It was known throughout the city that Dante’s Oven was the very best bakery this side of London.
It could additionally be argued that in order to actually reach the bakery one most certainly did have to transverse the nine circles of Hell, if one took London traffic into account.
Customers came from far and wide to sample the bakery's wares, partaking in freshly-made breads, elaborate cakes, lavish pies, and the most decadently sinful pastries within ten miles of Soho. To add to the allure and sense of exclusiveness, the bakery only produced a set amount of goods each day—once they were out, they were out, and tough shit to anyone who had been waiting in line.
To the unassuming eye, the bakery was a seamless operation, the quirky-yet-personable Anathema Device functioning as the face of the shop while she managed the register and handled clients with an iron fist, ensuring that her boyfriend Newt didn’t get out of hand as he wrapped and packaged the day’s selections and orders. She kept things flowing smoothly up front and was singlehandedly responsible for the recent spike in orders Dantes had been experiencing. The shop itself was cheerily decorated, if rather unashamedly modernist in its design, and boasted a number of small tables where the more hedonistic patrons could sit and sample their wares.
Of course, the facade of organization and overall tranquility was only maintained by the doubly-thick door that separated the front shop from the ovens.
In the back, chaos reigned, cheerfully championed by one Anthony J. Crowley, owner and head 1 baker. New patrons always questioned the establishment’s name, incorrectly presuming the owner to be the bakery’s namesake—Crowley simply rolled his eyes behind their darkened frames and allowed his staff to launch into their standard spiel. He certainly couldn’t be bothered if the imbeciles gracing his establishment had an underwhelming background in classic literature. Not that he himself had much of an appreciation for it himself--oh, he'd read the classics back in the day, but ask him now and no, he most certainly didn't read.
No, Crowley kept to his ovens and mixing bowls, staggering into the bakery’s back room somewhere between the hours of two and four every morning, the previous day’s events typically determining whether he was simply “staying up late” or “coming in early”. The previous label was typically accompanied by a bottle of whatever alcohol tickled his fancy at the time and punctuated his continued reign as the only individual this side of the English Channel who could mass-produce a day’s worth of baked goods while completely blitzed.
Those particular mornings—or nights, rather—had lately grown to be rare occurrences, and had recently become all but extinct as the bakery’s reputation grew well beyond its original sphere of influence and their order load more than tripled. Dante’s Oven had surpassed Crowley’s wildest expectations, and now he was drowning in orders, catering requests, and a constant, unrelenting demand from the general passerby.
It was hell.
But, no one could say that hell didn't pay.
He had started out just making bread—slaving over a mixing bowl, his baker’s table, and the ovens where where he felt most at home—but as he delved further into it one thing followed the next and he suddenly found himself presiding over a small empire of baked goods and stretched ten different ways in order to ensure consistent production yields.
Now, more often than not, Crowley swaggered in after a solid few—or at least one or two—hours of sleep at his minimalist Mayfair flat a few blocks west. He lived close enough to the bakery that he could walk—indeed, he could have converted the upstairs apartment into a living space for himself, rather than filling it with the veritable Eden of plant life it currently housed—but instead insisted on driving his Bentley each and every day. The car was his pride and joy, sleek, black, and many decades out of production; there was exactly one parking spot available in front of the bakery, and Crowley’s early hours ensured that his precious Bentley always maintained its spot front and center.
His plants, too, occupied a deal of his time—somewhere along the way he had decided it was quite therapeutic to disappear upstairs for a few moments at a time to water them and ‘encourage’ them to grow. Given his rather gruff temperament, this predicability devolved into a one-sided shouting match with all sorts of philodendrons, ficuses, and the rest of his photosynthesizing collection. He would deny it until blue in the face, but he was actually quite fond of his plants, and in turn they maintained a level of growth and vascular health the likes of which most enthusiasts could only dream.
At present, however, Crowley sat at a tall stool at one of the counters not covered in decorating paraphernalia and flour, squinting at a two-tier cake iced in a garish magenta buttercream. “Who in the seven hells took this order?” he asked the world at large, long fingers steady as he smoothed the icing along the side of the cake. “Magenta buttercream, lime green shell border, ‘Happy birthday Tootsie’—“ he gagged, face contorting into a dramatic pained expression, and twirled the stand to finish off the buttercream. “We have got to start screening our customers better.”
“If I let you take orders,” Anathema snarked, catching the end of his sentence as she stuck her head through the door, “we would never have any.” Her eyes narrowed, taking in the wave of chaos that followed Crowley’s general path through the room. It started by the door, Crowley’s dark coat discarded on the chair in his half-open office adjacent to the emergency exit that doubled as his early-morning entrance, and radiated outward to incorporate massive floor mixer half-filled with flour, a water dispenser emitting a series of sad, neglected beeps, two masses of dough creeping further and further across the scarred and pitted baker’s table, and what appeared to be a veritable rainbow of icing (or an imploded unicorn, Anathema could never quite be certain) smeared across Crowley’s once-white apron. 2
Anathema pinched the bridge of her nose. “After you finish that cake,” she said pointedly, “we’re out of Italian bread, and production for the day allows for at least another ten loaves.” She flicked her gaze to the swelling mass of dough on the table, the edges bursting from the seams of plastic that currently covered it. “And judging from the looks of it, it’s about ready to bake itself if you don’t cut it now.”
Crowley snarled at her, eyes flashing even though he knew she could not see them. “I know what I’m doing,” he snapped.
“Yeah? Then why did you just write ‘Happy Birthday ‘Tootie’’ on that cake?”
Swearing viciously, Crowley slid a knife under the offending letters and removed the writing, flicking the offending icing at Anathema in retaliation. “Fuck, that’s the second time this week.”
His…friend?--he couldn’t quite just call her his employee, she had been keeping him from completely losing his shit far too often for that to be the extent of their relationship--slipped completely into the kitchen and scooped up the finished cake, sliding it expertly into a box and slapping the order form on top. “You need help, Anthony,” she said, looking down over the box to meet her boss’s shaded eyes. “Help in the back, I mean.”
Crowley’s protest died on his lips as a wave of exhaustion overtook him, and he sagged back against the wall, idly tipping his stool back on two tottering legs and waving one black-booted foot in the air. “Yeah,” he agreed, resigned, “I do.
“You have one hell of an enterprise here,” Anathema said, waving a vague hand in the air, “and Newt and I and those..other two temps you hired on...have it handled up front, but honestly, one man cannot bake all of the bread and pastries and pies and cookies and whatever else you come up with in one day and then turn around and decorate the bastards too. Jesus, you had two wedding cakes yesterday on top of everything else, and I know you didn’t even go home last night.” She cut off his protest with a pointed look at the cluster of empty wine bottles peering out from his open office door, raising one immaculately-groomed eyebrow. “We’ve been saying it for months, but you have to hear me—hire a decorator. You hate it anyway, and you know it. You’re good at it, but you despise it.”
This was most certainly true. Crowley prided himself on being a jack of all trades, a master of any and all baking skills—but his heart lay with his bread and his baking. He loved to make the cakes, but could care less about making them “pretty”. He only took on that skillset as a necessity, and despised every moment of it. The two wedding cakes the day before had been a veritable hell, his only saving grace the now-empty bottle of Scotch hiding under his decorator’s table to avoid Anathema’s discerning gaze.
“But they’re all stuck-up, pretentious divas,” he whined, running a hand through his shock of red hair and grimacing. “I’m enough of a bastard on my own, let alone if I have to put up with some self-serving prima donna trying to work herself—or himself—up the professional ladder until they can start their own business and string me up to hang.”
Anathema tutted. “This is why you can’t get along with people,” she informed him, gathering the cake box and holding it aloft. “You don’t give anyone a chance. Put out an advert and see where it gets you—it’s your bakery, you get to choose which poor sod you actually hire. I can guarantee they’ll be putting up with you as much as you will be them.” She waggled her eyebrows. “I can always hex them if they turn out to be awful.”3
This was how Crowley found himself, not four days later, faced with a motley crew of prospective decorators and nursing a terrible headache4
Interviews one and two passed without much incident, the first candidate passable at best, the second not even that. They could barely mix colors, had no idea how to make any flowers other than roses, and the second could not even write in script.
Crowley sent them off as politely as he could—meaning, naturally, that they both left in tears, fleeing through the shop and not even stopping to collect their belongings.
When Anathema sent the third potential hire to the back, Crowley took one look at her and shook his head. “No,” he snapped. The girl—a red-haired, dark-eyed bombshell with a rather obvious “come hither” air—huffed, turned up her nose, and stomped out without speaking a word.
“This is ridiculous,” Crowley muttered, burying his face in his hands. He knew he was being unnecessarily picky, but as it was his business5 he felt it was rather merited. He couldn't afford to mess it all up--but he also couldn't afford to not hire anyone. "What a fucking mess," he groaned into his palms.
A bespectacled face slid into the gap of the open door. “You alright back here, sir?” Newt was infinitely more timid—and therefore almost uncannily more polite—than his girlfriend, and was rather in awe of his dynamic, exhaustingly tempestuous employer. “We have one more for you.”
“Only one?” Crowley asked, restoring himself to some semblance of attentiveness and arching an eyebrow. “I had it on good authority from your girlfriend that they were ‘lining up down the block’.
“They were,” Newt countered, cocking his head, “until they saw the first two run out crying and the third stomp out basically spitting fire.”
Crowley sighed, wrapping his long arms around his lean torso and resting his head against the baker’s table for a moment. “Ah, they would, that.” He breathed out and then inhaled, resetting himself once more. “Very well,” he said, popping back up into his typical slanted slouch, waving a regal hand, “send in the last one.” Closing his eyes, he hummed a tuneless melody that somehow managed to morph into a rather maudlin rendition of “Under Pressure”.
Some moments passed, long enough that Crowley was quite seriously beginning to think that his final candidate had also turned tail and run, when a hesitant cough drew him out of his retreat. He jolt back to awareness, eyes flying open and spine snapping into place, ramrod straight, mouth parted in a startled ‘o’ of surprise. “Bless it, knock next time!” he swore, curling a hand into a fist as he attempted to regain his typically unshaken composure. He ran his other hand through his hair and peered at the interloper from behind his glasses, eyes sweeping up and down in a silent, thorough assessment.
The newcomer stared back at him with an awkward smile, hand half-raised in a hesitant wave. He was somewhere just shy of middle age and of average height, although a few inches shorter than Crowley’s six-foot-plus some. His build was slightly stocky, but comfortable—all round curves where Crowley was hard, lean angles—and he sported a shock of flyaway, white-blonde hair, a dress sense akin to someone’s grandfather from the bleeding fifties, and a tentative air matched with a pair of brilliant blue eyes.
“Erm, hello,” the other man began hedgingly, shifting from foot to foot under the hard scrutiny of Crowley’s obvious stare. “I’m here to interview for your decorator position?” His lips curved into a genuine smile, his entire face suffused with a sense of pure friendliness that was all but impossible to ignore, and held out his hand. “I’m Aziraphale—horribly incongruous name, but my parents were bible nuts so there you are.”
And Crowley, mumbling an appropriate reply and introduction, took the proffered hand—soft, manicured, slightly sweaty, and fitting perfectly within his—swore violently in his head as he met those blue, blue eyes, knowing full and well that if this man could decorate even a whit he was going to hire him. Mind distant, he led Aziraphale to the decorator’s table and set him about a task, stepping back to watch the other man work, noting the precision in his grip as he held the icing bag, the neat, quick strokes of his spatula against the buttercream as he smoothed the base coat of icing across a cake, the veritable army of roses, hydrangeas, mums, and damn it all, was that a lily?
Crowley crossed his arms, eyes narrowed, and kept silent vigil as Aziraphale calmly and quietly took every task set before him and excelled.
Finally, he turned to Crowley, absently biting his lower lip and twisting his hands together. “I hope you find that satisfactory, dear boy,” he said, standing and sliding the stool back under the counter. “I really would love the opportunity to decorate for you.” And then he smiled, that genuine, heartfelt, brilliant smile that Crowley had only seen once and yet already craved more than the most decadent bottle of wine.
In that moment, Crowley knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Aziraphale was hired.
And, more than that, he knew that he was well and truly fucked.
2The apron was the only light aspect of the baker’s attire—he insisted, much to his dry cleaner’s chagrin—on wearing all black, all the time, regardless of the amount of flour and color in his daily forecast.
3Anathema fancied herself somewhat of an amateur occultist (“I am not a witch!”), and had her own shop that she manned at strange hours of the night and her two days off. Of course, her schedule at the bakery meant that her available days varied, so her sales were based almost entirely on her online page and home visits. She was a reliable worker and someone Crowley respected—and that was a number he could effectively count on one hand.
4and without the added joy of having partaken in any alcohol to acquire it
5 and really, his life, but he felt rather pathetic for admitting he had next to nothing beyond this little cluttered kitchen