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Imperfect By Nature

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Primary School

Aziraphale has known Anthony Crowley since they were 5 years old and his parents moved to the street where the Crowleys lived.

They only meet each other because Aziraphale’s parents invite the Crowleys for dinner and when they try to share the gospel, the Crowley family is so forcefully rude—citing what his parents call “Satanist literature”—that his father nearly kicks them out and subsequently forbids Aziraphale from talking to them ever again.

But the Crowley’s share a fence with the Goodalls and Aziraphale likes playing under the apple tree in the backyard that brushes the dividing line between their properties. And one day, shortly after all the boxes are finally unpacked, he is outside under said apple tree when he hears a hiss come through the fence. He swings his head around with wide eyes and sees a sharp little face peering through one of the broken slats.

“Psst,” the face says.

“Tony?” Aziraphale replies standing up and wandering over.

The face scrunches up. “Don’t call me Tony. I hate that name.”

“Um..what’s it short for?”

“Just call me Crowley.”

“But—”

“No buts.”

Aziraphale shrugs and does as he’s told.

“What’re you doing?” Crowley asks, nearly pressing his face through the hole in the fence. It looks uncomfortable. Or like he might get slivers in his cheeks.

“I was making a sword out of sticks.”

Crowley gives him a gap-toothed smile—he’s missing one of his front teeth—and Aziraphale rushes to say, “Don’t tell my parents. They don’t like when I play war games.”

They’d also probably give him a good spanking for even speaking to Tony.

“Your secret’s safe with me,” Crowley says and Aziraphale hears the slight lisp he has on his s’s. “Maybe we can play imaginary war?”

“What?” Aziraphale asks, intrigued in spite of the fact they he knows he’ll get in trouble if he’s caught talking to the neighbor.

“We can tell each other war stories. Through the fence,” he explains.

Aziraphale considers it and decides that there really aren’t any kids on the block and a secret friend is better than none so he sits down in the dirt and leans against the fence.

Crowley snickers and says, “So you have this big sword, see, and it’s on fire—”

“I don’t want it to be on fire.”

“Too bad, it’s on fire.”

Aziraphale humphs but plays along.

It ends up being quite fun.

**

Aziraphale takes to school like a duck to water. The primary school is just down the block so his parents let him walk. On the very first day, he runs into Crowley, an excited bundle of energy, at the end of the street. He lost another tooth over the summer and a third one is loose. He likes to wiggle it around with his tongue, the sight of which makes Aziraphale feel a bit sick.

They have different teachers but walk home together, his parents none the wiser, Crowley flitting about in excitement about the newest thing he learned that day.

“Did you know about dolphins?” he asks one day after bursting through the front doors of the school and practically smacking straight into Aziraphale.

“What about dolphins?” Aziraphale asks through a bite of his cracker. His mom always packs him snacks for the day because she knows he gets cranky when he’s hungry.

“They’re big fish!” Crowley explains but Aziraphale is pretty sure that isn’t right. Crowley takes one of the crackers from the packet in Aziraphale’s hand and munches on it. Aziraphale scowls at him. He was going to eat that. 

Sometimes when his parents are at the church working late, Aziraphale will sneak down to the park and meet Crowley by the swings where the two of them will play pretend. It usually ends with them collapsing on the ground in laughter and tracing shapes in the clouds.

It goes on like this until year 5, the walking to school and the conversations through the fence. They’re as good of friends as they can be given the fact that Aziraphale’s parents want him to have nothing to do with the “Devil Worshipers” next door. At school, Aziraphale generally spends time with the other kids who like to hang out in the library and have been put in accelerated classes.

Crowley isn’t stupid but he’s easily distracted so he doesn’t get put in the same classes as Aziraphale. It doesn’t really deter Crowley though. He’s just as excited about everything as he always is until one day he isn’t.

The summer before year 6, Crowley disappears. Aziraphale is sure that he’s just gone on holiday with his parents like some kids do, but the months stretch on and Aziraphale is fairly certain that nobody goes on three month long vacations unless they are very rich and the Crowleys don’t seem that rich. 

When he asks his parents, they surprisingly don’t reprimand him, instead they look at each other sadly and mention things like hospitals and terminal illness. Then Crowley’s dad comes back but not his mom and Crowley doesn’t come to the fence anymore and when school starts he still waits at the end of the street but he doesn’t talk the way he used to. And when Aziraphale tries to make a real effort by going over to the Crowley’s house in the middle of a Saturday, his parents do reprimand him, forcing Aziraphale to take a step back from the person he’d started to think of as his best friend.

By the end of that year he and Crowley barely speak and as primary school becomes secondary school he tries to forget they were ever more than neighbors.

Year 7

A piece of paper hits Aziraphale in the back of the head. He flinches and reminds himself not to turn around, it will only egg them on. The reminder doesn’t help.

When he swings around to glare at Crowley, the boy just gives him a shit-eating grin.

“What’s going on?” Mrs. French asks from the front of the room. 

“Nothing, Mrs. French,” Aziraphale says before he bends back over his notebook.

“Nothing, Mrs. French,” he hears Crowley repeat quietly in a snide voice behind him.

Aziraphale closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Crowley isn’t the only person in school who likes to tease him. He knows he sticks out with his drab second-hand clothes (his parents think overconsumption is a sin) and his crooked glasses. It doesn’t help that he’s top of his class. It only took a few months for the sharks to circle, he was just surprised that Crowley was one of them.

For the most part he doesn’t mind. His mother helped him understand that children can be cruel and that, like everything else, it’s temporary, but occasionally, Aziraphale does get worn down. When that happens he retreats to the library or the band room and takes out his latest book to read a few more pages. It’s not like he doesn’t have friends, he’s got the other clarinet players in his section, and the kids in the chess club, it’s just that he prefers being alone with a good book. 

He focuses on his notes for the rest of geometry class and tries to scurry from the room the minute break is called, ignoring Crowley’s faux friendly call of “Bye-bye, Zira.”

He hates when people call him Zira. Or Az. Or literally anything but his name.

Mrs. French stops him before he can get out the door. He waits while the rest of the class files out, hoping he’s not in trouble. Once the last stragglers leave, Mrs. French beckons him to her desk where he takes an uncomfortable seat in an old chair at the corner of it. “How are you doing, Aziraphale?” she asks and he feels himself relax minutely.

“I’m good. Is this about—”

“You’re not in trouble if that’s what you’re wondering,” Mrs. French says, picking up a pen and idly clicking it. “You and Anthony are friends, right?”

Aziraphale tries to find the right words to answer. They used to be friends but his parents forced him to stop talking to Crowley? He isn’t sure how Mrs. French will respond to that so he shrugs. “Sort of.”

Mrs. French looks contemplative for a moment. “Well, if you have the time, maybe offer him a little help studying? I was hoping maybe a peer would have better luck than I have.”

Aziraphale considers it, his general desire to help others warring with his desire to be alone in the quiet somewhere where no one can bother him. He settles somewhere in the middle. “If it comes up, I’ll offer.”

He’s pretty sure it won’t.

So he’s uniquely surprised when Crowley appears at his lunch table—where Aziraphale sits alone and eats his daily banana and peanut butter sandwich—and slams down his textbook. “Mrs. French asked you to help me, right?”

Aziraphale wishes he wasn’t eating something so sticky so he could swallow easier and maybe find the words to respond.

Crowley slides onto the bench, his recent growth spurt making him awkward and gangly—he had always been a skinny kid but this was a new level. Practically a skeleton, Aziraphale thinks viciously. Then he chastises himself. He is supposed to be helping him.

So, patiently, Aziraphale goes through the Pythagorean theorem and some long division which apparently Crowley had been struggling with for ages. The boy scowls through the whole thing, getting distracted and twitchy, and Aziraphale does his best not to snap at him. He remembers the boy from primary school who couldn’t sit still. Aziraphale knows about ADD and other learning disorders and he isn’t sure if Crowley is diagnosed but he feels fairly certain something is going on there beyond a general distaste for learning—if his memories of Crowley’s intense enthusiasm were anything to go on.

His parents ask after his progress in school and it turns out to be a ruse because Mrs. French had told them Aziraphale was helping Crowley study. His father tells him in no uncertain terms to stop associating with someone who will undoubtedly have a negative impact on his faith.

It turns out Aziraphale doesn’t have to say anything to Crowley because he stops showing up and Aziraphale goes back to eating his peanut butter and banana sandwiches in peace, a little guilty that he didn’t even have the opportunity apologize to Crowley.

Year 9

Aziraphale realizes he’s gay when he’s 14 and tells his parents after a month of self-reflection. His father looks him over and says that there is room in heaven for all God’s creations and that he should never feel guilty for who he is. His mother wistfully says that she still hopes he will consider having kids because she always wanted grandchildren.

Overall, it goes pretty well and the vague concern Aziraphale had felt about coming out is swiftly washed away when his parents accept the conversation as easily as when Aziraphale announced he wanted to learn the clarinet.

Unfortunately, his classmates don’t take it quite as well.

Aziraphale isn’t out per se but he’s not in. He tells people when they ask and he feels it’s somewhat obvious given his general demeanor and the fact that he’s never expressed interest in any girls the ways his peers have. He’s also not interested in any boys but that’s because they all seem to lack his penchant for hygiene and none of them want to talk about Jane Austen. It’s all very fine since Aziraphale doesn’t think he wants to be dating. There’s a lot more to life than that, no matter what his pubescent classmates seem to think as more and more of them get caught up in moony eyes and the possibility of snogging.

So it’s not exactly shocking but it is disturbing that one of his classmates—Joseph Bernhardt—follows him home, using Aziraphale’s differences as targets for his anger, pointing out his ratty clothes, his lack of friends, his homosexuality, all because Aziraphale had refused to let him copy his homework. Aziraphale keeps walking thinking about the old adage turn the other cheek. Joseph seems to think that that means that said cheek is open for punching.

When the strike lands across his cheekbone, Aziraphale falls down in shock, scraping his hands as his glasses clatter to the pavement beside him. Something old and angry rears up inside him as he stands and slams into Joseph, his heavier weight an advantage when he pushes Joseph into the telephone pole, knocking the wind out of him. It’s Joseph’s turn to blink in surprise. “Never do that again,” Aziraphale says in a tone he didn’t think he was even capable of, equal parts violence and darkness.

Joseph scurries off and Aziraphale leans down to pick up his glasses. They aren’t cracked but the metal frame is slightly bent. He sighs.

“You ok?” he hears from down the sidewalk.

He turns and sees Crowley slinking up the street, looking contrite for whatever unfathomable reason. It’s not as if it’s his fault that Joseph hit him. “It’s fine. A bit scraped up.”

“I was going to step in but you seemed to have it handled.”

Aziraphale grunts and tries to bend his glasses but his hands are covered in grit and trickles of blood. Crowley comes to his side and takes the glasses, doing his best to bend the arms until they are straight. “My parents aren’t going to like this,” Aziraphale says as he realizes he absolutely doesn’t want to face them, scraped knees and palms, memory of unwarranted violence fresh in his mind.

Crowley cocks his head and then says, “Come with me. I can get you taken care of.”

Part of him wants to say no, my parents won’t like that at all, but Aziraphale still trails after him as the fall sun begins to dip closer to the horizon. Winter is setting in and with the cool breeze edging into cold, Aziraphale doesn’t know how Crowley stands it in his threadbare short sleeve shirts.

Crowley leads Aziraphale up the path to his front door and creaks it open. The living room is dark as they walk through it. “Where are your parents?”

“Dad’s on a business trip. Mom’s...gone,” Crowley says tightly and Aziraphale remembers those conversations about illnesses and hospitals and he pushes down a meaningless apology. He flicks on the light in the kitchen and tells Aziraphale to sit down before disappearing upstairs.

When he returns, its with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and tweezers. Aziraphale goes to take them from him but Crowley pulls away. “Let me help.”

Aziraphale stares at him for a moment but then holds out his hands. Crowley pulls up a chair and then places Aziraphale’s hands palm up into his lap. He picks out the gravel piece by piece, pausing for a moment whenever Aziraphale hisses in pain.

He finishes the right hand and moves onto his left then asks, “Do you ever think about when we were kids?”

Aziraphale flexes the fingers of his free hand, it tingles. “Sometimes.”

They lapse into silence as Crowley finishes picking out the worst of the gravel and then dabs the peroxide over it. It stings more than the tweezers had but Aziraphale grits his teeth through it. When Crowley releases his hands, Aziraphale stares into his lap unsure of what to say, but Crowley speaks first. “See, now just dust off your pants and your parents will be none the wiser.”

“My hands look a bit like raw meat,” he points out and Crowley emits a low laugh.

“How often do your parents inspect your hands?”

“Fair point.”

They awkwardly say goodbye to each other and Aziraphale ignores the way his stomach jumps at the memory of Crowley’s warm hands dancing over his wrists.

Year 11

Upper school is better than lower school. Everyone seems to get over their desire to mock and bully and the tide has shifted in almost the entirely opposite direction. Aziraphale’s quiet self-possessedness becomes a point of admiration among his peers and his classmates take a turn from uncomfortable to kind and a little envious. He has more friends than he knows what to do with so he spends more time retreating to the quietest corner of the library where not even the attendant seems to go. 

As much as he would prefer otherwise, Aziraphale becomes aware of Crowley, noticing him in a way that he didn’t notice anyone else. He’s smart enough to know what that awareness means but he pretends otherwise. They don’t really spend time together. Occasionally saying hello when they run into each other in the street doesn’t count. It’s probably for the best. His parents would surely disapprove of Aziraphale’s newfound interest in their neighbor.

Aziraphale is reading A Tale of Two Cities in what he thinks of as his corner of the library, taking notes for his upcoming essay, when a backpack drops down onto the table in front of him. He looks up over his glasses and watches Crowley practically fall into the chair across from him. He’s scowling and his arms are crossed and he’s not looking at Aziraphale at all.

He opens his mouth and Crowley’s eyes shoot to him, stormy and angry and full of warning, so Aziraphale shuts it again. He pushes his glasses up his nose and returns to his book. There are other tables in the library, he doesn’t know why Crowley chose this one. 

He tries to focus on his work for the rest of the lunch hour but when the bell rings he finds he hasn't even finished reading a page. 

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Crowley appears in the library, dropping into the seat across from him and never speaking. This goes on for a month before Aziraphale breaks.

He has a particularly difficult calculus problem that makes him want to crumple up his paper in frustration and when Crowley makes his typical appearance, dumping his dirty bookbag onto the table before collapsing into the chair and chewing on the end of his pen. The little sounds of the plastic slipping through his teeth make the hair on Aziraphale’s neck stand up.

“What are you doing?” he hisses, his hand clenches around his pencil and he tells himself to relax. Calm conversation is much more effective than agitated confrontation. 

“Sitting here.”

Aziraphale feels his teeth grind and he lets out a hot breath through his nose. “Yes. But why?”

“What’s it to you?”

“There are other tables in the library,” he says, much louder than he intends. The noise bounces off the metal shelves, making him feel ashamed of his outburst.

Crowley pointedly picks up his bookbag, stands and drops it on the sad red couch next to the table and falls into the cushions. “Better?”

It’s not but Aziraphale resigns himself to whatever nonsense Crowley is up to and tries to focus on his work.

Aziraphale puts his network of weirdly friendly acquaintances to use trying to figure out what has Crowley turning into his proverbial shadow. To his surprise, it’s Newton Pulsifer—the very quiet boy from his computer science class—who provides the most useful information. 

“Some of the stoner kids are trying to get Crowley to, erm, work for them if you know what I mean. And Crowley’s said no, but they keep harassing him. He probably thinks that they’d never push it around you which, you know, they probably wouldn’t. Given your whole...erm, religious deal.”

Aziraphale is privately a little shocked that Crowley wouldn’t want to join their group. He’s never seemed the type to have upstanding morals and as far as Aziraphale knows, he doesn’t really have any close friends. He’s similar to him in that way, a bit alone, but Aziraphale doesn’t know if that’s by Crowley’s preference, the way it is for him.

As per usual, Crowley appears in the library the next day and sullenly deposits himself on the couch across from the table. Aziraphle stares at him for a moment before pushing out the chair across from him with his foot. “Plenty of room at the table if you like.”

Hesitantly, Crowley approaches him, settling into the chair like it might collapse beneath him. Aziraphale rationalizes to himself that he’s really just helping Crowley out, protecting him, and his parents should have no reason to fault him for it.

Focusing on his textbook instead of looking at Crowley, Aziraphale says, “If you’re going to be here, at least do some school work.”

And Crowley does.

Year 12

Their little arrangement continues from secondary school to college, Crowley seeking out Aziraphale for quiet study sessions. He’s no longer sure if it’s exactly for protection anymore since the stoner kids all disbanded in the transition between schools, but he finds himself growing attached to Crowley’s presence and even if they don’t have classes together sometimes they talk about their schoolwork, Crowley asking Aziraphale’s opinion on the book he’s assigned in lit class, or helping Aziraphale focus and see his way through a particularly frustrating chemistry equation. 

“You know, sometimes I think you get a little stuck not seeing the forest for the trees,” Crowley observes as he munches on a candy bar.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aziraphale retorts, taking his glasses off and rubbing at his eyes. It might be time for him to get a new prescription.

“You’re all little picture and sometimes, to see the truth, you gotta be big picture.”

It’s a wildly strange thing to say and when Aziraphale looks at Crowley he’s struck by a feeling of uncanniness. Crowley has old eyes, like he’s seen too much for a 17 year old. Aziraphale thinks he understands the feeling. Ever since he was young people have been telling him that he was wise beyond his years—sometimes he thought it was just because he was quiet and adults had a habit of confusing silence for wisdom—but he thinks maybe Crowley actually is wise beyond his years. Aziraphale doesn’t know why and he’s not sure he should ask.  He thinks it’s probably related to that summer when the Crowley family disappeared and didn’t return intact, or maybe how Crowley seems to always be home alone.

Aziraphale sometimes hates his parents and their restrictive world view—there’s more to life than work and faith—but he can’t imagine where he’d be without them. It seems like Crowley has maybe made his way in the world all on his own. It’s impressive, but it makes Aziraphale very sad.

He doesn’t know what makes him say it, but it comes out anyway. “It’s too bad that we aren’t friends.”

Crowley freezes halfway through a bite of his candy bar and says, “Aren’t we?”

The nonchalant tone somehow makes Aziraphale blush. He rushes to explain, “I guess I mean not proper friends. Sitting in the library together every few days doesn’t count I don’t think.”

That’s what he’s been telling himself anyway, trying to justify their relationship without falling into guilt surrounding his parents’ opinion.

Crowley looks at him, unreadable, and then crumples the candy bar wrapper before tucking it into his pocket. “See you around, Aziraphale.”

He feels supremely stupid as he watches Crowley walk away.

Crowley stops showing up at the library and the secret feeling that Aziraphale has been protecting in his heart withers. It was silly anyway.

University

Crowley ends up at the same university as him. At some point Aziraphale just assumed that whatever strange thing caused them to swing apart and then collide would finally dissipate and they would end up at different universities, far away from each other, never to speak again. Instead Crowley—now taken to wearing only black and sunglasses, always sunglasses —is in his orientation and his first year seminar and the same dormitory building as him. Not the same floor but it’s still close and Aziraphale continues to wonder if he should toss aside his parents’ expectations and finally be friends with this person who keeps popping up in his life. And who he genuinely likes.

It never does shake out as anything more than a passing acquaintance that lives in the same building. But it doesn’t matter too much because Aziraphale finally feels at home with the other literature and religion students. These are people that really want to learn, that are here by choice and not some social mores that force children into desks for 12 years straight. The seminars are so different than what he’s used to, the other students perking up and actually wanting to discuss the topic at hand.

Aziraphale loves it.

Late in his second year he tries out the party scene at the behest of his friend Kim who thinks he just needs to loosen up a bit. She’s an undeclared religion major as well and at some point decided that they were friends, no ifs, ands or buts about it. It was easier just to go along with her and Aziraphale found himself liking her brusque manners and blunt nature.

What he doesn’t like is the way she abandons him at the party for a more raucous scene. He ends up wandering around the house eyeballing threadbare couches and discarded beer cans. How does anyone live like this?

He goes upstairs in hopes of finding somewhere quieter and nudges open a cracked door only to find Crowley, sprawled on one of the less threadbare sofa, cheeks hollowed as he pulls smoke from a pipe. Aziraphale watches as smoke leaves his mouth and he feels a stirring in the pit of his stomach.

Crowley grins widely, the string lights winding across the walls twinkle in the reflection of his sunglasses. Why is he wearing sunglasses inside? “Aziraphale! Fancy seeing you here.”

The pungent smell of the room finally registers in Aziraphale’s distracted mind. “Is that marijuana?”

Crowley tosses his head back and laughs. “Don’t sound so scandalized. Want some?”

Aziraphale hesitates. He hasn’t drank more than a few sips of terrible beer and the thought of losing control isn’t exactly appealing. What would his parents think? But the earnest look on his old neighbor’s face eventually wins out and he takes the pipe from Crowley and sits down next to him.

“Can you show me?” he asks, holding up the pipe. Crowley grins and goes through the motions before handing it back.

Aziraphale gives it the old college try (pun intended) and it goes better than expected. He ends up coughing into his hand, tears welling in his eyes.

“It’s rough the first couple of times,” Crowley says carelessly before he takes another short pull.

When the fuzzy, warm feeling hits, Aziraphale finds himself leaning back against the sage cushions of the couch and smiling. “Oh, that’s interesting.”

“Ain’t it?”

Aziraphale stares up at the ceiling and asks, “What are you going to major in, you think?”

“Not sure. Business probably. Something useful. My dad wants me to go after law like him. But can you picture me? A barrister?”

Aziraphale sees the white wig perched on Crowley’s perpetually unruly hair and he bursts out laughing. “Not possible.”

They’re silent for a moment as Aziraphale giggles to himself then Crowley asks, “So how are you liking university?”

“Oh it’s fantastic,” Aziraphale says, feeling elated. “It’s what I always wanted school to be.”

Crowley snorts. “That sounds about right.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You were such a bookworm. So serious. I feel like I never saw you not studying.”

“I was in the band!”

“That might count as studying.”

“No. It was recreational.”

Crowley has pulled off his sunglasses and Aziraphale can see his eyes, liquid hazel and red rimmed. “You still playing the clarinet then?”

“Haven’t had much cause.”

“If I had a clarinet, I’d make you play right now.”

“What if I said no?”

“I’m sure I could convince you.”

Aziraphale swallows as they make eye contact, his throat desperately dry and his tongue thick in his mouth. Crowley’s eyes flick over his face and his hand comes to rest on Aziraphale’s thigh. It feels unbelievably warm, almost burning. Aziraphale stares down at it, his thoughts an incoherent whir.

Kim stumbles into the room and Aziraphale pulls away. She grins. “Well, who’s this then?”

“Erm,” Aziraphale looks between the two of them, still lost in the warm sensation of marijuana and Crowley’s hand, now gone from his thigh.

“I’m Anthony. Aziraphale and I were neighbors growing up.”

“Awwww,” Kim says, hands on her cheeks like that’s the cutest thing she’s ever heard. “And you’re still friends?”

Aziraphale can practically feel Crowley’s eyes boring into his skull. He looks down into his lap. 

“Sure. Friends,” Crowley says before taking another lazy pull from the pipe.

Kim, in her drunken state, doesn’t seem to notice the awkwardness as she tramps up and grabs Aziraphale’s hands. “C’mon! Time to go! I want chips!”

Chips do sound good so Aziraphale lets her drag him from the room. He doesn’t look back.

When third year starts, Aziraphale is shocked to run into Crowley in his Latin class. He is, of course, taking Latin to supplement his religion courses and, according to Crowley, Latin is a good foundation for pursuing law. Aziraphale thinks back on his rather glum pronouncement of not wanting to be a barrister but says nothing.

Aziraphale almost expected something to be tense between them in the very small six person Latin class, but Crowley is overly friendly in some cases and ignores him in others.

“Come on, Ziraaaaa,” Crowley whines from the desk next to his. They are completing worksheets in partners and, of course, Crowley scrambled into the seat next to him, claiming Aziraphale as his partner before anyone else could. Not that they’d try. He and Crowley were always partners.

The lead of Aziraphale’s pencil snaps and he glares at Crowley who absolutely knows Aziraphale hates that nickname.

“If you would focus, we can get this done more quickly and then we can leave,” he says primly, pulling out a sharpener and cranking his pencil through it.

“The professor’s left. We can leave too. We just need to finish this before next class and that’s two days away.”

Aziraphale rubs his hand against his forehead. “Fine. When do you want to meet and finish?”

Crowley’s foot is tapping anxiously and it’s driving Aziraphale insane. He wants to reach out and slam his hand down on Crowley’s thigh just to make him stop.

Crowley snags his mobile from his desk and punches his number into it.

“I’ll text you and come by your dorm later. Ta!” Crowley says before leaping up and rushing from the room so quickly that the other pairs of students look up and then turn to glare at Aziraphale like its his fault Crowley is so disruptive.

Crowley appears at 8 pm, 30 minutes after he had said he would when he texted Aziraphale at 5. He strolls into Aziraphale’s dorm room and plops down on his bed. Aziraphale can tell he’s desperately trying to look cool. It’s frustrating that he kind of does.  “Let’s do this.”

Aziraphale does not like the way Crowley looks on his bed because he likes it too much.

They finish their Latin worksheet within the hour and Crowley folds his up into his bag. 

“Would you—”

“I heard—”

Aziraphale pauses and says, “You first.”

Crowley looks away and then asks, “I haven’t eaten anything since noon. Maybe want to grab something? Together?”

Aziraphale swallows before nodding. He still feels a flash of guilt about associating with Crowley. Years of his parents’ disapproval hanging over him. But bugger that. He’s an adult and can do whatever he wants. “What did you have in mind?”

One meal together becomes several as they meet weekly at Aziraphale’s favorite sandwich shop. Crowley’s energy from when they were younger is still there but it’s become less vulnerable, more like a weapon. It fascinates Aziraphale who can’t help but be mesmerized by the enthusiastic movements of Crowley’s hands when he speaks and the length of his legs where they are stretched out beneath the table. 

The last time he speaks to Crowley is three weeks before graduation on the fire escape of the Keller house after Crowley steals a fifth of whiskey that they pass between them. Aziraphale tries to forget that night, the things he said, but he's never stops regretting it.

15 years later

Aziraphale putters around his bookshop moving the latest stack of bestsellers closer to the front. He doesn’t like stocking them but he has to keep the lights on without dipping into his trust fund too often and his occasional collector’s sale won’t do. He also hates selling the collection. 

When his grandmother died and left him the bookshop—and a sizeable inheritance—his parents were horrified that he wanted to leave school to manage it. Aziraphale had only been a dissertation away from PhD but he found he didn’t care about religion and its history as much as he had used to. And working at his grandmother's bookshop in the years before she died had been some of the happiest years of his life.

His father had tried to convince him to sell the place, leave it all to charity, and stay in school. It had been their first big fight, years of independence and finally questioning his beliefs allowing him to stand up to his parents when they call him gluttonous and greedy for refusing to sell. The same dark and old thing that sometimes reared its head in his chest had made an appearance that day and Aziraphale had looked Gabriel Goodall in the eye and said that he was an adult who could make his own choices and this was his choice and he would either deal with it and be his father or he could leave and not be part of his life.

They hadn’t spoken for a year but eventually his father apologized and Aziraphale assured him that he made donations from his inheritance every year. That seemed to appease Gabriel. At least a little.

The bell on the door of the shop tinkles as he finishes arranging the Dan Browns in the window. He scowls at their uncracked spines and calls out, “Just a minute!”

He hurries out into the entrance and says, “How can I help—”

The words curdle in his mouth because standing on the worn carpet of the book shop is Anthony Crowley, clad in black and red, sunglasses perched on his nose, looking cool as a cucumber. The man lifts up his sunglasses and says, “Aziraphale Goodall? Small world.”

Aziraphale tries to smile but it comes out like a grimace. He thinks about the last time he spoke to Crowley, moonlight, the smell of whiskey between angry words. His stomach twists.

“Crowley, it’s a pleasure to see you again. How can I help you?”

Ignoring the question, Crowley looks around the place, a wide smile overtaking his sharp face. “A bookstore. Makes sense,” he mumbles to himself with a brief shake of his head.

“Are you in the market for a book or…”

“Actually, I’m here about the ad. For the flat,” Crowley says, pulling out his phone and showing Aziraphale the ad he posted online not two days ago.

“Oh, yes, erm, hold on. Let me just…” Aziraphale scoots around Crowley and flips the sign to closed before turning the lock on the door. “Come with me.”

“You haven’t turned into a murderer since uni, have you?” Crowley asks but Aziraphale can hear the soft scuff of his shoes as he trails behind him.

“If I had, why would I tell my next victim?” Aziraphale says, leading Crowley up the steps from the backroom. He hears Crowley’s snort of laughter. He’d forgotten that snort.

“This is the primary entrance upstairs but there’s also a separate entrance in the alley if you don’t want to come and go through the shop. It’s a little rickety but it works. There’s two flats upstairs, I live in one but I didn’t want the other one to go empty. It used to be storage before I took over the shop but I don’t have nearly enough things to fill it.”

They enter the hallway, lit only by a sconce and a small window in the door that leads to the alley exit. Aziraphale gestures to the right. “This is me, and this would be you.”

Crowley tucks his hands into the pockets of his trousers and nods as if to say go on so Aziraphale slips the key into the lock and lets them in. There’s no denying the place is dusty and a little old-fashioned with its wooden wainscotting and flowered wallpaper. “I’d pay to get a cleaner in here and you’d be welcome to redecorate as much as you want.”

“Is this what your flat looks like?” Crowley asks, tracing a finger over a dusky peony emblazoned on the wall.

Aziraphale colors. “Something like it.”

“Well, if it isn’t this dirty, I’m sure it’s nice,” Crowley says with a low chuckle. His sunglasses are dug in the strands of his hair where it’s pushed back from his face with some sort of product. He used to wear it more tousled. Less severe.

Aziraphale nervously runs his hands through his own hair certain that the curls are all over the place. He never has reason to care about his appearance, dressing more for comfort than fashion, preferring soft knitted jumpers to tight fitting dress shirts, and Crowley seems the exact opposite in his tailored suit and red button up, tight about his body as he reaches up to fiddle with a loose lightbulb.

“So you’d get a repairman in here? Fix the place up?”

Aziraphale nods. “I haven’t got the chance yet. I just finished cleaning it out. Took me a few years to finally get around to it,” Aziraphale says on a snort of self deprecation. It had taken about 7 if he were totally honest.

“I’ll take it,” Crowley he says before he wanders into the kitchen and plays with the taps. 

“The water’s off,” Aziraphale calls after him and he hears a hum of consideration.

“Are you certain you want to live here?” he asks when Crowley comes back to stand by the window and peer out.  

Crowley turns back, his face stormy, mouth twisted and Aziraphale feels a rush of fear. He’s not trying to open up old conversations, broken things. He tries to explain. “You just look like the type to prefer a more...modern aesthetic.”

What he wants to say is: you can’t want to live so close to me.

Crowley’s expression dips into a frown. “Let’s just say I’m trying to make a change.”

Aziraphale really wants to press, to get just a hint more information, but he was never really good at that and Crowley was always a secret keeper so he lets it drop. “Well, I’ve got papers drawn up. You want a night to think it over?”

“No, I’ll sign now.”

It’s said with such force that Aziraphale takes an involuntary step backward.

“Ah, well, I’ll just go snag the papers from my flat,” he says, wringing his hands.

He returns with a pen and the papers and finds Crowley turning the doorknob to the bedroom back and forth. Aziraphale wouldn’t be surprised if it were loose.

They sign the papers huddled over the kitchen counter and Aziraphale promises Crowley a copy as soon as he can get one made. Crowley flaps a hand at him. “I trust you. Little Zira Goodall could never swindle me.”

“Little Tony Crowley is far too trusting,” Aziraphale says, tapping the papers into a neat stack.

Crowley growls low in his throat but Aziraphale ignores him, handing over the key and saying, “You can move in whenever.”

Crowley yanks the key from his hand and says, “Don’t call me Tony.”

“Well, then don’t call me Zira.”

“Deal.”