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The Drowning Men

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The card beeped. Crowley grabbed his coffee and was ready to leave when the barista halted him.

“Uh. I’m sorry sir, it got rejected. Would you—”

“Yes, fine,” Crowley snapped.

He swiped. The card beeped. Rejected. Again.

He began to curse under his breath as he dug around his pockets for spare change. It was just a coffee! Damn. Damn. Surely there was a couple of pounds he had managed to forget about. There usually were, up until you really needed them.

The people queuing behind him were growing restless. Crowley spared them an annoyed glance from behind his sunglasses.

“Uh,” he said. “Just a moment—maybe it’s an issue with the bank, lemme check—”

“May I?” said a voice behind him.

Quite a pleasant voice it was. It was attached to a man with curly pale hair, blue eyes, and a sense of fashion that wasn’t so much bad as fifty years out of date. He was holding out a card in his outstretched hand, smiling warmly at the barista.

He wasn’t Crowley’s type, not exactly, but his smile was nice. Crowley had to give him that. And, well, if a stranger wanted to sponsor his caffeine addiction, that was fine too.

That’s what he thought, anyway, until his eyes slid downwards, and he noticed the collar hugging the man’s neck.

“No thank you,” he sneered.

The priest looked at him, blue eyes wide with surprise. “Oh I assure you, dear boy, it is no trouble at all—”

“I have no intention of being your good deed of the day, Father,” Crowley said pleasantly.

The words were petty; they made the priest nervous. He felt a vindictive sort of satisfaction at that.

“I see. Well,” the man cleared his throat and shuffled the card in his hands. “Consider this a favour, in this case. Not towards yourself—” he added, with a steely glint in his eyes. “But to the people we have kept waiting a rather long time, haven’t we?” He turned to the annoyed middle-aged woman right behind Crowley. “Do forgive us, ma’am. We will be just a minute.”

The queue was growing restless. Normally Crowley wouldn’t care, of course; he didn’t. Still, he said nothing as the priest paid for the cup of coffee. Of course his card didn’t get rejected.

“There you go,” the priest said happily, handing him the paper cup.

Crowley shot him a contemptuous glare and walked off. But it didn’t feel right. It really didn’t.

The priest was collecting his own order: a cappuccino and a brioche, still warm, that the barista slipped into a paper bag. Having apparently forgotten Crowley’s rudeness, the priest was saying, rather excitedly, that the brioche smelled divine and the staff was doing such a splendid job, really.

It turned Crowley’s stomach.

Bon appetit,” he told the priest, as he was spooning brown sugar into his own (black) coffee. “Unless it’s a sin to enjoy pastries, of course. I know how the Church feels about Earthly pleasures.”

“It allows sweets, as far as I’m aware. In moderation,” the priest said mildly. He didn’t seem annoyed or irritated by Crowley’s rude remarks, which was incredibly frustrating. And then he lit up. “Would you like one? They truly are incredible—”

“No,” Crowley snapped.

That shut the man up. There was something in that blue eyes of his, however, and that smile: something even Crowley couldn’t bring himself to ignore.

“Thanks for the coffee,” he said, gesturing uselessly with the steaming cup and nearly spilling the contents all over himself. “I—uh. There must have been an issue with the bank—”

“It’s alright,” the priest said, warmly. “You don’t have to explain.”

Crowley, who felt an overwhelming urge to do just that, forced his mouth to remain shut.

“What are you doing in Soho, of all places?” he asked instead.

“I work here, actually. Part-time,” the priest carefully placed a lid on his own cup. Not exactly sure why, Crowley followed him outside of the small café onto the overcrowded street. “At that bookshop over there.”

How, Crowley wanted to ask. It was prime real-estate! The building seemed a little run-down, and the interior of the shop dusty and cramped, but it was incredible a place like this managed to keep itself running and hadn’t yet been swallowed by Waterstones. Or some sex shop.

“I must be off,” the priest said. “I’m expecting a delivery, you see, but couldn’t quite resist those pastries.” He laughed softly, and a bit self-consciously, looking down at himself. “It is an ongoing problem.”

“Oh, I’m sure God will make an exception,” Crowley said, voice dripping with venom. “Well. I will leave you to your holy work, Father.”

Instead of answering, the man kept on looking at him, not at all unkindly.

“Believe me, dear boy, it was lovely to meet you,” he said, with more of that disgusting earnestness. Good Lord, it was sickening. “Perhaps we will run into each other again?”

“I hope not,” said Crowley, and fled.

***

He caught himself returning to that day next week, as he passed the damned café. It was just a coffee, and yet. Yet. It continued to eat away at his conscience. Under any other circumstances, he might forget about the entire thing. But he would be damned if he were to owe anything to the Church. Even £2.05.

And so it was that Crowley, coins in hand, walked inside the priest’s dusty old bookshop on a rainy Wednesday morning.

It took several trips; the place’s opening hours didn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever. But, finally, there was the man himself: he was busy shelving books and didn’t notice Crowley until he very pointedly cleared his throat.

“Oh!” the priest turned, rather rapidly, nearly knocking several heavy tomes from a cart. He blinked several times from behind a pair of old-fashioned spectacles, before his face lit up with recognition. “Oh, hello!”

“Hi,” said Crowley.

The priest was wearing a light blue button-up shirt, with the obligatory white collar. The sleeves have been rolled back, exposing his forearms. For some reason, Crowley’s gaze was drawn to the nervous hand gestures and the glint of gold on the man’s little finger.

After a moment Crowley remembered why he was here at all.

“Your money,” he said, placing the coins on the tray. “This is how much I owe you, isn’t it?”

It was the smile, Crowley realized later. The priest had an unfairly beautiful smile.

“Goodness—no, it was nothing,” the man said, flustered. “You shouldn’t have bothered.”

“Hmm. Maybe.” Crowley shrugged. “Either way. Good day to you, Father.”

“No—wait, please!” the priest continued to smile. “It was my pleasure. But if it’s been weighing on you—”

“It wasn’t weighing on me.”

His sharp, sarcastic tone managed to wipe the smile of the man’s face. Crowley didn’t feel as good about it as he had thought he might.

“Yes. Yes. Nevertheless,” the man cleared his throat, and then didn’t say anything else.

To cover the awkwardness, Crowley took a more careful look around the shop. It was overcrowded and painfully old-fashioned, which he couldn’t help but sneer about. But the collection was impressive.

“This doesn’t seem very holy to me, Father,” he said, tapping the bound leather cover of the Picture of Dorian Gray.

“It’s a classic,” the priest said, somewhat defensively.

“Ah, that’s more like it.” Crowley arrived at a shelf filled with Holy Bibles. “How many of those do you actually need?”

“Oh, that’s my collection of the Infamous Bibles, actually,” a glint of amusement appeared in the man’s blue eyes. “I keep them out of historical interest.”

Crowley picked one at random. It was very old; the publication date was set at 1632. The paper was thin and yellowy and there seemed to be nothing outwardly wrong with it that Crowley could see.

“The Wicked Bible,” the priest said. “Named so because of a particular printing error – the word not is omitted from the book of Exodus, chapter 20, verse 14.”

Long-forgotten memories stirred inside Crowley’s head.

“’Thou shall commit adultery’?” he asked.

“Yes,” the priest said, obviously taken aback. “Yes—exactly.”

Crowley snapped the book shut. Misprint or not, it still made the priest flinch.

“A major improvement, if you ask me,” he said.

He put the Bible back where it belonged, which was away from Crowley. He had had enough of these things already.

“My dear boy—”

Crowley scoffed. “You’re barely older than me, Father, and we’re almost two decades into the 21st century.”

“Indeed,” the priest said, rather self-consciously. “In that case, allow me—my name is Aziraphale.” He offered Crowley his hand.

After a pause, Crowley accepted it.

“Crowley. Anthony Crowley.”

Aziraphale’s hand was soft, and warm. Rather like the rest of him, Crowley thought, and then cursed his own mind for coming up with such ridiculous statements.

“Anthony,” Aziraphale said, testing the sound of the word. In his mouth, it was almost pleasant – pleasant enough to throw Crowley off.

“Right,” he said, stupidly.

He realized he was still holding Aziraphale’s hand. He let it go, suddenly, as if it had burned him.

“Well,” he said. “I will leave you to your books and your sermons, then. The sinners won’t know the error of their ways until you point it out to them, isn’t that so?”

“In my experience, they usually do,” Aziraphale said gently.

Crowley laughed. “Nice try, Father. I didn’t come here to confess or do anything of the sort.”

He used to, he thought grimly. And, fuck, each and every time he walked away from the confessional feeling lighter and closer to God. But that was then, and this was now; now he wouldn’t even know where to begin.

“Well, whatever it is you came here for, I am glad you did,” Aziraphale said. And he sounded genuine, damn him; as if standing here, talking to Crowley, was a worthwhile use of his time. “My doors are always open.”

“Really,” Crowley asked an unimpressed eyebrow, pointing at the lengthy, complicated sign on the door of the book shop.

“Well,” the priest winced. “Metaphorically speaking. But you can usually find me at my parish.” He gave Crowley the name and address, which Crowley promptly attempted to forget. Just in case he was ever tempted.

It wasn’t the same feeling, not even close; but, as he left the dusty bookshop, Crowley couldn’t help but feel a little lighter on his feet.