Cigarette smoke drifts into Aziraphale’s view. The strings of a double bass hum deeply throughout the club. He gazes at the inch of whisky in his crystal tumbler and listens, only vaguely.
“We go every year,” Dodders announces cheerily. “Devon is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous in the Summer, Bingy. But last year, only Lottie came with me, and it was frightfully boring, so please please please do join us this time.”
“That isn’t all that encouraging, old chap. If you want us to come with you, you’ll have to promise us fun and misbehaviour.”
“I can only promise that if we all go- the more the merrier!”
Aziraphale is sat in a worn, green leather chair by an unlit fireplace, watching the amber liquid in his tumbler swirl about. His leg bounces idly where it’s crossed over the other. The Lansdowne gentleman’s club tends to be at its busiest this time of night; and full of its silliest men. Currently, two of them bend over a snooker table and knock all the balls into the holes out of order, ignoring the rules of the game entirely. Opposite Aziraphale, the notoriously daft Xenophon Smith is reclined in his own armchair, so far slouched he’s almost prone, chin pressed against his chest and eyes falling half-closed drunkenly. Sitting on the floor is Julian, who is staring at a row of cards, having started a game of solitaire and perhaps forgotten how to play.
These are the people that Aziraphale has found himself whiling away the time with.
“Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. If there’s more than one of us, that is. So the girls are going, too?”
“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know, Bingy, you old dog!”
“Bugger off, Dodders. Lottie’s your bird, and Tilly doesn’t like me.”
“Which Tilly?” Xenophon says, voice distorted since his neck has been squished like an accordion by the angle he’s sitting in.
“Tilly Topping, obviously,” Bingy barks. “Tilly Copperthwait wouldn’t be seen dead with us in Devon, and neither would Tilly Sommerhead-Smithe.”
“Why do we know so many Tilly’s,” Xenophon moans.
Julian, who’s sandy-blond head is still bent over a spread of cards, snorts in agreement.
Aziraphale can barely keep track of this conversation, let alone which Tilly is which.
“I think Tilly Copperthwait does like you, actually, Bingy.”
“No she doesn’t. She’s American- if she liked me, she’d have said so by now. Americans are direct like that.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” Dodders, the tallest of the lot and one of the more air-headed, whacks his snooker cue against the table like a horse whip and calls out, unnecessarily loudly, “What about you, Xeno? Be a good sport and come to Devon?”
“Only if Bingy’s going,” he mumbles, eyes closed. His perfectly slicked black hair falling out of place.
Aziraphale watches with increasing apprehension as Dodders moves to Julian. “Jules?”
“Only if Tilly Topping’s going.”
“Well, I’ll have to see if Sal’s going, if Sal’s going, she’ll probably go.”
Then, predictably, Aziraphale finds all eyes on him, staring at him through the haze of cigarette smoke.
The angel purses his lips and considers his answer. His eyes scan the large lounge room, searching for help where there is none- looking about every art-deco designed corner for someone to dive in and save him from answering. He has come to this club for the past couple of years, now- he had originally found a vacancy at the Portland Club, but that had rather gone downhill in that the friendly card games had turned into hard-core gambling and the visiting musicians had begun to take more and more burlesque turns. And so, Aziraphale had tried to find a slightly more respectable club, and run into these idiots.
Idiots who he is rather fond of, but idiots no less. They had all gone to Oxford and Cambridge, and yet somehow they have very little sense to share between them.
Aziraphale thinks about this for a beat too long, and Dodders answers for him. “Come on, old chap!”
The angel sighs. “It does sound like a lovely offer, but- I’m just not sure if…”
Aziraphale has never made a very good liar. He’s not sure how to say ‘I don’t want to go on holiday with you all for a long weekend because I think I may actually lose my last brain cell in the process. And more than that, I know that you will all try and set me up with someone, and I just cannot cope with that, considering the fact that I’m in love with my best friend, who is in fact a demon.’
Yes, it’s not really possible to say that to your very daft, human friends.
In the end, he opts with a half truth. “It does sound lovely. But I know how these trips always pan out- last time I joined you in Bath, you tried to match-make me with that poor, unsuspecting woman.”
“Yes, that was silly, Dodders,” Bingy remarks dryly. He pots the white ball, and doesn’t seem to be upset with having essentially lost the game by doing so. He retrieves the white ball and gives it another go, paying no real attention. “You know that our Aziraphale is as camp as a row of tents. Gay as a balloon.”
“I wasn’t trying to set you up!” Dodders argues, cigarette bouncing in his mouth with the strength of this exclamation. “If she expected you to propose to her by the end of the weekend that isn’t my fault. I didn’t plant any kind of marital seed in her mind, that’s all you. Being charming as ever. She just got the wrong end of the old, proverbial stick.”
Aziraphale pouts, frowning at his tumbler. He doesn’t remember the last time in human history when people seemed to be so eager to get married. Every single weekend away with these men inevitably ends up with one of them getting engaged, and then breaking it off the next day, explaining quite happily that ‘she seemed alright when I met her on Saturday, but come Tuesday I thought she was a bit of a bore.’ It's frustrating and, quite frankly, tiring.
But then, at least, in the grand scheme of things, these are fairly minor problems. It's nice, for once, to sit around worrying about what to wear to the next party, rather than consider the impending apocalypse.
“What about if you brought a friend with you, Aziraphale?”
Julian is the one to say this, which surprises even Aziraphale. Julian tends to talk aloud very little- only when he’s ordering a drink or pointing out if someone’s fly is undone.
“A friend?” Aziraphale asks blearily, suddenly feeling a lot drunker than he previously realised.
“Yes, good idea- I know we all drive you potty, Aziraphale,” Dodders says, “He or she may buffer the situation a little for you. And if you don’t want to hook up with anyone there, well, is there perhaps someone you could bring who you are interested in? Perhaps a certain mysterious…?”
All four men turn to look at each other and say in lascivious unison: “Crowley.”
Aziraphale brightens at the idea. If he could bring a friend- any friend- just for some extra company. Someone familiar, someone- no, there’d be no way he’d agree to join him. He’d hate it. A weekend away in Devon with a lot of drunk toffs? No.
And then, he registers their tone, and corrects himself, glaring at them. Words coming out slurred: “I beg your pardon? Why’d’you say it like that?”
“Oh, come off it. That best friend of yours?” Dodders starts.
“That you went to Eton with?” Bingy adds.
“That you never stop talking about?” Xeno supplements.
And Julian concludes, “Who you’re clearly in love with?”
“That’s quite enough,” Aziraphale demands, a little flustered. Hot in the face with the combination of embarrassment and whisky.
“That’s it sorted, then,” Dodders announces, putting out his cigarette and hopping onto the snooker table. He sits on the edge and dangles his legs happily like a child. “We’re all going to Devon this weekend. Lottie will obviously be coming, and if she can persuade Topping and thus, by proxy, persuade Sal, then that leaves us with- me, Bingy, Xeno, Julian, Lottie, Tilly, Sal, Aziraphale, and-”
“Crowley,” they all say in unison again.
It’s really rather alarming when they do that. They say his name like some demonic chant- like a piece of Latin vocabulary that they’ve had drilled into them.
“Stop it!” Aziraphale cries. “I can’t talk about him that much, surely?”
Bingy rounds on him with a sardonic smile, cherubic, strawberry blond curls bouncing in the movement. “‘Oh, Bingy, there was this one time when me and Crowley went to see Macbeth, and-”
“And another time when we went to the Roman baths together-”
“-and we had simply the most divine Turkish delight in-”
They all clamour over each other as they compete, apparently, to see who can remember the most Crowley related stories. Aziraphale sinks into his seat and covers his face with his hand.
“I can’t cope, please, stop.”
“Do leave him be, poor Aziraphale doesn’t deserve to be bullied,” Xeno says, sounding like the sweet but dim child on the playground that he still is.
“Sorry old chap.”
“Nothing to be ashamed of.”
And then, it seems that Dodders’s attention has been, thankfully, diverted by the waiter, who’s come in with a tray and a fresh container of whisky. Julian absent mindedly shuffles the cards, a little glumly and introspectively, as if he’s reading his tarot fate rather than failing at solitaire. Xenophon has fallen asleep.
Aziraphale registers a presence at the arm of his chair, and he peers through his fingers, finding Bingy’s face.
“Cheer up, old boy,” Bingy says quietly. “None of us’ll resent you for not joining if you don’t want to. You know how Dodders gets when he’s in his rallying-the-troops mood.”
Aziraphale sits up in his seat, the leather creaking. He is incredibly light-headed, and the smoke isn’t helping. Bingy smacks him familiarly on the shoulder. It’s about as close to physical intimacy as Aziraphale has ever seen Bingy get.
He peers back up at him. Bingy shares a rare smile. “Don’t let Cupid get you down, friend.”
Perhaps some of this bears explanation.
There’s ‘Dodders’, real name Humphrey Doddering-Heights. He is loud and bouncy and light of foot, almost always skipping from place to place. He’s six foot five. His parents had bought him a very nice cashmere jumper when he was fifteen, thinking he’d had his growth spurt, and then could no longer wear it three months later having shot up another few feet. They haven’t forgiven him since. He comes from a hideously wealthy family who own a large estate in Devon- every summer they leave to visit family in the neighbouring counties. It is only when they are absent that Dodders feels brave enough to return home.
Then there is Dodders’ old Eton friend, Bingy- aka Alistair ‘Bing’ Bingham. A man who looks sweet and gentle and puppy-dog like, he gives off an air that is more stern and reserved. He is, in fact, just as sweet and gentle and puppy-dog like as he initially appears, beyond the layer of stoicism. He has put up with Dodders for years, acting almost as a right hand man to his tomfoolery- an adviser to his king. If he gets up to as much silliness as Dodders, he says it’s only because he’d been trying to keep him out of trouble in the first place. Bingy is by far the most sensible of them all, and not just because he’s actually had a job, unlike the rest of them.
Xenophon Smith is daft. Not in the same bouncing way as Dodders, but rather in a sweet, quietly smiling way. He drifts through life like a bubble. His parents hope that he’ll put his Classics degree to good use and become a lawyer. This is very unlikely. Unfortunately for them, all of his attention is focused on Bingy. Xeno is very much in love with Bingy and they all know it, except for Bingy himself. His hair is a natural jet black, and he takes a lot of care with how he styles it, somehow hoping that Bingy might notice.
And then there’s Julian Knackerton, sometimes known as Jules or Knick-Knack. Jules is practically mute, and yet manages to be the funniest member of any dinner party. With the very occasional one liner or relatable facial expression, he can make any man his friend. Jules is not interested in romance or anything of the like, and all of his friends respect him for this and have known this about him without ever having asked. He enjoys the company of Tilly Topping because she is a raging lesbian who doesn’t let anyone boss her around. There is something very inspiring about the Tilly Toppings of this world.
Tilly Topping, largely known as ‘Toppster’ because they all know too many Tilly’s, is from Birmingham. She describes herself as ‘common as muck’ and is very proud of it. The boys love her to bits, and will defend her like a pack of wolves. She could ask them to follow her about like she is a queen and they her guards, but she wouldn’t need to- they’d do it anyway. Tilly is almost like the younger sister of the group, and whilst she likes to spend time with them, she finds weekends away with them dreary because she’d much rather be back in London or Birmingham not having to take part in all this match-making nonsense.
She would absolutely go anywhere if it meant that Sal was going, too- Sal Giacometti, an American-Italian wannabe actress who is currently living in London for reasons that remain a mystery. She is in love with Sal, and Sal knows but, but isn’t quite ready to admit this to herself yet. Sal is refined and elegant and likes to wear long scarves so she can float about ethereally. People tend to follow in her wake, entranced, and she allows it.
And at last, there’s Lottie Swaddle-Swidworth, Dodders’ girlfriend, who is alarmingly similar in character to Dodders- all except for the fact that she has an obsession with horses. She’s sweet and bubbly and air-headed, and awfully nice. They all like her of course. But they also find the couple to be strange and too perfectly matched. When she was twelve, she won a prize at her boarding school for ‘most caring girl in the school’, and she has taken that attitude with her into adulthood. She doesn’t need any other certification.
So that makes the Devon trip, by Aziraphale’s count:
Aziraphale (RSVP status: maybe)
Crowley (RSVP status: unlikely)
And if, in the years of knowing them, none of them have questioned Aziraphale’s unorthodox name (Aziraphale Fell) he supposes it’s because they all have equally unusual names. This is one of the benefits of being friends with posh people.
As the night progresses, the five of them meander over to a nearby bar, somewhere deeper in Mayfair. Dodders, as the unannounced but understood team leader, has heard that it has some jolly good music and they should therefore give it a whirl. This usually means that there’s some raunchy jazz involved, which Aziraphale admits is very enjoyable, even if it doesn’t have the same innocent fun as the gavotte.
Aziraphale misses when mens’ clubs had the gavotte.
Said bar is called The Parlour, although it isn’t a parlour at all. It’s actually a speakeasy, held underground down some stairs to one of those lovely big, white townhouses. There isn’t a sign on the facade, and Aziraphale can only assume that Dodders knows that this is the right place because he’d heard from a friend of a friend of a friend, and he daren’t ask who those friends might be. There isn’t an alcohol prohibition here, like there is in America, so there isn’t really any need for speakeasies in London- but it seems to be the fun of pretending to creep around and do something sinful that’s brought them into being in the UK. Aziraphale pretends to himself that he doesn’t condone it, as he steps into the bar.
He had expected something rather dingy and debauched. Instead, everyone is just as dapper as they are. The space is much smaller than the Lansdowne, and they’re all a bit more tightly squeezed; it makes everything much louder. The lights of the red wall sconces are distorted by cigarette smoke.
“Oh, fab!” Xenophon says with a dopey smile, smacking Dodders on the arm. “Good find, Dodders old boy!”
“Well, we ought to find a table, I suppose,” Bingy says mildly.
Aziraphale smooths out the lapel of his white suit, straightens his blue tie. Follows Bingy and Jules to a table, whilst Dodders and Xeno go to the bar and order some spritzes. The bar is busy with people making their last orders before the music, and the shiny, oak counter is covered in spilled martini. The free table they find has only four seats, a lantern in the middle and two abandoned glasses with a side of olives. A waitress quickly tidies it away.
“Thank you so much,” Aziraphale tells the waitress sincerely. Then, “This is quite the find. I confess, I don’t know many places to drink in London, only dine.”
“You can go to The Ritz every Friday, if you want,” Bingy says, removing a silver cigarette case from his inside pocket and popping it open. He pokes one in his mouth and says out of the other corner, “but it could get frightfully boring, with how much we all drink.”
“This is true.”
“You have to tell me all about this new Ivy place,” Bingy continues. “You did say it was very good, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yes. The Ivy does a really wonderful afternoon tea.”
“Over in Covent Garden?”
“That it is. Glorious cocktails, too.”
“I see. Perhaps we should all investigate sometime. Did you go alone?”
“No, I went with-”
“Crowley,” Bingy and Jules say in unison.
Aziraphale tuts and rolls his eyes, sitting up straight in his seat.
“Are you going to join us in Devon, then? Bring your friend along?” Bingy continues, ignoring the way Aziraphale sighs and shakes his head disapprovingly.
“I don’t think so, old chap.”
“Oh, no? It’s reasonable, I suppose. It does get frightful when there’s all that match-making. Dodders says that Tilly Copperthwait is sweet on me, but I couldn’t possibly imagine such a thing. Why on Earth would she look at a daft bugger like me?”
“Oh, don’t say that,” Aziraphale says with a comforting smile.
“No, it’s true. And I refuse to like her, either, so there’s that on that.”
Bingy blows a plume of smoke out of his mouth and crosses a leg over the other, looking the other way. Aziraphale is suddenly overwhelmed with both sympathy and empathy. Empathy, because he knows what it’s like to have people badger you about someone liking you and you liking them back. Sympathy, because Aziraphale thinks that Bingy actually might like someone else, and all the forced coupling-up is just making that harder. And knowing that Xenophon is also deeply in love with Bingy without him realising just makes this all the messier.
As a celestial being of love, Aziraphale hates to admit it, but- sometimes, love isn’t very nice at all.
Jules turns his head to the stage, and nods to it silently.
Aziraphale and Bingy follow his line of sight.
And Aziraphale has to wince through the smoke to see, but it’s unmistakable.
There’s a black grand piano, and a band taking its place. Each man sets up his instrument, the double bassist tuning the strings and the pianist flicking out the tail of his coat before sitting. The drummer doing a little party trick, throwing the sticks into the air and dropping them fantastically, making the trumpeters wave dismissive hands at him and laugh. None of this is particularly remarkable- no, what’s remarkable is the singer.
She comes on last. The first thing Aziraphale notices- the first thing he thinks anyone notices- is her legs. Legs for absolute days and high heels. She’s sporting one of those ‘flapper’ dresses that’s well above the knee and all black tassels. The wolf whistles are immediate, to which she doesn’t respond- she only walks on with a slow, hip swinging saunter that doesn’t look anatomically possible.
He recognises her face. He recognises the slightly hooked nose and perpetually pouting bottom lip. Today, those lips are painted red. Red hair curled, shining, styled carefully into a marseille wave- black headband holding it in place. Little circular, black sunglasses cover her eyes, and around the sharp accent of her collar-bone is a feather boa, that she drapes over her arms like a snake. Her chin is tilted upwards, imperiously, and a wicked grin spreads across her face as she takes the stage.
The audience’s response is astronomical; there’s whooping and clapping and cheering and whistling galore.
With a dismissive shrug, she removes the boa from her shoulders and leaves it on the floor of the stage. And then, with the help of the pianist, who scrabbles to his feet eagerly, she hops up onto the grand piano and lies along it, like a dying damsel. One leg hanging off, one knee raised, so her dress slips just a little, almost enough to see her garter.
It’s only then, as Aziraphale watches her stretch her arms over her head luxuriously, that he says in quiet disbelief:
Bingy turns to frown at him, blowing another puff of smoke. “Crowley?”
Aziraphale’s eyes widen in panic- he feels his face contorting in distress, can’t temper the way he reacts to Bingy’s simple question. “Yes. Well. That is-”
“Your Crowley has a sister then, eh?”
Bingy watches the stage, and Jules watches Aziraphale with narrowed eyes. Aziraphale clears his throat, straightens his bow tie again. “Yes! Yes, that’s right. He has a twin sister.”
“Must be confusing, if you refer to them both as Crowley. Don’t they have names?”
“Of course they do,” Aziraphale laughs nervously.
Bingy waits for him to expand, and he doesn’t. He just smiles awkwardly and stares at the stage.
Stares at Crowley talking to the pianist in his ear, lying on her stomach, now.
Aziraphale swallows. He does his best to ignore the strange, pleasant, but equally unpleasant heat that stings his skin.
He’s roughly pulled out of his reverie when a glass is slammed directly in front of him, and he almost jumps out of said skin. Dodders pats him affectionately on the back, and Aziraphale smiles, though he doesn’t know why- probably because as silly as these boys are, they are very good at heart, and fun to be around at that.
“Who is that?” Dodders barks.
“Crowley’s sister,” Jules says almost too quietly.
Dodders and Xeno gape at him. The too most pea-brained members of the group gawp at him speechlessly. They turn that gawp towards Aziraphale, who has nothing to say. He simply spreads out his hands, gesticulates wordlessly and uncomfortably.
“Yes,” he confirms eventually. “Crowley’s sister.”
The two of them redirect the gawp to the stage, where Crowley is now sitting on the edge of the piano, accepting a microphone.
Then, Dodders says, with his usual insight: “Woof! She is gorgeous!”
Aziraphale is too drunk to cope with this right now- he pinches the bridge of his nose. “Really, must you?”
“Don’t be vulgar, Dodders,” Bingy mutters, lips on the edge of a martini glass. “How would you like it if one of your friends was leering at your sister. No doubt Aziraphale has known the girl for as long as he’s known Crowley. You and her must practically be family, with the way you describe how close you are with him.”
Aziraphale opens his mouth dumbly. Shuts his eyes and tries to formulate a response. This could get extraordinarily complicated. He can't lie even when he's sober. “Er-”
“Sorry old boy, won’t be rude again. Only,” Dodders gazes at the stage. “She’s quite stunning, isn’t she? Has an air about her.”
Aziraphale takes a drink of his negroni. Winces as it goes down. “She does indeed.”
“Is that our Aziraphale drinking a negroni of all things?”
“Yes- haven’t you notice he drinks them sometimes?”
“I’d’ve pegged him as a martini man. Or a gin and tonic-”
“Oh no, he’s sweet on the exterior, but he likes his drinks dirty, don’t you old chap?”
Aziraphale isn’t listening to this thinly veiled euphemism. He’s entirely captivated by Crowley, who’s removed herself from the piano and is now making her way to the microphone stand in the middle of the stage. And then the drums start up, a fast-paced solo intro, followed by a glissando on the piano. It sets the whole room wild.
“Oh, here she goes,” Dodders announces.
She rolls her shoulders, as if flexing, tilts her head back. And then she sings:
“When the town fool is a liar
And he's preaching to the choir
You've got a lot of explaining that you do
You see, no one likes a quitter, it makes us oh, so bitter
So drop your hat and sit for awhile-”
Aziraphale sits in his seat very still, feeling a lot like he must be going mad. Because he still sees Crowley- only now and then, maybe every decade or so in clusters, but he’d still seen him recently. They’d only gone to The Ivy the week before last, and he hadn’t mentioned anything about having a jazz singer alter ego. Over the centuries Aziraphale has seen Crowley take on many personas, lived the life of many people.
“Ya see, every now and again we struggle with our past
We try to stare it in the eye and pray that
It won't last- most questions that get answered,
They never make much sense
But I decided that I care,
And I'll get right down to it And I said-”
There’s something about this particular persona, though. Something about this Crowley that Aziraphale finds quite remarkable. It’s possible it’s the confidence, a confidence that Aziraphale doesn’t often see in Crowley; the way she’s smirking as she sings, a bright toothy smile; fringed dress swinging as she shimmies; seemingly living off the calls of the crowd, sharing in the camaraderie of the other band members. Stage light glinting off her glasses.
“Well, I like it when you sit,
And get straight down to it
It suits you more than anyone will admit 'cause
There's something in the air and no one seems to care
Nobody will stand up, not even on a dare-
It's funny how we fool them with tears behind our smile
So tried and true, we plow right through and hope it's worth the while-”
Yes, Aziraphale thinks it may be the confidence, may be how relaxed Crowley seems on stage. Which is quite something, given all those millennia of labouring over the fall, labouring over where the demon Crowley belongs in this universe. It’s not easy to feel comfortable in one’s own skin, to have an understanding of one’s self and live life regardless of what others might judge. And Aziraphale feels as if he is witnessing Crowley exploring a part of that self. Exploring it without reservation or fear or shame. Relaxing into it. It’s something very beautiful to see. Glorious.
The ice in his drink has melted as he holds the glass too tightly.
A few other flapper girls join and dance with her during the instrumental. And she’s lifted onto the shoulders of a couple of handsome, suited men and paraded around the stage like a queen. She only grins that big smile, brows raised and arms extended.
Crowley has always lived for the drama, Aziraphale thinks. And he finds himself smiling too.
It’s not as if Aziraphale doesn’t see Crowley relaxed and happy- whether they’re having crepes in France during the revolution or exploring Rome together, back when Augustus was in charge of things. No, it’s more that Aziraphale has very, very rarely seen Crowley like this- not on the job, not there to see Aziraphale. Simply existing and enjoying life without another agenda, and it lifts his heart. Fills it with even more love than he thought was possible; he didn’t think he had any room for more.
And when the song ends, the crowd bursts into applause, and Crowley bows half-jokingly, poses by the piano with the feather boa. That huge smile again.
There’s quite an awesome mixture of emotions that Aziraphale’s experience right now; something in between shock and affection and love and confusion and pride and impressed and then another dose of love all over again.
“Gosh,” Xeno remarks.
“Quite,” Dodders adds, just as a waitress is replacing the candle in their table lantern. Then, “Aziraphale, she was splendid. Did you know she could sing?”
“No,” he answers truthfully. He realises then that his mouth is incredibly dry; has it really been hanging open this whole time, whilst Crowley performed? He shuts it, swallows, continues a little uselessly: “No, I didn’t.”
“You’ve known her for a long time, though, no?” Bing queries.
And that makes the waitress pause as she’s lighting the new candle. “Sir- sorry, sir, but you know Toni?”
Aziraphale doesn’t realise that she’s speaking to him at first- he double takes awkwardly. “Oh! Sorry?”
“You know Toni?” the girl asks with great enthusiasm. “She’s amazing, sir. I’ve always wanted to go talk to her but I’m too afraid to; all the other girls say she’s wildly inspirational and tells them all about the big wide world. Did you know she’s been everywhere? She’s been to China, you know! And America!”
“Oh?” Aziraphale replies weakly.
“And apparently, last week, she heard that Lucy’s boyfriend- Lucy, the dancer, that is- she found out that Lucy’s boyfriend was messing around with some other girl, so Toni clocked him right in the face and told him where to shove it.”
“And- sorry, sir, I’m talking too much.”
“Oh- it’s no problem at all-”
“Would you like another drink, sir?”
“I’m- I’m alright, actually, thank you-”
And the waitress is quickly gone again, a little flustered and perhaps embarrassed for having gushed about Crowley so enthusiastically. Or, Toni.
Toni. That one’s new, Aziraphale thinks.
He watches Crowley lift herself back onto the grand piano, twirling the cable of the microphone around her finger. Legs crossed, probably chatting with the pianist about their next tune, though he can't hear.
It’s remarkable that Aziraphale hadn’t realised Crowley could sing, or even liked to. And as Crowley- or, Toni- strikes up the next song, a slow, sultry number, he listens. Really listens to the sound of that voice; it’s by no means perfect, a little gravelly and sibilant (the snake in her betraying itself). But it’s also enticing. There are very few other ways to put it; Crowley’s voice is tempting.
Aziraphale doesn’t hear what his friends talk about for the rest of the night. All he can do is watch. Watch and fall impossibly deeper in love.
It takes some persuading- which Aziraphale doesn’t like to do often- but he does manage to get backstage.
Toni Crowley has her own dressing room, separate from the other band members and dancers. Aziraphale feels incredibly out of place as he stands at the door and knocks, girls in flapper dresses giggling coquettishly as they run past him, whispering who’s the man going to visit Toni? Do you recognise him?
Aziraphale watches them go and blinks. Looks down at his suit- brushes himself off, straightens what he can and-
The door opens. And Crowley cocks her head in surprise and leans sinuously against the door frame.
“Aziraphale,” Crowley says in that slow, pleased voice.
For a long moment, Aziraphale is speechless, smiles nervously. Crowley’s wearing a dressing gown, red curls loose from the marseille style now, hanging just above the jawline. There’s a cigarette in a long, slender holder between her fingers.
“Oh, right, yeah. Yes, forgot,” Crowley says, nodding and standing aside to let Aziraphale in. “You haven’t seen me like this, have you?”
Aziraphale, gratified, steps inside. It’s a small room with the one dressing table, a mirror framed with lightbulbs. It smells like hairspray. “No, this is the first. It suits you, my dear.”
Crowley doesn’t respond to that, only sniffs and wrinkles her nose. Never in the habit of accepting compliments. She drops the cigarette on the dressing table- it wasn’t lit in the first place, Aziraphale realises- and collapses into the one chair in the room, splaying about like she’s lost control of her limbs. Crowley’s never sat any other way. “So, how’d you find me here, then?”
Aziraphale stands on the spot in the middle of the room, having nowhere else to sit. He blinks at Crowley, who peers at him through sunglasses, brows raised expectantly. “Well, it wasn’t actually intentional. I came here with some friends.”
“Friends?” Crowley repeats, brows raising further.
“Yes, friends. I do have other friends, you know.”
“Oh, God- not- not the silly bastards from the club you go to.”
“The Lansdowne, yes.”
“Right, so you lot just happened to stumble across this place?”
“That’s the whole story.”
Crowley is slouched in the chair, dressing gown loose around the neck so it shows a peek of collar bone. And then she stands up abruptly, starts tidying the things on her dressing table. Back turned to Aziraphale, reorganising makeup and hair products in perfect order.
“Right,” she says. “So. So, you were in the audience tonight, then?”
“Yes,” Aziraphale says brightening. “You know, Crowley, you have the most spectacular voice- how did I not know-?”
“You heard both songs?”
He blinks dumbly again. “Well, yes.” Aziraphale hadn’t actually been listening all too hard to the lyrics of either of the songs, just the voice itself. He’d been too captivated by the sight of his best friend having a wail of a time on stage singing her heart out. “I very much enjoyed seeing you perform. I wish I’d known that you had such a passion for it.”
Crowley knocks something over loudly. Aziraphale watches the way the hand that goes to retrieve it shakes a little, and he frowns to himself.
“Right. Wonderful. Splendid,” Crowley says tensely.
Curls of red hair bounce as she moves. They look just like they did back in Eden, all those years ago.
“Toni’s a new name, then?” Aziraphale tries, a little awkwardly, flashing a smile- for no reason, since Crowley has her back turned and isn’t looking in the mirror’s reflection. “Last I remember, you liked going by Mary.”
There’s a pause, and then Crowley relaxes a little. And Aziraphale sees the normal mannerisms return, swaying from side to side as she talks, listens, does anything- Crowley can never stay still for very long, always undulating here and there.
“Yeah, well. Mary got a bit old, after a while. Mary Magdalene was my peak, really- felt wrong reviving the name after that.”
“And who’d have thought you were a singer!”
“I can play the piano too, you know.”
Aziraphale gasps, claps his hands together in excited surprise. Crowley snorts, turns to look at him over one shoulder.
“Yep. Can do both at the same time and everything.”
“Oh, Crowley! How wonderful!”
“It’s- it’s really nothing to make a big fuss about. Mozart taught me a little, back in the day,” she remarks nonchalantly, turning back around fully to look at Aziraphale again. Leaning against the dresser. “Jazz’s a bit different, though. All sort of, er. You know, about letting go of preconceived rules and whatever.”
“And the singing?”
“Ah, I’ve always done it, I suppose. Music just comes with the whole tempting business, really.”
“Oh yes. That does rather explain the whole siren thing.”
A few thousand years ago, stories of women called sirens started cropping up all over the world. Crowley had always taken credit for them, and never explained how. The mystery of how exactly Crowley had started this myth, and whether sirens actually exist, has always tortured Aziraphale.
“Like I say, comes with the tempting-demon package,” Crowley confirms. “Speaking tongues etcetera. Never seen Hastur or Listur do anything quite as sexy as lying on a grand piano. Think I’d pay not to see that.”
“I think most people would.”
Crowley smirks, and Aziraphale beams back. And it’s always amazed Aziraphale, how after however long they last saw each other, whether it’s two weeks or two centuries, they both somehow fall right back into routine. Talking as if they are simply two best friends who like to spend time together and who know each other better than anyone else. Rather than the complicated version of the story, which is that they’re an angel and a demon fighting on opposite sides of a celestial war.
It makes the whole ‘living amongst humans’ thing a little jarring. Being with Crowley, who he trusts so utterly and completely and knows inside out, to then going back to his club friends and drinking himself silly- it’s strange. Two very different experiences. One feels like home, the other doesn’t.
“Oh,” Aziraphale starts, taking a small step towards Crowley. “I had almost forgotten. I was- well, I was wondering if you could do me an enormous favour.”
Crowley’s expression turns weary. “It’s not my turn to do the miracles, angel. You’re due to go to Liverpool next week.”
“Yes, yes, alright, but- wait, Liverpool? What on Earth do Hell want you in Liverpool for?”
“Have you been to Liverpool, angel? It should be fairly obvious it’s one of ours. No, just- head up there and confetti some good and bad about the place.”
“Alright, but that’s not actually what I wanted to ask about.”
“No, this favour is more of the personal variety. I’ve been invited to go to Devon for a long weekend with the Lansdowne gang-” Crowley makes a rude, snoring noise and hangs her head like she’s asleep. Aziraphale ploughs on, “-and they always end up being a bit messy. Good fun, but I wouldn’t mind some moral support.”
“I don’t do moral support, only immoral,” Crowley drawls.
“Yes, very witty. What I mean is, will you come with me?”
Crowley doesn’t respond immediately. She leans against the dresser and tilts her head as she considers, pouts her lips. Aziraphale waits apprehensively, giving his most imploring look.
Then, she sighs. “Aaaah, alright then. Alright, fine, yes, I’ll come.”
“Oh, wow, really?” Aziraphale breathes, smiling to himself and looking away. He can’t help it, he’s overwhelmed by how quickly Crowley accepted the invitation, and it floods him with bashfulness. “You won’t absolutely hate me forever?”
“Eh,” Crowley shrugs.
“It would mean a lot. Thank you.”
“Don’t,” Crowley wrinkles her nose. “Just tell me when and where.”
“I’m not sure yet, but I can meet you at The Ritz on Thursday for lunch and I’ll tell you all the details then?”
Crowley stands up and makes a pronounced nod. “Yep. Meet you there, one o’clock.”
“One o’clock it is,” Aziraphale says, feeling unbearably pleased.
If he’s smiling like an idiot, which he’s fairly sure he is, then Crowley doesn’t make any comment. She merely smiles wryly to herself and goes to show Aziraphale out.
“Sorry to kick you out,” she sighs, “I have another show, and in a few minutes this room will be filled with dancers in skimpy dresses telling me their relationship problems. Figured you might want an escape before that happens.”
Crowley says this like she’s very put upon, but Aziraphale knows better.
“Oh yes, appreciated. I did actually have a very lovely waitress telling me all about you playing fisticuffs with someone’s boyfriend.”
Her smile is a little smug. It makes Aziraphale's heart skip. “He deserved it.”
Crowley opens the door and Aziraphale hangs in the doorway awkwardly for a long moment, simply looking at Crowley. Looking at his beautiful, shape-shifting best friend, wringing his hands anxiously.
“Yes, I’m sure he did,” he replies mock-seriously. Then, he flicks a quick smile before turning and leaving.
Aziraphale heads down the corridor and back into the main bar area, having to make his way through a river of giggling girls in order to do so. They all cast curious glances at him, then, by the sounds of it, pour into Crowley’s dressing room. The moment Crowley’s door closes, they all burst into ecstatic laughter.
It makes Aziraphale pause self-consciously in the corridor to stare uselessly at the door, before returning to his friends in the bar.
It’s Friday morning, and Aziraphale is standing in Bingy’s flat with a weekend bag at his feet. He looks out of the window, which has a very nice view of Russell Square.
“Have you packed a swimming costume, old chap?”
“I don’t really do swimming, I’m afraid,” he calls back, eyes peering down at the pavement below. It’s nine thirty in the morning, and the lawyers and businessmen are making their way to work. Looking down from above, it’s impossible to see what anyone looks like with their hats on, covering any sign of their faces or hair. It creates a strange image; the pale pavements with black suited clones wandering about purposefully. The odd young lady walking through the park, little dogs trotting ahead of them. Old couples sitting on benches below.
Aziraphale smiles. His heart is always warmer, after seeing old couples. Sitting together on the same bench every day as they have since they first met each other. Or at least, that’s what his romantic heart likes to imagine.
“What is it,” Aziraphale calls mildly, watching one particular couple. The old man takes the woman’s hand in his and pats it absent-mindedly. Aziraphale’s smile grows.
“I don’t know what Humphrey is expecting.” Bing is the only one who refers to Dodders by his real name, no doubt after having known him for so long. “Is he planning to throw us in the ocean at some point? Go hunting? I just don’t know what to pack.”
The idea of having to go hunting makes his stomach turn. He’ll simply stay at home and read his book, thank you very much. “If in doubt, bring it all,” Aziraphale eventually replies.
There’s a soft brush up against his leg, and he looks down to find a cat.
“Oh, hello,” he greets the tabby cat brightly.
“Oh, sorry, she’s a bit of a tart,” Bing calls from the other room. “She’ll flirt with all the strangers she meets.”
Aziraphale watches the cat make little circles around his ankle before picking her up. She mewls happily and lays her paws on his shoulder, like she’s on the lookout. And whilst she may have left brown fur all over his nice white linen suit, his love for all creatures (great and small) overwhelms the fussy part of him.
“What’s your name, young lady?” he asks.
The cat meows.
Aziraphale frowns at Bing’s bedroom door. “Pardon?”
“Yes, I thought she was a boy when I got her as a kitten. Seemed rude to change her name without her agreement, especially as she seemed to like it.”
Aziraphale accepts this, and continues to look out of the window, stroking Alfredo who has begun to purr happily in his ear.
It’s a bit of a cloudy morning, but the weather reports have assured them all that it will be sunny and roaring hot come lunch time. Aziraphale peers up at the sky and thinks a silent prayer that the weather will hold. Then, looking back down at the pavement, he continues to watch the people mill about. Two policemen escort a bedraggled looking young man in a nice suit- or at least, it had been probably been nice last night, before whatever escapades he’d gotten into. He also still looks very drunk. The two old women walking in the opposite direction practically plaster themselves against the wall of Bing’s apartment building to avoid him.
The flat door bursts open.
“Bing! Hurry your sodding arse up!” Dodders proclaims, practically kicking the door down.
Alfredo leaps out of Aziraphale’s arms and skitters up onto the mantelpiece, watching with suspicious eyes. Dodders is the human manifestation of a golden Labrador, and Alfredo therefore seems to like to keep her distance.
Xeno and Jules follow, collapsing onto the sofa and making themselves immediately at home. Aziraphale hasn’t done the same, having never been here before. Equally, none of the others have been to the bookshop. None of them have questioned his preference for this privacy, and he’s grateful that they’re also very respectful of it.
No- the only person he lets visit him at the bookshop is Crowley.
“I’ll take as long as I like, Humphrey,” Bing calls from the bedroom, sounding like he’s already losing his patience with Dodders.
They’re a little like an old married couple themselves, Aziraphale thinks. Or perhaps it’s more that they remind me of another couple. Though, I can’t think who.
“Settle down, Dods, old boy. Remember we’re waiting for the girls, too, there’s no rush.”
“No, the girls are all getting the train down together.”
“We’re waiting for Crowley, not the girls.”
Azirphale looks out the window and inhales sharply with excitement. “There he is.”
There’s a brief pause. And then, everyone in the apartment sprints over to the window. They gather around Aziraphale and poke their faces into any space they can to look down below.
At first, Aziraphale didn’t recognise him. Because, last time he checked, Crowley didn’t have a car. Right now, he’s pulled up outside Bing’s apartment on the other side of the road, beside the park railings. Quite spectacular parking too, he’s positively slipped into the free space, nice and snug up to the curve. The roof of the car is pulled back, and so Aziraphale can see him put on the hand break and quickly swing himself out of the car, closing the door with his hip. His red hair slicked back. He takes his suit jacket off and throws it over his shoulder, leaving him in black trousers and white summer shirt, black bracers. A frown on his face, brow furrowed above his sunglasses as he scans the apartment buildings and looks for the right number.
Aziraphale watches for a long moment, something in him buzzing excitedly, and almost proudly. I know that very handsome person, right there. That's my best friend.
And then Crowley looks up, spots them all staring. He gives a mockingly sweet, sneering smile. Waves, waggling his fingers.
With a flush of embarrassment, Aziraphale wades through his four friends to head to the front door. None of them have the shame to move out of the way, only continue to stare.
“Gosh, what a nice car.”
“He’s even more suave than I thought he’d be.”
“No, he’s just about as cool as I imagined. Golly, I feel suddenly underdressed.”
“The spitting image of his sister, my word.”
“Look at those sunglasses-”
“Is that a Bentley he’s driving?”
“Christ, I think I fancy him-”
The one thing he hadn’t actually considered until now is that they all know that he’s arse over tits for Crowley. They’re not going to let Aziraphale forget it throughout this whole weekend, he now realises.
Inviting Crowley may not, actually, have been a particularly sensible decision.
Aziraphale stoically ignores all their comments and makes his way down the staircase as calmly as he possibly can. He doesn’t manage, as by the last flight, he’s taking them two at a time. When he swings open the door, Crowley immediately spots him and nods his head in acknowledgement. And he wonders over to Aziraphale, crossing the road a bit haphazardly- not caring about the car that’s had to come to a screeching halt to let him pass.
“You’ve made me get up for a nine am start, angel.”
“Sorry, dear boy,” Aziraphale says with a helpless smile.
Crowley continues to hold onto his suit jacket, thrown over his shoulder, and looks up at the apartment building. “This it, then?”
“Are any of them getting in the car with us?”
“I’m not sure. None of us knew you’d be bringing your own car, honestly, I think Jules was planning on taking us.”
“So the four of them could go in one, and you and I can go in mine.”
Aziraphale narrows his eyes at him. “It feels a lot like you planned this.”
Crowley snarls, pokes a finger at him. “I’m doing you a favour coming to this blasted thing with you. I don’t need to socialise any more than I have to.”
“I have a feeling you’ll like Jules and Bing, at least.”
Crowley glares, turns on the spot so his jacket almost smacks Aziraphale in the face. He starts to cross the road. “Right, come on, then.”
“Well, I have to go fetch my bag, first.”
“Alright, don’t take forever.”
Aziraphale tuts and goes back inside, taking the stairs with nowhere near as much enthusiasm now that he’s going up.
When he gets to Bing’s front door, he’s immediately greeted by Xeno.
“I want to sit in the front of Crowley’s car.”
“Xeno, really,” Dodders says. “Let the poor man have his friend in the front with him, if only so he doesn’t have to deal with you asking him silly questions.”
“I like Bentleys,” Xeno moans. “And I want to talk to Crowley.”
“Leave Xeno alone, Dodders,” Bing remarks absently, as he tries to zip up his suitcase.
Xenophon preens a little at that, and Dodders rolls his eyes. Jules watches the interaction with much the same scientific distance as he usually does.
“Actually, Xeno, I thought I’d sit in the front,” Aziraphale says kindly.
“Alright,” Bing announces, picking up his bursting weekend bag. “I reckon us four can go in Jules' car, and you two can have some space. You’ll need to acquaint him with us in increments, after all, I think it’d rather horrify him if we talked his ear off for four hours in the car.”
“I feel quite the same,” Aziraphale agrees with audible relief.
And so, that is how it goes. The five of them head down stairs, Xenophon and Dodders chattering absolutely nonsense, Jules listening and saying nothing, Bing making the odd dry remark. Aziraphale smiling nervously, until they reach the street again, where they find Crowley leaning against the passenger door of the car.
Dodders is about to bound over with his usual Labrador excitement. Bing physically holds him back. “Give the man a bloody minute, Dodders.”
Aziraphale closes his eyes and sighs. He is already absolutely mortified by how this weekend is going. He had no idea how excited they all were to meet Crowley. He supposes, if he has spoken so much about him (which he apparently has), he would have created almost a mythical aura about Crowley. Which isn’t far off.
Crowley is a demon, after all.
“Hello again,” Aziraphale approaches with a quiet smile, throwing his bag in the back of the Bentley.
“Do you know where you’re going, old chap? Name’s Alistair, this lot call me Bing.”
Bing is extending his hand for a handshake with a reserved, pursed smile. Crowley shakes it a little indifferently, looking the other way down the street. Dodders and Xeno are practically vibrating with jealousy, whereas Jules has decided he doesn’t care and is already in his car. Aziraphale watches, hands laced in front of his chest, a feeling of anticipation- like he’s either waiting for a fight or a miracle.
“Aziraphale gave me the address. ‘Sides, I’ll just follow you if I get lost.”
“Good, good,” Bing nods. “Hope to see you there in one piece, then. Marvellous to finally meet you.”
With that simple interaction, Bing goes over to Jules’ car, where Xeno and Dodders immediately ambush him with whispered questions.
Crowley watches them all flap about, then looks at Aziraphale, with brows raised- a look that says, really? This lot are your friends?
“They’re nice when you get to know them,” Aziraphale says seriously, opening the passenger door and sitting down. It’s fairly comfortable in here, too. “I’m sure you’ll get on with them just fine.”
“I might end up killing the more excitable ones.”
“Oh, Dodders? He’s alright, really,” he remarks brushing cat hair off his suit as Crowley slides into the driver’s seat. “Besides, you haven’t killed me, yet, and I’ve been reliably informed that I’m irritatingly positive.”
“Yeah, that’s different though.”
“Well, yes. Obviously it’s different with you. I- You’re- never mind.”
Aziraphale doesn’t have time to ask what he means by that, because Crowley has pulled out into the road with such alarming speed that it makes Aziraphale’s stomach swoop. He grabs onto the car door for dear life.
“Crowley! You’ll get us both discorporated!”
“It’ll be fine,” he says, waving one dismissive hand at him.
“Can you even drive?”
“Of course, what do you take me for?” He snarls. “It’s not like anyone really learns to drive, anyway, you just get a car and press some pedals, easy.”
“That isn’t very encouraging- you’d think there ought to be some sort of system. You know, whereby people can assess whether someone actually has the skills required to manoeuvre one of these machines.”
“What, like a driving test? Nah, can’t see that catching on. Oh, er, you may need this.”
Crowley’s hand fumbles in the backseat, and then he passes him a scarf.
“Whatever for?” Aziraphale demands.
“For your head.”
“Yes, I’m, I’m trying to be chivalrous, angel, put the sodding scarf on.”
“Why, though, Crowley?”
“So the wind doesn’t mess up your hair, or, hurt your ears, or, I don’t really know, I’ve just seen other people do it, put the fucking scarf on.”
“Now, there’s no need to talk to me like that.”
He takes the scarf and looks at it. It’s silvery, with little green snakes all over it.
Aziraphale casts Crowley a glance.
“It was a present, just a coincidence,” he retorts.
And so Aziraphale complies, tying a neat little bow below his chin with the silky scarf. He does, actually, feel quite fabulous now.
They drive through London, following Jules’ car all the way to Devon. The drive should be long, but it goes by quickly. They shout to each other over the noise of the wind, talking about things that Aziraphale won’t remember the next day but are enjoyable to discuss at the time. And when they reach the countryside, Aziraphale suddenly understands the need for the headscarf, the wind making his eyes water and whipping the material of the silk. The sun has fully come out, and the Bentley roars down the little winding, country roads, hedges on either side of them. He feels the fresh air stinging his cheeks, lets his hand hang outside the car so he can feel the wind rush through his fingers. Crowley relaxes a little more every minute that passes.
And Crowley will occasionally turn his eyes away from the road to look at Aziraphale, when he thinks he doesn’t notice. He does, and it makes Aziraphale’s heart sing.