Chapter 1: Prologue: In the Beginning
Mr. A. Aziraphale was a man of an indistinguishable age who lived at 7 Venere Drive in a tidy, picturesque house the color of clotted cream.
He was often asked what the ‘A.’ stood for. He’d reply with a smile and tell the questioner to not worry their dear head over the matter, and to call him Aziraphale, please and thank you.
Aziraphale worked at a rare book shoppe in Primum Mobile Square, smack dab in the center of town. His shop was sandwiched between a patissier and a tattoo parlor, the latter of which was on the verge of going out of business. The patissier was funded almost entirely by Aziraphale’s daily purchases.
The thing about Aziraphale was his schedule. And the thing about his schedule was that it never changed. Every morning, Aziraphale took a promenade to the bus stop near his home. He arrived at Primum Mobile Square at a little under a quarter past nine. The book shoppe opened at exactly ten, and it closed at exactly six. Dinner was eaten late, usually at one of the many restaurants crowding the waterfront east of the square. His day ended, just as it began, at the bus stop.
Now, many would be inclined to call such an itinerary ‘dull,’ ‘decidedly unposh,’ and a myriad of other negative things, but such assumptions are equal parts rude and wrong. Aziraphale was quite content with his days. This was his ideal life, and he had worked hard to get there.
It was unfortunate that Aziraphale’s carefully crafted life would come crashing down so easily. This was due to Venere Drive’s newest arrival: Mr. Anthony J. Crowley.
Crowley had moved into 9 Venere Drive a day ago and promptly had his house painted the color of black vomit. When confronted by the head of the neighborhood watch, Crowley simply said that any shade that could be called ‘off-white’ was an abomination to humanity, and he’d be damned before he was caught dead in a house the color of such.
Besides his crass taste in language and landscaping, Crowley was a man of mystery to the residents of Venere Drive. No one knew anything about him. No one knew that Crowley preferred it that way either. He wanted nothing to do with his prim, strait-laced neighbors, with their judge-y attitudes and holier-than-thou glares.
Crowley’s desire, of course, was star-crossed, and the blame was his. If only he hadn’t attempted to be a good neighbor…
Chapter 2: A Dark and Stormy Morning (Or a Deluge, if you’re feeling posh)
First meeting. Looks to be the beginning of a tumultuous friendship.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Aziraphale squinted through the downpour. “Come again?”
The man in the car let loose a massive sigh. His body seemed to sag with the weight of his exasperation. “I said, would you like a ride?”
“Oh.” Aziraphale blinked. Then he smiled, blinking raindrops from his eyelashes. “Oh, why, that’s so kind of you. I would quite like a ride. Thank you.” He clambered into the car.
The man, whose name was Crowley, hissed under his breath, eyeing the wet patch forming on the passenger seat. Blasted deluge. Blasted neighbor looking so pathetic at the bus stop.
“Where to?” Crowley said grudgingly, glaring straight forward. No need for eye contact so early in the morning. Not before he had some sort of caffeine coursing through his bloodstream.
“Primum Mobile Square, if you don’t mind. Eastside.” Aziraphale clasped his hands together. “Thank you, really. I don’t know how much longer I would have waited—”
“Next bus comes at nine fifty. You would have waited almost an hour. Don’t you know any better?” Behind his tinted sunglasses, Crowley rolled his eyes.
Aziraphale chose to look out the window instead of responding. He concentrated on two drops of rain making their way down the glass—which one would make it first, he wondered idly.
“Well? Do you know any better?”
Aziraphale huffed. “I do, actually. I usually take the eight fifty bus, but my neighbor was blasting his music the entire night. I had trouble sleeping. My alarm didn’t do a spot of good.”
Crowley tried his best to frown. “How awful. Sounds horribly rude, that neighbor.”
“Yes, I know—hold on just a tick.” Aziraphale inspected the interior of the car. Due to the rainstorm, he hadn’t been able to get a good look at the car, but now he had the faintest feeling of déjà vu. “What sort of car is this?”
“Why do you ask?”
“It’s a Bentley, isn’t it?”
“Dunno.” Crowley shrugged, but a grin sliced across his face. “Couldn’t be bothered to know.”
But Aziraphale recognized the car now. It had been parked on the driveway next door to him for the past three days. “It’s you! You’re my neighbor!”
Crowley arranged his expression into one of proper indignation. “That horribly rude chap? Nah, not me. I’ve offered you a ride, haven’t I?”
“You have, and I know you’re him,” Aziraphale declared.
In all honesty, he was shocked. This was his new neighbor? Aziraphale had never seen anything like him—the man was all hard lines and angles, with a shock of red hair and cheekbones that could slice paper.
Silence took over the car. Rain fell in sheets on the roof. The clouds grew more swollen, and the sky darkened as the Bentley approached Primum Mobile Square. At last, Crowley parked his car at the curb. He looked expectedly at Aziraphale.
Aziraphale nodded. “Alright, well, thank you so much for the ride. I—”
“Oh, stop thanking me and get on with it.”
“Right.” Aziraphale opened the door, and he stepped into the downpour. “Well, tickety-boo to the—”
Crowley reached over the passenger seat, yanked the door shut, and peeled away from the curb.
“—the rest of your day,” Aziraphale finished, watching him go. “How rude. I don’t even know his name.” Then, because the rain was drenching his overcoat, he turned to walk to the book shoppe. He didn’t have to go far. The shoppe was right in front of him.
“Finally, a spot of luck.”
The bookshoppe Aziraphale worked at was called, The Book and the Sword. It wasn’t seeing much business on this particular day. Books and water don't often mix, and when they do, it is usually because some poor, literature-obsessed chap has dropped his copy of Pride and Prejudice in the bubble bath yet again.
On an entirely unrelated note, Aziraphale had bought a new set of Jane Austen novels last week.
Due to the lack of customers, Aziraphale had abandoned his post behind the register. Instead, he chose to lose himself in the confines of the shoppe. He was engrossed in reorganizing the theatre selection when a tintinnabulation chimed throughout the store. The door’s bell. Someone had arrived.
“I’ll be with you in just a tick!” Aziraphale called, struggling with an armful of paperbacks. The load proved to be too much for him. One of the paperbacks escaped from his grip and toppled to the floor.
A pale hand shot out and snatched the book before its pages brushed the ground. “You dropped this,” proclaimed Crowley, offering the paperback to Aziraphale.
“Oh, it’s you.” Aziraphale shifted his stack and accepted the book. “Thank you,” he said primly.
“Can I help you?” Aziraphale queried, setting the load of books onto a cart. He faced the other man, turning his back to the shelves.
“Nah. I’m looking for…” Crowley stepped forward until he and Aziraphale were toe to toe. He briefly met Aziraphale’s eyes, then reached over his head and plucked a book from its spot. “... this one.”
“You could have asked me to move,” huffed Aziraphale, stepping to the side. “What book is it anyway?”
Crowley flipped the book over so he could read its spine. “Much Ado About Nothing. I do love his comedies.”
“I prefer Shakspeare’s tragedies.” Aziraphale picked up his stack of paperbacks and began to walk the length of the shelf, returning them to their respective spots.
Crowley followed Aziraphale. He snagged another book, opened it, read scarcely three words, then snapped it shut and put it back on the shelf.
“Not to your liking?” Aziraphale said dryly, glancing over his shoulder.
“More Shakespeare.” Crowley wrinkled his nose. “As I said, I much prefer his comedies.”
“His tragedies are works of art.”
“You must be a Romeo and Juliet fan.”
“The ending is so sad,” Aziraphale sighed, clutching a book to his chest. “When Juliet—”
Crowley gave Aziraphale a look. “Spoilers,” he warned, wagging a finger.
“Everyone knows the ending to Romeo and Juliet.”
“I don’t,” insisted Crowley. “Although, I have seen 'Gnomeo and Juliet,' but—”
“‘Gnomeo and Juliet?’” Aziraphale was facing him now, properly scandalized.
“Yeah, you see—they’re all gnomes. A couple of them get smashed—”
“Yes, smashed. Do try to keep up.”
Aziraphale tapped a finger to his lips, his brow furrowed in thought. “I’ve seen almost every adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. I’ve never heard of one with gnomes.”
“It’s a classic. There’s a plastic flamingo and everything.”
Aziraphale hummed in response.
Crowley resumed poking around the shelves while Aziraphale went back to reorganizing the books. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that, before Aziraphale slotted a book in place, he ran a finger down each spine, double-checking the title with care.
“If I might ask,” Aziraphale said, picking up the next book, “why are you here?”
“I’m new, am I not? And I happened to be in the area, thanks to you, and I decided to have a look around. Saw this shop, and I thought to myself—why not have a mosey in there to see what sort of ineffectual chap works here? And I was right.”
“Ineffectual chap?” Aziraphale slid a book in place harder than was necessary. It slammed into the wood backing, causing the entire shelf to shudder. “You came here to insult me?”
Crowley stepped back. His eyes seemed to widen behind his sunglasses. “Wha—no, I—”
“If you’re not here to browse the selections, then you may leave.” Aziraphale’s voice had adopted a harsh tone. Vitriolic.
“Look, that’s not what I meant.”
“Here—” Crowley tried the first thing that came to mind. “Let me take you to lunch? One neighbor to another?”
“Lunch?” Aziraphale paused. He dared to steal a glance at the other man, albeit one of suspicion.
“Lunch,” Crowley confirmed. “My treat.”
When all was said and done, the two were seated at a restaurant called The Fig Tree. It was located across the street from the book shoppe, and the two had been forced to dash through the rain to get there. Despite Aziraphale’s assurances that he had eaten at The Fig Tree numerous times, he had been staring at the menu for the past twenty minutes in complete silence.
Crowley tapped a finger on the table. Aziraphale remained engrossed in the menu. How hard could it be to choose among five entrées?
At last, Aziraphale set down the menu. As if summoned by the action, a waitress hurried over. “Good afternoon, sirs.”
Aziraphale smiled at the waitress, his eyes crinkling. “Oh, hello, Deirdre. A delight to see you. How have you been?”
Deirdre returned the expression in kind, slipping a pen and pad from her apron. “I’m good. My son just turned eleven. We had a celebration the other day, with cake and the whole shebang.”
“Adam, is it?” At the waitress’ nod, Aziraphale continued. “Well, you simply must wish him a happy birthday from me.”
“I will.” Deirdre clicked the pen and posed it on the surface of the pad. “Now. What can I get for you today?”
“Ah, yes.” Aziraphale glanced at the menu. “I will have the mussel soup, Italian style, and a medley of greens with your house dressing.”
“And to drink?”
“I will take a glass of your finest white wine. Sauvignon de Touraine, if you have it.”
“A fine choice.” The waitress turned to Crowley. “What will you have, sir?”
“Chicken strips,” said Crowley.
All credit to Dierdre, she didn’t miss a beat. “The chicken breasts? They are lightly coated in Italian breadcrumbs and parmesan, then pan-fried in grapeseed oil and served with a puree of tomato-based sauce.”
Crowley waved a hand. “Yes. That.”
“And to drink?”
“Any wine that’s not white. Or rosé.”
“How about Nero d'Avola?”
“Oui,” enunciated Crowley.
“The wine is Italian,” said Aziraphale. He handed Deirdre the menus, and she strolled off to the kitchen to place their orders.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Crowley turned to Aziraphale. “Tell me—do you know every waiter on a first name basis?”
“Most of them.” At Crowley’s dubious look, Aziraphale sighed. “I rather dislike cooking. And the wait. I much prefer to eat out.” He frowned.
“I am just now realizing that I don’t know your name.”
“Shame,” drawled Crowley, taking a swig from his water glass. He unbuttoned his jacket and lounged in his seat as if he owned the restaurant.
“Must I spell it out for you? What is your name?”
“Crowley,” said Crowley.
“Nice to meet you, Crowley. I am Aziraphale, by the way.”
A waiter arrived with their respective wines, and once his glass had been filled, Crowley raised it to Aziraphale. “Charmed.”
The two lapsed into silence for a moment. The sound of silverware clinking was faint in the background. The restaurant was well-lit, though grey light streamed through the rain-drop streaked windows.
They spoke at the same time.
“Tell me, Aziraphale—”
“Crowley, why is—”
Crowley paused. “You first.”
“Alright.” Aziraphale shifted in his seat, leaning a bit closer over the table. “I must know. Why did you have your house painted black?”
“Same question to you. Why do you have your house painted the color of spoiled milk?”
Aziraphale placed a hand on his chest. “It’s a shade of white! And it’s not spoiled milk. It’s clotted cream.”
“Clotted cream, eggshell, spoiled milk. None of them are white. There’s only one shade of white.”
Aziraphale frowned. “Now, that’s where you are wrong. There are many shades of each color. You see—”
Before he could launch into a lecture on color theory, the food arrived, and Aziraphale became thoroughly distracted. “This looks scrumptious,” he said, smoothing his napkin on his lap. Steam wafted from his mussel soup. He leaned over and inhaled, his eyes fluttering shut.
“These are not chicken strips.”
Aziraphale opened his eyes to glance at the other man’s plate. A ring of breaded chicken breasts was artfully arranged around a steaming bowl of red sauce, sprinkled lightly with parmesan cheese. A single basil leaf rested atop the entire display. Crowley poked the garnish with his fork.
“Do you reckon they’ve got fries here?” he wondered aloud.
Aziraphale dabbed his lips with his napkin. “They do have these delightful potato wedges. Baked with thyme, cracked black pepper, and—”
“No, I mean fries. Normal fries.”
“‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’” Aziraphale quipped.
Knife and fork in hand, Crowley looked at Aziraphale. He sneered. “Don’t quote Shakespeare at me.”
“I thought you’ve never read Romeo and Juliet.”
“I said, I didn’t know how it ended. There’s a difference.”
Aziraphale hummed doubtfully, turning back to his soup. The mussels were fresh, judging by their mild ocean taste, and the peperoncino gave the soup the slightest kick. All in all, he was quite chuffed to enjoy such a delightful meal.
Crowley didn’t admit it, but the restaurant's version of chicken strips was good. A rose by any other name indeed.
Some time later, over tiramisu and espresso, Aziraphale posed a question. He was surprised he hadn’t thought to ask it before. “Why did you move to Venere Drive?”
“Work. Cheapest place I could get, nearest to where I need to be.” Crowley took a gulp of his espresso. “Want my tiramisu?”
“Oh, I really shouldn’t—” But Crowley was already sliding his plate over to Aziraphale. He took one look at the dessert’s coffee-dusted surface and quivering cream, and he knew he couldn’t refuse. “Why, thank you.”
“Not a fan of sweet things, me.” Crowley wrinkled his nose. “Can’t even eat apples.”
“Then why,” wondered Aziraphale, raising a fork to his lips, “did you order it?”
Crowley ignored the question. Instead, he raised his finger and called, “Oi, can we get a garçon over here, s’il vous plaît?”
“This is an Italian restaurant.”
“Italian, French. Similar enough. And look—it did the trick.” He jerked his head at the approaching waitress. It was Deirdre.
“Are you ready for the bill, gentlemen? Will there be separate checks?”
“No,” said Crowley.
“Yes,” said Aziraphale, at precisely the same time.
They looked at each other.
“I couldn’t ask you to—”
“I said it was my treat, so let me—”
“Look, I haven’t the time to argue.” Aziraphale gasped. He glanced at his watch. “Time! Oh, heavens. It’s half-past one. That’s twice in one day I’ve been late!” Twin spots of red appeared on his cheeks. He ignored Crowley’s protests and set a pile of bills on the table.
“Listen here, I—”
Aziraphale stood, cutting the other man off. “I must be going. Thank you for lunch.” He paused to give Crowley a warm smile. “Oh, and, welcome to the neighborhood, my dear boy.”
With that, he strode out of the restaurant.
“Looks like it was his treat,” said Deirdre, counting the bills. It was exactly enough to pay for their two meals, plus a generous 22% tip. “What a kind man. Keeps half the restaurants in this town in business, he does.”
She walked away before Crowley could reply.
Crowley glared at his espresso cup, a scowl twisting across his lips. He kicked the base of the table. He didn’t know exactly what he was unhappy about, but he was unhappy, and that was that.
He glanced to the window. He could see nothing but torrents of rain pushing against the glass.
The deluge was unlikely to dwindle any time soon.
The shenanigans shall begin in Chapter Two. A certain neighbor by the name of Gabriel becomes fed-up with Crowley's behavior…
Thank you for reading. : ) Please comment!