watching his own thumb trace the inseam of Crowley’s trousers.
Crowley switches off the ignition. “Mmm.”
“Care to join me?” Aziraphale leads.
Crowley sighs. “Oh, I suppose.”
Aziraphale’s smile widens.
They step out onto the sidewalk, too distracted by each other to notice until they’re at the door that there’s someone there already.
Sitting against the door is a young girl, maybe eleven or twelve years old, her brown hair tied into a simple braid behind her head. She looks up as soon as they arrive, hurrying to her feet. “Hello!”
“Hello,” Aziraphale answers, voice gentle and concerned. “Waiting for the shop to open? I’m afraid I have to gather a few things first—“
“No, no,” she says quickly, fumbling in the pocket of her jeans, “I saw this.” She pulls out a printed paper. ‘Found Cat’ reads in in crisp letters across the top. Crowley recognizes it. Aziraphale put them up weeks ago.
“That’s my cat,” she says. “Did you find her?”
Azirphale and Crowley stare.
Crowley’s the first to recover. “Well, yes.”
“Oh god!” The girl looks as though she might cry, small hands tight on the paper. “Could I… could I see her? I know it might not be her. Da said that with the photo I couldn’t get my hopes up, that it might be another cat, and lots of cats go missing, I know, but could I see, just to check, just to be sure?”
Aziraphale’s already hurrying with the lock. “Of course, of course dear, goodness me.”
The door falls open and they all stumble in together. Aziraphale finds a light switch Crowley didn’t know existed on the wall and flips it on. “She must be in here somewhere.”
There’s a soft sound from the desk. The girl hurries forward.
The cat is lying on the desk, looking just about as healthy any other. You’d never know looking at her what had come before. As soon as she sees the young girl her ears perk up and she stands, giving a low long stretch before sitting up properly, eyeing her expectantly as the girl hurries towards the desk.
“Mitten?” the girl exclaims hesitantly. She reaches out and the cat ducks under her hand, easing into her touch. “Oh my god, it is you!”
Crowley and Aziraphale watch in shock as the girl scoops the cat off the counter, holding her close. When she turns back to them her eyes are sparkling with tears. “I can’t believe it, you really found her!”
Crowley tries to focus. He thinks he hears Aziraphale sniff next to him.
“What happened?” she asks anxiously.
Crowley clears his throat. “Well, she, um. She was hit. By a car. Out on the street.”
The girl’s hand jumps to her mouth.
“It’s alright,” Aziraphale hurries, “you can see she’s fine. We took he right to the veterinarian. She’s had some surgery, and she has some medicine now that I can give you. She’s still a little delicate.”
The girl instantly shifts her grip to something less firm, but the cat couldn’t seem to care less.
“You saved her?” she asks.
“I don’t know if would say that,” Crowley insists.
“You did though, you saved her!”
“We’re just glad she’s alright.”
“I just…” the girl holds onto the cat tightly, staring up at both of them. “Thank you. Thank you so, so much.”
Crowley blinks firmly. “It’s nothing. Really. I’m just happy you found her.”
“I know, I know, um,” she says, “would it be alright if I came back for that medicine in a little while? I want to get her home right away. Da won’t believe it and James has been asking about her every day. Do you think she’ll be alright?”
“Oh yes,” Aziraphale manages, “yes, certainly.”
“Great! Oh god, thank you, thank you!” she hurries towards the door, car tight in her arms. “Thank you so much!”
“Don’t forget to come back,” Crowley calls after her.
“I won’t, I won’t, really soon, I promise. I can’t wait to get you home!” she says to the cat, “I’ll be back so soon!”
And with that she’s gone.
Crowley gazes at the empty door. “Well.”
“Well,” Aziraphale agrees.
It’s quite for another moment.
“Mittens?” Crowley asks.
“Goodness, I’m glad it wasn’t just me!”
“She doesn’t even have mittens.”
“Seti’s far better I think.”
“Well, thank you for saying so, I can’t say of course, she’s the young girl’s and that’s what matters, but I did like it.”
It’s quite for another moment. Aziraphale sighs and turns to the desk, giving it a little wipe. “It’s going to be rather strange without her isn’t it?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Crowley says, stepping up behind him.
“Well, there’s plenty of cats. I suppose we could always get another one.”
Aziraphale looks at him, eyes wide for a moment before they smile. The ‘we’ hangs in the air between them, calm and comfortable.
“Yes,” he says finally, “yes, I suppose we could.”
Crowley leans against the counter, closer than before. “Although we’d have to find a new name I think.”
“Probably for the best.”
“You could find one again.”
“Oh no, it would be your turn.”
Crowley smiles. His hand has found his again. “I’m afraid I’m not very good with names. Probably just name it after someone. Anathema maybe. She’s done us more favors than I think we’re worth.”
Aziraphale smiles back. “I don’t think she’d find it flattering.”
Crowley grins. “Perfect.”